Suffolk Fairylore shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award

This evening I went to London’s Warburg Institute for a meeting of the Folklore Society where the winners of the Katharine Briggs Folklore Award were announced. My book Suffolk Fairylore was one of 8 shortlisted titles for the award, which goes to the best book about folklore published in Britain and Ireland in the year 2018-19. Last year, my book Peterborough Folklore was shortlisted for the same award and I described the awards ceremony here. The award this year was won by Guy Beiner for his book Forgetful Remembrance, about memories of the 1798 rebellion in Ulster. The judges commented on Suffolk Fairylore,

This is an ambitious attempt to provide a general survey of all of the fairylore of a closely delineated region. The author does engage in part with some of the thornier problems raised in this area, but its greatest strength is in its well-written and useful chronological collation of the historical material.

The awards ceremony followed a lecture by Prof. Ulrika Wolf-Knuts entitled ‘What Can We Do With Old Records of Folk Belief? On the Example of Devil Lore’. Prof. Wolf-Knuts discussed the problematic status of large archives of folkloric material gathered in the 19th and 20th centuries, looking particularly at the folklore of Swedes in Finland and the stories told about the devil in that community.

As always, it was a pleasure to catch up with other folklorists and to meet some people in the flesh with whom I have only previously interacted on social media!


‘Holy and Unholy Suffolk’ at the Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival


This afternoon I spoke at the third Bury St Edmunds Literature Festival (at Bury’s Unitarian Meeting House) on the theme of ‘Holy and Unholy Suffolk: Adventures in Suffolk’s History and Folklore’. The talk explored some of my research into the history and beliefs of Suffolk people. This is the full text of the talk.

That great Suffolk historian, M. R. James, declared while he was still at school ‘I desire above all things to make an archaeological search into the antiquities of Suffolk’. James was true to his word, and among other things, he revolutionized our understanding of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Yet M. R. James’s historical and archaeological achievements are today forgotten by most people: this historian of the holy is far better remembered for his interest in the unholy, the macabre, and the strange, expressed in his famous ghost stories. What was it in the antiquities of Suffolk, I wonder, that led James in this sinister direction?

I am sure that most people with any knowledge of or association with Suffolk have heard the term ‘silly Suffolk’, which is of course a corruption of the Middle English ‘seely Suffolk’ – ‘seely’ meaning holy, and usually taken as a reference to the proliferation of churches in the Suffolk countryside. Suffolk is indeed a holy place; a county with an incredibly rich religious history, from the early Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the great monasteries of the Middle Ages and the fierce Puritanism and earnest nonconformist dissent that characterised later ages. But Suffolk also has another history: there is an ‘unseely Suffolk’ that lurks within the landscape seemingly consecrated by churches: a Suffolk of unearthly monsters, strange spirits and otherworldly visitants that sometimes sits uneasily with the down-to-earth piety we may associate with the county. One of my most recent projects was working on an edition of a collection of stories about Suffolk and Norfolk’s ‘bogey beasts’ by M. R. James’s cousin, Margaret James. These, perhaps, were the kind of stories James grew up with in the rectory at Great Livermere, and which formed his imagination.

Like M. R. James, I am first and foremost a church historian. I write about churches, monasteries, manuscripts and the cults of saints. Yet over the years I have found myself increasingly drawn into forgotten and overlooked byways of belief. I have become intrigued by the intersection between what people were supposed to be believing – the official line taken by the church – and what they really believed; a path of study which soon takes us into the realms of popular religion, folklore and magic.

I grew up in Suffolk – here in Bury St Edmunds, and spent my childhood playing in the ruins of the Abbey. I have always found Bury Abbey to be one of the hardest ruins to visualize in its former glory – even now, after studying it for years and writing a book about it – and I suspect it was the enigmatic character of these ruins that sowed in me a deep fascination with the mysteries of the past, as well as an unusually developed awareness of how alien the past is from the present. As a child I was fascinated by history and by chronology; I always wanted to know how old things were, and to find the oldest building in any town or village I visited. I developed intense obsessions with particular historical periods and tried to find out everything I could about them; and I collected old things – almost anything, from typewriters and medals to coins and stamps.

But even I had my limits: when someone brought me back a human vertebra, washed down from a churchyard onto Dunwich beach, I kept it in a box for only one night before I hurried down to my local parish church, dug a little hole, and buried it in the nearest consecrated ground. I was only about 11, but I had already read M. R. James’s story ‘Oh whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad’, and I knew no good would come of keeping such a trophy.

