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  • Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times by Thomas Waters
  • Jonathan Barry
Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times. By Thomas Waters (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2019) 358 pp. $65.00

Despite its sensational title and cover, this book deserves serious attention from readers of this journal, even though it was not written specifically for academics, interdisciplinary or otherwise, but for a general readership. It largely adopts a chronological organization, with five chapters covering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (to 2015, in fact), although three thematic chapters in the middle of the book study the “Unwitchers of late Victorian Britain,” occultists studying “Black Arts 1850–1900,” and “Witchcraft in the British Empire and Beyond.” As the focus of these thematic chapters suggests, Waters pays most of his attention to the period c.1850 to 1914, during which, he argues, the fear of witchcraft or other forms of being “cursed” was still powerful, particularly among ordinary people. But educated people were not immune either—not least those who served the Empire and came to conclude that the magical practices of colonial peoples had “something” to them, however much the imperial ideology and official rules denied it. Waters maintains that not until the period c.1914 to the 1960s, especially after 1945, did the fear of being cursed finally become a minor feature of British culture, though this trend was soon to be reversed. The dual impacts of multiculturalism and consumer culture offered new enticements for the fear that sudden, intractable misfortunes were the result of human (or possibly demonic) malice.

Waters justifies his title’s emphasis on being “cursed” by stressing that his study, though building on the work of Davies and Hutton, differs from theirs in its focus on those who feared that they had been cursed rather than on the theorists or practitioners of magic, or on the growth of occult or new-age movements such as Wicca.1 Yet Waters cannot ignore these developments, especially the activities of those offering to reverse or heal curses, because of his key argument: Despite wider socio-economic and cultural developments that made people less prone to see curses as the cause of misfortune, the most important variable in this context was the willingness and ability of the state to limit [End Page 141] the practice of “unwitchers” of all kinds. This state intervention involved the growth of policing and the tightening of orthodox medical monopolies, notably from 1900 to 1970, which were eventually to loosen with the boom of alternative consumerism and new religions.

In a brief conclusion, Waters proposes that the state re-adopt stricter regulation, largely to protect children who have been accused of possession or witchcraft within various faith movements, and to enforce consumer protection against fraud. Waters also recognizes, however, that by providing patterns of meaning and counteraction in the face of misfortune, practitioners of magic may have helped to counter stress and depression. He bases this argument on extensive citation of the social- science and medical literature about the physical effects of various types of mental therapy. Yet he is deeply skeptical about the power of “education” to counter a belief in curses. He stresses, in line with much other recent work, that even though “modernity” (urbanization, consumerism, and mass media) might have undermined rural oral traditions, it did so only slowly, creating at least as many new forms and formats for belief in cursing as it destroyed.

Waters scatters these arguments within what is primarily a narrative and descriptive account. The few interesting, brief case studies that enrich the book do not test his interpretations with any rigor. Nor do they question the social-scientific or medical models on which he draws for their part in the complex attempts of modern “science” to grapple with anomalous phenomena. Because his is a broad sweeping history, touching briefly on numerous topics, specialists in each field are likely to take issue with specific interpretations. Notwithstanding his encyclopedic range of reference, the book lacks the complete mastery of scholarship and argument displayed in Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon (New York, 1999), which remains the indispensable...


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pp. 141-142
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