Interview with Historian, Dr. Owen Davies
DE: Hi Owen! Can you tell us a little about the studies that brought you to this job?
OD: I guess my interest in the history of witchcraft and magic developed out of a childhood interest in folklore and mythology, which was spawned in part from reading the books of Alan Garner (link below). From around the age of sixteen I also became interested in archaeology and began to get involved with field-walking and earthwork surveying. I went on to study archaeology and history at Cardiff University, and spent many weeks over the next six years helping excavate Bronze Age and Neolithic sites in France and England, mostly in the area around Avebury. Although I have not done any digging for a while I still have a strong interest in archaeology in general, and the ritual monuments and practices of the Neolithic and Bronze Age.
From Cardiff I went on to do my PhD at Lancaster University, working on a thesis looking at the continuation and decline of popular belief in witchcraft and magic from the Witchcraft Act of 1736 to the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951. This was finished in spring 1995. I then spent the next four years unemployed, looking for lecturing and research jobs, and meanwhile writing articles and conducting further research which eventually led to the publication of two books in 1999, ‘Witchcraft, magic and culture‘ and ‘A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth-Century Somerset’.
(DE: Owen’s PhD thesis became a book also. Links to buy all 3 titles appear below)
OD: Following the appearance of these I finally landed a Research Fellowship at the University of Hertfordshire.
DE: so you are another of the few- in the new generation of academics studying in the broad field of Paganism?
OD: Most of my research actually focuses on traditional witchcraft and magic from the sixteenth century up until the 1950s, rather than on the development and nature of contemporary pagan witchcraft, though I do run a second year degree course on witchcraft in England 1500-2000 that does look at the late nineteenth century Occult Revival and the rise of Wicca. The witchcraft historian Eric Midelfort suggested, in a review of my book Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, that I should have explored the development of modern paganism as an illustration of the continued belief in magic, but I knew that Ronald Hutton was already covering this ground, and besides I didn’t have enough word length to do the subject justice.
DE: The consensus is that it's a difficult subject to work in, certainly in the UK, without getting disapproval or occasionally ridicule from other academics- why do you think that is, and is the situation getting any easier?
OD: One of the reasons it took so long for me to get an academic post is because of my research interests. Until fairly recently the history of witchcraft and magic beyond the period of the witch-trials (i.e. generally 16-1700s) was not seen as having any significant social importance, and was seen as a subject for folklorists not historians.
DE: And ‘folklorists’ seems often to be a term of denigration?
OD: Yes, in England folklore, or to give it a more ‘respectable’ name - ethnography, has never had a proper academic footing unfortunately. I remember one of my old lecturers at Cardiff being perplexed as to why I should want to study witchcraft in the modern period. To him it seemed an obscure and rather irrelevant topic. It has to be said that this has been a specifically English academic ‘problem.’ On the continent, and in France in particular, the continuation of witchcraft and magic has received considerable attention for decades. In this country I think the situation is getting better, although there is no one else currently researching in my particular field, and it is good to see that there are a number of PhD students getting academic support for research into contemporary witchcraft and paganism. Whether they will find it any easier to get an academic posting afterwards is another matter.
DE: I’ll let you know in about 2 ½ years….. You hosted an international conference at the campus about European Witchcraft about 18 months back?
OD: Yes, it went very well. It was called ‘Beyond the Witch Trials: The North European Experience’, and concerned the continuation of witchcraft and magic in European cultures from the eighteenth century onwards. I organised it with the help of Willem de Blécourt, and we attracted speakers from England, Scotland, America, Sweden and Finland. Marie Lennersand and Linda Oja from the Dalarna Research Institute gave papers on the aftermath of a witch-hunt and the educated attitudes towards popular magic in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Sweden. Soili-Maria Olli talked about numerous trials concerning male pacts with the Devil in the same period. Raisa Maria Toivo looked at witchcraft accusations in early eighteenth-century Finland, while Laura Stark-Arola examined the practice of magic in the nineteenth century. The audience was a healthy mix of students, senior academics, and the general public.
DE: I remember it being a long but very interesting day, especially the photographs of the 19th Century Finnish shamans [in Laura Stark-Arola’s talk], and with suitably tempestuous weather outside...... has the book of the event come any nearer to publication?
OD: Two books based on the conference, but including many more papers from around Europe, will be published by Manchester University Press, and should be in the shops by early next year (2003). One is called ‘Beyond the Witch Trials’ and the other ‘Popular Magic in Modern Europe’.
DE: (Note: neither are pre-orderable yet)… and you had some local Church opposition to the event?
OD: Yes, the university chaplain received a number of enquires from local religious groups concerned that the conference would be promoting dangerous unchristian knowledge. One concerned Methodist wrote to me to express the same worry. Witchcraft still seems to strike fear into some.
DE: Any similar events in the future at Uni of Herts?
OD: Not at present, though Willem de Blécourt and I are thinking about a big conference looking at unbewitchers, priests, cunning-folk, seers and the like.
DE: Please keep us up to date on that, we’ll post details on the ‘events’ part of the site here. And how do people find out more about courses in your dept?
DE: (This is the 'Parkinson' chatshow element of the interview): you have a new book out?
OD: Yes I have book coming out shortly (October/November 2002) looking at the role of cunning-folk in English society from 1500-2000. It is called ‘Cunning-Folk’ and will be published by London Books, who recently published Ronald Hutton’s book on Shamans.
DE: [Cunning-Folk can now be pre-ordered from Amazon, link below] So the courses are going well, new university premises are on the horizon .....where would you like them to be in, say five years' time?
OD: Well, the witchcraft course is the most popular of all the history modules on offer,
DE: Which tells you a lot!
OD: So I guess it will be running for some time if I decide to stay at Hertfordshire University in the long-term. Otherwise I am looking forward to getting stuck into more research.
DE: Thanks for that Owen, and I look forward to being at a future events.
Owen’s books mentioned can be ordered from your local bookshop, or via Amazon as follows:
The Avebury, Wiltshire area of the UK is well worth a visit if you are into ancient landscape: www.avebury-stones.co.uk/ is a nice picture site; chosen at random from the thousands of sites that mention it- ranging from scientific-archaeology to pagan, UFO watchers, corn-circle enthusiasts and many more.