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12

Dec

2022

Re-assessing magic in premodern England

Written by: Tabitha Stanmore

 
 

…when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose any thing, we run hither and thither to wyssardes, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men; when there is no man foolish and blind as they be: for the devil leadeth them according unto his will and pleasure, and yet we run after them, seeking aid and comfort at their hands…

The sixteenth century was a time of spiritual turmoil in England. Uncertainty over how to practice one’s religion weighed heavily on people’s hearts and minds, adding further stress to communities already grappling with rising inflation and a population crisis. Fear of malevolent witchcraft was also growing, as people began to suspect their neighbours of weaponizing their barely suppressed frustration in new and diabolical ways.

In the middle of all this the renowned Protestant preacher, Hugh Latimer, gave a sermon against wizards and cunning folk. As the above extract from his sermon shows, Latimer was keen to convince his listeners that recourse to magic, even when useful, was the work of the Devil and should be avoided at all costs. He was not the first cleric to issue such a warning: similar messages had been shared by the Church since at least the twelfth century. But like his predecessors, Latimer found that his arguments largely fell on deaf ears. Despite the increasingly Godly period that England was entering, reliance on magic to solve everyday problems continued unabated.

My book, Love Spells and Lost Treasure: Service Magic in England from the Later Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era explores the role that ‘service magic’ played in everyday life and the culture of premodern England. While witchcraft is recognised as a phenomenon of the late medieval and early modern periods, service magic – magic that was performed to a useful end in exchange for a fee, and far more common in England than witchcraft – has been sorely overlooked. Service magic was a long-standing phenomenon by the time of the witch trials, and held an established place as a useful tool from at least the fourteenth century. It was used to meet needs that nothing else could address, like healing the chronically sick, finding lost goods, ending poverty by locating buried treasure, and kindling love.

The use of magic was technically illicit. First it was treated as a moral misdemeanour, as Latimer’s sermon suggests, and later as a secular crime. Despite this prohibition, for most people magic remained an accepted and even welcome aspect of everyday life. My research draws on over 700 instances of magic-use in England between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, combined with a wealth of contemporary literature, letters, sermons, pamphlets and chronicles. Together, this evidence builds a picture of practical magic’s impact on people’s lived experiences. It tells us about the lives of magicians and the spaces they navigated, both physically and within contemporary mindsets. It sheds light on the daily struggles of normal people and the limited sources of redress at their disposal. Most of all, Love Spells and Lost Treasure invites scholars to reconsider our assumptions about premodern peoples’ relationship with the supernatural.

By approaching the topic from several different angles, the book creates a rounded image of magic as a historical phenomenon. Knowing what people wanted from magic and how they knew where to get it; what people were prepared to pay for magical services; the relationship between clients and magicians; who magicians actually were and where they lived; and how class or social status affected the spells commissioned all cement our understanding of this under-researched group. My findings show that, though used to different ends, service magic was commissioned by people of every age, class and gender, and that magicians likewise came from most social classes. There was also a strong rationale behind how magic worked and how much it cost. The internal consistency and entrenchment of magic beliefs in pre-modern culture has implications for a number of academic fields, and as such this book should be of interest beyond the realm of magic studies. My findings will hopefully be of use to criminal, social, and economic history, as well as scholars of gender and literature. I am very excited to see Love Spells and Lost Treasure out in the world: I hope others enjoy it, too.

Love Spells and Lost Treasure By Tabitha Stanmore

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About the Author: Tabitha Stanmore

abitha Stanmore is a research fellow at the University of Exeter. Love Spells and Lost Treasure (2022) is her first book....

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