Talking exorcism on The Colin McEnroe Show

Today I appeared as a guest on Connecticut Public Radio’s Colin McEnroe Show, in an episode which focussed on the contemporary upsurge of demand for exorcism. I featured alongside Fr Vince Lampert, exorcist of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The conversation covered such topics as the reasons for the increasing demand for exorcism, the reality of exorcism as opposed to perceptions of the rite in popular culture, and the changing importance of exorcism at different periods of the history of the Catholic church.


Contract signed: Suffolk Fairylore

The Green Children of Woolpit on Woolpit’s village sign. © Dogmarton Photography

I have just signed a contract with Lasse Press for a new book entitled Suffolk Fairylore, which will be the first extended study of folklore concerning the fairies in Suffolk (and indeed the first dedicated study of an English county’s fairylore). The book challenges the persistent myth that East Anglia has scant fairy-related folklore and offers a chronological account of the development of fairy belief in Suffolk, from the late Roman period to the present day. Chapters deal with the origins of fairy belief, fairies in medieval Suffolk, the apparent absence of fairies in early modern Suffolk, and nineteenth-century fairy belief as recorded by folklorists. An epilogue deals with twentieth-century and contemporary claims of fairy encounters.

Suffolk boasts some of the most important medieval narratives of encounters with otherworldly beings, including the stories of the Green Children of Woolpit, the Wild Man of Orford and Malekin, the disembodied spirit of a child stolen by the fairies who appeared at Dagworth in the reign of Richard I. Suffolk is also the home of one of the most significant English fairytales collected in the nineteenth century, ‘Tom Tit Tot’, which is the best-known English version of the international ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ folktale. Fairy encounters have been consistently reported in Suffolk since the Middle Ages, right up to the present day, and the book traces the ways in which perceptions of fairies have changed dramatically over the centuries. The book includes appendices containing the full text of Suffolk’s famous medieval fairy narratives in both Latin and English, as well as a gazetteer of the county’s fairy places and the full text of the fairytales recorded by folklorists in Suffolk in the nineteenth century.

Suffolk Fairylore opens up a hitherto obscure facet of the county’s folklore and shows that Suffolk has some of the richest folklore of fairies of any county in southern England. The book will be published later in 2018.


Review: Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe by Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto

Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto, Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe: The Clandestine Trade in Illegal Book Collections (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017). 166pp.

Since the publication of Owen Davies’s Grimoires: A History of Magic Books in 2009 there has been greater awareness among scholars of the importance of books of ritual magic, but the trouble with studying the few surviving books of magic in libraries is that information about their provenance and the ways in which they were traded is often hard to come by. Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto’s Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe is a brief but groundbreaking study of the trade in books belonging to the tradition the authors term ‘learned Western magic’ at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It provides a critical edition of a catalogue of 140 magical books offered for sale by a Leipzig bookseller in 1710, coyly entitled Catalogus rariorum manuscriptorum (‘Catalogue of very rare manuscripts’). An almost unique survival from the period, the catalogue offers (among other things) an insight into what books were considered magical, the interests of collectors (at a time when the European Enlightenment was supposedly dispelling learned interest in magic) and the ways in which booksellers dealt with such controversial volumes. The fact that the collection survives to this day in the library of Leipzig University makes it uniquely possible for the authors to gain information from the volumes themselves as well as the bookseller’s catalogue, making Magical Manuscripts a so-far unparalleled bibliographical achievement in the field of the history of magic.

Bellingradt and Otto’s study is an interdisciplinary one, with Bellingradt contributing his expertise in book history and Otto his expertise in the history of magic, and the book approaches the Leipzig catalogue from multiple perspectives. Successive chapters consider the exceptionality, scarcity and illegality of magical books in eighteenth-century Europe. The authors conclude that, although sale of magical books was not strictly illegal in Saxony in 1710, the contents of the catalogue were sensitive enough to discourage the booksellers from openly distributing it. The ‘attached aura of secrecy and underground transmission’ made the books in the catalogue more valuable, and the continuing production of magical books in manuscript (in large numbers) challenges the notion that the eighteenth century was the ‘age of print’. It was usually thought essential to the book’s magical effectiveness that it should be a manuscript rather than a printed book; furthermore, the printing of such controversial texts was often impossible, so manuscript transmission was necessary as well as desirable.

