Projects

Inner Lives is organised in three discrete yet intertwined strands that, taken together, trace emotions, identity, and the supernatural at cosmic, communal, and domestic scales across six centuries.

Medieval (1300–1500): Cosmos

Leader: Dr Sophie Page
RA: Dr Kathleen Walker-Meikle

Circular diagram of the spheres of the Ptolemaic system. Yates Thompson 31 f. 66, British Library.

For the medieval period, Sophie and Kathleen are focussing on how people imagined invisible and sacred forces, and specifically how they actively engaged with these forces. The project’s conceptual linkage between emotion, identity, and the supernatural is especially relevant to late medieval occult sources given that invocation and conjuration were so often invested with intense feelings of rapture and fear, desperation and longing, and were privately performed. Sophie’s research will explore the oppressiveness of cosmological forces on inner lives, and how this led to attempts to manipulate such forces using magic rituals and other orthodox and unorthodox techniques. Human desires lay at the heart of the process: magic was provoked by, and attempted to induce, strong feelings of wanting something to happen. Late medieval perceptions of supernatural danger and endeavours to engage with spirits produced communal responses that contributed to the origins of witch-hunting. A second objective of the medieval strand of the project is to understand better how cosmological models gave meaning to temporal experience. A particular focus of Sophie’s monograph linked to the project – Cosmology, Magic, and Inner Lives in the Late Middle Ages – is the relationship between models of the cosmos and the inner lives of medieval men and women. The learned contours of medieval cosmology are well known, but its impact on inner lives and lived experience remains underexplored in spite of the range of texts through which cosmological images and ideas were disseminated.

Early Modern (1500-1700): Community

Leader: Professor Malcolm Gaskill
RA: Dr James Brown

Illustration from The history of witches and wizards: giving a true account of all their tryals in England, Scotland, Swedeland, France, and New England (1720). Wellcome Images.

Developing some of the medievalists’ themes, Malcolm and James are exploring how people in the early modern period thought about themselves in relation to their seen and unseen environments, in particular by examining the place of feeling and subjectivity in witchcraft beliefs, and exploring how these beliefs were manifested as witch trials. Both historians of the Anglo-American world, they are working on three interrelated projects. The first is an article (to be authored by Malcolm) on ‘Witchcraft and Emotion in Early Modern England’, which will look for evidence of emotion in witchcraft testimonies, pamphlets, and treatises, and explore the paradox that while the verbalization of authentic passions helped give heft and substance to charges, emotions were increasingly regarded as the enemy of reason in witch trials. The second is a book-length case study (to be authored by Malcolm) of an outbreak of witch-hunting in the Massachusetts town of Springfield c.1649–51, provisionally entitled The Sound and the Silence: Witchcraft and Heresy on the First American Frontier. Finally, James will write a methodological journal article on the reconstruction of historical inner lives, drawing together the objectives and methodologies of the three individual strands of the project.

Modern (1700-1900): Household

Leader: Professor Owen Davies
RA: Dr Ceri Houlbrook

A mummified cat found in the roof space of a church in Clifton, Cumbria, now in Keswick Museum. The Concealed Revealed.

The part of the project covering the modern period, entitled ‘Expressing Magical Fears in the Modern Era: Material and Medical Consequences’, is based on the notion of physical and mental interiority. There are two linked strands. The first is called ‘Protecting the Home and Peace of Mind: Engaging with the Material Culture of Domestic Magic’. It explores the secretion of apotropaic objects (concealed shoes, written charms, witch bottles, etc), and the carving of protective symbols in and around the home and outbuildings. We are mapping their distribution, and crowdsourcing recent and new finds by means of a Historypin collection. As part of this research, Ceri is exploring what domestic apotropaic objects mean to contemporary finders and custodians; this can include issues such as the motivations and emotions that lead people to keep discovered apotropaic devices in situ, discard them, or choose to donate them to museums (you can find out more about Ceri’s findings on the sub-project’s website, The Concealed Revealed). The second strand we have called ‘Inner Anxieties and External Threats: The Medicalisation of Supernatural Fears’. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of the fears, beliefs, and convictions that led people to secrete charms and apotropaic objects also marked them out as displaying symptoms of insanity. Hundreds of people were incarcerated in asylums, in part, on the basis of their apocalyptic religious views, convictions of personal damnation, claims to have received celestial communications, delusions of satanic or spiritual persecution, and their ‘monomaniacal’ fear of witches. We are searching through asylum casebooks to build up a picture of the sorts of supernatural concerns that were expressed by asylum inmates.