Review: Cunning Folk May 22, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback
There is a memorable scene near the beginning of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when Woody goes out on his first date with Diane Keaton and kisses her at the very start of the evening: oily old Woody says that he just wants to get the kiss out of the way and let everything else follow on. At the risk of sounding creepy let’s get the kiss out of the way here in the first couple of sentences: Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby (Sussex 2005) is an extraordinary and revolutionary book that deserves but that does not need compliments from the likes of this blogger; it is, in fact, perhaps the most exciting book said blogger has read so far this year. Beach is going to spend the rest of this post prodding at pages he has problems with, because that is what you do with books you like: as we’ve noted before bad books don’t deserve reviews. But let none of this detract from the central point. Anyone who reads the witchcraft and fairies tags on this site will love Emma Wilby’s book: it is radical, radiant (in its last chapter), affordable, accessible, colourful and sometimes and maliciously a little bit scary.
So what is the book about? Here it must be remembered that there is an elephant in a corner of the rather small room which is witchcraft studies: that elephant is the question of whether the women and men who were brutalized and all too often killed were really witches or not. Back up, says the reader, first of all what do we mean by ‘really witches’? Well, when Dame Hubbard was accused of witchcraft by her neighbours, c. 1600, sometimes it was clearly because Dame Hubbard had annoyed the wrong people: and Dame Hubbard goes to the gallows pronouncing her innocence to anyone who cares to listen. There are, in fact, proven cases where these ‘witches’ were innocent in every sense. But, in other cases, we are struck by the unusual details that the accused ‘witches’ go into about their Sabbat, about their familiars (in Britain particularly), about their spells… Dame Hubbard, in this scenario, begins to describe how, for example, she had a familiar that came to her in the shape of black dog (before turning into a toad) or that she cured or cursed people using certain magical rituals. Most witchcraft scholars are embarrassed by all this. They see the ‘witchcraft craze’ as a way to study the social fault-lines in this or that country: which, of course, it is. They either ignore or dismiss (often rather airily) the question of what witches really were: or if they go into the question at all they explain away the mysterious features of confessions by torture, misunderstandings, manipulation, mental illness and the like. In some cases they are right. But in others any neutral observer is left with the sense that a whole part of witchcraft, the part which leads us to early modern spiritual sensibilities and popular beliefs is being neglected. However, in the last generation a number of scholars have begun to ask these awkward questions: at the head of the queue is the great Ginzburg, but there are other names including Pocs and Behringer and, in this volume, for Britain, Wilby.
Beach is going now to do something rather rude and christen these innovators with an unpleasant name, which none of them will like. These are the ‘neo-Murrayites’. Margaret Murray, for those who don’t know, was a brilliant, loveable and, frankly demented old lady who claimed, in the earlier parts of the twentieth century, that witchcraft was a pre-Christian religion that had survived out in the countryside well into Christian times. She was (demonstrably) wrong about much of what she wrote and her thesis was (surprisingly slowly) rejected. But Ginzburg, Wilby and co are really trotting down the path MM marked out saying ‘look we know that Margaret was brilliant, loveable and demented but perhaps if we actually use evidence instead of fantasy we’ll find that her intuitions can, in some cases, be backed up with hard cold facts.’ And, to some extent at least, they have succeeded. Emma Wilby particularly has brought up a host of questions relating to the true witchcraft of Britain. Beach cannot hope to cover all of this in the hour or so he has to write (half an hour has already ticked by). He wants, in the little time he has, to concentrate on four points where he suspects EW may be wrong or where her book is insufficient. Again though remember ‘the kiss’, Cunning Folk is the best of forty odd books read so far this year, and that definitely includes (the disappointing) Game of Thrones.
(i) Witches vs Cunning People. EW sets up in her book an important opposition. There are ‘cunning people’ who are basically village magicians who use magic to find what has been lost and to cure what hurts. Then, there are ‘witches’ who use maleficium and hurt and even kill people with their magic. Nor do the differences end there. The cunnings (my word) have fairy familiars the witches have demons; and the cunnings go to fairy land, while the witches visit the Sabbat. Emma Wilby apparently believes that this division really existed: in fact, Beach read the book twice because he wanted to be clear about the author’s position here. Yet at the same time she systematically takes down the stones from the dry stone wall that she herself has set up between the two professions. Demons and fairies fulfilled the same role and very often looked the same; a visit to the Sabbat and Fairyland were very similar experiences, so similar that they must have influenced each other in folklore. Now for someone standing in the middle distance (and EW comes very close to this position herself at times) the obvious explanation for this similarity is that cunnings and witches were one and the same people. It was just that cunnings were seen by their neighbours in the flowery light of the sun and witches by neighbours in the frosty light of the moon. In other words your cunning (who helped you through labour and cured your cow) is my witch (because she ‘overlooked’ my son and drew a mud circle outside my house when I refused her grain for her chickens).
