Cursed Britain opens by posing the question: if your misfortunes gradually escalated and piled on top of one another, would you – could you – believe yourself cursed? If you came to that conclusion, one a younger you would have found preposterous, what would you do about it?
Thomas Waters’ fascinating book, yet another from Yale University Press, attempts to rewrite the history of modern witchcraft. We like to think ourselves as having emerged from a dark age of centuries past, but have we really? Cursed Britain leads one to think we are as cursed as we ever were.
Cursed Britain is unlike any other book on witchcraft I have read. The first point of difference is the time frame, which in this book focuses on “modern times”, starting in 1800 with each chapter jumping us closer to the present. When most of us think of witchcraft, we tend to think of that period between the 1400s and 1700s when witchcraft and trials to deal with its influence were prevalent. Even scholars, who you wouldn’t expect to fall foul of this fallacy, have greatly underestimated witchcraft’s enduring legacy. To learn how seriously the Victorians took witchcraft and how witchcraft didn’t begin to decline in any serious way until the period between the early 1900s and the 1960s is eye-opening.
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As the name suggests, this book deals with witchcraft as it was experienced in Britain. (As an aside, is it strange that I almost felt a swell of national pride when I read “Britain is an ideal place to study the dark arts” in Waters’ introduction?) When the book talks of the decline in witchcraft, it is not talking about, necessarily, witchcraft around the globe. For example, a United Nations report found evidence of 25,000 witch-killings across India between 1987 and 2003, though, Waters writes, the real figure is apparently “much higher”. However, two chapters do touch on global witchcraft. The first discusses how Britains reacted to the witchcraft they witnessed around the world in the first age of globalisation. In the second, Waters touches on “multicultural magic” as immigration imported beliefs from around the world.
The second way in which Cursed Britain approaches witchcraft differently is that it focuses not on the witches and other purveyors of the “dark arts”, but on the recipients of the magic – sometimes victims, sometimes not. To be affected by witchcraft, one must hold a belief in the possibility of witchcraft. Without belief, those spells and incantations hold no power. Therein lies the magic. Waters shows how there are clear similarities with religion, another belief-based system (and how, even in an age of increasing religious scepticism, inclinations towards the occult didn’t decline to the same degree). The other clear comparison to be made is alternative medicine – that homeopathy exists at all in Britain is a sign that rational, scientific thinking only goes so far. The placebo-effect is a deserving area of study because the mind can have a remarkable effect on the body. Our belief that something will work is powerful – powerful enough to make us better. Or make us worse.
When we look at the harm caused through witchcraft, is is largely harm caused by others in a response to witchcraft. But witchcraft can even be a force for good, argues Waters. That good came in part through the “unwitchers” – the cunning-folk and healers who would offer services to prevent and cure dark magic from affecting their customers. Waters argues that you could view these unwitchers as providing an early form of mental health care, with the power of belief, spirituality and simply airing ones problems out loud, leading to a form of psychological healing. In don’t disagree with this premise – the positive effects of spiritual and religious belief are well-documented. However, I remain overwhelmingly sceptical of anyone who claims they can cure you through imaginary means – even if recipients report good-effects. Even if these unwitchers do good, they do so out of deliberate deception. Waters himself, though, seems reticent to present himself as being too in favour of the the power of magic, in whatever form that takes. In his conclusion, Waters says that “if not properly controlled, witchcraft will certainly do damage.” The best form of control, he says, is “targeted government regulation”. However, I am unclear on the true nature of Waters’ own beliefs and opinions on some of these issues – I hope to interview him at a later date to discover more.
Cursed Britain shows us that belief in witchcraft and the practice of black magic has been significantly more present in modern history than we previously thought, and that its decline in Britain only truly began in living memory. Through the study of witchcraft we learn that belief systems are powerful – power that could be harnessed for good even in the present. This fascinating book will change the way you think about not only witchcraft but the Victorians, and it should be considered an essential read.
Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times by Thomas Waters is published by Yale University Press. Buy the book.