Image Magic: Drawing the History of Sorcery, Ritual, and Witchcraft

Diseases of the eye caused by witchcraft from Georg Bartisch’s Ophthalmodouleia (1583), on display at the Spellbound exhibition. This grisly spectacle inspired one of the illustrations in my witchcraft comic. © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

In October last year I was sent an email accompanied by a zip folder full of images; these included a witch and her familiars, a woman suffering from convulsions, an ailing infant, a man vomiting pins, and a couple of pigs.

This was just one of many similar messages sent to me by members of the Inner Lives team as I worked on three comics – one for each of the project’s core time periods and themes, and all generously funded by the University of East Anglia’s Impact Fund – that would accompany its exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. I learnt a huge amount in the process of crafting these stories – about the process of identifying and punishing witches, about the shifting attitudes towards the practice of magic, and about the strange and wonderful objects and marks placed inside old buildings to ritually protect them from harm.

Discussing ideas for the comics with the project team at the British Library in October 2017. Photo: James Brown.

The style of each comic was based on historical manuscripts or artefacts. The Magician’s Lament, on which I worked with Sophie Page, was inspired by illuminated medieval manuscripts, and made use of images from several of the magical books on display at the exhibition. A Most Certain, Strange, and True Guide to Witchcraft, on which I worked with Malcolm Gaskill, was influenced by broadsides, books, and pamphlet trial reports (mostly from the 1600s) detailing witches and their ‘divellish arts’. I especially love the woodcuts from this period, several of which are also included in the show; I used a dip pen to replicate the variable line of the original illustrations, although I would love to make a comic using woodcuts and letterpress one day. The Keepers of the House, on which I worked with Owen Davies and Ceri Houlbrook, was inspired by the colours and composition of patchwork picture quilts (including the James Williams quilt, housed in St Fagans National History Museum).

The finished comics were given to delegates at Living in a Magical World: Inner Lives, 1300–1900 (the project’s conference) in September, and – along with lots of other spooky merchandise tying in with the Spellbound exhibition – are now on sale in the Ashmolean gift shop. In addition, last month I spent a morning at the museum running a workshop for people who wanted to make their own comics inspired by the show. After a warm-up activity in which participants created some new and wonderful familiars, they visited the galleries and started work on their own historical cartoons inspired by the magical artefacts on display.

Participants developed their own magic-inspired cartoons at my workshop on historical comic-making at the Ashmolean in September 2018. Photo: Author.

It was a pleasure to develop these comics with the Inner Lives team, and I hope that these short visual narratives give their readers a taste of this fascinating area of research and inspire them to find out more about medieval magic, early modern witchcraft, and modern ritual concealment.

For more of Hannah’s portfolio, visit her website. If you can’t make it to Oxford for the exhibition, copies of each comic can also be purchased online from her Etsy store for the bargain price of £1.50!

2 responses to “Image Magic: Drawing the History of Sorcery, Ritual, and Witchcraft

  1. Lovely to see the sketches and finished result. I’m doing a course in illustration at the moment so you have given me some wonderful ideas! I hope I will be able to catch the exhibition in real life, but it’s difficult when living abroad.


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