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Review: Deliverance by Jason Bray

Jason Bray, Deliverance (London: Coronet, 2021), 304pp.

Deliverance is an account by a priest of the Church in Wales, the Revd Dr Jason Bray, of his role as a deliverance minister, and represents an unusually frank and detailed exploration of the present-day practice of Anglican exorcism. In fact, it is hard to point to any book that is a better introduction to the realities of deliverance ministry in contemporary Anglicanism, since most books in this field are either instructional texts focussed on the theory and practice of deliverance or a series of anecdotes from deliverance ministry interspersed by a deliverance minister’s reflections or personal demonological theories. Certainly, when I was writing my book A History of Anglican Exorcism I would have found a book like this very helpful in giving an honest account of the realities of deliverance ministry in the modern world.

Dr Bray is a deliverance minister refreshingly uninterested in theory, and while no book on deliverance can be entirely free from demonological speculation, Bray mercifully keeps it to a minimum and appears to understand that his book will be far more readable and accessible to the general public without excessive theologising. What is rather special about Deliverance is that it assumes no knowledge on the part of the reader of what Anglican clergy do, and Bray deftly weaves his account of deliverance ministry into a much broader depiction of clerical life that makes clear the pastoral context within which deliverance ministry is, well, delivered. Deliverance ministers are priests like any others, with the usual responsibilities, who are obliged to fit in deliverance ministry alongside their other commitments.

Dr Bray is clearly a deliverance minister who belongs to the fairly cautious, sacramental school of thought on exorcism that can be traced back to Max Petitpierre and, before him, Gilbert Shaw. Bray also names Dominic Walker as an influence, and Bray shares Walker’s reticence in accepting the reality of many claims of demonic possession; indeed, Bray makes clear he has never yet had cause to perform a ‘Major Exorcism’ (an exorcism of a person believed to be possessed) and, while he acknowledges the theoretical reality of such cases, he believes them to be exceedingly rare. In this respect Bray differs from some charismatic and evangelical exorcists who are sometimes more willing to discern demonic possession. The emphasis of Bray’s ministry, therefore, is on paranormal phenomena affecting people in their homes, and it consists primarily of a ministry of house blessing and the occasional Requiem Mass where a ‘genuine haunting’ is concerned.

In addition to conveying the way in which deliverance ministry is integrated into the wider life of an Anglican priest, Deliverance also conveys the sheer mundanity of most deliverance ministry – which indeed reflects the reality of exorcism at most times and in most places in history, as a form of ‘spiritual pest control’ rather than the sort of set-piece dramatic confrontations with the devil imagined in popular culture. I can only presume that it is in order to present a balanced and truthful image of the much-sensationalised deliverance ministry that Bray has written this book, and he had presumably done so with the agreement of the bishop to whom he acts as deliverance advisor. This is a bold move on the part of the Church in Wales – and one that I would be surprised to see in the Church of England, whose strategy has historically been to avoid any publicity for the ministry of deliverance. Dr Bray’s decision to take advantage of the ever ready public interest in exorcism to present an impressively desensationalised account of the realities of deliverance ministry may well turn out to be the better strategy, since secretiveness about one of the church’s ministries has the tendency to breed misconceptions. While I have many personal reservations about the ministry of deliverance as practised in the Anglican Communion, it is difficult not to commend the honesty of Dr Bray’s book, which will no doubt become a first port of call for those interested in the ministry of deliverance.

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230th anniversary of the Polish-Lithuanian constitution of 1791

An allegory of the Constitution of 1791 (1793)

Today I was honoured to attend a reception at the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in London to celebrate the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the first written constitution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on 3 May 1791, hosted by the ambassadors of Lithuania and Poland to the United Kingdom. Earlier in the day the Lithuanian Embassy hosted a webinar on the history of the constitution featuring leading historians of Poland-Lithuania, including Prof. Robert Frost, Dr Jolanta Karpavičienė and Prof. Karin Friedrich, which was moderated by the celebrated Lithuanian historical novelist Dr Kristina Sabaliauskaitė.

Preceded by a cello recital from Lithuanian cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, the reception was attended by the ambassadors of Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Ukraine and Hungary and honoured the contribution of Prof. Robert Frost to public understanding of the history of Poland-Lithuania. Prof. Frost was formally invested with the insignia of a Knight of the Orders of Merit of both nations, by presidential decree. Kristina Sabaliauskaitė was then presented with the Two Nations Award in recognition of her work as a historical novelist in bringing the history of Poland-Lithuania to public attention. I was especially honoured to have the opportunity to speak to Dr Sabaliauskaitė about her work.

The reception was a wonderful occasion for historians of Poland and Lithuania based in the UK that fittingly celebrated the historic events of 3 May 1791 as well as the achievements of Prof. Frost and Dr Sabaliauskaitė.

