New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2019. 350 pp., hardcover, $65.
This is what many people believe about witchcraft: In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church cracked down on survivals of the old pagan nature religion. Its practitioners were labeled as witches and persecuted, often burned. This antiwitch rampage lasted into the eighteenth century, when the Enlightenment convinced the world that witchcraft had no effects; those who practiced it were simply deluded. After that point, belief in witchcraft died out until it was revived in the mid-twentieth century.
As this book, which focuses on witchcraft beliefs in Britain from the eighteenth century to the present, shows, much of this view is simply wrong. It is true that Britain's Witchcraft Act of 1735 eliminated penalties for witchcraft per se, although it created penalties for those claiming to practice it. But popular belief in witchcraft never went away. It diminished somewhat, especially in the early twentieth century, but came back in full force during the century’s second half. In fact, witchcraft has been alive and well in Britain from the earliest days to today.
Neither the British government nor the Church of England played any role in perpetuating witchcraft beliefs; indeed they did everything they could to stomp them out. But belief persisted. Nor was it merely a matter of scary stories told around a fire. Witchcraft accusations were leveled by local people at local people, and these locals often took vengeance into their own hands. One example was a man from Westminster in 1831, who, “though living within sight of Parliament, tried to shoot his neighbour—a woman who, he claimed, had bewitched him for the previous four years.”
Witchcraft has many, often contradictory, meanings. Today some people call themselves witches because they believe they are continuing the Old Religion. Wicca, the best-known version, derives its name from the Old English word wicca (pronounced witcha), which means male witch. (A female witch was a wicce, and the practice was wiccacraefte). Oddly in light of all this, today Wicca (pronounced wicka) is an abstract noun referring to the reconstructed present-day religion.
In the minds of the British common people, however, witchcraft generally meant doing harm to others through occult powers. This could range from causing cows to dry up to inflicting illness and death on the victims themselves. By contrast, individuals who used these methods to heal or protect people from witchcraft were commonly known as cunning-folk.
The authorities’ position was ambiguous. The Witchcraft Act (not repealed until 1951) was based on the idea that witchcraft was nonsense. On the one hand, this meant that the magistrates tried to protect people (usually women) accused of it. On the other hand, it meant that they often prosecuted cunning-folk who were trying to heal or rescue people from witchcraft.
Waters tries to connect his story with the larger history of occultism, but a short and perfunctory chapter entitled “Occultists Study Dark Arts” shows only the most basic knowledge of Theosophy, Christian Science, and the occult revival of the late nineteenth century.
Otherwise, Cursed Britain is well informed and well told. On a more theoretical level, it leaves a great deal to be desired. Waters does not satisfactorily explain why beliefs in witchcraft persisted so doggedly in an age of science and supposed enlightenment. He falls back on two suggestions. One is belief: “for it to work, you must quash your doubts.” But there are cases in which people suffered from the effects of witchcraft without believing in it or knowing that anyone had put a curse on them. He also relies heavily on the idea that this “imaginative, uncanny, and wishful way of thinking” is chiefly due to a human desire to make sense of the inexplicable. These do not do full justice to the evidence.
Waters is a lecturer in history at University College, London, who published this book with Yale University Press, so he is unlikely to give any explanation that does not line up with rationalistic materialism. But his theoretical arguments are neither forceful nor convincing: the reader suspects that he himself is baffled by the phenomenon—perhaps because he has researched it so thoroughly.
Waters bemoans the rise of belief in witchcraft in present-day Britain and wonders what should be done about it. Again, he does not come up with much of an answer, writing, “Witchcraft reached its lowest ebb in modern British history when the state clamped down on the market for alternative health care, with targeted regulation and more policing. Perhaps a similar campaign could be mounted today, against the most unscrupulous spiritual healers operating in Britain.” An updated version of the Witchcraft Act, perhaps?