Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World: New Exhibition!

Exhibition: Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World (John Rylands University Library, Deansgate, from 21 January 2016).

Interview by Eloise Moss

Dr Jenny Spinks is Lecturer in the History of Early Modern Europe (particularly Germany, France and the Low Countries); Dr Sasha Handley is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Social and Cultural History of the British Isles; and in 2016 Dr Stephen Gordon was Postdoctoral Research Assistant on their exhibition project ‘Magic, Witches and Devils in the early Modern World’, which opens at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, on 21 January 2016. To see the website, click here


Mar Zay’ā attacks the angel of death, in Nūtārē dabnaynāšā men kulmedem dbiš (The Protection of People from All Kinds of Evil), Hakkari, Southeastern Anatolia (?), 1700s (Syriac MS 52). Copyright of the University of Manchester

EM: Hello! So, what was the inspiration for this project?

SH: Jenny and I were both appointed at the same time in 2012, and we realised that we both had quite closely related research interests. We both published our books in the same series, mine about ghosts and Jenny’s about visual culture and monstrous births, but she’s also into witches, and all kinds of other things. Stephen’s a walking encyclopaedia of supernatural knowledge and interests…

EM: That’s quite a claim to fame.

SH: It was Jenny’s genius idea to do an exhibition; we’d both spent a long time rifling around in the John Ryland’s collections and found some really wonderful pieces there to get us started.

EM: What kinds of sources are there on magic and ghosts in the Rylands?

SG: Well, there’s quite a lot of wonderful stuff on magic. After joining the project I started to develop a very close academic interest in this; there are lots of fantastic magic books in both the Rylands and other collections in Manchester.

EM: Magic books? Like — spell books?!

SG/SH/JS: Yes! Exactly.

EM: No way! What kinds of spells?

SG: With spells it’s mostly about getting power and money and revenge.

SH: There are spells to raise the dead as well, aren’t there?

SG: Yes, there are spells for raising the dead and I think one of the coolest ones I’ve read is where you (that is, the magician) raise a spirit horse to take you anywhere you want.

EM: Spirit horse?

JS: Yes, that’s cool — it gives you power and money… and probably revenge too!

EM: So why a horse?

SG: Well you want a fast spirit, so having a spirit in the shape of a horse means it gallops, or it flies, very quickly. You have to appease the devil, though, or else it throws you off and hurts you, so that’s one of the main sticking points.

SH: The devil often appears in early modern writings in animal form.

JS: One of the things that people are sometimes a bit surprised to find out about when working on magic and witchcraft is that many of the books that were published about it in the early modern period are not about how to do it. They’re about how bad it is, why you should stop doing it, how you prosecute it, and how you conduct legal and ecclesiastical procedures that will help you identify when someone has collaborated with the devil. That’s a really big hallmark of the period that we’re looking at, this idea that magic and witchcraft are diabolical. It’s the devil which is the actual hallmark of most of the ways that people think about magic and witchcraft in this period, which makes it dangerous and liable to prosecution, and charges of heresy, putting the people who are associated with it on the outside, or on the borderlands, of society. So it’s a very… frightening thing for people at the time.

SH: Its part of the everyday as well, that’s an important thing that we want to convey. This is why you see magic in such a huge array of texts, even down to medical books about how to cure diseases, which often have some kind of supernatural aspect.

JS: One of the nice things about doing an exhibition (and I’ve worked on exhibitions in the past, including a project in 2012) is that you can be quite loose in the associations that you make between things. In an essay or an article or a book, the links that you make between things have to be very carefully argued for, and while you also have to do that to an extent with an exhibition you can also put things into a visual conjunction and see what happens. And so the slightly risky thing that we’re doing with this exhibition is bringing in non-European material: none of us are experts in those materials but there are wonderful things in the Rylands, such as some really beautiful illuminated Persian literary manuscripts with stories of devils and demons…

SH: We’ve got a Christian Syriac book of charms…

JS: Yes the book of charms will be there, and we’ve got an amulet through which we can look at the borderline between magic and protection…

SH: And from the Whitworth Museum we’ve got a colourful woodcut of a Chinese deity, or demon killer, called Shōki, who I love. Shōki is a kind of domestic spirit who was believed to protect households from dangers and diabolical intrusions – he was especially popular in Japan. He’s quite cool.


Shōki the Demon Queller, Japan, c. 1700-1724. Courtesy of the Whitworth, The University of Manchester (Accession no. P.1996.163).

JS: Our rationale as early modern Europeanists working on non-European materials is that it’s exactly at this period when Europeans’ horizons are being expanded by greater access to all sorts of other parts of the world. So we’re trying to think about how, alongside this fear of the supernatural, people were also encountering (and sometimes inventing) the idea that Japan has demons, or Peru has devil-worship, and it was all tied up with this sense of a larger world that they’re beginning to get.

SH: It’s been interesting to find out some of the commonalities across those different traditions, hasn’t it? Our period is particularly important for the intensification of fears of the diabolical — the idea that it was rife, and very prominent.

EM: And were these fears coming to the fore globally, during this period?

SH: Well, I think you could make a strong case for arguing that it was very visible, and highly criminalised, at least in relation to the trials for witchcraft in Europe.

SG: I think even in the Islamic and Persian manuscripts, there’s this sense that it’s still very resonant. You get this idea that you still have to use charms to protect yourself against these ambiguous, devilish kinds of creatures.

JS: So although the legal framework is not necessarily the same, in terms of how the Europeans are looking at it they’re seeing commonalities.