The books in the Leipzig catalogue were sold for an enormous sum to a dedicated collector, yet the authors observe that it is unlikely that most collectors ever made use of magical books. Like Horace Walpole’s desire to possess magical artefacts such as John Dee’s scrying mirror, German collectors wanted to own magical manuscripts as valuable and scarce curios; we should be grateful that they did, because in doing so they preserved these illicit manuscripts for posterity. Bellingradt and Otto show that scholars have relied too much on printed editions of magical texts to draw their conclusions about the popularisation of learned magic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Such popularisation was taking place much earlier, but through the medium of manuscripts rather than print. The authors observe that the study of texts and techniques of learned magic in Europe between 1600 and 1800 is a fertile field of research that early modern historians have yet to discover.

The thought that kept recurring to me while reading this book was that there are striking parallels between the eighteenth-century trade in magical books and the contemporary trade in occult literature. Although few magical manuscripts now come up for sale (most are in university collections), I have heard stories of such manuscripts going missing from university libraries because they are so much sought after by collectors. The sought-after manuscripts today include not just traditional European books of ritual magic but also the nineteenth-century ritual manuals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and even the ‘Books of Shadows’ of early Wiccans dating from the 1950s and ’60s. However, the major trade today is not in manuscripts but in lavishly printed occult books, such as the facsimiles of magical manuscripts published by the Society for Esoteric Endeavour. These are usually published in strictly limited editions at reasonable prices for subscribing members, but small occult publishers are often the victims of so-called ‘grimoire scalping’ whereby individuals will sell on lavish editions of occult books for vastly inflated sums in the online marketplace. The sums that people are prepared to pay for occult books considered to be scarce is an indication that the same fascination with forbidden books described by Bellingradt and Otto continues unabated to this day.


New article on Biblical reference indexing

The Bury Bible. Image from The St Edmundsbury Chronicle

For the extremely small number of people who are interested not only in having an index in a book but are also fascinated by the process of compiling them (the literary equivalent of people who not only stay in the cinema to read the credits after the film but are also fascinated by how the credits are made), I have just written an article for The Indexer, the journal of the Society of Indexers, entitled ‘Biblical reference indexing: the challenges’. I wrote it because a few months ago I was asked to write a Biblical reference index for the first time, alongside a conventional index for a book in the area of theology. I write a lot of indexes, but this was a new experience for me, so I thought it would be worthwhile sharing what I had learnt – especially since indexers who work in the field of theology and church history (as I do, naturally) may be asked to do this and could easily be thrown by it. I trust that my fellow indexers find it an interesting read.


Bury St Edmunds: The End of the Borough?

The news that St Edmundsbury Borough Council and Forest Heath District Council are to formally merge to form a new West Suffolk Council may seem unimportant to many Bury St Edmunds residents. The two councils have, after all, been working together to pool their resources for some years. It is indeed the case that the merger will probably have little or no impact on services or people’s day-to-day lives. However, difficulties are thrown up by the fact that the present St Edmundsbury Borough Council (which since 1972 has covered a much larger area than just the town of Bury St Edmunds itself) is the legal successor to the Corporation of Bury St Edmunds first established by royal charter in 1606. If St Edmundsbury Borough Council ceases to exist, the question arises whether Bury St Edmunds will cease to be a borough. If Bury does lose this status, this is a significant symbolic blow to a town that was once a county town and, in the Middle Ages, held a status little different from a sovereign principality.

