May 23, 2022

The Supernatural and Suffering in Research: Reflections on the conference

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In this blog post Imogen and Francesca reflect on the conference, which was held online on Saturday 14th May.

After more than a year of planning, when the morning of Saturday 14th May rolled round, suffice to say we were eager and perhaps a little more than apprehensive for The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World to finally get under way. And then, before we knew it, it was 6:30pm and suddenly time to close the conference. To us, the day went very quickly but this is a testament, we think, to the quality of all the papers given and to stimulating rounds of discussion that followed. We are very grateful to our speakers, chairs and audience for their contributions to what we hope they will agree was a resounding success of a day. Having had some time to digest it all, below are some of our reflections on what came out of the conference. To refresh yourself on the breadth of papers, view the programme here.


Overview of the day

Panel one, entitled [Dis]embodied Suffering, started off the day not only by probing the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural but also challenging the category of embodiment itself. The papers further explored wide themes such as pre-modern hamartiology and the transcendence, reformulation and repurposing of suffering across time, as well as the inherent volatility of trying to interpret seemingly-supernatural occurrences.

The papers of panel two, on Suffering Souls, tackled issues of gender, sexuality, and interpersonal relationships, including those that endure after death. What followed were fascinating conversations around agency and ‘responsibility’, as well as authorial (in)tensions and the use of fictional narratives in our work - especially with reference to how contemporary anxieties or concerns can, or ought to, be ‘read’ through their respective texts.

Panel three, themed around Suffering Spaces, negotiated the permeable boundaries and liminal spaces in which suffering can be located. We heard about real and imagined spaces, and real and imagined suffering, and as our own keynote speaker summed up in the discussion, ‘being scared’ and ‘scaring’. Human intimacy with these spaces was a central concern in all three papers, as was the ways in which the meanings these locations held could be altered or intensified by the operation of the supernatural within them.

The day finished with a keynote paper from Professor Diane Purkiss. Her talk discussed the distinct form of suffering that comes from ‘not being heard’, which for her talk was epitomised in the early modern Scottish witch trials. Insightful and poignant, her keynote spoke to our core motivation for holding the conference in the first place - our task as academics to relate, to exchange and champion the stories of people, of cultures and even in some cases, non-human beings, who have been misinterpreted, misrepresented or rendered invisible and inaudible by those who have come before us.

Emerging themes

What was well established by the end of the day was that the meanings of supernatural suffering were multifaceted and yet indeed often defied meaning. As a result, the incessant duality of suffering’s purpose and nature was a common motif. Over the course of twelve papers, we heard about how suffering could be necessary/unnecessary, voluntary/involuntary, personal/collective, pleasurable/painful, fleeting/enduring, and foreseen/unforeseen. We heard how supernatural suffering might be understood variously as a judgement for sin, a warning to others, a test, or a means to achieve one’s desires. It may be imposed by others, or brought upon oneself, and it may also function as a means of creating a community of sufferers, and provide a bridge between cultures separated by time and space. In this way, suffering didn’t have to always be understood as a wholly negative experience.

Having a precedent for suffering was another common thread - whether appealing to mythological, biblical, historical or imagined pasts, recourse to paradigms of suffering were imperative in the construction and understanding of both suffering and the supernatural in one’s own time. Sites of Suffering was a conference focused on the pre-modern world but the adage that the past has power to shape the contemporary world was proven by several papers who demonstrated how the oddities of the past could be utilised, given new meaning and currency, or even weaponised by people today.

As discussion often circled back to the notion of sites and boundaries, gender subsequently became an additional overarching theme. We considered how norms of sexuality and gender determined our historical subjects’ ability to react to what befell them, how they were perceived as a result of stepping outside of these bounds, and how the supernatural served often either legitimise or discredit these courses of action.

Figure 2

Concerns around how we operate as scholars also became prominent. Several of our speakers noted the concerted efforts they had made to avoid anachronism, while other speakers’ methodological approaches sought to interrogate the process of ‘reading against the grain’, or ‘between the lines’ of texts in order to glean new meanings.

Thank you once again to our wonderful speakers and our keynote speaker Diane Purkiss. We are grateful to our chairs and everyone who attended. Last, but by no means least, we would like to thank the HRC, who supported us throughout the organisation of this conference and helped us to bring our idea to life.

April 26, 2022

'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World': Reflections on the conference

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In this post, Cheng Heand Camilo Uribe Bottalook back at and reflect on their conference 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World', which took place in mid February.

Olaus Magnus, Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarum

Figure 1 Olaus Magnus, Carta marina et descriptio septentrionalium terrarum (Marine map and description of the Northern lands), 1539, source:

The first panel centres around the way of approaching materials, and involves various kinds of materials including artefacts, plants and animals. The first paper by Erika de Vivo unfolded the cultural construction of Sámi people during the contacts between Sápmi (ancestral homeland of Sámi in Northern Fennoscandinavia) and Italy between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second paper by Jaya Yadav traced the plantation of Darjeeling tea in British colonial trade and its re(creation) of identity till today. The third paper by Charlotte M. Hoes looked at animal trade particularly through an animal trading company in Germany in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The three papers cover quite different subject, geography and time period. What amazed us is that they focused on a single type of material and their mobility. This means not only to be object-focused but also to follow their life from the start of the interaction between them and human beings, to their movement (materials might be moved physically and represented in different contexts via different media) and how their meanings changed during their life paths.

Apart from the mobility that all three papers emphasise, there was another important question particularly discussed in the Q&A session: how to determine the line between ‘live’ and ‘still’ materials, or, is it worth classifying materials this way? This is especially representative in the case put forward by Erika, that human remains are apart of materials that contributed to the shaping of the images of Sámi people. This also applies to tea and animals, especially when they became artifacts or products. The agency of materials is always an interesting aspect to consider when it comes to interpreting their meanings. In short, the first panel set a good start for the following discussion and sharing of ideas.

Anna Atkins,

Figure 2 Anna Atkins, 'Cystoseira granulata',1844-45, in Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

In the afternoon, we started with Panel 2, which took a further step from panel 1, with three papers looking at plants only. The first paper by Anna Lawrence explored the cut-flower trade in the nineteenth-century Britain, focusing on the life of flowers before and after becoming commodities. The second paper by Annabel Dover looked at the first photographic book that contains 411 contact prints of algae collected by the botanist and photographer Anna Atkins (1799-1871) on the Kent coast and was published in 1843. The last paper by Maura C. Flannery looked at the Sicilian botanist Paolo Boccone (1633-1704), who developed techniques for making nature prints from the specimens.

All three papers touched upon the question of the relation between the plant itself and its visual representations. This is connected with one of the aspect that the conference concerns: are the material and its visual representations always discrete? These papers provided excellent examples showing that the line between the two could be blurred. Another point that the papers shared common ground with each other was the blurred boundary between the identity of the plant as a living thing in nature or as an artefact that involves human intervention. And similar to the papers in panel 1, this is related to the mobility of plants, in the sense that different stages of a plant’s life provide flexible space for assigning meanings.

