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Some Notes towards a Definition of Defoe's Demonology

A copy of this essay was published in UNISA English Studies, University of South Africa, vol. XIV, no 2 & 3, September, 1976.

    In the third chapter of The Political History of the Devil Defoe makes a statement which in the light of his interests is highly suggestive.  Speaking of Paradise Lost, he comments: "Mr Milton was a good poet, but a bad historian." 1  If we ourselves are inclined to regard Defoe's three books on demonology as a kind of poetry, there is no question that he himself intended these works as history.  Defoe's religious beliefs have been subject in our time to a great deal of scrutiny.  Some commentators have emphasized his rationalism, others his Puritanism.  To regard The Political History of the Devil and A System of Magic as the mere poetical fabrications of an ironical wit or as the derision of a Lockian skeptic would be to ignore the basic facts surrounding Defoe's spiritual development.  Had these books been written in 1706 when Defoe published Jure Divino, there would be some cause to suspect levity behind the discussion of Satan.  In 1706 Defoe had come under the influence of rationalism to the extent that he dedicated Jure Divino

                                                   TO THE 

                         MOST SERENE, MOST INVINCIBLE,

                          AND MOST ILLUSTRIOUS LADY, 


                         FIRST MONARCH OF THE WORLD2

The recent discovery of the lost manuscript of the poem "The Trinity"(1727) discloses, however, that in his old age Defoe was possessed by the sense of guilt which had haunted him during his youth and that he finally abandoned the rationalism of Jure Divino.

                         Shall Critick Reason cavil at his word, 

                         Because the Why and How is not conceiv'd? 

                       Curs 'd be that incredulity of Mind, 

                        Which damns reveal'd Religion, and concludes,

                        Self-wise, and most absurdly obstinate,

                         Nothing's to be believed but what we see.'3

     What is significant about "The Trinity" is that it was written at approximately the same time as all of Defoe's demonology books.  "Believe and wonder; Things reveal'd are high/ But Truth's not lost, though cloath'd in Mystery."4   Like "The Trinity", The Political History of the Devil and A System of Magic are based on the revelations of the Bible.  It is Defoe's profound conviction that the Bible is not only the first but also the greatest work of history, and again and again he returns to certain central passages in Deuteronomy and Genesis.  With their arguments and examples firmly rooted in the Bible, the demonology books must be regarded not as mere potboilers but as the consummation of Defoe's thinking on religion.   Written in his old age, they clarify and illuminate a vast body of his other writings.  The footprint in the sand in Robinson Crusoe, the uncontrollable lasciviousness in Moll Flanders, the assumptions behind The Apparition of Mrs Veal: Defoe's preoccupation with the Devil spills over into these fictions but receives definitive articulation only in the late discussions about the problems of demonology. 

      Like Robinson Crusoe, Defoe's demonology books rose out of a huge body of miscellaneous items.  Sir Thomas Browne, Joseph Glanvill, Richard Baxter, John Beaumont: all of these men believed in the Devil.  All of them wrote extensively about the Devil.  Many of their books were part of Defoe's library.5  While it has often been said that Puritanism encouraged a belief in demonology, it must be emphasized that such a belief was not common only to puritans.   Sir Thomas Browne was certainly no puritan, and he was one of the leading doctors of his day.  Yet he could say, as an expert, at the famous Bury St Edmunds case: "That the Devil in such cases did work upon the Bodies of Men and Women, upon a Natural Foundation, (that is) to stir up, and excite such humours super-abounding in their bodies to a great excess."6   Robert Burton was no puritan either, but in his Anatomy of Melancholy he wrote a whole subsection "Of Witches and Magitians, how they cause Melancholy," asserting that what "they can doe, is as much almost as the Diuell himseife, who is still ready to satisfie their desires, to oblige them the more unto him."7   Joseph Glanvill, the author of The Vanity of Dogmatizing, was no puritan, but a skeptical philosopher, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and Chaplain in Ordinary to King Charles II; neither was his friend, Dr Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist. Yet these two scholars joined forces to produce that extraordinary treatise, Saducisimus Triumphatus: or, A Full and Plain Evidence concerning Witches and Apparitions.  This book, an enlarged form of Glanvill's Philosophical Considerations, was published in 1681, and went through no less than five editions, the last appearing as late as 1726, the year Defoe published The Political History of the Devil. It was thought to have put the belief in apparitions and witchcraft on an unshakable basis of science and philosophy.  Ralph Cudworth, the antagonist of Hobbes, was no puritan. Yet in his Intellectual System he argues for the existence of sorcery, and even admits a distinction between its higher operations and the vulgar performances of everyday wizards.  Instances could be multiplied almost indefinitely of divines, philosophers, and scientists who believed in and wrote about demonology, many of whom Defoe had undoubtedly read. Yet when he mentions any one of these writers, he is cautious to couch his references in circumlocutions.  Hence it is not uncommon to find Defoe saying,  "If we may believe old Glanvil, Hicks, and other learned councellors of oracles,"8 or, "If the narrative reported by Glanvil, Beaumont, and others may obtain credit."9  More interesting than any of the other sources is the famous Daemonologie of King James 1. What is remarkable about its three sections is that they correspond to Defoe's major works on occultism. In his "Preface to the Reader" King James writes:

