Review: Michael Howard, East Anglian Witches and Wizards

As someone interested in equal parts in the history of East Anglia and the history of magic and witchcraft, I was naturally eager to read Michael Howard‘s recently published (June 2017) book East Anglian Witches and Wizards. Howard died in 2015, but this posthumous publication is the fourth in Three Hands Press’s ‘Witchcraft of the British Isles’ series (all by Howard so far), preceded by Welsh Witches and Wizards (2009), West Country Witches (2010) and Scottish Witches and Warlocks (2013). I have previously reviewed Howard’s books Children of Cain and Hands of Apostasy, and he was with some reason considered the foremost exponent of ‘Modern Traditional Witchcraft’, a strand of Neopagan religion that largely rejects Gerald Gardner’s interpretation of witchcraft and strives to ground itself in a continuous and historically documented tradition of witchcraft rather than an imagined Neolithic past. The extent to which Modern Traditional Witches succeed in this is a moot point, but books like Howard’s are an attempt to situate the practice of present day self-defining ‘witches’ within an historical and geographical tradition (compare it, for example, with Nigel Pearson’s The Devil’s Plantation (2016)). As such, Howard’s four books about witchcraft in different parts of Britain represent a particular genre of ‘alternative history’ (we might call it ‘witch history’), which seeks to reinterpret historical evidence in the light of contemporary Neopagan belief and practice. Gerald dGardner’s Witchcraft Today (1954) was the first book in the genre, but Howard’s book bears all the hallmarks of being a ‘post-Huttonian’ Neopagan work – it takes into account, in other words, Ronald Hutton’s monumental debunking of Gardnerian Neopagan pseudo-history in The Triumph of the Moon (1999). However, as I shall show in this review, Howard remains more attached to a ‘Gardnerian’ Neopagan historiography and worldview than he would perhaps have cared to have admitted.

Howard’s book has many positive features. Overall, it could serve as a fairly reliable and solid narrative account of the history of witchcraft in eastern England for the general reader. Howard made use of a variety of sources, including some unusual and hard-to-find works of obscure local folklorists. The chapters on cunning-folk, charmers and toadmen are useful compendia of the available evidence. The narrative is greatly enhanced by asides about contemporary oral traditions concerning events and people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which testify to Howard’s immense knowledge of folklore and show he had a unique perspective to bring to the subject. Indeed, it is Howard’s juxtaposition of the historical narrative with contemporary traditions that makes this book worth reading.

However, there are also many problems with this book which I cannot, as a historian specialising in this area, refrain from pointing out. As a general point, the book is littered with errors in the spelling of personal and place names too numerous to list. Whilst some allowance can be made for the fact that Three Hands Press was publishing a posthumous work, they might have taken the trouble to engage an editor able to check and correct these errors, which are particularly irksome to someone with local knowledge – it seems especially surprising that a publisher would go to the trouble of producing an expensive deluxe leather-bound edition of the book without at least engaging the services of an effective proofreader and copyeditor. Furthermore, Howard’s selection of sources is eclectic, with recent and old (1960s and ’70s) scholarship seemingly given equal weight. For instance, although Howard lists Malcolm Gaskill’s Witchfinders (2005) in his bibliography – the most reliable account of the East Anglian witchhunts by far – in the text he seems to rely upon (and perpetuate the errors of) earlier scholarship (and some works, such as Mark Taylor’s Folklore article ‘Norfolk Folklore’ (1929), are cited in the text but not listed in the bibliography). Howard seems unaware of the evidence Gaskill has uncovered regarding the death of Matthew Hopkins, and goes so far as to speculate that folktales portraying Hopkins as himself accused of witchcraft might be true (pp. 78-9).

Howard seems to take as read – and offers no justification for – the inclusion of Essex in East Anglia, in spite of the fact that no East Anglian (and probably no inhabitant of Essex) would regard Essex as part of the region; a more accurate title for the book would have been Witches and Wizards of the East of England. His lack of familiarity with the full range of historical literature on witchcraft is revealed in Howard’s misunderstanding of feminist approaches to witchcraft studies. Pointing out that women were liable to accuse one another of witchcraft, he denies that there was any ‘feminist type sisterhood’ among witches (p. 16). This may reflect the emphasis on male witches as leaders of covines in Modern Traditional Witchcraft and its lack of interest in a Gardnerian goddess, but the actual claim of feminist scholars of witchcraft studies is that the process of witch-hunting was an intrinsically misogynistic one, which is not incompatible with some women becoming part of the patriarchal system by accusing others. Howard seems to be in danger of ignoring the historical evidence when he deliberately conflates magic and witchcraft (pp. 17-18), pointing out that there were many synonyms for supernatural activities that were used interchangeably. There is an element of truth in this, of course, but this does not change the fact that witches and wizards/wisewomen were functionally different in early modern society. Again, Howard’s desire to conflate concepts may be influenced by the claim, inherited from Gardnerian Wicca, that witches and cunning-folk were essentially the same and contemporary ‘witches’ are their successors.