The conference continued with the Panel 3, the last one, with three papers looking at animals and its different representations and interactions with humans, both in a living and in a “still-life” state. The first paper by Amanda Coate followed the life and death of an elephant in Britain and Ireland in the Seventeenth century, focusing on the animal-human relations and interactions. The second paper by V.E. Mandrij looked at the artistic production of artist Otto Marseus van Schriek and more specifically in the technique of butterfly imprints and the collecting, trading and scientific activities related to this. The last paper by Catherine Sidwell looked at the representation of birds in the British domestic interior design during the Victorian era and the different uses of their feathers, forms and colours.

Otto Marseus van Scrieck. Forest still-life with butterflies

Figure 3. Otto Marseus van Scrieck. Forest still-life with butterflies, snake, frog and dragonfly. 17th Century. Private Collection, Switzerland.,_snake,_frog_and_dragonfly.jpg

The three papers had in common that they took an animal as the starting point of their analysis: elephants, butterflies and birds. But they developed their arguments through different paths, presenting distinctive approaches to the living and still state of animals when their histories intersect with humans, whether alive, death or in a represented form. These papers provided an excellent analysis of the other-than-human and human interactions in what Amanda Coate called a “shared space” between species. This panel also versed about the agency of animals and how their presence in human everyday life evidenced interactions and connections in different contexts. In this panel, a topic that was widely discussed was the nature of an animal, living and dead, and its transitions between one state and the other, from a scientific object to an artistic one and the conditions in between. It revealed the complex nature of animals and our relations with them.

Finally, the conference ended with a keynote by Professor Helen Cowie about two anteaters in Madrid and London between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cowie’s approach to these two animals from an animal biography perspective did a great job creating synergies with some of the main ideas that were discussed by the different papers in this conference. Although the arrival of both animals to Spain a Britain took place under different circumstances and different societies, their presence in Europe represented a living ambassador for animal species little known in Europe and triggered thought-provoking debates that Professor Cowie addressed in her presentation.

Assessing the receptions of these animals in Spanish and British societies, Cowie considered their broader cultural and scientific contexts: the logistics of the animal trade, the Transatlantic network that permitted the anteaters and the knowledge about them to cross the Atlantic, the technologies of representation that permitted to reach different audiences. Finally, Cowie’s presentation enlarged the debates that were part of this conference to colonial and imperial science, knowledge and authority.

Figure 4. Rafael Mengs Workshop, His Majesty’s Anteater

Figure 4. Rafael Mengs Workshop (probably Francisco de Goya). His Majesty’s Anteater. 1776. Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales. Madrid.

April 08, 2022

The Supernatural and Suffering in Research: Reflections from our Speakers (Part Two)

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In this fifth blog post for The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World, HRC doctoral fellows Francesca Farnelland Imogen Knoxare back with more reflections from the speakers on how their research intersects with the conference themes. This should give a flavour of the variety of topics that will be explored at the conference! Please register for free here.

What drew you to the supernatural?

Cameron Cross - I first encountered research on the supernatural during my undergraduate year abroad in Heidelberg. I took a fascinating course which translates to ‘Love Potions and Pacts with the Devil: Magic in Medieval [German] literature’. While reading up for the course, it became apparent that there was a considerable gap in current research about how the supernatural can be used to oppress people and characters. I knew I had found the area I wanted to research full-time when I still had questions about that theme still swirling in my head three years later. Two degrees later, I am researching how the divine supernatural dehumanises characters in medieval French and German literature.

Meaghan Allen - I have always been fascinated by the supernatural and fantastic. As a child I collected fairy paraphernalia and loved to read ‘dark’ stories for my book reports. Now, many year later, I am pursuing my passion for the paranormal for my PhD thesis and research, a project that contemplates the complex manifestations of the supernatural and preternatural in medieval hagiography and contemporary horror, particularly (though not exclusively) Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Penny Dreadful.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

What role does suffering play in your work?

Cameron Cross - I am mainly based in Dehumanisation Studies these days, but my research intersects significantly with Disability Studies and Gender Studies. Looking at the dehumanisation of disabled and/or female characters is what most of my research entails at the moment. Often then involves looking at violence, misogyny and ableism. So, it is safe to say that suffering is a cornerstone of my research. I’ll trust readers not to over-analyse that too much.

Meaghan Allen - Suffering and pain are the main themes in my research as they are the most tangible themes that speak to one another in medieval virgin martyrs lives and contemporary horror. My main question is why? Why do we as humans love stories where bodies, especially female bodies, are put on display to then be battered and beaten alongside immense displays of psychological and emotional torment? What does this suffering do and why do we still tell these stories? These are large questions that do not necessarily have a single answer, but they are the motivating factors in my research.

My friend Elo and I have an on-again-off-again podcast called ‘Modern Medieval: The Podcast’ that can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and basically anywhere you listen to podcasts. Our twitter is @medieval_modern

I have also written an article for the Final Girls collective about rape revenge films. I am also recording an episode for the Final Girls Podcast on March 28, 2022 about teen & internet horror. I am not sure when it will release, but it is pending.

Do you have a favourite supernatural story or anecdote?

Meaghan Allen - The British Library has a fantastic book series called the Tales of the Weird that are all fantastic collections of the supernatural, paranormal, and just plain weird. But if I had to answer honestly, I would say my favourite ‘supernatural story’ is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Cameron Cross - This is a tricky one. I think my favourite research anecdote is discussing the Old French Fabliaux, a corpus of texts which are as bawdy as they are marvellous. Without going into too much detail, there are one or two stories with wishing magic in them, and it is a rare example of women using the supernatural to outsmart male protagonists and getting away with it. Another are mythical creatures in medieval bestiaries. I took a course on bestiaries, thinking animals and allegory would be an interesting topic to study. I certainly did not expect to find instructions on how to catch a unicorn.

Anon, The Brideling, Sadling, and Ryding of a rich Churle in Hampshire

Anon, The Brideling, Sadling, and Ryding of a rich Churle in Hampshire (London, 1595), EEBO

Francesca Farnell - One of my favourite supernatural tales is about one late sixteenth-century wise woman called Judith Philips who could use her mystical powers to summon the queen of fairies - except that all the supernatural elements of this story were entirely fictitious. Judith was, in fact, a con artist who swindled an old miser and his wife, but the specific method by which she did so is what makes her story so entertaining. One day after happening upon this wealthy, but very gullible, old miser, she donned the disguise of a wise woman and promised him and his wife that she could earn them fortunes by consulting with the queen of fairies on their behalf but, to help summon her, the husband first had to allow himself to be saddled like a horse and ridden up and down the garden by Judith. Then they would then have to lie grovelling on their bellies for three hours while Judith met with the fairy queen. After some hesitation, the couple duly did what Judith commanded, while she went inside and stripped the house of its contents. To top it off, she then posed as the Fairy Queen by wrapping herself in a white smock and brandishing a stick, and revealed herself to the couple once more before vanishing away - making off with the couple’s finest linen, several expensive candlesticks, five ‘angels of gold’ and a further fourteen pounds (which, according to the National Archives, would be approximately £2,000 in today’s money). It was several more hours before the couple realised they had been duped.

