Service magic in the age of the witch hunts

In November 1635, a woman named Margery Paule was invited into the house of a Mistress Godfrey of Ely. Godfrey wanted to know whether she was with child and she hoped that Margery, who was well known as a cunning woman, would be able to tell her. However, Margery got more than she bargained for as she settled herself in Godfrey’s front room. Godfrey’s husband Thomas was home, and he wasn’t happy to see Margery. Indeed, he took ‘her by the shoulder and asked her what shee did there you witche, and kicking her once or twice, did fflinge her against the threshold’. Margery fled the house while Thomas yelled threats at her back.

This vignette of violence is what we might expect from England in the seventeenth century, when witch trials were part of the norm. What might surprise us, though, is what happened next. After Margery limped home, bruised and shaken, she resolved to take Thomas Godfrey to court for assault. And her neighbours rallied round: they came forward to testify that although Margery was a skilled fortune-teller, she didn’t deserve Thomas’ ill-treatment.

In a time of religious fervour and heightened fear of witches, how is it that Margery felt empowered enough to prosecute her attacker? Using her case as a starting point, this talk will take us through the murky world of service magic – practical magic performed for a client in return for a fee – in the early modern period. We will see what role service magic played in everyday life and explore how it was treated at the height of the witch hunts. In doing so, we will discover more tolerance – even celebration – of magic than you might expect.


Dr Tabitha Stanmore is a historian of medieval and early modern magic. She is a postdoctoral researcher on the Leverhulme Seven County Witch Hunt Project, investigating the so-called Matthew Hopkins trials in 1640s England. He first book, Love Spells and Lost Treasure: Service magic in England from the later Middle Ages to the early modern period, was published by Cambridge University Press in December 2022 and Cunning Folk: Life in the era of practical magic will be published with The Bodley Head in 2024.

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