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date: 26 February 2024

Early Modern Literature and the Occultfree

Early Modern Literature and the Occultfree

  • Rachel WhiteRachel WhiteSchool of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University


The occult has been a source of fascination for writers and scholars over the centuries. It is often associated with magic, the macabre, spectacle, the diabolical, and the unknown, but it also encompasses aspects of science and new understandings of the world. The occult shadows the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate knowledge, belief, and practice. The word “occult” comes from the Latin occultus meaning secret or hidden, though it became associated with esoteric knowledge and magic during the early modern period. Those who sought out new knowledge needed to frame their work within legitimate boundaries, and curiosity needed to be curtailed to avoid excessive intellectual inquiry. Printing enhanced the circulation of occult ideas, and contemporary writers such as Agrippa became representative of the early modern occult tradition as well as the more ancient sources such as the hermetic texts. Indeed, the critical history of the occult also bears out its varied role in the early modern period in terms of its extremes and indeterminate nature. Fascination with the secret and hidden provides perfect material for writers and scholars. Writers of the early modern period exploited the gap between legitimate knowledge and the perceived nefarious, illegitimate practices of individuals. The trope of the overreaching figure, encapsulated in Doctor Faustus, provided spectacle as well as a moral lesson, while the hidden qualities of words and signs added an extra dimension to any performance: would those hidden qualities be accidently unleashed by the actors? The theater played upon the occult as spectacle but was also prepared to parody it as figures such as John Dee are recognizably caricatured and referred to in plays of the period. Magi and powerful figures with knowledge of the occult also occupy prominent positions in prose and poetry. Like its theatrical counterpart, writers of printed works were also wary of the power of signs and written words to be harnessed by their readers. The debates around the occult are wide-ranging and encompassing of different beliefs and practices, from what 21st-century readers might recognize as scientific to the magical, beliefs and practices that were contemporaneously coded as legitimate and illegitimate.


  • British and Irish Literatures
  • Enlightenment and Early Modern (1600-1800)
  • Poetry
  • Theater and Drama

The Occult

The occult is a nebulous and fluid term. Its definition has changed over time, sometimes subtly. Its etymological journey has taken it away from its original sense of meaning hidden or secret (occultus) to more overt associations with magic, diabolism, spectacle, and even the supernatural. Practices in the 19th century such as spiritualism aided its transformation into our modern-day understanding of the term where it can be associated with anything from the supernatural to “devil-worship, a misconception which is not fortuitous.”1 During the early modern period, the occult was associated with the hidden and secret, though even these terms are somewhat slippery and can connote a wide variety of meanings, from describing objects that are literally hidden (e.g., in the body, as in medical terminology) to things that are secret and esoteric, such as certain types of knowledge. It is on this unstable etymological ground that a complex and, at times, fraught history emerges.

According to Florian Sprenger, between the early modern period and the 19th century, “the ‘occult’ undergoes a shift from the insensible to the inexplicable.”2 Sprenger’s definition identifies its state of flux and continual change: something could be described as occult because it is insensible, but the application of developing scientific practice could render it explained, and thus no longer occult, or unexplained and so still occult. Wouter J. Hanegraaff argued that “our perceptions of ‘esotericism’ or ‘the occult’ are inextricably entwined with how we think about ourselves [. . .] our very identity as intellectuals or academics depends on an implicit rejection of that identity’s reverse image.”3 The occult can represent something undesirable in the post-Enlightenment age, a way of thinking and believing that appears to be at odds with rationalism and scientific knowledge. This approach to the occult is hindering on many fronts, not least because the Enlightenment did not entail a quick or complete shedding of other modes of thinking. Other forms of knowledge signify different ways of understanding the world and have their own internal logic, even if that logic does not match up with that of the 21st century. It is useful to keep in mind Hanegraaff’s pithy analysis of the occult as something it is tempting to define ourselves against—it is a difficult trap to avoid even when one is looking for it.

The lives of early modern people were subject to the influence of “secret sympathies and antipathies that coursed through the natural world”;4 their world was “resonating with magical forces”;5 and they “lived simultaneously in more than one world.”6 The world was imbued with forces which were part of the immanence of creation—thus, actions and beliefs that seem magical were, to the early moderns, “extraordinary manifestations of ordinary immanence.”7 Brian Gibbons noted that “the men and women of the Renaissance and Reformation lived in a magical universe, but by the nineteenth century much of the world had become disenchanted.”8 To approach the occult in the early modern period involves a conscious shedding of contemporary understandings of living in the world. Where magic, supernatural forces, and religion might be incongruous to modern existence, to early modern people they were coexistent parts of experience and life—they could fit and work together in logical and mutually compatible ways.

The occult covers a vast range of areas including magic, which is in itself a vast area encompassing both superstitious and ritualistic practices and beliefs, science, and branches of philosophy. These categorizations were not fixed in the early modern period and were subject to politics and polemics. For example, describing someone as a “magician” was incredibly detrimental to their reputation, even if their pursuits did not appear to be overtly magical. The natural philosopher Giambattista della Porta complained that throughout his career he had been called “a Sorcerer, a Conjuror, which names from my tender youth I have abhorr’d.”9 John Dee, who is often described as an occult philosopher or magus, stressed that “I have wonderfully labored, to find, follow, use, and haunt the true, straight, and most narrow path” of Christianity in his intellectual endeavors.10 The boundary between legitimate and illegitimate knowledge is thus somewhat blurred and justified by the practitioner. John Aubrey summed up the difficulties in categorizing and judging intellectual pursuits as he discussed the life of Thomas Allen: “In those darke times, Astrologer, Mathematician and Conjuror were accounted the same things.”11 Describing someone as a magician or conjuror had associations of unchristian or diabolical activity, illegitimate knowledge and potential for power, and fear. Not only may writers have their own motivations for describing something or someone as occult or magic, but some pursuits that seem harmless from a 21st-century perspective were feared.

The occult therefore covers a broad range of beliefs and practices including alchemy, astrology, natural philosophy, magic, cryptography, and even mathematics. Language surrounding the occult could also be used as an insult and to disassociate from a political or religious position. As such, it can be very difficult to pin down. Broadly speaking, anyone with the ability to control occult forces could be viewed as possessing occult knowledge. Magic was essentially the ability to understand and control those occult or hidden forces that coursed through the natural world. Scientia, the etymological root of science, simply meant knowledge and the occult referred to the hidden or secret, thus terms like “magic” and “science” are anachronistic when applied to the early modern period. Though often linked to a more intellectual tradition following the trends of humanism to go back to ancient sources, the occult can also be applied to witchcraft as it involved secret knowledge and the ability to manipulate hidden forces to affect change in the world. The intellectual occult tradition was largely dominated by educated male writers and practitioners. Witchcraft was more often (though not exclusively) linked to women and those of a lower social status and little or no education. Witchcraft is also represented in literature of the period, for example, in witch plays such as Thomas Middleton’s The Witch (c. 1613–1616) and Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome’s The Late Lancashire Witches (1634), encompassing cunning men and women and other forms of folk magical practice.

Early modern literary engagement with the occult tends to focus on its extremes and potential for spectacle, particularly on stage. Faustian figures conjure, dabble in dark practices such as necromancy, and ultimately repent of their desire for knowledge. When writers turn to comedy and satire, the lesson is slightly different: the joke is on those characters foolish enough to seek out the help of a magician, who is actually a conman. The occult manifests differently in poetry, with occult ideas becoming part of poetic form as well as content. Poetry is a flexible medium for exploring occult ideas through figurative and metaphorical language. Early scientific language also relied upon figurative language for some time before it achieved its own set of linguistic standards, and so there is a significant overlap between the creative, the magical, and the more scientific expressions of wonder, discovery, and knowledge.

