There is nothing new under the sun: Alcohol consumption in 16th Century England

Some quotes on alcohol consumption in England from 16th Century sources, discovered via Ian Spencer Hornsey’s A History of Beer and Brewing:

1552: From ‘An Act for Keepers of Ale-houses to be bounde by Recognizances’:

Forasmuch as intolerable hurts and troubles to the commonwealth of this realm do daily grow and increase through such abuses and disorders as are had and used in common ale-houses and other houses called tippling houses, it is enacted that Justices of Peace can abolish ale-houses at their discretion, and that no tippling-house can be opened without a licence.

1572: Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of York, in a stern warning to the clergy of England:

Ye shall not keep, or suffer to be kept in your parsonage or vicarage houses, tippling houses or taverns, nor shall ye sell ale, beer, or wine.

1577: William Harrison, writing in his Description of England:

Certes I know some ale-knights so much addicted thereunto that they will not cease from morrow until even to visit the same, cleansing house after house, till they defile themselves, and either fall quite under the board, or else, not daring to stir from their stools sit still pinking with their narrow eyes, as half sleeping, till the fume of their adversary be digested that he may go to it afresh.

1583: Philip Stubbs, an Elizabethan moralist, writing about drunkenness:

I say that it is a horrible vice, and too much used in England. Every county, city, town, village, and other places hath abundance of alehouses, taverns, and inns, which are so frought with malt-worms, night and day, that you would wonder to see them. You shall have them there sitting at the wine and good-ale all the day long, yea, all the night too, peradventure a whole week together, so long as any money is left; swilling, gulling and carousing from one to another, till never a one can speak a ready word.

The wakes and feasts of country parishes

In pre-modern England, the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint was marked yearly with great celebration. The following accounts of such festivities give an indication as to how far removed the Christianity of ordinary rural people was from the staid church-going of today.

Celebrations in the South West:

Then the inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.[1]

Festivities in Lancashire:

The eve of such anniversary was the yearly wake (or watching) of the parishioners; and originally booths were erected in the churchyards, and feasting, dancing, and other revelry continued throughout the night. The parishioners attended divine service on the feast day, and the rest of that day was then devoted to popular festivities. So great grew the excesses during these prolonged orgies, that at length it became necessary to close the churches against the pageants and mummeries performed in them at these anniversaries, and the churchyards against the noisy, disorderly, and tumultuous merry-makings of the people. Thenceforth the great seal of the revels was transferred from the church and its grave-yard, to the village green or the town market-place, or some space of open ground, large enough for popular assemblages to enjoy the favourite sports and pastimes of the period. Such were the general character and features of the wakes and feasts of country parishes, changing only with the name of the patron saint, the day of the celebration.[2]


[1] John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Vol. II (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.5. Citing Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, Or The Antiquities of the Common People (1725).

[2] John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson (1867) Lancashire Folk-Lore (London: Frederick Warne and Co.), p.213.

Sacred Wells in Britain

Sacred wells (or ‘holy wells’) were once found throughout the British Isles and represent an aspect of pre-Christian belief which survived as a result of ecclesiastical ‘reinterpretation’ rendering them (just about) orthodox. The idea underpinning sacred wells is that there is a benevolent spirit (akin to a genius loci) which somehow inhabits, or has responsibility for, the well and can be engaged with in order that the water of the well might have a healing effect. While such wells came to be associated with various saints in order that they should be cleansed of pagan connotations, the same underlying principles remained intact.

A person in need of some kind of healing (which could include healing of both bodily and mental ailments) would visit a sacred well and make an offering to the spirit/saint of the well. An offering might be made as a down-payment in advance of a successful healing or left out of gratitude for a healing that had already occurred. Sometimes ritual words would be spoken or ritual actions undertaken (walking around the well a certain number of times, and so on). Sometimes a well would be visited at a particular time of year which was said to be especially fortuitous or powerful. Offerings and rituals varied from place to place but some common practices do emerge.

