17 May 2018


Francis Young. Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England: A History of Sorcery and Treason. I.B.Tauris, 2018.

The main purpose of this book is to establish magical thinking, and in particular magical treason, as an essential part of the history of the medieval and early modern periods and worthy of detailed study. The author argues that the use of magical processes for political ends has been ignored by historians who have seen magic largely through the lens of social history, and regarded it as a form of ‘superstition’ and witchcraft. 
Historically witchcraft had been associated with ‘low-status’ individuals, and magic was therefore not seen generally as a significant influence on broader political and national history.

However Young argues that attempted magical acts, and accusations of such acts, played an important role in political, religious and dynastic conflicts up to the seventeenth century. He makes it clear that these involved ‘elite’ individuals, councillors, courtiers, politicians and even monarchs, were of national concern, and were quite unrelated to witchcraft claims, which seldom reached beyond a local context.

He criticises modern historians for a “moralising and rationalist approach” to what they consider a “false and discarded belief system”, concentrating more on why people believed things than what they actually did as a result of that belief: “Passing moral or rational judgements on the private beliefs of long-dead people is a futile exercise that makes for bad history”.

Prior to the fourteenth century magical practices were almost entirely a matter for the church courts, whose penalty for those found guilty were largely limited to excommunication. However as the power of the centralising state expanded into more and more aspects of life, the secular authorities began to see magical acts as being aimed against the court and the monarch, and could now be considered as treason, with the consequential death penalty. One of the results of this was that from being a respectable field of study, astrology began to be considered as a possible threat to the monarch, through its presumed ability to predict the date of the monarch’s death.

There were a number of magical plots against kings and courtiers through the period of the Wars of the Roses, but it was during the English Reformation that magical plots became a major source of concern to the state. This led to a number of Acts of Parliament prohibiting various practices, which have in Young’s view been misrepresented by later historians as Witchcraft Acts, but which in reality had little to do with populist, non-elite witchcraft practices.

Most of these acts of treasonable magic were laid at the feet of Roman Catholics, whose religious practices were already considered dangerously magical by the Protestant establishment, although by the end of the reign of Elizabeth I the actions of extreme Puritan elements also became a matter of concern. Young describes Elizabeth as “perhaps the most magically attacked monarch – at least while on the throne of England – in English History”.

One incident which is described in some detail is the affair of a group of three wax images which were found hidden in a farm in Islington in 1578 – than a small village a couple of miles from London. According to one account a female image bore the name ‘Elizabeth’ scratched into it, and the other two were dressed to resemble courtiers. They had been pierced with quills. They were passed on to the Lord Mayor of London and thence to the Privy Council. There was of course only one man able to counter the evil influence of this ‘effigy-magic’, Magonia’s Honorary Patron, John Dee!

The exact process by which he performed this act of counter-magic is not recorded other than briefly in Dee’s diary where he states “I did satisfy her Majesty’s desire, and the Lords of the honourable Privy Council, within a few hours, in godly and artificial [i.e. skilful] manner”. Young speculates on what this manner might be, based on the books known to be in Dee’s library in Mortlake at the time.

It sees however that Dee’s magical skills were wasted, as it emerged later that the effigies (or effigy, Dee only records one) were part of an attempt at ‘love magic’ by a young Islingtonian who had approached a local magician “to procure unto him the love of any three women whom he would name, and of whom he should make choice at his pleasure”. Fortunately for his indiscretions the youth suffered no more than a short period shame, and the loss of a significant sum of money to the fraudulent ‘magician’.

The accession of James I/VI brought some respite in attempts at magical treason, as he was less concerned about being the victim of magical attacks than previous monarchs; not because he did not believe in such things, but because his belief in the Divine Right of Kings meant that his position as an anointed king put him directly under God’s protection. Of course the main treasonable act of James's reign was the Gunpowder Plot, which served to further identification of Catholics with the ‘Enemy Within’.

The period of the Civil Wars, with the execution of the king and the overthrow of the established order dissipated much of the fear of magical treason, and curiously most of the worries about such plots seemed to be on the Parliamentary side, suspecting that Royalist sympathisers were involved in conspiracies against them. Young suggests that the breakdown in law and order on a national scale during the Interregnum led to a stronger desire to punish wrongdoers locally, and may have been a factor in the East Anglia witch-hunts of 1644 – 1647.

Despite this, by the time of the Restoration in 1660, claims of treasonable magic began to disappear from English public life. Young gives as an example the 1678 ‘Popish Plot’ of Titus Oates, with its allegations of a Catholic conspiracy to poison Charles II, involving a number of individuals whom Oates seems to have chosen at random. Less than a century earlier such a plot would certainly have involved stories of magical treason, but no such claims were made by Oates and his followers. Young contrasts this with the contemporaneous ‘Affair of the Poisons’ in France, which involved allegations of magical plots against Louis XIV, although he notes that this also involved a number of English players.

The final years of the Stuart era saw the almost complete collapse of magical treason as a concept in England, and the establishment view, perhaps helped by Charles II’s involvement with the growing scientific ideas of the period and his setting up of the Royal Society. By the dawn of the eighteenth-century allegations of magical treason were limited largely to satirical insults from one faction to another, something which echoes to this day with politicians being described as having ‘something of the night about them’, or being the ‘Prince of Darkness’, a epithet which the individual concerned usually seemed only too eager to accept!

This is a fascinating book, not least because of the extensive selection of translated original texts which the author uses to illustrate his arguments; while managing the rare feat of being both scholarly and extremely accessible for the general reader with a reasonable knowledge of English history. 
  • John Rimmer

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