The Occult and the Intellectual Tradition

Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and Hermeticism are among the beliefs and practices that gained momentum during the early modern period, and they had practical applications to alchemy and astrology. The invention of printing and acts of translation enabled these ideas to spread throughout early modern Europe and to remain influential despite opposition. For example, the apparent rediscovery of ancient texts believed to be by Hermes Trismegistus found cultural acceptance because of the early modern period’s “impulse to restore ancient truths through the translation of authentic classical sources,” a cornerstone of contemporary humanism.12 The Hermetic texts were believed to be as old as Moses and so constituted ancient knowledge, which was valued during the early modern period and fitted into the idea of a prisca theologia—the idea that a single, true theology exists and threads through all religions. Translated by Marsilio Ficino in 1463, this collection of texts, known as the Corpus Hermeticum, went through sixteen print editions between 1471 and 1599. It owed its success in part to its perceived ancient provenance and fitted into a Christian framework while also perpetuating the notion that “the study of nature was the best means by which to understand divine will and the place of humanity in the divine mind.”13 However, “Renaissance occultism was not a monolithic tradition but had a variety of sources and manifestations.”14 While Hermeticism was undoubtedly influential, it was “only one trend within a complex syncretic development” which includes the translation of Arabic works of magic, Kabbalah, the rise of Neoplatonic schools, and “changing sociocultural contexts” such as private academies and the rise of humanism.15

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa is “perhaps the most influential of all Western occult theoreticians” and his work “remained central to the European conception of ritual magic.”16 Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia libri tres (1533) (Three Books of Occult Philosophy) was influenced by Ficino’s hermetic philosophy, Johannes Reuchlin, and Johannes Trithemius, among others.17 Reuchlin’s De verbo mirifico (1494) (On The Wonder-Working Word) separated the occult into physical, celestial, and mathematical practices, such as astrology, and religious or ceremonial practices concerning the divine. Trithemius was an expert on cryptography and demonology and his Steganographia (c. 1499; published 1606) was placed on the index of banned books in 1609 because it was believed to be demonological. Like other writers, Agrippa began by acknowledging the potential for his book to teach “many superfluous things, and curious prodigies for ostentation,” but that when this knowledge was used for “things which are for the profit of men,” such as “for the destroying of sorceries” or “for the curing of diseases,” then these things “may be done without offence to God, or injury to Religion, because they are, as profitable, so necessary.”18 His Occult Philosophy “established his doubtful reputation of a master of magic who might well be in league with the Devil,” and he became the archetype of the Faustian figure explored in the section “Magicians, Drama, and the Occult.”19

The ability to share new ideas through the medium of print was somewhat at odds with the esoteric and secretive nature of knowledge transmission, and fears about the potential for the insufficiently educated to access and use the knowledge now abounding in print were voiced. In his Monas Hieroglyphica (1564), Dee told his printer

not on any account to give these books into the hands of the common people. Not as if I grudged them these [books], or anything better still; but I suspect that evil may result, in so far as those poor people may not be able to extricate themselves from that labyrinth [. . .], and also because they will advise others to venture forth on the same road.20

Dee’s fear was that his monad, which he claimed held the key to all knowledge with the correct understanding and application, would so confound those without the correct ability to understand that it would be damaging to both individuals and society. In a similar vein, Jean Bodin exercised caution in his De la démonomanie des sorciers (On the Demon-mania of Witches) (1580) by not reproducing symbols or words used in the stories he recounted—“it is not necessary to know” the exact form these took and the risk of the reader using them for their own ends, risks replicating the very practices Bodin warned against.21 The desire to study nature to understand and admire the divine is the driving force behind the endeavors of natural philosophers such as della Porta, even when those discoveries could be used for mischief:

wicked and untoward men may mischief others; What then must I do? [. . .] The most Majestick Wonders of Nature are not to be concealed, that in them we may admire the Mighty Power of God, his wisdom, his Bounty, and therein Reverence and Adore him.22

For della Porta, revealing the secrets of nature was not a transgression but a necessary revelation of God’s glory.

New theories about the natural world abounded and challenged established beliefs. For example, Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), printed in 1542, suggested that the Earth orbited the sun, but it took several decades before the heliocentric model of the universe was widely accepted. Other discoveries, such as the working of magnets and the circulation of the blood, and inventions, such as the microscope, or the telescope, did not simply cast the occult into the background in favor of rationalism and science, but coexisted with preexisting beliefs and were, at times, treated with suspicion. For example, astrology absorbed discoveries about the cosmos more easily than astronomy did. Books of secrets, which could contain anything from esoteric knowledge to recipes, were also popular.23 For example, the anonymous The boke of secretes of Albertus Magnus was reprinted multiple times during the 16th century. The early modern period was also a time of major religious change in Western Europe. While social and political changes occurred alongside and as a result of the Reformation, Euan Cameron noted that because “the processes of philosophical development and social control proceeded alongside, but out of step with, theological changes, it is exceedingly difficult to spin these multiple and tangled threads into a consistent narrative.”24 Texts were also increasingly printed in the vernacular, meaning that knowledge was not privileged only to those with the ability to read Latin. In his Mathematicall Praeface to Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, translated by Henry Billingsley (1570), Dee refused to apologize for “the vertuous acte doing: and for commending, or setting forth Profitable Artes to English men, in the English toung.”25

Literary responses to the occult were varied, and while an overall move toward satire can be seen in drama, for instance (see the section “The Occult, Satire, and Farce”), religious, social, and scientific knowledge and change occurred at different rates, as noted by Cameron. The occult in early modern literature is thus represented in varied ways, although it does move toward being associated with satire by the end of the 17th century. The occult’s most popular representation in early modern literature is perhaps the figure of Doctor Faustus from Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (c. 1592; printed 1604). Surrounded by books, solitary, and desperate for more knowledge, Faustus conjures a devil, Mephistopheles, who strikes a bargain with him and gives Faustus a book of magic. When the play ends, Faustus must hold up his side of the bargain and give his soul to Lucifer in return for twenty-four years of the power to live as he wants. When this moment comes, Faustus is full of regret and implores God to save him from his self-imposed damnation but is taken away by Mephistopheles and other devils. Faustus encapsulates the figure of the overreaching occult philosopher dabbling in knowledge that is not meant for human understanding and transgressing the boundaries of legitimate and illegitimate knowledge with catastrophic consequences. The chorus ends with a warning to the audience:

Only to wonder at unlawful things, Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits To practise more than heavenly power permits.26

Faustus has learned too much, sought out knowledge not meant for humans, and pays the ultimate price. The play expresses anxieties about the limits of knowledge in a world that was beginning to be understood in different ways and where knowledge was changing and, at times, fraught. The occult tradition encapsulates beliefs and practices that occupy this shadowy ground between the known and the unknown, the forbidden and the permissible. The 16th-century writer and intellectual, Gabriel Harvey, summed up the availability of knowledge and the temptation to sample less virtuous sources:

Sumtyme of law I bestowe a daye, And sumtyme Master Physician I playe. And sumtyme I addresse myselfe to divinity, And there continue till I gin to be weary. All kind of bookes, good and badd, Sayntish and divelish, that are to be had.27

Magicians, Drama, and the Occult

Magicians were a popular manifestation of the intellectual occult tradition during the late 16th- and early 17th centuries. Based on historical figures such as Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus, both medieval friars and philosophers, and Agrippa, these fictitious magicians go beyond the bounds of legitimate knowledge and enter into contracts with the devil, practice necromancy, and use their knowledge to control the workings of nature. They were popular on the stage and often had their sources in prose texts. Robert Greene’s play, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (c. 1589), was likely based on the anonymous The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon, which probably dates from the mid-16th century, although the earliest extant copy is from 1627.28 The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus, also known as The English Faust Book (1592), was translated by P. F. Gent from the German text of 1589 and is believed to be the source text of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, though when he read it is open to debate, as is the date of the play.

