February 01, 2022

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

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/flt/

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

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/supernatural/

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

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/flt/

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'

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/flt/

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: https://thijsporck.com/2016/08/08/paws-pee-and-pests/)! 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

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/supernatural/

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

November 10, 2021

Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World: Introducing Camilo Uribe Botta's research

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/flt/

In this second blog post relating to the HRC conference on 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World', the other co-organiser, Camilo Uribe Botta, a third year PhD student in History, explains his own doctoral research and how it links to the theme of the conference.

My thesis investigates the commerce of Colombian orchids in Victorian Britain. During the nineteenth century, orchids became a trendy plant, creating a phenomenon called orchidomania, reminding of the once-famous tulip fever in the Netherlands. Today orchids still fascinate people, and they are plants relatively easy to buy and maintain. Still, in the nineteenth century, orchids were a newly discovered rarity coming from the tropics, scarce to obtain, expensive to buy and difficult to maintain. With a privileged geographic position in the tropics, Colombia became one of the main spots for plant collectors to hunt for orchids.

Masdevallia coccinea

Figure 1: Masdevallia coccinea. http://specimens.kew.org/herbarium/K000880309 © copyright of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

As more orchids were discovered and new species arrived in Europe, these plants were conceived with different meanings. First of all, they were seen as botanical curiosities as they slowly but firmly gained a place in the British botanic and horticultural world. Then, as knowledge about their habitat and reproduction methods advanced, as scientific objects, they earned a place in the scientific debates in the middle of the century. And finally, as the plant became more popular as a luxurious commodity, being an example of the British imperial project for discovering, classifying and obtaining natural resources around the globe.

But the presence of orchids was not always in the form of a living plant. Many orchids arrived in Britain in the form of herbarium specimens. European herbariums count thousands of orchids collected in the tropics during the nineteenth century, collected for scientific purposes to classify this exciting family of plants. These items, once living plants, are carefully dried, pressed and mounted on a paper sheet and stored in an artificial environment, where the plant can stay still for centuries.

From the very beginning, orchids also appeared in the form of botanical illustrations and works of art. Lavishly illustrated books were published with the most elegant and delicate tropical orchids as part of a broad Victorian orchid literature: horticultural manuals, travel journals, collectors books, novels and short stories represented orchids as exotic, sometimes even dangerous plants. These visual and written representations of orchids were instrumental in popularising these plants in Victorian society beyond the scientific world.

Masdevallia coccinea

Figure 2: Masdevallia coccinea. Woolward, Florence H; Lehmann, F.C. The genus Masdevallia. London: R.H. Porter, 1896. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.46205 Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Contributed by Missouri Botanical Garden. Peter H. Raven Library. | www.biodiversitylibrary.org

Orchids becoming more famous led to a boom in the commercialization of these plants. Technology made greenhouses more accessible to different segments of society, and orchid hunters were sent to catch plants all over the tropics. More than sixty visited Colombia in the nineteenth century, sending living plants to Europe by thousands where big commercial nurseries were selling them at expensive auctions. This orchidomania had a devastating environmental impact with limited success, as many plants arrived death through hard travel from South America.

These are some of the topics I have been working on in my research. In connection with Cheng's work, we are interested in the material culture approach to the objects of our study. More specifically, we are interested in the layers of meanings things have. These layers of meanings could be defined by the cultural and social contexts these objects belong to. But also as part of their movement in a global world. And these meanings also represent objects in different ways. For example, in my case, orchids as botanical curiosities are more likely to be part of artistic and literary representations, orchids as scientific objects appeared more in herbarium specimens and orchids as commodities appeared more as living plants. And I think not only plants were considered in this way, but exotic animals and even people sometimes had a variety of meanings when we follow them across the world from different geographical, social and cultural contexts.

October 27, 2021

Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World: Introducing Cheng He's research

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/flt/

In this first blog post relating to the HRC conference on 'Following Living Things and Still Lifes in a Global World', one of the co-organisers, Cheng He, a third year PhD student in History, explains how the theme of the conference links to her own doctoral research.

My thesis on lacquer centres around people’s understanding of this material in early modern England. Today lacquer means a kind of sticky liquid applied to the surface of objects. It forms a shiny and protective layer after dried. The word is often interchangeably used with ‘varnish’. Lacquer can also refer to varnished objects. In museums and stately houses, we can often come across lacquer furniture such as cabinets (Fig. 1), folding screens, or smaller objects including tea caddies, writing boxes, etc. Some of them were made in Asia and brought to Europe through maritime trade since the sixteenth century. Some were locally made to imitate Asian lacquer, whose smooth and reflective surface was highly praised in early modern period.

