Exploring the Supernatural in WW1


Professor Owen Davies, Univesity of Hertfordshire

The role of divination, magic, and spiritualism during the First World War has long fascinated me. Some twenty years ago I did a bit of work on war-time concerns over the influence of fortune tellers as part of a wider study of the relevance of magic in society. A decade later, I put together a volume of little-known publications regarding spiritualism during the war. The likes of Paul Fussell’s seminal The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Morning (1995) had stamped a powerful narrative about an avalanche of the unmodern during the war that had long nagged me with doubt. Having spent a lot of my academic career studying the continuation of magical beliefs in Western society from the eighteenth century onward, there did not appear to me to be a great recrudescence of supernatural belief during 1914-18 and its immediate aftermath. But the war years clearly did influence people’s resort to the magical and spiritual in a host of subtle ways.

In 2013, I became a Co-Investigator with the Everyday Lives in War Public Engagement Centre led by my colleague Professor Sarah Lloyd. This is one of five such centres that were originally funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to challenge predominant narratives and support grass-roots research on the impact of the war. Our focus on everyday lives encompassed the expression of beliefs and faiths on the home front and battlefields. For many non-combatants the rhythm and concerns of everyday life carried on as before. People continued to fear witches and resort to popular magic. But the war created new commercial and faith-based opportunities to feed the popular desire for protection and good fortune. The language and symbolism of ‘superstition’ and magic also seeped into patriotic and propaganda discourses.  While such developments had been noted at the time by social scientists, and have been revisited more recently in a few histories of religion and the First World War, they have rarely been put into broader historical context.

As well as reassessing the notion that the war triggered some long-latent outpouring of supernaturalism, one of my key concerns in writing A Supernatural War was to avoid the exceptionalism that often, inadvertently, colours studies based on one nation. So although a lot of the primary research concerned British sources, I felt it was important to set the British experience in the context of the other main combatant countries. This enables, for instance, the comparison of Catholic and Protestant responses to the supernatural on institutional and personal levels. Although there are far fewer sources, it was also important to consider the protective traditions of the many Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu soldiers and their loved ones.

The process of writing the book was also shaped by two non-archival experiences. One was a ‘material turn’. I became an ebay collector of First World War charms and talismans as part of the research process, purchasing some items that were not to be found in any British museum collections. Having these around me in my study provided a tangible inspiration for understanding the profound relationships that formed between simple trinkets and their owners on the battlefields. It was having these objects that also brought home the importance of understanding the meaning they held for those who gave as well as received them. The other experience was working with the theatre company Cap-a-Pie to develop a touring play, The Important Man, exploring the role of divination, thought power, and faith during the war. The creative process was rewarding in thinking through issues of motive and emotion.


A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War 
is available from Oxford University Press

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About the Author: Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire and a leading authority on the belief in witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and popular medicine from the ancient world to the modern era. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (OUP, 2009) and America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem (OUP, 2013). His latest book, A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War, was published by Oxford University Press in October 2018.

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