This afternoon I appeared as a guest on BBC Radio Suffolk‘s Lesley Dolphin Show (listen from 32:18), speaking about my new book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King. We discussed the likelihood of finding the body of St Edmund in the ruins of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, and the prospects of Edmund regaining his status as England’s patron saint.
Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies, 500 AD to the Present. Edited by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook. London: Gibson Square, 2018. 256 pp. Illus. £16.99 (hbk). ISBN 978-1-78334-101-6
Magical Folk is one of the most exciting scholarly books on the subject of British and Irish fairies to appear for many years. It is an edited collection of sixteen geographically specific essays divided into three parts: ‘English Fairies’, ‘Celtic and Norse Fairies’, and ‘Travelling Fairies’, with the last part focussing on British- and Irish-derived fairylore in North America. The single chapters focusing on Ireland, Scotland and Wales (by Jenny Butler, Ceri Houlbrook and Richard Suggett respectively) serve to put the English and North American material in context rather than providing equal coverage. After all, any one Irish county could probably produce more fairylore than the entire south of England. This imbalance is not a shortcoming of the book, however. The editors were wise to include chapters on the well-trodden ‘Celtic’ fairies, since it is hard to understand fairy traditions in other parts of the British Isles and their cultural penumbra without appreciating their relationship with the better-known ‘Celtic’ material.
The book brings to fruition the development of fairy studies that has been evident in recent years in the pages of Folklore and other journals, largely driven by the digitisation of local newspapers and the access this has given scholars to the widespread and persistent nature of fairy belief – hailed by the editors of Magical Folk as analogous to the flood of historical information that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain (p. 10). The new data has come primarily from England, challenging the old view that fairy belief is a phenomenon associated primarily with the ‘Celtic’ nations. As the editors of this volume observe, ‘if you run a fine comb through even the most urbanized of English shires fairies will come tumbling out’ (p. 8), and the book shows that it is high time to revise Katharine Briggs’s pessimistic view, expressed in 1957, that a full survey of English fairylore would never be possible.
As well as extending the fairies’ geographical range, the book also extends the chronological range of the study of fairylore, daring to transgress the ‘unspoken rule’ (p. 10) that nothing after the Cottingley fairies hoax in 1920 should be considered. The willingness of folklorists to include contemporary testimony reflects a similar trend in the historical study of supernatural belief in general, traceable to the breakdown of notions of ‘authenticity’ and rejection of the idea that later beliefs degenerated from pristine originals. If fairy belief has been culturally fluid in every age, there is no more reason to exclude the twenty-first century than the seventeenth. Another way in which the authors embrace the fluidity of fairy belief is in their rejection of ‘taxonomic’ approaches to fairies that insist on categorising them into types. As Ronald James observes, early folklorists’ insistence on the rigidity of the distinction between, say, buccas and piskeys, simply confused their local informants (p. 183). Similarly, notions of the ‘development’ of fairy belief are easily challenged, as Harte shows that the idea of fairies’ diminutive stature may be at least as old as the fourteenth century (p. 73).
This recognition of the fairies’ fluid identity relates to a deeper issue picked up by several of the authors in the book, but especially well articulated by Jeremy Harte: why are fairies named as they are? Harte’s suggestions regarding Middle English pouke’s displacement of Old English ælf in the south of England, and the subsequent replacement of pouke by French-derived ‘fairy’, are interesting and plausible (p. 68). As Simon Young rightly observes, ‘one of the most underused sources for fairylore’, the study of placenemes, is an exciting development and one that is evident throughout the book (p. 83).
One question that arises from the book’s revisionist approach to fairy belief in England is how the unrecognised prevalence of fairy belief relates to Ronald Hutton’s well-known thesis, articulated most recently in The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present (2017) that belief in fairies tended to mitigate fear of witchcraft and therefore persecution of people as witches. If people in England and Lowland Scotland (outside of ‘Celtic’ areas) did indeed continue to believe in fairies, why did they persecute witches while ‘Celtic’ people did not? Why did English people ascribe misfortunes to both the fairies and witches, and how did they make this choice? Magical Folk hints at the beginnings of a challenge to Hutton’s thesis; it is a shame that none of the authors pursued this further, although several of them mention the evidence for fairies to be found in witch trials. Also missing from the book is much consideration of learned theorisation and commentary on fairies (aside from a fleeting mention of Robert Kirk by Ceri Houlbrook), which, just as antiquarian commentary influenced topographical folklore, must surely have influenced the way even ordinary people thought about the fairies. However, omission of a thorough discussion of the ‘theoretical’ side of fairylore was probably a sacrifice worth making for the book to retain its ‘chorographical’ form. The editors’ decision to opt for a county-by-county (or country) approach gives the book depth, emphasising the importance of locality to fairy belief and avoiding the dangers of generalisation.