Japanned cabinet

Japanned cabinet on stand, English, c. 1690, 218 cm x 101.6 cm x 49.5 cm, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

When I was considering about the specific topic of my doctoral research, my focus was actually on the export lacquerware made in China. I thought it would be interesting to trace how these objects were designed, made and received by European collectors. This topic is still attractive to me, which would be fascinating to pursue. However, when I started to write the research proposal and looked up the word ‘lacquer’ in a dictionary, I was surprised to find that the first meaning of the word was not varnish nor varnished objects. Instead, the word has a long history with different meanings.

Therefore I realised that it was not proper to have a presumption about the definition of lacquer, especially if I wanted to study how this material was perceived by early modern people. I took it for granted that ‘lacquer’ had exactly the same definition as it does today. But the meanings of lacquer in early modern period were not just about a craft but also the plants that produced the raw material for making varnish. Then there was another question: when did the line between craft and raw material, between artificial and natural lacquer become clear in this case? Was it a smooth process?

If the meaning of lacquer was not settled, and when there was more than one type of raw material to be used for making varnish, did people differentiate them and how? In addition, varnish was not a processed material that can only be find in one geographical area, but also in many places all over the world, then did the definition of lacquer change because of the diversity of the raw materials? Was there any hierarchical ranking of these materials? Would this affect how people understood lacquer objects?

Above are some questions that I’ve been working on in my research. I believe lacquer is not the only material that is worth similar questioning. When placed in a different time period, the understanding and definition of a material could be different. This may include a less clear-cut conception between a natural material and objects made of this material. Moreover, if its raw material or related craft can be found in different parts of the world, the understanding of an object could be more complicated. Based on this, we can ask if a material was thought to possess the same identity after being transferred to a different region, processed into other objects and represented in a different form (like a print or painting), since this was associated with its interpretation. In this sense, can we say a still material is ‘living’ because its identity and cultural meanings are constantly changing?

In short, unstable identity and categorisation of a material is one aspect that led to the topic of this conference. When a material and the knowledge of it spread and interacted with each other, the story might be intricate and yet rich. In next blog entry, my colleague Camilo will talk about his research, which shares certain common ground with mine and at the same time provides other elements to the conference topic.

Cheng He (PhD student in History)

October 07, 2021

The Supernatural: Reflections on Research

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/supernatural/

To accompany their The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World conference, 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 the first blog, Francesca and Imogen reflect on their respective research interests and how they relate to the conference.

The supernatural is, scholars argue, a form of religious discourse that allows individuals to express ‘otherwise unspeakable fears’.[1] Subsequently, supernatural narratives are inextricably tied to different modes of suffering, giving voice to things like mental anguish, bodily pain or collective social anxieties that people had no other means of expressing. By way of introduction to our conference, today’s blog will reflect on how our respective doctoral projects and wider interests intersect with its core themes, that of the supernatural and suffering. As our shared interest in these themes has encouraged us to work closely alongside one another, in hosting an interdisciplinary conference around them we hope to weave together even more strands of research into the supernatural to provide a greater appreciation of how suffering has been represented in a multitude of mystical, magical and metaphysical ways across the pre-modern world.


Woodcut (1790), Wellcome Collection

Francesca’s interest in ‘the supernatural’ began during her undergraduate degree at Warwick when she wrote an essay on Elizabeth Barton, an illiterate domestic servant turned prophet of God, whose opposition to the Henrician religious reforms looked to threaten the whole regime. From then on, Francesca consistently combined her fascination for the popular religious belief systems of early modernity with her passion for the study of women and gender, culminating in her current doctoral studies at Warwick. Her PhD thesis uses the supernatural and other mystical phenomena to explore female experiences in post-Reformation England.

