The golden age of the supernatural

  • Themes: History

Magic and religion were once intertwined: what led to the 'disenchantment of the world'?

A sketch of a witch from a 1537 German translation of Boethius.
A sketch of a witch from a 1537 German translation of Boethius. Credit: North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy Stock Photo

Cunning Folk: Life in the Era of Practical Magic, Tabitha Stanmore, Bodley Head, £20

One night in October 1371, a man named John Crok was arrested in Southwark. Medieval Southwark was a disorderly place, outside the jurisdiction of the City of London and full of troublemakers. Even by such standards, Crok’s was an unusual case, because in his bag was a dead man’s head. When questioned, he claimed that it was ‘the head of a Saracen’, purchased in Toledo, and he was planning ‘to shut a spirit up in it so the spirit would answer questions’. Since there was no evidence that anyone had been harmed (other than the Saracen, who seemingly didn’t count), Crok was treated quite leniently: the head was confiscated and burned, and he had to swear never to attempt such a thing again.

If Crok’s method was unconventional, his belief that it was possible to see into the future was not – for, as the social historian Tabitha Stanmore explains, he lived in a world in which people often employed domestic objects such as sieves and loaves of bread to answer questions such as ‘Am I pregnant?’ and ‘Where are my missing spoons?’. Indeed, the inhabitants of medieval and early modern England regularly turned to service magic (that is, magic performed to answer a question or to solve a problem) in order to meet their emotional and practical needs.

Magic could, for example, help a person to find love, so that one 13th-century priest’s manual advised that a woman who came to confession should be asked whether she had seduced any unsuspecting men by feeding them ‘a fish which has died in her vagina’, bread kneaded on her buttocks, or menstrual blood. It might also help to fix marital difficulties: in the 1470s, a woman named Joan Squyer took to washing her husband’s shirts in holy water, and told her neighbours that he had become ‘humble and obedient to her will’.

Cunning folk were often called in to treat the sick, especially if bewitchment was suspected, in which case the healer would attempt to transfer the illness to another person or animal. In 17th-century Northumberland, two female healers were accused of placing a duck’s bill into a patient’s mouth and reciting charms until the disease was drawn out; an alternative technique involved mixing a bewitched patient’s urine with flour, and feeding the subsequent ‘cake’ to a stray dog. Both methods were expected to produce a swift recovery – though not for the unfortunate animal.

In theory, the difference between cunning folk and witches was that while the latter used magic to cause harm, service magicians tried to achieve more positive outcomes. Stanmore has assembled an engaging collection of stories, which explain how they did so, offering real insight into the hopes and fears of pre-modern people, and providing much-needed context to the recent wave of history books (and historical fiction) about early-modern witches. Her approach to historical magic is extremely open-minded, to the extent that she suggests that ‘it is not my place to say whether the magic practised by cunning folk was real: I don’t know, I wasn’t there’ and overwhelmingly positive: she tends to see magic as something that empowered the powerless (especially women), and which helped them to solve their problems.

If this openness allows Stanmore to avoid the trap of spending too much time asking what really happened, it also creates an unfortunate tendency to downplay the problems which even well-intentioned magicians could cause. False accusations were a particular risk, as in an unfortunate case in which Alice White accused Richard Facques of stealing her money, because she had been told that the thief was a man with a blemished face, and he was the only man she knew that fitted this description. He responded by suing her for defamation. And the fear of charlatans – men such as Roger Clerk of Wandsworth, who appeared in court in 1382, accused of falsely claiming to be a physician and of selling amulets which were supposedly inscribed with Latin healing charms, but were actually illiterate nonsense – was very real.

Clerk was presumably motivated by greed rather than by an active desire to hurt his clients, but some people certainly performed magic, or hired magicians, in order to harm their enemies, so that the boundaries between good magic and its bad counterpart became blurred. Male impotence, for example, was frequently blamed on the spells of jilted women. Such incidents were undoubtedly humiliating, but were quite easily reversed: 12th-century cures included making a bewitched man ‘hold his trousers on his head for a whole day and night’, or ‘stand naked all night under a stole when the weather is fair’.

