They Flew: A History of the Impossible 
by Carlos Eire.
Yale, 492 pp., £30, November 2023, 978 0 300 25980 3
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Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa 
by Anthony Grafton.
Allen Lane, 289 pp., £30, January, 978 1 84614 363 2
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Teresa of Ávila​ was a late starter, but that was no bad thing for a paragon of piety. A perplexed or misspent adolescence emphasised the transforming power of grace in both Catholic hagiography and puritan conversion narratives. She was born into a Castilian merchant family in 1515, but her fortunes were compromised by her family’s dubious status. Her converso grandfather was suspected by the Inquisition, leaving Teresa’s father to buy his way into respectable society. As a teenager, her only options were to accept insecurity or enter a convent. Teresa chose the latter. After the death of her mother, when Teresa was eleven, she found a surrogate in the Virgin Mary and spirituality in tales of sainthood and sacrifice. Aged twenty she took holy orders at the local Carmelite convent. In the following years she fell strangely ill, and during a protracted recovery became, by her own admission, a mediocre nun. This was the unpromising prelude. But then, in her forties, Teresa fell into attention-grabbing raptures of mounting intensity, the most impressive of which involved levitation.

For a woman to float to the ceiling, without wires or other stage trickery, is not strictly possible. It was quite unlike other miracles – feats of healing, for example, which were merely natural occurrences invested with supernatural causes. Transvection – paranormal bodily elevation – was its own inexplicable thing. What was going on? Were the witnesses to phenomena all liars and fantasists, or hallucinating the same things at the same time? Mental disturbance seems the only explanation. Carlos Eire, an intellectual and religious historian, disagrees. He invites us to reconceptualise the supernatural by taking weird claims from the past on their own terms. There’s little historical mileage in chewing over what was possible or impossible, he argues. We should focus instead on what medieval and early modern people believed was possible.

There’s nothing especially new in this, and Eire’s opening chapter contains a few straw men. Sympathetic study of the supernatural in history has not been neglected. On the contrary, historians of mentalities and emotions, as far back as Lucien Febvre in the 1940s, have made exactly the kind of allowances and adjustments Eire recommends. I used to give undergraduates legal depositions describing peculiar medical complaints attributed to witches, who confessed to compacting with Satan and flying to sabbats. Students instinctively understood that a people whose worldview included occult power perceived a wider alien reality. This outlook rested on assumptions that we, the beneficiaries of progress and hindsight, would find questionable. Pre-modern reasoning was more deductive than inductive: man was the measure of all things, geocentricity sidelined the sun and unseen forces were morally reflexive, harnessed to turbulent inner lives. These forces were personified as angels and demons and reified in the shape of heinous sinners, including heretics and witches. For added heft, this cosmic superstructure was endorsed by scripture, the word of the Almighty himself. Good historians have always treated their sources with empathy, not only to avoid making fools of their forebears but to avoid becoming fools themselves.

It’s also clear that past beliefs were far from monolithic. Modernity has no monopoly over scepticism. Supernatural agency was hotly debated and critics freely dismissed magic as fraud and delusion. From the early Christian church came the bogus levitator Simon Magus, a cautionary tale that endured for hundreds of years. His name links him to the priesthood of ancient Persia (and the wise men at the Nativity) but in the High Renaissance ‘magus’ came to mean a worker of occult marvels, using powers that in Simon’s case had turned out to be demonic. Magic also seemed unnecessary to some commentators, who exalted human-wrought wonders such as shipbuilding, navigation, land reclamation, explosives, cryptography and mechanical automata – a tradition that reached its apogee with the first truly verifiable levitator, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, the pilot in the Montgolfier brothers’ balloon in 1783. Nature needed no exaggeration either. As Douglas Adams once said, ‘isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’ That was in 1979 – but it was possible to think the same thing in 1579.

