Monday 3 February 2014

An Interview with Dr. Francis Young

This month here at Albion Calling I am interviewing Dr. Francis Young, a teacher by profession who is also a historian of early modern England, having just published his important monograph, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553–1829 (Ashgate, 2013), for which he was awarded his PhD from the University of Cambridge. A specialist in Roman Catholicism, popular religion, and beliefs surrounding the preternatural during the period, Dr. Young talks to me about his career and research, as well as the state of scholarship on this fascinating subject.

[EDW] In January of this year you received your PhD in History from Cambridge University, having previously received a BA in Philosophy at Cambridge and an MA in Classics from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Can you tell us a bit about your varied academic trajectory and the path that you took to get to where you are today?

[FY] I have certainly not come to the PhD by the traditional route; after I graduated from Cambridge in 2002, I went to teach Religious Studies at a school in Warwickshire, and after a year I returned to Cambridge to train as a teacher. Since 2004 I have been teaching in Ely, just north of Cambridge, where I am involved in running a Sixth Form of around 200 students and helping them apply to university. Most teachers are much too busy to pursue further degrees, but I had always harboured a desire to take my academic interests further. I published my first peer-reviewed article on eighteenth-century English Catholicism in 2004, but the first years of teaching are very intense and it was only after a few years that I could contemplate part-time study. I chose to pursue the Classics degree first, because I wanted to improve the fluency of my reading of Latin, which is absolutely essential to the study of early modern history, especially my specialism (Catholicism). However, I ended up writing a dissertation on early Roman religion (the cult of Hercules).

As for the PhD, the initial stimulus came from reading the work of Owen Davies, especially his magnificent Popular Magic (2003). I realised that a very fruitful direction in which Davies’ work could be extended was through a detailed examination of the role of popular religion in the English Catholic community, and I felt that I was ideally placed to do this. Over the years I had built up a familiarity with the nature and sources of Catholic history, and that, combined with my ability to read Latin and my interest in popular religion, gave me the tools I needed to start work on English Catholics and the Supernatural. I had already begun the book when I discovered that Cambridge University offers a PhD by publication for its own graduates (as several other universities do), so I constructed the book with this in mind and submitted it for examination. The examination process is the same as for any other PhD, and in November 2013 I was called to defend my thesis in person. One of my examiners was Prof. Peter Marshall, author of Mother Leakey and the Bishop and Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, who like me started with the study of Catholicism and then branched out into popular religion. The second examiner was none other than Prof. Davies himself. Fortunately, my work met with their approval (unlike a conventional thesis, a book cannot be revised, and is either passed or failed!).

[EDW] What is it about academia that interests you, and what made you decide to follow an academic vocation? In particular, what is it that sparked your interest in early modern Catholicism, popular religion, and magical beliefs; something in childhood, perhaps?

[FY] I think that anyone who didn’t have an interest in magic in childhood must have had a very sad one, but the dominant theme of my childhood was an obsession with the past. The past to me was magical, and from an early age I had an active interest in folklore and collected books of folktales. At the age of sixteen I was inspired with a passion for early modern English history by my then History teacher. He introduced me to the work of Eamon Duffy and revisionist Catholic historiography (a movement that argues for the vitality of pre-Reformation Catholicism, and rejects the idea that the Reformation was somehow ‘needed’). One of the key themes of the revisionist historiography of the Reformation, and where it crosses over with the history of magic and popular religion, is that revisionists often reject the ‘Protestant’ distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘superstition’. A good example of this crossover would be Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry England (1994).

In spite of my love of History I decided to read Philosophy at university, and I became caught up in the materialistic analytic philosophy taught at Cambridge. What changed all this was a remarkable individual, Jonael Schickler (1976-2002), who taught me Kantian and Hegelian philosophy and was also a close friend. Jonael was an independent thinker of extraordinary brilliance who was working on Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy. Jonael challenged my preconceptions, and showed me that an intelligent person can be interested in esoteric traditions. His tragic early death, before he could complete his PhD, had a profound effect on me. Although I was conscious that he and I thought in very different ways, I felt the need to continue the spirit of his programme of research. One of the major themes of our discussions over the years had been the theology of angels; my research in this area led me to early modern demonology and explains why the theme of exorcism is central to English Catholics and the Supernatural.

