Miracles of Our Own Making: A History of Paganism is a sweeping book with the goal of introducing the reader to the history of paganism in Britain. Williams focuses her broad sweep of research in one place, and helps us understand the implications of different movements within paganism. History teaches us where we come from, and this book certainly attempts to do so.
I picked this book up because I was looking for a more contemporary piece on the history of witchcraft that I could potentially read with my Witchcraft Immersion students. I had thought about assigning Margot Adler’s classic Drawing Down the Moon, but it hasn’t been updated since 2006 an a lot of scholarship about paganism has come out since then.
Ultimately I decided Miracles of Our Own Making wasn’t the right text to teach from because of how focused this text is on Britain. As a book chronicling a history of paganism, however, I think that Miracles of Our Own Making is an important text, especially at this point in the literary scene.
Williams herself holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. She lives in Glastonbury and co-owns a witchcraft shop. So she brings that unique blend of academic and practical experience. So often academic writing about contemporary witchcraft movements can feel stilted, or completely separated from the communities. Williams is able to approach the subject with a tongue-in-cheek understanding that people outside of the pagan community tend to lack, which is refreshing.
It is precisely the focus on British history specifically that makes this such an important new addition to our Witch History bookshelves.
It’s incredibly difficult to do a real analysis of historic movements without specializing in a location. And as much as Americans have specific trends within neopaganism, a lot of the 20th Century witchcraft movement in America was inspired by the development of Wicca in Britain, as well as Traditional Witchcraft and the Clan of Tubal Cain. There’s a strange affinity between the two places, and I think a lot of it has to do with language. Needless to say, understanding a British history of witchcraft does provide a context for American witchcraft.
So in terms of providing a history, Miracles of Our Own Making absolutely does that. Starting from the very foggy ancient British history, moving through the sweeps of Saxons and Vikings, the Middle Ages and Renaissance, into the secret societies and ceremonial magic developments of the 18th and 19th centuries. She even covers the 20th century to present. It’s clear that Williams has done extensive historic study, but she can translate some of her more obscure sources to a general public.
The one thing that this book really left me with was a whole lot of questions about specifics. In particular, I found myself totally engrossed in the history of secret societies and the lodges. Williams touches on spiritualism, as well as the Theosophical Society, but she spends more time focusing on the Hellfire Club and the Freemasons. This is perhaps a justified choice, as she is focusing more on paganism and witchcraft than New Age thought, and those secret societies were where more literary figures hung out and talked about Druids and Bards. (As an American reviewer, I don’t live in a place with a strong Druidic presence at all so this was interesting.)
Anyway, Miracles of Our Own Making in particular piqued my interest in 18th Century Magic, as well as the literary figures that permeate these movements. I will likely be doing some of my own research, particularly to see the crossovers between these movements and Romanticism and Gothic revival. Somehow, in spite of himself, it keeps coming back to Byron.
Williams does devote some time in her final chapter to Vodou and other magical traditions that non-white people in Britain practice. There is also an appendix dedicated to some issues within paganism. In this brief appendix, she covers cultural appropriation, cult behavior, and what not to do as a seeker. I personally would be really interested to read a history of witchcraft in Britain from the perspective of non-white immigrants, because I’m sure there’s plenty of history there as well.
In short, I do recommend this book, but it’s probably more interesting if you’ve been a pagan or witch for some years and would like a history. It’s also much more interesting to me because I am a bit of a history nerd, so your mileage may vary. This book did drag in places, but I think that was mostly because there is so very much to cover.