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A lost treasure of St Edmunds Abbey? The Douai Reliquary

It is not every day that a lost treasure of the great Abbey of Bury St Edmunds comes to light, but this month’s edition of The Burlington Magazine features an article by Marian Campbell and Michaela Zöschg about a recently discovered fourteenth-century reliquary that can be plausibly attributed to St Edmunds Abbey owing to the unusual choice of saints and the decorative scheme adopted. The figure of the crucified Christ is represented against fields of blue and red covered with gold crowns, which recalls the arms of St Edmunds Abbey and the See of Ely. The presence of a relic of ‘St Robert, martyr’ among the relics that line the edge of the reliquary strongly suggests a Bury provenance, since the antisemitic pseudo-saint Robert of Bury St Edmunds (supposedly killed by the town’s Jews in 1181) was venerated exclusively in Bury and had his own chapel in the Abbey’s crypt.

The reliquary was discovered by Abbot Geoffrey Scott in the collections of Douai Abbey, the symbolic successor monastery of Bury St Edmunds founded in Paris in 1615 and now located at Woolhampton, Berkshire. All that is known of the reliquary is that it passed to Douai Abbey in 1927 from the Benedictine parish at Chipping Sodbury, Gloucestershire. Abbot Scott believes the reliquary could have been given to Chipping Sodbury by the East Anglian Paston family, who moved from Barningham in Norfolk to Horton Court, Gloucestershire in around 1700. Abbot Geoffrey made me aware of the reliquary in August 2020 in the hope that I might be able to help trace its provenance. I noted then that Sir William Paston (1378-1444), Justice of the Common Pleas, was admitted to the confraternity at Bury as a lay member of the chapter in 1429. This raises the possibility that the reliquary could have been a gift from the then abbot, William Curteys, to Sir William Paston. Sir William Paston was the great-grandfather of Sir Edward Paston, who acquired Horton Court in 1550. It seems possible, therefore, that the reliquary was passed on as a family heirloom before the Reformation. This would explain its survival and preservation by a Catholic family that had no particular connection to St Edmunds Abbey at the time of the Reformation.

Whatever the exact nature of its provenance, the reliquary’s connection to fourteenth-century Bury St Edmunds seems convincing; it joins the small but distinguished list of surviving treasures of St Edmunds Abbey, along with the Bury Bible and the Cloisters Cross. The reliquary is currently on loan from Douai Abbey to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

I am grateful to Abbot Geoffrey Scott for permission to reproduce images of the reliquary.

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England’s first poltergeist on BBC Radio Suffolk

Dagworth Hall today © Jeremy Steventon-Barnes

I spoke today on BBC Radio Suffolk (on James Hazell’s ‘Spooky Suffolk’ segment) about England’s earliest recorded poltergeist story, which supposedly took place at Dagworth Hall near Stowmarket, the home of Sir Osberne de Bradwell in the reign of Richard I. An invisible, mischievous spirit lifted up and banged household items as well as playing with and communicating with Sir Osberne’s children, eventually revealing its identity as ‘Malekin’, a child taken by the fairies. The ‘Malekin’ story has a certain resemblance to modern poltergeist narratives, although it also differs significantly from the dominant features of modern descriptions of poltergeist phenomena.

You can listen to my interview with James Hazell here (from 2:16:00) read more about the Dagworth Poltergeist here.

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Contract signed with Cambridge University Press: Magic in Merlin’s Realm

King Arthur and his knights experience the vision of the Holy Grail, BNF Français 116 f. 610v

I have just signed a contract with Cambridge University Press to publish my book Magic in Merlin’s Realm: A History of Occult Politics in Britain, which will be a complete history of the intersection of politics and magic in English, Welsh and Scottish history from the earliest times to the present day. Magic in Merlin’s Realm aims to be a major historical re-evaluation of the importance of belief in magic to major political events. The book argues that, like understanding religion, understanding belief in magic is often essential to grasping the thought-world and motivations of major actors in British history – and that the occult dimension of British politics has hitherto been underestimated, or not taken seriously by historians.

Magic in Merlin’s Realm follows on from my 2017 book Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England, which focussed on one specific way in which magic and politics interacted in England: the use of magic for treasonous and seditious purposes. The new book goes well beyond that narrow concentration to look at the interaction of politics and a whole range of occult traditions, both benign and malign, from alchemy and astrology to ritual magic and the deployment of magic in warfare. The new book also takes in Scotland, Wales and English Ireland, and goes beyond the early modern era to examine how links between politics and magical thinking may still remain important today.

In addition to examining the relationships between British monarchs and magic, a thread that runs through Magic in Merlin’s Realm is the importance of Britain’s ‘Merlins’, those self-styled magicians and practitioners of the occult arts who have attempted to act as political advisers to successive rulers. While John Dee remains the most famous of England’s ‘Merlins’ he was by no means the only figure who tried to use magic to help the monarch, or sought to reimagine the monarch’s authority in magical terms. The monarchs of England and Scotland enjoyed an ambiguous relationship with magic, at once condemning it and making use of it when needed, and Magic in Merlin’s Realm examines how a succession of royal magical advisers consciously assumed the mythical mantle of Merlin to add occult wisdom to the wisdom of governance.