Rag wells were a common form of sacred well, particularly in Scotland and the North of England. At such wells, rags were left as offerings to the spirit of the well and were often tied to trees and bushes adjacent to or overhanging the well. In addition to rags, other common offerings included pins, needles, nails, shells, pebbles, and coins of low value. Such devotion was still in evidence in the Nineteenth Century. John Brand, writing in 1841, comments:

The leaving of rags at wells was a singular piece of popular superstition… This absurd custom is not extinct even at this day: I have formerly frequently observed shreds or bits of rag upon the bushes that overhang a well in the road to Benton, a village in the vicinity of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which, from that circumstance, is now or was very lately called the rag-well. The name is undoubtedly of long standing: probably it has been visited for some disease or other, and these rag offerings are the reliques of the then prevailing popular superstition.

(Brand, 1841, p.224)

The leaving of rags at sacred wells continues to this day, although I am unsure as to whether this is through unbroken local tradition or through modern revival; perhaps it is a mixture of both.

In addition to these traditions, particular types of tree are also associated with sacred wells and have often been found over them or nearby. The types of trees held to have sacred qualities that were found near holy wells are hawthorn, elder, ash, oak, hazel, holly, yew, and rowan (Varner, 2009, p.62). The elder was long associated with pagan devotion and was the object of censure from church authorities (ibid, p.63). Wulfstan, an 11th Century Archbishop of York, for example, had the following to say:

And it is right that every priest eagerly teach Christianity and crush all heathenism; and forbid the worship of springs, and necromancy, and divination and incantations, and the worship of trees and stones, and the devilish trick people perform in which a child is dragged across the earth, and the superstitions practiced with various auguries on New Year’s night and at pagan shrines and elder-trees, and a great many other errors which men practice much more than they should.

The yew has also long been held to be a tree of special significance, being planted in numerous churchyards, a practice which Brand suggests ‘might be nothing more than a remnant of that superstitious worship paid by the ancient northern nations, in their Pagan state, to trees in general, and to oaks and yews in particular – a deeply rooted habit, which for a long time infected the Christian converts of the north of Europe’ (Brand, 1841, p.260-261).

Further reading on the topic of sacred wells:

Buttons, Bras and Pins – The Folklore of British Holy Wells

What are Holy Wells?


Wishing Well

Wish Tree

Western European Herbalism

In common with many other world cultures, in the period prior to the onset of industrial modernity, herbs and plants had both medicinal and magical uses. Some examples follow:

Tying the seeds of docks to the left arm of a woman is said to help with conception difficulties.

Corall bound to the neck is said to protect against nightmares.

The leaves of the Elder, gathered on the last day of April can be used in the curing of wounds and fixed to doors and windows are said to ward off evil.

Rosemary is said to clean houses of evil and a branch hung at the entrance is said to repel evil. Ricinus is said to serve the same function.

Houseleek planted on cottage roofs is said to ward off lightning strikes.

It is said that if you carry a piece of a piece of horseradish in your purse on New Year’s Eve, you will not run out of money during the next year.

Various common plants and their traditional uses:

Basil – stomach troubles, drive away flies, aphrodisiac
Cabbage – diarrhoea, eye diseases, kidney problems, stomach ailments, hangovers
Chives – cough, respiratory diseases
Cloves – aphrodisiac
Rue – general healing, repel evil spirits
Coriander – cramps, sleeplessness, cough, improve memory
Cucumber – fever and infections
Garlic – general healing, protection from evil, aphrodisiac, increases courage
Ginger – flu and stomach ailments, anti-aging, used in love potions
Hazel nut – cough, fatigue, infections
Horseradish – cough, respiratory diseases, stomach ailments
Lemon Balm – remedy for depression, heart diseases, restlessness, sleeplessness, stomach ailments
Liquorice – cough, fever, respiratory diseases.
Mint – cough, flu, respiratory diseases, stomach troubles, aphrodisiac
Nutmeg – stomach problems, enhances male potency
Oregano – cramps, protection from evil when carried on the person
Pepper – depression, fever, pain, stomach ailments, protects soldiers when carried in the pocket
Rosemary – sprains, fractures, wounds, cough, dizziness, stomach troubles, twig protects against the evil eye
Sage – general healing and aphrodisiac
Sorrel – fever, stomach troubles
Thyme – burns, cough, respiratory diseases, sprains, stomach ailments, womens’ diseases, eating increases courage, protects from evil


John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.268-269. Available online at Google Books and the Internet Archive.

