Second sight, seduction, and superstition

Fortune-telling, female curiosity and the story of Duncan Campbell in early 18th-century England

My current research on the future as an epistemological arena in the Age of Reason @ Convegno annuale della Società Italiana di Studi sul Secolo XVIII Trieste, 26-28 maggio 2022, Settecento oggi: studi e ricerche in corso

A fortune-teller who could predict the future, a deaf-mute skilled in mundane conversation, a seller of talismans and miraculous medicines, Duncan Campbell (c. 1680-1730) was a popular attraction in early 18th-century London. Placed at the centre of various biographical and autobiographical narratives, his figure took on a particular literary quality. A reputation built on a proclaimed ‘second sight’ that enabled him to see the future, and a specialisation on sentimental and matrimonial matters, make his case an excellent observatory on the negotiation of what, in the age of reason, constituted authority and credibility, credulity and superstition, and how gender was thematised within this negotiation.
This paper focuses on The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell, a fictional biography published by Edmund Curll in 1720 and long spuriously attributed to Daniel Defoe. The text offers an unusual glimpse into the contemporary discourse on the relationship between gender and the problem of credulity.

Against the backdrop of the conceptualisation of women as exponents of a vulnerable, manipulable and gullible public, The History outlines the problem of the relationship between the female public and popular beliefs inherent in predicting and controlling the future.

In defending Duncan Campbell’s credibility – boasting his Lappish birth and the efficacy of his predictions and recipes – The History insists on the disqualification of competing forms and actors in the field of divination. The book aims to counteract the seductions of Kabbalistic chimeras that too easily capture innocent and unprepared minds, the impostures of false diviners and swindlers, the dangers of the obscure arts of conjurers and inchanters, and the typically female superstitious practices that are passed down through generations.

“Credulous lady and astrologer”: a man telling a lady’s horoscope. Colour stipple engraving by J.P. Simon, 1786, after J.R. Smith. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

Cite this blog post
Giulia Iannuzzi (2022, May 25). Second sight, seduction, and superstition. Geographies of Time. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search