In Greene’s comedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Rafe enthusiastically praises Friar Bacon, who is based on the medieval Roger Bacon: “Oh, he is a brave scholar, sirrah; they say he is a brave nigromancer, that he can make women of devils, and he can juggle cats into costermongers.”29 Friar Bacon’s ability and knowledge truly know no bounds, and his possible necromantic activities are glossed over as Rafe suggests that Friar Bacon could use his skill to help the lovelorn Prince Edward to seduce Margaret. Friar Bacon’s ultimate creation—a talking brazen head—is “an emblem of the dangers of scientific knowledge to cultural stability.”30 Ultimately, the head speaks to Miles, Friar Bacon’s servant, and says “Time is,” “Time was,” and “Time is past” before being destroyed by a hand wielding a hammer.31 Miles humorously comments that Bacon “spent your seven years’ study well, that can make your head speak but two words at once,” while Bacon bemoans that his “seven years’ study lieth in the dust.”32 The brazen head is meant to be a source of knowledge but instead speaks in riddles and to someone without the ability to understand it. Greene also stages an animated head in his first play, Alphonsus, King of Aragon (1587), which is a “dangerously seductive source of information about the natural world” but is unreliable and feared.33

The opening scene of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus sees Faustus in his study, alone, and dwelling upon his knowledge. He begins by saying “Settle thy studies Faustus, and begin/To sound the depth of that thou wilt profess.”34 He briefly expostulates upon writers such as Aristotle, Galen, Justinian, and Jerome as he moves through the subjects he has studied, which include analytics, medicine, law, and divinity. None of these have been sufficient for him and he bids “farewell” to each until he comes to magic. At this point, he physically interacts with the book, picking it up. This prop signifies the “depth” that he now wishes to achieve and that he will go beyond the bounds of the vast knowledges he has already studied and dismissed. The tone of his soliloquy changes from frustration and dismissal to reverence and desire:

[he takes up a book of magic] These metaphysics of magicians, And necromantic books are heavenly: Lines, circles, scenes, letters and characters— Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.35

Desire takes Faustus beyond the realms of legitimate knowledge. It is this desire that is sinful and takes the brilliant scholar down the slippery slope of illegitimate knowledge, which culminates in necromancy and summoning devils.

Excess study is the cause of Prospero’s banishment to the island he inhabits with his daughter Miranda, the spirit Ariel, and Caliban in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1610–1611). When Prospero was Duke of Milan, he passed governing responsibility to his brother as he grew “rapt in secret studies,” but this allowed his brother to depose him.36 Prospero’s neglect of his political duty and trust in his brother was fueled by his desire to extend his knowledge, meaning he neglected “worldly ends, all dedicated/ To closeness and the bettering of my mind.”37 Unlike Faustus and Bacon, Prospero’s pursuit of knowledge has significant political consequences and leads to his banishment.

Bacon, Faustus, and Prospero, though 25 years apart, share traits and represent cultural fears about the pursuit of occult knowledge. Books unite these three magicians, and each ultimately casts away their books by the end of the play. In Friar Bacon, Bacon claims that he “can by books/ Make storming Boreas thunder from his cave/ And dim fair Luna to a dark eclipse.”38 The learned friar claims that his power to control nature does not come from an innate ability but through study and books. Ultimately, he repents of the time he spent “in pyromantic spells,/ [. . .] Conjuring and adjuring devils and fiends,” and vows to spend the rest of his life in prayer in the hope of salvation.39 In the 1604 text, Doctor Faustus cries out “I’ll burn my books!” as devils come to take him away in the final moment of the play, as if the destruction of the sources of his knowledge could somehow render him benign.40 The B-text (1616) ends with Faustus’s body being torn apart, and scholars discover his “mangled limbs.”41 In The Tempest, Caliban advises Stefano and Trinculo to seize Prospero’s books because, without them, “he’s but a sot, as I am.”42 For Caliban, “it is the ownership of the book, not the learning it imparts, that constitutes its power.”43 This idea is borne out by Prospero’s own declaration that “I’ll break my staff,/ Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,/ And deeper than did ever plummet sound,/ I’ll drown my book”:44 “even for Prospero, the book is the magic.”45 For these staged magicians, books and other paraphernalia are not only the source of all their power but the cause of their downfall. The repeated final act of destroying or threatening to destroy their books reinforces to the audience the boundaries of acceptable knowledge. For Friar Bacon and Prospero, their repentance and rehabilitation suggest that the book was the source of their power, their hubris a forgivable vice. Through excess study and procuring, reading, and practicing from books, these plays foreground the book as an occult and dangerous object. This fear was realized in the real world as, for example, after Dee left for the continent, his library at Mortlake was torched and destroyed, as if destroying his books would somehow remove the threat of that knowledge ever being applied.

Underlying the occult on stage is a fear of the potential real-world effects of words and symbols. In his lengthy attack on the theater, Histrio-mastix (1632), the Puritan William Prynne described the

visible apparition of the Devill on the Stage at the Belsavage Play-house, in Queene Elizabeths days, (to the great amazement of the Actors and Spectators) whiles they were there prophanely playing the History of Faustus (the truth of which I have heard from many now alive, who well remember it).46

While Prynne’s inclusion of this event is to illustrate the potential dangers of the theater, this is not the only account of there being too many devils on the stage where the conclusion drawn is that the actors must have conjured a devil through their words.47

The efficacy of language—the ability of language to cause real change in the physical environment—was one of the key fears about occult practices and magic. The 1563 Witchcraft Act forbade “all maner of practise use or exercise of Witchecrafte Enchantement Charme or Sorcerye.”48 In The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), Reginald Scot stated that “by the sound of words nothing commeth, nothing goeth, otherwise than God in nature hath ordeined to be doone by ordinarie speech, or else by his speciall ordinance.”49 For Scot, the notion of words spoken by witches or conjurors having real-world effects was ludicrous, though he acknowledged that words “sometimes have singular power and efficacie, either in persuasion or dissuasion.”50 The effect of words, then, lies in rhetoric and the ability of the speaker to move the listener toward a certain point of view, not the ability to charm or create change in the physical world. In James VI/I’s Daemonologie (1597), Epistemon argues that symbols and words do not have inherent power to cause change as there is no “inherent vertue in these vaine wordes and freites,” rather, they require a pact with a devil.51 Indeed, in Doctor Faustus, Mephistopheles tells Faustus that the language he used to summon him did not conjure him but was a sign that he was “in danger to be damned.”52 He appeared, quite literally, to seal the deal through making Faustus sign a contract with Lucifer. As Laura Levine noted, the power of words was “not in the utterances themselves but in the devils who use them as spiritual barometers.”53 Barnabe Barnes’s The Devil’s Charter (1608) also features a devilish pact, this time with the pope, and Lady Macbeth appears to enter a pact when she asks spirits to “unsex me here,” while the Weird Sisters in Macbeth use prophetic and confusing language to entice Macbeth on his self-destructive journey to power.54

Other dramatic genres engage with the occult in surprising ways. The Gray’s Inn Revels of 1594–1595 are recounted in the Gesta Grayorum (1688) and includes the dramatic staging of the mock trial of a sorcerer. The Christmas revels were elaborate and involved setting up a temporary state with a prince. Among other events, the Gesta Grayorum records that on Innocents’ Night there was supposed to be a performance of The Comedy of Errors, but too many people attended and caused “a disordered Tumult and Crowd upon the Stage.” The night became known as “the Night of Errors” and the mock state staged a trial of a sorcerer.55 He was accused of causing the stage to be built “and Scaffolds to be reared to the top of the House to increase Expectation,” and of causing “Throngs and Tumults, Crowds and Outrages, to disturb our whole Proceedings.”56 However, the outcome of the trial was that the members of Gray’s Inn taking part in revels were taxed for not fulfilling their required roles. The revels were a complex set of performances within performances, but the acquittal of the magician—and thus the rejection of magic—even in the context of “law-sports” is significant given the purpose of the revels was to “foster and reinforce the institutional bonds that bound the society’s members” and to create a “shared institutional, fraternal identity.”57

Ben Jonson’s Masque of Queenes was performed by the queen and her ladies on February 2, 1609. Shortly after, Prince Henry asked for an annotated copy of the masque which Jonson provided in manuscript and also printed in 1609. This includes detailed notes on witchcraft and magic. The masque features an antimasque where witches perform a sequence of charms. The antimasque increases in frustration as the Dame reminds the fiends and furies that they “have quak’d to see/ These knots untied: and shrunk when we have charm’d,” which suggests that their charming language has the power to create physical changes in their surroundings.58 The witches charm several more times before performing a magical dance “full of praeposterous change, and gesticulation” before Heroic Virtue appears. Lynn Sermin Meskill noted that “Virtue banishing envious witchcraft would have been taken by the spectators a pointed reference James I’s particular curiosity about witches,” but also their charming language is ineffective—their words are like the ineffectual garble of Subtle of Jonson’s contemporaneous play, The Alchemist.59

