Melancholy Witches, Love Magic, and a Sinister Island: Inner Lives at #isch17

Downtown Umeå at dusk. Photo: Author.

The project was on the road again last week for the tenth conference of the International Society for Cultural History (26–29 June 2017). The event took as its topic ‘Senses, Emotions, and the Affective Turn: Recent Perspectives and New Challenges in Cultural History’, so given our commitment to exploring these exciting themes via the supernatural we simply had to be there. Me, Malcolm, and Sophie joined hundreds of other historians of the emotions in beautiful Umeå in northern Sweden for four days of intensive methodological and theoretical discussion of all things emotional (for a flavour of discussions see #isch17).

Detail from the 1647 examination (or confession) of Margaret Moore. Cambridge University Library, EDR E12 1647/14.

Our panel, entitled ‘Emotions and the Supernatural, 1300–1900’, took various angles on the project’s primary contention that interactions with the unseen world, and the powerful emotions they engendered – from extreme passions like love and hate, to more subtle feelings of hope, yearning, and loneliness – offer us privileged access points to the inner worlds of past generations. My opening paper was called ‘The Confession of Margaret Moore: Evidence, Emotion, and Empathy in Early Modern English Witch Trials’. In a heavily methodological contribution, I returned to the remarkable 1647 confession of accused witch Moore, one of many victims of the sustained East Anglian witch-hunt orchestrated by Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, whose moving story was first told by Malcolm back in 1994. Against a prevailing emphasis in the history of emotions on representations and discourses – ’emotional regimes’, ’emotional communities’, and so on – and despite anxieties among historians and literary scholars about the ability of confessions and other legal testimonies to shed any light on an authentic ‘self’ beyond the fabrications of the court, I attempted to sound a more optimistic note: that empathetic connections with our human protagonists across space and time are not only possible but desirable; and that the methodological obstacles to discerning genuine feeling states in witch trial documents are not as insurmountable as has hitherto been suggested.

Detail of a microcosmic man from an astrological miscellany (c. 1400). British Library, MS Sloane 282, f. 18.

Sophie’s paper on ‘Late Medieval Love Magic’ explored medieval ideas about human agency in relation to love, in particular the idea that celestial influences and demons had the power to influence human emotions. The authors of late medieval magic texts to induce love sickness constructed rituals which brought both planets and demons to bear on the objects of their desire. Amor heroes or love sickness could be viewed as a disease, as lust, or as true love. The bodily symptoms and mental preoccupations that love magic experiments were supposed to induce were typical of the medieval medical ‘signs of love’, but they proposed cures more appropriate to literary authors writing in the spirit of courtly love than academic physicians seeking to heal patients. In medieval romances the cures for passionate love lay in erotic pleasure and romantic and marital unions. Although the magical practitioner’s emotions are barely revealed in these experiments, in line with the ideas of courtly love the rituals will only work if his or her intense desire is focused on a particular chosen individual. The object of desire is induced to feel pain, but deep and noble love was expected to be accompanied by suffering in the late Middle Ages. The magic texts also make use of the linguistic and emotional comparisons that were already current in medieval culture between passionate spiritual and carnal love. What is particular to the love magic experiments, however, is the subjugation to the operator’s will and the conjuration of demons to help the practitioners secure the object of desire. This provoked the scrutiny of authors of late medieval witchcraft treatises who viewed love magic experiments as seeking to undermine the human will and corrupt virtue.

Detail from Hans Baldung Grien, Half-Figure of an Old Woman with a Cap (c. 1535). National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Malcolm’s paper was called ‘The Emotional Witch: Melancholy, Magic, and Murder in Early Modern England’. In place of the usual historiographical emphasis on fear, envy, and anger in witch trials, Malcolm explored the comparatively neglected figure of the melancholy witch at law, a condition understood by early modern people as both a physical imbalance and corrupted state of mind caused by an excess of black bile. Melancholy – ranging from wistful gloominess to homicidal psychosis – was seen as chilling the bodies, fogging the minds, and shutting up the hearts of many alleged witches, and provided contemporaries with compelling grounds for identifying and accusing their sullen neighbours. Learned theorisations of witchcraft and diabolism also presented melancholics as being more susceptible to the blandishments of Satan (with black bile called ‘the devil’s bath’ by one commentator); perhaps with reference to these discourses, confessing witches also frequently accounted for their crimes by describing how a tormented and lugubrious mental state had rendered them vulnerable to the devil. Malcolm concluded by suggesting historians should perhaps spend less time asking what witchcraft meant and more time asking how it felt, to both accusers and the accused.

