November 10, 2022

‘Have you forgotten that I am one of you?’: Returning Mau Mau in late–colonial Kenya

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In this second blog post relating to the HRC conference on Homecoming after war, the co-organiser, Niels Boender, a third year PhD student in History, outlines one aspect of his research and how it relates to the conference.

With these words, ‘Have you forgotten that I am one of you?’, the former Kenyan freedom fighter Gucu Gikoyo lambasted his neighbours, who were forcing him to confess his involvement in the anti-colonial Mau Mau movement (Gikoyo 1979: 246). His bitter and tortured experience of return after time in British-run detention camps, as all homecoming stories do, connects violent conflict and detention to the post-war world. In Kenya’s case, the post-war transition was also the transition to independence. The post-colonial state would be shaped in large part by the afterlives of the Mau Mau insurgency; these are best understood through the lens of homecoming. This short blog uses the story of Gikoyo, recounted in his 1979 memoir We Fought for Freedom, to trace how a perhaps unexpected moment of homecoming can expand our understanding of post-war return as a significant historical process.[i] Opening the door to more literary and political readings of such memoirs, this is a sample of the kind of subjects we would expect to be discussed at the conference.

Gikoyo, like so many young and uneducated Kenyans, took to the forests in the face of colonial racism, police brutality, and landlessness. Far from claiming any leadership role, he admits he was a simple soldier who had been tasked with killing informers. Like so many that went to fight in the forest, eventually his luck ran out and he was captured by British colonial forces in 1955. Captured while travelling away from his unit he was not tried and executed like so many fighters (1,099 were hanged under judicial procedures), but instead was despatched into the ‘Pipeline’: the archipelagic system of detention camps in which torture and confession were regularly employed to ‘rehabilitate’ Mau Mau suspects. In his memoir he testifies to the fact that he was repeatedly beaten with a club, flogged, and forced to confess taking the Mau Mau oath. As part of his interrogation, he was taken back to his home village. There he witnessed the consequences of the colonial state’s counterinsurgency campaign, which involved herding hundreds of thousands of Gikuyu into carefully planned ‘Emergency Villages’. A curfew had been imposed, houses had been ransacked, and six children had already died of hunger and disease. He wrote: ‘I was deeply moved by the sight of the people who had withered and lost all life and lustre through hunger’ (Gikoyo 1979: 227). The local villagers, knowing of Gikoyo’s involvement in several murders, called on him to confess them. One elder said to him: If you were willing to give your life for the salvation of this country, give it now so that the children, women and elders of this place may be saved’ (Gikoyo 1979: 227). Gikoyo did not relent and was eventually released in April 1958 without confessing to murders he had been accused of.

As he walked from the detention camp, ‘a master of [him]self, [he] thanked God for guiding me in the battle of wits which I had never fought before and which, through his grace, I had won’ (Gikoyo 1979: 235). However, his ordeal did not end upon his return. The continuing State of Emergency forced him to report daily to a local official and everyone in his village had to go through back-breaking communal labour, which was made especially difficult by a testicular disease he had got after being flogged in detention. Soon he fled his village for the colony’s capital, Nairobi, where he fell in with several other ex-detainees. Without residence or work licenses, they were forced into criminality, committing armed robberies, and soon he was back in prison.

Over the coming months he would repeatedly escape and be returned to prison. In his brief moments of freedom, he was especially angered by his village’s refusal to help him. He lamented: ‘Have you forgotten that I am in my own country now [for] which many of us have given our lives?’ (Gikoyo 1979: 246). He was frustrated by the way in which the counterinsurgency campaign had transformed his community and turned them against violent nationalism. Gikoyo would continue to embrace a militant vision of Mau Mau activism, even as the Emergency came to an end in January 1960. He formed a new gang of eight ex-detainees which raided European homes with the intention of acquiring firearms. Their plan was to ‘organise bands of terrorists to harass Europeans until such time as they gave up and handed over this country to an African government under our dear leader, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’ (the alleged Mau Mau leader who remained in detention) (Gikoyo 1979: 261). Their raids of European houses called forth massive police action by the colonial state and only after a shootout in the Nairobi suburb of Makadara was his gang detained, all sent to ten years hard labour.