         To make this treatise more pleasant and facile, I have put it in forme of a             Dialogue, which I have divided into three books. The first speaking of Magic in general and Necromancie in special. The second of Sorcery and Witchcraft, and the thirde conteines a discourse of all these kindes of spirits and spectres that appeares and trubles persons." 10

The first book corresponds to the title and content of Defoe's A System of Magic, the second to The Political History of the Devil, and the last to The History and Reality of Apparitions.  If many of Defoe's major assumptions about the Devil resemble King James's, what is important is not so much what Defoe borrowed but what he did with his sources. 

     Defoe's most successful means of demonstrating the influence of the Devil is through history.  If his project seems at times bewildering and often unjustifiable, it must be remembered how primitive the writing of history was before the publication of the great works of Robinson, Hume, and Gibbon and how traditional was the view that history is but the workings of God's providence. What is extraordinary about The Political History of the Devil is that it reverses this interpretation and attributes to the Devil much that has happened in the past; yet at the same time it preserves many of the aims of the renaissance histories: that history should be of a limited scope; that it should celebrate great personalities; that it should glorify a nation or a patron; that its function is didactic; that it should obey the laws of truth.   Like Raleigh's History of the World. Defoe's opus begins with the creation and encompasses the whole globe. It has the same diffuseness that makes Raleigh so enjoyable.  When Defoe has a good story to tell he never hesitates to interrupt his chronology.  But unlike Raleigh, Defoe does not celebrate God's providence.  To Raleigh all of history tells the same story because God punishes the same crimes in every age; to Defoe virtually every event may be ascribed to the influence of the Devil.  Written at the beginning of the Enlightenment, Defoe's book must be one of the last histories of a purely theological cast. 

      It must be emphasized that when Defoe published The Political History of the Devil, he was defending an embattled cause.  Even during Glanvill's day critics were appealing to common sense for arguments against the occult.  Those who gave up the belief in the Devil, insisted Glanvill, would soon lose faith in the supernatural then in the immortality of the soul, and finally in God Himself.  Hence the problem facing Defoe was to ground the occult in irrefutable evidence.  Of the belief in the Devil he writes:

nay, even the sacred writings confirm it, and therefore with the pardon of all our modern unbelievers, who deny there is such a thing as the Devil or evil spirit in being, either in the world or out of it, I say with their good leave. I must take it for granted. 11

This and all the testimonies of the Devil's being miraculously dispossessed by our Saviour, and by his disciples and apostles, will put it out of question, not only that there is such a thing as the Devil, but also that he has possession of several of his servants in human shapes. 12

Since Scripture stands as Defoe's irrefutable source for belief in Satan, much of his history and demonology takes on the cast of biblical exegesis. A combination of skepticism and assertion, of irony and tall tale, the books on the Devil incessantly ask the questions: How can we know anything about the origin and fall of the Devil?  How did sin come into Heaven?  How did angels become corrupt?  How did Satan come to be proud? How do angels become corrupt?   How did Satan come to be proud?  How do misfortunes occur?  Posing as, or aspiring to be, works of history, the demonology books really represent Defoe's attempt to come to terms with the problem of evil in history.  Constantly trying to justify his endeavor both to himself and to the reader, Defoe ransacks the literature of the world for clever arguments and persuasive examples; yet in the actual process, as well as in the language itself, Defoe indicates how much removed he is from the certainty of Raleigh or James 1. 