Supernatural tales abound in this period and in offering a thorough-going gendered analysis of the fantastical reports of ghosts and fairies, the legal records of witches and wise-women, and the remarkable narratives of demoniacs and prophets, Francesca seeks to demonstrate how such ‘extraordinary’ sources may shed new light on ‘ordinary’ women. From the inner lives to the outer worlds of women, her research explores themes of embodiment, motherhood, sexuality and marriage, religious conflict, socioeconomic and political participation. In studying these disparate themes under the unifying lens of the supernatural, Francesca seeks to underscore the multifaceted ways in which women’s thoughts, feelings and experiences found alternative outlets. The theme of suffering routinely intersects with Francesca’s work, from the corporeal torments of women demoniacs to the emotional anguish of mothers who blame purported witches for the death of their child. More generally, religious suffering, such as self-mortification and ‘anorexia mirabilis’, is of particular interest.[2]


Hannah Trapnel, a Quaker and a pretended prophet (1823), Wellcome Collection

Imogen’s fascination with the supernatural also started during undergrad studies at Exeter. After studying the witchcraft of early modern Europe, and broader supernatural phenomena of England, she became interested in the taboo behaviour of possessed and bewitched children. Like Francesca, Imogen’s research employs stories of the supernatural to uncover experiences otherwise obscured from the historical record. Her thesis explores suicide and self-harm in Britain, between 1560 and 1735, and uses accounts of encounters with witches, devils, ghosts, fairies, and other spirits.

Traditionally, the history of suicide is studied through coroners’ records produced in the aftermath of such a death taking place, but in using the supernatural, Imogen may access the experiences of people who considered, and even attempted suicide, but did not necessarily take their own lives. This work also engages with the emerging historical field of self-harm, exploring the permeable boundary between fatal and non-fatal self-injurious acts in the early modern period.

Witches and demons regularly tempted individuals to harm themselves. Even in meeting ghosts, fairies and other seemingly less threatening spirits, people could be so affected that they became suicidal. The experience of temptation, and the feeling of despair, are crucial to suicidality in these contexts. Imogen’s work views the supernatural as a means through which early modern people could articulate and work through suicidal feelings, without being received as mad or sinful by those around them. Thus, her work ties the supernatural with both emotional and bodily suffering.

The History of Witches and Wizards (1720)

W. P., The history of witches and wizards (1720), p.128, Wellcome Collection

After beginning our PhD studies as part of the same cohort and even sharing a supervisor at Warwick, we quickly discovered the significant crossover in our research: our projects employ the supernatural as a means of uncovering obscured voices, and view it as a further means to express or alleviate various forms of suffering. Crucially, our aim in this conference is not to exploit or sensationalise narratives of suffering, but to restore dignity to the people and the stories we discuss. The HRC’s doctoral fellowship is therefore the ideal opportunity to unite our projects and furthermore provide an exciting platform for fresh perspectives in the broad field of the supernatural.

Both our research focuses on the early modern period in Britain, with our work spanning the mid-sixteenth to the early-eighteenth centuries, however our conference is designed to reach beyond this scope. We will be inviting participants to present work pertaining to our themes from any ‘pre-modern’ temporality and geographical context (topics which we’ll be exploring in our next blog post).


[1] Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996), p. 2

[2] See Rudolph Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago, 1985); Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1987)

June 14, 2021

A Conversation between the Conference Organisers

In this final blog post of the At Home in Empire: Colonial Experiences of Intimacy and Mobility conference series, Hannah and Liz reflect on their experience as conference organisers and the impact of the conference on their own PhD research.

Hannah and Liz

Liz: It’s been a few months now since the conference - how did you enjoy it?

Hannah: I really enjoyed it and was so happy with how everything went. It was great to have such a variety of papers addressing subjects spread across time and space, and I also liked how it brought together researchers from around the world. It was good to be exposed to topics I had not encountered before as well as more familiar themes, which I found refreshing.

Liz: Definitely! I felt that the panels spoke to each other beautifully and there were rich conversations taking place across the day because so many of our speakers really took the themes of the conference and ran with them. I was also really grateful so many people attended and participated from across the globe, staying up late or getting up early. It was a tiring day though - but I think I did expect to be more stressed on the day and it ended up going smoothly! I think if we did it again, we would possibly try and avoid the “Zoom fatigue” and maybe spread it across two afternoons and build in more time for discussion. We had so many great applications that we packed as many papers in as possible, to which there are pros and cons.

Hannah: I completely agree. I think that is one of things I have learnt, not just from our conference, but other online events I’ve attended over this period of lockdown. I can see the benefits of splitting what would traditionally be a day-long, face-to-face conference across a couple of days online because it was a long time to be sat, focusing on a screen. There were so many interesting questions and discussions which developed out of the panels that it would have been good to have had longer for discussion. But, it is a learning process and I think overall, the day worked well. How did the conference make you reflect on your own research?