However, what made history more than just a hobby for me was my teenage involvement with Hengrave Hall, then home to an ecumenical religious community, where I found myself roped in to take historical tours of the building. I soon started doing my own original research on Hengrave, even managing to trick my way into the manuscipts room of Cambridge University Library when I was far too young to be allowed in. Hengrave had been home to a recusant family – Catholics who refused to accept the Reformation and clung onto the old religion, whatever the cost. This research formed the basis of the first book I wrote – although it was not published until 2015 – The Gages of Hengrave and Suffolk Catholicism, 1640–1767. Along the way, I decided to edit the papers of the Rookwood family, another recusant family from Stanningfield who married into the Gages and therefore deposited their papers in the same collection.

I might have stuck with just exploring the archives of Suffolk’s recusant families if I had not stumbled across an unusual mezzotint among the Hengrave papers. For the benefit of M.R. James fans: yes, I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but it really did happen! The mezzotint portrays the great hall at Coldham Hall and two ghosts that apparently appeared there in October 1807. Two women emerged from large portraits of nuns that then hung in the great hall and walked across the hall. The portraits are still there; in spite of the fact that Coldham Hall has changed hands many times and much of its contents have been sold off, no-one has dared to remove the nuns, since moving their portraits is associated to this day with bad luck. Indeed, when the supermodel Claudia Schiffer moved into the property this century, the tabloid newspapers reported that she experienced supernatural disturbances when the portraits were moved for cleaning.

The story of the haunted nuns of Coldham Hall was, in a sense, the core around which my book English Catholics and the Supernatural developed. Although the book is not specifically about Suffolk or East Anglia, but covers Catholic reactions to supernatural beliefs all over England, it was the snippets of supernatural belief I uncovered in my researches in the Gage and Rookwood family papers that encouraged me to explore further afield and analyse similar occurrences.

Most of my books have followed on naturally from one another, such as my books on the Gage and Rookwood families, but occasionally I have been inspired to write a book by a purely chance event. One of these occurred in August 2015, when I was browsing in the former Churchgate Books. A woman entered the shop and asked the proprietor whether he had a book about the Abbey. She was disappointed when he told her that no-one had ever written a history of the Abbey. At the time I sniggered, as I could hardly believe that this was true – but on getting home I did some research and realized that he was right; although plenty of research had been done in the form of editions of original Abbey documents and even detailed volumes on specific periods in the Abbey’s history, no-one had ever written a single-volume history of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds from foundation to dissolution. So I sat down there and then and started writing one.

Another chance encounter that led to a book was meeting the Abbot of St Edmund’s Abbey at a history conference about twelve years ago. Yes, there is a modern-day St Edmund’s Abbey, located near Reading and usually called Douai Abbey. I told the abbot about my research on Bury St Edmunds and he mentioned a manuscript in the archives of his abbey which he thought contained a story about what happened to the body of St Edmund at the time of the Reformation. At the time I was not even working on St Edmund, and it was a few years before I took up the abbot’s suggestion and went to the abbey to consult the manuscript. What I found was a remarkable account from the late seventeenth century of a monk who claimed to be the great-grandson of one of the monks who secretly buried the body of St Edmund in an iron chest at the time of the dissolution of Bury Abbey in 1539. The account was very sketchy, but I can’t emphasise enough how important this discovery was, because up until that point no source of any kind had ever been turned up that described the fate of St Edmund’s body. This body was especially important, because it was one of only a handful of English saints who were supposed to be incorrupt – indeed, with the exception of St Cuthbert, St Edmund was supposed to be the only male saint who lay intact in his tomb. The fate of St Edmund had been much debated by historians, including M.R. James, but turning up a family tradition about what happened in 1539 seemed to be a game changer.