It was not until October 1969, almost ten years later and six years after Kenya’s independence, that he would be released. His ‘dear leader’ Jomo Kenyatta became the country’s Prime Minister in June 1963 but never offered an amnesty for Gikoyo or his compatriots as his crime was not deemed ‘political’ or in the service of anti-colonialism. A Government policy of ‘forgive and forget’ towards Mau Mau also meant his service in the forest would not grant him any special treatment. Even after his release in 1969 he felt unwelcome and unrewarded. He found a country that had not fulfilled the promises of the anti-colonial struggle, reminding the rich ‘that their joys are the result of much suffering and death’. As Mau Mau, their ‘role has not always been appreciated and the dark records are still held against’ them (Gikoyo 1979: 324). He stayed ‘unrecognised, having neither land on which to make a living or trade to follow’ (Gikoyo 1979: 325). Especially this final peroration ought to be read in the context of Kenya’s late 1970s political crisis when writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and politicians like Bildad Kaggia were attacking the post-colonial regime in part for its failure to live up to the promises of Mau Mau. The latter helped Gikoyo to edit and translate his memoirs from Gikuyu to English.

This account of a tortured, fractured, and problematic homecoming is symptomatic of civil war, states of emergency, and colonial impunity. Counterinsurgency efforts by the British Army and colonial administration had fundamentally transformed the ‘home’, both physically through villagisation and land reform, and emotionally by forcing a community to turn on its own fighters. Physically broken, unrepentant, and without a programme for economic re-integration, fighters like Gikoyo quickly re-mobilised. The fine line between revolutionary activism and criminality was effaced by the problematic process of homecoming. Government-supported efforts at reconciliation between opponents and supporters of the Mau Mau precluded any serious attempt at repairing colonial-era injustices and leaving a bitter legacy for the coming decades.

Like all papers at the forthcoming ‘Homecoming after war’ conference, this is but one example in a constellation of such stories. Gikoyo’s memoir does however open us to exploring unconventional times and spaces when trying to understand post-war transitions. Humanities-based approaches can break free from normative and prescriptive straitjackets attempting to understand post-war ‘disarmament, demobilisation and re-integration’, embracing the complexity of stories like Gikoyo’s. Much more can be done using comparative and inter-disciplinary approaches, even with this specific Kenyan example.

[i] Gucu. G. Gikoyo, We Fought for Freedom (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1979).

A suspected Mau Mau fighter is taken to interrogation by a British serviceman, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, MAU 864, Accessed 10/11/2022:

Mau Mau Fighter

October 04, 2022

‘Homecoming’ after war: Comparative and interdisciplinary perspectives

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In his first blog Niels Boender discusses the Vision for the Conference: Mediations of the theme of ‘homecoming’

Central to our vision of this conference is the nebulous, historically contingent, and complex notion of ‘homecoming’ in post-war contexts. At a time of seamless global connectivity and slow deconstruction of the nuclear family, what constitutes the home, coded as safe and intimate, becomes increasingly questioned. This is far from unprecedented historically, never more so than at a time of war. In a physical sense, borders move, families are devastated, and people are displaced en masse. On a different plane, human subjectivities are entirely discombobulated by the experience of extreme hardship. New worlds are made not just on the battlefield, but in the moment the battlefield returns, the sphere previously understood as safe and domestic. With millions of the people on the move again due to the conflict in Ukraine, there is a growing importance in drawing together a wealth of scholarship on post-war homecoming and reconciliation to new conditions.

We are very glad to take this opportunity, provided by Warwick’s Humanities Research Centre, to organise a conference which can investigate this topic. The multidimensional nature of the homecoming experience provides great scope for interdisciplinary exploration. This approach must have a special concern for the representational elements of homecoming, enshrined most typically in art and literature. These approaches can be fruitfully combined with historical methodologies, unpicking the archive left by states and individuals experiencing post-conflict ruptures. We are especially excited to see the fruitful combination of older, historical schools, with newer ones, like the history of emotions and the study of public memorialisation. Similarly, there are no limits on the geographical or temporal scope of this study. A comparison of representations of homecoming in the Odyssey and Rambo: First Blood is not just possible, but entirely desired.