      "Mr Milton is such a celebrated man," comments Defoe, "that who but he that can write the history of the Devil dare meddle with him." 13  Alas! Defoe does meddle with Paradise Lost.   In conceiving the history of the world to be largely that of the Devil, Defoe had to turn to extra-biblical sources to discover what really happened before the creation of Adam and Eve.  To Defoe history is above all facts; and since his fundamentalism teaches that the Bible is entirely factual, there is no doubt about its literal truth.   A problem arises: the Bible tells much, but not everything, about the Prince of the Air.  In Genesis, in Job. in The Gospels, Satan plays but a minor role. The Bible is fact; poetry is not. Paradise Lost is poetry; therefore from the point of view of history it leaves much to be desired. There is no doubt that Milton's Arianism is blasphemous.  The Devil himself would know better than to claim that there was a time when Christ was not the Son of God.  Milton claims that Satan's prime intent in the world is to affront God.  Scripture teaches, however, that Satan is against man because he wants to see his rivals damned with him.  Indeed, if the Devil were to write his own history, suggests Defoe, it would "only serve to convince us that he [Milton] knew nothing of the matter." 14   Torn between the desire to say something about the Fall of Satan and the conviction that history has little in common with poetry, Defoe employs in his discussion of the whole subject an irony that is often devastating.

Thus the Devil, as mean thoughts as ye may have of him, is of a better family than any of you; nay,than the best gentleman of you all. What ye may befallen to, is one thing; but what he is fallen from is another; and, therefore, I must tell my learned and reverend friend J.W., L.L.D., when he spoke so rudely of the Devil lately, that, in my opinion, he abused his betters. 13

To believe humanity depraved because of the Devil; to see his influence in every cranny and his cloven foot almost on every king and on each pope; to attribute to him mastery over Aaron, Solomon, and Hezekiah, as well as over Henry IV, Cardinal Richlieu, and Louis XIV; and yet at the same time to speak jestingly of him: this indicates either complete hypocrisy or inimitable effrontery.  But Defoe gets away with this irreverence.  Although Defoe adopts much of Milton's theology and story, the reader knows all along that Defoe is not entirely serious. Hence with this rapport between the author and his audience the irony doesn't offend. 

     While Defoe is critical of Milton's poetry, he is quite serious about the spiritual world; for to explain the Devil's role in history it is first necessary to establish how he influences mankind.  Combining elements from Milton's epic with a vast body of traditional theology, Defoe actually creates a map of the spiritual universe which, although not as explicit as Dante's, still can be pieced together from the demonology books. Divided into dimensions of light and dark, Defoe's spiritual universe contains both angels and devils who minister to man.   The good spirits who are invisible often give warning to mankind about future dangers which Satan has in mind.  They are "that rank of angels or spirits, who are placed... by their maker under his superior Providence for the direction and conduct of human creatures." 16   The earth is surrounded by many spheres which are Filled with human souls.  The lowest is Satan's.  Here he lives with his band of fallen angels and contemplates plans of revenge.  The more distant a sphere is from the earth, so much the more pure are the spirits that inhabit it.  The departed human souls wander in Satan's sphere.   Defoe, however, is uncertain of this.

There is doubtless a place reserved for the reception of our souls after death ... the Scripture supports reason in it — Judas is gone to his place, Dives in Hell lifted up his eyes, and saw Lazarus in Abraham's bosom; the locality of bliss and misery seems to be positively asserted in both cases.17

High over the spheres of the damned exists the realm of the blessed.   Both good and bad spirits have certain characteristics in common.  "It is an unrestrained, unlimited being ... it can act in an invisible and imperceptible manner; it moves without being prescribed or limited by space; it can come and not be seen, go and not be perceived; it is not to be shut in by doors, or shut out by bolts and bars." 18   But the spirits are unlike God in that they are neither omnipotent nor omniscient.  "The Devil is no prophet, he cannot foretell or predict, other than by probable guesses, rational consequences."19   Above all, Defoe is interested in the visitation of spirits, a phenomenon that usually takes place in "Dreams, Voices, Noises, Impulses, Hints, Apprehensions, Involuntary Sadness etc." 20

