Joseph Glanvill – the first Fortean?

 From Andrew May:

I mentioned Joseph Glanvill’s book Saducismus Triumphatus in my post about The Daemon of Tedworth a year ago. Since then, I’ve managed to find an online copy of the whole book, and it’s really very interesting. The Fortean world centres around the conflict between “skeptics” and “believers”, with Forteans sitting on the sidelines looking on in amusement. Glanvill’s book may be the first work ever written that specifically addresses this conflict.

In an earlier post I wrote about David Hume: a skeptic in the 18th century, and another one described William Hogarth’s satire on Paranormal investigation, 18th century style. But Glanvill lived in the 17th century — Saducismus Triumphatus was published in 1681, the year after his death. The title is Latin for “Triumph over the Sadducees” — “Sadducees” being Glanvill’s word for scientific skeptics and rationalists. Glanvill himself was an avid believer in the supernatural, largely because he considered that there was ample scriptural authority for its existence (in his day job, he was a Puritan clergyman).


The most interesting section of the book is called “Proof of Apparitions, Spirits and Witches, from a choice Collection of Modern Relations”. This is effectively a compendium of Case Studies collected by Glanvill over a period of many years. In this sense, Glanvill can be considered the world’s first paranormal investigator. And his mindset was exactly the same as that of a modern paranormal investigator. Just as David Hume, the world’s first militant skeptic, made the standard mistake of all skeptics (“If an event doesn’t fit in with my preconceived notions of what is possible, then it couldn’t have happened”) so Glanvill makes the standard mistake of all believers: “If a reputable witness says an event happened, then it must have happened exactly as they described it.”


More at Andrew’s excellent Forteana blog

  1. Sadducees
    Sadducees is not a made-up word. Among the Hebrews in the time of Jesus, the Sadducees were a religious caste that conformed the aristocracy of Israel. They kept the highest positions in the temple’s administration, and were in heavy opposition with the other famous religious group of that time –the Farisees– in that the Sadducees were devout only to the 5 books comprising the written law, or Torah.

    Being in the upper class, they didn’t shy away from making deals with the conquering Romans and other genteels, and so didn’t like one bit when this new Rabbi from the Galilee started talking about the Kingdom of God and whatnot, and the rest of the populace took him for the fabled Messiah that had come to liberate Israel from its oppression.

    And this concludes our Catechism lesson segment πŸ˜‰

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