The monk William Hitchcock’s account of what happened to the body of St Edmund formed the centrepiece of what is (so far) probably my best-known book: Edmund: In Search of England’s Lost King, which appeared in 2018. In the book I make the case that St Edmund’s body was probably buried in the area where the tennis courts behind the abbey ruins now stand – a suggestion that garnered a great deal of attention and made the national media. I cannot take credit for making this suggestion in the first place, of course – it was Sarah Friswell who first told me about the idea – but the important point was that this longstanding theory was supported by William Hitchcock’s story, allowing me to make what I consider a plausible reconstruction of events: at some point between 1535 and 1539, and probably in the period 1538-9, a group of monks including William Hitchcock’s grandfather removed the coffin from St Edmund’s shrine, placed it in a long iron chest formerly used to house monastic treasures in the sacristy, and carried this heavy burden out through the Chapel of St Botolph and the Shrinekeeper’s House before burying it in the monks’ private cemetery at the east end of the Abbey Church.

Since I made this suggestion many people have called for the tennis courts to be excavated, and I expect this will probably happen – although I am not sure whether I want the body of St Edmund to be found. In the 1930s, M.R. James called for the excavation of the Abbey’s crypt for the same reason; he expected Edmund to be buried under the floor. James did not live to see the excavation begun, which did not happen until 1959, and in the event no burials were found. So I have learnt to be cautious, and in any case, perhaps some guardians are best left to lie in peace.

When people ask me how I decide what I am going to write next, I often tell them that I write the books that I would like to read, but that no-one else has yet bothered to write. If I find myself saying the words, ‘If only somebody would write a book about…’ I am in dangerous territory, as that usually ends with me writing the book! Some literary ambitions take longer to realise than others, however. Since as early as 2006, I had been toying with the idea of writing a book about belief in fairies in Suffolk, but I was unsure whether there was sufficient material to make a book, and therefore wondering whether it was worth starting on a project that it might never be possible to complete. I began gathering material for the book, but did not get much further until I encountered a book that analysed the fairy traditions of different English counties, Magical Folk by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook. I was so mortified that there was no chapter on Suffolk – and that I could have contributed such a chapter – that I was immediately galvanized into completing the book that would become Suffolk Fairylore, published at the end of 2018. The book was recently shortlisted for the Katharine Briggs Award, the Folklore Society’s prize for the best book published each year in the field of folklore studies – I shall find out next Tuesday how it did!

Central to Suffolk’s fairy lore is the tale of the Green Children of Woolpit, a story as often misunderstood as it is re-told. There is something strangely compelling and realistic about the story of the two green-skinned children found by reapers in a ditch at Woolpit in the twelfth century – so much so that people have been struggling for centuries to find the true interpretation of what happened. Theories abound as to where the green children came from and why they were green. Yet what many people have failed to notice is that two different versions of the story exist, with some quite significant differences, and that both versions contain elements we would expect to find in a story about the fairies. The green children emerge from the earth, and dwell in an underground world lit by twilight. Although medieval fairies are not usually green in colour, there is no doubt in my mind that the story of the green children is a fairy story. This does not mean that it does not reflect some real event, but it does mean that whether or not such an event took place doesn’t really matter. It is a story, no more and no less, and I prefer to resist the urge to find a reductive explanation for everything.

As someone who has written both about history and folklore, I am conscious that very different modes of thinking apply in the two fields. The historian is concerned with determining, as well as possible, what actually happened. But this is exactly what we should not do with folkloric narratives like the Green Children. Folklore is about studying what people believed; if we are constantly asking questions about the reality behind those beliefs, we will fail to dig deeply into the nature of the belief itself – and that, in my view, is what is really interesting. Did the green children really exist? Is their story based on a real event? It may seem strange to say so, but I honestly don’t care. The historical truth in these cases is usually beyond recovery. What fascinates me is why people told and re-told their story.

Belief in the fairies remained alive and well in Suffolk into the early twentieth century, and the fairies people believed in were not little insect-like flower fairies with gauzy wings. Historically, the dominant response to fairies was fear: fairies stole children, stopped bread from rising, curdled milk in the churn, and rode horses into a sweat during the night. They made life more difficult for rural people. Before the First World War, many Suffolk people’s lives were dominated by fear of witches, fairies and that terrifying shape-shifting creature, Shock (as he was known in Suffolk – ‘Old Shuck’ in Norfolk) whose origins seem to stretch as far back as the Old English poem Beowulf. Although St Botolph is said to have driven the devils from Iken, otherworldly creatures have never quite left Suffolk behind – like the shaggy ‘wild man’ captured by medieval fishermen swimming in the sea off Orford or the ‘faun’ which tried to seduce a girl in twelfth-century Dunwich.

