By Professor Martin Hurcombe, Professor of French Studies, School of Modern Languages
It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in May 2020. The sun is glinting off Chew Lake. There is the sound of birds I’m too ignorant to know the names of. And on both sides of the road there is a steady stream of cyclists. Not just the regular MAMILs* like me who you’ll always find out here this time of day, but cyclists of all ages and sizes, many of them on bikes a lot newer than mine. I count them over an hour; there are six cyclists for every motorist.
During those awful first weeks of lockdown, many of us found some respite from the horrors unfolding around us in our ability to cycle, run or just walk away from the homes and the online world to which we were otherwise confined. Bike sales went through the roof as we all realised that, once you take away the bulk of the traffic, roads make pretty good cycle paths and cycling is both an efficient and pleasant way of getting about (particularly when the sun shines).
There was also a lot of serious debate about how the pandemic would transform our working lives. Most of us would probably be working from home for years. Time saved by not commuting could be reinvested in leisure; not the constant consumption of those tiresome pre-pandemic weekends spent trudging around out-of-town retail outlets, but what researchers call active leisure (running, walking, cycling, etc), activities that we could now integrate into our daily lives. Perhaps, despite the dystopia of a health service under constant strain, we could emerge healthier and happier as a nation. ‘A better world is possible’, the slogan painted onto the main road through Long Ashton declared as I cycled towards it on my first trip into Bristol coming out of lockdown.
We caught some of this spirit in Active in Lockdown (AIL), a project that Dr Melanie Chalder (Bristol Medical School) and I ran in collaboration with Knowle West Media Centre. By collecting social media posts, and helping volunteers to capture and reflect upon their experiences of cycling, running, or walking during the three national lockdowns, AIL attempted to record the huge surge in active leisure in Bristol and the surrounding area.
I still see that slogan as I commute through Long Ashton on my bike. It’s beginning to re-emerge after being painted over by the authorities eager perhaps not to raise our hopes. It’s re-emerging because the paint used to cover it is being eroded by the cars that have now returned to our roads. Traffic levels are rapidly approaching pre-pandemic levels and congestion is returning to our city centres. It is hard to remember that, only a year ago, we stood on our doorsteps applauding keyworkers and swearing to protect the NHS. In our headlong rush to get back to our old way of living, though, we seem determined as a society to spend even more time in its care.
So, I’m left asking: Where are all the lovely new bikes of 2020 and the revolution we dared to dream of? We hope that global leaders will emerge from COP26 with the roadmap to a world that looks better than the course we are currently set upon. But is ‘A world not as bad as it could have been’ our only hope? And what is it that towns, employers, and individuals can do to help our roads contribute to our wellbeing rather than to be a major source of global decline? The stories captured by AIL can help here. They tell us about the wellbeing that comes with active leisure, but also the conditions needed to facilitate it: safe, clean, congestion-free spaces available for all.
By Dr Elizabeth Robles, Lecturer in Contemporary Art, School of Humanities
This year we celebrate 116 years since the inception of the Autumn Art Lecture series. Conceived in 1905 as an important platform for Art and Art History in what was then University College Bristol’s academic year, the series has become an annual highlight in the cultural life of the University and the city beyond. Over its lifetime, it has hosted luminaries from Kenneth Clarke, EH Gombrich, Toshio Watanabe, David Olusoga and Laura Mulvey to artists Denise Mina, Paul Gough, Richard Long and Ingrid Pollard, and explored themes ranging from the monstrous to the celestial. A true survivor, the series has only been interrupted twice – first as the Second World War erupted and, more recently, in 2020 as the world locked down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
To mark the series’ return from its pandemic-related hiatus, the Autumn Art Lecture Committee is delighted to announce this year’s lectures, brought to you by the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts in partnership with Bristol Ideas. ‘Art in the Time of COVID-19’ – an online series – will bring together leading artists, scholars, and museums professionals to reflect on the impact of pandemics on the ways in which we create, engage with, and think about art and art-making.
