Forthcoming book: Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England

Claudius pours magically concocted poison into the ear of the sleeping King of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

I am delighted to announce that I have signed a contract with I. B. Tauris to publish my book Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England: A History of Sorcery and Treason, which will be the first complete account of attempts to use magic to harm, kill or manipulate the judgment of English monarchs by magical means. Between 1300 and 1700 magical treason was a major problem for English governments, with famous cases including the trial of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester in 1441 and the panic that erupted after wax effigies apparently representing Elizabeth I and her councillors were found in a barn at Islington in 1578. Allegations of magical treason played a key role in Richard III’s claim to the throne and Edward IV’s execution of his brother the Duke of Clarence in a butt of wine, and it was widely believed that James I had been magically poisoned by the Duke of Buckingham when he died in 1625. Even during the Civil War, Parliamentarians regularly accused Royalists of employing witches or using necromancy to achieve victory. After the Restoration of the Monarchy claims of magical treason gradually disappeared in England, although a mysterious English aristocrat was implicated in the lurid allegations of magical treason against Louis XIV of France in the 1670s.

Magic as a Political Crime will provide comprehensive coverage of every known magical plot in England, real or alleged, and will thoroughly explore the nature and origins of the harmful ritual magic used by plotters. The book will address the cultural impact of magical treason as well, especially on the plays of William Shakespeare. Beginning with the conjuration scene in Henry VI Part Two (1594), Shakespeare made the entanglement of treason with the supernatural a central theme of several of his plays, including Macbeth and Hamlet, where Claudius uses the magical art of veneficium (occult poisoning) to kill and usurp Hamlet’s father. The book will argue that the lasting impact of treason’s close relationship with magic is our tendency, even today, to adopt the vocabulary of black magic and witchcraft when discussing the bad behaviour of politicians.

Magic as a Political Crime is a sort-of-sequel to my earlier English Catholics and the Supernatural (2013), in the sense that it will address a shortcoming of that book, which did not thoroughly cover the involvement of Catholics in magical plots against Elizabeth I. However, the new book will show that it was not just Catholics who expressed their displeasure with the government through the use of magic but also, on occasion, Puritans as well.

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