All entries for March 2022

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."

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