Imogen Knox - The supernatural story that always stays with me is one that appears as an appendix to the 1681 pamphlet A Strange and Wonderful Relation of Margaret Gurr. After describing the possession of Margaret Gurr, the author John Skinner moves onto another story, that of seventeen-year-old Henry Chouning, of Hadlaw, Kent. One day, while venturing out into his master’s grounds, he encountered ‘a spirit in the form of a greyhound’. Henry was very alarmed when the greyhound told him ‘you must go into Virginia’. This exchange so affected him that he ‘came home in a great fright’ and he grew melancholy. It’s unclear why Henry was so disturbed by these events, other than the fact that he had encountered a talking dog! Subsequently he experienced ‘strange’ temptations, including the desire to go to sea, presumably following the dog’s advice to go to America. With Dr Skinner’s assistance, he apparently completely recovered, and doesn’t seem to have met with any other talking animals afterwards.

March 23, 2022

The Supernatural and Suffering in Research: Reflections from our Speakers

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In this fourth blog post for The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World, HRC doctoral fellows Francesca Farnelland Imogen Knoxasked some of their speakers to share their own research and how their work intersects with the conference themes. This should provide a flavour of the variety of topics that will be explored at the conference!

What drew you to the supernatural?

Kristof Smeyers - "The supernatural has always been there in some way, shimmering in and out of view as it’s supposed to. I’ve always found it hard not to be drawn (in)to the inexplicable. I’ve always read ghost stories, for example, and from an early age I was exposed to local folklore, which shows a healthy preference to witchcraft, demons, extraordinary weather phenomena, and all kinds of apparitions and visions.

"It wasn’t really until I started my PhD that the supernatural pulled me in professionally, too. The archives I visited in search of religious records were always full of supernatural anecdotes, and fragments that hinted at momentous, unsettling things in people’s lives. Although my PhD wasn’t about the supernatural per se, I became interested in what people in the past labelled ‘supernatural’ and what not. It has always been a loaded term, and its meaning changes constantly over time so that by the mid-nineteenth century it is used for a wide variety of phenomena and manifestations – but, crucially, with a specific rationale and precise definition. That makes ‘the supernatural’ a useful methodological tool to study beliefs, half-beliefs, doubts, and scepticism as flexible. I’m still thinking my way through the implications of this, but my first reflections will appear in Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft any moment now.

"Before all that, quite a few years ago now, I spent some time working on John Dee’s scribbles in the margins of his books, and I had a lot of fun deciphering horoscopes and figuring out occult references. (Those marginalia can be found here, if someone wants to work with/on them!)"

Ryan Denson - "I was drawn to the topic of supernatural beliefs by a fascination with folklore and storytelling. Folklore that involves the supernatural is particularly interesting for its potential to reflect upon and engage with deep philosophical, cultural, and social issues. My PhD thesis concerns the notions of sea monsters and sea people within the Greco-Roman imagination, a topic that deals majorly with perceptions of the supernatural the marine world. With these supernatural entities of the marine world, we see projections of both one's fears of maritime dangers (sea monsters) and hopes for assistance (Nereids). As is often the case, the supernatural realm complements the natural world, expanding upon and filling in the gaps of the human experiences of reality. The supernatural, moreover, has traditionally intrigued people precisely because of its claim to reality, threatening to destabilize and confound our otherwise safe categories of 'real' and 'normal.'

"Some of my research pertaining the ancient folklore of the sea has already been published as an article entitled 'Divine Nature and the Natural Divine: The Marine Folklore of Pliny the Elder,' for a special issue of the journal Green Letters concerning the intersection of folklore and ecocriticism (Open Access: I have also written an entry on the Sirens and Harpies for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Monsters in Classical Myth, and a forthcoming article in the Journal of Late Antiquity, concerning the depiction of the emperor Justinian as the 'Lord of the Demons' in the Secret History of Procopius. I can be found on Twitter @SeaMonsterGuy."

Corinthian black-figure amphora

Corinthian black-figure amphora, dated to 575-550 B.C., showing a kētos (a type of ancient sea monster) with Perseus and Andromeda. Public Domain

How does the supernatural intersect with your work?

Cat Stiles - "My research (in its current form) came out of a panel discussion I was part of at a conference in 2019 in which my fellow panellists and I came to the question 'why are early modern men so afraid of what powerful women can do to their erections?' This, as I'm sure you'd agree, is a great question and it's one which has led me to my current project on 'lethal women', an exploration of female monsters and witches in early modern literature who seduce men with catastrophic consequences."

Hailey Bachrach - "While the supernatural isn't the primary focus of my work, I quickly realised it was going to be very important to my exploration of depictions of consent on the early modern stage. Love potions, interventions from the gods, and mysterious changes of heart all raise huge questions about what people of the period understood the limits of consent to be, and how these imaginary re-assignments of responsibility for one's choice to a magical, external force function to divert guilt and blame, not just from characters who might otherwise be seen as aggressors, but from potential victims, too. My project twitter is @shaxandconsent and the (soon to be live) project website is

What role does suffering play in your work?

Kristof Smeyers- "Studying bodies in the past almost inevitably gears toward suffering: bodies often come into focus in sources only when they are sick, hungry, ‘racked with pain, disability and disease’ (Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason, p.25). But what that pain and suffering means, both to the people going through it and the people witnessing it, can differ immensely, and those meanings change radically over time. As a postdoctoral researcher in the Religious Bodies network I don’t focus especially on suffering in Christian history. (My colleagues do!)

"But even so, the theme of pain runs throughout my work, which is interested in supernatural practices, experiences, affects, materialities. My PhD was about what the twentieth-century Jesuit scholar Herbert Thurston called ‘physical phenomena of mysticism’: the supernatural as it appeared on people’s bodies, which could then be read as material signs of sanctity (or credulity, or popery, or mental illness). More specifically, it focused on nineteenth-century cases of stigmata, wounds that took the shape of Christ’s wounds on the cross. Stigmata could cause their bearers to writhe in agony, but that pain was sometimes read as positive, even saintly. Someone’s stigmata could be something around which communities formed.

"In my talk I’m going to try to historicize the historicity of stigmatic suffering: how did people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – medical experts, journalists, clergy, the stigmatised individuals themselves – invoke the phenomenon’s ‘prehistory’ to explain to contemporaneous cases of the supernatural wounds?

"And, of course, writing up a PhD in a pandemic was sort of a Calvary in its own right."