     One of the most perplexing aspects of Defoe's spiritual universe is his belief in second-sight. What he calls a "state of eclaircissement" is something similar to trance. All those aspects of the spiritual world that are usually veiled from human eyes are suddenly made vivid by an act of divine grace or diabolical intervention.  The highest raptures, trances, and visions of the soul are bound by decrees of Heaven and Hell. It is Defoe's conviction that those people who really possess the faculty of second-sight can identify the Devil from the many disguises he wears; and Defoe often includes himself in this company of the elect.

Now I, you must know, at certain intervals, when the old gentleman's illuminations are upon me, and when I have something of an eclaircissement with him, have some degrees of the discriminating second-sight, and therefore it is no strange thing for me to tell a great many of my acquaintances that they are really devils when they themselves know nothing of the matter. 21

What is remarkable about this passage is that Defoe attributes his second-sight to the Devil, whereas usually he ascribes it to God.  One may very well explain this contradiction as an example of Defoe's characteristic insecurity as to whether he truly is of the company of the elect. 

     While the phenomenon of second-sight touches only a small section of mankind, the dream is much more universal.  It must be remembered that the dream since the time of Joseph and Daniel has been associated with another world.  "It is certain dreams of old were the ways by which God Himself was pleased to warn men, as well what to do, as what not to do."22  God Himself can often substitute a ministering angel in a dream.  But even in the case of dreams, Defoe divides his spiritual world into realms of good and evil.  For the first method that the Devil took to make acquaintance with mankind was through dreams.  How is man to determine whether a dream is sent from Heaven or from Hell?  "If it is for direction to good actions," says Defoe, "or stirring up the soul of man to perform his duty to God or man, it is certainly from above."23  If the dream encourages vice or theft, however, "it is from the dark regions."

     Defoe thinks of the Devil not as an abstract principle of evil which slumbers in the breast of man, but as a living being.   "It is not the invisible Devil that I am inquiring after, but an appearing conversible demon or evil spirit assuming human shapes, or at least voice or intelligible operations."24 Defoe insists that Satan's being is the perfect contrast to God's.   He is content to dwell in Heaven until God gives his rule over to Christ.

If Scripture evidence may be of any weight in the question, there is no doubt to the genealogy of the Devil. He is not only spoken of as an angel, but as a fallen angel: one that had been in heaven, had beheld the face of God in his full effulgence of glory, and surrounded the throne of the Most High; from whence, commencing rebel, and being expelled, he was cast down, down, down, God and Devil himself only knows where; for we cannot say that any man on earth knows it; and wherever he is, he has ever since man's creation been a plague to him; been a tempter, a deluder, a calumniator, and enemy, and the object of man's horror and aversion.25

Despite his fall Satan has not lost all of his angelic qualities; for he is invisible and  "he may, Proteus-like, assume the appearance of either man or beast."26  Satan's ultimate purpose is not to destroy mankind, for God would then take away all of his remaining power.  His business is to damn mankind.

     One of the Devil's favorite means of condemning man is by magic.  In A System of Magic, Defoe explains just what he means by this word.  "If by a system of this terrible thing called magic, my readers should expect a body of the black art as a science, a book of rules for instruction in the practice, or a magical grammar for introduction to young beginners, all I can say to such is, that they will be mistaken.27  To explain to his contemporaries the more common spells; to clarify all the aspects of superstition surrounding magic; to protect the common people from squandering all their money on phony magicians; to prove that magicians are not identical with the sages of the Bible: all this constitutes Defoe's intention in A System of Magic.  But in the actual fulfillment of this aim, Defoe reveals certain pivotal ideas about the role of the Devil in history. Of magicians he writes:

In the first ages they were wise men; in the middle ages madmen: in these latter ages, cunning men; in the earliest time they were honest; in the middle time, rogues: in the last time, fools: at first they dealt with nature: then with the Devil; and now not with the Devil, or with nature either; in the first ages the magicians were wiser than the people: in the second age, wickeder than the people; and now, in our age, the people are both wiser and wickeder than the magicians.28

