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 Mark Taylor’s outdated Frazerian reinterpretation of the martyrdom of St Edmund in Edmund: The Untold Story of the Martyr-King and his Kingdom (2013) also seems to apply a Neopagan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