In other plays of the period, while the magician figure might be secondary to the main plot, they are still depicted in terms of their intellect and vast learning. In George Peele’s The Old Wives Tale (printed 1595), the magician Sacrapant enters “in his studie,” and in the anonymous The Merry Devil of Edmonton (c. 1603, printed 1608), the magician Peter Fabell is described in the prologue as a “renowned scholar.”60 Barbara Traistor noted one odd play in which the magician does not rely on books but is “self-sufficient” and born with complete knowledge—William Rowley’s The Birth of Merlin (c. 1608-1622).61 This representation of a magician on stage stands out from the developing stock character that was used even when magic only played a secondary part in the plot. In The Two Merry Milk Maids (1619), Traistor noted the acknowledgment of the stock character in the prologue: “‘Tis a fine Play:/ For we have in’t a Conjuror, a Devill,/ And a Clowne too,” and that the play borrows extensively from Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale.”62

The Occult, Satire, and Farce

While many plays that engage with the occult and magic are comedies, the occult became a target for satire in more overt ways. Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (1609) stages the desire for occult solutions to life in terms of greed. During a time of plague, Lovewit leaves his house in the hands of his butler, Jeremy, who becomes Face and contrives with Dol, a prostitute, and Subtle, who takes on the disguise of a magician, to make money. Dapper comes asking for a familiar to help him win at cards, Abel Drugger wants help setting up a profitable business, and Sir Epicure Mammon believes that he can purchase the philosopher’s stone from Subtle. Mammon’s servant, Surly, remains skeptical of the venture and later disguises himself to trick the thieves. In order to convince their clients of their authenticity, Face and Subtle employ language that shows their apparent legitimacy and knowledge through obfuscation:

Face: [within] Which? On D, sir? Subtle: Aye; What’s the complexion? Face: [within] Whitish. Subtle: Infuse vinegar, To draw his volatile substance and his tincture: And let the water in glass E be filtered, And put into the gripe’s egg. Lute him well; And leave him closed in balneo. Face: [within] I will, sir. Surly: What a brave language here is! Next to canting.63

Surly describes the language of Face and Subtle as being like canting—the thieves’ language—which draws attention to the use of secret language. In this case, Face and Subtle’s exchange is nonsense but is convincing because of their use of apparent alchemical language. Jennifer Rampling noted that alchemy distinguishes itself from other fields of knowledge because of the “deliberate inaccessibility of its language, which requires aspirants to read widely and carefully in order to extract practical sense from the textual record.”64 Subtle and Face mimic this to convince Mammon that they are indeed producing a philosopher’s stone for him. Mammon also believes he is tricking Subtle. After listing all the worldly things he would do with the stone, Surly points out that the producer of the philosopher’s stone must be “A pious, holy, and religious man,/ One free from mortal sin, a very virgin,” and the audience does not need to see Mammon’s liaisons with Dol to know that he does not fit this description at all. Mammon believes it is only the maker of the stone that must have these qualities and so he is being clever in finding such an “honest wretch” to do it for him.65

In Thomas Tomkis’s university play, Albumazar (printed 1610), the old man Pandolfo waits for Albumazar to appear onstage and spends his time examining Albumazar’s instruments. He picks up a prospective glass called a perspicill which enables the viewer to see impossible distances. Ronca explains that because of his age, Pandolfo will not be able to see as far as Italy, but perhaps as far as Cambridge. When asked what he can see, Pandolfo replies “Wonders, wonders [. . .] A Hall thrust full of bare-heads, some bald, some busht,/ Some bravely branch’t,” to which Ronca confidently replies “That’s th’University/ Larded with Townes-men.”66 The play was originally performed at Cambridge University in 1609, and so what Pandolfo describes in less than favorable terms is the audience. After the perspicill, Ronca shows Pandolfo another instrument created by Albumazar, an “Otacousticon,” which magnifies hearing. The instrument is in fact “a pair of Asses ears, and large ones,” as pointed out by Pandolfo himself, but after he has sat on stage wearing these large ears and heard “celestial music,” of course part of the trick, he is sufficiently convinced and offers to buy them.67 Having ridiculed the audience and sat with large ass’s ears on his head, Pandolfo is shown to be every inch the fool, like Sir Epicure Mammon, and the audience laughs at the magic and occult practices on the stage. William Mewe’s Pseudo-magia (c. 1627) is another university comedy, originally in Latin and not published in his lifetime. Brian Copenhaver noted “the play’s cast and audience—students and teachers of a great university—were well placed to help settle the fate of magic by laughing at it.”68 Laughing at magic negates its power, both onstage and offstage, and turns the occult into the ridiculous.

By the end of the 17th century, the Faustus figure was used in farce. William Mountford’s The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, made into a farce (1697) opens with an adaptation of Faustus’s speech from Marlowe: “Negromanctick Books, are heav’nly/ Lines, Circles, Letters, Characters,/ Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.”69 While there are some alterations and the speech has been moved to Faustus’s opening lines, it is recognizable as the original and leads the audience straight into the dark world Faustus wants to inhabit, with no rejection of other knowledge, as in Marlowe’s play. A chimney sweep, Scaramouche, witnesses Faustus conjure Mephistopheles and is terrified, but Faustus promises to train him and to provide him wages. Scaramouche opts to “change my black Art for yours.”70 What follows is a farce in which another commedia dell’arte stock character, Harlequin, mistakes Scaramouche for Faustus and finds him reading what “must be a conjuring Book by the hard Words. AB, EB, IB, OB. . .,” which is in fact a child’s primer.71 The book is no longer a source of magic or power in and of itself, the knowledge contained therein intended for children. The props used in satirical plays which engage with the occult are not magical or powerful in themselves as they are for Friar Bacon, Doctor Faustus, and Prospero; they are benign and any character believing in them is shown to be a fool. Christa Knellworth King showed that the commedia dell’arte genre continued in popularity, leading to the Harlequin Faustus character popular in plays of the 1720s, such as in John Thurmond’s Harlequin Doctor Faustus (1723) and John Rich’s The Necromancer (1723). She suggested that the reason for the continued popularity of Faustus, or Harlequin Faustus by this point, was the “irreverent treatment of the cautionary tale” because “traditional warnings about the exploration of new knowledge had become ridiculous.”72

The Occult and Poetry

Poetry’s relationship with the occult is complex because it engages with occult discourses at the level of language and efficacy as well as its content. Indeed, early scientific language often expressed ideas in figurative or metaphysical terms before it developed its own rhetorical strategies. Ryan J. Stark argued for a turn to “rhetorical plainness” brought about by the needs of scientific endeavor and a conscious turning away from magic in which words were “enchanted devices capable of transmogrifying reality.”73 Guenther noted that “poetry and magic shared a discursive field.”74 Wendy Beth Hyman argued that 17th-century natural philosophers “relied on metaphor—that most seemingly unscientific of tropes—as a forensic device which yielded understanding of the natural world” and that “poets recognized this ‘scientific’ quality of figurative language, and used metaphor not merely as embellishment but also as an epistemological strategy: one that allowed literature to ‘think.’”75

In his The Defence of Poesy (c. 1580; printed 1595), Philip Sidney used magical imagery to posit the notion of the poet as truth teller: “the poet never maketh any circles about your imagination, to conjure you to believe for true what he writes.”76 He also argued that the “charming force” of poetry can create change in the reader and should “lead,” suggesting some sort of poetic efficacy.77 Genevieve Guenther suggested that “the power to use language as a metaphysical instrument was the goal of both early modern magical practice and the early modern literature that attempted to fashion the ideological orientation of its readers and audiences.”78 She identified this at work in The Faerie Queene (1596), as Edmund Spenser notes that the “generall ende therefore of all the booke is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.”79 Margaret Healy argued that Sidney and George Puttenham were both influenced by the Neoplatonic aesthetic favored by the French academies and groups such as the Pléiade, led by the poet Pierre de Ronsard, and texts that originated out of the Florentine Academy such as Francesco Giorgio’s De Harmonia Mundi (1525) and Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love (1469, commonly referred to as De Amore). Healy noted that the significance of this was that “they aligned the creative artist with the ‘making’ Deity,” and that from the beginning of Puttenham’s treatise, The Art of English Poesy (1589), he engages with Hermetic Neoplatonism.80 He begins by stating that “a poet is as much to say as a maker” and that “this science in his perfection cannot grow but by some divine instinct—the Platonics call it furor.”81 Giordano Bruno discussed the notion of poetic furor or frenzy in his Italian dialogue De Gli Eroici Furori (On the Heroic Frenzies) (1585), printed during his time in England.