To Defoe magic is a form of science. To follow its development from antiquity is to trace the origins of science itself.  Defoe's whole approach to the subject is sociological.  Originally the magicians constituted the learned class.   Because they were the possessors of science they were held in dread by the people. Their knowledge and prophetic abilities followed from their intimacy with nature. For this early science Defoe has little respect:

With the utmost of their search, the highest of their reach, and the greatest of their understandings, they knew so little of anything, that the wisest of their wise men, the most accomplished of Caldean courts, could not pretend to know what our present pupils in science come to the understanding of in the first lectures of philosophy, which they go through in a course of academic study.29

After reaching a certain height knowledge began to decline.   Immorality and vice crept among men because of the Devil, and science sank quickly into an abyss.  The flood came.  Noah and his family remained-- but with them the stain of original sin.  Only quite slowly did magicians once again begin to practice their art and to raise science to a new level.  But the learned, seeing themselves threatened by the masses, envisioned the end of their monopoly over science.   It is at this moment that the Devil made his appearance. Though neither almighty nor all-wise, Satan gave the proper advice to the beleaguered.   Not all the learned, not all the magicians fell into the hands of Satan. Knowledge was divided into various provinces.  Satan's interference germinated three kinds of magic. The first is honest magic: the study of philosophy, astronomy, astrology, and geometry, as well as what is called "experimental philosophy."  The second is diabolical or infernal magic.  The third is artificial magic: "that is to say, a mere legerdemain, or juggling with nature, this is managed by the wit, and dexterity of men, with the advantages of concealed, occult powers known in nature, but unknown and unseen by vulgar heads and eyes." 30

     One of the blemishes on the history of Puritanism was its persecution of the witches.  Whether Defoe actually believed in those hags who reputedly rode about on their brooms and tormented innocent bystanders it is impossible to determine conclusively. For one finds throughout Defoe's demonology books a strong trace of that rationalism which was most conspicuous when he wrote Jure Divino. Much of Defoe's irony, a considerable amount of his irresolution, and many of the ambiguities surrounding his comments on witches may be attributed to a conflict in his own mind between an inherited protestant theology and the influence of the rampant skepticism of the early eighteenth century. As long as Defoe's comments refer to or depend upon the Bible, it is obvious that his belief in witches differs in no way from that of Baxter or   Glanvill.  In his discussion of black magic Defoe emphasizes that there is an integral relation between Satan and witchcraft, and he points to the fact that Moses condemned the witches of his of time: 

It is evident that in witchcraft and familiar spirits, where the Devil acts hy the agency of the witch or wizard, they are always famed for doing mischief, prompting to all manner of evil, tormenting the particular people they are empowered to act upon; murdering others, destroying catties, setting fire to houses, ships, stacks of corn or hay; and in a word. everything hurtful, and everything hateful.31

 Thus in antiquity the machinations of witches  were but another reason for the existence of evil at in the world.  Like the false magicians, they were in league with the Devil in order to damn mankind.   They are part of the spiritual world  about which Defoe never doubts but towards which he feels most uncomfortable in the modern  age. In his own time Defoe finds witches still  conversing with the Devil, "having a familiar, as is they call it, an incubus, or little devil which sucks  their bodies, runs away with them into the air and  the like."32  However unequivocal such a  statement may appear, it may be supplemented is by innumerable passages whose irony undercuts Defoe's basic premise about the existence of witches. 

      Historically, Defoe's demonology books are  derivative.   They are not even referred to in the  standard works on the subject.  All the ideas expressed in A System of Magic and The Political of History of the Devil may be found in the writings of   Glanvill and Baxter.  From the aesthetic point of view, it must be confessed, the demonology books  are almost unreadable.   But Defoe's theology of   the Devil; his belief in a spiritual universe which  is divided between God and Satan; his vision of  man as afflicted by magicians and witches and  incubi; his conviction that the events of history are largely guided by Satan in order to damn   mankind; his strictures on dreams and visitations - all these cast some fascinating light  on Defoe's fiction. If his novels are more interesting when they disregard religion, it must

be emphasized that Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe are almost unintelligible without a knowledge of Defoe's theology. When Robinson sees the footprint in the sand, he wonders whether it is the Devil's. When Moll describes her days of sin, one is tempted to attribute her vice to the Devil's influence.   Yet, however much these novels may contain elements of Defoe's demonology, they do not illustrate this aspect of Defoe's mind to the extent that The Apparition of Mrs Veal or The Secret Memoirs of the Late Duncan Campbell do.

