This post was written by Simon Baker, Editor, Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH) in the IHR. It is one of a series of blog posts on the theme of Magic and the Supernatural, as part of History Day 2017.
As 31 October looms we all know what that means, no not Halloween, but History Day. And of course the theme this year is the occult and all things that go bump in the night. BBIH is a big supporter of History Day – it’s well organised with lots of participants and interesting panel sessions. It also gives BBIH the opportunity to showcase research on this year’s theme – the occult and its many facets. So grab your broomstick, cauldron, and crystal ball and we’ll delve into the world of the dark arts.
Naturally BBIH has lots of material on the occult. The snapshot from the subject tree shows the range of search terms that can be used.
A search on the broader term Occult beliefs and practices brings up over 1500 entries including witchcraft trails, the devil in post-Reformation Scotland and British Intelligence and the occult in the Second World War.
The term Magic (occult), as opposed to entertainment, has nearly 300 entries covering the subject from the Roman period to imperial history with the article amulets from Roman London, the Sophie Page book, Magic in the cloister: pious motives, illicit interests, and occult approaches to the medieval universe, a Tudor necromancer’s manual, and the West Indian obeah belief.
Of course there is much on witches and witchcraft trails, and specific places can be searched for, such as the witches of Pendle Forest as well as the clerk of the court who recorded the proceedings, Thomas Potts.
Witchcraft also features in dramas (and not only by Shakespeare), as in the case of The Witch of Edmonton by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. Of course, witches are often associated with the early modern period, but there are medieval examples, as in the trail of Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester in 1441, as well as more modern examples such as Helen Duncan, the last witch to be prosecuted in Britain and the “wickedest man in the world”, Aleister Crowley.
Other areas of witchcraft to be considered (apart from the usual trials) are the influence of emotions, as explored in Emotions in the history of witchcraft by Laura Kouine and Michael Ostling, which includes the chapter, Tyrannical beasts: Male witchcraft in early modern English culture. Other fruitful subjects of research may be the witches’ familiar discussed in Guardian spirits or demonic pets : the concept of the witch’s familiar in early modern England, 1530-1712 (a chapter in The animal/human boundary: historical perspectives).
Additional related topics are alchemy, as well as its associated personalities such as the mathematician, astrologer, and antiquarian John Dee, and of course spiritualism. Searching on Spiritualism and Photography (prompted by the IHR exhibition Accusations of Witchcraft featuring a photograph of the aforementioned Helen Duncan) brings up a list of useful articles.
The term “Prophecy and prediction” (which includes astrology) naturally covers religious elements, such as mysticism, but also includes dreams, politics, the influence of history, and printed media as well as personalities such as Joanna Southcott and Lady Eleanor Davies.
Whatever your research topic you’re bound to find something of interest in BBIH and at History Day 2017.