Liz: When we were first developing the conference and building our proposal and CFP, one of the key themes for me was the emphasis on anxiety. I was approaching it from having freshly read Ranajit Guha’s article but also arguments from Kenneth Ramchand, drawing on Frantz Fanon, that white Caribbean writers displayed a sense of “terrified consciousness”. So the whole conference really helped me to think through some of these ideas further and interrogate that anxiety of dislocation or not quite belonging. However, I also took so much away from the panel on Spaces of Encounter. It’s so important for my own research on whiteness in Jamaica to decentre the white gaze and to understand how whiteness has been challenged and contested. This panel made me think about the relationships that occurred across domestic settings and how those could disrupt over-simplistic readings. Power dynamics were very much there, but there were also examples of intimacy, dependency, and vulnerability.

Hannah: For me, I was thinking about the first panel this morning! I will be doing an exhibition as part of my PhD and that panel reinforced to me the importance of considering how this research will be represented, communicated, and accessed within museum spaces. The papers highlighted the power of the curator in telling the historical narrative and the politics of how objects are displayed in both the home and museums. This is something I need to carefully consider in my own work. I was also interested in the examples of children and the disruption or absence of home in their colonial experiences, which was a thread running through many of the papers. The lives of foundlings I am researching reveal complex interactions with British colonialism and their absence of a home, other than an institutional setting, has started me thinking about how children function as historical actors and how they interpreted this idea of “home”. How did foundlings of colour think about home? How did they think about their own sense of belonging? Where and how did they forge their homes in eighteenth-century Britain?

Liz: What do you think has been the major takeaway for you?

Hannah: Food! The significance of food was evident in several of the papers, which was an interesting and unexpected ingredient (see what I did there!) of the day. Food could be a way to maintain a sense of home and belonging, to build and develop networks in new places, or even as a form of resistance as in the case of Warak Anab. More generally, I think the conference demonstrated the fundamental human need to create or recreate ‘home’, which spans time and space, and the significance of which has been brought into sharp focus during our own experiences of living through the pandemic. It was a surreal experience to be doing a conference about the home whilst sitting at home.

Liz: I think for me it was the parallels that came through from across different places and different times. There were so many commonalities alongside the specificity of different contexts and experiences. Kate Smith’s keynote was a powerful conclusion that brought together these different threads. Returning to the start of the day in a country house to moving across different spaces, different encounters, the power of the gaze, Kate’s paper brought together this emphasis on the importance of constantly having to negotiate and construct “home”. Looking across the different sources that people were working with, I was struck by the labour that went into making and remaking homes, whether that was in terms of cooking or keeping diaries, writing letters, drawing and painting; it was an ongoing process and never something to be taken for granted.

Hannah: So, finally would you do it all again?

Liz: Maybe - but not just yet! It’s been quite nice not to be worrying about the administrative side for a while, checking emails and trying to keep track of everything. But I did enjoy it and learned a lot from the experience.

Hannah: I agree, the administrative side was probably the most stressful part of the process as there was always the worry that we had forgotten to do something. However, it was great to have someone to share the journey with, and I think we worked well together which ultimately resulted in a really successful conference.

Thank you again to everyone who attended and participated in the conference, and particularly to the Warwick Humanities Research Centre for their support and generous funding.

May 13, 2021

Reflecting on the Afternoon: Mobility and Intimacy

Session 3 – Mobile Lives and Distant Homes

Our first papers of the afternoon developed many of themes explored in the previous panel, pushing further our thinking and discussions about practices of home-making and belonging. We designed this panel to centre around mobility and distance, asking how home could be at once imagined and material, a complex composite of different experiences, emotions, and negotiations.

Kate Donnington’s fascinating work on the Hibbert family moved us across the Atlantic and back to examine the complexity of family life between Jamaica and Britain in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Her paper was carefully attuned to the power dynamics of the masculine space of the early Hibbert world in Kingston, reflecting on the sexual “transgressions” with unnamed women whose lives and experiences remain tantalisingly just out of reach in the archive. Marriage, however, marked a clear change for Robert Hibbert, and Donnington powerfully evoked the tensions which arose between Hibbert’s white creole wife and his mother on the couple’s return to Cheshire.

