Luminous Veils: Affect & Enchantment in Sixteenth-Century Italian Fashion

Women’s hair veils were a wardrobe staple across early modern Italy, and Europe more broadly. Their usage signalled a woman’s passage through important life stages. In the Christian tradition, married women were expected to veil their hair, widows used veils to demonstrate their grief, and nuns ‘took the veil’ as a gesture of their commitment to Christ. But despite being an everyday garment, they were neither mundane nor uniform. Often ornamental in their application, they are portrayed in contemporary visual culture tucked and twisted into sculpturesque forms, paired with lavish hairstyles, and draped over headbands and coifs.

There was an enormous variety of textiles used for veiling on the marketplace. In several Italian cities, these textiles were the trade of professional veil-makers (velettai), specialist craftsmen and women who conducted businesses manufacturing and trading in lightweight textiles for veils, collars, and other small-scale, intimate garments. Diversities in their material qualities gave rise to differing effects that lay at the threshold of the body and its environs. Weight and fibre-density impacted the drape, handle, and light-transmission of veils for instance, negotiating their affective resonances for wearers and observers alike.

Figure 1: Pauwels Franck, Venetian woman with fashionable accessories (oil painting), ca. 1595. Location unknown.

Ranging from soft to crisp, matte to shiny, circulating veil textiles serviced women’s changing needs and aspirations in societies that cultivated a discernment for the sensations and sensibilities they extended to the body.

In sixteenth-century Italian fashion, delicate and translucent veils were highly prized. As references in cultural and visual sources reveal, gossamer veil cloths evoked an aesthetic connecting delicacy, lustre, and transparency with the allure of youthful, feminine beauty. Their affective impact stirred the emotions, precipitating attraction and enchantment.

Figure 2: Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Laura Battiferri (oil painting), c. 1560. Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

The costume book of Venetian artist Cesare Vecellio (Degli habiti antichi et moderni, Venice: 1590) provides an unparalleled source. In one example, Vecellio recalls the outfit he once saw worn by “the famous Gussona”, the daughter of the naval commander Agostino Barbarigo. Gussona ‘shone in a most sumptuous gown’ atop which lay a white veil ‘of thin transparent gold silk, bordered all around with gold lace’. Worn outdoors, this sheer and luminous veil, interwoven with gold thread, gleamed in the sunlight. Linking Gussona’s glistening appearance with her internal character, Vecellio remarked that her radiance was augmented only further by her “indescribable modesty and other rare qualities.”


In the Italian Renaissance aesthetic, the qualities of light were highly prized. Historian Timothy McCall has studied this in relation to men’s fashion, noting that gemstones, gilt textiles, and polished armour helped princely bodies to emanate political charisma and authority. Honorific titles like ‘illustrisimus’ and ‘spettabilis’, moreover, used light-enhancing vocabulary to convey how subjects’ visual attention was to be captured and directed towards their lord.


Figure 3: ‘Gentlewomen in Venetian Outposts and Territories’ [The famous Gussona], (woodcut). Cesare Vecellio, Degli habiti antichi et moderni di diversi parte del mondo (Venice: Damian Zenaro, 1590).
The language of splendour was just as important for women. But unlike the glint of armour, the lustre of a translucent veil arose from a distinctly delicate surface. Comparatively flimsy in weight, the ‘thin’ veils Cesare Vecellio repeatedly identified captured a fragile beauty closely associated with the feminine aesthetic.

Vecellio’s discussion of the gleaming Gussona recalls the words of the cleric Tommaso Garzoni in his accolades on silk and its myriad uses:

“The noblewomen, above all, are they not a thousand times more graceful and lovely with their clothes of silk studded with gold and precious stones? Do not their beautiful faces glisten twice as much under white silk?”

Feminine beauty is measured by radiance in this passage. The light-reflective qualities of silk garments, gemstones and, significantly, white silk veils enchant the bystander, whose dazzled senses are attracted to the woman beneath. The light-refracting properties of glistening veils, the collective work of expert spinners and weavers, drew admirers by luring the eye and moving the senses, provoking a deeply affective and transitory, bodily state.

Figure 4: ‘Noble Girls of Bologna going from home to church’ (woodcut). Cesare Vecellio, Degli habiti antichi et moderni.