I want to finish by saying a little about my most recent research, which involved preparing an edition of a long out-of-print ghost story from Victorian Suffolk. This was written in 1861 by Margaretta Greene, a daughter of the family which founded the Greene King Brewery who lived in the ruined west front of the Abbey church. Margaretta Greene wrote a short historical novella about the death of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in 1447, inventing a character called Maude Carew who poisons Duke Humphrey and is condemned to wander the Abbey ruins forever. Maude Carew’s ghost is supposed to explain paranormal phenomena in the west front that Margaretta alludes to at the start of the book. The story of Bury’s ‘Grey Lady’ spread like wildfire, and Maude Carew has passed into local folklore, but very few people have read the scarce original story on which she was based. I wanted, therefore, to put Margaretta Greene’s The Secret Disclosed back in print.

I have two other books coming soon. If you are interested in St Edmund, my research has taken me a little further afield, and next year will see the publication of Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland, which tells the story of the only Irish monastery dedicated to St Edmund and the failed attempts to make St Edmund the patron saint of Ireland – yes, the English in Ireland really did try that on! Also appearing next year, in the millennium year of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, is my complete history of all the monastic houses in Suffolk, Monasticism in Suffolk. Although Bury was the largest and most famous of Suffolk’s monasteries by far, there were nearly sixty smaller monasteries in medieval Suffolk and this book is the first to give a full account of them all. I am very excited indeed about next year’s Abbey Millennium, and you may well see or hear me on your TV or radio enthusing about the Abbey’s amazing history. Until then, it has been a huge pleasure to share my work at the Bury Literature Festival. Thank you.


The destruction of the Pachamama statues and the history of Catholic iconoclasm

The Pachamama statues at the opening of the Amazon Synod © Catholic News Agency

In the early hours of Monday 21 October two individuals removed the controversial ‘Pachamama’ statues that played a part in the opening of Pope Francis’ Amazon Synod from the church of Santa Maria Traspontina and threw them into the River Tiber. Footage of the event was widely shared and celebrated online by those who considered the Pachamama statues to be ‘pagan idols’ rather than the culturally specific symbols of life and fertility the Vatican asserts them to be. This act of iconoclasm is particularly striking because the destruction of images is not something we generally associate with the Catholic tradition, but there is in fact a long tradition of Catholics destroying religious images.

The extent to which the early church systematically destroyed pagan imagery after the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire remains unclear. Pagan imagery and characters frequently co-existed alongside Christian themes in mosaics, ivory plaques and elsewhere, suggesting that a tradition of treating ‘pagan’ themes as mere cultural symbolism (after the manner of the Italian Renaissance) already existed in late antiquity. For all the thunders of the Church Fathers against idols, ordinary Christians seem to have tolerated a great deal of pagan imagery, perhaps because they understood the distinction between cultural symbolism and religious veneration. Imagery was also invested with new meanings, such as the peacock, the emblem of the goddess Juno, which became a symbol of the immortal soul. A few examples survive of pagan cult images re-purposed as statues of the saints, or even Christ himself. Yet it is impossible to discard the contemporary claims that destruction also occurred.

As the Christian church pressed north into pagan lands in the early Middle Ages, the problem of idols reared its head once more. Famously, Pope Gregory I wrote to Mellitus, one of the companions of Augustine, that he should destroy the idols in pagan temples in England and make use of the buildings as churches. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that Gregory may simply have been ignorant of Anglo-Saxon paganism and was imposing his own cultural expectations of paganism on England – it is far from clear that Anglo-Saxon pagans even had cult images, let alone temples that were buildings suitable for use as churches.

From the fourteenth century onwards, when magic became once more an object of fear for the church, and there were a number of instances of church courts ordering the destruction of ‘images of devils’ found in the possession of suspected magicians. However, it was not until 1341 that European Catholics encountered an actual pagan idol, when Portuguese soldiers exploring the Canary Islands found a small statue inside a shrine belonging to the islands’ native Guanche people. The Portuguese did not destroy the statue, but rather took it back to Lisbon with them as a curiosity. The Guanches were encouraged to venerate the Virgin Mary in the places where they had previously engaged in pagan worship, and there seems to have been no systematic campaign of iconoclasm in the Canaries.

