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Beliefs and the Supernatural

Seminar context

Supernatural beliefs underpinned early modern understandings of the world. Individuals had different ideas about when legitimate religious values veered into superstition, but concepts of God, demons, angels, witches, ghosts, fairies and other non-natural beings were widely recognised. Some early modern beliefs remain familiar; others pose an interpretative puzzle for historians. In this session, we will talk about the methodological challenges involved in recreating past belief systems, and discuss how historians can make sense of several striking episodes.

To prepare for this session, please read the core reading and look over the four primary sources. Please also read one of the commentaries. Think about the lens through which the historian has interpreted the primary source, and the topic more generally. Can you think of alternative interpretative strategies?

 

Seminar questions

  • What beliefs do you hold about the world, and how have you formulated them? Are there notable similarities or differences in how early modern people formulated their beliefs?

  • Quentin Skinner writes that ‘however bizarre the beliefs we are studying may seem to be, we must begin by trying to make the agents who accepted them appear as rational as possible’. What does he mean by this? Do you agree?

  • How might historians interpret and explain the primary sources below?

 

Core reading

Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics, Volume I: Regarding Method (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), ch. 3 (‘Interpretation, rationality and truth’)

 

Primary sources – read/look at all four

John Dee’s Sigillum Dei (1582), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigillum_Dei#/media/File:Sloane3188-john_dee.png
See also https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/H_1838-1232-90-a

Discussion of possession of Marthe Brossier (1599), in Brian P. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2015), 312-17

Story of risen corpse of Breslau shoemaker (1591) in Henry More, An Antidote against Atheisme, 3rd edn (London, 1662 [first pub. in 2nd edn, 1655]), bk III, ch. VIII
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/An_Antidote_Against_Atheism/Book_III/Chapter_VIII

Examination of Tituba at Salem, Massachusetts (1692), in Brian P. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2015), 285-9


Commentaries on primary sources – read one

Stephen Clucas, ‘“False Illuding Spirits & Cownterfeiting Deuills”: John Dee’s Angelic Conversations and Religious Anxiety’, in Joad Raymond (ed.), Conversations with Angels: Essays Towards a History of Spiritual Communication, 1100-1700 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

Sarah Ferber, Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (London: Routledge, 2004), ch. 3

Stephen Gordon, ‘Emotional Practice and Bodily Performance in Early Modern Vampire Literature’, Preternature 6:1 (2017), 93-124.

Elaine G. Breslaw, ‘Tituba's Confession: The Multicultural Dimensions of the 1692 Salem Witch-Hunt’, Ethnohistory 44:3 (1997), 535-56

 

Further reading

General/methodological

Jonathan Barry and Owen Davies (eds), Palgrave Advances in Witchcraft Historiography (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

Edward Bever, The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe: Culture, Cognition and Everyday Life (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), introduction

Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion 1250-1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), introduction

Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), part I

Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds (London: Routledge, 2005), introduction


On angels

Deborah E. Harkness, John Dee’s Conversations with Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), ch. 3

Joad Raymond, Milton’s Angels: The Early-Modern Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), ch. 3

Alexandra Walsham, ‘Invisible Helpers: Angelic Intervention in Post-Reformation England’, Past & Present 208 (2010), 77-130


On possession

Philip C. Almond, Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England: Contemporary Texts and their Cultural Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), introduction

Brian P. Levack, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), ch. 1 or ch. 3

Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, & Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), ch. 1


On revenants/vampires

G. David Keyworth, ‘Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead-corpse?’, Folklore 117:3 (2006), 241-60

Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories: The Trial of the Pig, the Walking Dead, and Other Matters of Fact from the Medieval and Renaissance Worlds (London: Routledge, 2005), ch. 4

Koen Vermeir, ‘Vampires as “creatures of the imagination” in the Early Modern Period’ in Yasmin Haskell (ed.), Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2012), 341-73, available at https://www.academia.edu/2109012/Vampires_as_creatures_of_the_imagination_in_the_Early_Modern_Period
 

On Salem/witchcraft

Richard Godbeer, ‘Witchcraft in British America’ in Brian P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Julian Goodare, The European Witch-Hunt (London: Routledge, 2016), ch. 1

Elizabeth Reis, Damned Women: Sinners and Witches in Puritan New England (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), ch. 4

Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, 'hell' panel in The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490-1505)

Detail from Hieronymus Bosch, ‘hell’ panel in The Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1490-1505)