Over three online lectures, we will consider the longer history of art and diseases, the ways in which artists have reckoned with and worked through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the new possibilities that opened up as we were forced to reimagine the form and function of our museums and galleries amid enforced closures. We will look to the past – from the Black Death to the Third Plague – to provide context to our present as we begin to imagine what the future might look like for artists, collections and the publics they serve.
Find out more about each event and book your free tickets here:
By Dr Paul Merchant, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Film and Visual Culture, School of Modern Languages
Can art change how we relate to the environment? Might the experience of watching a film, observing a drawing, or visiting an installation help us to understand the current ecological crisis in ways that scientific reports and data can’t? As the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow continues, these questions are taking on added urgency.
On Friday 5 November, visitors to the First Friday event at Watershed in Bristol will have the opportunity to explore these questions. They’ll be able to learn about some contemporary art initiatives from the UK and Chile, and take part in some drawing exercises led by the illustrator Jasmine Thompson (no prior experience required!).
The event draws on the work of the research project Reimagining the Pacific, which is led by Dr Paul Merchant and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores how artists in Chile and Peru are responding to environmental challenges on the Pacific coast.
One way in which contemporary artists are seeking to engage their audiences with environmental issues is by creating works that use a range of different media to create a multisensory experience. For example, Claudia González’s installation Hidroscopia / Loa (2018) uses drawings, videos, and electronic apparatus to present the effects of copper mining on the Loa river in unexpected ways.
Closer to home, the Bristol-based artist Dan Pollard’s Liquid Noise installation project creates a link between the movement of visitors’ bodies and the vibrations in pools of water to visualise the effect of underwater noise pollution on whales.
The value of projects like these is that they make issues that can seem distant or abstract (like marine noise pollution, or ocean acidification caused by uptake of carbon dioxide) feel present, by engaging our senses and our imaginations. It would be too simplistic to draw a straight line between an experience of an artwork and a specific political commitment. But if works like Hidroscopia / Loa and Liquid Noise, or even the simple act of drawing, can make us look again, listen again, and pay better attention to our environments, then there’s much to be said for them.
As the world turns its attention to Glasgow and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties – known as COP26 – we’re taking a look at some of the climate change-related research happening across the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts. For this first piece, we caught up with Dr Camilla Morelli, a Lecturer in Anthropology. Camilla specialises in the anthropology of childhood and youth, and the use of participatory visual methods in youth-centred research.
Hi Camilla! Thanks for joining Arts Matter. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what sparked your interest in your area of research?
Hi! Thanks for inviting me. I have an absolute passion for my discipline – social anthropology – and specifically the anthropology of childhood and youth. My greatest inspiration is Margaret Mead, the first anthropologist to take children seriously as research respondents.
Most of my research has taken place in the Amazon rainforest, where I started working over ten years ago. I was interested in exploring Amazonian children’s relationships – physical and imagined – with the forest environment. When I got there, all the children would talk about was the city, and how much they love concrete! Through the years, I have become very close to the community in Peruvian Amazonia where I work, and I return every year to visit them and conduct further work. I haven’t been able to travel to Peru since the start of the pandemic, and it’s breaking my heart. I hope I’ll be able to go back there soon.
My current projects are co-designed with young people, and are based on collaborative approaches. The children I started working with ten years ago have now grown up, and two of them have become anthropologists themselves! They are now my key collaborators in a British Academy-funded project, ‘Animating the Future’, and will be co-authors in our published outputs. I’m sure in the future they will be leading their own projects and transforming the field of anthropology.
That’s great – how wonderful to hear that the future of anthropology is in such good hands! What insights have you gained from engaging with young people?