Borough status, like city status, is granted by royal charter (a process governed by the Privy Council). Bury St Edmunds has received many royal charters since 1606, each recognising the town as a borough and changing the rules of election or the territory of the borough. However, the original charter of 1606 was a hard-fought document which wrested control of the town from a number of competing groups who attempted to fill the vacuum left behind by the dissolution of the Abbey. In the Middle Ages, Bury had no borough status and the town was, in effect, a personal possession of the Abbey’s Sacrist to do with much as he pleased. The conflicts between the townsfolk and the abbot are legendary, and were some of the bitterest in medieval England (see my book on the Abbey for an account of this subject). After the dissolution in 1539, the Candlemas Guild initially stepped into the breach and governed the town but it was dissolved in turn in 1548, leaving the Guildhall Feoffees and the governors of the Grammar School, re-established in 1550, to run the town between them.

However, since control of the Liberty of St Edmund (West Suffolk) had fallen to its hereditary stewards, the Bacon family of Redgrave, there was some doubt about who had ultimate authority over the town. In the era of the Abbey the town and liberty had separate hereditary stewards, but the hereditary stewardship of the town fell into abeyance, leaving the Bacons claiming the right to exercise the old powers of the Abbot (or at least those not directly arrogated by the Crown). The townsfolk thus found themselves in much the same position as they had been under the abbots – powerless, forbidden from organising, and at the mercy of hereditary stewards who were simply acting as secular versions of the old abbots. The townsfolk repeatedly sued the Bacons and petitioned the Crown until James I eventually granted the charter in 1606. By making Bury a borough, the charter also made it a parliamentary seat, meaning that Bury gained parliamentary representation for the first time since 1539 (the abbots used to represent Bury in the House of Lords); the charter also stipulated the extent of the franchise (who was allowed to vote). Subsequent charters were similarly bitterly contested – the charter of 1684 gave the Crown the right to directly appoint a mayor and aldermen, who were the only people allowed to vote in the borough (guaranteeing the Crown control of Bury as a parliamentary seat!), and in 1688 a revolt by the Corporation forced James II to rescind the 1684 charter and reinstate an earlier document of 1661.

For the citizens of Bury St Edmunds, having a mayor was of immense symbolic importance. Under the abbots, the townsfolk had only been allowed to elect an ‘alderman’ who was denied the title of mayor and acted as a sort of ambassador on their behalf to the Sacrist, but had no power whatsoever. It has often been observed that the intensity of the medieval conflict between the abbot and townsfolk meant that the dissolution was treated by the townsfolk as a victory, and this may be true; certainly, Bury has a deep civic tradition that is rooted in that dark time when the monks and townsfolk were at each other’s throats. The idea that the position and title of Mayor of St Edmundsbury might be abolished as the result of the creation of a West Suffolk Council is disturbing, as is the possibility that the Borough will lose its royal charter. The right of Bury St Edmunds to a mayor and a charter are ancient and were not won easily; indeed, blood was spilled to gain these rights.

I am sure that the merger of West Suffolk’s two district councils makes a great deal of administrative sense, but I wonder if there is any way in which Bury St Edmunds can retain its borough status and its mayor; a ‘Mayor of West Suffolk’ would hardly be the same, and ‘West Suffolk’ (formerly a county) can hardly be a borough. I would strongly urge the MP for Bury St Edmunds, Jo Churchill, to ask the government to permit the Borough of St Edmundsbury to retain a royal charter – not least because it is because of the original charter of 1606 that Bury St Edmunds gained parliamentary representation in the first place.


Review: The Devil’s Plantation by Nigel Pearson

Nigel G. Pearson, The Devil’s Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft and Folk-Magic (London: Troy Books, 2015), 272pp.

Nigel Pearson’s The Devil’s Plantation interprets the folklore of East Anglia from within the framework of Modern Traditional Witchcraft, a strand of Neopagan religion derived from the writings and practice of Robert Cochrane, who dissented from the Wicca of Gerald Gardner in the 1950s. The writings of followers of the ‘crooked path’ of Modern Traditional Witchcraft are always interesting, because Modern Traditional Witches have a strong desire to connect with the land and therefore with the traditions of specific regions. Pearson follows in the footsteps of Nigel Pennick, who first attempted a Neopagan appraisal of East Anglian folklore in his Secrets of East Anglian Magic (1995) and anticipates Michael Howard’s East Anglian Witches and Wizards (2017), which I reviewed here last September. Mark Taylor’s outdated Frazerian reinterpretation of the martyrdom of St Edmund in Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom (2013) also seems to apply a Neopagan interpretative framework to East Anglian history.