The demonization of pagan religion became a major issue once more after the arrival of Europeans in the New World. Spain’s claim to the New World was founded, in theory, on a duty of converting the native people to Christianity, and therefore it was in the interests of Spanish missionaries to portray indigenous people as servants of the devil. This led to a deep-rooted tradition of portraying indigenous deities as demonic, as well as campaigns of iconoclasm targeting temples and sacred rocks, especially by Franciscan and Dominican friars. However, syncretistic traditions also developed that identified indigenous deities with Christian figures, such as the identification of Pachamama with the Virgin Mary. Indigenous Christian cults, such as the veneration of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, were imbued with indigenous symbolism.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation itself brought controversy concerning images of the saints. The cult of images had been a major target of the Protestant reformers, and many Catholic scholars shared their concern that the popular veneration of images bordered on paganism. In the run-up to the Council of Trent there was debate about the restriction of the activities surrounding images, such as the lighting of candles before them, the honouring of images with crowns and vestments, and the multiplication of images of the same saint in one place. In the event, the Council did not go so far as to outlaw these practices, but in the aftermath of Trent, attempts were made in some areas to stamp out the cults of some saints entirely.

Baroque and Rococo artists largely disregarded any misgivings of the Counter-Reformation generation over images, but the debate over images reignited over a question that arose during missionary activity in China in the seventeenth century. The ‘Chinese Rites Controversy’ was an argument between the Jesuits on one hand and the Franciscans and Dominicans on the other about whether Chinese ceremonies involving images of Confucius were purely civic affairs invoking commonly recognised cultural symbolism or religious rites. The Jesuits defended the civic status of Confucian symbolism, while the friars regarded it as paganism. The dispute brought into sharp focus the problems raised by Catholic evangelization of a culture every bit as sophisticated in its use of symbolism as the Christian west. However, Rome came down on the side of the friars and banned the use of traditional rites for Chinese Christians in 1645, although debate continued into the eighteenth century.

Iconographic syncretism remains a major part of Catholicism in many countries today, with figures derived from pre-Christian religion often identified with Christ, the Virgin Mary or Christian saints. Determining the extent to which pre-Christian deities still enjoy any kind of independent religious existence in such cultures is a challenge for anthropologists of religion. Defenders of the use of Pachamama imagery at the opening of the Amazon Synod compare it with western Catholic use of pre-Christian imagery. It is far from clear whether such an equivalence exists, and it may be that only Amazonian Catholics themselves know the extent to which they venerate Pachamama as a deity in a manner inconsistent with Catholic orthodoxy. However, the age-old problem of syncretism – and the extent to which it should be allowed, encouraged or prohibited – continues to dog the Catholic faith in the twenty-first century. The question of whether ‘pagan’ indigenous statues should be destroyed in acts of iconoclasm has received a number of different answers over the centuries, with Catholics both advocating and opposing iconoclasm. However, spontaneous acts of lay iconoclasm, such as we saw on Monday morning, are rare in Catholic history, and when iconoclasm has occurred it has generally been authorised by church authorities.


Review: Households of God, edited by Martin Browne and Colmán Ó Clabaigh

Martin Browne and Colmán Ó Clabaigh (eds), Households of God: The Regular Canons and Canonesses of St Augustine and of Prémontré in Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2019), 320pp.

The Augustinian canons were, with the Cistercians, the most important religious order in Ireland before the arrival of the Observant Franciscans in the 15th century, and certainly the most numerous. It is remarkable that it has taken so long for a volume dedicated to the Irish Augustinian canons to appear, especially in light of the fact that the canons survived in Ireland (and in exile in Continental Europe) long after the Reformation. This volume is based on the proceedings of a conference that took place at Glenstal Abbey in 2017, ‘The Augustinian Canons and Canonesses in Medieval Ireland’. The book is particularly pertinent to my own research because Athassel Priory, the subject of my forthcoming book with Four Courts Press, was an Augustinian house.

Part of the reason the Augustinians were neglected for so long may be hinted at in Martin Browne and Colmán Ó Clabaigh’s introduction to this superb edited collection. The canons regular have sometimes been regarded as ‘half-monks’, a sort of halfway house between the monastic and secular clergy. The Augustinian rule has also been seen as a ‘default’ form of life, adopted by ancient Irish monasteries in the 12th century as part of the reform initiated by St Malachy. While the Cistercians were the exciting monastic innovation in 12th-century Ireland, therefore, the Augustinians were what was left over – the default Irish religious life against which Cistercians, Benedictines and, later, the friars defined themselves against. Put simply, according to the traditional view, the canons regular were not radical, so they were not particularly sexy.