Alex Lindgren-Gibson then followed with her study of Mermanjan, a young woman from Afghanistan who eloped with a colonel in the British army during the nineteenth century. While the story of the so-called “Afghan princess” has been written about and embellished several times, Lindgren-Gibson’s rich analysis of Mermanjan’s scrapbooks asked new questions about how she experienced her mobility across colonial spaces and how she felt about her relationships. From her romantic first marriage, her more painful second marriage, to the bonds of female friendship, Lindgren-Gibson explored Mermanjan’s authorship over her own story through her sketches.

Photograph of Mermanjan

Above: Photograph of Mermanjan in the early days of her marriage - India Office Private Papers Mss Eur E304/, British Library.

Finally, Mikko Toivanen turned to the childhood experiences of mobility and home through the diaries of Corry and Hugh Loudon who travelled to the Dutch East Indies during the 1870s. For these children, their experiences of mobility were disorientating as they compared the new spaces they encountered with the familiarity of home in the Netherlands. Their writing often expressed difficulty at reading gender roles, as well as feelings of discomfort as they came face to face with their own whiteness in the colonial setting.

Together these papers emphasised the intimate bonds and expressions that undercut the mobile lives of their historical subjects. Their focus on personal and private sources, such as diaries, letters, and scrapbooks, suggest the ongoing navigation of identity and belonging that underpinned the colonial experience.

Session 4 – Spaces of Encounter

Our final panel delved further into this theme of intimacy, centring the home as a space of encounter. As later questions rightly framed, often the emphasis on home during the conference looked to the homes of those in power. While this panel largely maintained this emphasis, the papers also offered space for new stories and perspectives to come to the forefront.

For example, Marie Grace Brown’s discussion of male Sudanese servants working for British colonial officers during the 1930s powerfully evoked the contradictions and multifaceted relationships that could characterise the employer-employee dynamic. As men employed to perform so-called “women’s work”, these servants effectively ‘ran the bachelor’, holding domain over the kitchen in ways that could both expose and collapse distance. Food, again, played an important role in building eaffective relationships, going beyond sustenance to promote familiarity and sentimentality.

As Brown left us eating ice-cream on the veranda, Rosie Dias followed with a fantastic analysis of the veranda or terrace as a hybrid space where the colonial house did not – or could not – escape its colonial setting. Looking across a range of visual representations in colonial India, Dias explored the gender, racial, and cultural negotiations on display in this blurring space. While Johan Zoffany’s portrait of the Impey family exposes both self-fashioning and anxiety, the works of Julia Margaret Cameron and Marianne North speak to the female inhabitation of the oriental gaze as they photographed and painted pedlars from their veranda.

Dias’s emphasis on visual representations was continued by Ellen Smith who combined photographs and postcards with her wider study of letter-writing. Rounding off this panel, Smith complicated typical post-1857 narratives of colonial India by emphasising the constant lived interaction and bodily contact between coloniser and colonised. She suggested there at times existed an uneasy state of sociability, exposing the moments of tension and misunderstandings on the part of missionaries who might misread important class and familial dynamics.

Group Portrait of Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, c.1783-1784

Above: Group Portrait of Sir Elijah and Lady Impey, ca. 1783 – 1784. Oil on canvas, 91.5 x 122 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.


Finally, we were delighted to welcome Kate Smith as our keynote speaker. Provoked by the Ranajit Guha article from which the conference took its inspiration, Smith interrogated the interlaced relationship between anxiety and home in the experiences of Sarah Elizabeth Amherst as she lived in India with her parents during the nineteenth century. Through her journals, Smith identified how Amherst continued to feel a sense of unhomeliness while travelling across the subcontinent, experiencing India as a space unknown and unknowable, while highly conscious of herself as someone subject to the gaze of those she encountered. The journals themselves were written with others in mind, namely her brother who remained in England, allowing her to maintain a sense of belonging and connection to “home” in Britain. This forging of intimate connections while navigating distance also took material forms as the arrival and expectation of correspondence via the packet service was accompanied by long periods of waiting and fears of disruption.

Lady Sarah Elizabeth Amherst

Above: Lady Sarah Elizabeth Amherst's sketch of the East wing of Government House, Calcutta (1824).

Smith’s keynote beautifully tied together the conference, evoking the key themes of materiality, representations, intimacy, mobility, and anxiety that cut across the earlier panels. In our next and final blog post, we will reflect further on these themes and the next avenues for our thinking and the conference. Until then, we wish to express again our thanks to all speakers, chairs, and participants for making the conference such a rich and thought-provoking event.

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