Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.02.06 Melrose, Magic in Britain

19.02.06 Melrose, Magic in Britain

This book claims to offer a wide-ranging history of magic in Britain, from prehistoric times till the premodern period. The intended audience lies somewhere between the interested layperson and undergraduate-level students, although this intent is never expressed explicitly. Unfortunately, the actual contents do not fully match the topic for a number of different reasons that will be explained below. Structurally, the book presents its material in a broadly chronological order, with occasional cross-references to evidence from earlier times in the later chapters. Individual chapters are devoted to the pre-Roman period and Roman periods, while the Anglo-Saxon period receives five chapters, the latter four of which are subdivided geographically between the prominent kingdoms of the time. The last five chapters address, respectively, the persistence of Anglo-Saxon saints' cults in the Norman period, the cult of Norman saints in Britain, materials from Scotland and Wales, the late medieval period, and finally, cunning-folk in Britain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, including a discussion of assorted trials for witchcraft. Within each chapter, the author relies prominently on archaeological evidence, which is interspersed with material drawn from literary sources, some translated from Latin in the earlier chapters, most others from vernacular languages.

The primary problem with this book for a reader interested in learning about magic is that the author never explains what his understanding of the definition of "magic" is, at least as far as the object of this volume is concerned. The question of how one distinguishes between religion and magic is never addressed, nor is there any acknowledgement that this is a problem worthy of consideration. Instead, the author presents lengthy and detailed descriptions of numerous burials from each of the time periods under consideration, including the sex of the remains, grave orientation, position of the body within the grave, and grave goods. The assumption behind this choice of evidence appears to be that any grave that does not match the "norm" for any given era must therefore involve something magical. The author's approach to his material is clearly rooted in Anglican Protestantism, where any ritual action relating to the dead is assumed to be "magic," never considering that the presence of grave goods (for example) could be the result of earnestly religious feelings, traditions, and ritual actions on the part of the participants at the time of the burial. Even Catholic traditions that attribute miracle-working to the relics of saints are included among the evidence for the presence of "magic" in Britain--indeed, the author relates numerous instances of such miracles at great length--without acknowledging the problematic nature of his perspective. The author seems unaware of the dictum that "every person's religion is someone else's magic, and vice versa," which requires a rigorous definition of magic to make sense of the historical material under consideration.

The author's tacit assumption that any pre-Reformation ritual practice involving the dead automatically equates to magic manifests in subtle ways on a regular basis throughout the entire book. Indeed, semantic and syntactical clues reveal instances where such assumptions are being made. The frequency with which hedging words or phrases such as "perhaps," "possibly," "probably," or "may have been" are used to justify the links to magic (or, at least, to the religion of the time) is a clear indication of the shaky conceptual ground the author is treading. Over 100 instances of these expressions appear throughout the book, concentrated primarily in those sections dealing with archaeological material. Although one might interpret the use of these expressions as a positive sign of scholarly caution, their frequency and aggregate effect sap the strength of the author's work. In other words, by the regular use of such expressions, the author appears aware on some level that the "proof" he is providing in an attempt to equate ancient practices to magic (or pre-Anglican religion) is a matter of speculation. Although it remains true that certainty can never be achieved about questions relating to the distant past, a scholarly edifice cannot stand on such shaky foundations.

Another problematic assumption in the author's presentation is his tacit equation of magic with popular superstition, whether this manifests as a fear of the dead that led people to bury corpses in odd positions (e.g., prone, or decapitated), to saints' cults, or to witch trials. The author devotes only two lines of text (223) to ritual magic of the sort that requires literacy, despite the prevalence of such books in premodern Britain. Sophie Page's 2013 book Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe explores the extensive collection of magical books held at the library of St. Augustine's monastery at Canterbury, mention of which is utterly absent from Melrose's volume. This neglect of ritual magic represents a blind spot so large that the book's title is actually misleading. A title more consonant with the actual contents would have been Saints' Cults, Miracles, Ghosts, and Burial Practices in Premodern Britain.

