A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth Century Somerset

A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth Century Somerset – Review

Jacqueline Simpson

A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth Century Somerset. By Owen Davies. Available from the author, Lusty Hill Farm, Bruton, Somerset BA10 0BS. 180 pp. 12.99 [pounds sterling] + 1 [pounds sterling] p&p.

These two excellent books, together with several papers which Owen Davies has published in various journals (including this one), break new ground by tackling a notable gap in the study of British witchcraft and traditional magic. Historians have thoroughly examined the era of the witch-trials in this country, but their interest usually peters out with the passing of the Witchcraft Act of 1736. They have done hardly any research into popular belief in magical practices after that date. Folklorists, on the other hand, though aware that the belief recurred persistently throughout the nineteenth century, and in some cases well into the twentieth, treated it only at a local, anecdotal level. They were unable to set it in its social context or to give it the serious analysis it deserves. Dr Davies is thus a pioneer in applying the techniques of the social historian to this fascinating topic, drawing on a broad range of sources, among the richest being newspapers carrying reports of assaults upon suspected witches, prosecutions of magical practitioners, and advertisements issued by fortunetellers and charmers.

The first of his two books is a detailed, dense, and thought-provoking survey of evidence from the whole of England and Wales; the second a sharply focused local study showing how deep was the dread of witchcraft in nineteenth-century Somerset, and how frequent the resort to counter-magic and/or violence as a defence against it. He describes both the “archetypal” witches whose image remained strong in local anecdotes and legends, and the specific individuals who were held responsible for actual misfortunes, and communal reaction to them. Those who thought themselves bewitched were slow to accept that neither the law, the Church, nor the local gentry would take action on their behalf; as individuals, they responded by “scratching” the suspect, and as a community by “swimming” or mobbing her. One interesting point which emerges from press reports of violent incidents is that parish constables often turned a blind eye to them, whereas the national police force instituted in 1856 actively intervened to curb them.

In both books, much attention is given to self-proclaimed operators of magic: the rural “cunning men” who broke the evil spells of witches, recovered lost or stolen goods, and in many cases also told fortunes by astrology; likewise, their urban equivalents, the fully professional astrologers and fortunetellers. Allied topics discussed in Witchcraft, Magic and Culture include the popularity of cheap books on fortunetelling, dream interpretation, divination, prophecies and so on, variously ascribed to Mother Bunch, Mother Shipton, Aristotle, Nixon, Napoleon and so on. One common protective charm, a pious text purporting to be a letter from Christ himself, circulated widely in both printed and hand-written form, probably because it includes the threat that anyone who owns a copy but does not “publish it abroad to others” would be accursed–a forerunner of the modern chain-letter technique.

Having demonstrated that belief in witchcraft and traditional magic remained widespread for so long, Dr Davies explains its eventual disappearance in the twentieth century as due to disruption of the old agricultural communities, together with increased financial security and insurance, which made misfortunes such as the death of an animal less catastrophic. Nevertheless, he points out, our own culture is riddled with irrational concepts (astrology, alien abductions, various forms of fortunetelling, and so on); so we cannot claim that the mass of the population has discarded supernatural credulity. The “decline of magic” which Keith Thomas famously dated to the early eighteenth century has turned out to be a remarkably slow process and its final obituary is still unwritten. Meanwhile, we can heartily welcome the new insights Dr Davies brings and look forward to further results from his research.

Jacqueline Simpson, Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2001 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group