[EDW] Last year, Ashgate brought out your first major monograph, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553–1829, in which you examined the largely neglected area of popular religion and the preternatural among Catholics in early modern England. In that book you look at a variety of different aspects, among them beliefs in the Devil, witchcraft, demonic possession, and ghosts, and the way in which English Catholics dealt with those issues through exorcism. Given that it is this work which led to you being awarded your PhD, I’d be interested to learn how you got started on this project, and to hear a little more about it?

[FY] I wrote an article on Catholic exorcisms in 2009 and was astonished to find that, with the exception of Prof. Alexandra Walsham at Cambridge, no-one had done any recent work on early modern Catholic exorcisms – in spite of the fact that Catholic priests were in demand as exorcists even amongst non-Catholics. Furthermore, it seemed that no-one was taking forward Owen Davies’ insight that there was a connection between demand for exorcism and belief in witchcraft. The aim of the book was always to explain this connection, but in order to do so it became necessary for me to set Catholic attitudes to exorcism and witchcraft within the wider context of Catholic responses to the supernatural (or preternatural, to use the correct but more obscure term). Matters are complicated by the fact that the English Protestant stereotype of Catholics portrayed them as credulous and gullible, so I decided to rely as far as possible on sources produced by Catholics themselves. The major challenge of the project was finding these sources; Catholics were a tiny minority and the literature they produced was tiny in comparison with the torrent of anti-Catholic material. Fortunately, I found a treatise on witchcraft by an eighteenth-century monk (I edited it in entirety for the book’s appendix) which filled an important gap; our knowledge of whether Catholics (usually associated with conservatism) carried on believing in witchcraft later than others. It seems that some did, but my overall conclusion is that Catholics in England were no more ‘superstitious’ than anyone else, contrary to the old stereotypes.

[EDW] Much of your research has been rooted in your home region, East Anglia. Eastern England is of course an area with very old, rich associations with folk magic and witchcraft, from Matthew Hopkins to Andrew Chumbley, but I’d certainly be interested to hear what you personally find so fascinating about the region, and what makes you devote so much work to it?

[FY] I am an East Anglian by birth and, with the exception of one year working in Warwickshire, I have lived and studied in the region for my whole life. The counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire (Essex is not technically East Anglia) are understated in landscape and history, and they are not popularly associated with mythology and magic like other parts of the country (Wales, Cornwall, Wiltshire and Cheshire, for example). However, as you point out, England’s only major witch-hunt took place in East Anglia, and there is a rich folklore of witchcraft and magic. I recently published a short book which focuses on witchcraft in and around my current home town of Ely, from the middle ages to the present day. Certain well-established elements of the lore of witchcraft, such as witches’ imps and ‘toadmen’, are peculiarly East Anglian. For me, as an early modernist, the fascination of East Anglia lies in its religious diversity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; it was quite normal for a village to have a Catholic squire, a Protestant conformist vicar and a predominantly Puritan population who despised the church. The dynamics that these religious divisions gave rise to make for fascinating history.

[EDW] Do you make much use of archaeological evidence in your work, and what do you see as the importance for the interplay of archaeological and historical approaches in the study of the early modern period?

[FY] Revisionist historiography of the Reformation rejects the automatic primacy of written sources traditional to Reformation history, and the classic use of material evidence in the field is Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, which puts rood screens in Norfolk churches on a par with official documents. In many cases, material evidence is all we have for the changes that were happening on a local, popular level in rural areas. However, if I am honest, the use of archaeological evidence by early modern historians is still slim. However, it is clear that there is a great deal of work to be done on material evidence for witchcraft belief post-1736, and Owen Davies is leading the field. I have recently been making use of archaeological evidence for the first time in my own work, since I was involved in the discovery of possible traces of a scheme of decoration commissioned by Sir Thomas Tresham in a building where he was held prisoner here in Ely.

[EDW] You employ social media, including your account and blog (, as a means of getting your scholarship across to a wider audience. What are your views on the utility of such mediums for scholarly outreach?

[FY] My blog is as much a way of keeping track of my scholarly activities for my own memory as it is for anyone else, since I would not presume that it is read by more than a tiny number of people! However, it comes in useful at talks and conferences to have a link that people can go to if they want to download a copy of the talk or supporting materials. I feel that it is important for academics to share information, and I am always happy to do so with other scholars, although I understand that there are legitimate concerns about the protection of intellectual property. I have always considered that the best protection against theft of intellectual property is to be an early modern historian; after all, I don’t make any money out of my research, so I am not sure how anyone else would! I think it is immensely important for historians to engage with local communities and act as educators in the broadest sense, although that is probably most relevant to scholars who, like me, have a local bias. I have found communicating the history of buildings in Ely or the history of local witchcraft very fulfilling, and I believe that historians have a duty to improve the quality of historical knowledge available to non-specialists whilst not disparaging or patronising ‘popular history’. Misconceptions and prejudice need to be challenged, and historians are often best placed to do that, but local history done by local amateurs remains very special and can sometimes elicit what the ‘professional’ historian cannot.