Closer scrutiny reveals further problems in the author's exploration of the scholarship relating to premodern magic. Lynn Thorndike's eight-volume A History of Magic and Experimental Science (1923-1958) covers precisely the same time frame as Melrose's book, and includes substantial sections in each of those volumes devoted to authors either born or working in Britain. Nevertheless, even this seminal study on the topic is never mentioned. More recent publications devoted to the study of magic in history are equally neglected: Frank Klaassen's 2013 volume The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance focuses primarily on England, as do Catherine Ryder's Magic and Religion in Medieval England (2012) and Bruce Janacek's Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England (2011). The reasoning behind these omissions is never made explicit. In one of the final chapters, the author discusses the famous witch-hunting manual entitled Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) by Kramer and Sprenger without ever mentioning the critical edition, translation, and extensive commentary of this text prepared by Christopher Mackay and published by Cambridge University Press in 2006. Charles Burnett's numerous articles published over the last five decades on the transmission of Arabic knowledge (prominently including magic and astrology) in Britain (among other places) are also conspicuously absent. The above examples represent merely the most obvious instances of research material lacking from this book. Even the scholarly material that the author does cite is, in many cases, outdated (e.g., Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic (1948) at pp. 50-52; Notestein, A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718 (1911), at pp. 230-231. An otherwise uninformed reader would inevitably finish this book with a skewed perception of what magic was to the premodern inhabitants of Britain, favouring those elements that the author would qualify as "superstitious," and to the neglect of widely practiced learned, ceremonial, and often astrological magic. Indeed, the reputation for knowledge and skill in magical practice of such prominent British scholars as Adelard of Bath, Michael Scot, or Roger Bacon, not to mention the explicit recollections of first-hand experience with magic that John of Salisbury relates in his Policraticus (II, 28), are all missing from Melrose's volume.

Another problem in this volume is the author's choice of having extraordinarily lengthy quotations from primary sources. This phenomenon arises most acutely in the chapter on Roman Britain, where direct quotations longer than an entire page--presented in a reduced, 8-point font, thereby compounding the issue--occur several times. Other chapters (e.g., 3, 8, 9, 10, and 11) suffer from the same problem, but to a lesser extent.

In terms of production, the book features a total of thirty-nine black-and-white illustrations divided unevenly between the chapters, with no corresponding list of illustrations. Although mostly useful and even in some cases evocative, most of these would not qualify as "necessary" or "essential" to the material the author is presenting. I found a total of thirty-five typographical errors (not including those in the notes and bibliography), concentrated primarily in the first half of the book, which represents a fairly high number for a volume of its size. Fortunately, however, most of the errors involve minor issues of punctuation or the confusion of digits and letters (e.g., capital "I" used for a "1" in a date, p. 151; King Henry III appears as "Henry Ill," p. 148). In a small number of cases, the intelligibility and/or content of the text is jeopardized. On page 41, we find an incomplete concluding sentence to a paragraph: "The new excavation found traces of structures around the top of this pit, and fixed its date as probably contemporary with the blacksmith's workshop, next to" (sic), while on page 86, a bracketed reference to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England is left incomplete.

On a more positive note, the readers who will benefit most substantially from this book are teachers, or anyone who is on the lookout for captivating anecdotes relating to premodern ghost stories and/or stories relating to miracles attributed to saints--but only from Britain. This book can function as an anthology of sorts in this regard, where the disadvantage of extended quotations mentioned above becomes a benefit, since it offers direct access to the primary sources in translation. One of the author's strengths is his close familiarity with the archaeological material. His chronologically- and geographically-subdivided organization of this category of evidence can serve as a good starting-point for those interested in exploring the material culture of pre-modern Britain.

In sum, an academic readership familiar with the history of premodern magic will be sorely disappointed with this book. Those not yet familiar with this topic should approach Magic in Britain with extreme caution, or, better yet, they should first read Richard Kieckhefer's landmark Magic in the Middle Ages (1989) to get a more accurate and balanced picture of the material so as to better assess the pros and cons of what Melrose presents in this book. Ironically, Melrose does cite Kieckhefer's work; it remains unfortunate that the almost the entire angle of scholarship and historical materials that Kieckhefer summarizes so well did not make it into this volume, for reasons that remain unstated.