Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Jan Machielsen, Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2015)

Jan Machielsen,  Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2015). ISBN 978-0-19-726580-2, 434 pp., £90.00.

Reviewed by Robert F. W. Smith

[1] Martin Delrio, an early modern Flemish-Spanish Jesuit, will be almost wholly unknown to most British readers. If he is known at all, it will probably be as the author of a popular volume of disquisitions on demonology and witchcraft, which appeared in an abridged English translation in 2000, edited by P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. As Jan Machielsen k2-_3d0d73c0-9bfd-4c25-a07c-dd8b89fe68a7.v2shows in the introduction to this volume, to post-Enlightenment British novelists such as Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, Delrio’s name was practically a byword for superstition. Yet seventeenth-century commentary on Delrio reveals a different picture: a 1609 Vita focussed on his high standing within the Republic of Letters, and as late as 1688 a French critic, Adrien Baillet, ranked him alongside Lipsius and Scaliger in the trinity of humanistic scholarship, in the place that would today be given to Isaac Casaubon. The objective of this book, the first full-length biographical study of Delrio since 1609, is to restore him to the proper context of Renaissance humanism and Counter-Reformation scholarship in which his life and career should be understood.

[2] Born in 1551, Delrio initially seemed destined for a career in the law or royal administration, but was radicalised by the turbulent events of the Dutch Revolt, in which his family chose the Spanish side and lost everything. He joined the Society of Jesus and devoted himself to scholarly pursuits, teaching, and waging intellectual warfare against the Church’s enemies. Of the same generation as Bellarmine and Suárez, he was one of those who made the Jesuit order an intellectual force to be reckoned with, producing editions of the Senecan tragedies, the poetry of Claudian and parts of Scripture. He wrote major theological and exegetical works, and projected a commentary on the whole Bible (but only got as far as Genesis). In his own lifetime, Delrio’s reputation received particular lustre from his status as confidante of Justus Lipsius, whom he was credited with reconverting to Roman Catholicism. He died in 1608 after a teaching career which spanned the length and breadth of Christian Europe, from Salamanca to Graz.

[3] This book is, first and foremost, a biography of Martin Delrio, but as the author says in his introduction, “biography is concerned with more than the deeds of its subject; it offers a vantage point from which to view… culture” (p. 14). Accordingly, he uses Delrio’s case to explore the ill-understood Jesuit theory of obedience, and to argue for a re-examination of the assumptions scholars bring to demonology and witchcraft literature. In particular, he calls for the “Malleus mould” (p. 7) – the tendency to relate early modern thought on demons and dark magic to that notorious fifteenth-century manual for witch-hunters, as if it had some special primacy – to be discarded. He also considers in detail the question of the place of classical scholarship in the post-Tridentine church, in this interesting window of time when the Jesuits were still in the process of establishing their reputation for education and learning. While the Counter-Reformation has been seen as bringing the Renaissance attitude of liberal enquiry to an end in Catholic Europe, in his subject’s conflicted attitude to Seneca, a philosopher he found both delightful and impious, Machielsen sees a more complicated truth. Arguing that the Counter-Reformation was a “textual project” (p. 166) – not only because of the Catholic emphasis on a canonical corpus of texts, but also the Jesuit culture of “active, pen-in-hand reading” (p. 247) – he shows that textual criticism is “a very useful prism though which to view early modern Catholicism” (p. 167). The different strands of Delrio’s activities – demonology, theology and scholarly controversy – were not, as might be easily assumed, contrasting or mutually exclusive, but complimentary, united by an emphasis on textual purity. Delrio approached all of them with a mentality “forged by [confessional] trench warfare” (p. 363): his whole life was in essence a struggle to defend sacred authority against what he understood to be erroneous, irrational and false, whether in the form of the Protestant heresy, the lies of diabolists and demons, or misconceived practices in textual criticism.

[4] This book will inevitably be of particular fascination to scholars interested in Justus Lipsius. In the chapter dealing specifically with their friendship, Machielsen engages with a current debate in biography, the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which (some argue) the emphasis on self-fashioning in Renaissance historiography encourages, and the problem of ‘sincerity’ in early modern epistolary friendships. Were Lipsius and Delrio really friends? Machielsen argues that while the friendship revealed in their correspondence was a mutually beneficial public performance, allowing Delrio to bask in his friend’s reflected glory, and Lipsius to impress the impeccable authenticity of his conversion upon the Catholic world, there is ultimately no reason to doubt that it was also genuine and heartfelt, despite their differences over questions of textual criticism. Joseph Justus Scaliger plays a major role, too, as Delrio’s antagonist in a dispute over the authenticity of the pseudo-Dionysian corpus, which was really a proxy war between Protestant and Catholic conceptions of history. Neither Delrio nor Scaliger emerge particularly creditably from this encounter, which, as Machielsen’s illuminating discussion demonstrates, makes painfully explicit some of the tendentious assumptions and agendas underpinning much of the scholarship of the early modern period.

[5] Before reading this book, some might have wondered why Martin Delrio should have been the subject of a major new English-language biography of a Northern Renaissance personage, rather than a more well-known figure. Jan Machielsen has answered that question; but still, while comprehensive modern biographies of major figures such as Ortelius, Bodin and Theodore de Bèze remain unavailable in the English language, we can only live in hope that they will one day appear – and that when they do they will be cast from the same mould as this. It is not that nothing has been written about these men, but that the studies which do exist are widely dispersed among journals, editions and essay volumes, and usually do not aim at universality. Of course, the number of scholars who could produce work of this quality must be limited, and funding is an issue. Machielsen received funding from the British Academy in support of this project, which is an encouraging sign.

[6] Although Machielsen declares that this book “is not meant to be comprehensive or the final word” (p. 22), it would be doing him an injustice not to take this with a pinch of salt. This is an erudite, impressively wide-ranging study, which triumphantly achieves its author’s aim of removing Martin Delrio from the demonological ghetto he was previously confined to and illuminating the wider cultures of learning, scholarship and belief of which he was a part. It may not be the final word – indeed, it would be a shame if a book like this did not inspire further scholarly interest in its subject – but it is admirably comprehensive, and firmly re-establishes Delrio as a significant figure of the Northern Renaissance. It is in every way an excellent accomplishment.

Norfolk, UK, May 2016

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