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Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World

The exhibition ‘Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World’ is on at the John Rylands Library in Manchester from 21 January to 21 August 2016. Curated by AHRC Early Career Fellow Dr Jennifer Spinks in collaboration with co-curator Dr Sasha Handley, the exhibition demonstrates the pervasiveness of supernatural beliefs in this era. Both curators work at the University of Manchester and have a background of researching and teaching related material in western contexts. This exhibition takes a step in a new direction, with unusually broad horizons. It includes stunning material from North West England, from mainland European, and from non-Western traditions.

"One of the most exciting aspects of the exhibition’, as Jennifer Spinks explains, ‘is how it looks at magical beliefs in European daily life while showing how similar fears and fascinations existed in other cultures, from Japan to the Islamic world".

The ‘Devil in Calicut’, in Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses (Paris, 1561). John Rylands Library, Special Collections 6659. Copyright of the University of Manchester.

Support from the AHRC for Jennifer’s larger project ‘Magic, Diabolism, and Global Religion in European Print Culture, 1500–1700’ (AH/L015013) fostered the exciting scope of this project. Jennifer – an expert on northern European print culture and religious history – was keen to examine how Europeans encountered and described the new religious rites and rituals they encountered beyond Europe. One key example in the exhibition is the ‘devil in Calicut’, a diabolical figure in sixteenth-century European print culture that demonstrates how Europeans sometimes literally demonised southern Indian religious material culture.

But this exhibition also offered scope to move beyond European perspectives. It draws on Manchester’s rich cultural collections to present material created outside western Europe. The fascinating items on display from the John Rylands Library, as well as the collections of the Whitworth Art Gallery and Chetham’s Library, include Persian manuscripts and a Japanese print of Shōki, a demon-battling god. Works like these sit alongside European books, manuscripts, prints and amulets.

Jennifer Spinks and Sasha Handley were joined on the project by Dr Stephen Gordon, employed as a postdoctoral Research Associate thanks to AHRC support. By pooling their expertise and drawing on the generous advice of colleagues, the exhibition project team has been able to mount a small-scale but conceptually ambitious project. It demonstrates in an entirely new and visually rich way how supernatural beliefs were central to the European traditions that form the core of the exhibition – from elite magicians to the daily use of amulets – but were also in many ways a global phenomenon. They hope that the project might lead to new and potentially international collaborations in the future.

This innovative project will reach wide audiences through the exhibition itself as well as a publication, available in print and online. A series of events will also augment and enrich the exhibition. In February 2016, workshops with school groups will use the exhibition to encounter cross-cultural supernatural beliefs. Other planned events include a symposium on ‘Supernatural Spaces in the Early Modern World’ in May 2016, with an international line-up of speakers. This symposium will build upon some of the most important themes in the exhibition, which include ‘Supernatural spaces and vulnerability’ and ‘Magic, nature and the body’. The project as a whole is integral to a new research cluster on the history of embodied emotions established by the curators at the University of Manchester.

The project also supports work towards a book-length study by Jennifer Spinks on European beliefs about prodigious and extraordinary events, and an article on European encounters with global magic in the sixteenth century. For further details and an online copy of the exhibition booklet, see: http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/whats-on/exhibitions/magic/

(Banner Image: Rustam slays the White Div, in Abu’l Qasim Firdousi (‘Ferdowsi’), Shahnama (Shiraz, 1542). John Rylands Library, Persian MS 932. Copyright of the University of Manchester). 


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