Saturday 25 July 2015

The "Magic and Supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods" Conference: My Reflections

I’ve just returned from a week in the Welsh capital of Cardiff, where on Tuesday 21st July I attended a one-day academic conference on the subject of “Magic and the Supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods”. Held at Cardiff University, the event was organised by the postgraduate researchers Mark Truesdale, Martha Baldon, Alison Harthill, and Darren Freebury-Jones, who together span the fields of history and literature studies. This sold out event was a wonderful opportunity for scholars and other interested persons from all over the UK – and indeed beyond – to get together and hear about some of the latest research in these interconnected fields. Given the large number of papers being presented at the conference, dual sessions were held, meaning that I was only able to see just under half of all the speakers. Unfortunately that means that here I will not be able to make reference to every paper presented, but hope that there might be other attendees who could also publish their reflections of the event, thus providing a more rounded picture of it for those who, although interested, could not be in attendance.

The conference was held at Cardiff's Sir Martin Evans Building.
Image by Seth Wales, from Wikipedia.
The conference kicked off with a keynote talk from Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol, an eminent historian and specialist in the Early Modern period who has also published seminal work on the history of modern Pagan Witchcraft (and for those of you who haven’t seen it, Professor Hutton kindly gave an interview for Albion Calling last year). Titled “The Western Magical Tradition”, Hutton took us back to the place of magic and witchcraft in the ancient Near Eastern societies of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Hittites, before discussing the distinction between magic and religion held to in the Greco-Roman world and the ways in which these historic approaches and sources impacted on European views of magic into the Early Modern period. This is partly based on research for a forthcoming book which I look forward to tremendously.

Next up was “Panel I: Folk and Learned Magic”, chaired by Tom George, which opened with my paper on “The Anglo-Saxon Cunning Woman: New Perspectives from History and Archaeology”, which was based in large part on my earlier master’s thesis. I was concerned that the presentation of the paper might have come across as a little rushed (after all, it is difficult to fit all that information into a twenty-minute slot!) but it certainly seemed to pique the interest of various attendees and many people told me that they had found it to be both enjoyable and interesting, which was a relief. I was followed by Dr. Debbie Lea of INTO Manchester with her paper on “Sieves, Shears and a Swallow” in which she discussed the activities of several cunning folk in Early Modern Lancashire (and surprisingly enough, neither Dr Lee nor any of those who asked her questions mentioned Lancashire's famous Pendle Witches).  Rounding off this section was Cardiff’s own Alison Harthill with “To Obtain a Horse: Necromancy and Fantasy” in which she looked at the place of fantasy in Early Modern grimoires, bringing up the interesting and innovative comparison between the ways in which such books of magic may have been read and the ways in which comic books are often read today.

Baldung's Hexen, a woodcut of 1508.
Chaired by Mark Truesdale, “Panel IV: Philosophy and Spirituality” kicked off with Jonathan Jancsary of the University of Innsbruck on “Dreams and Imagination as First Insights into the Spiritual Spheres”, an examination of the role of dreams in the ideas of Medieval Arab philosopher-come-Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi. Jancsary was then followed by Clare Fitzpatrick of Birkbeck, University of London who examined the ideas regarding an immortal soul that were expounded in the writings of Early Modern philosopher and Christian apologist Henry More in her paper on “Apparitions of the Dead, Visions, Monstrous Births and Other “Extraordinary and Miraculous” Phenomena”. Panel VI, “Body and Medicine”, was chaired by Michael Fulton and opened with Cat Stiles of the University of Bristol on “Popular Magic: The Anglo-Saxon Charms and the Line Between Magic, Medicine and Religion”. Moving from the Early Medieval and into the Early Modern, we then had Nailya Shamgunova of the University of Cambridge providing a paper on “An Unnatural Sin? The Concept of Nature in Anglophone Discourse in South East Asia in the 17th Century”, the focus of which was on John Bulwer and the way in which he (erroneously) interpreted penis rings as a means of preventing sodomy among the indigenous peoples of Thailand. Although not fitting so neatly into the “Magic and the Supernatural” theme of the conference as other papers, it was still a fascinating talk and one of my favourite contributions to the day.

Panel VIII was chaired by Isabelle Valade and titled “Witches and Place”. It opened with Warwick University’s Paula McBride on “Magic and Witchcraft in the Early Modern Midlands” and involved a discussion of her exciting first-hand research into the Early Modern witch trials of that English region. From there we moved our attention to Spain with Birkbeck’s Sander Berg on “Witches and Watermelons: Attitudes to Magic in Spanish Golden Age Literature”, in which he focused on the appearance of sorcery in the work of María de Zayas. The day was then rounded off with a fascinating plenary paper by Dr Darren Oldridge of the University of Worcester on the place of fairies – among them imps, hobgoblins, and Robin Goodfellow – in the Early Modern imagination.

A big part of the importance of this event was that it brought together historians, archaeologists (or at least this archaeologist), scholars of literature, and scholars of philosophy, all of whom were united by their thematic fascination for magic and the supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Covering not only the witch trials of the Early Modern, which have long been one of the only respectable ways for historians of this period to study magical beliefs, it also included contributions on the practices of folk magic, folkloric beliefs in supernatural entities, alchemy, and learned esoteric and philosophical beliefs regarding supernatural phenomena. It was thus a great space to learn about each other’s research, although because the question-and-answer sessions were quite brief there wasn’t the opportunity to engage in in-depth group discussions, as for instance I experienced at last year’s “New Antiquities” conference at the Free University of Berlin. It was nevertheless an incredibly interesting and well organised event, and I met a lot of interesting people who I hope to see again at similar events in future. Events such as these are a very important space for the advancement of scholarship, both in terms of exchanging ideas and mentally recognising that those of us who study such "eccentric" fields are not alone. For that, the organisers and contributors have my thanks and my congratulations at putting on such a great event.