The editors and authors of this volume do an excellent job of showing that the Augustinian canons regular were anything but a half-hearted monastic default. In the first place, the canons and canonesses regular were a very diverse group following a variety of different observances. Marie Therese Flanagan, Miriam Clyne and Tracy Collins deal with three distinct groups (the Victorines, Premonstratensians, and Augustinian canonesses), and there were even more than this. The canonical life allowed a great deal of flexibility, from canons who interacted closely with the secular world as chaplains and parochial clergy to strict, enclosed communities that pursued a life of prayer and contemplation alone.

The volume focusses on some specific communities, through Christy Cunniffe’s chapter on Clonfert, Arlene Hogan’s on Llanthony and Tadhg O’Keeffe’s extensive focus on Athassel in his chapter on Augustinian transeptal churches, and it achieves an admirable balance between the study of material remains and textual sources. It is particularly impressive that the volume also covers the Augustinians’ cultural contribution: hagiography (Pádraig Ó Riain), pilgrimage (Louise Nugent) and liturgy (Colmán Ó Clabaigh). The volume is truly a study of the Irish Augustinians in 360 degrees.

The major achievement of Households of God is to dispel once and for all the lingering idea that the canons regular were uninteresting, or lacking in commitment. As Clemens Galban shows in the book’s closing chapter, the canons regular survived the dissolution against all odds, reoccupying many of their houses or properties close by, and continuing their apostolic work. The Augustinian rule and form of life were flexible, but the expressions of religious life that followed were inspiring to the men and women who followed them, as well as enduring. This first-class volume lays the foundations for even more research on the canons and canonesses regular in the future and will be a key monument in the landscape for anyone studying medieval Irish monasticism for years to come.


The face of Abbot Bunting – the builder of St Edmundsbury Cathedral

Abbot William Bunting, detail of Trinity College MS O.3.59 © Trinity College, Cambridge

I recently discovered that there exists a contemporary portrait of a late medieval abbot of Bury St Edmunds, William Bunting (alias Coddenham, d. 1513). The portrait has been overlooked because it forms part of a very large portrayal of the procession for the State Opening of Parliament in 1512, a painted vellum roll now in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge (and helpfully digitised by the college). The kingdom’s mitred abbots, including Bunting, march at the head of the procession and are clearly identified by labels and by their coats of arms. I came across this portrait quite by accident because I was researching something else, and the image of Bunting has probably gone unnoticed until now because it is part of a much larger picture; until I noticed this image the sole known portrait of an abbot of St Edmunds was the effigy of Abbot Hugh of Northwold (d. 1254) in Ely Cathedral, which survives because Hugh became bishop of Ely.

Some of the mitred abbots, including Bunting
Bunting’s identifying label and coat of arms

It is difficult to say whether this is a faithful likeness of Bunting; on the one hand, it seems unlikely the artist had time to draw individual portraits of every member of parliament – but on the other hand, all the abbots, bishops and nobles do appear to have distinctive facial features and there is nothing to suggest they are generic portrayals. Indeed, the image of Bunting is rather distinctive (not to say unflattering!) and seems to portray a real person.

William Bunting was the penultimate abbot of St Edmunds; he was the abbey’s cellarer when he was elected to succeed Thomas Rattlesden in 1497. Bunting played a role in the early career of Thomas Wolsey, presenting the future cardinal to some of the abbey’s ecclesiastical livings, but his lasting achievement was the decision to rebuild St James’s church in 1503. Originally built by Abbot Anselm in partial fulfilment of a vow to visit the shrine of St James at Compostella, the old church was in a poor state of repair by the early 16th century. Abbot Bunting constructed an impressive nave, aisles and a chancel that has long since gone; the present crossing, transepts, choir and tower are of course 20th-century additions after the church was elevated to the cathedral of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich in 1914.

St James’s church, Bury St Edmunds (now St Edmundsbury Cathedral) © Destination Bury St Edmunds

Finding this image of Abbot Bunting leads me to wonder whether there may be other previously unnoticed portraits of abbots of St Edmunds as lords spiritual lurking in collective images of parliament. I shall keep looking…


Review: Cursed Britain by Thomas Waters

Cursed Britain.jpg

Thomas Waters, Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 352pp.