Mediaeval Plants: Background Information. Online.

British Crossroads Magic

In Britain, as elsewhere, the crossroads has traditionally been a place of spiritual power. For a long time, suicides and murderers were buried at crossroads, as it was believed that this would confuse their spirits and ‘bind’ them there, thereby protecting neighbouring communities from their influence. The crossroads was an intimidating place, yet at the same time also a powerful place, and divination took place there, as it did across Europe.

Various rituals intended to rid the individual of ailments were carried out at the crossroads. An Oxfordshire cure for warts involved the sufferer binding a large black slug upon the wart for a night and a day, then going at night to the nearest crossroads and flinging the slug over the left shoulder. People of Exeter and the surrounding area suffering from fevers would visit at the dead of night the nearest crossroad five different times, and there bury a new-laid egg, thereby transferring the illness to the egg and ridding it from their body.

On the Isle of Man, people wanting to get rid of evil spirits and bad luck would should go to where four roads meet, and sweep the intersection clear. This was done at midnight when there is a full moon and a broom was used.

It wasn’t just people who wanted to get rid of evil who visited the crossroads for ritual purposes at night, but also those who sought to raise and make contact with spirits for occult purposes. Accounts of such activities can be found in John Beaumont’s book of 1705 entitled An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. In this book, Beaumont presents the case of a 20 year-old acquaintance of his from Gloucestershire named Thomas Jerps. Jerps was a man who had sought to engage with spirits at the crossroads:

I ask’d him several particulars concerning the method he used, and the discourse he had had with the Spirits; He told me he had a Book whose directions he followed, and accordingly, in the dead time of the Night, he went to a cross way, with a Lanthorn and Candle, which were Consecrated for this purpose, with several Incantations: He had also a Consecrated Chalk, having a mixture of several things within it; and with this he used to make a Circle at what distance he thought fit, within which no Spirit had power to enter; after this he Invoked the Spirits, by using several forms of Words; some of which he told me were taken out of the Scriptures, and therefore he thought them lawful…

About a Quarter of a Year after this, he came to me again, and told me he wished now he had taken my Advice, for he thought he had done that, which would cost him his Life, and his Eyes and Countenance shew’d a great alteration. I asked him what he had done? he told me that being Bewitch’d by his Acquaintance, he resolved to proceed farther in this Art, and to have some Familiar Spirits at his Command, according to the directions of his Book, which were to get a Book made of Virgin Parchment, and Consecrated with several Incantations, as also particular Ink, Inkhorn, Pens, &c. for this purpose; with these he was to go out as usual to a Cross-way, call upon a Spirit, and ask him his Name, which he was to enter in the First Page of his Book, and this was to be his Chief Familiar.


Beaumont, John (1705) An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. Online.

Devereux, Paul (2010) ‘Talking and Walking with Spirits: Fresh Perspectives on a Medieval Necromantic System’ in Patrick Curry (ed) Divination: Perspectives for a New Millenium (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing): 243-250.

Rogers, Liam (1996) ‘The Enchanted Crossroads’, White Dragon. Online.

Roud, Steve (2006) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (London: Penguin Books).

Seventeenth Century English Folk Magic

The following quotes illustrate some of the aspects found in the folk magical practices of 17th Century England:

A tract warning against ‘Unlearned Physitians’ (1605) refers to ‘charmes, witchcraft, magnifical incantations, and sorcerie’ and the use of ‘characters, circles, figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations’, as well as the use of ‘certaine amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with some magical character’.

Bishop Joseph Hall, writing of the superstitious man in his Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608) states that ‘old wives and starres are his counsellors: his night spell is his guard, and charms his physicians. He wears Paracelsian characters for the toothache; and a little hallowed wax is his antidote for all evils’.