[EDW] You are presenting a paper titled “Esoteric Recusancy in the Elizabethan Age: The Occult Architecture of Sir Thomas Tresham” at the forthcoming Cambridge University conference, Visions of Enchantment: Occultism, Spirituality and Visual Culture (17-18 March 2014). Could you tell us a little bit about this piece of research?

[FY] In the paper you mention I will argue that English Catholics were more engaged with esoteric traditions than has previously been accepted. Thomas Tresham is the classic example; his symbolic architecture at Rushton and Lyveden has long been recognised as containing encoded symbolism, but up to now it has been accorded a purely religious interpretation. Scholars have not really noticed the Cabalistic and Hermetic influences on his work. In fact, Catholics were just as interested in the esoteric as anyone else in Elizabethan England, even though the ‘language of the esoteric’ they used was sometimes different. This paper is part of my much broader project (my academic life’s work, perhaps) to shift the focus away from the religious beliefs of early modern Catholics and onto their cultural and intellectual life as a minority group in English society.

[EDW] Do you have any future projects on the horizon that we should keep our eyes peeled for? Any more publications coming out in the next year or so?

[FY] I expect the Catholic Record Society to bring out a monograph of mine on Catholicism in Suffolk before the end of 2014. I am currently engaged in more work on the history of exorcism and a study of the role of magic in cases of treason from the middle ages to the late seventeenth century, so I hope that these might see the light of day at some point in the future.

[EDW] Although it’s a fascinating subject, I am far from being an expert on witchcraft and folk magic in early modern Britain; what is the current state of scholarship in this field, and where do you think it is headed? Where, for instance, do you see the state of scholarship being in ten, or twenty years’ time?

[FY] The history of early modern witchcraft and magic has been an exciting place to be for a long time. It is a cliché (yet largely true) to say that every book that has been published in this area is an expanded footnote to Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). Some of those footnotes, however, have challenged the tendency of the history of early modern popular religion to turn into ‘witchcraft studies.’ I do not think it is healthy for ‘witchcraft studies’ to exist as a separate discipline, because a presumption of the priority of witchcraft has a tendency to distort the interpretation of other evidence. That is why Davies’ work on cunning-folk and grimoires is such an important corrective. I have the feeling that the historical community is moving towards a more ‘integrated’ approach to the study of all those things that, at one time or another, the powers-that-be condemned as ‘superstition,’ whether it be fairies, cunning-folk, witches, ghosts or unauthorised exorcisms. These phenomena need to be studied in their religious, cultural and historical context and I should like to see an end to the ghettoization of early modern historians, anthropologists, folklorists, experts in ‘witchcraft studies’ and historians of esotericism. As the study of esotericism becomes more mainstream I can see that happening eventually, maybe in ten or twenty years’ time.

To conclude, and because this is a blog where you interview many scholars whose primary interest is contemporary Paganism, I want to draw some parallels between studying contemporary Paganism and early modern English Catholicism. The similarities may not be immediately obvious, but as someone with an interest in both fields I notice them all the time. Early modern English Catholics heavily deployed a rhetoric of ‘the old religion,’ even though, more often than not, there was a strong element of revivalism and reconstructionism in their practices; some post-Reformation Catholic practices, such as priestly exorcism, never really existed in late mediaeval England. In the same way, Pagans make a claim in favour of ‘elder tradition,’ and disputes about the legitimacy of revival, reconstruction and lineage have bedevilled Paganism since the 1950s. Catholics made a claim for the positive cultural benefits of their faith and hankered after a time ‘when England was merry,’ just as contemporary Pagans associate their spirituality with festivity and the celebration of life. Just like contemporary Pagans, post-Reformation Catholics created an ‘alternative history’ of the landscape and made new sacred sites to replace those that had been lost. And just like contemporary Pagans, Catholics were much misunderstood by those around them and suffered as the victims of negative stereotyping, based on ignorance.

[EDW] Thank you for talking to us today, Dr Young, and I wish you well with your future projects.

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