I have learned so much working with children and young people! Something that I always find incredible is that children and youth have the capacity to radically transform the world through simple everyday actions, which are often unseen by adults. It astonishes me when I work with children to see how much their own parents don’t know about what happens in children’s daily worlds and imaginations. Then one day, all of a sudden, they realise that their children are substantially different from them, and they ask: “How did we get here?” They have no idea about the small, everyday actions through which children silently shape new futures. Once we appreciate that children and young people have this capacity and agency, we can give them more credit than we do, and perhaps work with them (rather than for them) so that we can build a sustainable future together.
Your latest research project, based in the UK, is called Waves of Change – can you tell us more about it?
Sure! The project is based in Cornwall, where we are working with young people aged 15 to 18 to address the impact of climate change on coastal communities and their future. Cornwall is already feeling the effects of climate change hard – ocean acidification, plastic pollution (worsened by recent tourism) and warming are threatening the rich and unique marine ecosystems there, and sea levels are rising faster than average…meaning that Cornwall is sinking fast! Young people are at the forefront of these challenges and should have a key role in structuring debates around it. Yet, the young people we are working with often feel cut out of these debates. This sense of exclusion is heightened by the remote locations of their coastal communities, the limited access to public transport, and recent funding cuts to youth centres and activities.
Our project’s goal is to engage young people actively in a conversation on climate change and to help them share a message with the public and relevant policymakers. I have the privilege of working with two incredible women – the Co-Investigator Dani Schmidt, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, and Sophie Marsh, professional animator and the project’s artistic director. Dani is bringing her world-leading expertise in climate change to the project, and Sophie is teaching young people how to become animation producers. We are partnering with a local charity, Young People Cornwall, whose mission is to give young people enhanced opportunities and promote inclusion.
That sounds like such a brilliant project, with an important impact on those communities. Climate change is currently at the top of many people’s agendas, with COP26 now in full swing. Naturally, much of the talk centres around the science, but your latest research project combines climate science with anthropology and visual arts – what can this interdisciplinary approach bring to the table?
This is very much a collaborative effort! Our interdisciplinary approach can hopefully bridge the field of climate science with the knowledge of local communities, and specifically that of young people. While science can tell us much about the causes and effects of climate change (Dani’s expertise), we need an approach that is centred on young people’s own perspectives and can explore their worldviews – and this is brought in by anthropology and ethnography (my own field). But in order to engage young people actively in the process, we need participatory methods. This is where animation (Sophie’s world) comes in. Co-production of animation is a great method that allows young people to write and animate (literally ‘give life to’) their own stories, and to share them with others. We want this project to do all of this, while giving young people a new sense of hope and empowering them to realise that their voices matter and can be heard widely.
Camilla Morelli is a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Bristol. She specialises in the anthropology of childhood and youth, and the use of participatory visual methods in youth-centred research. Find out more about Camilla’s research.
By Professor Helen Fulton, Chair in Medieval Literature, Department of English
One of my research directions is aimed towards medieval towns and urban culture, especially in the region of the March of Wales. Some while ago I collaborated on an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) project on medieval Chester which resulted in an online map of the medieval streetscape of the city, with links to its major churches and buildings. This inspired an interest in the possibilities of mapping – both digital and hard copy – as a tool for research, education, and public engagement.
As a Trustee of the Historic Towns Trust (HTT), which produces hard-copy maps of historic towns throughout the UK, I took on the leadership of a project to produce a map of medieval Bristol, which was published in December 2020. I worked in partnership with Professor Peter Fleming at UWE, a renowned expert on medieval Bristol, and a team of local historians and archaeologists from the city of Bristol. Our first job was to decide roughly what period of time would be covered by the map – it is possible to layer maps on top of each other to show features and streetscapes from different periods of time, and some of the HTT maps have done exactly that. For Bristol, however, it made sense to focus quite precisely on the year 1480, when a well-networked Bristolian, William Worcestre, made a survey of the city of Bristol on foot, literally counting how many paces there were between landmarks. Using this survey, together with many other historical records of the city, the team was able to reconstruct the layout of Bristol in 1480, along with its major churches, abbeys, gentry houses, taverns, industrial buildings, and even its water supply.
