20 October 2018


Robin Melrose. Magic in Britain: A History of Medieval and Earlier Practices, McFarland, 2018.

This book begins with a description of the archaeological evidence for religious and ritual practices that can be found in Iron Age sites across Britain, largely evidence of funerary rites. These include such practices as ‘excarnation’, when a body is buried and allowed to decompose until the flesh is separated from the bones, and then the remaining skeleton is given a second funeral.
In some cases there appears to be evidence that the flesh may have been removed by dogs or wolves, a practice which seems reminiscent of the ‘sky funerals’ of Tibet. It is thought that this is to ensure that the spirit of the deceased is not trapped inside the flesh of the corpse, and is ready to leave the physical sphere completely, and will not remain attached to its physical environment.

Excavations from the Romano-British period have uncovered burials which seem also intended to ensure that the spirit of the deceased was totally freed from their physical body. In some cases this may have been simply to be simply to ensure that they were able to join the after-life spirit world, but some also seemed to be to ensure that the spirit would not remain to haunt the community. These involved such practices as buried the body face downwards and burying the head separately from the rest of the body, usually between the feet.

Evidence for spellcraft in this period centres on various curse-tablets which have been found across the Roman Empire. These were usually small lead, fragments with often highly elaborate curses inscribed on them, calling the vengeance of a god or gods onto some named individual. One unearthed near the river Hamble in Hampshire calls upon the god Neptune to curse a thief who had stolen money from a certain Muconious, and for him to “consume his blood and take it away”. A curse tablet from Bath (Aqua Sulis) asks the local sun-goddess Sulis to punish some unknown soul by “losing their minds and eyes in the goddess's temple” - which seems extraordinarily harsh for stealing a pair of gloves!

After the departure of the Romans Anglo-Saxon settlers brought various forms of Germanic paganism into Britain, and the author notes the significance of the horse in many of the funerary practices uncovered at burial sites. Horses, presumably sacrificed, were buried alongside human graves in sites across Britain, and particularly in East Anglia. However, in the absence of very much in the way of contemporary documentation, a lot of the evidence for religious and magical practices has to be deduced 1,500 years later from the remains of bodies and artefacts.

'Thor's Hammer' found at Spilsby, Lincolnshire

The gradual Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms often led to curious mixtures of pagan and Christian practices, and the arrival of Danish and Norwegian Vikings later also added to the mixture. Stone crosses from areas of Danish settlement which had converted to Christianity display images which are also to be found on pagan monuments from Denmark and northern Germany. The moulds for casting silver crosses were easily adapted to make Thor’s hammers to be used as pendant.

England had become almost totally Christian well before the time of the Norman Conquest, and the native church was already creating its own Saints and their cults, a process which continued after the Conquest. The second half of the book deals with this later era, examining particularly the magical legends attached to the Saints and various holy sites such as Glastonbury and Iona, and rituals associated with holy wells and lakes. It would seem that almost every area of Britain had its own local mythology based on a particular saint or holy site, and these are described often with lengthy descriptions from early sources.

The notes and bibliography appended to the book are extensive and seem exhaustive, and certainly provide a great number of references for the serious student. The author is a retired lecturer in English and linguistics, and a times these later chapters can read rather like lecture notes, but nevertheless provide an interesting account of the role of religion in popular belief of the period.

However, there is little in it which I would describe as being an account of magical ‘practices’, with really only the final chapter making brief acknowledgement of ritual magic and witchcraft. The chapters describing the paganism of the Anglo-Saxon era provide a great deal of information of the history of the Saxon kingdoms and their eventual unification, and the interaction with, and absorption, of Viking and Germanic beliefs and practices, and the later chapters give a good account of the various cults, superstitions and beliefs associated with saints and religious houses.

Although the book will be of value to anyone interested in the history and archaeology of the period, I think it would have been better entitled ‘Religious Superstition in Medieval and Earlier Britain’, and as such it would more clearly describe its focus. – John Rimmer

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyhow, just wanted to say excellent blog!