The discoverie of witchcraft
The legal theory of witchcraft in Catholic Europe was airtight: It was a capital offense to be a witch, and it was also a capital offense to question whether witchcraft even existed. Had there been no Reformation, European Christians would still be burning witches, since the Roman church still believes in demonolatry.
Reginald Scot's "Discoverie of Witchcraft" is one of the few prose books from Elizabethan England that still enjoys an actual readership in the 21st century. It remains well worth reading.
Scot, a Kentish gentleman of wide reading, was able, in Anglican England, to attack witchcraft root and branch, and his attack is a mishmash of modern, evidence-based thinking, extreme religious bigotry, reporting from the field and medieval gullibility.
In Book XIII, Scot comes close to a statement of experimental investigation: "In this art of natural magicke, God almightie hath hidden manie secret mysteries; as wherein a man may learne the properties, qualities and knowledge of all nature. For it teaches to accomplish maters in such sort and opportunitie, as the common people thinketh the same to be miraculous."
This is not far from Arthur Clarke's observation that, to the uninitiated, any sufficiently advanced technology must seem miraculous.
Yet on the same page, Scot falls for the classical fable about the remora, the sucking fish that could halt the progress of the largest ship.
Scot was not a modern man. Throughout, he considers Holy Scripture the strongest authority, and his argument that so-called witches (and their devils) cannot perform miracles relies on nothing more than an assertion -- not countenanced in scripture -- that the age of miracles was shut down by God's power in apostolic times. This is grasping at straws.
However, although he got to his conclusions by reasoning that was far from airtight, he got to the right place.
He advises his readers to skip eight books "of bawdie," which of course are some of the most interesting that he penned. He knew conjuring tricks and gave away some of the tricksters' secrets, but not all. It appears he did not understand some of the stunts he had seen, since he often has to fall back on a formula that the last step of the conjuration "is easy to be doone," without saying how.
It is interesting to see how much effort he has to give to either debunking the ancient poets who trusted witchcraft, or building up the skeptics. The weight given to the poets, to us, seems contradictory considering the primacy he has already given to scripture.
It is not possible to tell whether he understood the contradiction. I think not, but it is possible that he was making a lawyer's brief and felt obliged to take note of evidence that others might find persuasive, even if he didn't. However, I think he was medieval enough that he had not really shaken off the shackles of scholasticism.
In the histories of ideas, Francis Bacon, who wrote more than a generation later, gets the credit for stating the modernist approach to nature, but most of what Bacon said can be found in Scot, although it takes a bit of tweezering to separate it from the superstitious bits.
As another reviewer notes, the Dover edition is incomplete, ending at Book XVI with this statement: "And now somewhat shall be said concerning divels and spirits in the discourse following."