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 Mark Taylor’s outdated Frazerian reinterpretation of the martyrdom of St Edmund in Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom (2013) also seems to apply a Neopagan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.

6 replies on “Review: The Devil’s Plantation by Nigel Pearson”

I thank you for your serious review of my book. It has proved very popular amongst all types of readers, despite your comments to the opposite, and continues to sell well. I cannot, of course, agree with all your comments – and you have misunderstood my meanings and intent in many places – but I appreciate your efforts and review.

Rural English beliefs in this context have been terned Popular Religion,a synthesis of local superstitions,lucky charms and Christian obsevances.A good example can be drawn from the so called Zennor witches(or Charmers)of Cornwall who attempted to cure burns by reciting ‘Out Fire,In Frost,in the name of Jesus Christ’.
What betrays these attempts to insert an authentic pagan witchcraft into the historical record are the testimonies of those accused of witchcraft over some three hundred years.Even under duress,none included in their confession any notion of a pagan belief underpinning their acts.
East Anglia is not alone here.Other counties,notably Cornwall and Devon have received similar treatment.However,it is as much the re-interpretation of ideas constructed in the 1950/60s that is the spoiler.
How ever well disguised it is the use of paraphernalia and vast realms of detailed instructions that upon inspection we find not any vestige of an old witchcraft but Hutton put it that contains all the classic hallmarks of modern Wicca.

Francis, it’s a shame you think ideas of sacral kingship start and end with Frazer. As you’re no doubt aware, a number of scholars have recently proposed traditions of sacral kingship present in Germanic, Scandinavian and early AS society – some contemporary with Edmund’s rule. So it’s not implausible to propose that a) Edmund’s death was an example of ritual king-slaying; or that b) his death was a case of mythopoeia, deliberately infused with characteristics of sacral kingship.
What is disingenuous is to assume that his Passio is just another retelling of the St Sebastian legend by lazy hagiographers:

Thanks for your comment. By using the word ‘Frazerian’ I didn’t intend to imply that you derived your arguments directly from Frazer. You’re quite right that there is much evidence for sacral kingship even in Christian Anglo-Saxon England, and much sound scholarship on the subject; what is much more controversial (and more closely associated with Frazer and his followers) is the idea of ritual king-slaying in early medieval society. I quite agree with you about the argument that the Edmund legend is a re-telling of the Sebastian story – I presume you’re referring to Gransden’s very negative views on the authenticity of the legend. I’ve changed my views on the Edmund story a number of times, and I’m sure I will again. I’ve found your work on Edmund very thought-provoking; please don’t think that because I disagree with one of your arguments that I find it without value!

Thanks Francis. I certainly think there’s a stronger argument for ritual king-slaying in Scandinavian society (e.g. Dómaldi) and aspects of sacral kingship (e.g. a king’s association with the fertility of the land: Hákon Sigurðarson and Halfdan the Black – contemporary with Edmund.) After all, Scandinavian society at the time of Edmund’s death was essentially still Iron Age.
Interestingly, the OE name for Ivar the Boneless (as you know – one of the nominal leaders of the ‘Great Heathen Army’) is Hinguar, which translates as ‘Freyr’s warrior’. Freyr was traditionally associated with sacral kingship, prosperity and fecundity. If, as the name suggests, Hinguar was a disciple of Freyr, then perhaps this hints at a motive for Edmund’s ritualised slaughter.
BTW, congratulations on Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King – I devoured it; full of scholarship and new insights.

Thank you for your kind words about the book! You’re quite right that the reason why the Vikings killed Edmund is a central mystery to be solved; and to be honest, some sort of ritual killing is as good an explanation as any, given how little we really know about Viking beliefs in the c9th. This is why I describe the killing of Edmund as a murder mystery, because we don’t know the motive (and Abbo’s account is completely incoherent in this regard – he is clearly trying to sanitise something and it’s clear that an earlier folk tradition is being concealed by his account).

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