Magic, witches and devils in the early modern world

by Dr Sasha Handley

26 Jan 2016

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 World opens a window onto a cultural world that is distinctly different from our own, and yet very familiar in its core values and ambitions.

Sasha Handley is senior lecturer in History at The University of Manchester. She exhibited her research on the history of sleep in Early Modern England at our 2018 Summer Showcase.

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