Saturday, August 09, 2014

August Book Review

Owen Davies
Witchcraft, Magic and Culture: 1736-1951 
(Manchester University Press)

Davies argues that whilst the law regarding witchcraft fundamentally changed in 1736 the attitudes and practices of the people did not.

He explores how the law sought to protect people from mob swimming (tests for witchcraft) and scratching and often sought to prosecute those involved in vigilante actions of this type.   Davies considers a wide variety of sources going beyond trial evidence to look at the witch in folklore as well.

The book explores in depth the common desire to consult witches, cunning people or gypsies for divination and fortune telling and how this desire later led to the development of the reading of tea leaves, Ouija boards and Zodiac men.   There were some very interesting sections on the prevalence of almanacs and on the popularity of “lay prophets” such as Mother Shipton and Robert Nixon.  I was interested to find out that a lot of people visited cunning people for help finding lost or stolen goods or solving mysteries and there was even one case of such a person being consulted by the local magistrate!  The book also detailed how cunning people would often help people who believed themselves to be bewitched and the various methods used to break the witch’s curse or spell.

In this book, Davies critiques Keith Thomas’ (1971) summary of witch persecutions.  Thomas said that accusations almost always arose because of “charity evaded” and “misfortune incurred”.  Davies argues that there was no stereotypical witch (according to the trial records anyone could be accused and people were more interested in motives to curse or harm than in the appearance of the individual).  He posits that people were likely to be accused because of a breakdown in normal neighbourliness and often because of conflicts within family groups.  The 'beggar witch' identified by Keith Thomas and Reginald Scot existed in the popular consciousness and popular literature but these were not the people involved in legal cases in the 18th and 19th centuries.  

The book ends with a succinct summary of the reasons for the declining belief in witchcraft which includes a shift from rural to urban living, more state involvement and less self-governance, greater stability and altered agricultural practices.

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