William Ramesay, writing in his The Character of a Quack Astrologer (1673): ‘He offers, for five pieces, to give you home with you a talisman against flies; a sigil to make you fortunate at gaming; and a spell that shall as certainly preserve you from being rob’d for the future; a sympathetical powder for the violent pains of the tooth-ach’.


John Brand (1841) Observations on Popular Antiquities: Chiefly Illustrating the Origin of Our Vulgar Customs, Ceremonies, and Supersititions, Volume II. Available online here.

Eighteenth Century British Folk Magic

In the third volume of his Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain (1849), John Brand quotes the following from a manuscript entitled Discourse of Witchcraft, which is attributed to ‘Mr. John Bell, Minister of the Gospel at Gladsmuir, 1705′:

Guard against devilish charms for men or beasts. There are many sorceries practised in our day, against which I would on this occasion bear my testimony, and do therefore seriously ask you, what is it you mean by your observation of times and seasons as lucky or unlucky? What mean you by your many spells, verses, words, so often repeated, said fasting, or going backward? How mean you to have success by carrying about with you certain herbs, plants, and branches of trees?

Why is it, that, fearing certain events, you do use such superstitious means to prevent them, by laying bits of timber at doors, carrying a Bible meerly for a charm, without any farther use of it? What intend ye by opposing witchcraft to witchcraft, in such sort that, when ye suppose one to be bewitched, ye endeavour his relief by burnings, bottles, horseshoes, and such like magical ceremonies?

How think ye to have secrets revealed unto you, your doubts resolved, and your minds informed, by turning a sieve or a key? or to discover by basons and glasses how you shall be related before you die? Or do you think to escape the guilt of sorcery, who let your Bible fall open on purpose to determine what the state of your souls is by the first word ye light upon?


John Brand (1849) Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, Volume III (London: Henry G. Bohn), p.268-269. Available online at Google Books and the Internet Archive.

Seventh Century French Folk Religion

Saint Eligius (590-660 CE) was the Bishop of Noyon-Tournai and engaged in missionary activities in his native France. We learn something of the beliefs he was countering, which many Christians obviously also adhered to at least in part, through the text of a sermon of his from 640 CE:

Before all things I declare and testify to you that you shall observe none of the impious customs of the pagans, neither sorcerers, nor diviners, nor soothsayers, nor enchanters, nor must you presume for any cause to enquire of them…

Let none regulate the beginning of any piece of work by the day or by the moon. Let none trust in nor presume to invoke the names of dæmons, neither Neptune, nor Orcus, nor Diana, nor Minerva, nor Geniscus nor any other such follies…

Let no Christian place lights at the temples or the stones, or at fountains, or at trees, or at places where three ways meet… Let none presume to hang amulets on the neck of man or beast… Let no one presume to make lustrations, nor to enchant herbs, nor to make flocks pass through a hollow tree, or an aperture in the earth; for by so doing he seems to consecrate them to the devil.

Let none on the kalends of January join in the wicked and ridiculous things, the dressing like old women or like stags, nor make feasts lasting all night, nor keep up the custom of gifts and intemperate drinking. Let no one on the festival of St. John or on any of the festivals join in the solstitia or dances or leaping or caraulas or diabolical songs.


This section of the sermon is quoted in Chapter 1 of Eleanour Sinclair Rohde’s book The Old English Herbals, which can be read online here.

Folk Beliefs in Eighteenth Century England

In 1725, a book by one Henry Bourne was published which sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. In the book, Bourne collects together the results of his research into the beliefs of his fellow Englishmen and highlights the fact that both the customs/rituals they observe and the beliefs they hold to be true are in the large part not of an orthodox Christian nature; in fact, they really constitute clear examples of folk religion and folk magic. Speaking of the majority of the English population of his day, Bourne states:

As to the Opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious, being generally either the Produce of Heathenism; or the Inventions of indolent Monks, who having nothing else to do, were the Forgers of many silly and wicked Opinions, to keep the World in Awe and Ignorance. And indeed the ignorant Part of the World, is still so aw’d, that they follow the idle Traditions of the one, more than the Word of GOD; and have more Dependance upon the lucky Omens of the other than his Providence, more Dread of their unlucky ones, than his Wrath and Punishment.


