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A Wicked Work
on 6 September 2010
A peddler is accosted by a woman on the edge of the wild moorland surrounding Pendle Hill. The young lady, a local cunning woman, is after new pins, a vital ingredient in early modern spellcraft. The peddler takes fright; he stumbles as he retreats into a local inn. It is from this trivial incident that one of the most well known (and well documented) of 17th century witch trials will grow. We meet the committed, clever Justice of the Peace Roger Nowell who uses this incident to build a case intended to crush the cunning folk of Pendle. This is a ripping yarn, a court-room drama where evidence, manipulation, defiance and desperation infuse the page-turning tale that the author expertly unfolds.
Joyce Froome meticulously peels back the layers in this case, looking in detail at the archives from the period. Her work is informed by later writers but what comes across immediately is the sense that she's really immersed herself in the primary documents. This alone should mark this out as a valuable historical text. But there is much, much more to Wicked Enchantments that a rock solid history.
The Pendle case is set in a wider context by the author; spirit communication, medieval and early modern magical practice, theological and popular attitudes to magicians are all discussed. The context that Joyce creates includes a penetrating reading of the famous case of Gilles de Rais and a close analysis of the origins, metaphysics and use of folk charms.
Wicked Enchantments also archives the distinction of being beautifully produced, including evocative photographs of various occult experiments and objects from the collection of the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft. The author writes herself beautifully into the story of the cunning folk with her own description of trying out scrying, and the rationale for a belief in the efficacy of magic is sensitively explored.
This sensitivity in the writing is particularly in evidence when we come to the trials of the witches (which are described in detail) and the executions (which are not). This is a book that understands the perspectives of all the actors; it shies away from bland interpretations of Roger Nowell as `the baddie' and the cunning folk as the heroes of the story. But what it does do is tell the tale, without pulling any punches over the horrors of gaol and torture, but without fetishising the myth of the `Burning Times'. The story Joyce tells is far too human for that.
So if you want to discover the old magic of Britain rather than read any number of reconstructionist texts about `traditional witchcraft' I'd recommend this book. You'll find both hard facts and beguiling mystery in Wicked Enchantments. This is a fine testament to those cunning folk who died during this tragic period in our nation's history, and an intelligent look at how magic exists in culture. Highly recommended. Julian Vayne