Cat Stiles- "My work is very much about the interpellation of fear and fantasy, and of sexual desire and bodily horror as a means of exposing the juxtaposition of male heterosexual desire for beautiful women with anxieties about the disruptive erotic power of women to destabilise male autonomy. I am particularly interested in the embodiment of monstrosity of these figures, which comes in many forms, including beautiful witches who use sex and their bodies as means through which malefic witchcraft is enacted; hybrid creatures whose beautiful upper halves are merged with a monstrous lower body and unnatural genitalia; and beautiful enchantresses who seduce men only to transform their bodies into women and beasts. In these creatures, female sexuality and monstrosity are conflated as sex becomes the means through which their monstrous power is both embodied and exercised: sex is simultaneously a site of pleasure and a site of suffering. That it is in the inherent femaleness of these bodies that their monstrosity is expressed - located specifically in their genitals and sexuality - is the means through which my research aims to explore what it is that is inherent to women, their traits, their sexuality, and their bodies, that is considered frightening in early modern discourse."

Ryan Denson - "The theme of suffering is one major point of contact for human encounters with the supernatural in all cultures and time periods. Fear, anxiety, sadness, and pain are all feelings associated with suffering. In the context of my marine research, such emotions come up frequently in relation to the trepidations experienced by ancient mariners. Suffering (or the expectation of suffering) at sea seems to naturally lend itself to the imagining of supernatural and monstrous forces. Seafaring, after all, has always been a deadly and uncertain venture. It should be no surprise, then, that many cultures thrive with the folklore of sea monsters and other deadly aspects of the sea. In this manner, suffering acts as a catalyst for folkloric ideas, and furnishes the contexts in which such tales are woven."

Hailey Bachrach- "The role of suffering in my work is a question I'm still really grappling with at this early stage. How early modern writers conceptualise the suffering that results from lack of consent, who is seen as capable of true suffering and when, and whose suffering is taken seriously are all key questions both in my project overall, and for this paper."

Newes from Scotland

Newes from Scotland (1591), CC BY-SA

Do you have a favourite supernatural story or anecdote?

Kristof Smeyers- "Something I love, although as far as I could find out there is no suffering involved, is the persistent rumour of the ghost donkey in the street I grew up in in Belgium. The donkey only appears at dawn and dusk. Only children can see him and play with him. It’s quite a happy ghost donkey, no spectral Eeyore."

Hailey Bachrach- "Utterly irrelevant to my topic, but family legend has it that the house I grew up in used to be haunted... until my mom politely asked the ghost to please leave, which it did!"

Ryan Denson- "One of my favourite supernatural stories is the legend of Saint Christopher. Versions of this characteristically medieval story usually describe the conversion to Christianity of this cynocephalus (dog-headed human). In addition to being a charming story, it illustrates the remarkable degree of survival of folkloric creatures. The cynocephali in Greco-Roman antiquity were found in the pages of Herodotus and other ancient historians as one of the many variations on humanity that supposedly existed over the distant horizons. Yet, many centuries later, these folkloric creatures could still be found, having been transplanted into a radically different context to serve a different narrative. In the Christian medieval world, this classical monster, an oddity dwelling at the edges of the earth, was reoriented into the legend of Saint Christopher to serve the distinctly Christian purpose of exemplifying the power of conversion."

Cat Stiles - "I have two favourite supernatural stories (one of which you will hear about in my paper!): the story of Miracola from a 1609 prose fiction, and the story of 'the damnable Doctor Fian' and his lovesick cow in the 1591 pamphlet account of the North Berwick witch trials.

"Miracola is a beautiful witch who seduces the King of Spain and convinces him to marry her. On the night of their marriage, they consummate their relationship at the altar, desecrating the temple and turning it into a literal hellscape with foul creatures and terrifying sounds. As the king reaches the point of orgasm, his body crumbles into a formless husk, and Miracola is able to seize control of the kingdom. She then asks her demonic familiars to predict her future, and while the prophecies first seem promising, they of course turn out to be full of death and destruction. Pregnant and full of despair, she takes to her bed and gives birth to one daughter per day for seven days, each of which embodies one of the seven deadly sins. These daughters live out their lives as the physical embodiment of these sins, and all end in horrible punishments. For example, the daughter who embodies envy is jealous of a woman who is able to have a child when she herself could not, so she murders the child and feeds it to its parents in a pie, roasts the father alive in a suit of armour, and murders the mother by attaching two venomous snakes to her breasts. The daughter who represents lust is married to the King of Bohemia but takes a servant as her lover. When the king discovers them in bed together, he murders the servant and ties his wife to his rotting corpse and buries her alive with him. The stories of all seven daughters are recounted and then Miracola, who has remained in her childbed for years, is dragged to Hell by demons and the rightful monarchy is restored in Spain.

"Doctor Fian is one of the witches accused at the North Berwick trials of 1590 which involved James VI himself. While the pamphlet of course goes into great detail about the evil deeds of all the witches and the hideous tortures they suffered during the trial process, there is also this ridiculous anecdote about Doctor Fian. He was a schoolmaster who became enamoured of the sister of one of his pupils. He convinced the boy to creep into his sister's bedchamber while she slept and steal some of her pubic hair which Fian would use to perform a love spell. Surprisingly, the boy agrees to this, but unsurprisingly, his sister wakes up while he is attempting to get the hair and screams. Their mother comes running and forces the boy to confess what Fian had asked him to do, and she then comes up with a plan. She tells the boy to give Doctor Fian the hair from the tail of a cow and tell him that this is the pubic hair he had asked for, which the boy dutifully does and, presumably, Doctor Fian uses this to perform the love magic to make the sister agree to have sex with him. Then, on Sunday during Mass, a lovesick cow bursts into the Kirk and begins to amorously pursue Doctor Fian, eventually chasing him out of the Church and out of the village."

February 04, 2022

'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World': introducing panel #3 and keynote

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In their latest post, Cheng He and Camilo Uribe Botta introduce the final panel for the 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World' conference, which takes place on Saturday 12th February. There are also details on the key note lecture.

Study of Two Tortoises

Albert Eckhout. Study of Two Tortoises. Oil on canvas. 1640. © Mauritshuis, The Hague.

1. Amanda Coate (PhD candidate in History. Stanford University). An Elephant in Dublin: Networks of Animals, Objects, and Knowledge in the Late Seventeenth Century.

Amanda’s paper follows an elephant who died in Dublin in 1681 and was dissected afterwards. She traces the animal back to London, when he arrived from the East Indies in 1675 and also spent some time in Scotland. Reconstructing his life, Coate analyses the networks between different actors involved in the live and death of this animal, mainly the East India Company, the Royal Society, and the Dublin Philosophical Society. It also exemplifies the multiple existence of this animal (alive, dead, represented) and the multiple relations between human and non-human actors in early modern history.

2. René Lommez Gómez (Art historian and curator of exhibitions. Associate professor of art history, cultural heritage and museum studies at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Brazil.) The tail of a dead monkey. Patterns of Brazilian fauna’s representation and the artistic understanding of nature by seventeenth-century Dutch artists.

