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  • Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic ed. by Ronald Hutton
  • Debora Moretti

Debora Moretti, Ronald Hutton, Physical Evidence, Ritual Acts, Sorcery, Witchcraft, Christian Britain, Evidence of Sorcery, Evidence of Witchcraft, Late Medieval, Early Modern, Matthew Champion, Timothy Easton, June Swann, Brian Hoggard, Dinah Eastop, Deliberately Concealed Garments, DCGP, Tabitha Cadbury, Owen Davies, Chris Manning, Ian Evans, Archaeology

ronald hutton, ed. Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic. Basingstoke UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. xiv + 261.

The study of magic and witchcraft, usually the domain of historians, ethnographers, and anthropologists, has had for at least the past fifty years a love-hate relationship with archaeology. Since the late 1980s, however, this troubled relationship has evolved together with the general interest in the materiality of magic and witchcraft which belongs to a wider recent material-cultural turn. The first and foremost complete contribution to the development of the archaeological study of magic and witchcraft came from Ralph Merrifield who, in 1987, published a survey of material objects indicating the existence of ritualistic and magical behavior in ancient pagan contexts and also in Christian medieval and early modern contexts in Britain.

Ronald Hutton’s edited volume, Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain, published in 2016, not only wants to pay respect to Merrifield and his outstanding work, but also addresses and further analyzes the issue thoroughly, confirming two important points discussed by Merrifield: the general misinterpretation of deposits indicating magical or ritual activity in archaeological contexts; and the longevity of the reluctance of archaeologists and historians to approach material evidence of magic in Christian contexts. It also gives evidence of a general—if somewhat slow—and welcome change of attitude toward this topic, which has risen on the back of the widespread academic interest in the history of magic and witchcraft in medieval and early modern Europe. This edited volume presents the [End Page 141] reader not only with an updated bibliography of the major studies related to the material evidence of magic and witchcraft, but is itself a fundamental part of this new wave of research, focusing as it does on the study of a set of British material objects and of architectural markings “revealed by casual discovery or collected from owners” (6) related to magic ritual practices showing continuity in medieval and modern Christian Britain.

The volume is divided into four main sections, preceded by an introductory chapter where Professor Ronald Hutton gives a brief but exhaustive overview of the historiography of this study of material culture which “is now becoming a recognized sub-discipline of history” (5) and where he brilliantly discusses the importance of this new approach to the understanding of the perception of magic and witchcraft.

The first part of the volume focuses on the evidence of marks and symbols which indicate an apotropaic nature. Matthew Champion opens this section with a detailed study of the recent large scale surveys of graffiti inscriptions found in medieval churches in England. While a good part of these graffiti have a well-defined spiritual or devotional character and sit within the orthodox liturgy, many others “appear to have been created in non-traditional forms” (15). These inscriptions fall under the category of “apotropaic symbols, or ritual protection marks—sometimes misleadingly referred to as ‘Witch marks’ ” (17). They seem to be a constant element in medieval churches across Europe and perhaps are indicative of a direct connection between the individual and the divine. From apotropaic marks and symbols found in churches, the next chapter, written by Timothy Easton, summarizes apotropaic marks and symbols in domestic buildings, which seem to derive from the ones found in churches. Particular attention is placed in the discussion of “assembly marks” made by carpenters; Marian letters which survived the reformation; candle burn marks and the practice of applying biblical texts and homilies around the internal walls of houses which became popular during the second half of the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth-century. Easton concludes his survey of apotropaic markings and symbols with a reminder of...


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