The production of this unique map was funded partly by public donations and partly by a generous grant from the University of Bristol Knowledge Exchange fund. We used the money to employ a research assistant, Dr Bethany Whalley, who researched the history of the various streets and buildings that are described in the Gazetteer on the back of the map. Crucial information was also supplied by our team of local experts, each of whom had specialised knowledge of the city’s history. I co-wrote the introduction to the map, describing the work of William Worcestre, and edited all the textual information on the map, including the street names and other words on the map itself as well as the Gazetteer. We worked closely with the HTT cartographer, Giles Darkes, whose beautiful artwork makes all the HTT maps stand out not only as useful reference guides but as works of art.
Despite being published during a pandemic lockdown, the map has sold very well and has been the topic of numerous public lectures, in person and online. The map was launched during the Fifteenth Century Conference in early September at St James Priory. We are now planning a workshop at the annual Historical Association conference to be held in Bristol in May 2022, and we are working with an educational consultant to produce a study package for Key Stage 2 students.
By Dr Benjamin Pohl, Programme Director of the MA Medieval Studies
Whilst students wishing to study the rich and fascinating culture of the Middle Ages can choose from a variety of postgraduate courses across the UK, those opting to make the University of Bristol their home and enrol in its flagship programme MA Medieval Studies are offered the exciting opportunity to do a bespoke work placement with a partner institution from the culture and heritage sector.
For the coming academic year (2021/22), three new exciting partnership agreements have been signed with the Church Conservation Trust, Bristol Baptist College and, most recently, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, one of the UK’s largest and most important collections of medieval manuscripts and rare books.
Offered as an optional module, the placement is credit-bearing and replaces one of the taught modules. Instead of spending more time in the classroom and being taught by one of the many experts from Bristol’s thriving Centre for Medieval Studies, placement students have one day a week over the course of twelve weeks with their partner institution. Some remote placements are available for those unable or preferring not to travel in person. In addition, placement students are given the option to replace their capstone dissertation with a practice-led project accompanied by a critical reflective commentary that develops their work placement further.
We curate our list of placement partners very carefully and keep it under regular review to ensure that students will always have the best possible experience. Our aim is to match students with suitable partners to accommodate their individual research interests and help them build relationships that endure beyond the duration of their degree.
Past and present placement partners of the Bristol MA Medieval Studies include the University Library’s own Special Collections, the Department of Manuscripts and University Archives at Cambridge University Library, the Monastic Library and Archives at Downside Abbey, the Cathedral Library and Archives at Gloucester Cathedral, Bristol Cathedral, St Mary’s Church in Portbury and, since 2020, Berkeley Castle.
Every year we are delighted to see the results of these student placements, and the scope and quality of the work produced by our brilliant students are most impressive. Not only do they speak to academic audiences from a range of disciplines, but they also attract significant public interest. Recent examples of public-facing student work emerging from placement partnerships include an exhibition on The Women of Berkeley Castle, an online edition and facsimile of Gloucester Abbey’s most important medieval chronicle (Gloucester Historia Online), and key contributions to the major online exhibition History & Community: 20 Exhibits from Downside Abbey.
It is not only the students who benefit from the placement option, however, but also the partner institutions. Berkeley Castle, for instance, hosted a placement student in 2020 who has since taken up the permanent position of Visitor Business Assistant. Jenny Low, Visitor Business Manager at the venue, told us she was extremely impressed with our student’s work ethic and enthusiasm.
Dr James Freeman, Medieval Manuscripts Specialist at Cambridge University Library (CUL), also praised the work of two of last year’s placement students who encoded selected manuscripts from the CUL’s collections and produced critical online catalogue descriptions, describing their work as a “tremendously useful contribution to scholarship”.
