Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England: The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers, and Bonesmen by Nigel Pennick
Destiny Books, 978-1620557600, 224 pp., Reprint edition (2019)

You have to ask yourself whether becoming a member of the Society of the Horseman’s Grip and Word was really worth the trouble, particularly when the initiation rite involved you waiting in a graveyard until you were kidnapped by unknown assailants, bound and blindfolded, taken to a barn to be shoved and pushed around and then offered a drink of what was alleged to be horse’s urine. Next, when the blindfold was removed, you would find yourself stood in front of ‘a man impersonating a dangerous entity’ who would ask you some tricky questions such as ‘how came you hither’ and ‘what do you seek to obtain’ – the answer to the latter being a big glug of mouthwash if that drink really was what it seemed to be.((pg. 61)) This society and the privileged wisdom it retained about how to magically control horses is one of several facets of an increasingly distant rural past which Nigel Pennick explores in Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England. Originally published under the title In Field and Fen, for the most part the rituals, traditions, and colourful characters discussed are situated in the Fenlands, that low lying, naturally marshy area of eastern England which has long held a certain mysterious fascination for those who have explored its wilder reaches.

Pennick is clearly an authority on the geography and historic culture of the Fens and spends the early part of the book setting out the relationship between the different regions that make up the area and how its bygone inhabitants interacted with each other and made a living. His more esoteric chapters come later, but before then we learn about such obsolete occupations as droving, which was the way sheep and cattle were herded across the British countryside for thousands of years before the advent of railways largely brought an end to the practice. The author also describes the markets and fairs which many drovers headed for to sell their livestock and which are now, where they still exist, often nothing more than quaint simulacrums of what were once vital commercial outposts. Within these extended rustic communities, a sense of fraternity and respect for hard-won knowledge about how to deal with the natural world’s vicissitudes was a vital feature of daily life. In that regard, the Horsemen were not the only ones to perpetuate a cryptic aura about their secret knowledge and it is when Pennick starts to delve into this whole area of arcane wisdom and the activities of those who indulged in it that a decidedly more outlandish mood starts to settle over his book.  

We soon encounter some of those strange terms mentioned in the subtitle. Here are the toadmen (and women) who derived their magical powers from ritually preparing the bones of dead toads, agricultural workers who donned bizarre and intimidating costumes on Plough Monday to become plough witches, along with their usually more benign counterparts known as mummers, and lastly the bonesmen who used other animals’ skeletal remains besides toads’ to cultivate their supernatural powers.

As evocative as such dramatis personae are of England’s folklore traditions, it is the individual operators, those cunning folk who, in the East Anglian idiom, practiced the ‘Nameless Art’, who are perhaps the most intriguing. Pennick discusses several of them, ranging from the more familiar ones such as witches and quack doctors to the lesser known snakemen, initiated millers and wild herb men who performed a range of functions from healing people and laying ghosts to retrieving lost objects and influencing the weather. Some of these individuals gained relatively widespread prominence for their exploits, such as the cunning man Elijah Dunn, better known as the ‘Dudley Devil’ who worked as a travelling fortune teller in the nineteenth century, and the supernaturally gifted Old Winter of Ipswich who ‘caught a man stealing from a woodpile and compelled him to carry the load on his back, walking in circles until he collapsed’.((pg 127)) Certain areas of the Fenland seem to have been particularly noteworthy as centres of witchcraft. As Pennick, describes it:

‘A common story is that in particular villages ‘the office of the witch’ is a permanent one and must be handed on to a successor…At Horseheath and Bartlow…the power is passed from father to son or mother to daughter… In Essex, the village of Canewdon is often called ‘the village of witches’ where there are said to be always living six (or nine) witches.’((pg. 131))

These witches and their close associates otherwise known as ‘handywomen’ offered a variety of services to the community that ranged from providing such beneficial skills as midwifery and the preparation of medicinal remedies to being on-call to carry out some decidedly more macabre tasks. One in particular, known as ‘snatching the pillow’ was, for all intents and purposes, euthanasia. The hanydwoman would be summoned to the house of the (hopefully) terminally ill patient who was to have their sufferings terminated. Pennick relates how ‘she carried a special pillow through the village and people kept indoors and drew their curtains while she walked’.((pg. 135)) On arriving at the appointed house, the handywoman would enter the bedroom alone, close the door, administer a concoction of two opium pills crushed into a glass of gin to the patient and then take up her pillow. According to Pennick, the last handywoman to ‘snatch the pillow’ died in 1902 after which her son burnt the offending article.

Such practices conjure up the idea of the Fen country as somewhere with an eldritch atmosphere in which a thin veil exists between this world and the next. This heightened sense of atavistic spirituality can also be found in the lie of the land itself as exemplified in the belief that certain villages were protected by Ward sprites whose nightly task is to create ‘a protective spiritual ring around the settlement, providing protection against psychic attack from both human and nonhuman realms’.((pg. 146))  Elsewhere in the landscape otherwise well ploughed fields had (and may still have) deliberately uncultivated corners were prehuman spirits are afforded an inviolate place to dwell. Pennick also catalogues those implements and talismans derived from the land which serve a number of preternatural purposes such as hazel wands for divination and hag stones which are flints specially fashioned to be hung over beds to prevent nightmares.

Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England, then, is a curious and enlightening book about an area of England which has boasts a deeply embedded culture of folk customs and magical traditions. As Pennick points out, ‘the magical view of the world, dismissed as superstition by the modern worldview, was a valid means of living under harsh and difficult circumstances.((pg. 192)) Furthermore ‘there is much that can be learned from this way of relating to the world…beyond the fixation on materialism that powers mainstream culture today’. True enough. Places like the Fenlands with its deeply embedded levels of localised communal lore offer a precious portal into our rich and curious human heritage.

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