Fake news and viral social battles in the 17th century

They may have taken place at a much slower pace — months or even years instead of minutes or hours — but the 17th century saw its share of social warfare and accusations of “fake news.” Christy Henshaw writes at the Wellcome Collections website about an argument that took several years to play out. And the subject? Whether or not one Richard Dugdale was possessed by a demon.

This little treatise was written in 1697 by a group of Dissenters (Protestants who had split from the Church of England for a variety of reasons), and described in detail the possession of Mr. Dugdale by Satan or his servants, and the “strange and dreadful actings in and about the body” of the said Mr. Dugdale. Later that year, however, a Church of England priest said the whole story was a fake, and accused the original authors of being “papists” in league with the Vatican.

The following year, one of the men involved in the Dugdale exorcism wrote his own treatise, saying the incident was true (although he said he couldn’t vouch for all the details). Finally, the skeptical priest Zachary Taylor wrote his own followup in 1699, entitled: “Popery, Superstition, Ignorance, and Knavery, Confess’d, and fully Proved on the Surey Dissenters” in which he doubled-down on his initial allegations, which he claimed had all been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

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