Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World: New exhibition shows diabolical encounters and ghosts from centuries ago

| 28 January 2016

A new exhibition at Manchester's John Rylands Library looks at how the supernatural affected everyone from kings and queens to clergymen and maidservants. This is a display with more than a hint of the devil in wait

A photo of the front of a book about black magic
Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic, Franconia (late 1500s)© Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester
In 1398, the University of Paris issued a decree against ritual magic. Denouncing necromancy – the elite practice of summoning evil spirits – its reference points were harmful magic, diabolical pacts influenced by the church’s somewhat dim view of “simple” magic practitioners and the failure of necromancers to conjure even a single demon, as opposed to those labelled as witches, who were feared by theologians to hold complete mastery over magic through a powerful commitment to the devil.

Aggressive witch-hunts, devil-disturbed societal anxieties and a widespread belief in the power of magic were features of early modern Europe, where brushes with the supernatural were accepted in everyday life. Purgatory was a “third place” where the souls of the dead were purged of sin so that ghosts could return to earth in search of the prayers which would assuage their path to heaven.

A photo of an illustration of people looking over a holy bed in 18th century England
Unknown artist, English Credulity, or The Invisible Ghost, England (1762)© Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester
Books followed suit and fed the hellish flames: one, titled Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witch) and produced sometime after 1480, was designed to help churchmen pinpoint cases of witchcraft, defining the protagonists as women who would harm or steal crops, “attack human health” and inhibit fertility.

Two female stereotypes became particularly powerful: the alluring young woman and the dried-up old ‘hag’. Regardless of age, female witches were believed to be in sexual thrall to the Devil, who was the source of their power. Yet this power came at a price and revealed the Devil’s deceptiveness: witches were given gold that turned to dung, or seduced by handsome men who later revealed their true, diabolical form.

An image of an illustration of a japanese figure fending off a ghost
Unknown artist, Shōki the Demon Queller, Japan (circa 1700-1724)© Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester
The story of the witch of Berkeley was illustrated for the first time in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, told as part of a historical narrative in a Christian framework. The half-naked witch, wrapped in her shroud, is shown claimed by the Devil after her death as payment for the magical powers given to her in life.

Suspicions were furthered by Albrecht Dürer’s Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat, and the fear factor seems to have prevailed in murderous fashion. “Cheap publications” reported witchcraft trials and gruesome punishments between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries – the most extreme came in Germany, where dozens or hundreds of people were tortured and executed in some towns.

A photo of a monoprint showing various figures battling witches
Agostino Veneziano, Lo Stregezzo (The Witches' Procession) (circa 1518-1531)© Courtesy The Whitworth, University of Manchester
Authority figures found guidance in books on stemming the perceived scourge, while devilish imagery – Satan himself was thought to be active on a global scale – became prominent, with witches said to travel long distances to meet up, make potions and share expertise. Stephen Gordon, of the University of Manchester, says spell books used by “educated magicians” were frequently destroyed when they were discovered by religious investigators.

“The Book of Black Magic and the Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic are typical examples of the genre,” he says of two of the exhibits attesting to the curiosity and paranoia of the 15th-18th centuries, both now held at Chetham’s Library, the Manchester building which is the oldest English-speaking library in the western world.

A photo of the front of a book about black magic
Book of Black Magic, England (late 1500s)© Chetham's Library
“The Book of Black Magic records spells that allow the magician to converse with spirits, find treasure and summon the ‘Queen of the Pharies’. The Compendium is much more streamlined and contains a single set of instructions to summon eight evil spirits.

“The Book of Black Magic was sometimes circulated under the name of Roger Bacon, the famous English philosopher. The Compendium was attributed to the astrologer Michael Scot, whose infamy as a supposed magician was noted even by the famous Italian poet Dante.”

A photo of an illustration from an ancient book showing various figures sitting around
A page from a manuscript of the Shahnama© Brooklyn Museum / Wikimedia Commons
Authors often used pseudonymous to assert authority. “Intriguingly, the Scot manuscript contained strange elements of Arabic artifice,” says Gordon.

“What appears to be a copy of an earlier spell, transcribed into corrupted or fake Arabic, was included as a precursor to its Latin ‘translation’. This was evidently designed to lend a sense of mystery as well as credibility to the conjurations contained within the book.” Classical learning in medieval Europe allowed the increasing translation of mystical texts from Arabic, Greek and Hebrew.

An image of a painting of a man in a forest searching for demons
Zhong Kui the Demon Queller with Five Bats from the Ming Dynasty. This painting is traditionally attributed to Wu Wei (1459-1508) but was probably painted by an anonymous painter from the period© Ashmolean Museum / Wikimedia Commons
“Eastern works on astrology, alchemy and Jewish mysticism strongly influenced the content of Western magic books. But the incantations themselves were mostly based on the rites of the Latin Church, especially the prayer cycles used for exorcism.