Henry Bourne (1725) Antiquitates Vulgares: or, the Antiquities of the Common People. Giving an account of several of their opinions and ceremonies (Newcastle: J. White).

Download the book at Google Books or read online here.

Tenth Century Anglo-Saxon folk magic

Ælfric of Eynsham (955-1010 CE) was an English abbot and renowned author of Christian works. In a homily on the Passion of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, Ælfric had the following to say regarding folk magical practices:

The Christian man, who in any of this like is afflicted, and he then will seek his health at unallowed practices, or at accursed enchantments, or at any witchcraft, then will he be like to those heathen men, who offered to an idol for their bodies’ health, and so destroyed their souls. Let him who is sick pray for his health to his Lord, and patiently endure the stripes; let him behold how long the true Leech provides, and buy not, through any devil’s craft, with his soul, his body’s health; let him also ask the blessing of good men, and seek his health at holy relics. It is not allowed to any Christian man to fetch his health from any stone, nor from any tree, unless it be the holy sign of the rood, nor from any place, unless it be the holy house of God: he who does otherwise, undoubtedly commits idolatry…

The wise Augustine said, that it is not perilous, though any one eat a medicinal herb; but he reprehends it as an unallowed charm, if any one bind those herbs on himself, unless he lay them on a sore. Nevertheless we should not set our hope in medicinal herbs, but in the Almighty Creator, who has given that virtue to those herbs. No man shall enchant a herb with magic, but with God’s words shall bless it, and so eat it.

Source: The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church

Eleventh Century European Folk Magic

In the early Eleventh Century, the Bishop of the German See of Worms was a man named Burchard. Burchard had a talent for writing and produced a vast work entitled Decretum, consisting of twenty books related to ecclesiastical law and moral theology. The nineteenth book – a collection of questions to be asked by confessors, along with appropriate penances – took on a life of its own and gained a much wider audience than the rest of Burchard’s texts. This book has come to be known as The Corrector and provides many examples of the kind of folk magical practices being carried out in the supposedly Christian Western Europe of that time. The following selection of quotes is drawn from The Corrector:


60. Have you consulted magicians and led them into your house in order to seek out any magical trick, or to avert it; or have you invited according to pagan custom diviners who would divine for you, to demand of them the things to come as from a prophet, and those who practice lots or expect by lots to foreknow the future, or those who are devoted to auguries or incantations? If you have, you shall do penance for two years in the appointed feast days.

63. Have you made knots, and incantations, and those various enchantments which evil men, swineherds, ploughmen, and sometimes hunters make, while they say diabolical formulae over bread or grass and over certain nefarious bandages, and either hid these in a tree or throw them where two roads, or three roads, meet, that they may set free their animals or dogs from pestilence or destruction and destroy those of another? If you have, you shall do penance for two years on the appointed days.

65. Have you collected medicinal herbs with evil incantations, not with the creed and the Lord’s prayer, that is, with the singing of the “credo in Deum” and the paternoster? If you have done it otherwise you shall do penance for ten days on bread and water.

66. Have you come to any place to pray other than a church or other religious place which thy bishop or thy priest showed you, that is, either to springs or to stones or to trees or to crossroads, and there in reverence for the place lighted a candle or a torch or carried thither bread or any offering or eaten there or sought there healing of body or mind? If you have done or consented to such things, you shall do penance for three years on the appointed fast days.

167. Have you drunk the holy oil in order to annul a judgment of God or made or taken counsel with others in making anything in grass or in words or in wood or in stone or in anything foolishly believed in, or held them in your mouth, or had them sewn in your clothing or tied about you, or performed any kind of trick that you believed could annul the divine judgment? If you have, you should do penance for seven years on the appointed days.

