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Back to the Future? Look North – It’s Positively Medieval!

by YPU Admin on December 7, 2017, Comments. Tags: literature, medieval, PhD, and Research

Introduction

My name is Gillian and I am an AHRC funded first year PhD candidate at the University of Manchester. The focus of my research is the medieval religious dramas (known as the mystery plays) that originated from areas of the north of England, specifically those associated with the cities of York and Chester, along with those contained in the Towneley manuscript that appear to have some connection with the Wakefield area. I did my undergraduate degree in English Literature at Manchester where my passion for medieval literature soon became apparent. Having achieved a First Class B.A., I went on to study my M.A. in Medieval Studies also at the University of Manchester. Hard work is rewarded at Manchester – I got a scholarship which enabled me to study for a Master’s with all fees waived!

 

In Depth…

Medieval literature may seem rather irrelevant to a modern society, but I believe that there are important challenges that we face today on global levels that have precedent in medieval society. Negotiating borders and boundaries, tensions inherent in religious beliefs and differences, the global economic and environmental challenges we face today – all of these, I contend, were of concern to medieval people who imagined the consequences of these challenges in ways which could appeal to an everyday, non-academic audience. The texts of the religious dramas are, on a very basic level, re-workings of Christian biblical narratives that depict the story of the bible from Creation to Doomsday. But they are also much more than that. People wrote how they spoke well into the seventeenth century (and in some cases well beyond this) and so what you can also tell from these stories is where these plays could have been best understood, in the region in which they were written. They are regional texts written with a preferred audience in mind. Part of the humour which, perhaps surprisingly, runs through these plays, depends upon local dialects – they promote regionalism as a mode of belonging just as much as any religious persuasion. My research is currently investigating the plays’ depiction of Noah and the flood from the three different regional perspectives of York, Chester, and the West Riding of Yorkshire (Wakefield). The questions I am posing are whether the differences between the plays’ dramatization of similar material is influenced by the environment of their production – do they display an acknowledgement of the very real threat of global environmental disaster caused by flooding that is of concern to everyone today? Do they promote inclusive community reaction and therefore action? Or do they display more individual responses that reveal exclusions and self-interest? During the summer months I will be visiting both York and Chester where the plays are being staged again. I want to ask the people who go to see these plays today what they get out of them, why do they still go? Why do the cities still produce these plays? What relevance do they have in today’s society? Can they be produced to appeal to a multi-faith international community, or do the choices taken by the producers of these modern versions maintain notions of civic imperialism and Christian elitism? My research will investigate these plays as transtemporal texts to suggest that each rendering of familiar material has specific differences in order to offer a very regional mode of both belonging and questioning as the following medieval images reveal. The first image is from a manuscript housed in the John Rylands library – look at all the fantastical beasts, and then see how the raven pecks at the eye of the corpse not among the chosen few on Noah’s ark. Were Noah and his family the first boat people, early refugees?

 

 There are twelve people in the image below, but only eight made it onto the ark – go figure!

 

 How do the texts respond to/replicate/question these contemporary images?

Going Further…

(www.inthemedievalmiddle.com) A really useful website detailing the lastest research areas of key medieval scholars and the relevance of medieval literature to modern society.

(www.alc.manchester.ac.uk) A key contact point for all current information regarding entry requirements, course components, etc. in the School of Arts, Languages, and Cultures at the University of Manchester.

(www.luminaruim.org) A veritable treasure trove of free to access information/essays/texts on all things medieval.

(www.medievalsociety.blogspot.co.uk) Blog from the Manchester Medieval Society which is run by current academics who are all at the cutting edge of research in their fields. All are welcome to join and join in!

 

 

Witchcraft and demonic possession!

by YPU Admin on July 9, 2015, Comments. Tags: demons, french, history, Humanities, imagery, medieval, Religion, Research, theology, and witchcraft

Introduction

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.

In Depth

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!

Going Further

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)