The stories people tell about homecoming, both as a historical source and a piece of art/literature, will form a significant component of this story. These come in the moment of homecoming itself, and as a crucial part of longer-term historical memory. The above painting, a product of German nationalist romanticism, depicts the return of Tyrolean fighters in 1809. This links the glorious return of Swiss fighters from the struggle against Napoleon, with the welding together of the German Empire in the 1870s. The moment of homecoming in particular is emphasised, signifying the sealing of a victory. By contrast, this image from prominent Weimar artist Otto Dix, depicting a very different homecoming in the aftermath of the First World War. This is of course the defining return after war, the one that led to genocidal campaign in the Baltic, the militarism of the Freikorps, and the paramilitary street battles which aided the rise of the Nazi Party. In these two images divided by less than half a century, two very different representations of homecoming appear. This points to a rich area of further investigation which this conference hopes to invite.

Our research as hosts, coming from two very diverse geographic and disciplinary spheres, exemplifies the precise interdisciplinary and comparative perspective we are trying to evoke. For example, my research in totality concerns the legacies of the Mau Mau Uprising in late colonial Kenya. However, a central and thus far disregarded moment in the study of the anti-colonial insurgency is the return of Mau Mau fighters from British-built detention camps in the latter years of the insurgency. These moments, ubiquitous in memoirs and oral recollections of the Uprising, tend to form a central dramatic moment in the working-out of future trajectories. Moreover, managing homecomings was an important part of the counterinsurgency effort of the colonial state. A future blog will explore this process in more detail.

Altogether, the conference will hope to place stories like the ones briefly cited above in conversation. The eventual desire is the production of an edited collection (with Routledge) that will significantly move forward the scholarship on this topic, and feed into a wider discussion of the post-war within the Humanities to rival the growing field of Peace Studies within the Social Sciences. While these hopes are ambitious, we hope that bringing together senior academics and early career researchers across various disciplines can achieve this goal.

Return Home of the Victors

Heimkehr der Sieger (Return home of the victors)(1874) by Franz Defregger (1835-1921).

Held at the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:

Roll Call of Returning Troops

Appell de Zurückgekehrten (Roll Call of Returning Troops) (1924) by Otto Dix (1891-1969).

Held at the Museum of Modern Art.

Courtesy of user Spelio on Flickr:

July 04, 2022

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

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In this final post, Cheng Heand Camilo Uribe Bottareflect on their experience of organising the conference 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World'.

Cheng: What do you feel about the conference in general?

Camilo: I think it was really successful. I feel happy that we managed to take the conference to the final stage, and our purpose is achieved—we managed to target at specific academic audience, and to invite scholars whose proposals we are interested to attend the conference. And the quality of the papers proves it.

Cheng: Yeah. The papers we received are quite diverse in terms of the topics, but they are all well related to the conference theme in different ways, which is nice.

Camilo: Even their approaches to their research are varied and show interdisciplinary methods. We got scholars from history, geography, art, biology, literature and so on. This shows the diversity of approaches to plants, animals and objects in academia now.

Cheng: Yes, that’s true. Actually what I felt right after the conference was that , I was so exhausted (laugh). We have attended many conferences before we organised one. But it was not until we did it on our own that I realised how much energy it took.

Camilo: Yeah yeah. We had stressful moments. One was when we had to decide whether to extend the Call for Papers deadline, another one was to decide the format of the conference—whether hybrid or online.

Cheng: Yes, because that would affect Call for Papers as well.

Camilo: Uh huh. We had to make the decision and to see if all the speakers would be fine with it. And eventually, there was potential technology issues when the conference was held online. This type of issues often happen, but when you were the organiser, the pressure was always there.

Cheng: Yes. I feel that when the conference is online, the stress of coping with technology is stronger than having face-to-face events. In terms of this, I’m wondering what was the most difficult thing for you throughout the whole process (of organising the conference)?

Camilo: I think the most difficult part was probably to have a clear idea of what you wanted to accomplish, like what topics/questions you wanted to address and make them sufficiently clear.

Cheng: Yes, it took a while for us to clarify it in the beginning.

Camilo: And another thing was to have a good keynote speaker who can open up the theme or summarise it well. We had a brilliant keynote speaker Prof. Cowie, who shared a wonderful paper that presents the goal of the conference and also well connected it with other conference papers. It was a great conclusion to the conference. Also our chairs were very nice and supportive to the panels.

Cheng: Yes, absolutely. Any other tips for PG students who would like to organise a conference?