There were many areas of religious consensus: the immanence of God, the efficacy of prayer, Christ’s divinity, the post-mortem survival of souls, the dichotomy of heaven and hell. But the more pre-modern people examined these concepts, the more they disagreed. Theologians disputed the meaning of ‘witch’, for instance – just one of many points of interpretative doubt in the Hebrew Bible. The indeterminacy of supernatural issues was most marked in a practical legal setting. Witchcraft prosecutions demanded not only belief but evidence, ideally a confession. Eire gives the misleading impression that it was easy to accuse someone of witchcraft on flimsy pretexts, which may have been true during severe panics but usually was not. Persistent doubt throughout the early modern period explains both the relative rarity of prosecutions – around 100,000 across an entire continent and three centuries is not that many – and the high rate of acquittal, which in England, where evidence was weighed by lay juries, stood at around 75 per cent. There was no smooth narrative arc from credulity to disbelief, any more than there has been from faith to atheism.

Though the Middle Ages were alive with heterodox and heretical opinions, religious strife was the product of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Protestants and Catholics didn’t just disagree: they fought with words and images, fuelling a conflict that spilled over into the fiery purges of the auto-da-fé, and sparked riots and rebellions, civil and international wars. Confessional states were shaped by the imposition of secular sovereign authority, for which orthodoxy in worship became a touchstone of obedience. But this didn’t mean that religion was a holy cloak for state building, any more than witchcraft accusations were a cynical way to bump off neighbours from hell. The beliefs were usually sincere, the doctrinal wrangles genuine.

Protestant clerics, and the monarchs they counselled, attacked levitation and other spectacles not just as false but demonic. Miracles, argued reformers, had once authenticated claims to divine revelation, but that age had ended with the Apostles, invalidating modern instances, which, Luther wrote, were ‘simply signs for the ignorant, unbelieving crowd’. However venerable in Catholic eyes, flying saints such as Teresa of Ávila were no better than witches soaring on their pitchfork steeds. And there were many miraculous saints to sling mud at. Most were inspired by St Francis of Assisi, who was famous for levitation as well as for stigmatism and conversing with birds and animals. Among his imitators was Joseph of Cupertino, a levitating Franciscan friar, easily triggered by prayer, who shrieked loudly before lift-off. St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, was said to radiate a blinding light as he left the ground. Reformers were not impressed. Since divine power could not be drawn down, they reasoned, pretence must be diabolic. ‘Whatever holds down and confines the senses to the earth,’ John Calvin wrote, ‘is contrary to the covenant of God.’ Calvin’s Swiss contemporary Heinrich Bullinger inveighed against miracles as requiring ‘the help of witchcraft’.

Aided by statements such as these, zealous Protestants forced distinctions between sacred and secular realms, refining the former and expanding the latter. Heaven and earth ceased to be connected by ritual and symbol. Daily life was stripped of rosaries and genuflection, pilgrimage and supplication, priestly dispensation and atonement. A straight path now joined faithful hearts to God. But alongside iconoclasm ran a questing spirit eager to solve the mysteries of the world, the better to venerate its creator. These mysteries were natural wonders (mirabilia) and though similar to divine miracles (miracula) in their capacity to inspire awe, the two were divided and held apart.

Less well known is the extent of scepticism in Catholic countries. Reforms agreed at the Council of Trent (1545-63) included revising procedures for canonisation and tighter rules regarding the recognition of miracles and new holy relics. It’s true that Protestant contempt for Catholic miracles was provocative and increased their incidence. But the need to sort miracles into authentic and suspect also became pressing. After all, what use were false miracles as an anti-Protestant counterblast when there were genuine ones to be deployed in defence of the true faith? Witnesses to levitations, then, were not received uncritically; indeed, the Spanish Inquisition wrung as much certainty as it could from their testimony, playing close attention to consistency, emotional candour and the piety and honour of everyone involved.

The Carmelite order and the wider Catholic Church picked over Teresa’s trances, physical transfigurations and levitations. Of the phenomena she recounted, the apparitions of Christ were considered most likely to be devilish. On one occasion, the confessors ordered her to make an obscene hand gesture on the appearance of Christ. This pained her deeply: she hadn’t asked to meet Jesus but she didn’t want to give him the finger (or its Spanish equivalent, dar la figa). Teresa’s sex and family status did not reassure her investigators. She was made to write about her life, ‘more a forced confession than an autobiography’ as Eire puts it. No one accused her of being a witch, but she might be a heretic or a demoniac. Kneeling at Holy Communion, she recalled, she was lifted clear of the choir, causing her great anguish ‘because it seemed to me a most extraordinary thing that would cause people to fuss over it intensely’. (And fuss they did.) At other times she hovered like a tethered blimp, a nun at each limb, straining to keep her down. Teresa’s professed despair at these intrusions made a good impression: she didn’t conduct herself like a devil-worshipper disguised, as the Bible warned, as ‘an angel of light’, nor did she seem like a show-off. But suspicions that her humility was a ruse persisted. Dominican friars in particular denounced her, but after her canonisation in 1622 even they were silenced. Ambivalence was banished and Teresa became a numinous exemplar. Others went the way of Simon Magus. María de la Visitación, the 16th-century ‘Nun of Lisbon’, an energetic levitator, healer and stigmatic, was exposed as an imposter and ended her days doing penance in an obscure convent.

