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  • Maleficent Witchcraft in Britain since 1900
  • Thomas Waters (bio)

In 1937 E. E. Evans-Pritchard (1902–73) published his now classic work of social anthropology, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Drawing on an impressive twenty months of fieldwork, it explored the supernatural culture of the Azande – an ethnic group from central Africa. As well as being highly detailed and evocative, what was so unusual about Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic was its sympathetic perspective. Rather than getting hung up on the illogicality or fallaciousness of ‘superstition’, Evans-Pritchard instead discerned in Azande beliefs about witches a degree of ‘intellectual consistency’.1 By that he meant that their notions about the workings of witchcraft and the role of oracles were conceptually harmonious, forming something of an integrated and self-confirming belief system. From this perspective Azande witchcraft was notable more for its logic than for its mindless credulity.

Intriguingly Evans-Pritchard reported that, during his immersive fieldwork, he too had actually come to think and act in terms of witchcraft. But despite the apparent ease with which he adopted this outlook (albeit temporarily), for Evans-Pritchard witchcraft beliefs were undoubtedly foreign, strange, and irrelevant to the culture of his homeland. Indeed, he thought his work would be ‘difficult for Europeans to understand’: ‘Witchcraft is a notion so foreign to us that it is hard for us to appreciate Zande convictions about its reality’. That may seem like a perfectly uncontroversial view. To many historians, at least, it has so seemed. Keith Thomas, for instance, in the foreword to his majestic Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), wrote something similar about ‘systems of belief … which no longer enjoy much recognition today’.2 And while several subsequent studies have shown how witchcraft belief was fairly widespread, on the plebeian level, in nineteenth-century Britain, they have also reiterated its irrelevance to the twentieth century. Thus James Obelkevich proposed that by the close of the nineteenth century witchcraft belief had decayed ‘into mere luck’.3 Even Owen Davies, who has done more than anyone to illuminate witchcraft’s nineteenth-century history, suggests that ‘the popular belief … died out during the early decades of the twentieth century’.4 Ronald Hutton, in his path-breaking study of the emergence of a very different type of ‘witchcraft’ – the peaceful nature religion of Wicca – agrees with Davies that ‘people ceased to fear [End Page 99] bewitchment’ because of the demise, from the 1860s, of the largely agricultural communities ‘which bred such suspicions’.5 According to Diane Purkiss, by the late twentieth century the popular archetype of the witch was so overlain with neo-pagan and other accretions that it had lost its original association with malicious conjuration.6 More simply, Richard Suggett argues that, in the case of Wales, witchcraft belief was destroyed by the hostility of Victorian chapel culture.7 In France, the Netherlands, Germany, and even Canada, maleficent witchcraft’s persistence well into the twentieth century, in some rural areas at least, is widely acknowledged.8 British scholars, by contrast, appear to think that only recent migrants take it seriously.9

The results of opinion polling suggest that their assumptions in this respect are misplaced. Consistently since the 1970s somewhere between one in ten and one in eight Britons have admitted to believing in the reality of ‘black magic’.10 Granted, by historical standards those numbers are modest enough. Although there are no nineteenth-century opinion polls, the Suffolk radical John Glyde was probably not too far off the mark when he judged, during the 1840s, that around three-quarters of farm workers were witchcraft believers.11 Even so, those Britons who now claim to believe in witchcraft comprise a significant enough minority to be worthy of our attention. A Gallup telephone poll of 2005 found some thirteen percent of British respondents professing to believe in witchcraft (compared with around twenty percent of Americans, and about half of sub-Saharan Africans).12 An Ipsos MORI poll of 2007 put the British figure at sixteen percent, slightly higher among women (21%), and higher still among respondents from ethnic minority backgrounds (27%).13 Evidently there is variation along gender, ethnic and religious lines; clearly, too, there...


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