Light and lustre was also understood to arouse love. In Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528), the scholar Pietro Bembo elaborates on this idea, saying:

… the kind of beauty I now have in mind, is that seen in the human body and especially the face and which prompts the ardent desire we call love; and we shall argue that this beauty is an influx of the divine goodness which, like the light of the sun, is shed over all created things but especially displays itself in all its beauty when it discovers and informs a countenance which is well proportioned and composed of a certain  joyous harmony of various colours enhanced by light and shadow and by symmetry and clear definition. This goodness adorns and illumines with wonderful splendour and grace the object in which it shines, like a sunbeam striking a lovely vase of polished gold set with precious gems. And thus it attracts to itself the gaze of others, and entering through their eyes it impresses itself upon the human soul, which it stirs and delights with its charm, inflaming it with passion and desire.

In Bembo’s interpretation, the divine goodness emanating from a beautiful face had its own inherent shine “like the light of the sun”. This luminosity attracted a bystander’s gaze and enflamed their love. The face’s natural pallor and countenance were, Bembo believed, “enhanced by light and shadow”. When Tommaso Garzoni imagined the amplified radiance of noblewomen’s faces underneath their translucent silk veils, he must have envisioned the beguiling display of shifting light and shadow that sheer, translucent textiles performed around the face.

Since this play of light elicited enchantment, one’s veil needed to be suitably reflective. The Florentine silk guide, the Arte della Seta, had made provisions for lustrous veils since the mid fifteenth century. One of the guild’s specialities, a veil textile called velodiacciato, was defined as having ‘great lustre given to it with a hot iron’. In 1593, a so-called ‘secret’ method for returning the shine to old and dull silk veils was patented in Venice by the entrepreneur, Castellano di Solimei. Beating the veil with a paste made from gum arabic, stretching it, and leaving it to dry, this technique, and Solimei’s desire to protect it, confirms the value of shine in Italian society.

A particularly expressive example of the translucent veils so popular around Italy is illuminated in a jewel-like costume album produced around 1580 for a member of the German banking family, the Fuggers of Augsburg. In this illustration, the glimmer of the Venetian gentlewoman’s veil is carefully portrayed with a thin wash of white gouache. The reflective surface of its lightly crimped silk is defined with crisp, bright lines, augmenting the woman’s pearlescent skin beneath.

Veils draped over the face like this not only dazzled through their translucency, but also accentuated a pale complexion, decisive in European standards of beauty at this time. The period’s appetite for ever-finer silk textiles fed into notions about what constituted the feminine aesthetic. The dazzling properties of diaphanous, translucent silk veils amplified the much-desired luminosity of their wearers, aroused the senses of admiring onlookers, and invigorated women’s place in society.



by Katherine Bond, University of Basel

Dr Katherine Bond is Postgraduate Research Assistant at the University of Basel, working on the interdisciplinary research project ‘Materialized Identities: Objects, Affects, Effects in Early Modern Culture, 1450-1750’. She is an historian of visual and material culture and her latest publications include ‘Mapping Culture in the Habsburg Empire: Fashioning a Costume Book in the Court of Charles V’, Renaissance Quarterly 71:2, 2018, pp.530-579.


Continue reading “Luminous Veils: Affect & Enchantment in Sixteenth-Century Italian Fashion”

Stepping into the Sickchamber: Objects and Illness in Early Modern England

My first plane journey was a trip to Crete with my family at the age of eleven. I remember this holiday well because I ended up spending most of it sick in bed! Strangely, I don’t recall much about the illness itself: instead, my memories centre on the things in the room. The curtains were beige, with dark brown circles hooped together confusedly. A clock with thick numerals ticked obtrusively. On the table, a spoonful of gloopy jam, laced with crushed up antibiotics, balanced over a mug, and an activity book lay open, its pictures blindingly bright. Through the open window drifted the sharp scent of chlorine. All these perceptions contributed to that indescribable, yucky feeling of illness.


Figure 1: Holiday snap of the author as a child, recuperating from croup in the shade. Photograph supplied by the author.

Many years later, this memory was awakened when I read a passage from a seventeenth-century sermon by the Oxfordshire clergyman Robert Harris (c.1581–1658). He observed that during illness, ‘those senses & parts’ which bring the healthy man comfort, ‘occasion the sick man trouble’: ‘the sight of his cupps, glasses [and] boxes makes him sicke, the smell of his meates[,] [makes him feel] sicke, the taste of his drinkes[,] sicke, the least noyse offends him, the…ayre pierces him,…his bed tyres him, his chaire troubles him’. Harris concluded, ‘poore man, hee is not well, and therefore nothing is well about him; he is sicke, and so all the world is made of sicknesse to him’.

