How much do you know about magic? It’s time to see through the illusion! The Magic! exhibit is now open at HMNS. Throughout the run of the exhibit, check back here for exclusive videos and descriptions of the unique items on display from curator Scott Cervine.
In 1563, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, a law was passed making the practice of witchcraft a felony. This led to the persecution of many innocents and so outraged a gentleman farmer, Reginald Scot, Esquire (1538-1599) that he decided to publish an exposé of the fallacies of such superstitious thinking.
He had previously written the first known book in English on the cultivation of hops (A Perfite Platform of a Hoppe Garden, 1574). In 1584, his self-published The Discoverie of Witchcraft became the first book in English “debunking” such superstitions. But it was regarded by many as heretical, since it countered the teachings of the Church of England at the time. King James I of Scotland wrote an entire book, Daemonologie (1597) defending his belief in witchcraft against the arguments presented by Scot and others. When James ascended to the English throne in 1603, he is said to have ordered all copies of Scot’s Discoverie publicly burned by the Royal hangman. Many of the surviving copies, like this one, have severely reduced margins, which may have resulted from trimming away the charred edges of copies rescued from the hangman’s fire.
The importance of Scot’s book to conjuring is due to his extensive discussion of conjuring tricks, explaining their natural—not supernatural—basis by revealing the basics of sleight of hand. That it pained him to expose the secrets of this already ancient art is clear in introduction to this section of his work: “… being sorie that it falleth out to my lot, to laie open the secrets of this mysterie, to the hindrance of such poore men as live thereby, whose doings herein are not only tolerable, but greatly commendable, so they abuse not the Name of God, nor make the people attribute unto them His power…”
Scot had learned much of the magicians’ repertoire from a skilled French-born named John Cautares who earned an “honest living” as a laborer. Scot chiefly discussed tricks with balls, coins and cards, but also apparent feats of self mutilation and even decapitation. In doing so, he gave us an intimate portrait of the 16th century conjuring repertoire and its technical basis. Although Scot’s intent was to expose—rather than teach—magic, his book formed the basis of conjuring literature in English and several other languages (it was quickly translated into Dutch and German) for more than 200 years. It is also said to have been used by Shakespeare as a source for his plays when dealing with the themes of witchcraft.