Conference Report: Living in a Magical World: Inner Lives, 1300–1900

Montage of illustrations from the Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae sistematisatae per celeberrimos Artis hujus Magistros. Anno 1057. Noli me tangere (c.1775). Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0). For more on the background and history of this extraordinary grimoire see this article.

Historians have learned to appreciate the supernatural as integral to past lives. No longer are magical beliefs and practices anachronistically condescended to as ‘superstitions’, entertained only by a credulous minority and ancillary to daily existence. Instead, the near-constant presence of unseen yet powerful forces – benevolent as well as malign, across domestic, communal, and cosmic environments, to be both propitiated and harnessed – now seems central to a subtle and pervasive worldview held by sane, intelligent people whose outlook on the universe was no less sophisticated than our own. At the same time, occult theories and activities were unstable, inconsistent, and contested. Taking these insights as a starting point, and drawing in particular on recent methodological and interpretative impulses within the history of the emotions, our three-day conference explored the everyday ramifications of living in a magical world, with special reference to its complex relationship to the interior lives of our forebears, from the late medieval to the modern period.

Across two broad strands – one focussing on witchcraft, the other on different types of magic – fifty-two scholars from multiple disciplines and all career stages explored interactions between the supernatural, the emotions, and selfhood, in contexts ranging from early medieval Iceland to early modern Bermuda to twentieth-century Cameroon, and using sources varying from late medieval astrological diagrams to early modern witch trial testimonies to extant standing stones (see the full booklet of abstracts [pdf]). While aware of the limitations of their sources – visual, textual, and material – as entry points to the inner worlds of historical people, especially to their actually endured/enjoyed feeling states, speakers generally evinced optimism about the possibilities of their raw materials for genuine affective reconstruction beyond mere representation. As such, they tended to complement the forensic intellectual histories of particular emotional concepts and vocabularies traditional within the history of the emotions with full-blooded, empathetic, and in many cases emotionally charged accounts of supernatural mentalities and experiences.

Many contributions foregrounded the inner lives of magical practitioners and witches, both accused and self-defined. Magicians, in the late Middle Ages in particular (when ecclesiastical authorities became increasingly anxious about magical practices), were seen as psychologically conflicted between the need for religious humility and obedience on the one hand, and their striving for occult power on the other. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, magical objects and texts interacted uneasily with sermons and confessional handbooks, and the concept of superstitio (or superstition) emerged as a ‘discourse of order, authority, and constraint’ (Fabrizio Conti); however, it was also a time of growing confidence, self-awareness, and intentionality on the part of many practitioners, such as purveyors of medieval Kabbalah. Other speakers read the heartrending confessions of accused witches – including a seventeenth-century Moorish slave, an eighteenth-century Tuscan prostitute, and a Pietist prophetess from nineteenth-century Germany – for their understandings of and languages for their paranormal identities, including the cultivation and inhabitation of sophisticated fantasy worlds, albeit recognising that such documents were complex, gendered, and highly mediated triangulations between witches, interrogating magistrates, and scribes in which power was unequally distributed. Accusers of witches in nineteenth-century France themselves used such allegations to frame new identities, and to ‘explore new models of mind, body, and feeling’ (Will Pooley).

Speakers also considered the special ability of magic and witchcraft to induce particular emotional states. Several explained how, in the widespread context of love magic, magical words and deeds could be used to bend hearts as well as minds; potions, charms, and spells could both bind objects of desire to admirers and mitigate the agonising ‘erotic melancholies’ of love-sickness (Al Cummins), while astrology, scrying, geomancy, and other forms of prognostication were also applied to amorous affairs, from the identification of potential marriage prospects to the determination of the depth and authenticity of romantic feeling. However, even here (where, in seventeenth-century Russia, ‘the emotion most closely associated with marriage was dread’ [Valerie Kivelson]), adverse passions were never far below the surface, and other speakers explored the negative ‘emotional engines’ (Johannes Dillinger) that drove witchcraft accusations in particular. These ranged from characterisations of the accused in Germany, Scandinavia, and the Baltic states as profit-oriented and therefore avaricious – leading to counter-accusations that their accusers were themselves envious – to the profound and graphic states of anger, terror, and grief engendered by malefic acts, from the disruption of fertility in fifteenth-century Denmark to the wreaking of large-scale environmental havoc in nineteenth-century Ireland.

The conference also navigated the fantastical netherworld of dreamscapes and visions. We learned that nightmares, night terrors, and related nocturnal episodes were a recurring element of witch trial narratives in both early modern Sweden and Spain, while in medieval Sweden and Iceland dreams reported in Old Norse were understood not to originate within the psyche of the sleeper but to instead be external communications from otherworldly mound-dwellers and wraiths. Other speakers interrogated the visionary experiences of medieval monks, and the psychopathology of fairy and ghost encounters in early modern Scotland, the latter related subtly and sympathetically to modern therapeutic literature on sleepwalking, fantasy-proneness, hallucinations, and imaginary friends. To anchor these imaginative flights of untethered minds, other papers reintroduced corporeality and the body, both by exploring how medieval people experienced diabolical presences through their senses (and, in turn, the role of seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing, and tasting within judicial proofs), and in particular by examining vivid reports of supernaturally invaded bodies – entranced, writhing, speaking in tongues, and vomiting pins and other household objects – created in the context of demonic possession and clerical rites of exorcism.

Finally, the role of non-human agents in giving shape and meaning to the supernatural encounter was also acknowledged. We learned how diagrams within Latin astrological treatises became instruments for forging identity and facilitating spiritual change, and of the powerful talismanic potential of a wide variety of artefacts, from gems in renaissance lapidaries to cauls in the nineteenth-century to the ubiquitous love locks of the present day (a conference field trip to the project’s Spellbound exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology further underscored the enduring magical significance of material and visual culture). Other speakers charted enchanted landscapes, such as the ‘shared imaginarium’ of a ‘world below’ in the early modern witchcraft confessions of the Moray Firth in Scotland (Diane Purkiss), or the Year Walk tradition in modern Sweden, a sinister perambulation involving prophesying visions and a phantom pig called Gloson. Indeed, the burgeoning sub-field of animal studies was represented by several other papers. Medieval veterinary care, especially for horses, was revealed to be as reliant upon astrology and miracle as surgery and pharmacology, while other speakers explored the complex inter-species relationships between witches, their accusers, and their mammalian and reptilian familiar spirits, testing the limits of empathy by asking if it’s ever possible to access the inner lives of historical beasts.

Living in a Magical World: Inner Lives, 1300–1900 (#InnerLives18) was held at St Anne’s College, Oxford, on 17–19 September 2018, with generous financial support from the School of History at UEA, the University of Hertfordshire, The Leverhulme Trust, the Society for Renaissance Studies, University College London, and Palgrave Macmillan. A shorter version of this report will appear in the SRS Bulletin; an edited collection featuring selected papers is also in development.

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