Magic in Manchester: An Exhibition at the John Rylands Library

Yesterday I was treated to a tour of the ‘Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World’ exhibition, curated by Jennifer Spinks and Sasha Handley. It’s held at the John Rylands Library, a stunning late-Victorian, neo-Gothic building in Manchester, awash with dimly-lit corridors, ornate arches, and shadowy alcoves. The ideal setting for delving into the world of demons, witches, ghosts, and magic.

John Rylands Library on Deansgate.

Stephen Gordon, postdoctoral researcher on the project, kindly gave me a tour of the exhibition, which draws on Manchester’s rich collection of manuscripts and prints to explore how people engaged with the supernatural world during the Early Modern period. It’s a broad topic for a relatively small space, especially as the curators didn’t limit themselves to Europe, but still they’ve succeeded in encapsulating the complex practices and beliefs of the past through carefully selected books and visually striking artworks.

Stephen Gordon, postdoctoral researcher for the exhibition

The exhibition begins by drawing on common conceptions of the witch, as either the beautiful woman or the old and ugly hag; starting with the stereotype in order to deconstruct it. And deconstruct it, it certainly does. For example, their copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, heavy with marginal notes, demonstrates that the witch was viewed as a more complex figure than we might have imagined – sometimes eager to escape the Devil’s clutches – while the copy of the Shahnama (the Persian ‘Book of Kings’) illustrates that the witch wasn’t only a European construct.

I won’t detail all of the exhibits – you’ll simply have to go and see them for yourselves. The exhibition, which is free, runs until 21st August 2016, so there’s still time. I will, however, tell you about two of my favourite pieces.

The first is the sixteenth-century copy of the Book of Little Known Remedies by botanist Conrad Gesner, owned and annotated by John Dee, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I on all things alchemical and divinatory. This small, relatively plain book on practical alchemy may not share the opulence or beautiful illustrations of some of the other manuscripts, but it does have a recipe for eternal youth (for those who are interested, you’ll need cinnamon, eggs, and donkey’s milk). And, even more interesting, it has the personal touches of John Dee: marginal annotations which suggest he was trying out the recipe himself, as well as an amusing drawing of the ‘cinnamon girl’.

My second favourite is one of the few non-manuscript pieces in the exhibition: a pair of metallic bracelets described as: ‘Bracelets for shackling a child to life and warding off death’. We don’t know much about them, except that they were collected by Moses Gaster, a late-19th-century Romanian scholar with an interest in Jewish amulets and Romanian folklore. These bracelets were possibly apotropaic devices, worn by children when they were sleeping to protect them from death. As the ‘Inner Lives’ project is working towards our own exhibition on emotions, identity and supernatural, based more on artefacts than manuscripts (more details to follow), this example of how people harnessed the supernatural in their everyday fears is particularly interesting to me.

If you want to find out more about the items in the exhibition, have a look at these blog posts by Stephen Gordon:

‘Magic, Witches and Devils in the Persian Book of Kings’, Manchester Medieval Society Blog

‘Cleansing the Home of Evil Spirits: Sweeping Magic in the Concordantiae Caritatis (Latin MS 69)’, John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

‘Conjuring Spirits in the ‘Tractatus de Nigromatia’, Chetham’s Library Blog

Stephen’s article on the Michael Scot/Arabic necromantic manual should also be out very soon: ‘Necromancy and the Magical Reputation of Michael Scot: John Rylands Library, Latin MS 105’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 92 (2016), 73–103.

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