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The ghost of Maude Carew on BBC Radio Suffolk

This afternoon I spoke to James Hazell of BBC Radio Suffolk for my regular ‘Spooky Suffolk’ segment (listen from time signature 2:15:30), which this week focussed on Bury St Edmunds’s most famous haunting: the alleged appearance of the ghost of Maude Carew in the Abbey Ruins every 24 February at 11pm. The story of Maude Carew gave rise to Bury’s legend of the Grey Lady but she was in fact a character made up by Margaretta Greene for an 1861 novella, The Secret Disclosed.

You can read more about Maude Carew and the Grey Lady here.

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Supernatural Sutton Hoo on BBC Radio Suffolk

Sutton Hoo burial mounds © A. Mitchell

On today’s ‘Spooky Suffolk’ segment on BBC Radio Suffolk I spoke to presenter James Hazell about some of the supernatural associations of Sutton Hoo, which is in the news this week owing to the release of Netflix film The Dig, a dramatisation of the novel by John Preston about the discovery of the ship burial in Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1. You can listen to my interview here from time signature 2:16:00.

Perhaps the best known supernatural story about Sutton Hoo is Edith Pretty’s claim that she saw an armed warrior standing on top of Mound 1 long before the excavation took place – a vision that seems to have arisen from her practice of Spiritualism. However, Sutton Hoo’s supernatural associations reach much further back into the past. The burial of the warrior king in Mound 1 itself has certain connotations of magic. The purse-lid, in particular, depicting a man between beasts has been interpreted as an expression of some sort of shamanic ritual in Germanic religion, in which a human shaman travelled into the spirit world in animal form.

Whatever the enigmatic beliefs of the warrior of Mound 1 and his society – which was already in contact with and shifting towards Christianity – within decades Sutton Hoo had become a cursed place of execution and burial for criminals; a gallows was set up and the bodies of the condemned were decapitated and mutilated before being buried among the heathen burial mounds, which were now associated with an evil pagan past. The association between barrows and evil supernatural beings is hinted at in the Old English charm ‘against sudden stitch’ (elf-shot) known as Wið færstice, which refers to ‘mighty women’ who ride over a burial mound and appear to be elves or witches.

Sutton Hoo has been persistently linked in folklore with the treasure-hunting activities of the 16th-century magician John Dee, but in my research into Dee’s treasure-hunting I found no evidence he ever visited the site or expressed an interest in it. Instead, Martin Carver has suggested that the 16th-century ‘hill-digging’ at Sutton Hoo – which narrowly missed the ship burial in Mound 1 – was orchestrated by William Smyth of Clopton, who (in common with most treasure-hunters of the period) made use of necromancy in an effort to discover buried treasure.

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Suffolk’s abandoned settlements on BBC Radio Suffolk

The lost village of Fornham St Genevieve, from an estate map of 1769

This afternoon I was once again interviewed by James Hazell for BBC Radio Suffolk’s ‘Spooky Suffolk’ segment, this week focussing on Suffolk’s abandoned settlements. Although Dunwich is the most famous of these, a large port town abandoned to the sea in the Middle Ages, other settlements have been absorbed by the expansion of towns such as Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft (and their names forgotten), while other settlements never recovered their population after the Black Death and were abandoned – such as Alston St John, Chilton and Wordwell. Still more villages ceased to exist or were moved from their original location as a result of the enclosure and landscaping of parkland in the 18th century, such as Fornham St Genevieve, Ickworth and Culford. You can listen to me talking about Suffolk’s lost settlements here at time signature 2:15:30.

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History in Prehistory for Wiltshire Museum

This evening I delivered an online talk for Wiltshire Museum on the theme of ‘History in Prehistory: Interpreting the Prehistoric Landscape in Medieval and Early Modern England’, which examined the evidence for pre-archaeological interpretations of prehistoric landscape features from the early Middle Ages to the advent of antiquarianism in the 16th century.

Medieval and early modern people lived in a rural England whose landscape and boundaries were still determined, to a remarkable degree, by their Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age predecessors. In many parts of the country, people lived in the shadow of artificial landscape features created by prehistoric people which served as landmarks and focuses of local folklore. The talk examined how medieval and early modern people approached the prehistoric past in the landscape before the advent of antiquarianism and archaeology, and how their folklore, religious beliefs and understanding of customary traditions affected their interpretation of prehistoric features.

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Plough Monday on BBC Radio Suffolk

In today’s ‘Spooky Suffolk’ segment on BBC Radio Suffolk I spoke to James Hazell about Suffolk’s Plough Monday traditions, from cross-dressing to plough blessing and a strange charm involving a ploughshare and a bull’s penis… You can listen again here (at time signature 2:14:20).