     None of Defoe's writings embodies more succinctly and successfully a particular aspect of his spiritual world than The Apparition of Mrs Veal. The controversy that this short sketch has provoked has been totally incommensurate with its length; and while much of the fuss has been over the problem whether there really was a Mrs Veal, a more unusual approach towards the narrative would be to read it in the light of the demonology books.  According to the story, Mrs Veal visited Mrs Bargrave on the 8th of September, 1705, one day after Mrs Veal had died.  With the utmost of economy Defoe presents the dialogue between the two women and then describes Mrs Bargrave when she learns of the death of her friend.  During the visit Mrs Veal, whose demise is unknown to her friend, says to Mrs Bargrave: "if the eyes of our faith were as open as the eyes of our body, we should see numbers of angels about us for our guard."33   Both Defoe and his audience, of course, believed in spirits, and thus the subtlety and credibility of the piece was not lost upon his contemporaries.  Without a knowledge of the demonology books it would undoubtedly be assumed by the reader that the apparition was the ghost of Mrs Veal.  When we turn to Defoe's ideas on ministering spirits, especially to his observations on the return of the dead, it becomes apparent that such an interpretation violates one of his most basic beliefs.  In The History and Reality of Apparitions, he writes: "but that the soul of the deceased or departed, can come of this errand itself, that I deny and must insist upon, that there is neither reason nor religion in it, it is founded wholly in the imagination."34   Trivial as this point may be, it must be insisted that if the demonology books are to be taken seriously the standard interpretation of The Apparition of Mrs Veal must undergo a change: the visitation is that of an angel and not of a ghost.


1. The Political History of the Devil (Durham, 1822), 1, 54 (ch. iv).

2.  JureDivino in The Works of Daniel Defoe, ed. William Hazlitt (London, 1843), III, x.

3. John Wilkinson, "The Meditations of Daniel Defoe," M.L.R., XLVI, 352.

4.  Ibid.

5. i.e.: Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici. 1642. Joseph Glanvill, Philosophical Considerations concerning Witchcraft, 1666. Richard Baxter, Concerning the World of Spirits, 1691. John Beaumont, Historical, Physiological, and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts etc., 1705.

6.  Quoted from George Lyman Kittredge, Notes on Witchcraft (Worcester, Massachusetts, 1907), p. 12.

7.  Robert Button, Anatomy ofMelancholy (London, 1927), Part I, section 2, member I, subsection 3.

'8. The Political History of the Devil, II, 277 (ch. viii). 

9. ASystem of Magic or a History of the BlackArt (Oxford, 1840), p. 325.

10.  King James 1. Daemonolonie. in Form of a Dialogue. Divided into Three Books (Edinburgh. 1597),  p36.

11. A System of Magic, p. 53.

12. Ibid.

13. The Political History of the Devil, I, 55 (ch.iv).

14. Ibid., p. 19 (ch. i).

15. lbid.,p. 32 (ch,iii).

16. The History and Reality ofApparitions (Oxford, 1840), p. 174.

17. A Vision of the Angelic World (New York, 1908), p. 238.

18. The History and Reality of Apparitions, p. 2.

19. Ibid., p. 89.

20. Ibid., p. 162.

21. The Political History of the Devil, II, 280 (ch. viii).

22. A Vision of the Angelic World, p. 250.

23.  The History and Reality of Apparitions, p. 207.

24.  A System of Magic, p. 87.

25. The Political History of the Devil. 1, 31 (ch. iii).

26.  A System of Magic, p. 53.

27. Ibid., p. 4.

28. Ibid., p. 23.

29. Ibid., p.33.

30. Ibid., p. 80.

31. Ibid., p. 32.

32. Ibid., p. 153.

33. A True  Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs Veal, the next Day after her Death: to one Mrs Bargrave at Canterbury (Oxford, 1927), p. 238.

34.  The History and Reality of Apparitions, p. 289.



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