175. Have you done what some women filled with the discipline of Satan are wont to do, who watch the footprints and traces of Christians and remove a turf from their footprint and watch it and hope thereby to take away their health or life? If you have done or consented to this, you should do penance for five years on the appointed days.



Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (eds, 2001) Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, Second Edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

The ‘Health and Wealth Gospel': A Modern American Folk Christianity

In her book Making Virtuous Daughter and Wives: An Introduction to Women’s Brata Rituals in Bengali Folk Religion, June McDaniel cites the work of one of her (American) students who in a test looked at various sub-types of Hinduism and decided on which one she preferred:

The best type was folk religion. People in folk religion cared about being healthy, rich, getting a good husband and having children, having lots of food, and good weather. She said that the church that she attended was just like that – everybody wanted health and wealth and an attractive boyfriend or husband, and prayed for passing tests and getting jobs and winning lawsuits, just like in India. She said that the Christianity she knew was very much like Hindu folk religion.


The kind of Christianity this student was referring to was undoubtedly one of the variants of a kind of American Christianity particularly associated with mega-churches which goes by names such as the ‘Health and Wealth Gospel’, ‘Word of Faith’, and ‘prosperity theology’. The basic underlying philosophy of the health and wealth message can be summed up in the following quotes from two of its leading lights, Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer:

I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people.


Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.


Unsurprisingly, many Christians, ranging from fundamentalists through to liberals, pour scorn on this message, considering it an apostate deviation from the true faith. In a typical article, Jason Byassee, a United Methodist Church pastor, offers the following sneering commentary on Osteen’s best-selling book Your Best Life Now:

Osteen’s book abounds with examples of trivial everyday concerns. Can’t get a green light? Pray with faith, and that light will change. Can’t find a parking place? Claim God’s victory, and see divine favor as someone pulls out and leaves you a space in the front row. Worried that you haven’t found the perfect date, someone like Osteen’s wife (who is, by the way, praying for us as we read her husband’s book, as Osteen promises in an epilogue)? You’ve guessed the answer by now: pray, stay positive, and God will build up the remarkable list of coincidences to have you meet that special person.


Interestingly, the emphasis on these ‘trivial everyday concerns’ is one of the indicators that the health and wealth gospel is actually a form of folk religion, for this is precisely the realm in which folk religion and folk magic operates. While the advocates of grand salvation narratives and abstract theological concepts are bound to be unimpressed, for the average person (American or otherwise), the events in their daily lives are in fact the most important areas in which spiritual assistance is needed and sought. The fact that health and wealth Christianity is in fact a form of folk Christianity becomes even clearer when the method of receiving blessings is examined.

Osteen and others preach a message of divine favour in which the speaking of positive expressions brings the message in those expressions to fruition. This method, known as ‘positive confession’, is said to be part of a contract with God, in which God promises that if a believer lays claim to something with words of faith, then God will respond favourably. Osteen writes:

It’s time to use our words to declare good things! Speak blessings over your life and your family. Throughout the day, say things such as, ‘I have the favor of God. I am strong and healthy. I’m well able to do what I need to do.’

That is what faith is all about. The world says you need to see it to believe it, but God says you must believe and then you’ll see it. You must speak it by faith.

Make a list of your goals, your dreams, the areas where you want to see change. Confirm your desires by Scripture, and then every day before you leave the house, speak those blessings aloud. Something supernatural happens when you speak those words aloud.


Here we see a religion based almost entirely around the concerns of everyday life which offers a method of meeting our everyday needs through the speaking of power words that have a supernatural effect. Here, then, we are actually arguably seeing another variant of folk religion; a folk Christianity which certainly has historical precedent but which cannot be truly identified with orthodox Christian belief as it has been known over the centuries.


[1] June McDaniel (2003) Making Virtuous Daughter and Wives: An Introduction to Women’s Brata Rituals in Bengali Folk Religion (Albany: State University of New York Press), p.xi.

[2] Quoted in David Van Biema and Jeff Chu (2006) ‘Does God Want You To Be Rich?‘, Time Magazine, September 10.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jason Byassee (2005) ‘The Health and Wealth Gospel‘, The Christian Century, July 12.