Rebecca Phillips, Librarian and Archivist at Gloucester Cathedral, reported the following: “Having a placement student has felt like gaining a colleague, and has enabled us to deliver a project that would otherwise have been impossible. I would recommend any other heritage venue to work with the University of Bristol and share the joy of providing a placement for the next generation of medieval historians.”
Feedback from our partners is invaluable to us and speaks volumes about the unique opportunities our MA Medieval Studies students have here at Bristol – not only during their degree, but also with a view to future career prospects. Creating these opportunities and facilitating relationships beyond the degree is an integral part of our mission – it’s what we do. I’m already in the process of liaising with additional partners for the coming academic years, so watch this space!
Autumn is just around the corner, and as we creep closer to a change of season we are looking forward to the start of a new academic year. We’d like to take this opportunity to extend a special welcome to our new students joining the Faculty of Arts family this term. Read on to hear from some members of the Faculty.
Professor Karla Pollmann, Dean of the Faculty of Arts
As Dean of the Faculty of Arts, I am delighted to welcome you to the University of Bristol as you embark on this exciting new adventure. The Arts and Humanities are of great value to society, and are not only relevant, but vital in an ever-changing, unpredictable world. We look forward to seeing the creativity and innovation you – the next generation of linguists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, musicians – bring to your respective fields, and to helping you to develop some serious skills as future leaders with a special emphasis on civic engagement and social responsibility.
A key strength of the Faculty of Arts lies not only in the incredible depth and breadth of academic knowledge housed within, but also in its diversity, inclusivity, and sense of community. We pride ourselves on fostering a welcoming space, and our sincere wish is that your journey with us will be a cherished and transformative one. The opportunities available to you within the Faculty of Arts are many and varied – we ask you to be curious, to be imaginative, to be bold. Challenge yourselves, apply yourselves, and enjoy yourselves! Welcome!
Dr Shelley Hales, Faculty Admissions and Recruitment Officer
Hi and welcome to Bristol! My name’s Shelley, and as the Faculty’s Admissions and Recruitment Officer I have been busy over the summer overlooking all the A-Level results coming in. It’s always an exciting time of year to find out who our new students will be. I also teach in the School of Humanities, and like the rest of academic staff across the faculty I am busy getting ready for the term ahead, preparing classes, working in new research and latest knowledge (for me, as a Classicist, that means adding the very latest finds from Pompeii to my Pompeii class) and posting material on our unit Blackboard pages so that you have all the information you need to get started in Week 1. We’re all looking forward to meeting you and working with you as unit tutors and personal tutors. Every student has a personal tutor who is there to help you with university life. When you arrive, you’ll be hearing from us as we reach out to welcome you and get you oriented. Please do ask us any questions you have – that’s what we’re here for! In the meantime, very best wishes for your first days of being a Bristol student – see you in class!
Michelle Coupland, Faculty Manager
Welcome to the Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol. You’ve made a great decision to come and join our vibrant, supportive and dynamic community. Within the Faculty of Arts, we are proud to be bold, engaging and inspiring and I know that you will enjoy being a key part of our community. One of the things that I most love about this faculty is its friendliness – staff and students alike are smiling, encouraging and keen to support each other.
As an Arts graduate myself, I value the skills and techniques that my studies gave me and use them throughout my daily life (both in a professional work capacity and outside of work socially, too). I look beyond the information in front of me to see the wider and bigger picture, constantly ask questions to learn more, and knit different pieces of information together to come up with the best solution for all. Not only this, but I value the fact that I have interests (reading, literature and music) that I continue to pursue outside of work and which help to provide perspective (something that I have really come to appreciate in more recent times).
Welcome to the Faculty, and I look forward to seeing you around and saying hello to you.
Entre Memorias e Historias (Between Memories and Histories) is a new podcast in Spanish dedicated to the role of history and memory in present-day Colombia. Through dialogues with experts, listeners will gain an understanding of the inequality, joy, conflict and resilience found in contemporary Colombia. The themes covered range across two centuries of history, from transitional justice to curriculum reform, from the heroes and villains of the past to the uses of the machete over time.