EM: Given that there is this widening sense of the global and you are Europeanists, are you going to liaise with other museums who might have similar collections, and ask them how typical the ones that you have found in the Rylands are?

SH: We’ve been doing research on this and improving our shared knowledge – as well as drawing on expertise from many colleagues. The exhibition focuses on work from the Rylands, and we also have work from the Whitworth and Chetham’s Library. We should emphasise that part of the remit of the project was to showcase the collections of the Rylands, because it was a Seedcorn Grant from the John Rylands Research Institute that originally got the project up and running. Since then Jenny has been awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant to develop the project from here.

JS: Something else that is important to explain is Stephen’s role as an early career researcher working on the project. Jonathan Starbrook in our research office, who is wonderful, advised me to apply for the funding to create this post because putting together a terrific team, and teamwork is such an important aspect of humanities research. So with Jonathan’s encouragement I applied for a full six months’ full-time position, which meant we were able to get Stephen, and – when did you finish your PhD Stephen?

SG: 2013

JS: Yes, so that’s meant we’ve been able to offer a research position with teaching opportunities, and I guess it’s a different kind of career opportunity for you to work in a team on this project.

SG: Yes it’s something totally different which I haven’t really done before, so it’s a very good experience. Especially if, like me, you want to stay in academia it’s a wonderful thing to have on your CV, helping to research and put together an exhibition.

JS: In a way I see this as potentially a kickstarter to other projects further down the track, so the kind of big comparative projects that you need to say, do a global history of the devil, which I think someone should do.

EM: That sounds cool!

JS: What we are very reliant on, and we can’t stress this enough, is how helpful the collections staff at the Rylands are, because they are the ones with expertise that can point us towards cataloguing that’s been done. So for instance the Syriac manuscripts that Sasha referred to have been very carefully catalogued and transcribed, and we were reliant on the special collections person looking after that material sending us in the direction of it, so I guess what we have learnt from this project is that it’s not always about having the expertise yourself, but it’s about curating; curating not just objects but other people’s inputs and expertise as well. But we would love it if it led to some other collaborations down the track with specialists in global projects. We can only wait and see!

SH: Honestly, I know we spend a lot of time at the Rylands, so we take it for granted how amazing the collections are. But actually both modernist colleagues and our students should go there to find materials, the latter for their dissertation research or postgraduate work. There’s just so much in there that hasn’t been worked on, real treasures that I think we don’t even realise that we’ve got yet.

JS: Or there’s work that people look at with fresh eyes. So for instance one of our favourite items in the exhibition is a manuscript that Stephen’s worked on, which was catalogued back in the 1920s by Montague Rhodes James, who’s also famous as a writer of ghost stories. James catalogued the Latin manuscripts in the Rylands at that time, and he was incredibly dismissive about the images in the manuscript, saying that they were beneath contempt — so of course we had to have a look at that! The images are very rough but it gives you a real insight into a different kind of book and its uses, because it’s a book that was not prepared to be a beautiful presentation copy for a King or a Queen, it was prepared for a different purpose. And so something that perhaps a scholar of Latin manuscripts in the 1920s may have just gone ‘Oh, that’s an unworthy work,’ we now look at from quite a different perspective to consider how it was used, and what it tells us about domestic life.

EM: What are the images of?

JS: Well there’s a picture of a woman sweeping devils out of her house and the devils look like cats!

SH: I wonder how long that took! We’ve got images of devils throwing stones, Shōki the demon queller killing a demon with a nice parasol…

SG: We’ve also got illustrations of walking corpses in the ‘three living and the three dead’ motif. As someone who studied ‘revenants’ for my PhD project, this is one of my personal favourites.


The Three Living and the Three Dead (detail), in Book of Hours (beginning of the Office for the Dead), France, early 1500s (Latin MS 38). Copyright of the University of Manchester

SH: It’s quite graphic. We think the exhibition is going to be visually very exciting.

EM: So explain who the exhibition is targeted at and why people should want to come along and see this.

SH: Well our key audience or ‘experience seekers’ are going to be young adults especially, and then the general public and interested scholars broadly.

EM: Experience seekers?! So you’ll have a Ouija board going on in one room, or-?

SH: I’m just going to put a sheet on my head and wander round! But in all seriousness, something that we want to give visitors the opportunity to understand is that there are some really amazing pre-modern historical resources and experiences in Manchester. We are used to thinking about Manchester as a modern, Victorian city, and it is that, but it also has quite amazing medieval, and sixteenth- seventeenth- and eighteenth-century things in it too. As for the sorts of exciting objects visitors will get to see, we’ve already mentioned a few but one other big example that comes to mind is the Wesley poltergeist accounts. So John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, had a family ghost, and his brother collected and transcribed accounts from different members of his family in his notebook. That survives in the Rylands, and as well as my own work on it at present it’s one of our key items in the exhibition. I think very few people know these ghosts ever existed or think that this manuscript is still available, and we’ve had it digitised, so it will be available for people to have a good flick through! You can read all about the headless badger that ran out from under the bed (or something that looked like a headless badger!) too — that’s one of my favourite tales.

JS: Very very creepy.


Find out more:

The exhibition has been supported through Jenny Spinks’ Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Magic, Diabolism, and Global Religion in European Print Culture, 1500–1700’ (grant number AH/L015013/1), and by a John Rylands Research Institute seed grant awarded to Jenny Spinks and Sasha Handley. The exhibition is co-curated by Jenny Spinks and Sasha Handley, and Stephen Gordon has been closely involved as Postdoctoral Research Associate.



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