Other cases had more serious consequences. In the 1540s, Henry, Lord Neville, ended up in prison after buying a magic ring from a man named Gregory Wisdom. This expensive piece of jewellery was supposed to ensure that Neville (who was heavily in debt) had better luck at the gambling table; when it failed to work, Wisdom came up with a scheme to murder Neville’s wife, so that that he could marry a richer woman. Four decades later, a London recusant named Mistress Dewse enlisted the services of the magician Richard Birche to help her kill the officials who were persecuting her family for their religious beliefs; she apparently believed that these deaths would please God.

Both of these murderous schemes are known to historians because they failed: Neville, Wisdom, Dewse and Birche all ended up in court, accused of using magic with intent to cause harm. Indeed, court records are one of the main sources of evidence about pre-modern service magic – so that we know far more about magic that went wrong than about the (presumably far more numerous) occasions when it was believed to have worked. This has the unfortunate effect of making victims such as Margaret Geffrey (a hard-up London widow who handed over two valuable bowls to a magician who was supposed to secure her a wealthy husband) and Edetha Best (a married woman who had sex with a law student who threatened to ‘torment her with the sight of the Devil until it drove her mad’) seem unbelievably gullible.

Such things made sense in a world in which astrology was viewed as a science, and where authority figures took magical threats to the realm extremely seriously. In the early 15th-century, Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, ordered prayers across England to counteract the ‘superstitious operations of necromancers’ who were trying to kill Henry V (1413-22), while Henry VII (1485-1509) was the target of an assassination attempt which involved smearing a doorway with ‘malevolent ointment’.

Belief in magic was also reinforced by its close relationship with religion, and Stanmore is particularly good at showing how magical procedures often mirrored common religious practices. Fasting, for example, was an important devotional practice, but it could also be used as a form of sympathy magic, with the pain and weariness of the person undertaking the fast being transferred to the object of their ire, making him sicken and waste away.

Indeed, it is striking how often pre-Reformation clerics were to be found writing about magic, employing magicians, or even performing magic themselves. In mid-15th century Cornwall, Prior Aleyn was sued by a local squire and, rather than retaining a lawyer, he engaged the services of a priest named John Harry, who was skilled in the ‘sotill craftys of enchauntement wychecrafte and sorcerye’. His aim was to stop the lawsuit by harming the plaintiff, starting by causing him to break his leg and then threatening that he would break his neck if he continued with the case. A few years later, William Dardus, vicar of Patrixbourne, was investigated by the ecclesiastical authorities after he supposedly conjured a spirit to help find Mrs Byng’s missing washing. The linen was returned, and the vicar (who denied all wrongdoing other than allowing Mrs Byng to ‘handle his private parts’) was treated leniently by the authorities; a cynic might wonder if the whole charade was simply a way to put pressure on a suspected thief.

Such priest-magicians all but disappeared in the 16th century, and Stanmore suggests that the Reformation caused a wider hardening of attitudes towards magic, although she has surprisingly little to say about why that happened. Nevertheless, the 1542 ‘Act against Conjurations, Witchcrafts, Sorcery and Inchantments’, which made magic of any kind a secular crime in England (previously it had been dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts, and condemned only if used for malevolent ends) was a significant shift. Scepticism was also on the rise: as early as 1584, Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft claimed that neither witches nor cunning folk had the powers popularly attributed to them.

By the mid-17th century, the astrologer William Lilly (1602-81) saw thousands of clients each year, ranging from nobles to maidservants, and his admirers claimed that he had foreseen the execution of Charles I, the Great Plague and the Great Fire. He also had many detractors, who mocked his inaccurate prediction that the Commonwealth would be a lasting success. Though many people would continue to share Stanmore’s belief that we all need a little magic in our lives, the golden age of the supernatural had come to an end.


Katherine Harvey