Camilo: My suggestion would be: find a topic that you are really passionate about to be the conference theme.

Cheng: I would suggest to prepare everything in advance, and remember that accidents could happen.

Camilo: Yes!

Cheng: I feel it was a right decision to have an informal rehearsal with speakers, checking if there could be any technological issues.

Camilo: Yes that really helped save time during the conference.

July 01, 2022

An organiser’s guide to putting on a conference (as an ECR)

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The last blog post by Francescaand Imogenis slightly different, offering final reflections in the form of top tips for making both the planning and running of your own conference as smooth as possible. Of course no two conferences are the same, with different themes, disciplines, durations, funding bodies and institutions all shaping the final product but they hope you find these suggestions useful in some small way.

Tips for the early stages of planning:

1. First and foremost, we would highly recommend organising a conference in a pair or small group, rather than going solo.

It was an immense help to have someone to brainstorm ideas with and to turn to for support. This may be a natural decision for those of you with closely shared research interests, as it was with our conference, but if this isn’t an option then still consider reaching out to people with experience in organising conferences who can advise you irrespective of their field.

2. Carefully cater themes and scope of the conference.

Having identified a broad topic of interest very early on (the supernatural), we then honed in on a specific and largely unaddressed angle of this wider theme (suffering) to fill a specific knowledge gap. To accommodate the interdisciplinary nature of the conference without making it a free-for-all, we kept other aspects as wide as reasonably possible (the pre-modern world, the typology of our suggested sites). For more on how to come up with interdisciplinary themes, check out our previous blog post.

3. If you can, get funding to support your conference.

This will enable you to charge less (or nothing) for tickets, to have catering, and to reimburse your keynote speakers. We secured funding from the HRC through their fellowship competition, which gave us a lot more freedom than we otherwise would have had. As ECR conference organisers, it was also very reassuring to have someone to turn to (other than each other) when we needed guidance. If you’re university affiliated, departmental and faculty schemes should be the first place to check for funding support. You could also approach a body relevant to your interests (such as the Society for the Social History of Medicine).

4. Speaking of funding, carefully construct and keep an eye on budget.

While this turned out to be less important for us as we ultimately moved to an online conference (which was much cheaper), we were required to make a preliminary budget as part of our proposal, so it made sense to make it as detailed as possible even in the earliest stages of planning. Update it as you go and agree what is high priority (e.g. expenses for speakers, inclusive food options) and what can be kept low cost.

5. Scope out your timeframe!

This was helpful for both big and small jobs, such as having specific dates by which drafts had to be finalised or emails had to be sent out, as well as larger windows carved out for more time consuming tasks, such as going through abstracts. Not only is this essential for the sake of the conference but for your own sanity as no doubt you’ll have other academic commitments to keep to. Moreover, it’s good to keep the rhythms of the academic year in mind, such as being aware of when terms roughly start and end so you’re not going to be met with a slew of out of office emails at the end of term or piling onto the usual barrage of work at the start of it.

6. It’s never too early to think about venues.

Think about your options for venues early in the planning stages. What requirements do you have for your venue in terms of facilities, accessibility, hybrid options etc? On-campus locations get booked up quickly, particularly if your conference is taking place during term time so you want to ensure you can secure one that works for you. If you have a particular venue in mind, this can influence when you are able to hold the conference.

Room booking

Room booking

Warwick’s room booking system allows searching by capacity and facilities, as well as providing 360 room tours online

7. Customising calls for papers

A good start is to look at others for inspiration. In conferences you’ve attended, what worked, and what didn’t? What caught your eye about the CfP? When writing the call, think of examples of the sorts of papers you want to hear (especially ones outside of your own field to help broaden the interdisciplinary appeal of the conference). Get someone outside of the organising committee to read over the call to check that it adequately explains the scope and aims of the conference.

Poster designs

Some example poster designs we found to be effective

Tips for getting it off the ground:

1. Jazz up your publicity and social media assets to give your conference a professional and identifiable ‘brand’.

In 2022, the importance of marketing is rather unavoidable - whether this means maintaining a social media presence or creating a unique look for your promotional materials. If you’re not confident with design yourself, see if you have any friends who’d be willing to help you out! We’d also definitely recommend setting up a dedicated conference email address to add to that professional feel, as well as to prevent your own email from getting swamped.

