Category Archives: Books and Writers

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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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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Trumpageddon, The Revelation of John and the Apocalypse from the Middle Ages to the English Restoration

d5a9072468314a887f7ba9426743de45I rarely write about the modern world. From a personal perspective, my interest tends to peter out after 1650.

With that said, it would be impossible for me to write anything this week without discussing how utterly terrible 2016 has been so far… so I’ve decided this week’s articles will be about Apocalypse narratives, and predictions of disaster. Continue reading

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Why the English Never Tortured Witches

punishing-witches-laienspiegelThis blog post comes from a conversation I had with someone in a pub. I can’t remember how the conversation had come around to witches – it was somewhere between one of them having a go at me for not owning a telly, but before when they had a go at me for using too many long words.

The thing that stuck with me was the outrage I got when I mentioned that the English didn’t torture witches. I was offered the famous quote that Medieval people were nasty, brutish and short, and that their lives were shaped correspondingly.

Because of this, I’d like to make it clear that this article isn’t meant to account for every abusive blow struck in the cellar of every parish goal. It isn’t meant to say that no abuse took place, or that the conditions of Early Modern confinement were in any way pleasant.

What I think might be profitable is to look at is why the English judicial system never authorised the mass torture of witches, and why European systems did. Continue reading

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Mrs. Anna Taylor — Chemical Physician, Ritual Magician and Seventeenth Century Woman

screenshot2012-02-29at3-35-57pmThis is the story of a middle class woman from 1607. Her name was Anna Taylor. She was the wife of a brewer called George; she could read (as could her mother) and she might well have been a doctor. Not a ‘wise woman’ or local healer – a doctor. She made chemical medicines and astrologically charged distilled potions. She tested people’s urine to find out why they were sick, and she could tell you the progression of an illness. She also might have had magical books and attempted spells that would summon the fairies. Continue reading

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Liber Vaccae — The Book of WTF?!?

This article exists behind a disclaimer: the magical book I’m about to write about is just weird. It’s weird, it’s disgusting, and there are a lot bodily fluids involved. Enter at your own risk.liber-vaccae Continue reading

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A Prideful and Naughty Coniurer: Tudor England’s Crackdown on Semi-Learned Male Magicians

gilles_de_rais_murdering_childrenIn the parliament of 1541/2, Henry VIII passed a witchcraft act entitled ‘An Act against Conjurations, Witchcraft, Sorcery and Enchantments.’

The act had a very different focus to what we might expect for an act punishing witchcraft: killing by magic is only mentioned in passing, and the idea of the witch as being in league with Satan was given a backhanded reference:

“Where dyvers and sundrie persones unlawfully have devised and practised invocacons and conjuracons of Sprites, p’tendyng by such meanes to understand and get Knowledge for their own lucre in what place treasure of golde and Silver shoulde or mought be founde or had in the earthe or other secret places, and also have used and occupied witchcrafts inchauntment and sorceries to the distruccon of their neigbours persones and goodes, And for execucon of their said falce devyses and practises have made or caused to be made dyvers Images and pictures of men women children Angells or devells beastes or fowles, and have also made Crownes Septures Swordes rynges glasses and other thinges, and giving faithe & credit to suche fantasticall practises have dyged up and pulled downe and infinite nombre of Crosses within this Realme, and teaken upon them to declare and tell where things lost or stolen shulde become; wiche things cannot be used and exercised but to the great offence of Godes lawe, hurt and damage of the Kinges Subjects, and losse of the sowles of such Offenders, to the greate dishonour of God, Infany and disquyetnes of the Realme…”

The target of this crackdown was, of course, a class of troublemaker more threatening to Henry than all the village wise women and argumentative spinsters combined: educated sorcerers, very often former monks or clerically trained university men, who had turned to magic as a way of earning a crust. Continue reading

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Edward Alleyn and the Extra Devil in Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus…

Did Edward Alleyn see an extra Devil on stage during Faustus?

The first origin of the story as it related to Alleyn seems to come from quite a while after Alleyn’s death: in 1673, when John Aubrey he visited Dulwich College/The College of God’s Gift, he was told the story, and published it in his Natural History and Antiquity of Surrey in 1715.

The story seems to have been fairly ubiquitous. The only (relatively) contemporary source I found was Thomas Middleton’s Black Book of 1604, where he described the Rose “cracking” during a performance of Faustus and frightening the audience. Probably because it was old wood and there was wind (there’s always wind on that street, it’s a peculiarity of London’s Bankside).

Listen to my latest audio to hear more!

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June 6, 2016 · 8:01 pm

Did the Medieval Church Persecute Male Sorcerers?

Were men the victims of a crusade against learned magic in the era before the witch trials? Listen to find out…

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May 1, 2016 · 7:48 pm