The magic of Owen Davies

America Bewitched

Owen Davies is a U.K.-based scholar who has been writing scholarly and popular books on magic and witchcraft for more than a decade now. I’d only learned about him by reading his Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (2009), which I liked very much. (I even borrowed some information from it as background for my story “The Troubles of the Farnsworths.”) So when I ran across his latest, America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft After Salem (Oxford University Press, 2013), I thought I’d fit it into my reading schedule.

If you thought witchcraft persecutions ended after 1692, then Davies’ book will be a shock. Oh, judicial witch killings ended back in colonial days, but people went on killing “witches” in this country well into the Twentieth Century. Davies develops a theory of the social and cultural framework for accusations of witchcraft and their resolutions in the centuries since Salem, offering copious examples in detail. Each chapter sketches out a different aspect: how witches were identified, who persecuted witches, how the law on witchcraft changed, and so on.

In both this book and Grimoires, Davies writes in a popular style. His storytelling ability is a great help in making these books accessible to the general reader (if I am any judge). And the “further readings” provide such readers with many entry points into the scholarship on magic and witchcraft.

Not that there isn’t material here for the scholar. America Bewitched does not confine itself to European-derived witchcraft concepts, but explains how European, African, and Native American beliefs all interacted in the development of witchcraft persecutions, a point well worth emphasizing. The book supports its theoretical analysis with many examples, all extensively referenced. However, the scholar trying to assemble a chronological development of witchcraft persecution is likely to be frustrated both by Davies’ approach and his presentation of the material. A chronological index of cases would have been helpful.

Since I mentioned it and recommend it, here's the earlier book

Since I mentioned it and recommend it, here’s the earlier book

Overall, while I enjoyed America Bewitched because of the strong case the book makes for the endurance of witchcraft and witchcraft persecution in America after 1692, I did not like it as well as I liked GrimoiresAmerica Bewitched feels like a much looser book, not as tightly organized or as well edited as Grimoires, as if Davies’ storytelling side got too much the upper hand. I doubt that will bother most readers! And I still intend to track down some of his other books to read.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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9 Responses to The magic of Owen Davies

  1. crimsonprose says:

    Another cool book review. If the bottom ever falls out of academia, you could always make butter your bread doing that. Sincerely meant, even if sarcastically worded. Sorry, it’s my mood tonight.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      At the moment, I’m barely in academia, so the suggestion is accepted as it was intended.

      By the way, Davies is at the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, if you happen to get out that way.

      • crimsonprose says:

        Thanks for the thought, but I get as far as Norwich, and it takes me a month to recover. It would be easier – life would be easier – if I had a car. But no licence, That was my choice. Since my teens I’ve suffered migraines, the first sign being when things disappear from in front of my eyes. So I thought it safer not to drive. Has advantages. In my wilder days, I wasn’t the one who had to stay sober in order to drive. But it does mean public transport everywhere, which not only is slow but with this CFS, is also tiring. So I tend not to go very far these days. I say, wistfully.

        • Brian Bixby says:

          Sigh.
          I’ve had migraines, but I had frightening visual problems only while I was a teenager, and yeah, you do not want to be driving with that level of problem.
          I did look on Davies’ university web page, and he’s been involved in projects out Norwich way, because he’s involved with their Center for Regional and Local History, so maybe someday he’ll get out there some day.

          • crimsonprose says:

            Ah, that’s interesting: Regional and Local History is, excuse the corn, right up my street – far more than grimoires which are more my father’s interest, You might have noticed, you and I specialise in different kinds of magic. I’d put yours as more Late Medieval-Renaissance, while mine is kinda wilder, more shamanistic.

            • Brian Bixby says:

              Fair enough on my magic; in fact, that’s partly due to reading Davies’ “Grimoires” book, and having spent some time looking over Peterson’s edition of the Lesser Key of Solomon, which I picked up on a whim years and years ago. In your case, I am going to suggest the label “quantum shamanism.”

              Their regional and local history center looks to be mostly post-1500, sadly.

              • crimsonprose says:

                Now you have me laughing for, if I remember rightly, the first comment you posted on my blog was on the post of Quantum Angels (not sure what I called the post). And yea, um, for a scientifically-minded, borderline Buddhist (read that as ‘hippy’), quantum physics or theory, whatever you care to call it, does provide answers. But it’s not something I’ve adopted. I had already, druid-like, philosophised for myself – and then found, lo! Quantum physics had the same theories. That probably reads a bit garbled, but I’m sure you get the general drift.

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