I have been eagerly awaiting Thomas Waters’ Cursed Britain ever since I learnt it was on the way, since the articles published by the author in the run-up to the book have been fascinating and of the highest quality. Cursed Britain is a history of the dark side of magic in Britain since 1800 – not a history of magic per se, nor of witchcraft, but a focussed study of belief in magical harm: whether caused by witches or by other magical practitioners. Waters also veers beyond what might strictly be considered the realm of magic, considering the role of the Irish cursing tradition in nineteenth-century Britain as well as the almost uncategorisable tradition of the Welsh ‘cursing well’ of Ffynon Elian. Waters’ focus in the book is not so much on a category of magical practice, or on its practitioners, as on people who believed themselves to be subject to magical harm. As such, the methodology adopted here has a strong affinity with mine in Magic as a Political Crime, where I focussed not so much on the question of whether people really did deploy harmful magic against political leaders, but on why people believed that this was happening. As such, Cursed Britain is a history of belief rather than a history of practices.

Waters draws on the extensive archive of Victorian newspaper reports of witchcraft-related incidents to show that belief in witchcraft was alive and well in the Victorian era, only truly declining sharply in the period 1919-1960, well within living memory. The traditional malefic English witch is not, of course, a magical practitioner in the usual sense; she or he need not be in possession of any magical skill, nor does she need to perform any ritual to harm another person: simply being a witch is enough. In the absence of trial records of accused witches in an era when witchcraft was no longer a crime, Waters focusses not on the witches themselves but on the people who claimed to be able to deliver people from witchcraft: the ‘unwitchers’ or cunning-folk. It is in the work of the unwitchers, Waters argues, that we can most clearly discern people’s deepest fears and come to understand what they really believed about witchcraft. What emerges is an inchoate sense of unease, engendered by misfortune, which folk tradition and the promptings of cunning-folk helped to give personal form: if things are going badly, repeatedly and inexplicably, someone must be to blame.

Waters observes that this basic stratum of witchcraft belief is largely impervious to education, perhaps partly because it is so vague. Yet it is also, it seems, almost a universal cultural constant – so much so that Waters suggests it may even be hard-wired into human beings as some sort of evolutionary response. True or not, the historian’s access to vast digitised repositories of Victorian local newspapers reveals that the persistent claims of moral and social improvers that belief in witchcraft was a thing of the past were simply false, or at least wishful thinking. Witchcraft belief only became less visible in the judicial record, Waters argues, because more effective policing from the mid-nineteenth century reduced the potential for the vigilante attacks on suspected witches that were a regular feature of rural life in the first half of the century.

Waters’ use of the evidence for nineteenth-century popular belief in witchcraft and magic is masterful, but the book breaks new ground in its attempt to link popular with elite belief. Waters begins by noting the eerie similarities between traditional witchcraft belief and some of the darker beliefs of mesmerists and Christian Scientists. He argues that something very like witchcraft belief emerged in the pseudo-sciences and new religious movements of the nineteenth century, thus ensuring that belief in black magic both endured and, in fact, gained a new acceptability within elite culture. The extent to which Spiritualism gave rise to new interest in the occult has been well documented by historians, but Waters broadens the conceptual net considerably. Waters also ventures into the British Empire, with a chapter on the effect of colonial experience in weakening British people’s prejudices against the possibility of occult power.

The question I am left asking is whether the rise of middle class interest in the occult in the second half of the nineteenth century – whether Spiritualism, Theosophy, the Golden Dawn or a cautious colonial awe of Indian and African magic – had any relationship with surviving popular belief in witchcraft and magic in English rural society. It does not appear, on the basis of Waters’ book, that there is sufficient evidence to posit much of a link, and therefore we are left with two different sections of English society, divided by class, believing in witchcraft (or something like it) for entirely different reasons. That is intriguing in and of itself – and perhaps not altogether surprising, given the notorious rigidity of class divides in Victorian England. Perhaps childhood provides one possible bridge between these worlds: if the children of colonial officials in India were being influenced by their ayahs, then surely middle class children brought up by working-class nurses in rural England were similarly affected by the stories they were told and the supernatural beliefs transmitted (unless these were thoroughly expunged by later education).