During the Dutch occupation of Northern Brazil, Albert Eckhout, Frans Post and other artists, crossed the Atlantic to act as painters for Count Johann Moritz von Nassau-Siegen, the governor between 1637 and 1644. They produced hundreds of paper boards with representations of animals and plants from Brazil and other tropical regions. Lommez Gómez analyses some of these representations and follows the original models, dead and alive, these painters used to represent tropical animal species. He aims to discuss the boundaries between the representations of living and dead non-European animals and the attitude of artists towards nature at home and in foreign countries.

3. V.E. Mandrij (Art historian and doctoral researcher at University of Konstanz / Stuttgart State Academy of Fine Arts): Otto Marseus van Schrieck and the butterfly imprints: collecting, trading, displaying, and printing butterfly wings in the late 17th-century Netherlands and its global context

Moving to the third paper, V.E. Mandrij looks at the still-life paintings in the context of seventeenth-century Dutch global trade. It centres around the Dutch painter Otto Marseus van Schrieck (ca. 1620-1678), who was active in natural history circles and collecting insects. Marseus developed sottobosco (‘forest floor’) paintings, which depict plants and animals in dark. The paper focuses on the understudied technique applied in the paintings—butterfly imprints (transferring real butterfly scales onto the canvas), and its various functions in art and natural history compared to pictorial depictions of insects in still lifes.

4. Catherine Sidwell (design historian, curator, and lecturer at Kingston University): Representations of birds in society, culture and decorative designs for the English domestic interior 1851-1914

In the last paper, Catherine Sidwell focuses on nineteenth-century Britain. The period witnessed urbanisation, during which people experienced a deep interest in, and nostalgia for nature. Birds were collected, displayed and commodified. In addition, they inspired art in publications and print materials, and were represented in the late Victorian and Edwardian home in different ways. Birds was also an important element in the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, in which artists represented birds as a way of responding to their age and environment. This paper addresses the importance of the natural world - especially birds - to British society, culture and decorative design 1851-1914.

Keynote: Helen Cowie (Professor of Early Modern History, University of York): A Tale of Two Anteaters: Madrid 1776 and London 1853

In 1776, the first living giant anteater to reach Europe arrived in Madrid from Buenos Aires. It survived six months in the Real Sitio del Buen Retiro before being transferred to the newly-founded Real Gabinete de Historia Natural. Seventy-seven years later, a second anteater was brought to London by two German showmen and exhibited at a shop in Bloomsbury, where it was visited by the novelist Charles Dickens. The animal was subsequently purchased by the Zoological Society of London, which classed it ‘by far the most important addition, in a scientific point of view, which has been made to the collection since its commencement’.1 It was painted by the Society’s chief illustrator, Joseph Wolf, satirised in the contemporary periodical, Punch, and dissected post-mortem by the comparative anatomist Richard Owen.

Drawing on recent work in animal biography, this paper assesses the reception of the two anteaters and considers their cultural and scientific significance. I examine the logistics of the exotic animal trade and trace the transatlantic networks that permitted anteaters – and knowledge about them – to move between continents. I also study the technologies of representation that enabled the insectivores to reach new audiences – from painting to taxidermy – and the different ways in which they were presented, preserved and commodified, both during life and after death. By focusing in detail on the lives of two exceptional anteaters, the article illuminates understandings of the species more broadly and shows how different spaces and places shaped the creation and dissemination of zoological knowledge. I emphasise, in particular, the tensions that emerged between imperial and colonial science and the competing knowledge regimes of the natural history museum, the menagerie and the field.

February 01, 2022

'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World': introducing panel #2

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In this post, Camilo Uribe Bottaand Cheng Heintroduce the second panel for their conference on 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World'. It includes three panels on plants, following them through art, science and consumption. The three authors show the elusive characteristics of plants in between living things and still lifes and show what plants can tell us about the people who created, traded, collected and worked with them.

Collection of plants made in 1699 by René Marmion

Collection of plants made in 1699 by René Marmion. © Herbier du Jardin botanique de la ville de Lyon.

1. Anna Lawrence (PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge): Scilly Narcissi: The Multiple Lives of Cut-flower Commodities in Nineteenth-century Britain.

This panel will begin with the paper that analyses the cut-flower trade in the late-nineteenth century in Britain, specifically the case of narcissi from the flower factories of the Scilly Isles. Lawrence instead of considering the frontier between the life and the death of the cut flowers, she traces the multiple lives of the flower from the farm to the final consumer focusing on its ecological live, its commodification and its consumption with the social, economic and cultural implications

2. Annabel Dover (Independent artist and writer): Florilegia: the Dream Lives of Flowers.

The second paper Anabel Dover builds upon the album Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impression (1843) by Anna Atkins, considered one of the first photograph books published with more than 400 contact prints of algae. Following Atkins’ lead, Dover created her own cyanotype album recreating the techniques used by Atkins, discovering that these algae were fake, counterfeited plant specimens, chimeras between artificialiaand naturalia. In her fist novel, Florilegia (2021), Dover uses these same techniques to create a “collaged fiction of the lives of multiple women”, giving voiceless females a voice through the objects, animals and plants that surrounded them.

3. Maura C. Flannery (Professor Emerita of Biology, St. John’s University; Research Associate, A.C. Moore Herbarium, University of South Carolina): Paolo Boccone: Specimens and Nature Print as Still Lifes.

Finally, in the third paper Maura C. Flannery presents a case study of Sicilian botanist Paolo Boccone, who travelled widely in Europe and made extensive plant collections and published several illustrated books describing the species he encountered. Based on the herbarium collections collected by Boccone in the late 17 century, Flannery compares them with the nature prints he also developed both to document his material and provide models for illustrations. A physical examination of some specimens reveals residues of ink, explaining why specimen, print and illustration are very similar, what she calls “three forms of still lifes”.

January 19, 2022

Interview with Professor Diane Purkiss, keynote for 'The Supernatural' conference

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In this third blog post for The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World, HRC doctoral fellows Francesca Farnell and Imogen Knox speak with Professor Diane Purkiss about how her interest in the supernatural came about, and how her research intersects with the conference themes.

What drew you to the supernatural originally?

I'm assuming you mean as a researcher, and if that's the case, the answer is that I began to write a book about feminist historiography at the suggestion of an editor at Routledge. One of the reader’s reports for the proposal thought that an example would make the book stronger, so I thought of topics that feminists had found especially interesting. That led me to witches. As soon as I started reading the histories of witchcraft alongside the source materials, I realised there was a huge methodological disparity between what the source material thought was central and what historians wanted to talk about. Oddly, all historians – feminist and established male – wanted mostly to talk about witch hunting. Everybody wanted to find out why it had happened, and everybody assumed that both the accused and the local accusers were simply pawns. As soon as I started reading the surviving trial material, it was really obvious to me that this wasn't so at all, that most accusers were working with a detailed and in many respects sophisticated analysis of the world of things and mastery of things, including growing things. So that led me to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions about why historians were so interested in distancing themselves from the popular mentalities they were supposedly trying to describe, and that's been one of my central questions ever since.

