Review: The History of Magic by Chris Gosden

Chris Gosden, The History of Magic: From Alchemy to Witchcraft, from the Ice Age to the Present (London: Viking/Penguin, 2020), 482pp. 

To describe Chris Gosden’s History of Magic as ambitious would be an understatement, as this book attempts to provide a global history of magic across the entire globe and across the entire history of the human species. Indeed, such is the scope of the book that it is less a history of magic than a theory of magic, since it is difficult to tell the story of magic in such a general way without committing oneself pretty boldly to certain interpretations of what magic is. Gosden approaches the subject not as a historian of magic, nor indeed as an intellectual historian, but as an archaeologist grounded in anthropology with a broad experience of global cultural responses to magic. The book is thus very firmly on the anthropological side of the debate about whether magic should primarily be approached historically or anthropologically. As a historian of magic, I find myself instinctively suspicious of the generalising approach of anthropologists (and anthropologically grounded archaeologists) when it comes to magic; I prefer not to generalise at all, and deal with the phenomenon of magic within as specific a cultural and historical context as possible. Yet my methodological preference should not blind me to the value of alternative approaches, and there will be much demand from non-specialist readers for a broad account of magic such as this.

Gosden takes the path of simplicity when approaching the question that bedevils all writing about magic: how do we define what magic is? For Gosden, magic is about a two-way relationship between humans and the world around them: ‘people are open to the workings of the universe and the universe is responsive to us’ (p. 2). Adopting a traditional tripartite division from Sir James Frazer (but little else from that perilous author), Gosden sees magic as the elder cousin of religion and science. The metaphor of a triple helix he adopts for the relationship of these cousins, who are entwined – and even merge into one another – is attractive. While it is always possible to argue, in any individual case, that no meaningful distinction exists between magic and religion (and even between magic and science), these contested categories have remained durable. We continue to make use of the categories, not least in order to challenge them critically; and thus, although no-one is able to give a clear and universally satisfactory definition of what magic is, magic is nonetheless. Few actually stop using the term, however critical of it they may be, and Gosden’s direct and unabashed approach to magic is refreshing – although obviously open to criticism at almost every turn.

Gosden discerns five different relationships between magic, religion and science: magic as a dominant force; magic and an emphasis on human lineages; magic and religion as equals; a situation where religion is dominant and magic is ambiguous; and a situation in which science, religion and magic exist in that order of importance (for example, in the contemporary developed world). Gosden then divides magic into benign and malign – again, a strikingly traditional approach when one considers how many old-fashioned accounts of magic began by distinguishing between ‘white’ and ‘black’ magic. Within benign magic, Gosden recognises the eight categories of relationship work, apotropaic magic, foretelling the future, magic to do with understanding the past, magic to do with dying and the dead, magic to do with health and medicine, magic to do with personal and external transformation, and magic that seeks to manipulate desire. Within malign magic there are only three categories: witchcraft, cursing, and the use of magic as countercultural protest.

The structure of The History of Magic is broadly chronological, with four of the ten chapters dealing with largely non-written cultures (deep prehistory; Shamanism; prehistoric Europe; and the indigenous cultures of Africa, Australia and the Americas). The literate cultures dealt with in the book include Mesopotamia, Egypt, ancient China, ancient Israel, Greece, Rome and medieval Europe. Finally, the book deals with modern and contemporary magic. Gosden makes the case for giving equal weight to archaeological, anthropological and historical evidence in the story of magic, while also cautioning against the very real danger of interpreting scanty and ambiguous evidence for pre-literate and non-literate societies. The author brings to the analysis of the archaeological material, in particular, his wealth of experience as an archaeologist and curator of global standing. Again and again, Gosden returns to the material evidence (and, in some cases, his coverage of magic from the perspective of intellectual and textual history is correspondingly cursory). This book is very much an archaeologist’s history of magic.

One of the major benefits of a broad global study such as this is that it gives us perspective on the relative importance of strands of magic that may not be as dominant as we think they are. For example, Gosden notes that, in spite of the extraordinarily prolific academic literature on witchcraft, harmful magic is not an especially common category of magic when considered across the world and in the longue durée of human history (Gosden awards medieval and early modern witchcraft no fewer than three pages…). Similarly, Gosden reminds us that the vast majority of people alive in the world today, and of course the vast majority of everyone who has ever lived, accepted the reality of magic in some form (or, at least, did not performatively repudiate it in the manner of post-Enlightenment western culture). As the author notes, western culture defines itself in opposition to magic, but that opposition is a self-conscious performance rather than a genuine expulsion of all magical thinking from western culture. People still think magically, and still believe in magic, even if the vocabulary has changed.