2. When it comes to dealing with abstracts, collation and organisation is key!

It goes without saying that you should allocate a generous amount of time to reading and debating the submissions you receive. We compiled ours in a shared Google sheets that could be worked on simultaneously by organisers, using discipline, period and keywords we associated with the abstract to help filter through them. We worked through several ‘rounds’ of narrowing down until we reached the number we had space for. Give yourself enough time to properly read through on your own and discuss them together - be open to the other’s opinions in terms of accepting/rejecting papers you may have different thoughts about.

Spreadsheet for abstracts

The spreadsheet layout we used as we went through the submitted abstracts

3. Be conservative with papers

While you may receive many exciting abstracts, all of which you’d like to find time for, it is important to be conservative about how many speakers you ultimately accept to ensure you don’t fill the day(s) with too many things going on. Synchronous panels might be a good option if you want to fit more than 12 speakers for a day-long conference, but remember that this limits your audience’s choice as to what papers they can hear in case there’s clashes, so being cautious about how many abstract you accept is very important.

4. Be generous with timings

In being conservative with the amount of papers you accept, it allows you to be generous with timings of the day and when it comes to compiling the programme for the conference, feeding in extra time for each segment of the day is a wise decision. Not only does this allow you buffer time in case anything goes wrong, but it also will allow you to run ‘over’ the allotted time when panellists got into engaging discussions during the Q&A portions of the day, which was really beneficial for the conference and isn’t something you want to cut short.

5. Be flexible

Things may change from your initial proposal/idea, either due to your own changing ideas, or because of factors outside of your control. We had been planning for an in-person conference for upwards of 8 months, but made the decision to pivot to online 3 months before the conference due to COVID concerns. At the outset of the conference, we had also initially planned to have two keynote speakers but soon realised this would create scheduling constraints and limit the number of papers we could include, so ultimately opted for one.

Tips for making the day run smoothly:

1. Practice is preferable for virtual conferences.

Having made the decision to move the conference online, we opted for Teams as our platform, as it was one we were familiar with and had an institutional licence for. Making sure you’re confident using the platform you choose and that you can explain its functions to attendees is essential, as not everyone will be familiar with it. Different computer setups, such as using desktop or browser versions of a platform, or even the system that their device runs on may alter their ability to interact with the platform. For instance, as we found out, people using desktop versions of Teams aren’t usually able to access chat. Ensure beforehand whether there’s anything you need to edit in terms of permissions to allow your presenters from external institutions to share their powerpoints; you may ask to have powerpoints sent to you in advance, just in case. We also asked speakers about to present to return a few moments early from breaks to check that audio, video and screensharing would all run smoothly during their papers.

2. Dedicate time to your opening and closing remarks.

We would highly recommend planning your opening and closing remarks in advance, and if possible, find some time to make final edits to the closing remarks during the conference day for finishing touches and tailoring - perhaps during the lunch break. We opted to split the actual delivery of the remarks between us, which created a nice back and forth and mirrored the way the conference came together.

3. Assign roles!

You can save time and effort in the lead up to the conference by assigning roles e.g. one person keeps an eye on emails, another handles social media. It’s also a good idea to do this on the day with your organisational team. For instance, we agreed that one person could monitor chat and incoming personal messages while the other was on standby for screensharing issues. Moreover, communication should be kept open between organisers at all times - as we were online, we used Whatsapp for speed and ease as well as to reduce the number of tabs open on the computer.

4. Make effective use of your chairs.

Bringing in panel chairs can also help lessen your stress throughout the day. If you have a large organisation team, you may be able to split up chairing duties between you, but as a pair, we felt we would have been stretched thin trying to do all this ourselves. You should obviously select chairs who will engage meaningfully with the panels, as well as being natural orators who can pose thought-provoking questions if participants are slow to ask their own. Equally, make sure you have prepped them adequately, making sure that your chairs are clear on how you want the conference to run, and it’s especially useful to provide them with a ‘crib sheet’ with all the necessary information.

5. Be friendly!

This is an academic conference but it is also an opportunity to be social with colleagues and peers and having a convivial and relaxed atmosphere will help engagement and put speakers at ease.

June 20, 2022

Bridging the gap: reflections on running an interdisciplinary conference

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In this blog post Imogen and Frankie reflect on their experience putting on an interdisciplinary conference, and offer some advice for others hoping to do the same.