[5] Joel Osteen, ‘It’s Time to Use Our Words to Declare Good Things‘.

Saint Guinefort, the Canine Folk Saint

In a 13th Century text on ‘heretical depravity’, ‘superstition’, and ‘diverse devilish delusions’, the French preacher and heresiologist Stephen de Bourbon reports the following:

Sixthly, I should speak of offensive superstitions, some of which are offensive to God, others to our fellow men. Offensive to God are those which honour demons or other creatures as if they were divine: it is what idolatry does, and it is what the wretched women who cast lots do, who seek salvation by worshipping elder trees or making offerings to them; scoming churches and holy relics, they take their children to these elder trees, or to anthills, or to other things in order that a cure may be effected.

This recently happened in the diocese of Lyons where, when I preached against the reading of oracles, and was hearing confession, numerous women confessed that they had taken their children to Saint Guinefort. As I thought that this was some holy person, I continued with my enquiry and finally learned that this was actually a greyhound…

Read on here.

Divination by Bible and Key in 19th Century England

Here follow two excerpts from John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s 1867 book on Lancashire Folk-Lore. The book can be downloaded here.


This word, derived from divinare, to foretell, denotes a mode of foretelling future events, and which, among the ancients, was divided into two kinds, natural and artificial. Natural divination was prophecy or prediction, the result of supposed inspiration or the divine afflatus; artificial divination was effected by certain rites, experiments, or observations, as by sacrifices, cakes, flour, wine, observation of entrails, flight of birds, lots, verses, omens, position of the stars, &c. In modern divination, two modes are in popular favour—thrusting a pin or a key between the leaves of a closed Bible, and taking the verse the pin or key touches as a direction or omen: and the divining-rod, a long forked branch or twig of hazel, which being held between the finger and thumb in a particular way, is said to turn of itself when held near the earth over any hidden treasure, precious metals, or over a spring of water. It has also been used to discover a buried body of one murdered.


When some choice specimen of the “Lancashire Witches” thinks it necessary to decide upon selecting a suitor from among the number of her admirers, she not unfrequently calls in the aid of the Bible and a key to assist in deciding her choice. Having opened the Bible at the passage in Ruth: ”Whither thou goest will I go,” &c., and having carefully placed the wards of the key upon the verses, she ties the book firmly with a piece of cord, and having mentioned the name of an admirer, she very solemnly repeats the passage in question, at the same time holding the Bible suspended by joining the ends of her little fingers inserted under the handle of the key. If the key retain its position during the repetition the person whose name has been mentioned is considered to be rejected; and so another name is tried, till the book turns round and falls through the fingers, which is held to be a sure token the name just mentioned is that of an individual who will certainly marry her. I have a Bible in my possession which bears evidence of having seen much service of this description.

Saints in the folk devotion of medieval England

The cult of the saints played a central role in pre-Reformation English Christianity. The saints formed a kind of pantheon of friends and helpers – essentially of benevolent spirits – with whom the human community had a working relationship. Particular saints could be invoked in relation to particular needs and by particular groups of people. In medieval Christianity, the pre-Christian practice of engaging with tutelary deities and spirits was, with a few theological modifications, turned into the system of tutelary saints, with places, occupations, and conditions all being allocated their ‘patron saints’, who could be prayed to in lieu of the old gods.

Just as with church rituals and holy texts, the people did not see their relationship with the saints as one of piety, so much as one of contract. ‘The need to do good and to be good, was never a dominant feature of the popular veneration of the saints’ but, instead, it was devotion that mattered, and devotion that was rewarded.[1] Saints could be appealed to as ‘loving friends’ who offered grace to all. Devotion to the Virgin Mary was seen to be particularly efficacious, and popular legends of the Virgin told of her intervention to help even ‘scoundrels, thieves, and unchaste priests’ escape judgement.[2]

On a personal level, the devotee was a client of the saint and the saint’s primary desire was honour from the client. An individual could request the assistance of the saint in almost any matter, and in return would promise to undertake pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine, to visit the saint’s relics, and to offer a coin or candle. Such a promise was said to be the most likely way to attract the interest and help of the saint.[3] On the communal level, meanwhile, particular devotion was accorded to tutelary saints of individual churches, and this was particularly strong where relics of a saint were present in the church:

The relationship between saints in particular and the communities in which their bodies or relics lay was perceived as reciprocal: the saint was the protector and patron of the human community which responded to this protection and in fact earned the right to it through the veneration accorded to the saint.