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene follows different knights who represent different virtues on various quests. Spenser engages with different associations of the occult, from the magician in Archimago to the sympathetic magic bound in Cancaee’s ring. In Book One, the Redcrosse knight is fooled by Duessa and has to undergo extensive treatment in the House of Holiness. Fidelia has a book “that was both signd and seald with blood,/ Wherein darke things were writ, hard to be understood.”82 This book is “with blood ywrit,/ That none could read, except she did them teach,” making her book different to those on stage, as the magic does not come from the book but from the knowledge and understanding of serious study.83 The difference is that Fidelia knows this knowledge intimately; her ability to cure Redcrosse comes from both the relationship between her occult knowledge and her virtue, so she is able “with her words to kill,/ And raise againe to life the hart, which she did thrill.”84 Acrasia is another female character with powerful words described as an “Enchaunteresse” who “Does charme her lovers.”85 Where Acrasia uses her efficacious language to charm, Fidelia uses her “words of wondrous might” to spiritually heal Redcrosse.86 Canacee has learning “in everie science that mote bee,/ And every secret worke of natures ways” and is thus more aligned to a natural philosopher.87 Spenser thus engages with the occult at its spectacular level through figures such as Archimago but complicates the representation of the occult through characters who use their knowledge for good. He also explores concerns raised by the new science in the Cantos of Mutabilitie, in which Mutabilitie travels up to the heavens and argues that she controls the heavens as well the earth because even the stars are subject to change—“within this wide great Universe/ Nothing doth firme and permanent appeare”—88 though Dame Nature responds that things do not really change. Mary Thomas Crane situated this debate within the astronomical debate between the Ptolemaic model where the stars are fixed and change only occurs under the moon, and the increasingly popular Copernican system.89 Spenser’s contemporaries also grapple with similar issues regarding the intersection of old and new forms of knowledge, such as Fulke Greville in Caelica (printed 1633).

John Donne also shows evidence of being influenced by the new astronomy and natural philosophy of the early 17th century. He was familiar with the works of astronomers such as Galileo, Copernicus, and Johannes Kepler as well as the Paracelsian medicine and William Gilbert’s work on magnetism (De Magnete, 1600). Howard Marchitello noted that, despite his interest, Donne “was deeply conflicted about the science, especially the new astronomy, that had so caught his attention and that seems so profoundly to have complicated his understanding of the world.”90 In “An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary,” Donne expressed this conflict through the lines “new philosophy calls in doubt,/ The element of fire is quite put out.” Crane noted that the new astronomy also brought into question the theory of the four elements and their properties.91 For Donne, open as he was to different theories and ideas, “no knowledge comes to be perfect.”92

Competing modes of knowledge and worldviews were the source of poetic creativity for some. Margaret Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies (1653) explores Lucretian atomism, a concept with which she would later express disagreement. Hester Pulter’s poetry survives in a single bound manuscript and her poems, largely written during the 1640s and 1650s, show a keen interest in natural philosophy, alchemy, and astronomy. In “The Circle (2),” she opens with the “chemic art,” alchemy, and moves from the detail of the alchemical process to mortality as by “time and fate to dust are all calcined.”93 She places all beings within an alchemical process, specifically the calcination step, in which bodies are transformed back to dust, though with the expectation of being reformed again upon the Day of Judgment. In “The Perfection of Patience and Knowledge,” Pulter uses alchemical imagery to describe the journey toward knowledge:

being perfect and sublimed, We shall discern this globe calcined: Then shall we know these orbs of wonder, Which in a maze we now live under.94

Alchemy is an incredibly slow process and the sublimation and calcination of the planet, both processes of purification, will lead to astronomical knowledge. She engages with the new astronomy alongside astrological language and judicial astrology with the “malignancy” of “Saturn’s heavy eye” and the political changes that “conjunctions should foreshew.”

Like drama, poetry is a medium for satiric responses to new knowledge. For example, Samuel Butler used the telescope to criticize the Royal Society’s engagement with mediation and knowledge in “The Elephant in the Moon” (c. 1676). J. Ereck Jarvis noted that the telescope is not the problem in this poem, but that “the Fellows themselves perpetuate bad vision.”95 Poets thus engage with the new and old modes of knowledge, sometimes deliberately using anachronistic juxtapositions to explore and question the world and new discoveries.

The Occult in Early Modern Prose

Like drama, 16th-century prose tends to focus on the spectacular side of the occult such as the impossible actions of magicians, pacts with the devil, and the supernatural. One of the earliest examples is the magical jest book Virgilius, printed in Dutch in 1512 and translated into English in 1518, which is a fantastical account of the poet Virgil. Robert Maslen suggested that it was the protagonist’s “career of conjuring, sexual adventure, and flamboyant trickery, which provided a template for the legends of Doctor Faustus.”96 At the end of the text, Virgilius plans to renew himself as a youth but this requires his servant to kill him, dismember him, put him in a barrel, and tend a lamp above the barrel for 9 days. Unfortunately, the emperor has been keeping him under surveillance and has the servant killed before the 9 days is complete, then notices a child running in the barrel who curses the emperor “and with those wordes vanished the chylde a waye and was never sene agayne and thus abyd Virgillus in the barell deed.”97 Maslen noted that travelers in magical journey narratives in mid-Tudor England were subject to suspicion because they could easily be identified with Catholic missionaries and their tales of wonder with the miracles endorsed by Rome. A later example is William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat (1553), an anti-Catholic satire “full of lying Catholic travellers, witches, and magicians, as well as the devious feline informers of the title.”98

Other writers engage with the more superstitious and supernatural aspects of the occult. Ludwig Lavater’s treatise, Of Ghostes and Spirites Walking by Nyght (1569, trans. 1572), is an attempt to define ghosts within a post-Reformation world and was an authoritative text on early modern ghost lore.99 Lavater “systematically dismantled the Catholic belief in the apparitions of souls in purgatory” and linked apparitions of ghosts with “the portents and presages of great events and the deaths of people, that were reported in popular literature.”100 Pamphleteers such as Thomas Nashe use the occult for satiric and comedic purposes. In the prose satire, Pierce Pennilesse, His Supplication to the Divell (1592), Pierce complains to the devil about the vices and problems in the world, and in The Terrors of the Night or, A Discourse of Apparitions (1594), Nashe is critical of superstition and reduces dreams to “nothing els but a bubling scum or froath of the fancie, which the day hath left undigested; or an after feast made of the fragments of idle imaginations.”101

Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (c. 1624, printed 1627) is a utopian narrative which was originally printed posthumously by Bacon’s secretary, William Rawley, at the back of Bacon’s much larger work, Sylva Sylvorum. Paul Salzman suggested that the two works were meant to be read together as they “form an intersecting genre of natural history/fable, treatise/fiction, which readers were encouraged to see as inseparable.”102 While the New Atlantis fits into the travel writing genre and explores other aspects of the utopian society of the Bensalemites, the text pays attention to the acquisition of knowledge and learning through Salomon’s House, which is “dedicated to the study of the Works and Creatures of God.”103 Salomon’s House is carefully ordered and its members have their own specific roles to play: “We have three that collect the experiments of all mechanical arts; and also of liberal sciences; and also of practices which are not brought into arts. These we call Mystery-men.” Other roles include Depredators, who collect experiments; those who experiment, called “Pioners or Miners”; right up to three called “Interpreters of Nature,” who “raise the former discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorisms.” Crucially, every member of Salomon’s House must take “an oath of secrecy, for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret: though some those which we think to keep secret: though some of those we do reveal sometimes to the state, and some not.”104 Knowledge is privileged and only those at the top—the Interpreters of Nature—are aware of the entire process of discovery and are the judges of what gets passed on to the state. Though Bacon rejected the more esoteric strands of natural magic, he does engage with its other elements and was influenced by della Porta’s Natural Magick.105