When we set about planning for our conference, The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World, we knew it would be an interdisciplinary one. Partly this was because the Humanities Research Centre require the conferences they fund to be interdisciplinary, but without this stipulation we recognised the important work in the broad field of ‘the supernatural’ coming from a range of disciplines. We firmly felt that any conference we put on, particularly around the supernatural, would be better for being interdisciplinary, but as two historians, we were concerned about how we might actually achieve this.

It’s fortunate that our research interests, and the focus of the conference, hit upon themes that had real potential for interdisciplinarity. As mentioned already in this blog post and in our publicity, the supernatural is a topic that scholars from a range of fields have addressed - history, literature, and psychology, to name just a few! Suffering too, can be approached from a broad range of perspectives, and we kept the temporal and geographical boundaries deliberately broad (pre-modern world) to avoid limiting the disciplines from which people could apply. Having themes that were too broad was a concern, but on the day, we realised we had got this just right, when we witnessed scholars from different disciplines engaging in fruitful dialogue with one another.

Thomas Fludd, Tomus secundus

Thomas Fludd, Tomus supernaturali, naturali, praeternaturali et contranaturali microcosmi historia, in tractatus tres distribute (Frankfurt, 1619-21), via Wellcome Collection

We made particular efforts to make the call for papers attractive to a range of disciplines. Our definitions were kept deliberately broad, to allow applicants to bring their own perspectives on our core themes. We also provided a long (but not exhaustive) list of potential topics which we hoped would appeal to researchers working in different fields.

Another aspect of interdisciplinarity was our keynote speaker. Professor Diane Purkiss is based in the English faculty at Oxford, but also makes use of historical and psychological approaches in her work. Having her as our keynote signalled to potential applicants and attendees that this would be an interdisciplinary conference, and, as two historian-organisers, we felt we ought to have a keynote outside our field to prevent the conference becoming dominated by our own discipline.

Interdisciplinary was a key consideration in our publicity. As historians, we knew of locations to post an advert to other (particularly early modern) historians, but were less well versed about the places other disciplines looked for calls and information about upcoming conferences. We posted the information with a number of interdisciplinary organisations, including the Renaissance Society of America, and circulated via a range of interdisciplinary university groups, such as CEMS at Exeter. Twitter was also a valuable tool to get the news out about our conference, and, through appropriate hashtagging and tagging, it was picked up by groups such as the Folklore Society which helped to share the conference more widely.

W. P., The History of Witches and Wizards

W. P., The History of Witches and Wizards (London, 1720), p. 23, via Wellcome Collection

When it came to narrowing down the abstracts to successful applications, we were careful not to overrepresent one discipline or topic within the conference. This did unfortunately mean that we were unable to accept many fantastic abstracts, at the risk of tipping the conference in one particular direction. We also made a particular effort to prevent any one discipline taking up a whole panel, so that each individual session would be interdisciplinary. As it turned out, all of our applications (both those successful and unsuccessful) were from fields within arts and humanities, which may not have been surprising given the topic and the purview of the HRC. We were delighted with the dialogue the panellists and all attendees were able to have with each other, across their different disciplines.

The interdisciplinarity of The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World was certainly one of its strengths, more so than we could have imagined when we set out to put on the conference. The feedback we received from speakers and attendees highlighted the value and enjoyment they had got from this interdisciplinary approach, and we couldn’t agree more.

Our advice for those planning an interdisciplinary conference:

• Choose your conference themes carefully - can you base your conference around a topic that is of interest to scholars from different backgrounds, or can be considered from multiple angles?

• Avoid using discipline specific terminology in the call for papers, or if you do, make sure to also include terms used by other subject areas

• Pick a keynote that can speak to and is of interest to scholars working in different fields

• Make sure your publicity reflects the interdisciplinary aims of your conference - don’t just send to the places you would look for CfPs

• When choosing who to accept, prevent one discipline from dominating the conference

• Group the panels thematically, rather than by topic or discipline

• Pick chairs from different backgrounds, or that you know will be able to ask relevant questions to those outside their own subject area (and if you’re chairing your own panels, try to step outside your role as a ‘historian’, ‘linguist’ or etc when interacting with your speakers)

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.

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