Supernatural Spaces in the Early Modern World

From 19-20 May 2016 an array of international scholars met for a symposium on ‘Supernatural Spaces in the Early Modern World’ at the John Rylands Library, Manchester. For a full copy of the programme and abstracts, click here: Supernatural Spaces Programme. The event was organised by Dr Jenny Spinks and Dr Sasha Handley, with funding from the AHRC, the John Rylands Research Institute, and the History department and faculty of the Humanities at the University of Manchester. It was the first major international event organised by the new research group Embodied Emotions, in History at Manchester.

The aim was to explore how physical and perceptual environments and spaces shaped the emotional, intellectual, social, and cultural dynamics of supernatural encounters. Papers at the workshop ranged across a variety of topics, from the origins of the witches’ Sabbath in remote locales; supernatural events in domestic environments; dreamscapes as spaces where supernatural events could unfold; and the importance of medical discourse in shaping experiences of the supernatural.

The session began with an introduction from Jenny and Sasha, explaining the rationale of the symposium and its connection to their current exhibition at the Rylands, ‘Magic Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World’ (January-August 2016). The exhibition places supernatural beliefs in the context of wider historical trends, from encounters with non-European worlds, to religious upheavals and social change, expanding our understanding of the early modern supernatural world. Delegates were then invited to visit the exhibition, which was met with great enthusiasm. Professor Ulinka Rublack continued the discussion on historians’ opportunities for public engagement around the theme of the supernatural. She is currently working with partners to produce an opera based on her recent book The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for his Mother (OUP: 2015) that explores the complex emotional relationship between Johannes Kepler and his mother, Katharina, during her trial for witchcraft. The opera aims to recreate Katharina Kepler’s voice and get closer to her own experience.

Many other key themes emerged from the workshop. The theme of temporality, and particularly the significance of night-time in supernatural encounters, emerged in the papers of a number of speakers, linked to the perceptual spaces of nightmares and dreams. Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar explored the connections between disturbed sleep, witchcraft, and the Devil in a paper that analysed accounts of night-time visitations by familiars to witches in their beds. These nightmare narratives were considered as physical reflections of internal struggles with the Devil and, crucially, illustrated the fear often felt by witches. Dr Pau Castell Granados argued in his paper that nocturnal visitations and nightmares were also key features of witchcraft encounters in northern Iberia in the late medieval and early modern period. The suffocating attacks of the nightmare, the nocturnal travels of the Fairy Society, and apparent sudden infant death at night were characteristic of reports offered by a wide range of witnesses and suspects during witchcraft trials in the region. Professor Ronald Hutton explored the origin of some of these beliefs, specifically those concerning the Lady of the Night, arguing that there was no clear pagan progenitor for the figure of the superhuman lady. Instead, Professor Hutton argued that the Lady of the Night was a composite creation of medieval popular culture. Dr Sasha Handley also explored nocturnal supernatural encounters in her paper that analysed the haunting of the Wesley family by the ghost known as ‘Old Jeffrey’. The paper focused particularly on the material significance of the bed and its textiles in structuring emotional responses to supernatural encounters. The bed was understood both as a place of safety and danger, which promised restoration and comfort, yet that also played host to cosmic battles over body and soul. The bed was considered as a gateway between the natural and supernatural worlds, which underlined the importance of its material construction and everyday uses in shaping expressions of diabolical encounters. Not all nocturnal experiences of the supernatural were perceived negatively, however. Professor Phyllis Mack illustrated in her paper, through a consideration of the relationship between the Reverend David Simpson and Hester Ann Roe, that divine dreams could be used as justification for female religious activity within eighteenth-century Methodist culture, with the dreams of women such as Hester buttressing the religious experience of men and personal female authority.

Authority, trustworthiness, and bodily evidence were also important themes explored in many of the papers. Dr Laura Sangha probed the connection between ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces of supernatural belief, highlighting that neither was specific to certain types of media. Dr Sangha also highlighted how oral testimony and evidence was filtered and refined in correspondence relating to the supernatural, thus complicating the idea that these perceived ‘private’ arenas offer more accurate guides to belief. Thomas Wroblewski’s paper explored the use of medical evidence in early modern witch trials, arguing that competing medical discourses were debated in the courtroom. The courtroom thus became a performative space in which physicians could assert their authority. The importance of medical discourse in shaping supernatural beliefs was also broached by Dr Louise Wilson whose paper revealed how medieval medical perceptions of the physical and imagined spaces of the human body and soul, and their relationship with the terrestrial environment, influenced the dynamics of supernatural encounters. The body was also a central theme in Dr Jan Machielsen’s paper, which explored Pierre de Lancre’s attempts at confirming witchcraft through a visual assessment of the accused’s body. In this way, witches’ bodies became relics of the Sabbath, communicating more immediate evidence than words and confessions.

The notion of frenetic and uncontrollable movement was an important theme explored in both Professor Charles Zika’s and Dr Thibaut Maus de Rolley’s papers. Professor Zika highlighted the growing prominence of dancing in visual representations of the witches’ Sabbath from the 1590s, with dances figuring as social performances driven by bodily frenzy, sexual desire, and resolution needed for war. Dancing, in essence, was witchcraft in action. Dr Maus de Rolley also examined associations between diabolism and uncontrollable movement in the work of Pierre de Lancre. Lancre’s name itself was expressed in terms of movement, meaning literally ‘Stone of the Anchor’. Lancre’s self-representation as a figure of constancy and stability contrasted with that of the sea-faring Basque people. Their life lived on the sea, and the mobility of their bodies, reflected the fickleness of the Basque soul and its vulnerability to the Devil, helping to explain the witch hunts that took place in the region.

A final theme to emerge from the workshop was the importance of community and shared experiences of supernatural encounters. Dr Stephen Gordon, in his paper analysing early modern vampire beliefs, argued that shared emotional experiences, or what he dubbed ‘emotional contagion’, were the catalyst for the spread of vampire beliefs. It was communal emotional distress, caused by a shared traumatic event such as suicide, which led early modern Europeans to exhume and dismember the bodies of presumed vampires. Professor Malcolm Gaskill, who delivered the final paper of the workshop, highlighted how community discord could often lead to accusations of witchcraft in the wild lands of early America. The tension between collective charity and grasping individualism, combined with a belief in the supernatural and the uncomfortable spaces of the American landscape, was a volatile mix that expressed itself in witchcraft accusations.

To conclude, thanks to the vast chronological, topical, and geographic scope of the papers, this workshop highlighted the centrality of space, emotionality, temporality, and the body in early modern supernatural encounters across both time and location.

 

Rachel Winchcombe

PhD candidate in early modern history at the University of Manchester

 

For a different accounts of some of the papers delivered at the session please also visit Dr Jan Machielsen’s excellent ‘storified’ account of the workshop at: https://storify.com/JanMachielsen84/supernatural-spaces-in-the-early-modern-world, and Dr Ceri Houlbrouk’s review for the Inner Lives project blog at: https://innerlivesblog.com/2016/05/25/witches-revenants-demonic-hedgehods-review-of-supernatural-spaces-workshop/

 

 

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