Now there was presumably a spectrum whereby some cunnings/witches had a reputation for helping and some had a reputation more for hindering. But as any traffic with other worldly spirits could, under English or Scottish law, get a noose around their neck, it didn’t much matter. If you were hauled up in court you would be or become a witch. The real point of interest here is why it was that in some parts of the two kingdoms ‘witches’ were allowed to describe their commerce with familiars as fairies and why in other places they were not allowed to, or chose not to. It also makes the word ‘witch’ an incredibly fraught one. By Beach’s counting there are at least five senses for witch, in this period. Witches are those that commit acts of maleficium; witches are the enemies that good cunnings throughout Europe combat (e.g. Joan Tyrry); witches are those who find themselves before a judge with a black cap on; witches are what some cunnings come to describe themselves as once they are convinced by their ‘betters’ that they have accidentally been playing with demons e.g. the Friuli Benandanti; and witches are an elite-led contribution to European folklore via the pen of men like Kramer. These five categories overlap, but they are five autonomous positions. Confusion is inevitable.
(ii) The Use of Comparative Material. EW dedicates the second part of her book to a study of shamanism in Amerindian and northern Asiatic cultures: cultures that are, of course, genetically related. She does so (as Beach understands it) to establish a baseline about what shamanism is and to then try and show that the cunnings/witches of Britain were actually ‘shamans’: not, of course, that they’d been in contact with Iroquois witch doctors, but that they fulfilled similar roles in their respective societies. EW justifies this to some extent by noting that the great Welsh scholar, Keith Thomas used comparative material in his Religion and Decline of Magic, as did his disciple Alan MacFarlane who took this part of his work so seriously that he went to Nepal and wrangled himself a second doctorate in anthropology. Clever, Alan, clever!
This is all to the good, but actually EW uses comparative material differently from MacFarlane (at least in the work of his that Beach knows) and certainly differently from Thomas. Thomas in Religion, for example, often looks at comparative cases from Sub-Saharan Africa (he was in the questionable thrall of Evans-Pritchard) to back up well-attested English cases of witchcraft or magic. EW has though far less material to play with than Thomas (they are using the same evidence but to different ends) and so EW sometimes puts herself in a situation where she attempts/risks filling gaps in her evidence with this comparative material. Maybe that is acceptable – Beach personally is a little anxious – maybe it is not. But it puts her in a different sport from the one in which Thomas and McFarlane played so well in the 1970s, when they helped establish these kinds of comparative studies. Who is playing baseball and who is tapping the ball in rounders? All will depend on your views on what limits historians should place on themselves.
(iii) Pre-Christian Religion. EW frequently refers to ‘pre-Christian’ beliefs that survived from, well, pre-Christian times and that can be spotted or glimpsed in early modern sources. Beach has always resented that ‘pre-Christian’ label, despite some worrying neo-Murrayite tendencies of his own, without really understanding why. However, recently, a reader of this blog, the Count, articulated some of the problems (scroll-down to comments). We assume that any non-Christian beliefs in sixteenth-century Europe are non-Christian, but need this be the case? There are two other sources for non Christian beliefs without going back into prehistory: and remember for most of Europe, pre-Christian means prehistoric. First, when we are dealing with strange localized beliefs, we might just be dealing with a local charismatic individual, who has come up with his own belief system and managed to share it with some of those around him. This charismatic individual eventually is put in the ground, but his ideas live on or even spread. EW seems to accept that shamanism is not so much a Siberian religious habit, as part of the human condition; shamans arise in all civilizations at all times with their mysticism and visions, sometimes to become tribal advisors, sometimes to become UFO gurus. Well, if we are dealing with shamanism in this sense then it is possible that many of the complexes of beliefs that we find are just that. For example, Ginzburg’s Benandanti with their crop magic from Friuli (Italy) may have come into being on the back of some local visions in the century previous to their persecution. We don’t have to look for ‘pre-Christian’ origins unless we buy into Ginzburg’s idea of a European-wide substrata of benandanti-like ideas: the weakest part of his thesis. If there were a continental-wide range of ideas then that effectively drags the ideas back into prehistory.
Another way of getting round ‘pre-Christian’ is to imagine circumstances where these non Christian beliefs are actually nothing more than distorted Christian beliefs. For example, the Sabbat and the visit to fairyland involve a series of unusual and common motifs suggesting great pleasure. These reappear in other guises, for example, in the Land of Cockayne in the Middle Ages. Is it possible that these are actually nothing more than the popular reception of Christian ideas about heaven (and perhaps hell) that have been hopelessly jumbled around the family fire? Here a European-wide basis to these beliefs would be less threatening to the thesis: the experience of assimilating Christianity in an incomplete and ineffective fashion was, of course, a Europe-wide experience. Beach has no idea whether he (or in the case of the charismatic explanation above) the Count is correct here. Probably not. But the glib use of ‘pre-Christian’ in our books and studies needs to be qualified and checked a little more. Here bad habits picked up from Margaret Murray have remained down to the present.
