Magical House Protection
The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft
- ISBN: 9781789202052
- Published By: Berghan Books
- Published: April 2019
Why on earth would a builder choose to place a cat—either dead or alive—inside the cavity of a brick wall? Why would someone place a severed horse’s head beneath the floor of a threshing barn? Or why would someone choose to climb into an attic to deliberately leave a series of burn marks across a timber ceiling beam? Human beings sometimes do peculiar things, and when we are left with only the physical traces of their acts—without any record of why they chose to do so—we are faced with a fascinating series of archaeological mysteries.
Since 1999, the independent scholar Brian Hoggard has been collecting data on apotropaic markings and unusual deposits found concealed within buildings, primarily in Britain but also in other parts of the world. His findings have appeared in chapters across several edited volumes, but now appear in their most complete form, a monograph devoted specifically to the topic.
The first half of Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft provides a chapter-by-chapter discussion of the various phenomena that Hoggard has looked at. These include witch-bottles, concealed shoes, dried cats, horse skulls, written charms, and a broad range of apotropaic markings. Throughout, Hoggard refers to previous interpretations of the evidence, offering his own thoughts and analyses where appropriate. The second part of the book represents a catalogue of such finds, arranged on a county-by-county basis, probably the most exhaustive yet published. Most of these entries provide references as to where Hoggard obtained this information, although a few do not.
While bringing together a wealth of data, this book does not subject it to any statistical analysis. Such an examination, even at a fairly basic level, would have provided some interesting—if equivocal—information on chronological shifts and regional distribution. Hopefully either Hoggard, or someone else using the data he has amassed, will perform such an analysis in future. This study also focuses exclusively on finds from standing buildings, which date from the end of the Middle Ages at the earliest, although interesting comparisons might be drawn with evidence from excavated settlement contexts dating from earlier in the Medieval, Romano-British, and prehistoric periods.
There are also some theoretical issues that could perhaps have done with greater consideration. The items described here are categorized as “magical house protection,” inevitably relying on the problematic concept of “magic,” but this term is not defined, even on a stipulative level. As scholars of religion like Jonathan Z. Smith and Wouter Hanegraaff have argued in recent decades, the concept of “magic” is so problematic that it probably should be rejected as an etic tool. Some, like Bernd-Christian Otto and Michael Stausberg in their recent book on Defining Magic: A Reader (Equinox, 2013), have argued that it is perfectly possible to discuss issues like amulets, healing procedures, and curses without resorting to the over-arching category of “magic.” Hoggard’s book would have been a good opportunity to test this idea out: indeed, it should have been possible to talk of “witchcraft,” “counter-witchcraft,” and “apotropaic devices” without the need for “magic” to begin with.
The style of the prose—which consists largely of short, easily accessible sentences—coupled with the comparative scarcity of citations throughout many parts of the text, lends this book more to a popular audience than a strictly academic one. For this reason, it is surprising that it has been brought out with Berghahn Books at a retail price that will probably prohibit all but a handful of university libraries from acquiring copies. This is a shame, for the subject matter attracts considerable interest outside the academy, as the success of reasonably-priced volumes like Matthew Champion’s Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury Press, 2015) attest. Hopefully a considerably cheaper version will be provided in future.
The cumulation of twenty years’ worth of research, Magical House Protection will bring increased attention a subject that—despite its great importance for understanding vernacular belief and practice in early modern and modern Britain—has often been overlooked. Its catalogue will be of great use for researchers exploring this topic in future, and for this contribution in particular it should be recommended.
Ethan Doyle White recently submitted his doctoral thesis in Early Medieval Religion at University College London.Ethan Doyle WhiteDate Of Review:September 18, 2019