Review of Ronald Hutton’s ‘Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts’

Back in 1987, archaeologist Ralph Merrifield asserted that magic and ritual ‘can be studied objectively like any other human behaviour, and archaeology can make a major contribution towards its investigation’ (1987: 184). His point was definitively proven by his book The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, which offered the first full-length volume devoted to the materiality of magic.

Covering a wide chronological period from the pre-Roman Iron Age to the twentieth century, with a geographic focus on Europe – most prominently south-eastern England – he reconstructed ritual activity, such as the deposition of witch-bottles and mummified cats, from the archaeological evidence, supplementing it wherever possible with written sources.


It was this book that initially got me interested in the materiality of folk customs during the days of my Masters, and it appears to have inspired many others because it is in Ralph Merrifield’s memory that Ronald Hutton – Professor of History at the University of Bristol and a renowned specialist in British folklore – produced the book I’m about to review: Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: A Feeling for Magic.

Ronald Hutton's Book

Published in 2016 as part of the Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic series, edited by Jonathan Barry, Willem de Blécourt and Owen Davies, Hutton’s volume aims to demonstrate that, in Hutton’s words, ‘material data can serve to fuel new debate over a cluster of major hypotheses concerning the history of British magic which were developed from textual evidence’ (2016: 12). In order to show how physical evidence can both confirm and challenge our notions of past ritual practices and popular beliefs, Hutton has drawn together the leading experts on the materiality of Western magic and has assembled their theories, ideas, and evidence in one very handy book.

The introductory chapter is penned by Hutton, who traces the history of the study of the materiality of magic (that’s a lot of ‘of’s…), from the work of Merrifield and Roberta Gilchrist to the recent edited volumes entitled The Materiality of Magic by Boschung & Bremmer, and (for a little shameless self-promotion) Houlbrook & Armitage. What follows are twelve chapters provided by the experts:

Matthew Champion, Project Director of the Norfolk & Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Surveys, writes about ‘Magic on the Walls: Ritual Protection Marks in the Medieval Church’. Timothy Easton, artist and long-standing authority on apotropaic markings, pens the chapters on ‘Apotropaic Symbols and Other Measures for Protecting Buildings against Misfortune’ and ‘Spiritual Middens’, and co-writes a chapter on ‘Cunning-Folk and the Protection of Magical Artefacts’ with Owen Davies, Professor of Social History and expert in the history of witchcraft and magic at the University of Hertfordshire.

John Billingsley, local historian and folklorist, and editor of the magazine ‘Northern Earth’, writes on ‘Instances and Contexts of the Head Motif in Britain’. Brian Hoggard, expert on concealed objects and creator of the Apotropaios website, pens the next two chapters: ‘Witch Bottles: Their Contents, Contexts and Uses’ and ‘Concealed Animals’. June Swann, former Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection at Northampton Museum and renowned connoisseur of the concealed shoe, writes on ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings’. Dinah Eastop, manager of the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project, provides the next chapter: ‘Garments Concealed within Buildings: Following the Evidence’. Alexander Cummins, who recently completed his doctorate on the history of early modern magic and the passions, writes on ‘Textual Evidence for the Material History of Amulets in Seventeenth-Century England’, while Tabitha Cadbury, Curator of Social History and World Cultures at Plymouth City Museum, talks about ‘Amulets: The Material Evidence’.

The book so far has been focused on Britain, but the final chapter shifts the geographic attention away from Europe entirely. ‘The Wider Picture: Parallel Evidence in America and Australia’ is penned by Owen Davies, Ian Evans – expert in folk magic in Australia and creator of the World of Old Houses website – and M. Chris Manning, the authority on domestic magic in the US.

The individual chapters by themselves are very interesting and informative; but taken as a whole, Hutton’s volume provides a fascinating insight into the vast range of past beliefs and practices that still largely remain a mystery to us, but which the material evidence can take us a step closer to understanding. I’ve had this book in my collection for only a couple of months now and I’ve already cited it over a dozen times. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in the enigmatic folk customs of past generations; it’s well on its way to standing side-by-side with Merrifield as canon in the study of the materiality of magic.

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