Histories from Within

Detail from Melancholy by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1532). Wikimedia Commons.

In the Western world today, witches, necromancers, demonologists, and magicians are the stuff of legends and stories, but they once seemed very real and inspired powerful emotions: anxiety and terror, envy and anger, pain and grief. The supernatural was essential to a subtle, sophisticated, and pervasive worldview, and was experienced on a daily basis by sane, intelligent people whose outlook on the universe was no less coherent than our own.

Understanding how our ancestors felt about these potent yet unseen environmental forces, and how these feelings changed between 1300 and 1900, is the main purpose of this three-year research project (2015–2018). It brings together historians of the medieval, early modern, and modern periods to examine evidence of human engagement with diverse supernatural realms (through prayer and contemplation, ritual and conjuration, astrology and divination) in the contexts of cosmos, community, and household, with a view to reconstructing the emotions that connected past selves with the supernatural and, in turn and ultimately, inner lives.


Our work is organised around three interlinked hypotheses, each of which is reflected in the project’s subtitle:

  • The first is that personal identity and subjectivity can be meaningfully historicized. Self-consciousness is universal, yet its expression was culturally constructed and therefore variable. The period 1300–1900 saw shifting boundaries between rich and poor, literate and illiterate, sceptical and credulous, from which new possibilities emerged for contemporaries to make and understand the self.
  • The second is that the study of emotions offers privileged access to personal identities and inner lives in past. Constructions of selfhood essentially comprise subjective feelings and responses to the challenges and opportunities of being alive in certain places at certain times; in other words, emotions, enmeshed with cognition, define consciousness and create identity. Recent research has shown how emotions can be studied, first, through public and private expression (e.g. letters, diaries, speeches, sermons); secondly, through the material culture of magical actions that are linked emotionally to the immediate environment; and thirdly, through the ideological reduction of emotions as social ideals and transgressions.
  • The third is that individuals leave some of the most valuable traces of their inner selves through their emotional interactions with the supernatural, via prayer, spell, or experiment. Involvement with occult forces engaged emotion as well as intellect. Thus, people formed impressions of themselves, often conflicted ones, in relation to their personal, social, and cosmic environments. The supernatural was dangerous terrain involving forms of spiritual communication that were usually at odds with orthodox worship.

Methodology & Objectives

In order to test these hypotheses, the project combines three diverse yet thematically linked studies, spanning six hundred years and focussing respectively on the scales of cosmos (1300–1500), community (1500–1700), and household (1700–1900). It thereby transcends the traditional yet artificial interpretative barriers erected between ‘medieval’, ‘early modern’, and ‘modern’ history, and between different geographical scales. The project is ranging widely across historical sub-disciplines (histories of society, religion, ideas, mentalities, emotions) to build a holistic sense of what inner lives in the past might have meant to those who lived them. The project is also drawing on other disciplines (especially anthropology, archaeology, and psychology), and is interconnecting a diverse array of manuscript, printed, and object-based sources, some of which, especially material culture, have been under-explored in studies of the medieval and post-medieval supernatural.

Through these methods, we hope to recover an authentic sense of inner lives (the qualities of lived experience, the perceptual contingency of ‘reality’, and pre-modern people’s self-knowledge, self-image, and ways of seeing others), and will probe the limits of the historian’s ability to say meaningful things about inner lives in the past, a world we have lost. We will examine continuities and discontinuities over time – challenging in particular simplistic, deterministic views of a transition from a sacralized to a secular universe – and will also illustrate how understandings of emotions changed, tracing in particular a shift in practical definitions (e.g. in encyclopaedias and dictionaries) from a range of sensory perceptions of stimuli towards a set of more abstract feelings contained within the body. Finally, in response to the theoretical abstraction of much work in the history of emotions, we aim to ground emotional engagement with the supernatural in solid historical contexts of event and action.


The project has been made possible by the generosity of The Leverhulme Trust, through the award of a Research Project Grant of £249,524 (RPG-2015-180).