This vignette draws attention to an intriguing, and yet rarely acknowledged feature of sickness in early modern England, its tendency to radically alter the patient’s perceptions of the things around them. Serious illness transformed what normally would have been objects of satisfaction and comfort – soft mattresses, shiny drinking vessels, and resonant clocks – into sources of distress. This was because disease was found to ‘assault’ the patient’s sensory powers, the link between bodies and objects in early modern thinking.


Figure 2: Jan Steen, oil painting of ‘The Doctor’s Visit’ (c.1661-2), Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0.


I discussed this phenomenon at the University of Manchester’s Affective Artefacts seminar series. The talk sought to transport the audience imaginatively into the early modern sickchamber, a space that has not received much explicit historical analysis, by investigating the patient’s sensory and emotional perceptions of five key objects: a medicine bottle, mattress, clock, bedcurtain, and sheets. The ultimate aim was to reveal the mutual benefits that can be gleaned from bringing into dialogue the twin fields of medical and material history: for the latter, the research sheds fresh light on the meaning of disease in this period – it was conceived as a dis-possession, a taking away of one’s capacity to appreciate one’s possessions. For material culture studies, the study offers a potential solution to the challenge of the silence of many historical records on ‘everyday objects’. Confined to the sickchamber for a stretch of time, the attention of the sick inevitably came to rest on the things around them, eliciting comments which would have rarely been voiced in health.


Figure 3: Hannah Newton examining a posset cup, which is held by the craft and design curator, Jennifer McKellar, at Manchester Art Gallery, accession number: 1923.327. Photo supplied by Prof. Sasha Handley.

The next day, Sasha Handley and Stefan Hanß kindly arranged for me to go behind the scenes at Manchester Art Gallery, where I was able to view some early modern objects in real life.

The first item was an ornate bedcurtain from c.1680-1730, a canopy which would have hung around all sides of the bed, and was supposed to protect the sleeper from cold drafts. Although beautifully decorated with colourful foliage, it’s unlikely that the sick would have been able to derive much pleasure from such sights, owing to the darkness of the bedstead. A rare insight into life inside this curtained space is provided in the meditations of the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91): during a violent fever, he observed the ‘Dim light of the Candle’ through a small gap in the curtains. Suddenly, this light ‘considerably increas’d’, which made him suspect that ‘twas…a Thief’ in the room. Sticking out his head between the curtains, he found, to his relief, that it emanated instead from a fault in the tallow candle, which had caused it to blaze in an ‘irregular way’. The curtains had acted as an ocular obstacle, making Boyle feel vulnerable and alarmed; the fever may have been partly responsible for his delusion, with the heat affecting his imagination and vision.


Figure 4: Detail from a bed curtain, 1680-1730, at Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery, accession number: 1986.488. Photograph supplied by Prof. Sasha Handley.

The other object which most struck me was a blue and white tin-glazed drug jar from 1679, a vessel designed to store medicinal potions; the winged angel symbolises God’s healing power, which he imbues into herbs. Patients’ sensory reactions to such vessels are occasionally recorded in contemporary medical texts. The Durham physician William Bullein (c.1515–76) commented that many patients have such ‘fearful eies’, that ‘it no lesse gr[i]eveth the[m] to behold or see the vessel, in which the pocion is kept…, than to [actually] drinke the same…bitter medecine’. Bitterness was thought to be a sign of the drug’s efficacy, which promoted the evacuation of ‘bad humours’, the cause of disease in contemporary theory. Owing to the perceived sympathy between the sensory organs, the eye felt sorry for the tongue, knowing that it would soon have to taste the ‘loathsome potion’, perceptions which in turn occasioned emotional suffering.


Figure 5: Drug jar, 1679, made from glazed tin, Manchester Art Gallery, accession number: 1947.727. Photograph supplied by author.

By examining real artefacts alongside patients’ accounts of sickness, I have come to a clearer understanding of an essential tenet in material culture studies: the idea that objects are ‘not just passive social constructs but rather active and dynamic forces’, which powerfully shape our emotional and bodily experiences of the world around us, or in this case, the sickroom. My thanks to Sasha and Stefan for giving me this opportunity!


Dr Hannah Newton is a social and cultural historian of early modern England, specialising in the histories of medicine, emotions, and childhood. She is the author of two books, The Sick Child in Early Modern England (OUP, 2012), winner of the European Association for the History of Medicine and Book Prize, and Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (OUP, 2018), recipient of the University of Reading’s Early Career Output of the Year Prize. Hannah is currently a Wellcome Trust University Award Holder at Reading and Co-Director of the Centre for Health Humanities, where she is undertaking a project entitled, Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England.