Detail from Axel Nordgren, Fischerdorf in the Moonlight (before 1879). Wikimedia Commons.

We were delighted to be joined by Göran Malmstedt from the University of Gothenburg, who returned us to the key theme of rage and concluded our panel with a paper entitled ‘Witchcraft and the Power of Anger: Testimonies from Swedish Witch Trials in the Seventeenth Century’. Focussing on a discrete set of statements generated by an outbreak of witch-hunting in the province of Bohuslän in southwest Sweden between 1669 and 1672 − which resulted in 28 executions and at least 15 further deaths as a result of torture − Göran offered a wide-ranging analysis of the role and functioning of anger within these trial narratives, with a particular emphasis on the perceived uncontrolled fury towards victims on the part of accused witches. This was translated into lethal force via evil glances, muttered curses, and other kinds of harmful magic, and was intimately related to the Nordic concept of hug or häg, the long-standing belief that powerful emotions in general and envy and anger in particular could be active outside a person’s body.

The island of Norrbyskär. Photo: Author.

Scale model of the island at Norrbyskär Museum. Photo: Author.

As well as around 200 other papers – for a sense of the sheer range and variety of emotions research presented download the full programme (pdf) – delegates were treated to an extraordinary half day field trip to the remote island of Norrbyskär, which between 1895 and 1952 was the location of a sawmill and utopian community under the charismatic but disciplinarian leadership of industrialist and social reformer Frans Kempe. A unique and memorable venue for guided tours, the delicious conference dinner, and a musical interlude, the island was also profoundly sinister and unsettling; bathed in the unearthly northern Swedish light, freighted with gently decaying communitarian architecture and cryptic monuments (physical manifestations of emotional regimes that were all too often authoritarian and coercive), and surrounded by rotting or rusting vestiges of a distant industrial past, this eerie, melancholy landscape put Malcolm and me powerfully in mind of island-based folk horrors from the literary and cinematic canon (The Wicker Man, Lord of the FliesShutter Island, and The Beach to name but a few).

Malcolm enjoys a scaled down version of utopian architecture. Photo: Author.

The ferry back to the Swedish mainland. Photo: Author.

Safely returned from this Scandinavian Summerisle, it was time to reflect on some general emotional ‘takeaways’ from the conference. The creative tension between what might be termed social constructionist and essentialist approaches towards historical emoting continues to animate the field, with a discernible shift towards biological, bodily, material, and practice-based approaches to feeling – emotions as active ingredients in the sensory and experiential worlds of our ancestors (emotional history?) as well as primarily linguistic discourses or representations to be passively studied as intellectual historians (the history of emotions?) – in the panels we attended. This was reflected in the large number of papers on aspects of material culture, in repeated pleas for inventive uses of all classes of evidence, and in both keynotes: Barbara Rosenwein’s exploration of the problems and affordances of the vexed concept of affect theory (a proper definition of which even its practitioners can’t seem to agree on); and especially Erin Sullivan’s moving plea for us to use the altered emotional states still wrought by premodern literature and art as the basis for a new kind of empathy between the past and the present. Likewise, while many explorations in the field continue to range at extreme emotional poles – anger, fear, sadness, or joy – it seems that the latest generation of ’emotional historians’ (in Sullivan’s phrase) have also been sensitised to the subtler, softer, ever-shifting feeling states where we actually spend most of our time: hope, yearning, boredom, gentle amusement, mild anxiety, and slight irritation were all as well-represented at the conference as they are in our daily lives.

There’s of course much more to say on all of these themes; a longer synthesis, based on our own methodological workshop held in March, will be published here on the blog and in the Bulletin of the Society for Renaissance Studies, later in the year. In the meantime, we’d like to thank all of the organisers of #isch17 – especially the indefatigable Jonas Liliequist – for such a stimulating and beautifully organised event.

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