All of this was undertaken as part of a reciprocal magical system, which was in reality only tangentially related to the Church’s official theology of seeking the intercession of saints with God, and of praying through, rather than to, the saints.


[1] Eamon Duffy (2005) The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale: Yale University Press), p.187.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p.183.

[4] Patrick Geary (1985) ‘Humiliation of Saints’ in Stephen Wilson (ed.) Saints and Their Cults: Studies in Religious Sociology, Folklore and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p.123.

Christianity as folk magic in medieval England

Throughout the medieval and early modern period in England, every village had experts in folk magic (known as ‘cunning’ or ‘wise’ folk, ‘conjurors’, ‘white witches’, or ‘wizards’) who were consulted for help with a variety of matters and, in addition to the services of these practitioners, the people had available to them ‘a common lore’ and made use of this in experimenting with magic on their own.[1] Magic took the form of herbal medicines, potions (love potions, poisons, etc.), spells, and incantations, which were used to help with overcoming sickness, recovering lost possessions, enthralling a lover, gaining wealth, getting revenge, and so on.[2][3] Such magic, while frowned upon by Church authorities, was generally tolerated provided it was ‘suitably christianized, such as through the substitution of the names of Jesus, Mary, and angels for pagan deities and spirits; the use of the cross, holy water, and the Eucharist; and incantations that were more like prayers’.[4]

The use of Christian motifs in folk magic was more than simply a case of subterfuge aimed at the illicit continuation of now forbidden pre-Christian practices, for to the average medieval Englishman, Christianity was itself a form of magic, and the newer faith was syncretised with the old. Priests and cunning folk were no different in the eyes of the populace, and ‘church teachings and ritual structures were incorporated by layfolk into a preexisting array of supernatural beliefs and practices’.[5] Prayers were used in the manner of spells or charms, holy water and holy relics were said to provide protection, and coins blessed during the offertory were believed to have curative properties. Ecclesiastical ritual was seen as a form of magical ritual with ‘automatic potency’.[6]

Lay devotion included the use of charms invoking sacred names and words, and passages from the gospels or other sacred words were used as written charms which were hung round the neck or placed by the sick:

[C]harms against unstaunchable wounds, invoking the wounds of Jesus or the nails or lance that caused them seemed legitimate. Joshua’s prayer that made the sun stand still and Christ’s word that made the sea stand still might be invoked to make thieves unable to move if they touched a devotee’s goods. Phrases from the Gospels such as ‘Jesus passed through the midst of them’ might be used to ensure safe passage through perils, or ‘not a bone of him shall be broken’ to heal a toothache. Christ’s harrowing of Hell and breaking of its gates might even be invoked to open jammed locks.


While Church authorities insisted that spiritual sincerity and Christian piety were required in order for supernatural effects to take place, for most people ‘issues of causation had little or no significance’ and they were interested in ‘the effect of a ritual rather than the origin of its potency’.[8] Christianity was ‘true’ because it was seen to work, not as a result of intellectual assent being given to Church doctrines or theological notions.


[1] Richard Godbeer (1992) The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp.24-25.

[2] Arthur Versluis (2007) Magic and Mysticism: An Introduction to Western Esotericism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), pp.55-56.

[3] The Devil’s Dominion, p.24.

[4] Rosemary Ellen Guile (2006) The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy (New York: Facts On File, Inc.), p.177.

[5] The Devil’s Dominion, p.26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Eamon Duffy (2005) The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale: Yale University Press), pp.285-286.

[8] The Devil’s Dominion, p.26.