In the long-term, this hand-wringing exploration – Protestant and Catholic, including both sides’ fretting over testimony in witch-trials – resulted in perhaps the greatest unintended consequence in Western history. Reform weakened faith even as it strengthened its confessional identity. What Max Weber termed ‘the disenchantment of the world’, or Keith Thomas ‘the decline of magic’, amounted to a contraction of the sacred in public and private life. In its place, the post-Enlightenment world increasingly trusted in materialism and empiricism, in the realm of religion as well as in science and medicine and law. Ancient wisdom was challenged by fresh hypotheses, and evidence interrogated before it was called proof. The Spanish Inquisition was remarkably progressive in separating reality from illusion, innocence from guilt, which is why after 1614 it was hardly involved in the persecution of witches. The causes of ‘disenchantment’ or a ‘decline of magic’, if we’re still fond of those terms, were Counter-Reformation Catholic as well as Protestant.

It’seasy to be glib about magic but the semantics are far from straightforward. The primary difficulty of the term ‘magician’ is its trivialisation as ‘illusionist entertainer’, which has fixed our view of it as meaning a mountebank or charlatan. Anthony Grafton’s magicians, like alchemists, miracle-mongers and witch-prickers, look different when we see them moving around their own environments. We might know them better by their intentions, which, like those of Protestant theologians and virtuosi, were aimed at a detailed understanding of the divinely created universe. Magicians’ unorthodox methods, on the other hand, meant that they walked a dangerous line. Without elite patronage or some other source of social respectability, they struggled to work in territories protected by anti-witchcraft legislation. Patronage might make magicians rich, but its main value was as a buffer from the attentions of the law, protecting the ambiguous space they occupied – between chemistry and physics on the one hand, and philosophy and theology on the other. This ambiguity concerned the legality of their practices but also the ever-changing shape of these disciplines.

Even in 1500 the term ‘magic’ – or magique, magico, magisch – was pejorative. Magi strove to dignify their field as ‘occult philosophy’ or ‘natural magic’, free of diabolic influence, characterising it as a new pursuit that emerged in the later 15th century, a punkish reaction to stuffy old medieval sorcery. The High Renaissance had arrived and the barriers were coming down. Proponents of natural magic included showmen and scholars, apostates and prophets, itinerant fortune-tellers and princely advisers, all engaged in various forms of intellectual endeavour. Similarly, as the historian Stuart Clark has shown, magic’s close cousin, demonology, was no easily definable academic subject, but a source of inflection for history, medicine, law and so on. Magi set their gaze on every discernible thing. The Neapolitan polymath Giambattista della Porta wrote comic plays as well as natural philosophical treatises and once devised an experiment to create artificial thunder, which boomed impressively and harmlessly. Magic, he wrote in Magia naturalis (1558), could be good or bad: his own was, of course, lawful and deferential.

Where to draw the line between good and bad magic was not always easy to discern, however. Nor were magicians neatly gathered on one side of a divide facing down orthodox theologians on the other. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was well versed in ancient mysticism yet rejected astrology, at least as some crude engine exerting influence on temporal affairs. The compelling mysteries of formal religion, as experienced by all parishioners, were inherently magical. Eucharistic consecration and the veneration of relics required faith that bread and wine, bones and rags, were imbued with thaumaturgic power, fizzing with holy radioactivity. It took some cognitive dissonance, or chutzpah, for a cleric to wince at a lucky talisman. The liturgical formula ‘hoc est corpus meum’, spoken during Mass, lent itself to Protestant derision, and to posterity, as ‘hocus pocus’.