As the 17th century moved on and early prose narratives continued to develop, writers explored the intersection of old worlds and the possibilities of the new within fiction. While these texts are certainly operating against the backdrop of colonialism, they also engage with the older knowledge and systems of thought and the newer discoveries. In The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World (1666), Cavendish consciously invents a world “of my own creating” instead of following the popular lunar world trope, as in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone (1638) in which the protagonist travels to the moon and stays there with a tall, Christian people for 6 months.106 The Blazing World was published with her Observations on Experimental Philosophy, which “opposed the particular philosophy of its title,” as it deliberately recalls with “formal ingenuity” Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665).107 Hooke’s text, published for the Royal Society, included detailed illustrations of tiny insects, including a flea, which he had studied under microscopes of his own design. Cavendish repeats this in The Blazing World as the empress is shown a flea and a louse under a microscope by the bear-men, “which creatures through the microscope appeared so terrible to her sight, that they had almost put her into a swoon.”108 Lisa Walters identified a “recurring interest in magic and the supernatural” in addition to scientific thought in the writings of Margaret Cavendish.109 This is evident in The Blazing World, where the empress communicates with spirits to find out information about the world she came from. She asks about the “Jews’ Cabbala” to which the spirits reply that “those that came nearest (although themselves denied it) were one Dr Dee, and one Edward Kelly” but they “proved at last mere cheats.” The spirits then describe how Jonson used their endeavors as the plot for The Alchemist.110

In sum, the fluidity of the occult during the early modern period enabled it to be used for commentary, entertainment, criticism, and satire. Writers could engage with the more spectacular and supernatural elements or with its various systems of knowledge and discovery. Though engagement with the occult is arguably different toward the end of the 17th century, with more emphasis on satire and ridiculing outdated beliefs, writers also juxtaposed emergent scientific discourses and new learning with older, anachronistic discourses, creating sites of critique and creativity.

Discussion of the Literature

Lynn Thorndike’s eight-volume The History of Magic and Experimental Science (1923–1958) covers a vast area from early Christianity to the 17th century and provides a useful background to the early modern period. In Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Keith Thomas points to a gradual separation of magic and religion and decline in magical thinking, a transition often referred to as disenchantment.111 During the 1960s and 1970s, critics such as Frances Yates and Peter French placed emphasis on the Hermetic texts during the early modern period.112 There was a strong reaction to what became known as the “Yates-thesis.”113 Wouter J. Hanegraaff’s article, “Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism Between Counterculture and New Complexity” (2001), provides a useful oversight of the Yates thesis and reactions to it. In the important collection of essays, Science, Culture, and Popular Belief in Renaissance Europe (1991), Roy Porter noted that critics started acknowledging “the coexistent flourishing of a plurality of discourses about natural knowledge in the period,” an approach that owes much to the development of theoretical frameworks such as new historicism and cultural materialism in the 1980s.114 Other histories of science such as Steven Shapin’s A Social History of Truth (1994) and John Henry’s The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science (1997) are also useful contextual reading.

The 21st-century general introductions to magic include Owen Davies’s Magic: A Very Short Introduction (2012) and Chris Gosden’s The History of Magic (2020). Both contextualize magic within its global cultural history, acknowledging both its intellectual and its superstitious aspects. Euan Cameron’s Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250–1750 (2010) examines Western European superstitious and popular belief alongside theological and social change. Brian Copenhaver’s The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment (2015) is a selection of texts from different periods and genres, including the literary, and is thus a useful starting point for students of magic or the occult. Andreas Sommer’s “Forbidden Histories” blog is an outstanding resource which is frequently added to by both Sommer and guest writers. Among the blog’s aims is “to study and understand reason for belief as well as disbelief by scientists in various extraordinary phenomena over time” and uses rigorous scholarship to often “go against the grain” of the standard ideologies and positions regarding science and the occult.115

The 21st-century studies in early modern literature have situated texts and writers within an occult context and, more broadly, recognized and articulated the early modern period as a time when people’s perception of the world was different. In Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1480–1670 (2004), Elizabeth Spiller suggests that “a belief in the made rather than found character of early modern knowledge unites poets and natural scientists.”116 The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science (2017) is a wide-ranging collection of essays that approaches the literary and the scientific as “productively in-distinct cultural undertakings and operations.”117 Georgiana D. Hedesan and Tim Rodbøg’s edited collection of essays, Innovation in Esotericism: From the Renaissance to the Present (2021), foregrounds the role of innovation in esoteric belief and practice and how this enabled esotericism to influence other frameworks of knowledge, including science, through to the 21st century. Mike A. Zuber’s Spiritual Alchemy: From Jacob Boehme to Mary Anne Atwood (2021) also offers a broader temporal view to examine continuities between premodern and later forms of alchemy.

Studies of drama have also engaged with the early modern occult. Henry Turner explores the intellectual traditions that informed English drama in The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts 1580–1630 (2006). In Occult Knowledge, Science, and Gender on the Shakespearean Stage (2013), Mary Floyd-Wilson argues that women’s bodies, which were seen as having the power to affect the world around them through the womb, could be exploited on the stage to affect the audience through the words and actions of a female character, though this was temporary when the actor was played by a boy actor or male actor. Lisa Hopkins and Helen Ostovich’s edited collection Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage (2014) examines representations of witchcraft on the early modern stage and the interplay of legitimate and illegitimate knowledge. Sophie Gray’s unpublished PhD dissertation, “‘Conjuror Laureates’: Reading Early Modern Magicians with Derrida” (2013), focuses on performative language, speech act theory, and the representation of magicians in early modern drama.

Other critics have focused on poetry’s engagement with magic, the occult, and different forms of knowledge. Taking her cue from Sidney, Genevieve Guenther adopts the phrase “instrumental aesthetics” to describe how the “poet used the beauty of language to produce ideological effects.”118 Guenther’s Magical Imaginations: Instrumental Aesthetics in the English Renaissance (2012) examines the indistinct boundary between magician and poet. In Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England (2015), Katherine Eggert coins the term “disknowledge” to describe “the conscious and deliberate setting aside of one compelling mode of understanding the world—one discipline, one theory—for another” and the discomfort that could come from new modes of knowledge. In Impossible Desire and the Limits of Knowledge in Renaissance Poetry (2019), Wendy Hyman investigates the idea of “impossible knowledge” and that “erotic literature of the English Renaissance pays especially anxious attention to the limits of human understanding.”119

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Cameron, Euan. Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason and Religion, 1250–1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Copenhaver, Brian. The Book of Magic: From Antiquity to Enlightenment. New York: Penguin Random House, 2015.
  • Crane, Mary Thomas. Losing Touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in Sixteenth-Century England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.
  • Eggert, Katherine. Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
  • Floyd-Wilson, Mary. Occult Knowledge, Science and Gender on the Shakespearean Stage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Gray, Sophie. “‘Conjuror Laureates’: Reading Early Modern Magicians with Derrida.” PhD diss., University of Liverpool, 2013.
  • Guenther, Genevieve Juliette. Magical Imaginations: Instrumental Aesthetics in the English Renaissance. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.
  • Harmes, Marcus, and Victoria Bladen, eds. Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015.
  • Hayden, Judy A., ed. Literature in the Age of Celestial Discovery: From Copernicus to Flamsteed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
  • Hedesan, Georgiana D., and Tim Rudbøg, eds. Innovation in Esotericism from the Renaissance to the Present. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
  • Hopkins, Lisa, and Helen Ostovich, eds. Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014.
  • Hyman, Wendy Beth. Impossible Desire and the Limits of Knowledge in Renaissance Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Kassell, Lauren, “‘All Was This Land Full Fill’d of Faerie,’ or Magic and the Past in Early Modern England.” Journal of the History of Ideas 67, no. 1 (2006): 107–122.
  • Marchitello, Howard. The Machine Text: Science and Literature in the Age of Shakespeare and Galileo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Marchitello, Howard, and Evelyn Tribble, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
  • Maslen, Robert. “Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction.” The Yearbook of English Studies 41, no. 1 (2011): 35–50.
  • Spiller, Elizabeth. Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580–1670. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Stark, Ryan J. Rhetoric, Science, and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009.
  • Turner, Henry. The English Renaissance Stage: Geometry, Poetics, and the Practical Spatial Arts 1580–1630. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Zuber, Mike A. Spiritual Alchemy: From Jacob Boehme to Mary Anne Atwood. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.


  • 1. Brian J. Gibbons, Spirituality and the Occult: From the Renaissance to the Modern Age (London: Routledge, 2001), 1.

  • 2. Florian Sprenger, “Insensible and Inexplicable—On the Two Meanings of Occult,” Communication +1 4, no. 1 (2015): 1. Emphasis in the original.

  • 3. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 3.

  • 4. Mary Floyd-Wilson, Occult Knowledge, Science and Gender on the Shakespearean Stage (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 1.

  • 5. Glyn Parry, The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 1.