The most obvious sign of Howard’s interest in Modern Traditional Witchcraft, which might not be picked up by the casual reader, is his repeated use of vocabulary specific to Neopagan witchcraft and Modern Traditional Witchcraft in particular. Howard makes several references to ‘the Old One’ (pp. 22, 58, 86, 101, 146), ‘the Horned One’ (pp. 52, 86) or, in one case, ‘the horned god of the witches’ (p. 26). Howard writes of ‘the witch-cult’ (p. 25) and makes numerous references to covens or covines (pp. 42, 68, 86) and ‘witch masters’ (pp. 39, 72, 109, 115, 116). This is vocabulary straight from the lexicon of Murrayite-Gardnerian Wicca, with a particular twist given by Modern Traditional Witchcraft’s emphasis on the horned god rather than Gardner’s goddess.

The reader receives the strong impression that Howard was determined to interpret all the historical evidence within a particular religious interpretative framework. For example, Howard systematically misuses the evidence to argue for the existence of covens/covines of witches, which most historians accept was not part of English folklore of witches outside Cornwall. Thus Howard takes the fact that thirteen people were accused of witchcraft at St Osyth in 1582 as evidence that the St Osyth witches were ‘a coven of the traditional thirteen’ (p. 42). This idea is ‘traditional’ only in the sense that it was popularised by Margaret Murray and it is obvious that thirteen accusations does not in any way mean that these thirteen people belonged to an organised group.

Howard seems determined to portray witchcraft/cunning craft as a religion in its own right, opposed to Christianity, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. This tendency towards the ‘culticisation’ of witchcraft and magic seems widespread among Neopagans. Howard expresses surprise that ‘some … wizards were even clergymen’ (p. 99), when it is obvious from even a cursory reading in the history of magic that most magical practitioners in the west have been clergy. Likewise, Howard reports efforts by a local clergyman to convert the cunning man James Murrell to Christianity on his deathbed (pp. 109-10), when there is no evidence that Murrell was ever anything other than a Christian. Howard seems to take it as axiomatic that no Christian could practise magic because witchcraft is a ‘cult’ separate from Christianity, a view which oddly combines acceptance of the fantasies of Continental demonologists (who imagined the existence of a devil-worshipping cult of witches) and a decidedly ‘Protestant’ view of religion as something requiring a definite profession of faith.

It is unfortunate that Howard does not take the trouble to outline his methodology for the book, since I was continually left asking myself whether Howard expects us to regard all the accounts of witchcraft he gives (even the extremely hostile ones) as accurate. Furthermore, to what extent is the reader supposed to accept the supernatural interpretations of events given in the sources? Were familiars just pets or were they really spiritual beings in animal form? Was the ‘Devil’ literally a manifestation of ‘the Old One’ or are we to interpret all such incidents as encounters with a human ‘witch-master’? Did toadmen really use magic or cleverly concocted scented oils to control the behaviour of horses? I can see why Howard might leave the reader to make up his or her mind on some of these issues, but accepting all hostile accounts of witchcraft as true seems a peculiar stance, making Howard a sort of reverse Jules Michelet (who tried to portray everything witches were alleged to have done in the best possible light). It is part of the culture of Modern Traditional Witchcraft to play up the darker aspects of witchcraft, but surely not to the extent of buying into the polemical narrative of hostile early modern religious commentators? Howard offers hints of interpretation – speaking occasionally of ‘psychic attacks’ and ‘negative energy rays’ but there is no discernible worked-out theory of what witches were actually doing.

It would not be possible to list all of the factual errors in Howard’s book, but the following are some of the most striking:

  1. Ely and Cambridgeshire did not become part of the kingdom of East Anglia by the marriage of Etheldreda and Tondbert (p. 7); the Fens were part of the kingdom because their inhabitants the Gyrwas were considered a tribe of East Angles
  2. Robert Barker was tried in Ely in 1466 for necromancy, not witchcraft (p. 36)
  3. Latin prayers were considered superstitious rather than ‘blasphemous’ (a different category of religious crime) after the Reformation (p. 38)
  4. James I did not introduce witch swimming to England from Scotland. The earliest swimming of a witch in England may have occurred in the tenth century (p. 65)
  5. John Stearne did not move from Manningtree to Lawshall (p. 79); he was a native of Lawshall and continued to hold lands there throughout the witch-hunt
  6. The adjective meaning ‘hare-like’ is lepine, not lupine (which means ‘wolf-like’) (p. 132)
  7. Anne Boleyn was executed with the sword, not an axe (p. 133)
  8. the ‘traditional Rite of Exorcism’ was not ‘bell, book and candle’; this was the traditional rite of excommunication (p. 146)
  9. There is no evidence for an ‘early period of dual observance in the transition from paganism to Christianity’, when churches had two altars and ‘heathens entered the church through the north door to worship the Old Gods’ (p. 153). Bede records one instance in which King Raedwald established altars to both Christ and Woden.

Overall, Howard’s book endeavours to engage with academic scholarship by historians and folklorists and even aspires to the same academic standards, but the author’s credibility as an historian is continually undermined by his attachment to a particular interpretation of witchcraft as a religion that, ultimately, he does not allow the evidence to challenge.


One reply on “Review: Michael Howard, East Anglian Witches and Wizards

I am extremely grateful for this well considered, objective review; it observes and confirms very specific problem areas of Howard’s approach that has proved impossible for myself and for any other person involved in the Craft to bring to readers’ attention. Attempts to do so, have been wrought with conflict. Commenting on one’s peers should remain professional and factual. Authors are duty bound to provide solid references, and use reliable sources. Thank you therefore, for this honest and open summary.

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