One intense public argument over superstition, the occult and diagnosis shows how the invention of printing technology enabled people to share their opinions as never before, with many topics even ‘trending’.
All this talk of possessions and demons was a trending topic: by the late 17th century, the craze for witch trials had largely petered out, but the occult still had a huge influence. William Drage's 1665 treatise ‘Daimonomageia. A small treatise of sicknesses and diseases from witchcraft’ warned that such diseases were “very seldom or not at all curable by Ordinary and Natural Remedies” and required careful diagnosis “betwixt those that are possessed and bewitched, and those that are killed by evil spirits”.
It didn’t take long for a response to Zach’s critique. Only one year later, Thomas Jollie, who was involved in the attempt to exorcise Richard Dugdale, told his side of the story in ‘A vindication of the Surey Demoniack as no Imposter’, in which he refuted the claim that Dugdale’s possession was fake news. However, he distanced himself from the original publication (“As I said before, I am not accountable for everything in the book called the ‘Surey Demoniack’”).
In ‘The Lancashire Levite rebuk'd,’ distributed sometime in the same year, fellow Dissenter John Carrington piled in to defend the original publication as real news and make a direct attack on Zach (“Mr T” as he calls him). John was particularly incensed by Zach's burn, titling his first chapter ‘Dissenters Not Guilty of Popery’ (his italics).
Zach appears to have had the equivalent of a mic drop the following year in his 1699 work ‘Popery, Superstition, Ignorance, and Knavery, Confess'd, and fully Proved on the Surey Dissenters’. The title says it all (as is often the case with these early modern publications and their epic names). This historic social media storm took place over years, and used letterpress printing rather than touchscreens, but these authors may have related more than we might expect to the 21st-century struggle to pack meaning into a 280-character limit and to ensure their version of the story was the one that went viral.
About the author
Christy Henshaw manages Wellcome Collection’s digitisation programme. She is constantly amused and mystified by the collections and works with her team to make them available freely to all.
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