  • 6. Peter G. Maxwell-Stuart, “Astrology, Magic, and Witchcraft,” in The Oxford Handbook of English Prose 1500–1640, ed. Andrew Hadfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 326.

  • 7. Kathryn Edwards, “The Interrelationship of Magic and Witchcraft,” in The Routledge History of Witchcraft, ed. Johannes Dillinger (London: Routledge, 2019), 260.

  • 8. Gibbons, Spirituality and the Occult, 17.

  • 9. Giambattista della Porta, Natural magick by John Baptista Porta, a Neopolitane; in twenty books . . . wherein are set forth all the riches and delights of the natural sciences, trans. anon. (London: 1658), sig. C2r. Though not translated into English until 1658, it was first published as Magia Naturalis (Naples, 1558). When quoting from early modern texts, I have kept original spelling, silently amended i/j/u/v/vv, and expanded contractions. Where modern editions have not been cited, I refer to facsimiles accessed through Early English Books Online.

  • 10. John Dee, “The compendious rehearsal of John Dee,” in Johannis, confratris & monachi Glastoniensis, chronica sive historia de rebus Galsoniensibus, ed. Thomas Hearne, vol. 2 (Oxford, 1726), 500.

  • 11. John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. John Buchanan-Brown (London: Penguin, 1999), 370.

  • 12. Allison Kavey, “‘I’ll to my book’: The Legacy of the Corpus Hermeticum in Renaissance Magic,” in Imagining Early Modern Histories, ed. Elizabeth Ketner and Allison Kavey (London: Routledge, 2016), 83.

  • 13. Kavey, “Legacy of the Corpus Hermeticum,” 85.

  • 14. Nicholas H. Clulee, “Magic, and Optics: Facets of John Dee’s Early Natural Philosophy,” Renaissance Quarterly 30, no. 4 (1977): 679.

  • 15. György E. Szönyi, “The Hermetic Revival in Italy,” in The Occult World, ed. Christopher Partridge (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2015), 55.

  • 16. Chris Miles, “Occult Retraction: Cornelius Agrippa and the Paradox of Magical Language,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38, no. 4 (2008): 536.

  • 17. For further influences on Agrippa, see Wouter J. Hanegraaff, “Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa,” in The Occult World, ed. Christopher Partridge (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2015), 92–98.

  • 18. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, Three books of occult philosophy written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim; translated out of the Latin into the English tongue by J. F., trans. J. F. (London, 1651), sig. A1v. Originally printed in Latin in 1531.

  • 19. Hanegraaff, “Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa,” in The Occult World, 92.

  • 20. C. H. Josten, “A Translation of John Dee’s ‘Monas Hieroglyphica’ (Antwerp, 1564), with an Introduction and Annotations,” Ambix 12, no. 2–3 (1964): 151.

  • 21. Jean Bodin, On the Demon-Mania of Witches, trans. Randy A. Scott (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1995), 105.

  • 22. della Porta, Natural magick, sig. C1v.

  • 23. See William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).

  • 24. Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason and Religion, 1250–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 175.

  • 25. John Dee, The Mathematicall Praeface to the Elements of Geometrie of Euclid of Megara (1570), ed. Allen G. Debus (New York: Neale Watson, 1975), sig. A4ᵛ.

  • 26. Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, in Dr Faustus: The A- and B- Texts (1604, 1616) Christopher Marlowe: A Parallel-Text Edition, ed. David Bevington and Eric Rasmussen (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014), Epilogue, lines 6–8. I refer to the A-text (1604) throughout this article unless otherwise stated.

  • 27. Gabriel Harvey, “His Epiloge in yᵉ morning next his harte,” in The Letter-Book of Gabriel Harvey, A.D. 1573–1580, ed. Edward John Long Scott (London: Printed for the Camden Society 1884; Royal Historical Society Publications 33, 1965), 134.

  • 28. Daniel Seltzer, “Introduction,” in Robert Greene, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, ed. Daniel Seltzer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), xii.

  • 29. Greene, Friar Bacon, 1.1.93–1.1.95. References are to act, scene, and line.

  • 30. Kevin LaGrandeur, “The Talking Brass Head as a Symbol of Dangerous Knowledge in Friar Bacon and in Alphonsus, King of Aragon,” English Studies 80, no. 5 (1999): 417.

  • 31. Greene, Friar Bacon, 11.53; 11.65; 11.75.

  • 32. Greene, Friar Bacon, 11.66–11.67; 11.97.

  • 33. LaGrandeur, “Talking Brass Head,” 417.

  • 34. Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1.1.1–2.

  • 35. Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1.1.51–54

  • 36. William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (London: Bloomsbury, 2019; 1999), 1.2.77.

  • 37. Shakespeare, The Tempest, 1.2.89–90.

  • 38. Greene, Friar Bacon, 2.46–8.

  • 39. Greene, Friar Bacon, 13.87–90.

  • 40. Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 5.2.123.

  • 41. Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, B-text, 5.3.17.

  • 42. Shakespeare, The Tempest, 3.2.95.

  • 43. Stephen Orgel, “Secret Arts and Public Spectacles: The Parameters of Elizabethan Magic,” Shakespeare Quarterly 68, no. 1 (2017): 83.

  • 44. Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1.54–58.

  • 45. Orgel, “Secret Arts and Public Spectacles,” 83.

  • 46. William Prynne, Histrio-Mastix: The Players Scourge, or, Actors Tragaedie, Divided into Two Parts (London, 1633), 556r.

  • 47. For further discussion of the appearance of devils onstage during performances of Doctor Faustus, see Genevieve Guenther, “Why Devils Came When Faustus Called Them,” Modern Philology 109, no. 1 (2011): 46–70; Stephen Orgel, The Authentic Shakespeare, and Other Problems of the Early Modern Stage (London: Routledge, 2002), 224.

  • 48. Alexander Luders et al., eds., Statutes of the Realm, from Original Records and Authentic Manuscripts vol. 4, no. 1, 1547–1585 (London: 1819), 446.

  • 49. Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (London, 1584), 218.

  • 50. Scot, Discoverie, 217.

  • 51. James VI/I, Daemonologie in Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into Three Books (Edinburgh, 1597), sig. C2v.

  • 52. Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1.3.52.

  • 53. Laura Levine, “Danger in Words: Faustus, Slade, and Demonologists,” in Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage, ed. Lisa Hopkins and Helen Ostovich (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014), 50.

  • 54. Shakespeare, “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” in The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed., ed. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 1.5.39; see also Alisa Manninen, “‘The Charm’s Wound Up’: Supernatural Ritual in Macbeth,” in Magical Transformations on the Early Modern English Stage, ed. Lisa Hopkins and Helen Ostovich (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2014), 61–74.

  • 55. Gesta Grayorum or, The history of the high and mighty prince, Henry Prince of Purpoole.] . . who reigned and died, A.D. 1594: Together with a masque, as it was presented (by His Highness’s command) for the entertainment of Q. Elizabeth, who, with the nobels of both courts, was present thereat (London, 1688), sig. D3v. Francis Bacon is believed to have been involved with these revels.

  • 56. Gesta Grayorum, sig. D4r.

  • 57. Emma K. Rhatigan, “Audience, Actors, and ‘Taking Part’ in the Revels,” in Imagining the Audience in Early Modern Drama, ed. Jennifer A. Low and Nora Myhill (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 157.

  • 58. Ben Jonson, The Masque of Queenes Celebrated from the House of Fame: By the Most Absolute in All State, and Titles. Anne Queene of Great Britaine, &c. With Her Honourable Ladies. At White Hall, Feb. 2. 1609 (London, 1609), sig. C2v.

  • 59. Lynn Sermin Meskill, “Exorcising the Gorgon of Terror: Jonson’s ‘Masque of Queenes,’” English Literary History, 72, no. 1 (2005): 184.

  • 60. George Peele, The Old Wives Tale A Pleasant Conceited Comedie, Played by the Queenes Majesties players (London, 1595), sig. C2r; Anonymous, The Merry Devill of Edmonton As It Hath Beene Sundry Times Acted, by His Majesties Servants, at the Globe, on the Banke-Side (London, 1608), Prologue, sig. A3r.

  • 61. Barbara Howard Traistor, Heavenly Necromancers: The Magician in English Drama (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984), 56.