(Just thinking aloud, but imagine a situation where we have relatively few sources that survive from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: would twenty fifth century historians call spiritualism ‘pre-christian’?)
(iv) Shysterism: This final small point is one that has long fascinated Beach looking at some of these questions from a different period, a different place and from a slightly different perspective. Again and again, there cunnings turn out to be what we might as well call here ‘shysters’. Yes, they have magic spells up their sleeves, but they fake and shimmy their way through life. (Early, mid and late spiritualism – 19 and 20 cent urban cunnings – has some fascinating parallels here.) This is particularly evident in later sources. But there are hints in EW’s work that it was there in the early period too. On one page, the reader learns of a cunning who told her supplicant to sit in a garden with a pot whose contents would magically turn into gold by dawn. Why is shysterism more common in later sources than early sources? Beach can think of two off the cuff reasons. First, the use of magic had declined into, what we have called, shysterism, from its medieval golden age. Second, the later age was a self-consciously rational one and this was how magic was disposed of – ridicule rather than capital punishment. The first explanation sounds a little romantic to Beach; the second, a little too pat. For what it is worth Beach suspects that magic and swindles have always, in every society, necked together at the back of the cinema.
Beach has held back on two things while reading Cunning Folk. First, he has not yet read EW’s newest effort, an in depth, study of Isobel Gowdie, a fairy witch. Second, he has not read any reviews of Cunning Folk. He will now, with great curiosity, do so. He also wants to walk off the stage with one last thought. If you wanted to undertake the suspect, dangerous and actually impossible project of becoming an authentic ‘pre-Christian’ English or Scottish witch: there is no better place to start than this book.
Beach is always on the look-out for curious books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
30 May 2013: Nathaniel takes us to George Fox: ‘For anything to do with 17th-century religious/folk beliefs, I often find myself referring to George Fox (mainly because his “Journal” is the only first-hand account from the time that I’ve read). The below is from memory. He refers to witches a few times. On one occasion he sights a group of women in a field, and (in his words) “I saw that they were witches”. Maddeningly he doesn’t elaborate. He seems to assume that his 17th-century readers will immediately know what he means. Of course being George Fox he doesn’t bother them (unless subjecting them to a religious harangue counts as bothering; maybe it does). Another time while he is speaking in a church he looks at a woman and says “you are a witch”, and she leaves. Again nothing specific about why he thinks this. Other people present tell him that she does indeed have that reputation. A small clue is an occasion when a crowd throws mud on him (that and worse were fairly common experiences for him). He describes himself that time as being “dirty as a witch”. So apparently there was some common-place idea about what a witch was. Generally a woman, maybe with something odd about her appearance or behavior, and dirtier even than the 17th-century average. Slender evidence, but enough to make it likely that it wasn’t something wholly invented by the church or over-zealous prosecutors.’ Thanks Nathaniel!
31 May 2013: Andrew writes in with this gem: A comment, I have found it useful to reflect that Hermes is not only the Gods messenger, but also the god of liars…and salesmen.’ Thanks Andrew!
30 July 2013: Jonathan from A Corner wrote in, ‘This time your review of Emma Wilby’s _Cunning Folk_ caught my eye. You don’t say in the review and I don’t know whether Wilby makes use of any evidence from England in the actual pre-Christian era, but if she had read, for example, John Blair’s excellent _The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society_ (which I am, I suppose, almost contractually obliged to support but which is great, if full of distracting details) she would find there strong evidence from the burial customs of the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon populations (or, given how many were probably locally-descended, perhaps post-Christian would be better…) of her cunning folk; Blair identifies a tendency for the isolated burial of women, especially young women, on the edge of cemeteries, with a large number of amulets or jewellery-case-type items that *very* occasionally have organic residues in them that might have been herbs etc. Now Blair also uses the anthropology of shamanism to colour in this picture, and both he and Wilby are presumably informed at some level by folk tales of wise women (a term which, as with so many other of the series’ depictions, I now inevitably imagine after the instance in Blackadder), but all the same, at least the evidence for it Blair is dealing with is definitively pre-Christian… And it sounds as if it would help prop up Wilby’s case, if any props were needed. As ever, however, getting medievalists and modernists to read each others’ work on the same country seems to be harder than getting them to read 1950s ethnographies of Polynesia etc.! Thanks JJ