The standard of Pearson’s research in this book is generally good, and the book even has an index (albeit the absence of references and the peculiar presentation of the bibliography are disappointing). I was especially pleased to see that (unlike Michael Howard) Pearson does not conflate Essex with East Anglia – he also spells East Anglian place-names correctly, which is more than can be said for Howard’s book. However, Pearson must expect the readership of his book to be restricted to individuals who share his Neopagan worldview, since the book’s religious agenda is evident throughout. Sadly, just as overtly hagiographical accounts of the lives of Christian saints are unlikely to be taken seriously by scholars, so avowedly Neopagan accounts of folklore will always remain under the radar of scholarship – which is a shame, since Pearson is a competent folklorist.

The book’s most interesting sections are those in which Pearson unveils contemporary Neopagan contributions to the region’s folklore. Folklore, by its very nature, is constantly evolving, and Neopagans have as much right to contribute to it as anyone else. What is regrettable, from an historical point of view, is that Pearson presents modern Neopagan folklore as fact. For instance, we are told (pp. 92-4) about the activities of covens of traditional Norfolk witches – which is a fascinating insight into contemporary folklore and, perhaps, contemporary magical practice – but Pearson leaves unexplained the puzzling fact that the work of these covens bears no relation whatsoever to any historically attested form of ‘witchcraft’ in East Anglia, and bears a striking resemblance to religious and spiritual practices developed by Gardner and Cochrane in the mid-twentieth century. Writers in Pearson’s tradition frequently fall back on the excuse of ‘secrecy’ to explain the lack of any evidence for initiatic, coven-based witchcraft in the historical sources, but this simply isn’t good enough.

Rather than claiming that their faith represents a surviving Neolithic fertility religion, as Wiccans do, Modern Traditional Witches claim that people who were outwardly Christian continued in pagan ways and integrated Christian elements into those pagan ways – an idea known as ‘Dual Faith Observance’. The notion is ultimately traceable to the now discredited belief of early folklorists that the rural people of England were never truly converted to Christianity and remained essentially pagan, adopting only the outward form of Christian practices. The difficulty with the phrase ‘Dual Faith Observance’ is that it implies paganism was a distinct and coherent belief system that people chose to combine with Christianity. In one sense, Modern Traditional Witches are right that rural English people had many beliefs that were not in any recognisable sense Christian, and at a stretch these beliefs might be described as ‘pagan’. However, unlike today’s Neopagans, no-one in pre-modern England had any defined sense of paganism as a religion or belief system. Reading a book like Pearson’s, one is constantly aware of the author’s anxiety to impress upon the reader the existence of a coherent ‘pagan’ belief system in the past for which there is simply no evidence.

Pearson’s tendency to embrace controversial archaeological theories, such as those of T. C. Lethbridge, is less distracting than his co-option of terminology from contemporary occultism. Thus we read of ‘energy in the Land’ (p. 19) which is apparently called ‘Spirament’ or ‘Virtue’ in East Anglia (terms I have never come across in years of studying traditional East Anglian folklore), ‘geomantic energies’ and ‘telluric currents’ (p. 36) that are embodied by traditional tales of dragons. It is somewhat disappointing to discover that Pearson writes off dragons as nothing more than symbols of some sort of terrestrial energy, while mermaids are just ‘a glyph for the information buried deep in the psyche of all individuals’ (p. 42). The folklore of East Anglia is to be euhemerised and interpreted out of existence rather than respected and left in its pristine weirdness – an approach that renders Pearson’s book anything but magical.

I found this book fascinating because I am interested in how contemporary Neopagans reinterpret and appropriate folklore; but this is something of a niche interest, and the book is likely to disappoint people who are interested in East Anglian folklore, witchcraft and folk magic – not so much because it lacks information, but because so much of the information presented here is smothered with distracting Neopagan pieties.