Entre Memorias e Historias came to fruition as a result of travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic which prevented Professor Brown from continuing to learn about Colombia through his usual channels: archival research, conference participation, and the workshops that had been planned as part of the UKRI/Newton Fund project ‘Bringing memories in from the margins’.
“This feeling of enhanced remoteness, of somehow being even further away from Colombia than normal, motivated me to reach out and have longer, deeper dialogues with people who I would normally have shared a conference panel or archive coffee with,” said Professor Brown.
The audios – each a conversation of around 30 minutes – were originally recorded via Zoom in late 2020 as part of ‘Colombia: History and Culture since Independence’, a final-year undergraduate unit taught by Professor Brown in the School of Modern Languages. The podcast uses technology to build previously unthought-of dialogues, so that they can be used as instruments for reflection and transformation.
According to the United Nations, philosophy is ‘the study of the nature of reality and existence, of what is possible to know, and of right and wrong behaviour. It is one of the most important fields of human thought as it aspires to get at the very meaning of life.’ Today we are celebrating World Philosophy Day by sharing a post written by Francesca Bellazzi, a PhD student on the ERC-funded MetaScience Project*, which delves into marvellous mysteries and the unity of science…
‘But what vast gaps there were, what blank spaces, she thought leaning back in her chair, in her knowledge! How little she knew about anything. Take this cup for instance; she held it out in front of her. What was it made of? Atoms? And what were atoms, and how did they stick together? The smooth hard surface of the china with its red flowers seemed to her for a second a marvellous mystery.’ (Virginia Woolf, The Years)
So reflects Eleanor in Virginia Woolf’s The Years. How can this china with red flowers be made of atoms that somehow stick together? Many solutions to this marvellous mystery have been offered, and these are the kinds of questions that the MetaScience philosophy project addresses.
The world, like the cup, seems to be composed of different levels, one clustered beneath the other. Different disciplines study these different levels. Each of them focusses on a specific level of inquiry: physics at the physical one, chemistry at the chemical one, economics at the economical one, and so forth. However, how these levels relate to each other is not obvious. They are not isolated clusters such that the things happening in the ‘biological’ and ‘physical’ clusters are completely independent from each other, nor do they seem easily reducible to the one unique level of physical particles.
In light of this, two extremes have been debated within philosophy. Some philosophers are in favour of what is known as ‘strict identity-based reductionism’, arguing that phenomena at the higher level – such as biological phenomena – are strictly identical to phenomena at the physical level. Such a view might lead to ‘eliminativism’, which essentially says that if all higher-level entities are identical to their lower-level components, then we should stop speaking or even worrying about the higher-level stuff. The only fundamental level is then the physical one, and all the sciences have to be reduced to that. However, this is now an ‘old dream’ – the world is way too complex to be pinned down by identity relations.
Against this reductive dream stand those that argue for the disunity of science. Often called ‘pluralism’, this position argues that the physical, chemical, biological and social realms can all equally understand the world on their own. However, this route also appears too extreme, as it disregards important interactions between levels and the growing exchanges between disciplines.
In the MetaScience project we are investigating how to achieve the unity of the sciences by saving the unity of the world itself without being an identity reductionist. Our project studies how the different levels can interact via a variety of dependency relations, such as ‘multiple realisation’ and ‘multiple determination’. Multiple realisation means that a higher level can be realised by different lower-level phenomena. An example is colour, where different microphysical phenomena can realise the same shade. Different surfaces (composed of different microphysical particles) can reflect the same wavelength. Multiple determination goes the other way around: the same lower level can determine different higher-level properties, such as moonlight proteins that play different functions in different environments. Our aim is to use these – and other – dependency relations to find out whether the sciences can be effectively unified.
Let us try now to be a bit more concrete and go back to the china cup: how can its smooth surface be composed of atoms?
