Current and upcoming publications
Cambridge University Press
Magic is ubiquitous across the world and throughout history. Yet if witchcraft is acknowledged as a persistent presence in the medieval and early modern eras, practical magic by contrast – performed to a useful end for payment, and actually more common than malign spellcasting – has been overlooked. Exploring many hundred instances of daily magical usage, and setting these alongside a range of imaginative and didactic literatures, Tabitha Stanmore demonstrates the entrenched nature of 'service' magic in premodern English society. This, she shows, was a type of spellcraft for needs that nothing else could address: one well established by the time of the infamous witch trials. The book explores perceptions of magical practitioners by clients and neighbours, and the way such magic was utilised by everyone: from lowliest labourer to highest lord. Stanmore reveals that – even if technically illicit – magic was for most people an accepted, even welcome, aspect of everyday life.
Cunning Folk: Life in the era of practical magic (forthcoming, 2024)
The Bodley Head (UK); Bloomsbury (US)
Imagine it’s the year 1500 and you’ve lost your precious silver spoons—or perhaps your neighbour has stolen them. Or maybe your child has a fever. Or you’re facing trial. Or you’re looking for a lover. Or you’re hoping to escape a husband.
At a time when nature’s inner workings were largely a mystery, people from every walk of life—kings, clergy and commonfolk—who faced problems or circumstances they were powerless to control sought the help of ‘cunning folk’. These wise women and men were often renowned for their skill at healing the sick or predicting the future, fortune-telling and divination, and for their knowledge of spells and potions. Occasionally and tragically, some were condemned as witches for using their powers for ill. But this has tended to obscure the fact that the magic they practised was a normal and accepted part of daily life.
This article outlines the role and function of ‘service’ magic in premodern society, and suggests ways in which the study of magic can be used as a lens to investigate and understand broader historical questions. Magic studies is a marginalised field, and the supernatural generally is treated as an unusual aspect of the human experience. This article shows that there are major benefits to reintegrating magic into wider historical studies. The article begins by introducing the concept of service magic as a phenomenon in premodern societies, and argues for its fundamental importance particularly during the medieval and early modern periods. Having established this, I explore the ways that its reintegration can affect our interpretation of the past. This article suggests ways in which magic might be useful for exploring other fields of social, political and economic history. Its function as an illicit tool makes magic a unique window for exploring a number of topics, such as cultures of tolerance and persecution, black market and proto-capitalist economics, and liminal or marginalised communities.