Review – Edward Poeton: The Winnowing of White Witchcraft

While at Treadwell’s on my UK trip, I picked up Cunning Folk: An Introductory Bibliography, which is out of date but still fascinating. One key work mentioned within was a work by the early seventeenth physician Edward Poeton, “The Winnowing of White Witchcraft,” which only existed in manuscript form in Sloane 1954. I was trying to figure out whether I should spend time at the British Library tracking it down, and I was happy to see that Poeton’s work had just been published by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The book doesn’t even seem to have made its way to Amazon, but fortunately one of my local libraries came through for me on a copy of this important primary source on early modern cunning folk, their practices, and the arguments for and against their practices.

First, a few caveats. Winnowing is a thin paperback, and the price point of $45 is more than I’d be willing to spend. Even though this work is of direct use in my research, I’m really on the fence about whether I should purchase it. Further, the bulk of the text replicates the spelling of the original. This is fine for two of the speakers, but the third…

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Poeton’s Winnowing is an unpublished treatise on the cunning folk.  As with many such works at the time, it is written in the form of a dialogue, in which a wise and knowledgeable teacher instructs a student in error who is nonetheless willing to ask questions and learn. In Winnowing, we have three parties: a clergyman with a doctorate in divinity, a physician, and the country squire who has been promoting cunning folk. The first two are intelligible, but Poeton has placed the squire’s words in a bizarrely spelled depiction of a local dialect which is quite difficult for modern readers.

The arguments that the doctor and the physician use are somewhat lacking, but what should interest today’s readers are the perspectives they take, illustrative of contemporary attitudes, and some of the details they give. We do get the names and/or locations of particular cunning folk active at the time, for instance. There are also one or two tidbits on interesting folk and magical practices I haven’t run into elsewhere, such as the carving of crosses into trees around a field to drive off fairies, or that spirits called up by a magician with a hazel wand should kiss that wand, extended beyond the circle (similar to the table ritual in Oberon which involves a fairy kissing a scepter).

Simon Davies, the editor, does a fine job in providing the background for the book and some initial notes on cunning folk practice at the time. He also provides numerous footnotes for the text itself, a list of Biblical references, an index, and a bibliography to supplement it.

I did like this book, but I think the price point, language, and focus – not to mention the present distribution method – will keep it out of the reach of many readers, which is a shame. Nonetheless, if you’re researching seventeenth-century magic or the historical nature of cunning folk, this is worth tracking down.

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Published in: on June 14, 2018 at 10:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

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