Some magi went too far, testing the limits of what was acceptable to church, state and civil society. The German magician Faustus was an itinerant diviner, casting horoscopes and pondering the shapes made by molten lead dropped into water. He dispensed potions and remedies, including a depilatory cream made from arsenic, which removed not only hair but also skin and flesh. He was also a conjurer of infernal powers, a vain necromancer, but these dangerous attributes were what made him so alluring to scheming clients and intimidating to the authorities who might otherwise have executed him. In 1528 he was banished by the council of Ingolstadt in Bavaria, who made him swear he would not take magical revenge on them. In peasant communities, this was the sort of cringing respect paid to witches, which could drag on for years until their neighbours felt confident enough to go to law. No surprise, then, that Faustus’s enemies put it about that he had made a pact with the devil.

In retrospect, most of the principles, methods and conclusions of occult philosophers were mistaken. It seems ridiculous now that a titan of erudition such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa took seriously Pliny’s spells for preventing being barked at (keep a dog’s tongue in your shoe) or changing the temperature of water (immerse the bones of a red toad). Yet Agrippa’s trivialities were, Grafton writes, ‘framed in a larger explanatory system, one that led the reader upward and outward’. In impulse and ambition, he and other magical practitioners were the ascendants of modern scientists. Building on the celestial hermeneutics of philosophers such as Roger Bacon, Renaissance magi, Catholic and Protestant alike, believed in the cosmic connectedness of everything from planetary motion to human health. Its imaginative reach was not so different from, say, the unified field theory of particle physicists. A magus transported to Einstein’s lab would have been baffled by gravitational and electromagnetic forces but would have recognised at once the desire to merge them. And Bacon’s imagined astral language doesn’t seem so far removed from the idea of mathematics as the language of God. They had many wrong answers to brilliant questions. And as with the industrial and technological revolutions of the later 18th and 19th centuries, in the end what mattered was audacious confidence and optimism – what Grafton calls ‘a vision of humans as able to act upon and shape the natural world’ – rather than the consistent quality of discoveries and inventions. A questing spirit made a greater contribution to modernity than cumulative achievement, which apart from some notable advances – steam engines, say, and vaccinations – was a junkyard littered with daft ideas and useless contraptions, red faces and ruined careers.

It’s difficult to write about long-term change without sounding Whiggish. Progress may have been more branched than linear, but endeavours were built on, learned from, and sometimes bore fruit. Historians today tend to avoid grand narratives, rightly recognising them to be beguiling and politically suspect. Weber is out of fashion, and for every area of disenchantment there is a scholar to tell you that it wasn’t that simple, that the world remained enchanted. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic is still a delight to read, but the distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘magic’ has only become harder to sustain in the fifty years since it was published. Indeed, the book did much to define popular religion as a richly diverse scatter of customs and practices, and to explain the relevance ‘magic’ once had for precarious working lives. Nor did this magic vanish from rural communities in the 18th, 19th or even the 20th century. In a Cambridgeshire village where I once lived, belief in maleficent witchcraft and counter-magic held on until the 1920s. Europe’s elites put away what they saw as childish magical things; the majority of the population, even in towns and cities, did not.

There were, however, mystical revivals among educated people, notably the Great Awakening in America in the 1730s and 1740s, when worshippers infused with the holy spirit, many of them women, exhibited swoons and ecstasies, and like the teen demoniacs of the Reformation era performed theatrical set-pieces of possession and exorcism. Sarah Pierpont of New Haven, Connecticut, experienced ecstasies very much like those of Teresa of Ávila. Later, after marriage to Jonathan Edwards, a leading figure in the Great Awakening, she fell into delirious convulsions: ‘I seemed, soul and body as it were, to be drawn upwards from the Earth towards Heaven, [and] it seemed to me I must naturally & necessarily ascend thither.’ She described her ‘foretaste of Glory’ and ‘Exceeding Agitation’. Compare this to Teresa’s words: ‘I did not want to see or speak with anyone, but only to hug my pain, which caused me greater bliss than can be found in the whole of creation.’ Their accounts are almost interchangeable – Catholic and Calvinist, two centuries apart.

