In this article I hope to draw to the readers’ attention to a little known field of study known as the archaeology of folk magic. This is intimately related to what most people call witchcraft and involves the physical remains related to practices undertaken by the ‘white’ witch to protect people’s property from ‘black’ witches and also practices which lay-folk undertook by themselves for the same reason. There is a bias of material in my collection to the 16th and 17th centuries, this is because this is the focus of my PhD and also because it is when there was the most fear about witchcraft – hence more archaeology relating to protection. Where material is not dated assume that it comes from these two centuries. Before beginning with a description of the finds and theories about them, it is important that I set the context for the topic.
Historians are getting better at writing about witchcraft. About thirty years ago there was still a tendency amongst them to use exclamation marks when talking about the horrors of torture and to dismiss the belief in witchcraft as primitive heretical superstition or as over-enthusiastic religious faith. A classic and highly respectable work entitled The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology written by Robbins in 1959 has some of these hallmarks.1 While they were correct by our modern standards to be horrified by the tortures that occurred they did not attempt to compare the ‘witch-craze’ to Stalin’s purges or the holocaust or other comparable situations. Now we have books like Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas2 which details the practices of the village cunning-men and wise-women (the ‘white’ witches who were really slightly grey) and Early Modern European Witchcraft – Centres and Peripheries edited by Ankarloo and Henningsen3 which collects together major articles which deal, among other things, with spirit flight and Icelandic witchcraft.
The rest of this article by Brian Hoggard, which was published in White Dragon at Beltane 1999, can be read on the White Dragon website.
The Archaeology of Folk Magic
The rock-cut Hermitage at Bridgnorth lies on a steep hill just south of the Wolverhampton road and less than a mile east of the town. The Hermitage lies in ruins now, destroyed by the passage of time and, it is said, by the fires of its temporary occupants, the homeless poor.
However what remains is still impressive. The Chapel is still extant, although the front end is now gone, and the stairs, which used to ascent to the upper chamber, are still there, but go nowhere as the upper chamber has disappeared.
The Hermitage was so-called because it was here that Aethelward or Aethelard, a Mercian prince, retired here for a short time as a hermit before his brief reign. In 924ce he came here to reside in solitude and contemplation. He was interested in literary matters as well as ancient customs and was a grandson of Alfred the Great, which meant that he had Welsh blood as this royal line had intermarried with the Welsh and Cornish royal families. Three of his sisters became nuns and his aunt was none other than Queen Ethelfleda, whose ability to repel the fearsome Danes renders impotent many a modern male ego! Indeed it was Ethelfleda who established a Burgh at Bridgnorth with a castle at Old-Bury on Panpudding Hill (Panpunten in Welsh). the Hermitage therefore has strong royal links and, given Aethelward’s study of traditional lore, it would seem that it attracted someone with an interest in the main study of all folklore, that is magic.
The rest of this article by Chris Jenkins, which was published in White Dragon at Beltane 1997, can be read on the White Dragon website.
Caves and Hermitages of the Severn Valley
Back in May I had confidently expected the redesign of the White Dragon website would be completed and the new site active from the beginning of August. The best laid plans, as they say. Various family issues arose during June and July which made the intended timescale impossible and we will therefore be returning to the matter in September once those issues have been resolved and the holiday season recovered from.
In the meantime, progress reports will be posted as and when on this blog so please call back from time to time for the latest excuses.