The final demise of traditional witchcraft belief, Waters argues, was largely as a result of the disappearance of the cunning-folk by around 1960. Although there are sporadic cases of individuals who deliberately cultivated a reputation as a witch, it was the cunning-folk who, in effect, created witchcraft in the vast majority of cases: they were the ones who persuaded their clients that they were being ill-wished or overlooked by the evil eye. Police attention made it harder for cunning-folk to operate in the towns, while in rural areas it became more difficult for cunning-folk to pass on their craft to others owing to shifts in demography and a popular culture that portrayed witches as figures of fun. In addition, people had less need to consult cunning-folk as modern conveniences and healthcare made their lives less unpredictable and filled with misfortunes.

Waters notes the irony that the repeal of the 1736 Witchcraft Act and 1824 Vagrancy Act came in 1951, just as the last embers of traditional witchcraft belief were dying, but not soon enough to save the cunning-folk from obsolescence. Where belief in ill-wishing survived, the vocabulary shifted from ‘witches’ and ‘witchcraft’ to ‘cursing’, and Waters shows that the belief in a ‘gypsy’s curse’ was one of the last echoes of traditional witchcraft belief to survive in late twentieth-century Britain. Indeed, it is the only echo I remember from growing up in the suburbs of an English country town in the 1980s – my mother’s fear that Roma women who came to the door selling dishcloths might put a curse on us if she did not buy something.

Thomas Waters’ argument that witchcraft belief depended for its survival on reiteration by professional service magicians, and that it disappeared because the service magicians vanished, is perhaps the major insight of this book. Commenting on the bewitchment of the West Country farmer John Lundy in the first decade of the 21st century, Waters makes the perceptive point that witchcraft is more distressing to the small minority of people who continue to believe in it in contemporary Britain because they know they will be treated with ridicule. Yet it is undeniable that people continue to believe in something like the traditional conception of witchcraft, although they do not use the word; in the early 2000s, I remember a schoolfriend assuring me with complete seriousness that a woman he worked with had the ability make bad things happen to people whom she ill-wished.

One intriguing question raised by Waters’ examination of the last phase of traditional witchcraft belief is to what extent it intersected with practices deriving from Neo-Pagan Wicca. Waters rightly concludes that Gardnerian Wicca in its ‘orthodox’ formulation bore little if any relation to traditional witchcraft belief, and instead focusses on ‘hedge witches’ and independent occult practitioners inspired by the spirituality of Wicca but alienated by its emphasis on collective spellcraft by the coven. Certainly, self-initiated individuals self-identifying as ‘witches’ who belong to no Neo-Pagan group seem to be becoming more common. The vast majority of these individuals derive their spirituality and practice from books, but was there a period – perhaps in the 1960s and 70s – when the occult revival overlapped and coincided with the last lingering traces of traditional rural witchcraft belief? I am reminded of a conversation I had with a man who, as a schoolboy in the early 1960s, had become fascinated with witchcraft and interviewed a woman living in Epping Forest who self-identified as a witch but was also apparently a traditional herbalist. He thought he might still have the notes he took of their conversations – but it turned out he had thrown them out long ago. Had they survived, these documents might have been very important indeed in understanding how new and old occultism interacted at this crucial transitional period.

One area in which traditional belief and new ideas very clearly interacted was in the late 20th-century revival of exorcism. It is a shame that Waters wrote the section of Cursed Britain about exorcism before the publication of my book A History of Anglican Exorcism, since he might then have been able to explore the deeper origins of the revival that occurred in the 1960s and 70s. As I have shown, the revival in the Church of England began in the 1920s and was indigenous rather than being imported from elsewhere.

Cursed Britain leaves the reader unsettled, because it highlights how recently belief in witchcraft has disappeared from mainstream British culture, and leaves hanging the possibility that belief in witchcraft – or something like it – could still reassert itself within our society. At least some of the conditions that Waters suggests led to a decline in witchcraft belief in the twentieth century are, after all, unravelling. In a future Britain suffering deep and prolonged economic hardship as a result of a no deal Brexit, where the NHS has broken down, climate change is bringing in new and unfamiliar diseases, antibiotics are no longer effective, and people’s grasp of evidence (and even causality) has been weakened by the corrosive effect of social media, it is it too much to imagine a revival of accusations of witchcraft? It is the stuff of nightmares, perhaps – but could witchcraft be as much a feature of Britain’s future as its past?

I would encourage everyone to read Cursed Britain, whether they are interested in the history of occult beliefs or not, because it is a profoundly insightful book that raises deep questions about the nature of belief, social change and the assumptions we make about both history and the present we think we inhabit.