A passion for the miraculous, for exploring the secrets of the physical world, was not diminished in the modern era. To persistent currents of enchantment and curiosity, we should add Spiritualism, popular across the social classes and throughout the Western world until the 1950s (although its heyday was the interwar period). Communications with the dead were miraculous and mediums’ trance-like states often rapturous. Psychics exuded sexual energy suggesting the orgasm that dare not speak its name (although Bernini’s sculpture of St Teresa leaves little to the imagination). Had ectoplasm – a snaking quasi-seminal-ovarian emission – been familiar in 16th-century Castile, it would surely have featured in Teresa’s repertoire. Among the tricks associated with physical mediumship was, naturally enough, levitation, quite often when mediums were strapped to chairs, although the Victorian prodigy Daniel Dunglas Home was reported by reputable spectators at a gathering in London to have floated out of a window. Home was a skilled conjurer, who may have used the so-called ‘Balducci illusion’, which involves standing at an angle to give the impression of a modest elevation, and, as with St Teresa, most witnesses to his deeds were admirers. The Catholic Church disliked mediums straying on their patch, and condemned Spiritualism as demonic. Its own miracle workers were, after all, still hard at work. During the Second World War, the French Augustinian nun Yvonne Beauvais was famous as an accomplished bilocator, meaning she could be in two places at once, a feat that had been common among Renaissance saints. (After the war, she was decorated by de Gaulle for her work on behalf of the Resistance.) Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, canonised by John Paul II in 2002, was said to have risen into the clouds to prevent Allied bombers destroying the town of San Giovanni Rotondo.

Eire calls​ the shared acceptance of marvels in the pre-modern period ‘one of the oddest wrinkles in early modern history’. Both sides believed in the agency of demons and were concerned with distinguishing natural from supernatural phenomena. The Great Awakening seems less of an aberration when considered as a continuation of a mystical Protestant tradition. The intense emotion of all devotion, a desire to be one with God, makes mystical experiences inevitable, even for uncompromising puritans. The doctrine of providence, as Alexandra Walsham has shown in Providence in Early Modern England (1999), formed the backbone of Protestant popular culture in England, manifested in cheap printed works reporting secret murderers confounded by divine intervention and condemned witches confessing on the gallows. This literature both promoted and reflected a nationally binding experience of the new religion after the settlement of 1559. Had Elizabeth I opened windows into men’s souls, she would have found that for every orthodox Protestant or sceptical Catholic there were thousands who embraced a mishmash of religion and magic, rituals and spells, theological oddments and garbled prayers. ‘For this is man’s nature,’ the Essex minister George Gifford wrote in 1587, ‘that where he is persuaded there is the power to bring prosperity and adversity, there will he worship.’ Keith Thomas chose this quotation as the epigraph to Religion and the Decline of Magic to make the point that practice trumps theory; but Gifford also exemplifies the widespread, engrained ambiguity in early modern minds – he both believed in witches and doubted much of the evidence heard against them at law.

Even a century after Gifford, the intellectual scales remained finely balanced. The title-page to Saducismus Triumphatus (1681), a compendium of ‘true’ supernatural stories compiled by the clergyman Joseph Glanvill, has an engraving of occult scenes, including the levitation of a Somerset boy called Richard Jones in 1657. This was the same phenomenon experienced by St Teresa but the English church no longer permitted Jones to be a saint and he was said to be bewitched. It’s significant that Glanvill’s work, one of the most credulous treatises in the history of witch-hunting, was published in the period associated with the decline of witch-trials and educated belief in magic. The explanation for this – embattled orthodoxy lashing out at its detractors – also holds for the spike in Catholic levitation claims, which, as Eire puts it, coincided with the development of ‘a new materialistic way of thinking about reality that would reject all this flying as absolutely impossible nonsense’. Each story Glanvill crammed into his book was another salvo fired at what traditionalists reviled as ‘atheism’. Without implicit belief in supernatural experiences, Glanvill argued, the whole edifice of heaven might come crashing down, just as the devil intended. Scepticism in the Catholic Church, similarly, was muted by concern that to disbelieve one miracle was to disbelieve them all.

Protestant and Catholic reactionaries had the same anxieties, and these would prove to be well founded. In the 1670s Glanvill’s antagonist, the Yorkshire physician John Webster, anticipated by a century Hume’s aphorism that ‘no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.’ Glanvill and Webster were both learned orthodox Protestants; their clashing views were rooted not in doctrine but in contrasting perceptions of reality, in their criteria of fact and fiction. The testimony left by St Teresa may be judged untrue on the grounds that levitation is impossible; but we should hesitate to judge reception of such testimony the same way. For one thing, stories of supernatural marvels were popular precisely because of their outlandishness. That was the appeal.

