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Cursed Britain: A history of witchcraft and black magic in modern times, by Thomas Waters

25 October 2019

William Whyte on a way in which the world is less secular than was predicted

THE modern world was meant to have killed off magic. Standard accounts of secularisation have always assumed that a collection of factors — whether industrialisation, urbanisation, the rise of science, or the spread of education — contribute to a “disenchantment of the world”. In this very influential model, modernity is characterised by the triumph of reason over superstition. It’s a satisfying sort of theory: clear, comprehensive, and with obvious predictive power. In many ways, it’s a shame that it has proved so completely and utterly wrong.

Far from having been killed off by antibiotics, universal literacy, and the internet, magic is now big business, as tens of thousands of “faith healers” ply their trade in Britain. It is also a growing problem. In 2017, there were nearly 1500 incidents of “faith-based” abuse in England: children and vulnerable adults horribly mistreated — tortured, even killed — because they were believed to be somehow possessed. Magic is alive and kicking in the early 21st century.

Historians and the more observant social scientists have cast doubt on the idea of secularisation for several decades, and, in the past few years, a small library of books has appeared illustrating the ways in which magic survived modernity. Dr Thomas Waters’s new book is, in that sense, not as new as all that. But it is admirably wide-ranging, none the less, offering a survey of magic from the beginning of the 19th century until the present day, clearly demonstrating its ubiquity, its importance, and its persistence.

Covering everywhere from the Highlands of Scotland to the Highlands of Kenya, and covering everyone from the serious-minded Victorian Theosophists to the decidedly dodgy hucksters who still prey on the despair of the credulous, Waters is especially good at finding telling examples to illuminate his argument. Who, for instance, could forget Frederick Culliford, the Somerset Wiseman, who successfully sold bottles of his clients’ own urine back to them in the 1870s, promising that this would protect their cattle from being cursed?

Cursed Britain ostensibly argues that magic survived the Victorian era, declined in the early 20th century, and revived in recent years. In fact, the material here amounts to a still more revisionist theory than the author is willing to venture. What it seems to show is that, instead of undermining superstition, modernity may actually encourage it.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.


Cursed Britain: A history of witchcraft and black magic in modern times
Thomas Waters
Yale £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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