The strict reductionist would say that the cup is nothing more than the result of physical stuff interacting with each other following the laws of physics. The pluralist, on the other hand, would say that any of chemistry, physics or psychology can give us an equally valid story about the cup. However, both options seem to take the wrong direction. There is no 1:1 correspondence between the colour red of the flowers and some underlying microphysical phenomena; as we saw earlier, colour is an instance of multiple realisation. However, there are some relations between the colour level and the microphysical one; these are not self-isolated clusters.
Possibly, the truth lies in the middle. Pursuing philosophical enquiry, MetaScience studies the possibility that within one cup, all sorts of different properties can be found and that this is not mysterious. One and the same china cup can be described by different disciplines that consider different properties: its material composition can be studied by chemistry, its solidity by physics, its geometrical form by mathematics, its colour by the interaction between optics and neurophysiology, its function by psychology and sociology. Nevertheless, this does not imply that this single cup is nothing but atoms or that the different descriptions of the cup are self-standing and detached. Rather, it means that the existent cup is only one and yet is complex. It is composed of many levels studied by different disciplines that all help to understand how the compositional parts of the cup are related. The mystery might be solved without taking away the marvellous. Thanks to the interaction between sciences and philosophy, we are able to formulate a unified view of the one china cup with its red flowers.
by Francesca Bellazzi,
PhD Student in the ERC-funded Project MetaScience (771509)
*The MetaScience project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 771509).
Pumpkins have been carved. Costumes are being donned. Scary films are being watched from behind cushions and hands. Yes, Halloween is upon us once again, so we decided to delve into the past to find out more about the fascinating history of witchcraft. We’re joined (virtually!) by Dr Will Pooley, a social and cultural historian who gives us some interesting (and at times gruesome) insights. Read on, if you dare…
Trigger warning: the following interview contains mentions of violence and abuse.
Hi Will, thanks for joining us for this Halloween special. To many people, the word ‘research’ conjures up images of labs, safety goggles and petri dishes (all of which are important, of course!), but your area of research is quite different altogether and rather niche – can you tell us a bit more about it?
It’s true, I don’t spend a lot of time in a laboratory! My research is on modern histories of witchcraft. I focus on France, and on criminal trial records and newspaper accounts that deal with cases where people really did fear witches.
I’m certainly not the first person to notice these cases, but what I’ve been trying to do is get up close and personal with modern sorcery. Rather than just reading newspaper accounts – which often get things muddled up – I’ve spent a lot of time in regional archives taking advantage of the expertise and help of archivists who have worked to preserve the witness statements, medical reports, and other documents from nineteenth- and twentieth-century trials. I want to know what ordinary people thought and believed about witches, and the harms they believed that witchcraft caused.
That sounds fascinating! What do you think it is about witchcraft that people find so intriguing and has led to witch ‘stereotypes’ being so solidly linked to Halloween?
My colleague here at Bristol, Professor Ronald Hutton, recently wrote a wonderful book called The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present which really delves into why it is that so many societies around the world share a concept of the witch: a malevolent living human being who causes harm through supernatural means. One of the things I take from Professor Hutton’s work, as well as the equally brilliant book by Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History, is that the stereotypes we have of ‘the witch’ do have a history.
A lot of people in Europe and North America will immediately picture similar images in their mind’s eye when you mention a witch: probably a woman, old, ugly, with a pointy nose, pointy hat, cat, broomstick, and cauldron. Of course, that is a cartoon image, but one of the things that the very long history of witchcraft around the world confirms is that witches have been thought of in many ways. Many societies have feared female witches, but others, such as early-modern Iceland, believed most witches were men. In some periods and regions, including the Democratic Republic of Congo today, it is children whose witchcraft has been most feared.