Making sense of miracles and magic depends on an appreciation of the figurative quality of testimony among people whose senses were conditioned less by cold reason than by emotional reciprocity. Like parables and myths, metaphors could be truthful without being factual, and stories structured around these metaphors were not always taken literally – nor was this the storyteller’s intention. We shouldn’t imagine that everyone took seriously the story of Christina the Astonishing, the 12th-century peasant ascetic who on the day of her funeral flew from her coffin and perched in the rafters of the church. The truth of a story could lie in its moral potency, in spiritual catharsis.

It is possible to read Teresa of Ávila’s experience as symbolic of the elevation of a blessed soul to heaven (and in Christina’s case, above the stinking church congregation). Eire tells of a Franciscan brother who, on being given a pomegranate, was so moved by its beauty that he moved, literally, upwards. Pomegranates were associated with life and believed to contain 613 seeds, the same number as there were commandments in the Old Testament. Today’s readers are quick to believe or disbelieve; 16th-century audiences were conditioned to suspend disbelief so as to be delighted or admonished by a story. Not until the later 18th century did newspapers and novels, as we would recognise them, separate literary genres into the self-consciously factual and fictional.

Both They Flew and Magus concern historical sympathy for the supernatural and the ways in which we plot change, whether along a deterministic timeline or a twisting route of highways and byways, sidings and dead ends. The transformations of the last five hundred years are real, but they can be described without recourse to seismic turning points of calamity and progress. Eire’s focus is ‘Western Europe at the dawn of modernity’ but the waxing of a modern sun, like the preceding ‘waning of the Middle Ages’ (to use Johan Huizinga’s term), no longer seems an appropriate metaphor. More helpful is the ‘paradigm shift’, a model of parallel continuity and change popularised in the 1960s by Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argued that ideas can be in tension without existential conflict. Newton believed in gravity and angels; but celestial beings faded because unlike the magnetic pull of the Earth’s core they ceased to be useful things to think with. What remained we call science; what was dropped we call magic, but these fields once swirled around in the same Renaissance paradigm, glancing off each other and interacting. Alchemy and chemistry, astrology and astronomy, used to be broadly the same things. Vesalius’s revolutionary challenge to Galenic medicine in the 16th century didn’t stop physicians two centuries later from trying to balance the humours through bloodletting. Eire rightly observes that historians of the supernatural are always at some point expected to take an objective stand on the ontology of phenomena. But it’s impossible to win. Whatever position you take ‘is bound to please some readers immensely and also inevitably baffle, bore, offend or annoy the hell out of everyone else’. The task, as Philip Roth once wrote, is ‘to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction … To allow for the chaos, to let it in’.

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Letters

Vol. 46 No. 10 · 23 May 2024

Malcolm Gaskill writes about levitating nuns in early modern Europe (LRB, 9 May). Similar stories persist well into the 20th century. Alexander Bedward, the Jamaican Baptist preacher and proto-Rastafarian, claimed to be able to levitate, and predicted that he would physically ascend to heaven on New Year’s Eve, 1920. Crowds assembled to watch the event, some of them hoping to ascend with Bedward. No levitation occurred. But supernatural tales attached themselves to later figures, including Leonard Howell, one of the first Rastafarians. When I visited Jamaica for the BBC in 2002, I spoke with Amy Fairweather, who was present in 1941 when the police raided Howell’s commune, Pinnacle. She said that Howell had evaded capture by turning himself into a woman. ‘He can do this at any time,’ she said.

Jolyon Jenkins
Bristol

Vol. 46 No. 11 · 6 June 2024

Malcolm Gaskill mentions that in the Cambridgeshire village where he used to live, belief in magic persisted into the 1920s (LRB, 9 May). This reminded me of a small silver bottle donated in 1926 by a Miss M.A. Murray to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where it remains on display. The vessel had been acquired around 1915 from an old lady living near Hove, who reportedly declared: ‘They do say there be a witch in it and you let un out there it be a peck o’ trouble.’ The bottle’s stopper is still firmly in place.

Ian Ellison
Wadham College, Oxford

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