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THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe

By Stephen Wilson, published by Hambledon and London at £25. 594pp. ISBN: 1-85285-251-8 (Reviewed by Brian Hoggard)

This large book is a must have for anyone with an interest in ritual or magic. It combines the evidence of folklore and history from Europe to provide an incredibly thorough account of, as the title say, 'everyday ritual and magic in pre-modern Europe'.

The book has been designed in a very sensible way with five sections titled, 'Agriculture', 'The Life-Cycle', 'Disease and Healing', 'Divination and Signs', and 'The Elements of Magic'. There is of course some overlap between each of these sections but the broad categories work very well and the chapters within each section make it very easy to find information quickly. Coupled with that the excellent notes, bibliography and index make this work an extremely good reference book.

The author's writing style is very good too. The introduction to the book provides a flowing narrative describing 'the magical universe' of the region and period concerned which is magisterial in quality. If ever anyone needed some inspiration to find out more about the world of our ancestors this introduction would provide it by the bucketload. This section whets the appetite for the rest of the book.

Every ritual or practice described in the book is backed up by a range of evidence from across Europe. His style is to take one to three examples in detail and then provide supporting examples from numerous other places. In every instance Wilson carefully outlines the differences and similarities between regions without losing sight of the essence of the practice in discussion. I found each section to be something akin to a revelation, having never encountered such a wide ranging and insightful work as this. The reader can not fail to be impressed by just how widespread and similar many of the practices were throughout Europe.

For anyone with an interest in ritual and magic in Europe this book, in my view, easily supersedes (but doesn't entirely replace) works as standard as Frazer's Golden Bough and Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic. This book will be a good friend of mine for many years to come and I would urge you to get hold of a copy.