I had a short career as a professional tarot reader, but I was fraudulent in the extreme, though I greatly enjoyed it. I've never practised any magic. At one point, some kind friends took me to Glastonbury Tor on Halloween, and I watched them raising a cone of power – at least, that's what they said they were doing. My main memory is of being soaking wet and very cold. Afterwards they asked me if I'd felt anything. I hadn't. At that point, I think they decided I was spiritually dead.

Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History

Image: Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996)

Tell us about your current research, on the supernatural and sense of place

I'm an immigrant. I spent the first 23 years of my life in Australia. Unless you are Indigenous, Australia doesn't contain any magical places (I might also just about make an exception for surfers.) Europe, on the other hand, and increasingly also the Americas, is absolutely full of places that are soaked in the supernatural, in part because the land is marked and even scarred by the passage of people who are now long dead. I got very interested in places like Pendle Hill, which most people probably feel looks like an appropriate place to find witches – but on what basis? It's lonely, it's isolated, it's not just a boundary marker, but somehow transgressive in that it pushes up into the sky – in other words, it is a natural metaphor for the witches who once inhabited it. But when I think about this, I notice how very postRomantic it is – how much it depends on an underlying sense that nature has been overpowered, and an equal nostalgia for access to a vanished sense of wildness and danger. However however – what if we say that there actually are some moments in earlier cultures, even in Anglo-Saxon culture or late fourteenth century medieval culture where that wild nature becomes visible as a place which feels as if it's imbued with an uncontrollable supernatural? I'm thinking about Grendel, I'm thinking about Anglo-Saxon charms, I'm thinking about Gawain and the Green Knight. To some extent, all those texts try to interrogate a straightforward reading of wild nature as the home of the uncontrolled supernatural, but it's there to be interrogated. Perhaps… I am therefore interested in dialogues around places – the way we keep returning to some specific sites and asking what they mean. This is most obviously the case with Paleolithic and Neolithic survivals, but it can also be the case with much more recent creations. Does the place produce the belief, or the other way around? All this also brings to the fore terribly important questions about ownership, and contestation, especially around the borders of the nations that inhabit these islands.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, British Library

Image: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, British Library Cotton MS Nero A.x, article 3, ff.94v95

How did you come to this research?

It began with my book on fairies, which involved thinking about the difference between Scottish fairy beliefs and English fairy beliefs, and also the difference between belief in the Gaelic speaking parts of Scotland and the lowlands. This is a form of intersectionality which we often don't consider; how far is identity limited (or perhaps enabled) by place? Some of the witchcraft confessions I worked with for the fairy book contained beliefs that a historian of ideas would see as incompatible and also as deriving from different eras. Andrew Man, for instance, believes in a fallen angel whom he calls Christsunday, but also believes that Christsunday can transform himself into a black stag. That latter belief sounds as if it comes from an early medieval place of story, while the former is probably indebted to Calvinist Presbyterianism. How is it possible for one individual to hold both ideas in mind at once? In thinking about that, historians have tended to rush to the conclusion that popular beliefs are unexamined, or simply incrementally layered like wallpaper on top of what was there before. But these ideas are clearly contemptuous, elitist in the worst sense. What if we were willing to try to reconstruct Andrew’s worldview? This would have to be quite a daring mission, because it can't be credibly attested in the way that, say, James I worldview can be reconstructed or at least snapshotted. I've been using Deleuze’s idea of rhizomes as a way of talking about and thinking about the kind of evidence from folklore that we need to use to build a picture of a non-elite worldview.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things

Image: Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London, 2000)

What do you understand by the term supernatural? Is it a term you favour? Do you have an alternative term?

What a great question! I do like that term, because for me it includes organised religion as well as beliefs that are less fully authenticated by institutions. However, I know that many historians of religion refuse to use it on the grounds that it's insulting. I also quite like the term magic, as a catchall term for the belief that unregistered and unrecognised things might influence events. For me, a lot of this is about the role of the dead. There are a couple of huge ruptures in our dealings with the dead in these islands; the most recent is the Reformation, in which the dead were declared off-limits. People who believed in Reformation thinking literally stole the bones of the dead from the ossuary of Saint Paul's Cathedral in the middle of the night, and took them away to deposit in a marsh where they would never be found again. It was partly that they decided the bones of the dead were disgusting, and also partly that they didn't want people to have a physical connection with the physical church. But the banished dead are much scarier. They return in all kinds of strange magics. So I'm also very interested in talking about necromancy as the most important kind of supernatural, the one that governs and influences all the others.

You’ve engaged with this broad theme of the supernatural across various temporalities and geographies. What do you think is it about the supernatural that makes it such a fluid concept that can be applied to so many different societies?

I try hard to avoid cultural appropriation – for example, the word shaman should really just be used about the Yukagir, and those who have been directly influenced by them around the circumpolar rim (like the Sami), rather than applied to every form of priesthood. Nevertheless, it's not wrong to argue that the model associated with shamanism – the desire to and the ability to speak with the dead – is an important model in Western cultures who have hardly heard of Siberia or the Yukagir, in part because we have often forgotten our own mystic traditions which have separately given rise to similar patterns. Take, for example, katabasis, which literally means going below, and which characterises most religions of the Greeks and Romans, both the orthodox cults and the mystery religions, and is also a feature of epic and arguably also tragic poetry. Is it helpful to think of it in terms of the shaman? It is if this draws our attention to a phenomenon we might otherwise be tempted to ignore because it doesn't fit our wish for the ancient world to be civilised, or rational, or the foundations of the American republic, or something of that sort. But even so, we should be careful to note the huge differences. For instance, a shaman uses the drum. A lot of African American supernatural beliefs also involve the dead, including the problematically restless dead of slavery, and drumming and dancing are also critical parts of the culture of New Orleans that produced voodoo. But this doesn't mean that the drums played in Congo Square had the same significance as a shaman drum. There's often an overt risk of seeing all "primitive" or "tribal" cultures as similar. We in the West are now officially rubbish at dealing with our own dead, our own feelings, our own emotional needs. It's telling and quite awkward to notice people in California turning eagerly to cultures that have been condemned and even destroyed by their civilisation for help.

What role does suffering play in your work?

