Tabitha Stanmore is a researcher of historical attitudes to magic from 1350 to 1650. She gives a Library Lecture at Cecil Sharp House on 22 January.
In the year 1528 in the small Yorkshire village of Bishop Wilton, Isabel Mure gathered two young women to her. Taking a handful of straw and a kindled branch, she took the women down to the village beck and bade them watch as she lit the straw on fire.
As the women looked on, Isabel placed the lighted wisp on the water and said:
Isabel recited the Lord’s Prayer and Ave Maria fifteen times and the Apostle’s Creed three times. After that, as far as we know, the three women went home.
This is the only record which survives about Isabel Mure, and we do not know what happened to her after she was reported to the church authorities for performing this ritual. All we know is that she led this small group and had faith in her actions. What were Isabel and her unnamed companions doing? Why were they there, and what were they hoping to achieve while standing at the side of the stream?
Though enigmatic, brief records such as this one can help us understand the nature of magic and belief in pre-modern England. We can hazard a guess that Isabel was attempting some sort of divination, perhaps trying to predict – and ward off – diseases that might afflict herself or her community. She claimed to see ‘flew and night fevers’, which might refer to spreading infections which slowly afflicted different parts of the body and caused high temperatures, making the sufferers bed-bound. Reciting the Lord’s Prayer and Ave Maria was also a common practice in medieval and early modern healing rituals; around the same time, the cunning woman Margaret Hunt recommended reciting the prayers for nine nights as a cure for all illnesses. Prayers to Christ and the Virgin were believed to carry enormous power whether or not they were used for their originally intended purpose: the very name Jesus was often thought to carry protective qualities. Perhaps Isabel was trying to use the prayers in a similar way to Margaret, therefore, but directed at the world in general rather than a particular patient. Alternatively, perhaps she was trying to heal the women she had brought with her.
The items she used in her ritual also literally shed some light. By setting the straw on fire and floating it on the water, Isabel would have caused reflections and smoke. Divination magic often needs an object of focus, whether that is animal entrails, a piece of clouded glass or simply a pool of water. The smoke from the doused straw, or simply the ways that it moved as it was taken by the beck, may have been taken as a sign of things to come; certainly Isabel claimed to foresee fevers and evil as she watched the fire, grass and stream move about her.
The fact that we do not know the outcome of this case also tells us something crucial: in all likelihood, the case was not followed up by the church courts. This is a reflection of a wider attitude towards folk magic in England, particularly before it became an official crime in 1542. Rituals for future-telling, healing, and a range of other purposes like finding stolen goods and inspiring love were very common across the country before and even after this date. The magicians, or cunning folk, who performed these spells played a major part in fixing their community’s everyday problems and were an integral part of pre-modern English culture. In January, I will give a lecture for the English Folk Dance and Song Society which will explore practical folk magic, and pick apart some of the spells preserved in the archives.
We will investigate some of the common themes and motifs in these spells, asking whether there was any underlying theory behind them and what they meant to the people who performed them. In doing so, we uncover an important but frequently overlooked part of English history.