Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World exhibition at the John Rylands Library (21st January 2016 – 22 August 2016)

Magic Poster

The John Rylands Library is rich in printed and manuscript materials that reflect early modern cultural, intellectual and social preoccupations with magic, the supernatural, and the extraordinary properties of the physical world. This exhibition  vividly illuminates how early modern people understood, reported, depicted and debated phenomena and themes including natural magic, astrology, witches, demons and the possessed, prophetic states, dreams, and mechanical illusions.

The exhibition presents a fresh and accessible reassessment of how debates about and elements of magic and the supernatural played out in early modern print (and to some extent in manuscript and material) culture. The exhibition is based around the concept of the ‘expanding’ world because it aims to demonstrate how new ideas and experiences in Europe from c.1480-1800 prompted intensive debates about magical, diabolical and supernatural events, and about how to deal with them as individuals and societies. New religious concerns, scientific developments, legal changes, and encounters with new lands and peoples led to new ways of reporting, representing and debating magic and related phenomena.

Rather than charting the traditional shift to a more ‘rational’ world (though it takes account of sceptical views of the supernatural), the exhibition  predominantly explores how beliefs in the power of magic, witchcraft and associated phenomena persisted and adapted to changes in the early modern world, even while sometimes taking on new forms. The exhibition is intended to be visually exciting and to make connections across themes that are fundamentally early modern but nonetheless recognisable and relevant to modern audiences.

Follow this link for a plain text version of the exhibition catalogue. For more detailed information about some of the items on display, and ideas underpinning the project, please refer to the following online essays:

Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World, Arts & Humanities Research Council blog

Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World, British Academy blog


Ferdowsi, Shahnamah, Persian MSS 9, 910 and 932 (1542): Magic, Witches and Devils in the Persian ‘Book of Kings’, Manchester Medieval Society blog

Ulrich von Lilienfeld, Concordantiae caritatis, Latin MS 69 (c.1460-80):  Cleansing the Home of Evil Spirits: Sweeping Magic in the Concordantiae Caritatis (Latin MS 69), John Rylands Special Collections blog.

Pseudo-Roger Bacon, Tractatus de Nigromatia, Chetham’s Mun.A.4. 98 (c.1500s): ‘Conjuring spirits in the Tractatus de Nigromatia, Chetham’s Library blog


Print publications relating to the exhibition material:

Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World: Exhibition Catalogue, ed. by Jennifer Spinks, Sasha Handley and Stephen Gordon (Manchester: John Rylands Library, 2016). ISBN: 9780863730931

Stephen Gordon, ‘Necromancy and the Magical Reputation of Michael Scot: John Rylands Library, Latin MS 105’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 92 (2016), 73–103DOI: 10.7227.BJRL.92.1.4

Jennifer Spinks, Sasha Handley and Stephen Gordon, ‘Curating Magic at the John Rylands Library: the 2016 exhibition “Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World”’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 92 (2016), 105–114. DOI: 10.7227.BJRL.92.1.


Media Appearances:

Radio 2 Arts Show with Jonathan Ross (26 May 2016)

Hyperallergic online magazine (March 22 2016)

That’s Manchester TV (February 10 2016)

Manchester Evening News (January 25 2016)