Witches, Revenants, and Demonic Hedgehogs: Review of Supernatural Spaces Workshop

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Last week Malcolm and I were fortunate enough to be invited to the ‘Supernatural Spaces in the Early Modern World’ workshop. Organised by Jenny Spinks, lecturer in early modern history at the University of Manchester, and Sasha Handley, senior lecturer, with the assistance of Stephen Gordon, postdoctoral researcher, the workshop was held in connection with their brilliant ‘Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World’ exhibition, which I’ve blogged about here. It was set in Manchester’s atmospherically gothic John Ryland’s Library, and I can’t imagine a more perfect setting for academic experts in supernatural spaces to convene.

Professor Ronald Hutton had kicked things off the night before, across Manchester in another location that oozes history and erudition: Chetham’s Library. Hutton, who really needs no introduction (and whose recent edited volume I’ve reviewed here), was speaking about ‘The Western Magical Tradition’, tracing the history of magic through myriad times and cultures to the present day. An inspiring introduction to the following two days’ workshop.

Following an introduction and tour of the exhibition by Jenny Spinks and Sasha Handley, the workshop got underway with Professor Ulinka Rublack, of St John’s College, Cambridge, speaking about her research into the witchcraft accusation against the mother of the famous astronomer Kepler, and the related opera project she’s initiated, in her paper ‘The Astronomer & the Witch’. This was followed by Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar, of the University of Melbourne, exploring methods of understanding early modern domestic encounters with the demonic in her paper ‘“He appeared to her in the night”: Emotions, the Domestic and the Demonic in Early Modern England’.

The next two papers focused on Pierre de Lancre, the Bordeaux judge who instigated a massive witch-hunt and authored the work On the inconsistency of evil angels and demons (1612). Dr Thibaut Maus de Rolley, of UCL, presented his paper ‘Sailors, witches, and birds of passage: Pierre de Lancre’s imagination of movement and space’, and Dr Jan Machielsen, from Cardiff University, spoke on ‘Pierre de Lancre and the Body of the Witch’. Professor Charles Zika, of the University of Melbourne, concluded the first day of the workshop with his paper on ‘Spatial Environments and Emotional Dynamics in Seventeenth-Century Images of Witches’ Dances’, which considered the growing prominence of dancing in the iconography of the witch’s Sabbath from the 1590s onwards.

Day two of the workshop got off to a great start, not just because of the tasty pastries – the way to an academic’s heart is through their stomach – but through a fascinating paper by Dr Louise Elizabeth Wilson, of the University of Bristol. She was speaking about ‘Medicine, Magic and Maleficia’, using medical discourse to understand how demons were believed to impact the body and soul. Dr Stephen Gordon then spoke about the ‘‘Vampire’ Epidemic in Early Modern Europe’, applying the social theory of ‘emotional contagion’ to his research into the fear of ‘bad’ deaths and revenants. Ronald Hutton provided the next paper, ‘Following the Goddess: But Which Goddess?’, in which he traced the history of the ‘wild hunt’ and other supernatural nocturnal journeys detailed in folklore.

The second session of the day saw Thomas Wroblewski, of the University of Manchester, speaking on the role of physicians in cases of demonic possession in his paper ‘Diagnosing the Demoniac: Medical Evidence of Demonic Possession in the Early Modern Courtroom’. Dr Laura Sangha, of the University of Exeter, explored the notions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ in her work on supernatural narratives in print, correspondence, and conservation in later Stuart England, in her paper ‘“Take care that nothing be printed”’. This session was rounded off by Professor Phyliss Mack, of Rutgers University, and her detailed delve into dream narratives as spiritual documents, in her paper ‘Dreaming in the Enlightenment: The Rev. David Simpson and Hester Ann Roe’.

The final session of the workshop, chaired by Dr Laura Kounine, began with Dr Pau Castell Granados, of the Universitat de Barcelona, and his paper on ‘Testimonies of supernatural encounters in Iberian witchcraft trials’, in which he detailed judicial inquiries into maleficia. Sasha Handley then presented her paper ‘The ghost of Old Jeffery: Family relations and the magical materiality of an early modern household’, in which she provided a material-culture exploration into the household as a supernatural space associated with both divine and demonic forces. Our very own Professor Malcolm Gaskell, of the University of East Anglia, concluded the workshop with his paper ‘Silence and Suspicion: Witchcraft in a seventeenth-century American household’, in which he presented the case-study of Hugh and Mary Parsons of Springfield, Massachusetts, both of whom were accused of witchcraft in the 1640s, in demonstrating the key roles played by space and emotions in witchcraft accusations.

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The papers presented at this workshop were, without exception, all excellent; and the conversations they engendered, fascinating. Common themes were revealed and discussed, particularly that of the prevalence of night, sleep, and the bedroom in accounts of people’s engagements with the supernatural. How might the emergence of private sleeping chambers have impacted this? And would the later adoption of gas and electric lighting have affected people’s experiences and perceptions of the supernatural? Emotion was another recurring theme, from fear and suspicion to anger and guilt, demonstrating that space and the supernatural – from the dark and dangerous to the downright obscure (demonic hedgehogs anyone?) – are bound up with the feelings, sensations, and mental states of the individuals who experienced them.

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