- Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic
Emma Wilby's Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits is a bold, yet careful and intellectually rigorous, attempt to examine a hotly contested area of British history: the epistemological status of the stories of visionary journeys and experiences told by cunning people (practitioners of popular magic) and accused witches during the period of the witchcraft trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Wilby explains, such stories have often been considered to be the ramblings of deluded or tortured people—stories that to traditional historians of fact do not mean anything definite and so are unworthy of or resistant to analysis as sociological or historical data. But with the linguistic turn of historical thinking in recent years, these empiricist dismissals have given way to a belief that such stories might be read through various theoretical paradigms (psychological, feminist, or narrative, for example) and found to be meaningful after all. The difficulty with such readings is that sometimes the theory comes to predominate—often anachronistically—over the substance of the story. This can leave the reader feeling that the original teller has been badly served by academic attempts to categorize their experiences too rigidly, and that what such analysis has achieved has simply been to "explain away" the mystery of the story and diminish its teller's individuality in the service of some wider aim. In some cases, the story is crudely retold to suit the notions of the scholar, which is unforgivable when one considers that the story is often the only known remnant of the life of its teller. When the tellers were the victims of witch hunts, the further disservice done to them by academic history is particularly evident.
Wilby's book proposes to address this vexed issue. In its intellectual sophistication and ethical awareness it offers an excellent model of how the stories [End Page 115] of witches and cunning people might best be approached. In this it follows in the footsteps of at least two of the author's major influences, Ronald Hutton and the late Gareth Roberts. Both of these scholars' works sensitively walk a line between the traditional (and flawed) concept of academic objectivity and the (laudably acknowledged) human subjectivity that inevitably will and certainly should connect the author with his or her theme. This is especially true if, as a literary scholar, one sees in the teller of the story a version of one's self as a writer—partial, creative, and subject to influences well beyond the scope of one's text. Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, then, begins promisingly by reproducing almost word for word the story told by Bessie Dunlop, a woman tried at Edinburgh Assizes in 1576. Bessie herself is allowed to explain how she met with the ghost of a man who took her on various journeys—emotional and physical—to visit fairy-like creatures, and also brought her medical and prophetic knowledge that she used in her work as a cunning woman. Wilby's care as an editor is evident, with copious textual annotations and clear indications of where a word has been modernized or a meaning inferred or guessed. Her point is to allow us to hear Bessie speak in her own dialect voice as nearly as is possible, and to draw our attention to ways in which such a hearing is not possible, or may be susceptible of further investigation or interpretation.
Once she has established her stance on the ethics of reading the stories of and writing about witches and cunning people, Wilby is able to proceed with her own analysis of their words. She follows scholars such as Carlo Ginzburg and Ga´bor Klaniczay in granting the stories of visionary journeys a relationship with the real (if hard to access) world of popular superstitions and religious beliefs of their time. Here is a world of hints and mysteries, but to ignore it or dismiss it...