  • 62. J. C. (anon.), A Pleasant Comedie, Called the Two Merry Milke-Maids. Or, the Best Words Weare the Garland As It Was Acted before the King, with Generall Approbation, by the Companie of the Revels (London, 1620), Prologue, sig. A2v; Traistor, Heavenly Necromancers, 54.

  • 63. Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, in Ben Jonson’s Plays and Masques, ed. Richard Harp (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), 2.3.36–42.

  • 64. Jennifer Rampling, The Experimental Fire: Inventing English Alchemy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), 10.

  • 65. Jonson, The Alchemist, 2.2.98–99; 2.2.101.

  • 66. Thomas Tomkis, Albumazar A Comedy Presented before the Kings Majestie at Cambridge, the Ninth of March. 1614. By the Gentlemen of Trinitie College (London: 1615), 1.3 (sig. B4r).

  • 67. Tomkis, Albumazar, 1.3 (sig. B4v).

  • 68. Brian Copenhaver, The Book of Magic from Antiquity to Enlightenment (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015), 473.

  • 69. William Mountford, The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus Made into a Farce by Mr. Mountford; with the Humours of Harlequin and Scaramouche, as They Were Several Times Acted. . . at the Queens Theatre in Dorset Garden (London, 1697) 1.1. (sig. B1r).

  • 70. Mountford, Doctor Faustus, 1.1. (sig. B2r).

  • 71. Mountford, Doctor Faustus, 1.1. (sig. B4v).

  • 72. Christa Knellworth King, Faustus and the Promises of the New Science, c. 1580–1730: From the Chapbooks to Harlequin Faustus (London: Routledge, 2016), 181.

  • 73. Ryan J. Stark, Rhetoric, Science, and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 1, 10.

  • 74. Genevieve Juliette Guenther, Magical Imaginations: Instrumental Aesthetics in the English Renaissance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 61.

  • 75. Wendy Beth Hyman, “‘Deductions from Metaphors’: Figurative Truth, Poetical Language, and Early Modern Science,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science, ed. Howard Marchitello and Evelyn Tribble (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 27–48, 27; see also James J. Bono, The Word of God and the Languages of Man: Interpreting Nature in Early Modern Science and Medicine, Vol. 1 Ficino to Descartes (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995).

  • 76. Philip Sidney, “The Defence of Poesy,” in Sidney’s “Defence of Poesy” and Selected Renaissance Criticism, ed. Gavin Alexander (London: Penguin, 2004), 34.

  • 77. Sidney, Defence, 36, 43.

  • 78. Guenther, Magical Imaginations, 5.

  • 79. Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. Thomas P. Roche (Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1987), 15.

  • 80. Margaret Healy, “Poetic ‘Making’ and Moving the Soul,” in Shakespearean Sensations: Experiencing Literature in Early Modern England, ed. Katharine A. Craik and Tanya Pollard (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 175.

  • 81. George Puttenham, The Art of English Poesy, ed. Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), 93–94.

  • 82. Spenser, Faerie Queene, Book 1, Canto 10, Stanza 13.

  • 83. Spenser, Faerie Queene, 1.10.19.

  • 84. Spenser, Faerie Queene, 1.10.19.

  • 85. Spenser, Faerie Queene, 2.5.27.

  • 86. Spenser, Faerie Queene, 1.10.24.

  • 87. Spenser, Faerie Queene, 4.2.35.

  • 88. Spenser, Faerie Queene, “Mutabilitie,” Canto 7, Stanza 56.

  • 89. See Mary Thomas Crane, “John Donne and the New Science,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science, ed. Howard Marchitello and Evelyn Tribble (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 96–99.

  • 90. Howard Marchitello, The Machine Text: Science and Literature in the Age of Shakespeare and Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 116.

  • 91. Crane, “John Donne and the New Science,” 101.

  • 92. John Donne, “From a Sermon Preached 12 December 1626,” in John DonneThe Major Works: Including Songs and Sonnets and Sermons, ed. John Carey (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 373.

  • 93. Hester Pulter, “The Circle (2),” ed. Elizabeth Scott-Baumann (Poem 21, Amplified Edition), in The Pulter Project: Poet in the Making, ed. Leah Knight and Wendy Wall (2018).

  • 94. Pulter, “The Perfection of Patience and Knowledge,” ed. Liza Blake (Poem 39, Amplified Edition), in The Pulter Project.

  • 95. J. Ereck Jarvis, “The Royal Society, Collective Vision and Samuel Butler’s ‘The Elephant in the Moon,’” Literature in the Age of Celestial Discovery: From Copernicus to Flamsteed, ed. Judy A. Hayden (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 135.

  • 96. Robert Maslen, “Magical Journeys in Sixteenth-Century Prose Fiction,” The Yearbook of English Studies 41, no. 1 (2011): 36.

  • 97. Anonymous, Virgilius This boke treath [sic] of the lyfe of Virgilius and of his deth and many marvayles that he dyd in hys lyfe tyme by whychcrafte. . . (Antwerp, 1518), sig. F3r.

  • 98. Maslen, “Magical Journeys,” 40.

  • 99. See Catherine Stevens, “‘You shal reade marvellous straunge things’: Ludwig Lavater and the Hauntings of the Reformation,” in Supernatural and Secular Power in Early Modern England, ed. Matthew Harmes and Victoria Bladen (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015), 142.

  • 100. Cameron, Enchanted Europe, 188.

  • 101. Thomas Nashe, The Terrors of the Night or, A Discourse of Apparitions (London, 1594), sig. C3v.

  • 102. Paul Salzman, “Narrative Contexts for Bacon’s New Atlantis,” in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. Bronwen Price (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002), 43.

  • 103. Francis Bacon, “New Atlantis,” in Francis Bacon: The Major Works, ed. Brian Vickers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 471.

  • 104. Bacon, New Atlantis, 486–487.

  • 105. See Richard Sergeantson, “Natural Knowledge in the New Atlantis,” in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, 88.

  • 106. Margaret Cavendish, “The Blazing World,” in The Blazing World and Other Writings, ed. Kate Lilley (London: Penguin, 2004), 124.

  • 107. Mary Baine Campbell, Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004), 203.

  • 108. Cavendish, The Blazing World, 144.

  • 109. Lisa Walters, Margaret Cavendish: Gender, Science, and Politics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 101.

  • 110. Cavendish, The Blazing World, 166.

  • 111. For further reading on disenchantment, see, e.g., Alexandra Walsham, “The Reformation and ‘The Disenchantment of the World’ Reassessed,” The Historical Journal 51, no. 2 (2008): 497–528.

  • 112. See Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition Tradition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971); Frances A. Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 2001; first published by Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979); Peter J. French, John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972); see also Allen G. Debus, Man and Nature in the Renaissance (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1972).

  • 113. See, e.g., Robert S. Westman, “Magical Reform and Astronomical Reform: The Yates Thesis Reconsidered,” in Robert S. Westman and J. E. McGuire, Hermeticism and the Scientific Revolution: Papers Read at a Clark Library Seminar, March 9, 1974 (Los Angeles: Clark Memorial Library, 1971), 3–91; Brian Vickers, “Introduction,” in Occult and Scientific Mentalities in the Renaissance, ed. Brian Vickers (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 1–55; Brian Vickers, “Frances Yates and the Writing of History,” The Journal of Modern History 51, no. 2 (1979): 287–316; Westman, “Magical Reform,” 3–91; Hilary Gatti, The Renaissance Drama of Knowledge: Giordano Bruno in England (London: Routledge, 1989); Stephen Clucas, “Thomas Harriot and the Field of Knowledge in the English Renaissance,” in Thomas Harriot: An Elizabethan Man of Science, ed. by Robert Fox (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2000), 93–136.

  • 114. Roy Porter, “Introduction,” in Science, Culture and Popular Belief, ed. Stephen Pumfrey, Paolo Rossi, and Maurice Slawinski (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1991), 6.

  • 115. Andreas Sommer, Forbidden Histories (blog).

  • 116. Elizabeth Spiller, Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580–1670 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 2.

  • 117. Howard Marchitello and Evelyn Tribble, “Introduction,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Early Modern Literature and Science, xxvi. Emphasis in the original.

  • 118. Guenther, Magical Imaginations, 4.

  • 119. Wendy Beth Hyman, Impossible Desire and the Limits of Knowledge in Renaissance Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 12. Emphasis in the original.