Did the North Berwick Witches Actually Do Any Magic?

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Blog readers have my apologies for the lateness of this, the first post of my monthly blogging — February has seen me contract Vestibular Neuronitis, a condition affecting my balance. As such February 2017 has been both surreal and hugely unpleasant, and I’m not fully on my feet yet.

Anyway, as some of my readers might know, one case that I often return to is the North Berwick trials of 1590-91. My personal judgement is that the North Berwick trials are interesting to study from a number of perspectives, but that ultimately, I don’t believe for a moment that the events of the North Berwick Sabbats occurred. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that there wasn’t a magical conspiracy to kill of control James VI.

In fact, there could well have been. Continue reading

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The Blog is Going Monthly!

Yates Thompson 26Hello everyone. I’ve been doing my best to update this blog weekly since September, and it’s been an absolute blast. In the past I’ve only ever updated sporadically: when I had a strong idea for something that I couldn’t sell, or where edits changed a piece to the point where I felt there was a whole other article still to be written.

Since writing weekly, it’s been huge (to steal a Trumpism – I don’t like his politics, but we’ve got a disturbing similarity in lexicon…)

I’ve made friends, I’ve increased my social media followers, and I’ve tripled the rate of my study: there’s nothing that stimulates the mind and gets me learning better than the motivating pull of these blog posts raising questions and spurring me on to new areas.

More than that, the conversations these posts have prompted have hugely widened the scope of my knowledge, just in a few months, and given me a three dimensionality to my work that could only come from discussing it with people who knew what they were talking about.

This is why I’m committed to keep posting on my blog, BUT I’ve got a lot of work coming up this year. Continue reading

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I’m talking about Fairies and the Witch Trials on the Folklore Podcast!

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Hello everyone. Today’s blog post isn’t quite like my usual ones: it’s not an article in its own right, but instead a digest of things that I mentioned in the interview I did for the Folklore Podcast episode that went live today, but didn’t have time/the memory to develop on. If you want to listen to the cast, you can do it at the address below:

http://www.thefolklorepodcast.com/

You can find my episode (“Fairy Belief and the Witch Trials”) in Season Two. Continue reading

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Sceptics in the Witch Trials

woman_teaching_geometryI’m in the latest issue of The Skeptic at the moment, writing about standards of proof when looking at medieval and Early Modern sources (largely medieval in that article) who present the supernatural as fact. For me, critical thinking is an indispensably important part of what I do – although I wouldn’t say I identify as ‘a S(c/k)eptic’ in the sense that it’s arisen as a social group. There are sceptic pub nights, there are sceptic podcasts and magazines. That’s not me.

I’m not an anti-sceptic either. My personal beliefs are my own, and they’re not part of my historical work. If I’m honest with myself, perhaps the reason my work is about social history instead of being more phenomenological is because it’s a debate that I’d rather keep out of, in part because even if we can say (and we often can) that a certain thing didn’t happen, we can’t actually say what did. Continue reading

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Biblical Curses During the Era of the Witch Trials

Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden - stained glassFor this blog, spring is probably going to have a lot of articles about either cursing and diaries. I’ve got a paper coming up at a very exciting conference just as (hopefully) the weather is picking up (and by that, I mean ‘the temperature should be above 10°C’.) Therefore, the lion’s share of my writing will be taken up with research on cursing from the medieval era to the Early Modern.

Today’s will be the first of the cursing posts: curses and execrations were all around for the medieval and Early Modern citizen. It’s little wonder that, with the growing belief in providentialism that accompanied the Reformation, the English more and more believed that witches could lay lethally effective curses. Even the grave of William Shakespeare, a resolutely mainstream figure, is decorated with the words, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

A significant part of the draw of the curse, as it existed in a licit context, was the idea of appeal to a higher power. Even in a modern society, with supposedly reliable access to the machinery of justice, a significant gap exists between law and practise. In medieval and Early Modern England, with courts convened cyclically, laws poorly understood, and where justice could be put on hiatus by anything from heavy rains to plague, an extra supernatural deterrent would have been reassuring. Continue reading

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Gifts, Hospitality and the Supernatural in Medieval Folklore

de3c1bb65c6e9c5150a1f13ec3e2ab35So, it’s Christmas day, the presents have been opened, and you’re either  spending the day with your beloved family or crammed in with that bunch of assholes with whom you have nothing in common but an accident of birth.

Either way, I hope there were presents in the offing, because as much as we like to shake our privileged heads and lament the commercialisation of Christmas, gifting and hospitality have long been a fairly important part of European culture.

In the Middle Ages, and particularly in the myth and folklore of the Middle Ages, both gifting and hospitality were important motifs.

And since writing about those things would suggest that I had things like social contact or friends, I’ve had to ask the awesome Heather O’Brien of Heathen Undergound to step in and write a little about Christmas and Gifting in the Middle Ages.

Continue reading

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Ebenezer and the Witches: Charity Refused in the Witch Trials

6Welcome to this week’s instalment of Jon and the Magic Shoehorn, where I try and make this blog post in some way Christmassy.

So, in a gesture designed to produce the highest quotient of relevance per minute of effort, let’s talk about Ebenezer Scrooge. While Dickens’ story makes clear that he is a genuinely money-hungry, greedy man with little or no empathy, there is another to Scrooge’s character that is very relevant to one of the driving forces behind the witch trials: the idea of Charity Refused. Continue reading

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Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a  working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.

With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…

Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.

I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland… Continue reading

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Doctors Strange: Early Modern Surgeons, Demonic Possession, and Witchcraft

8b4206c0ed5ded4e3db61f410f35b024In writing the social history of the supernatural, it’s all too easy for to create a pantheon of heroes and villains. For heroes we have educated doctors and humanists fighting fanatical magistrates, bringing modern wisdom to backward country farmers. As villains, we would have a field of straw men: Puritan preachers, ‘Witchfinder Generals’, ignorant yokels, conniving magnates, and corrupt search-women.

Yet, there were always those who didn’t believe in magic. From the 15th to 16th centuries, the Duchess of Bedford was accused of Witchcraft, and one of Jack Cade’s compatriots was executed for necromancy. Despite that, there are no mentions of magic or the supernatural in the Paston Letters – written by a family living in 15th and 16th century Norfolk. Continue reading

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Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Demonic Possession

drunkeness-copyCards on the table: I haven’t had time to write a fresh blog post for this week, since I’m giving a lecture at the Rose Playhouse in London tomorrow (Monday 21st November 2016, to be exact), but things are gearing up towards Christmas, which puts me in mind of my favourite Christmassy Shakespeare play (that I’ve also given a lecture about at the Rose, and have extensive notes for).

What’s the title of that play? Well, just in case you didn’t have time to read the title of this blog post: it’s Twelfth Night.

What’s my favourite part? The sly references to Demonic possession in Act Four, Scene Two. Continue reading

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