Typically witches and cunning folk had their roots in their local community who were poorly educated and often barely literate, and the distinction between the two was often unclear. These ”wise” men and women were often viewed ambivalently, considered as capable of harming as of curing. As a consequence many of those who found themselves accused of witchcraft in the seventeenth‐century were cunning folk who had fallen foul of their community. Both witches and cunning folk practised their mysterious art through sorcery, by casting spells, which often involved complex rituals during which incantations based on formulaic recitals of special words were given. Rituals may also involve particular objects, or the sacrifice of animals; whilst incantations often invoked elements of a pseudo‐Christian liturgy, invoking the holy trinity through garbled Latin. For example, following the arrest of Peter Burbrush, a blacksmith from Ely, in 1647, he described a spell he had been taught in order to become a witch, which draws heavily on deviant Christian symbolism.
In contrast Magicians came from a narrower segment of literate society, taking as their guide the occult stories from classical literature, and the various pseudo‐scientific grimoires; books of magic. Grimoires have existed in Europe since classical times, with further examples being produced during the medieval period, they had however remained expensive hand written items confined to a select few. The advent of printing changed this, but as most were written in Latin their circulation continued to be restricted to the scholarly magicians. Within the pages of the occult texts were the alchemic formula for transforming one substance into another, and for practising necromancy, where by the dead, or at least their ghost, could be summoned from the afterlife. First appearing in the sixteenth-century, and developing throughout the seventeenth-century, were popular English translations of the grimoires including, Albertus Magnus’ “Book of Secrets” (1604), James Freake’s translation of Cornelius Agrippa’s “Three Books of Occult Philosophy ” (1993), the English astrologer Robert Turner’s translation of the “Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy ” (1655), and most influential of all, Reginald Scot’s “Discoverie of Witchcraft” (1584). Although an essential tool of the magician some cunning folk began to obtain these books, perhaps as much to impress their clients as to study their spells. Indeed for some the primary reason for owning them may have been cosmetic, and they may by reason of illiteracy have been unable to make use of any of the magical ritual contained within.
For all these reasons the identification in the archaeological record of the various occult practices is fraught with difficulty, with each occult practitioner developing their own individual rituals, often spontaneously, albeit that they deployed established symbols such as the circle. As Ronald Hutton has pointed out, cunning folk and witches ’ appear as a remarkably heterogeneous collection of individuals, divided by at least as many characteristics as those they had in common. Archaeologically speaking the difficulty has parallels with that experienced in attempting to identify religious behaviour in the material record. One approach would be to attempt to develop a checklist of features, the presence of which would point to a site being classed as occult in nature.
Although seductive, as with the identification of religion , a tick‐box approach is ultimately self‐defeating, creating a set of rules to which there are as many exceptions as examples. The way forward is not to devise a checklist of features wherein the presence or absence of which might indicate the occult. Instead I suggest that a better approach is to triangulate archaeological evidence with that from historical sources and folklore in order to construct the case for the occult. Such an approach is essentially contextual, and sensitive to the heterogeneous nature of the data.
In the case of Meg Shelton, archaeological evidence takes the form of a large boulder placed over her alleged grave at Saint Anne’s Church, Woodplumpton in Lancashire . That Meg Shelton was a real figure is confirmed by historical sources, which tell us she was crippled, and accused of the theft of basic staples from her neighbours, as a result of which she became an outcast known as the “Fylde Hag.” History records that she, like other men and women who failed to conform to society was accused of witchcraft, and branded variously as the Singleton or Woodplumpton witch. Folklore provides us with several instances of her alleged powers, which focus on an ability to shapeshift, taking the form of an animal in order to sneak into her neighbours farms to steal food in various fanciful ways. It further provides an unconvincing account of her death, crushed to death between a barrel and a wall, following which she was said to have twice dug herself out of her grave to haunt her neighbours, prompting them to finally bury her head first down a vertical shaft capped‐off by a large boulder to prevent her rising from the dead any more. Whatever the truth of the various accounts, the material evidence in the form of her grave, marked by a large boulder attests to the historic accounts in which she is named as a witch. Unfortunately, we rarely have such rich accounts to work from, but as the excavation at Barway in Cambridgeshire demonstrates, we may still be able to identify occult sites in the archaeological record, and even unpack something of their meaning.
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