The Seductions of Superstitions

The Case of Duncan Campbell in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England

W. Bond, The Supernatural Philosopher: Or, the Mysteries of Magick, in All Its Branches, Clearly Unfolded [...] All Exemplified in the History of the Life and surprizing Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, a Scots Gentleman; who, though Deaf and Dumb, Writes down Any Stranger’s Name at first Sight, with their Future Contingencies of Fortune [...], London, Printed for E. Curll [...], 1728., chapter The Method of Teaching Deaf and Dumb
Persons to Write, Read, and Understand a Language, text ref. al "an alphabet upon the fingers", plate following p. 38
W. Bond, The Supernatural Philosopher: Or, the Mysteries of Magick, in All Its Branches, Clearly Unfolded […] All Exemplified in the History of the Life and surprizing Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, a Scots Gentleman; who, though Deaf and Dumb, Writes down Any Stranger’s Name at first Sight, with their Future Contingencies of Fortune […], London, Printed for E. Curll […], 1728., chapter The Method of Teaching Deaf and Dumb Persons to Write, Read, and Understand a Language, text ref. “an alphabet upon the fingers”, plate following p. 38

Here’s to advertise a new article, just published on Studi Storici, investigating the future as an epistemological arena in a hitherto understudied work from the early eighteenth century, The Supernatural Philosopher. First printed for Edmund Curll in 1720 under an alternative title, then expanded in 1728, the text focuses on Duncan Campbell (c. 1680-1730), a deaf and mute soothsayer who was a popular attraction in London during the 1720s.

The proclaimed ability to see the future makes Campbell’s case a vantage point to observe the negotiation of credibility and credulity in the Age of Reason. This article thematizes the connection between Campbell’s preternatural faculties, his claimed Scottish and Sami origins, and the relationship established by The Supernatural Philosopher with a number of literary sources and with a female public.

Giulia Iannuzzi, Le seduzioni della superstizione. Il caso di Duncan Campbell in Inghilterra tra Sei e Settecento / The Seductions of Superstitions. The Case of Duncan Campbell in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century England, Studi storici, 3/2023, pp. 651-689, doi: 10.7375/108367; url: https://www.rivisteweb.it/doi/10.7375/108367.

Find the article on the journal website, or contact me for a copy for research purposes at giannuzzi <at> units.it

Find on this blog a post on this case study including digital visualisations: Giulia Iannuzzi, “Credulity, Curiosity, and Credibility,” in Geographies of Time, 05/10/2023, https://ian.hypotheses.org/2183.

Indovino in grado di prevedere il futuro, affetto da sordità e mutismo ma brillante ospite nei salotti mondani, venditore di talismani e medicine mi- racolose, Duncan Campbell (1680-1730 ca.) è stato un’attrazione popolare nella Londra del primo Settecento. Posta al centro di varie narrazioni, la sua figura ha assunto una particolare qualità letteraria. Questo saggio si propone di mostrare come la fama costruita su una proclamata «seconda vista» che lo metteva in grado di scorgere il futuro faccia del suo caso un ottimo osservatorio sulla negoziazione di ciò che, nell’età della Ragione, costituiva autorevolezza e credibilità, credulità e superstizione. Sullo sfondo di un uso del futuro come agone conoscitivo, il caso di Campbell esemplifica l’esistenza di rapporti di forza tra spazi centrali e periferici rispetto a potenze europee in espansione come quelle britannica e svedese. La tematizzazione di aspetti di genere, e l’indagine empirica del preternaturale connessa alle abilità eccezionali di Campbell e alla sua disabilità ne collocano il caso all’intersezione di una moltitudine di problemi epistemologici interessati, tra fine Sei e primo Settecento, da mutamenti profondi.

The History of the Life and Adventures, plate before ToC. "An Evil Genius. 2 Good Genij" . uncredited source is John Beaumont's Treatise of Spirits). The plate is missing in some copies. Copy at Oxford University
[W. Bond], The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell, A Gentleman, Who, tho’ Deaf and Dumb, Writes down Any Stranger’s Name at First Sight, with their Future Contingencies of Fortune, etc. With Plates, Including a Portrait, London, Printed for E. Curll […], 1720, plate before ToC. “An Evil Genius. 2 Good Genij” . uncredited source is John Beaumont’s Treatise of Spirits). The plate is missing in some copies. Copy at Oxford University

Credulity, Curiosity, and Credibility

Second sight, superstition, seduction.
Prediction of the future, female curiosity and the story of Duncan Campbell in early 18th century England

A fortune-teller who could predict the future, a dumb-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 a number of 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 advice on especially 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 research focuses on The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell, a 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, well known to contemporary historiography, 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 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.

The History of Duncan Campbell: geographies of beliefs

A list of locations mentioned in The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr Duncan Campbell. Dot size represent frequency, movement shows mentions order in the narrative.

The History of Duncan Campbell: key concepts in relation

Selected key concepts frequently mentioned in the novel and their context. Hover over to highlight relations, right click to remove words, use drop-down search to add words. 

Second sights across northern waters

An early-18th century supernatural philosopher between Scotland and Lapland

Duncan Campbell @ the third PiMO annual conference European sea spaces and histories of knowledge, Helsinki and Tallinn, 22-23 June 2022

This paper investigates the North and Baltic Seas as cultural and emotional connective spaces in a hitherto understudied work from the early 18th century, The Supernatural Philosopher, or the Mysteries of Magick. First published anonymously in 1720, then expanded in 1728, this text focuses on the figure of Duncan Campbell (c. 1680-1730), a deaf and mute soothsayer who was a popular attraction in London during the 1720s.

Campbell’s extraordinary faculties were – The Supernatural Philosopher claimed – innate gifts, the result of a birth that combined two mystical cotés: the Scottish one – inherited from his father – and the Sami one – from his mother’s side. Continue reading “Second sights across northern waters”

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