Eighteenth Century British Folk Religion

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?

In 1725, a book 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, Henry 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.


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.

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.

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.

Eleventh Century European Folk Religion

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).

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.

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

Seventh Century European 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.