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Three Early Modern Magic Rituals to Spoil Witches

Three Early Modern Magic Rituals to Spoil Witches
© Photograph by Alexändra Sleäze

Pre-modern learned magic practitioners and the less educated cunning-folk who began to take up the learned tradition in the sixteenth-century regarded their practices as fundamentally opposed to witchcraft, a fact beautifully illustrated by these three charms to identify witches.

They derive from a collection written in England around 1600 composed mainly of works of ritual magic in Latin and English. Like the rest of the works in this collection, they call upon the power of the divine through ritual gestures, names of God, and liturgical formulae. Magicians of this kind may not have conceived of themselves as holy, but they certainly never conceived of their operations as involving any form of pact with spirits. Instead, their power derived from God and was made possible by their status as Christians.

This opposition of “good” Christian magic and witchcraft was not new in the sixteenth-century, but if their collections are any indication, earlier learned practitioners were more concerned with protection from, and cures for, malefic magic, and it was only in rituals for theft that they concerned themselves with determining identity.

The defence against magical assault appears in a variety of forms as does the alleviation of magically induced maladies, but these rituals do not include discovering the source of such attacks.

Late medieval collections of magical works very commonly contain works for the detection of thieves; this was also a service offered by cunning-folk well into the modern period.

A text is known as the “Eye of Abraham” is perhaps the most common medieval ritual to identify a thief, existing in numerous Latin and English versions.5 Like many other operations for theft, it seeks to cause the guilty party grievous pain until they identify themselves and confess to the crime. The texts presented here thus follow the usual pattern of the operations for thieves rather than those for magical assaults or maladies, suggesting that they may originally have been charms for theft which were adapted for use against witchcraft. That the first is a multi-purpose charm for identifying witches, thieves, or other enemies supports this theory.

Records of cunning-folk performing rituals similar to those presented here occur in other sixteenth-century sources, and we find similar practices in the manuscripts of practising magicians after 1600,7, but I am aware of no examples of such practices prior to 1500. Their appearance in the sixteenth-century might be attributable to anxieties resulting from the loss of the apotropaic rituals (both official and unofficial) of Catholic piety, but similar patterns occur in Catholic France as well.

A new interest in this sort of magic may thus be a product of the heightened popular concern over witchcraft in the later sixteenth-century. It may also reflect a desire on the part of the author to distance his good learned magic from bad witchcraft by allying himself with the forces that sought to stamp it out. Anti-magical works had been rhetorically collapsing the two from the fifteenth-century, a strategy intensified in the sixteenth-century by Reginald Scot amongst others. Defenders of learned magic, on the other hand, commonly adopted a rhetorical strategy in which they presented their own putatively good practices in opposition to bad magic.

Although the scribe may well have been a private enthusiast of learned magic, various aspects of the text suggest the sensibilities of a practitioner and also shed light on his attitude towards witchcraft. Given recent critiques of the notion that early modern people gendered witches as feminine, it is notable that with one exception the instructions refer to the witches as male or female. More importantly, as Robin Briggs notes, cunning-folk seem to have had no interest in participating in formal persecutions: being potential suspects themselves, they generally avoided the attention of the authorities.

The “pricking” in the text presented here is not the same as “witch pricking,” a common procedure carried out in witch hunts for determining numb areas on the body that were taken as a characteristic of witches. In addition to using quite a different technique, the author or scribe evidently did not seek to initiate legal proceedings against the witches, but rather to force them to confess or merely abjure their evil ways. This intent accords well with Briggs’ accounts, in which identification by cunning-folk commonly preceded witchcraft accusations by years or even decades.

This manuscript is the work of a single scribe who mixes italic and secretary hands, the latter dating to approximately 1600 or 1610.15 The scribe may be the “J. A. B.” who appears in a love charm with his beloved, “A. D.,” but it is not impossible that these identifying initials were simply copied from a source text.

Given the date, the frankly Roman Catholic nature of many of the conjurations raises some interesting questions about the scribe’s religious beliefs. Invocations of the saints and prayers to the Virgin Mary suggest at very least that the operator was not bothered by the “old religion.” Lapses in Latin grammar and spelling suggest mediocre attainment in the language, but these would not be out of keeping with many late medieval or early modern texts of magic, which were often written by scribes with a moderate level of learning.

Significant sections of the manuscript are written in Latin, and at one point the scribe produces a reasonable translation of a Latin charm he has just recorded. That some of the passages are copied from a Latin edition of Cornelius Agrippa’s ‘De occulta Philosophia’ suggests the scribe moved on the fringes of learned circles.

While some magic collections were clearly assembled by individuals interested only in practising the art in private or perhaps even merely in studying it, this volume contains an ambiguous mixture of elements suggesting the scribe may also have had in mind more public forms of practice.

Treasure hunting, thief detection, witch detection, and magical cures, which together represent a significant portion of this manuscript, were the province of both cunning-folk and professional magicians.

On the other hand, operations to see spirits without the aid of a skryer suggest that his interest in magic was as much motivated by a genuine personal fascination with the numinous as by the potential monetary gains of professional theft detection or treasure hunting. Whether or not the scribe was a professional practitioner remains unclear, but given that he devotes only a tiny fraction of the collection to witch detection, this would not appear to have been a speciality.

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