“Officially-sanctioned exorcisms by priests involved the expulsion of demons, but the aim of necromancy was to use God’s power to compel the evil spirit to do the magician’s bidding.

A greyscale artwork showing a scene full of ghosts inside a church
In William Hogarth's Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, the Cock Lane ghost is shown at the top of the thermometer, knocking to the girl in the bed© Scanned from The Genius of William Hogarth. Eds. Stuart Barton and Tony Curtis. Lyle Publications, 1972 or Ronald Paulson, Hogarth's Graphic Works. Print Room, 1989., Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
"The necromancer’s primary concern was often the acquisition of wealth, power and prestige. Books of magic were also circulated in non-Western contexts.

“Like some European charms and amulets designed to protect their owners, many were not considered demonic.”

Ten books and artworks to see in the exhibition

  • The charms contained in the Christian Syriac manuscript The Protection of People from All Kinds of Evil were performed mainly for protective and medical purposes - to cure back pain or prevent sudden death, for example. They invoked the power of saints rather than evil spirits.

  • The Shahnama (Book of Kings) was an epic poem that detailed Persian history from the beginning of the world to the arrival of Islam. It appeared in many manuscript editions and generated a vibrant artistic tradition. The story of Rustam’s fourth task saw the hero enter a land populated by demons and sorcerers, where he was approached by a witch in the guise of a beautiful young woman. Realising her true nature when she recoiled at hearing the name of God, Rustam ordered her to ‘speak and show thy proper favour’. Returning to her hideous, wrinkled appearance, she was quickly put to the sword.

  • The Italian print known as The Witches’ Procession shows a witch riding a terrifying, monstrous skeleton and accompanied by pagan attendants. Her victims include children clustered at her feet, and she grasps the closest child by its skull while holding a vessel. Legal and religious texts of the period sometimes described witches cooking infants to make deadly potions.

  • Powerful rulers also had interests in alchemy, a procedure which aimed to transform the five base metals (copper, iron, tin, lead and mercury) into the precious metals gold and silver. On a mystical level, the alchemical process could be used as an allegory for the resurrection of Christ and the transformation of the human soul. This idea of ‘spiritual alchemy’ is expressed quite clearly in the 15th century Book of the Holy Trinity.

  • Practical alchemists such as Conrad Gesner focused on the health-giving properties of liquids distilled from plants and animals. John Dee, the suspected magician and former warden of Christ’s College, Manchester (now Chetham’s), had a keen interest in the subject, as suggested by the number of annotations in his copy of Gesner’s 1555 Book of Little Known Remedies.

  • The fear that the household could be infiltrated by demons is further emphasised in the Concordance of Charity, a typological handbook that showed how events from the Old Testament of the Bible prefigured the actions of Christ in the New Testament. In a detail showing the ‘Parable of the Unclean Spirit’, a woman sweeps away four imp-like demons from the roof of her house. The protective qualities attached to the act of sweeping have long been a part of European folklore.

  • The Three Living and Three Dead demonstrates the fearful impact of unexpected encounters. Having been approached by three rotting corpses while out hunting, the three living hold their hands up in terror at the sight of their doppelgangers. The message is clear: death is an unstoppable force that strikes nobles and peasants alike.

  • Divided opinions about the existence of ghosts are vividly represented in one satirical print of the Cock Lane ghost. The bedroom is divided between educated gentlemen who ridicule the ghost as an elaborate fraud or an optical illusion, and believers − mostly women and servants − who surround the bed, fearing that the ghost is a messenger from God. Belief in supernatural phenomena was widely supernatural. Appearances of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena were investigated and sometimes defended by scientists and clergymen. They were visible satirised as the stuff of children’s stories told by ‘superstitious’ women and nursemaids.

  • Diabolical threats were also encountered on the deathbed. Dying in a state of sin meant that the soul was liable to suffer the pains of damnation or else wander the earth as a ghost. The Art of Dying was designed to help people achieve a good death. Images of poor deathbed performances (listed as faithlessness, despair, impatience, vainglory and avarice) were contrasted with those showing how the dying person should behave (with faith, hope, patience, humility and worldly detachment). ‘The Temptation to Avarice’ scene, for example, shows a group of demons pointing to the dying man’s possessions and loved ones, reminding him of the things he will soon leave behind.

  • The vulnerability of children to diabolical forces was a belief that was shared with many people beyond Europe’s borders. A print of Chinese deity Shōki the Demon Queller shows the strong, bearded God stabbing a demon with a parasol and sword. Shōki’s image was typically hung in the homes of wealthy Japanese merchants to protect their young male heirs from malevolent spirits, especially on the annual Boys’ Day (‘Duanwu’) Festival.

  • Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World is at the John Rylands Library, Manchester until August 21 2016. Visit the exhibition online for more and use the hashtag #jrlmagic.

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