The Emotional World of the Marriage Certificate in Eighteenth-Century Scotland



In 1830, the Perthshire Couriertold of a farmer who discovered on returning from the local market that he had been relieved of his wallet. The reporter noted that he had lost almost four pounds in money, but that it was the loss of his marriage lines ‘which he seemed to lament more than that of the money, having kept them carefully for twenty years’. The history of ‘marriage lines’, or wedding certificates in modern parlance, is entangled with emotion. Often sitting in wallets, pockets and chests for decades, it is at moments of juncture – whether the marriage ceremony, its dissolution, or during crises like theft and bigamy – that they appear in the historical record. As the Perthshire farmer’s lament suggests, for many people marriage lines were emotional objects – things that were embedded within networks of affective exchange and thus came to capture or signify that emotional relationship for the owner. Their destruction could symbolically – if not in law – mark its dissolution, a rejection of the emotions associated with married life.


The growth in the new history of emotions increasingly recognises the importance of objects to our emotional lives, not least love. Technologies of love – from the pen to the gift to the marriage ritual – become not just how we make love but part of its makeup. This has led scholars to return to the practices and technologies of love as components of human emotional experiences. Objects as sites of memory and emotion that tie people to their ancestors or to a gift-giver, a loved one dead or distant, has been significant in histories of the family. Material practices, such as making Valentine’s Day cards or tending to the body of a beloved, are increasingly recognised as things used to ‘represent’, ‘embody’, or ‘negotiate’ love, or as ‘things people do emotions with’. I would take this further to argue that emotional objects and the practices in which they are embedded ‘materialise’ love, shaping what romantic love is.


The marriage certificate, or ‘lines’ is a good example of this. Marriage lines generally referred to a document that acknowledged a pre-existing marriage, typically written shortly after an exchange of vows (that ‘made’ the marriage). They survive today as part of the legal record, following criminal prosecutions for bigamy and celebrating ‘irregular’ marriages, or arising from a range of civil suits designed to affirm or contest the validity of a marriage or the legitimacy of its offspring. I locate marriage lines as part of the production of romantic love because within eighteenth-century Scotland, love is the central emotion associated with courtship and marriage. Whilst couples may in practice experience many other emotions as part of their relationship – pain, anger, annoyance, joy, friendship, jealousy – love was the framework that gave their romantic relationship meaning and context. Marriage lines became the documentary evidence of marital love and so part of how it was produced.


Surviving marriage lines are typically small scraps of paper (perhaps 10cm x 5cm). Those that accompany irregular marriage (those that do not follow the form dictated by the Church of Scotland) are usually on roughly cut cheap paper. Figure 1 displays a printed proforma from 1820 that includes both a section to mark the calling of banns and a place for the minister to sign after the ceremony was complete. It includes no section for the couple to sign.

Marriage lines of Andrew McNaught and Catherine Cameron, 1820, Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland AD13/23/59 John Fairburn and William Leitch, celebrating clandestine marriage, 1823.

Handwritten marriage lines could be inscribed by a variety of people. If the husband was literate, he may have written them. In many cases, another member of the community who witnessed the ceremony acted as a scribe. The significance of legal process can also be seen in the practice of couples copying the text from other married couple’s paperwork.


The size and physicality of the marriage lines, small scraps of ephemera, belie their cultural importance, something suggested instead by the ways the document builds relationships – most immediately between the couple, their minister, and witnesses, but extending out to incorporate family, friends, church and state – through the inscriptions that appear upon it. As well as evidencing that couples were located within their communities of friends and family, marriage lines also highlight their history of participation in the judicial process. This can include notes by the lawyers or clerk that record what case or couple the certificate relates to.


As objects that supported character and security, marriage lines were often treated as significant and treasured objects. Both men and women could often produce them after decades of marriage. The ability to provide marriage lines for lodging keepers suggests that they were often carried around. Laurence Allkan testified in 1747 that, after he had collected the neighbour Widow Beatts and the local constable as witnesses, he found Jean Gabriel in bed with ‘a man’. When confronted, ‘the said Man taking hold of his Cloaths that were lying upon a Chair before the Bed pulled out [of] one of his pockets Marriage lines betwixt the Defender & him which the Deponent & the Constable both of them read’. Other people kept them more securely. In 1805, Ann Junor described how her husband ‘by force broke upon a Chest in which [she] was in use of keeping any little Articles peculiarly her own’, and took her marriage lines. Such a concern for their safety was not unwarranted. Many women informed the court of the destruction of their lines by marriage partners, attempting to hide, deny or dissolve their relationships.