Without wanting to sound needlessly glum, I do think that history tends to play down suffering because it's another of those irrational and emotional things that's often less than susceptible to the kind of analysis historians want to do. Everybody now agrees that war induces trauma, but military historians continue to write as if trauma and PTSD can't possibly influence those in command. By contrast, a lot of my work has been about individual and also collective suffering and subjugation. I think that we as a culture are still wounded by decisions taken hundreds of years ago by a tiny elite, an elite that intrinsically wants to perpetuate itself and to act as gatekeeper for what counts as knowledge. As I say that, I'm conscious that it brushes uncomfortably against the kind of thinking we might associate with Qanon, but in this one case, left and right might have in common a sense of being excluded from the process by which knowledge is validated. I would point out too that Qanon has no new story to tell; instead, it's a retelling of the same old stories I’ve worked on all my professional life, a story about victim blaming, a story about the attribution of leftover randomly chosen bits of organised religion to political opponents. So I'm actively not saying that there is no truth. Instead, I'm going to try to register the suffering created by an exclusionary definition of where truth lies. I think we need to try to evolve a more inclusive methodology while rigorously excluding the reiteration of exclusive narratives.

So we don’t end on a sombre note, do you have a favourite supernatural anecdote or story?

If you ask me again in three days’ time, I might have a different answer, but for now I'm going with the Thomas the Rhymer/Tam Lin body of stories, which typically involve a polymorphic Fairy Queen of immense power acting as sexual predator, representing the unstoppable movements of time across the land, across the bodies of individual men and women, and the way she is opposed by a heroine who is no vapid princess, but strong in some of the same ways as the Greek hero Heracles. What I like best in this story is the equivocal nature of the fairy realm, which is the home of the restless dead but also therefore a timeless space. Ask me again in a week, and I might mention the boo hag, she bears a passing resemblance to the fairy Queen, possibly not coincidentally.

Katherine Cameron, ‘Thomas the Rhymer’

Image: Katherine Cameron, ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ from Stories from the Ballads Told to the Children (1908)

'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World': introducing panel #1

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In this post, Camilo Uribe Botta and Cheng He introduce the first panel for their conference on 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World'. It includes four papers on different materials, which show each presenter’s way of approaching the ‘mobility’ of things and conceiving materials. This panel opens with two methodological discussions about objects and their meanings, followed by two discussions about the main ‘things’ of concern in this conference: plants and animals, as an opening to the following panels.


Fig. 1 Mark Catesby, Parrot of Carolina on Cypress tree, 1731, Wellcome Collection, United Kingdom.

1 Rachel Getz-Salomon (PhD candidate in the Design Department of Architecture Faculty at the Technion Institution of Technology, Haifa, Israel): 'Eliciting Objects – a Methodology Beyond Conceptualization'

The panel will begin with the paper that centres around the anthropology of the object, reflecting the methodological approach to materials. A main aspiration in this discipline is to ‘let the object speak to us’—to look at what, where and how the material is made from and its uses, etc. Rachel Getz-Salomon aims to approach materials from a perspective different from this, borrowing the philosopher Gendlin's methods, which are based on a conceptualization deriving from physical sensation.

2 Erika De Vivo (PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Università degli Studi di Torino) : 'On the Italian Construction of Sámi Peoples as the Ultimate “Other” Through Items, Images and Words'

The second paper traces the history of contact between two places: Sápmi and Italy from the early sixteenth century to the early twentieth century. Sápmi is a region traditionally inhabited by Sámi people (in Northern and Eastern Europe). Erika De Vivo explores the shaping of the image of Sámi people in Italian history and culture by looking at various things (objects such as ritual drums and human remains; visual materials including engravings and photos; and written sources) and their coded meanings formed during the contact.

3 Jaya Yadav (PhD scholar at the University of Delhi, working on contemporary South Asian Literature): 'What Tea is it? Reading Colonial Trade Across Asia through a Mapping of Darjeeling Tea Plantations in (British) India'

Apart from Erika De Vivo’s paper, we can see another example of the construction of ‘Other’ in Jaya Yadav’s discussion on a specific material—tea. As an important goods in the international trading network, tea has been travelling across the globe for a long time. This paper focuses on the plantation of Darjeeling tea in (British) India, its role in the colonial past, and re(creation) of its meanings and identities during the process—a material which is not native to Britain became an intrinsic part of British culture.

4 Charlotte M. Hoes (Research fellow at the History Department of the University of Göttingen within a project funded by the German Lost Art Foundation): 'Bounded Wilderness - the global trade in living animals'

Not only artefacts or plants are moving with changing meanings, animals are also part of the picture (although the line between artefacts, plants and animals can be subject to further discussion). Animals were traded as ‘commodities’, which can be seen in the past of ‘exotic’ animals that were brought to Europe and ended up in menageries or private collections. Animals, objects and humans were in motion and interaction in this network. In the last paper of this panel, Charlotte M. Hoes took the example of the animal trading company Louis Ruhe Inc. (founded in 1850s in Germany) to show this mobility in global animal trade.

December 07, 2021

Interview with Helen Cowie, keynote for 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World'

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Professor Helen Cowie (University of York)is the keynote speaker for the 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World' conference. Here, she talks with conference organisers Camilo Uribe Botta and Cheng He about her reseach on the history of animals.

1. Could you talk a bit about your research interest?

My research has focused predominantly on the history of animals – though from a variety of different perspectives. In my PhD research, I started off by looking at animals as scientific specimens, as a part of a broader project about natural history in the Spanish world. I focused on the representation of animals in museums, in the form of taxidermy and at how they were depicted in art works, particularly zoological illustrations. I was interested in questions about museum, empire and collecting, and studied (mostly dead) animals within this context.

From there, my focus moved to living animals, especially zoos and menageries. Though I was concerned primarily with how these animals were received while they were alive, and the different kinds of interactions people had with them, I also looked at the posthumous lives of some menagerie animals, many of which were donated to local museums after they died. You can still see the skeleton and hooves of tapir from Wombwell’s menagerie at the University of Aberdeen’s Natural History Museum, for example. I have therefore been interested in the transitions undergone by exotic animals at different points in their lifecycles, and the ways in which many straddled the boundary between spectacle and specimen.

Recently, I’ve been working on animals as commodities, particularly animal products, such as birds’ feathers, seal skins, ivory, animal perfume and exotic pets, etc. I’ve studied the new technologies and global connections that facilitated their exploitation and the environmental consequences of this. I explore these issues in my recent book, Victims of Fashion: Animal Commodities in Victorian Britain.

Victims of Fashion

2. Which methods do you use in your research? In what ways is your research interdisciplinary?

Although I’m primarily a historian, I’ve benefited from important research in a range of other disciplines. Looking at images of animals, for instance, involves drawing on the expertise of historians of art, while reading animal-related literature relies upon methodologies formulated by literary scholars. In my book on llamas, for instance, I examined artistic representations of llamas and alpacas, as well as portrayals of the animals in literary texts, from novels to children’s books. The other type of literature I use is scientific literature, particularly when I try to look at animals as biological specimens and to understand the environmental pressures they face To understand why elephants have been so badly impact by the ivory trade, for instance, you need to recognise how slowly the animals reproduce, and how devasting the loss of a single animal (particularly a female) can be for the survival of the species. To understand nineteenth-century debates about the conservation of the fur seal, meanwhile, you need to know something about the animal’s migration patterns and breeding practices. I would certainly not claim to be an expert in these areas, but I’ve found the work of biologists very useful in this regard.

