The History of Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951

Owen Davies
Owen Davies

The history of European witchcraft beyond the early modern witch trials has only recently emerged as a serious branch of witchcraft studies. The reason why it has taken so long for historians to pay more attention to the widespread continued relevance of witchcraft in the modern era can be attributed in part to the institutionalised scholarly tradition of historic periodisation: witchcraft equalled early modern.

It also had much to do with implicit and explicit adherence to notions of the Enlightenment and societal progress, whereby the historical significance of magic and witchcraft was relegated as a consequence of a small, educated elite adopting “rational” religious and scientific modes of thought.

These chronological and conceptual barriers had to be overcome for the subject to be taken seriously. That is not to say that the subject remained completely neglected. Folklorists paid some attention to the legends and tales of witchcraft recorded in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.

The broader subject of popular magic as a tradition and practice also attracted sporadic attention amongst historians of medicine. In France in particular, there was a long tradition of institutional medical interest in the psychiatric aspects of witchcraft belief, and in the “problem” of competition from magical healers in the medical market place.

The study of witchcraft accusations, vital to understanding the dynamics of the witch trials was, however, largely ignored until the 1970s when the anthropologist Jeanne Favret-Saada began to explore witchcraft disputes in contemporary rural France.

So, while this article is framed by the period between the British Witchcraft Act of 1736 and the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, I felt it important to assess recent developments in Britain in relation to how the historiography has developed in Europe and the United States.

The period following the decriminalisation of witchcraft in the eighteenth-century in England was, until the last couple of decades, seen by historians as primarily the domain of folklorists and antiquarians. There were a few exceptions, such as the desultory collection of cases provided by R. Trevor Davies in his book ‘Four Centuries of Witch Belief’ (1947), and in the populist histories of witchcraft and supernatural written by Eric Maple.

W. B. Carnochan’s textual analysis of several pamphlets recording the fatal swimming of a suspected witch in Hertfordshire in 1751 broke new ground. It was largely overshadowed though by the publication around the same time of two hugely influential studies of early modern witchcraft and magic, Alan Macfarlane’s ‘Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England’ (1970) and Keith Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’ (1971).

Amongst several pioneering aspects of Thomas’s book was the attention he gave to exploring the decline of witch beliefs. Along with increased education, industrialisation and urbanisation, he highlighted the growth of the insurance industry and the increasing efficacy of the Poor Law in the eighteenth-century as key developments. Within the context of Thomas’s central thesis that tensions between begging, charity and individualism, provided the setting for most witchcraft disputes, his arguments were persuasive.

Karl Bell, in an informative survey of recent work on magic and modernity, has suggested that “Thomas’s comprehensive analysis of the decline of magical mentalities seemingly robbed the subject of a place in modern history.”

Throughout the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, discussion on eighteenth and nineteenth-century witchcraft and magic was certainly largely confined to religious history, primarily in reference to the growth and influence of Methodism.

These studies at least confirmed that belief in witchcraft continued to have currency beyond the uneducated poor, providing a corrective to the conviction that it was in terminal decline during the eighteenth-century.

In ‘Instruments of Darkness’ (1996), the first major study of early modern English witchcraft since Thomas’s ‘Religion and the Decline of Magic’, James Sharpe highlighted the wealth of sources available for the post-trial period, and noted that a book remained to be written on the subject.

As it happened, while Sharpe was working on his important revisionist survey, I had completed a PhD that went beyond the confines of religious history to look at how witchcraft and a range of magical beliefs continued to permeate English and Welsh urban and rural society after 1736. This was achieved by using newspapers, folklore records, pamphlets, sermons and popular literature.

Key sources of information were “reverse witch trials” — that is court cases where the plaintiffs were accused witches and the defendants those who had physically and verbally abused them. As a study of twenty-six such prosecutions in the county of Somerset during the nineteenth-century underlined, the same fears, anxieties and troubled lives that characterised early modern witchcraft accusations continued to be played out up until the early twentieth-century.

This work showed that the long-held assumptions about traditional beliefs in the supernatural crumbling in the face of popular education and urbanisation were deeply flawed. Various magical practices, astrology and other forms of divination, in particular, thrived in the urban environment.

Reasons for the decline of witchcraft could be found in changing social structures, the divorce from agriculture and the increasing security brought by growing welfare provision and personal financial security. The latter point echoed part of Thomas’s thesis but placed its impact a century later.

Another area of concerted research in the 1990s concerned the role and influence of cunning-folk, those multi-faceted practitioners of magic whose influence Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane had done so much to unveil.

As work by myself and Ronald Hutton showed, the significant role of cunning-folk in people’s experience of healing, witch-doctoring, crime detection, and divination was maintained right through until the end of the nineteenth-century.

Hutton’s reason for studying cunning-folk was primarily concerned with assessing if there was a shared heritage between them and modern neo-pagan witches, some of whom claimed to be part of a continuous British tradition of pagan magic.

As well as general surveys, several detailed biographies of nineteenth-century cunning-folk have recently appeared. Richard Allen has investigated the famed Welsh family of magical practitioners, the Harries of Cwrt-y-Cadno, whose reputation extended across the border, while Jason Semmens has pieced together the life and times of the Cornish cunning-woman or “pellar” Thomasine Blight.

My own detailed examination of John Harrison, the ‘Leeds Wizard’, reveals the extent to which cunning-folk thrived in rapidly urbanising England. Harrison, a cynical con man, thief and bigamist, briefly became the most notorious and reviled magical practitioner in England due to his involvement in a sensational murder trial.

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