The central argument of the book is that we ought to adopt a more positive evaluation of the potential of magic on account of a more holistic conception of the relationship between body and mind, and between human beings and their environment. Gosden argues that ‘Magic connects people to the world in a condition of kinship’ and encourages ‘positive and holistic planetary thinking’ (p. 33). Because ‘it is often difficult to say where the body stops and its surroundings start’ (p. 416), and we are inhabitants of ‘sensate ecologies’ composed of other sentient beings, Gosden advocates a neo-magical worldview in which we exist in a reciprocal relationship with our environment. He proposes reviving the mentality of the hunter gatherer for the technological age – ‘a communal life … lived together with all the cosmos’ (p. 432). Whether such a thing is possible is an intriguing question, although perhaps one that must be haunted by doubts about whether the archaeologist’s interpretations of the prehistoric mind really represent the authentic internal life of the hunter gatherer.

This is undoubtedly a valuable book, not least for bringing the study of magic in general (and not just its specific instances) into the mainstream of history – as its author notes, the historical study of magic is exploding because, for so long, many historians looked askance even at the study of magic and magical belief, let alone at magic itself. Gosden’s History of Magic is, in many ways, a personal response to the age old question ‘What is magic?’; but even if this book is not, perhaps, where I would send someone seeking an introduction to the history of magic, it is a response given by a scholar uniquely qualified to give some intriguing and very thought-provoking answers to the question of what magic is.


Contract signed with Routledge: English Catholicism, 1558–1642 (Second Edition) by Alan Dures and Francis Young

Published in 1983, Alan Dures’s textbook for A Level and undergraduate students English Catholicism, 1558-1642, is something of a minor classic; long out of print, it remains the only textbook on English Catholicism ever written at this level, as an introduction to the field for students just setting out on the academic study of History. Alan Dures and I have just signed a contract with Routledge to bring out a thoroughly revised second edition of this important textbook in Routledge’s Seminar Studies in History series. The second edition will be thoroughly revised and updated to reflect the seismic changes in the historiography of English Catholicism in the last 40 years, and it will (we hope) become a key resource for students developing an interest in the phenomenon of English Catholicism at an early stage in their studies.

The first edition of the book from 1983

The Elizabethan religious settlement of 1559 made English people who continued to adhere to Catholic beliefs and practices a marginalised and legally proscribed minority. The ancestral religion of medieval England became a banned faith. Both Catholic rebellions and papal pronouncements resulted in the enactment of harsh laws against Catholics, and especially against Catholic priests, who adopted a number of inventive ways of surviving the persecution of their faith. In addition to those who refused to attend Protestant worship (recusants) and those who moved overseas in order to practise their faith, some Catholics outwardly conformed to the established church while privately practising their faith. The Catholic church was faced with the very difficult task of ministering to Catholics in secret, supplying priests, and setting up a clandestine ecclesiastical structure under harsh conditions of persecution. Government attitudes towards Catholics varied across the reigns of Elizabeth, James and Charles I, but against all odds, English Catholicism survived in the heart of a Protestant nation. English Catholicism 1558–1642 introduces and makes accessible the complexities of the history of English Catholicism and the Catholic community in the later English Reformation period, presenting a range of primary source documents to support the discussion in the main text.

This is a particularly special project for me because Alan Dures was, in fact, my own History teacher at A Level, and it is thanks to him that I became interested in English Catholicism in the first place.


The face of Abbot Curteys – in glass from St Edmunds Abbey?

Abbot William Curteys of Bury St Edmunds (d. 1446) in a stained glass fragment at All Saints, Brandeston, Suffolk © Martin Harrison

As reported recently by Bury St Edmunds and Beyond, I have been working with a stained glass expert, Martin Harrison, to identify some fragments in a window on the south side of the nave in Brandeston church, Suffolk. One of these fragments, which appears to date from the early 16th century, portrays an abbot in everyday dress (a monastic habit and Canterbury cap), while the crozier identifies him as an abbot. I have been able to identify this abbot as William Curteys, and it joins the few surviving depictions of medieval abbots of Bury (I wrote about my identification of a portrayal of Abbot William Bunting, alias Coddenham, last year).

