One of the academic projects that I’m working on concerns English physicians who rendered judgements on witchcraft cases in the seventeenth century: some were skeptical but others were not, and the latter group often had to engage in intellectual contortions in order to justify their beliefs. One physician who didn’t have a problem with proclaiming that he believed in spirits and witchcraft was John Beaumont, a Somerset surgeon (and geologist) who wrote an amazing treatise entitled An Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices, which was first published in 1705. Beaumont is among the last of these men of “science” who gave credence to supernatural agency: this is the Age of Newton after all! But he is steadfast in his beliefs, and determined to contradict those who deny the presence and power of spirits, whether good or evil. An edition of the Beaumont’s book came up for auction the other day and I thought I might bid on it, but then quickly dismissed the notion (it fetched a bit over $1000, and is also available for three times that here). Nevertheless, Beaumont was on my mind, so I thought I would delve into his, again.
Beaumont’s methodology is interesting. In typical early modern fashion, he quotes a lot of classical “authorities”, as well as testimony from key seventeenth-century trials. All of this he presents as sensory evidence: “proving” the existence of spirits through their perception by four of the five senses (apparently it is impossible to taste one). His personal experience with spirits–which he calls genii–really singles him out among other authors in this genre, however: he seems to delight in giving us every little detail of these “extraordinary visitations”. We get a physical description of the genii, what they were wearing, what they conveyed, what their names were. Beaumont is also an exhaustive reader, consulting every possible source to examine how spirits might be accessed through dreams and ritual magic as well as the senses.
Beaumont is also interesting because he considers the Salem trials at length, consulting all the authorities who are not as authoritative in 1705 as they were in 1692. Ultimately it’s all about his own authority, however, his own “empirical” evidence: I am convinced by my own Experience (which to me is as a Thousand Witnesses) that there is such a thing, as Spectre-Sight, so that one Person may see Spectres, when others present at the same time see nothing; wherefore I think it is not Impossible that the afflicted Persons in New England should see; nay, I believe they saw the Spectres of Persons, who as they conceived, Tormented them……Well there you are, even though spectral evidence had been condemned widely in both England and New England over the past decade, Beaumont remained a true believer in 1705.
Frontispiece by Michael Van Der Gucht.