Overall, Magical Folk is a triumph of scholarly research and editing and a long-awaited new survey of fairy belief in Britain and Ireland that will enthrall both specialists and general readers alike. Magical Folk will be indispensable to students of fairylore and offers an insight into an exciting and evolving area of research for non-specialists and scholars in related fields.
 Briggs, K., “The English Fairies.” Folklore 68 (1957): 270–287, at 279.
One of the wonderful things that sometimes happens when you are writing history is that something will come along that suddenly makes the rather recondite subject matter of your books relevant to the present day. This happened when I was in the process of writing Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England, which was published last year by I. B. Tauris. The idea for the book went back to 2013, when my first book English Catholics and the Supernatural was published. I was very aware that, in my research for the earlier book, I had stumbled upon the tip of an iceberg: the use (or alleged use) of magic as a form of political resistance, rebellion and treason. However, I knew that I had neither the space nor the time to include a detailed consideration of this issue, so I set it aside and began to write it up into a separate monograph. Although no-one really wants to know how the sausage is made when it comes to the writing of history, I will confess that the manuscript of Magic as a Political Crime had a chequered career. The book’s title changed several times, as well as its character; to begin with, I wanted the book to appeal to the general reader, but this did not go down well with the first publisher to whom I pitched it. So I removed the literary flourishes of the first draft and returned to the tried and tested format of an academic monograph, resigned to the probability that no-one would read the book beyond the small academic community of historians of magic and witchcraft. Eventually, the book found a home with I. B. Tauris.
Then, just before I was about to send the final proofs to I. B. Tauris in February 2017, the phenomenon of America’s ‘Magic Resistance’ began to be reported in the UK media. There was just time for me to include a brief reference in the book to magical practitioners in the USA using magical methods to ‘bind’ President Donald Trump, and to note the similarity of these methods to medieval and early modern accounts. I am very glad that I did so, since the popularity of the Magic Resistance and the broader cultural awareness of the phenomenon has made a book about a very esoteric subject suddenly relevant. The reservations of that first publisher about the very limited public interest in the subject of political magic suddenly seemed unjustified – to the extent that I rather wish I had pitched the book for a more general market a few years later than I did!
For an overpriced academic monograph, the interest stimulated by the book has been both surprising and gratifying. In February I spoke about the book to a packed audience at London’s Conway Hall, and the book was recently reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. I was even asked by the UK Ministry of Defence’s Joint Service Command and Staff College to speak to senior military officers about the use of magic in warfare. What has been most interesting to me, however, is the interest shown in my book by those involved in the Magic Resistance itself. Michael M. Hughes, for example, the author of the forthcoming book Magic for the Resistance and a leading figure in the Magic Resistance movement, has remarked on the serendipitous appearance of my book when he was writing his. From my point of view, however, it is the sudden re-emergence of political magic in the modern world that is serendipitous for my research, and it has had the weird effect that my research has become an elliptical process. As a scholar of the political use of of magic, I find myself researching a movement that is itself influenced by my scholarship. I doubt I am the only historian to find myself in that position – but most historians probably anticipate that their work will feed into modern historical processes. I certainly never suspected that creating effigies of political leaders in order to work magic against them would again become fashionable…
Because my primary research interest is political magic in Britain rather than the USA, I am not especially troubled that my integrity as a historian is undermined by the influence of my research on its subject. There is no evidence I have found, as yet, that the Magic Resistance or a variant of it has made its way to the UK (although if anyone is performing magical rites to prevent Brexit, please do get in touch). Ironically, the Founding Fathers of the USA ensured that no-one could be prosecuted for performing magic against the state by defining treason in the Constitution much more strictly than England’s Statute of Treason. In US Federal Law, a person can only be found guilty of treason if two witnesses testify that he or she has levied war against the USA or given aid to its enemies. In English law, the 1351 Statute of Treason (currently the oldest piece of still active legislation) states that anyone who ‘compasses or imagines’ the death of the monarch is guilty of treason. Traces of this idea survive in the US, especially in the Secret Service’s hypersensitivity to any threats to the life of the President. I wonder to what extent the Secret Service takes magical threats seriously and keeps an eye on the Magic Resistance?
Today I launched my new book Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King at Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds’s Buttermarket, by signing copies of the book for members of the public who visited the bookshop between 1200 and 1330. Terry Chittock of the local community group ‘We Love Bury St Edmunds’ interviewed me about the book in a live feed for the WLBSE Facebook page. I was also delighted that my editor from I. B. Tauris was able to attend.
This evening I spoke at Peterborough’s Key Theatre on the subject of ‘Nene Valley Folklore’ at an event organised by the 900 Voices of the Nene project, which aims to bring together stories, images, music, poems and films that relate to the River Nene. My own contribution was to speak about the folklore associated with the river, using examples drawn from my book Peterborough Folklore, the first study of the folklore of the region around Peterborough. After my talk I was interviewed about the subject for an audio archive, and the event concluded with an opportunity for members of the audience to share their own stories about the Nene.