Marriage lines of Alexander Davidson and Ann Nelson, 1734, Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland JC25/125 David Strang, celebrating clandestine marriage, 1736.

As marriage lines became a key item that could be used by the community to display the validity and so legitimacy of their union and its offspring, they came to carry the emotional ‘freight’ of marriage. This can be seen in the willingness of individuals to destroy or hand over marriage lines to the church or legal authorities when told their marriages were invalid. Such judgements of validity by lay people do not always appear technically correct, but the close association between the paperwork and legitimate marriage allowed for it to become the material embodiment of legal marriage – without marriage, the paperwork lost its value. Destroying marriage lines in this context was not only an effort to remove proof of a match or the claims of one spouse upon another, but evidenced the breakdown of the couple’s emotional relationship. Marriage lines became the materialisation of marriage – and its associated emotions – in documentary form.




Further reading

Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller, ‘Crafting Love: Letters and Cassette Tapes in Transnational Filipino Family Communication’, South East Asia, 19.2 (2011), pp. 249-72;

Alev P. Kuruoğlu and Güliz Ger, ‘An Emotional Economy of Mundane Objects’, Consumption Markets & Culture, 18.3 (2014), pp. 209-38.


About the author

Katie Barclay is Deputy-Director of the ARC Centre for the History of Emotions and Associate Professor in History, University of Adelaide. You can read more about the emotions of marriage certificates in her article ‘Doing the Paperwork: the Emotional World of Wedding Certificates’, Cultural and Social History.




Affective Artefacts podcast: Kat Hill

Our Affective Artefacts Seminar Series, organised by Dr Stefan Hanß and Prof Sasha Handley on behalf of the Embodied Emotions research group, started on 6 February!

Find here the first podcast:

Dr Kat Hill (Birkbeck), “Heirlooms and Hair Wreaths: Mennonite Materialities, Emotions and Communities of Dispersion in Europe and Beyond”

Affective Artefacts Seminar Series

New radically interdisciplinary Manchester seminar series on Affective Artefacts, discussing the agentive and affective qualities of matter, thus, the capacity of materials and things to generate, maintain, and challenge emotional atmospheres! This semester, Kat Hill (Birkbeck), Hannah Newton (Reading), Tim Ingold (Aberdeen), Oliver Harris (Leicester), and Katherine Bond (Basel) will present their most recent research (see programme). The seminar is organised by the Embodied Emotions research group.

Charting the relationship between material cultures and cultures of emotions, this seminar series engages in a recent debate on how non-human matter engendered affectivity in the past. Bringing together researchers of different disciplinary backgrounds such as anthropologists, archaeologists, art historians, curators, historians and sociologists, the seminar provides a cross-disciplinary platform to exchange views on methods and technologies, to discuss case studies, and to develop and test a shared vocabulary of material culture studies.

If you wish to know more about this seminar series, please contact either Stefan Hanß ( or Sasha Handley (

We would be more than delighted to see a huge number of participants engaging in these events!

(online link to the programme)


Consuming renaissance skin: perfumed hands and gloves in Protestant Germany

Dr Stefan Hanss writes about the meanings of scent on early modern hands and gloves, along with his experiments into recreating early modern perfumes.

Exploring the material and olfactory world of Renaissance skin, this post is an appetiser for an article that I have been working on for a while now. In the 16th and 17th centuries, head and facial hair, as well as skin, were intrinsically linked with scented matter. Faces and hands were treated with medicinal and cosmetic remedies; and perfumed accessories and textiles such as gloves, jewellery (including buttons) and the like became highly popular, shaping what Evelyn Welch has termed the ‘olfactory imprints’ of early modern individuals. … [Read more]

Ageing, Home and Wellbeing

‘Ageing, Home and Wellbeing’ is a short film produced as a result of a project led by Embodied Emotions group member Professor Julie-Marie Strange, in partnership with Oldham Colleseum.

Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World

All societies face challenges. We are preoccupied today by supporting an ageing population, by managing environmental change, and by supporting flows of refugees in search of safe harbour in different parts of the globe. How we respond to these challenges, as individuals and as societies, uncover the values and ambitions that define us as human beings. Chief among these ambitions is a powerful desire for security, good health and wellbeing, three things that were just as important in the early modern world as they are today. In the period c.1400-1800, the biggest challenge faced by ordinary men, women and children, by Church leaders, and by policy-makers, was the imminent threat of destruction posed by the Devil. Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World, a new exhibition at Manchester’s John Rylands Library, showcases the vast array of threats posed by diabolical power and the varied strategies that were used to combat them. The exhibition reveals the mixture of fear, wonder and curiosity sparked by reports of witchcraft, demonic possession and other diabolical activities, which reached a peak in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The show, which runs from 21 January to 21 August 2016, has been co-curated by AHRC Early Career Fellow Dr Jennifer Spinks and by British Academy Mid-Career Fellow Dr Sasha Handley, both from the University of Manchester. Research Associate Dr Stephen Gordon joined them on the project, thanks to AHRC support.


In a new and exciting departure from existing scholarship, the curators have placed a colourful collection of texts, images and objects from European traditions in direct conversation with non-European materials that stretch from the Islamic world to Japan. Taken together, they show how beliefs in a vibrant world of divine and diabolical spirits shaped the imaginations, emotional experiences, and physical environments of men, women and children from all layers of society and in a global perspective. These materials reveal a web of shared anxieties about the Devil’s threat and the extent of his power, and they also highlight a similar set of tactics to combat it. Something that united these disparate cultures and societies was the widespread use of prayers, prophylactic rituals and talismanic objects to defend human bodies and souls from attack. This kind of protection was especially important at night, when diabolical spirits were judged to be most active and when humans were acutely vulnerable to attack, as they lay unconscious in their beds. Wearing a piece of coral, or a wolf’s tooth around the neck, was a popular method of preservation during sleep. Two iron bracelets on display in the exhibition, one for a child and one for an adult, served a very similar purpose. They were likely worn to prevent sudden death and to ward off diabolical spirits from approaching the wearer as he or she slept. Iron was widely believed to deter witches, demons and evil fairies and these seemingly ordinary objects were invested with life-preserving powers. This aspect of the exhibition touches on Sasha Handley’s current research project, Sleep in Early Modern England, funded by the British Academy, which examines sleeping practices within early modern households. One of the project’s major conclusions is the sense of vulnerability that people experienced as sleep approached. Their attempts to rest safely by devising a rich variety of ritual and devotional practices, and by the careful management of their sleeping environments, were framed by deeply-held Christian beliefs, which offered solace from an array of natural and supernatural threats.


The vulnerability of children, and of the household more generally, was a belief shared by Europeans and by many people in eighteenth-century Japan. One of the most striking objects in the exhibition is a colourful Japanese woodcut of Shōki, a demon-battling god who originated in China, which was probably hung on the walls of a Japanese household to protect its occupants, and especially its male children, from diabolical forces. Shōki’s dynamic image was especially prominent on the annual Boys’ Day, or ‘Duanwu’, Festival, which takes place on 5 May. Other items in the exhibition show how people tried to harness magical power for beneficial purposes. John Dee, the suspected magician and former warden of Christ’s College, Manchester (now Chetham’s Library) heavily annotated his copy of Conrad Gesner’s Book of Little Known Remedies (1555), which offered recipes to heal physical injuries and to protect people from venomous beasts. The Christian Syriac manuscript The Protection of People from All Kinds of Evil (c.1700s) on display reveals a shared preoccupation with physical health and wellbeing. Securing the bodies, minds and souls of individual citizens, and of society as a whole, was uppermost in the minds of those who prosecuted thousands of people (usually women) for the crime of witchcraft in these years. This theme features strongly in the 1480s inquisitorial book the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), which is on display and which helped churchmen to identify and prosecute suspected witches.


Early moderns responded to supernatural threats in ways that may seem strange and distant from the modern world, yet at their foundation they uncover a set of human values that persist across time and space: most notably, a desire for security, good health and wellbeing, which the British Academy has recently identified as conventional measures of prosperity.  Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern Worldopens a window onto a cultural world that is distinctly different from our own, and yet very familiar in its core values and ambitions.


This innovative project will reach wide audiences through the exhibition itself as well as a publication, available in print and online. In February 2016, workshops with local school groups will use the exhibition to foster conversations about cross-cultural beliefs. This will be followed in May 2016 by the international symposium ‘Supernatural Spaces in the Early Modern World’, which will interrogate and expand upon a number of themes in the exhibition. The project is the first major venture of the newly established research cluster on the history of embodied emotions established by the curators at the University of Manchester. For further information and an online copy of the exhibition booklet, see:


Author: Sasha Handley, University of Manchester