Detail of a llama

Detail of a llama. Anonymous. Plaza Mayor de Lima. 1680. Museo de América, Madrid.

3. How do animals appear in your sources?

They appear in a variety of ways. Some animals receive detailed treatment as individuals while others are referred to only briefly, perhaps as numbers or statistics. The degree of prominence usually depends on the species of the animal, and its particular status. Exotic animals in zoos, for instance, are often named and accorded a celebrity status, so they will tend to generate images and articles that present them as individuals (albeit though human eyes). A classic example of this would be Jumbo the elephant, who generated extensive newspaper coverage in 1882 when he was sold by London Zoo to the American circus owner PT Barnum. Pets also generate a disproportionate amount of coverage, appearing in diaries, letters, advertisements for lost companions and sometimes portraits or photographs. By contrast farm animals such as pigs, cows or sheep tend to leave fewer traces, and might simply be listed as numbers of stock.

Of course, what we’re really accessing in all of these cases are usually human representations of animals, not the animals themselves, so this raises questions of agency. This is something historians of animals debate extensively. Can we really understand how animals experienced the past, or only how humans viewed them in particular eras?

Sloth and armadillo

Sloth and armadillo. Malaspina Expedition. 1789-1794.

4. How did you find the materiality of the animals as a physical object in your research?

Though I mostly work with written sources, we can access various physical objects to help us understand the lives of animals in the past. First, of course, we have museum specimens, which enable us to view the actual bodies of some creatures – mostly as scientific specimens and representatives of their species, though occasionally as named individuals. Second, some animals have left behind artefacts relating to their care, from collars and brushes for pets to saddles and shoes for horses – and occasionally even suits of armour (at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds you can even see a suit of armour made for an elephant in Mughal India (link here:. Third, we have archaeological traces of some animals, which zooarchaeologists can use to understand when particular species were domesticated and how they interacted with humans. Recently, for example, the mummified remains of guinea pigs and llamas were discovered at an archaeological site in Peru, having been used by Pre-Columbian civilisations for sacrifice. And finally we have some more idiosyncratic material traces of animals, ranging from footprints to cages. In 1420 a pet cat at monastery at Deventer in the Netherlands peed on a medieval manuscript, prompting the exasperated monk to draw a picture of it (picture here, if you’re interested:! So there are lots of ways in which we can use material remains to study animals in the past, though many of these have not yet been fully exploited by historians.

Wallace the lion

Wallace the lion from Wombwell's Menagerie Saffron Walden Museum.


November 12, 2021

The Supernatural: A Global and Transhistorical Approach

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To accompany their conference The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World, HRC doctoral fellows Francesca Farnell and Imogen Knox will be blogging on their own research, the conference themes, and the process of putting together a one-day interdisciplinary conference. In this second blog, Francesca and Imogen discuss their desire to examine the conference themes across boundaries of geography and temporality.

In our last blog post, we discussed how our respective doctoral research projects intersect with the themes of our conference, The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World. This post will explore the conference parameters in greater detail, offering insight into our own understanding of the supernatural as a subject of study, alongside wider, sometimes contrasting, conceptions of it across the pre-modern world.

Not an insignificant amount of energy from numerous scholars of various disciplines has been put into finding a universal definition of ‘the supernatural’. Many have pointed to the boundaries between the natural, preternatural, and supernatural that, in theory, neatly trisect all the beings and things within the cosmos. Robert Bartlett has asserted that the medieval world was ordered and understood in terms of ‘the dichotomy “natural/supernatural”’.[1]The latter term, the supernatural, has been defined by Ute Lotz-Heumann as ‘anything that contemporaries perceived as having origins outside of the realm of human understanding and/or of being outside and beyond the workings of “natural causes.”’[2]

Robert Fludd, Tomus secundus

Image Credit: Robert Fludd, Tomus secundus ... de supernaturali, naturali, praeternaturali et contranaturali microcosmi historia (1619-1621), Wellcome Collection

While these approaches have been helpful in formulating our own conceptions of the supernatural, such definitions are inherently bound by Eurocentric models, informed exclusively by Christian dogma and, in particular, the dense theological works of Thomas Aquinas.[3] Even in our own work on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain, we recognise the inherent limitations of imposing definitions constructed by elite religious authorities upon complex and often fragmented ‘popular’ religious beliefs. Such definitions are rendered further inadequate if studying the supernatural within cultures that do not fit the model of Christian Europe, which itself is often treated as a homogeneous culture.

For ‘The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World’, we have therefore adopted a much broader framework for what can be considered ‘the supernatural’, permitting and encouraging participants to follow their own definitions as best fitting their respective interests.To that end, papers that problematise or contest notions of ‘the supernatural’ are also welcome.

Robert Fludd, Tomus secundus

Image credit: as above

Taking some ontological liberties rather than seeking to impose a single unifying definition of the supernatural is necessary for ensuring that cross-cultural and interdisciplinary exchange is at the heart of the conference. Rather than attempting to create an artificial sense of uniformity by insisting on a shared but unproductive definition of the supernatural, it is in analysing the theme of suffering that fruit may be brought to bear in finding a common thread across the milieu of global supernatural beliefs. Most countries, cultures, and even particular regions, have their own particular supernatural belief systems, from the Tommyknockers of Cornwall, the Striga of Slavic regions, to the Wendigo of the First Peoples of North America. There is undoubtedly an already rich corpus of research dedicated to the supernatural across manifold countries and cultures, but exciting recent work, for example, Anderson Hagler’s research on indigenous beliefs in colonial Mexico and Karl Bell’s recent edited collection, Supernatural Cities: Enchantment, Anxiety and Spectrality, proves that the field continues to grow. To foster this growth, we would love to be able to push this conference beyond the English-speaking world, and to explore beliefs outside of the Christian framework.

Our temporal approach is similarly broad. We have opted to limit the conference to ‘pre-modern’ periods, though we offer no specific cut-off point as the line between pre-modernity and modernity is a fine and often arbitrary one contingent on the country and culture under study - and one that furthermore prioritises Western narratives of civilisation, industrialisation and enlightenment. Presenters are welcome to address this point through their own understandings and approaches. The equivocal nature of the term ‘pre-modern’, we hope, will both serve to sidestep issues of precise periodisation and foster conversations and connections across these vast temporalities. As with our global approach, it is our belief that the theme of suffering will transcend periodisation in the context of the supernatural.

We are very much looking forward to pushing the boundaries of supernatural research, and to drawing connections across vast temporalities and geographies.


[1] R. Bartlett, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2008), p.2

[2] Ute Lotz-Heumann, ‘The Natural and Supernatural’, Ulinka Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations (Oxford, 2016), p.689

[3] C.S. Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England (Cambridge, 2007), p.18

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