Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times, by Thomas Waters

Simon Young is not totally convinced by a wide-ranging account of the development of belief in witchcraft

February 27, 2020
Witch in pentagram

When did belief in witchcraft die out in Great Britain? Some Victorian authors (with more hope than knowledge) claimed that witchcraft belief was already done and dusted when they were writing in the 1850s and 1860s. More recent historians (among them Owen Davies) have shown us that, no, residual witchcraft beliefs were still around in the later 19th century, but that they faded rapidly in the next decades. In his new book, Thomas Waters offers a more radical scenario: “Witchcraft’s decline, from a majority belief to a fringe credo,” writes Waters, “occurred relatively recently, between the early and mid-twentieth century.” Is this incredible statement borne out, though, by the evidence?

I am not sure that it is, but Waters has, in making the case for strong Victorian and Edwardian belief, produced a magnificent history of 19th- and 20th-century British witchcraft. He shows very clearly that witchcraft remained a “thing” right through the century before last in both rural and urban areas. He uses, for one section, a database of 462 newspaper reports on separate “outbreaks of witchcraft” in Britain, recorded between 1860 and 1899. He also shows that such “outbreaks” bleed through into the interwar years and just beyond. In 1955, a landlord complained in open court in London that two tenants had used witchcraft against his wife. This study is data-rich, and the author has exploited his sources brilliantly.

Yet the key indication of “majority belief” in witchcraft is, surely, when a community works together against a “witch” (often, in 19th-century Britain, an innocent neighbour, invariably a woman of older than middle age). Waters gives remarkable examples of this from the early 19th century: close to a hundred individuals (including a general) signed a petition in Llanfoist, in 1827, asking for leniency for a mob who had mauled a 90-year-old “witch”. The main sign of a fringe belief is, conversely, I would suggest, when someone identifies and seeks to punish a “witch” without community support.

Waters is especially good on the flexibility of supernatural beliefs. A country-dwelling Victorian would be more likely to believe in witchcraft after a miscarriage and an unexpected disease, say, than following a good harvest and a legacy in a will. If we take this flexibility into account, witchcraft was, on Waters’ evidence, potentially a majority belief in Britain when Victoria came to the throne, and in some places for decades more. But already by the late 19th century it had become, at least in my reading of Waters’ data, an eccentricity in most British communities.

I have only one criticism of Cursed Britain. Waters emulates several of his predecessors such as Keith Thomas in assuming that witchcraft belief is a bad thing, like cholera or arson: there are lots of moralising adverbs (“unfortunately” and so on). This is an understandable position given the appalling acts of violence meted out against “witches”, including some deaths. Waters empathises, it is clear from his writing, with the brutalised victims of witchcraft beatings. But there is a risk that in our revulsion at the consequences of witchcraft belief we forget the advantages that witchcraft offered (and still offers – see Waters’ last chapter on witchcraft today) to those who believe. 

Simon Young teaches at the University of Virginia Program in Siena. His most recent book is Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies – 500 AD to the Present, co-edited with Ceri Houlbrook (2018).

Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times
By Thomas Waters
Yale University Press, 352pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300221404
Published 27 August 2019

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