According to Christopher Woodforde’s book The Norwich School of Glass Painting in the Fifteenth Century (1950) there was once a series of abbots of Bury St Edmunds portrayed in glass at Brandeston, including William Curteys (ruled 1429–46), Thomas Rattlesden (ruled 1479–97) and William Bunting (ruled 1497–1513). However, this series was not original to the church, since the glass at Brandeston was described in 1725 by Robert Hawes, who makes no mention of abbots. It is unclear what happened to the other abbots – but, since the present glass seems to have been installed in around 1860, the other fragments were probably lost or broken in the process of a Victorian re-setting of the fragments.

Fortunately, it is possible to identify the surviving figure from the inscription in the book that lies open in front of him. Although I have found the last line of the inscription illegible, the first two lines read:

Edmu[n]d[i] | rex et

mart[ir]is | vita[m] pr[o]

mu[n]dus | In scribo

… | …erit

The Latin is poor, and should read Edmundi regis et martiris vitam pro mundo inscribo (‘I write the life of Edmund, king and martyr for the world’), but the inscription unambiguously identifies this abbot as William Curteys (ruled 1429-46), the only abbot of St Edmunds who wrote a life of St Edmund, Vita et passio S. Edmundi breviter collecta (British Library MS Add. 14848 fols 240r-242v). Curteys is best known for his patronage of the poet John Lydgate, for his construction of a new library at Bury, and for welcoming Henry VI to the abbey in 1433.

This glass is clearly not original to Brandeston, and where it came from remains a mystery. However, if Woodforde was right that Curteys formed part of a series of abbots, it is hard to imagine that such a series came from anywhere other than St Edmunds Abbey itself. The allusion to Abbot Curteys’s life of St Edmund is a highly specific one that would probably be understood only by monks familiar with the abbot’s writings, and the abbot’s appearance in everyday dress might point to a portrayal for internal consumption within the monastery. By contrast, the only other known depiction of an abbot of St Edmunds in stained glass (Richard Ingham at Long Melford) portrays the abbot in full pontificals.

We should expect any surviving glass from Bury St Edmunds to be very late, owing to the devastating fire that heavily damaged the abbey in 1465. if the fragment depicting Curteys does come from Bury, it could come from anywhere in the monastery; but one likely location is the Chapter House, where the abbots were elected and often buried. Surviving medieval cathedral chapter houses often portray bishops in stained glass, and it seems likely that the windows of Bury’s Chapter House included images of its great abbots.

Bury’s Chapter House during excavations in 1901-2, showing the uncovered tombs of abbots

We know that the abbey church at Bury and its ancillary buildings were not immediately demolished. The monastery’s materials, including the valuable glass, would have been carefully removed and sold by the Crown whose property they became (this is supported by the scarcity of fragments of glass found in excavations on the abbey site). Because glass was so expensive to make, after the dissolution glass from dissolved religious houses sometimes ended up set into haphazard assemblages, and in the 18th and 19th centuries it became fashionable to try to reconstruct these in something approaching their original forms (a not altogether successful reconstruction of this kind is the so-called ‘Susanna Window’ in St Edmundsbury Cathedral, although this glass is probably original to St James’ Church). Of course, by this time the provenance of most of the glass was completely forgotten.

Whether or not the portrayal of Abbot Curteys at Brandeston comes from Bury’s Chapter House (which must remain speculation), it offers an insight into the commemoration of Curteys and other abbots in the reign of Abbot Reeve (1513-39), during whose abbacy this glass was probably made. It tells us that Curteys’s short life of St Edmund was still remembered, probably because the focus of Curteys’s Vita et passio S. Edmundi breviter collecta was the legal rights and privileges of St Edmunds Abbey – something that always preoccupied the monks of Bury.


Article in History Ireland: ‘St Edmund: Patron Saint of Ireland?’

The July and August 2020 edition of Ireland’s history magazine, History Ireland, features my article ‘St Edmund: Patron Saint of Ireland?’, which outlines the almost incredible story of English attempts to turn St Edmund into Ireland’s patron saint in the late Middle Ages. The article serves as an introduction to my new book Athassel Priory and the Cult of St Edmund in Medieval Ireland, which was published by Four Courts Press in February.