My name is Tom and I am embarking on a PhD in History at the University of Manchester this autumn. I studied for my BA in History at Manchester and I’m currently finishing my masters in Gender History at the University of Glasgow. In between these courses I spent a year working as an English Language Assistant in two secondary schools in Lille, France. During my undergraduate studies I developed a passion for early modern beliefs about the supernatural and I wrote a dissertation on sixteenth-century French demonological treatises (you could call these witch-hunting manuals!). My research has now taken me to the phenomenon of demonic possession in sixteenth and seventeenth-century France and England, particularly on how possession narratives contributed to the cultural construction of the body.
Demonic Possession may seem strange to us now, something you expect to see in a horror film, but during the early modern period it was an extremely important phenomenon. There were perhaps thousands of cases of possession and exorcism across continental Europe, including France, during the early modern period (c. 1500-1800).Young boys and girls, often teenagers or young adults, were recorded as having seizures, possessing unnatural strength, speaking in ‘foreign tongues’, levitating and spitting out objects like pins and nails. There are many cases in France where entire convents of nuns were said to be possessed by the devil. During the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, when Western Christianity split and Protestant churches emerged, demonic possession and exorcism acted as a vehicle of religious propaganda, a way of showing which religious denomination God favoured.
However it was also an important phenomenon for everyday people. Men and women flocked to see public exorcisms in France and there was a booming book trade which centred on stories of demoniacs (a possessed person) which would rival the best Stephen King novel. In this way demonic possession can be viewed as a type of performance, even a form of mass-entertainment. This is where my research centres. I’m interested in why demonic possession was such an important phenomenon in this period but also how it affected other areas of people’s lives. I look at the use of the body within the performance of demonic possession and how it was written about and understood. I use a wealth of documentation left behind, from the trials of witches accused of causing possession, personal and witness testimonies of possessions and exorcisms and the wealth of printed books which distributed these narratives to a mass audience. In doing so I hope to shed light on how beliefs surrounding the supernatural were connected to early modern cultural ideas about the body and the life-cycle.
I developed my interest for this area of history in my final year of undergraduate studies during a module on Witch-Hunting in Early Modern Europe and I was supported by my supervisors in developing this project. Having French language skills made this a viable PhD project and so if I could give one word of advice it would be to learn a language! Not only do languages give you a competitive edge in academia or on the job market but they’re actually pretty fun and (cliché alert) really do take you places. It was fantastic having the opportunity to live in France and practice my French for a year. I gained life-long friends and memories plus I’ve picked up practical skills in the process. It’s never too late to learn either! I started learning Latin this year and in fact your first year at university is the perfect time to experiment. Manchester’s University Language Centre lets you take a language as part of any degree programme. You may not have clicked with French, German or Spanish at school but have you ever thought about Portuguese, Polish, Chinese or even Arabic? Try it and who knows where you’ll end up!
There really is a wealth of on-line resources out there on early modern Europe and the Supernatural. Also, in 2016 there will be an exhibition, “Magic and the Expanding Early Modern World”, at John Rylands Library on Deansgate!
15-Minute History: “Demonic Possession” in Early Modern Europe (Podcast) (http://15minutehistory.org/2013/10/23/demonic-possession-in-early-modern-europe/)
The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft (http://www.shca.ed.ac.uk/Research/witches/)
The Damned Art: The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (Internet Exhibition) (http://www.gla.ac.uk/services/specialcollections/virtualexhibitions/damnedart/)
The Many-Headed Monster (Blog) (https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/)
The Pendle Witch Trial (Documentary) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yv-JDUfADiw)
A helpful website on European Witchcraft (http://www.witchcraftandwitches.com/index.html)
Women and the Early Modern Witch Hunts (Blog Post) (http://www.jesswatson.co.uk/post/78990856670/women-and-the-early-modern-witch-hunts)