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Internet Shakespeare Editions

Editors: Michael Best, Sarah Milligan
Not Peer Reviewed

A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures

1Introduction

Samuel Harsnett, at the time chaplain to the Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, was commissioned to write a condemnation of the practice of exorcism as practiced by Catholic priests. During the 1580s there had been a series of well-publicized exorcisms in Denham, recorded in a work, now lost, The Book of Miracles. The book reported in detail the exorcisms that Harsnett so energetically debunks, and included statements by those who were "demoniacs"—thought to have been possessed by devils.

In this witty, satirical, and outspoken work, Shakespeare would have found much to interest him, no matter what his personal beliefs. Harsnett offers a robust scepticism of the whole concept of demonic possession, and has a good deal of fun at the expense of the priests he targets, often using metaphors from hunting and the theater, suggesting that the exorcists were playing theatrical parts in order to persuade their audiences of the authenticity of their actions. Harsnett's sentences are long, but they read easily, rather like the dramatic prose Shakespeare puts into the mouths of some of his comic characters. Shakespeare's most striking use of Harsnett is in the names of the devils he puts into Edgar's mouth, all found in the reports of the confessions made by those being exorcised. Edgar's actions in several places also mimic the same kinds of actions recorded in Harsnett's accounts of the exorcisms.

In this excerpt, those allegedly possessed were three women, Anne Smith, Sara Williams, and her sister Frideswide Williams, also called Fid; there were also three men, Richard Maynie, Nicholas Marwood, and William Trayford. The principal exorcist was Father William Weston, also known as Edmonds; Robert Dibdale, a priest, first decided that Sara Williams was possessed. Passages of particlar interest in terms of the names of the devils are the opening section, from Chapter 10, and the concluding examination of Sara Williams.

The Declaration was published in 1603, shortly before Shakespeare began work on King Lear. The title page reads:

A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, to withdraw the hearts of her Majesty's subjects from their allegiance and from the truth of Christian religion professed in England, under the pretense of casting out devils. Practiced by Edmunds, alias Weston, a Jesuit, and divers Romish priests, his wicked associates. Whereunto are annexed the copies of the confessions, and examinations of the parties themselves, which were pretended to be possessed and dispossessed, taken upon oath before her Majesty's commissioners for causes ecclesiastical.

This excerpt of Harsnett's work is taken from the fine edition by F. W. Brownlow (1993). The text is modernized and annotated. Most of the Latin quotations are translated by Harsnett himself in phrases immediately followint them; others are translated in the notes.