As for the link with Halloween, I have to confess I am no expert! What I would say is that while the connection between Halloween and the spirits of the dead is a longstanding one in western Christianity, witchcraft has – as far as I know – not been as intimately connected with Halloween. In my own research, I find that witches and witchcraft aren’t really tied to Halloween specifically. In fact, conflicts over witchcraft were probably more likely to bubble over during Carnival and other celebrations, when spirits were running high, and the wine, beer, or cider had been flowing!
Many people will have heard of seventeenth-century cases, such as the Salem witch trials in North America or the Pendle witches in Lancashire, but they may not be as familiar with the more recent history of witchcraft on which your research is focussed – what was it about this particular time period that sparked your curiosity?
I do find that a lot of people – even a lot of historians – are surprised when I say that I work on ‘modern witchcraft’, and that I mean fear of malevolent witches in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries in France.
In fact, a range of researchers have been working on this for many years. The historical field has really been led by Professor Owen Davies, who has written about a range of British, French, American and global examples. But as far back as the 1950s, the anthropologist Marcelle Bouteiller showed that fear of witches was very much still alive in France.
I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious and the supernatural, and I originally wanted to do my PhD on this topic. I’m glad I didn’t (great advice from my supervisor Professor David Hopkin!) because there is far too much material for a PhD. In fact, I know of close to 1,000 criminal trials or police investigations into cases involving witchcraft in France between 1790 and 1940, and there must have been a great deal more. Perhaps these cases are not as prevalent as during the most intense periods of witch-hunting in the early modern period, but they aren’t that rare! There are some villages and towns in western France where it seems as if there were witchcraft cases every few years in the nineteenth century…
How did perceptions of witches change following the decriminalisation of witchcraft in France?
So, witchcraft was effectively decriminalised in France in 1682, and definitively excluded from the new penal code in 1791. After that point, there were no grounds to prosecute people suspected of harmful magic for that magic alone.
How did this change perceptions of witches? Well I’ll give two contradictory answers – the truth is probably somewhere between the two!
The first is that it didn’t change perceptions that much. Many witches continued to be suspected of the same misdeeds: they caused illnesses in humans and animals, especially afflicting young infants, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and dairy cows. The stereotypes of the witch remained stable in many ways, too. Normandy had been a region of male witchcraft in the early modern trials and continued to be so in the nineteenth century. In fact, so many of the cases I have found are from Normandy and the west of France – where witches were also predominantly thought to be men – that male witches dominate my research, much to many people’s surprise. But other regions with fewer cases, such as the Occitan-speaking regions of southern France, preserved the patterns of female witchcraft they had displayed during the witch trials.
On the other hand, there are really important changes in how witches were perceived and dealt with. I’ll mention just three. First, the Catholic Church generally tried to distance itself from questions of witchcraft. That didn’t stop some local priests from getting involved in witchcraft disputes, but the general effect it had on perceptions of witches was dramatic. Where the early modern trials were often focused on uncovering evidence of a pact with Satan, the modern cases have lost this drive. The Devil does not feature in most of them at all.
The second change in perception is connected to French colonialism and imperialism. From the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries there was a progressive racialisation of thinking about ‘witchcraft’. Journalists and researchers did not find it convenient to dwell on the ‘superstitions’ of the French population, and preferred to associate belief in witchcraft with the colonised populations of north and central Africa, the Caribbean, Madagascar, and Indo-China. One of the most depressing examples concerns Hégésippe Jean Légitimus (1868-1944). As a representative of Guadeloupe, Légitimus was only the second black man elected to the French National Assembly, and the first in over a hundred years. But his time in Paris was dogged by tabloid coverage of accusations of ‘witchcraft’ in Guadeloupe directed against Légitimus and other socialists.
The final thing to say about new perceptions is just how easily witchcraft in France – as elsewhere across the globe – adapts to new situations and problems. In addition to bewitched cows, French men and women complained of enchanted automobiles and bicycles. They described feelings of bewitchment in terms of electricity, images seen at the cinema, and in the language of up-to-date psychiatric and medical theories, such as neurasthenia. It’s very easy to slip into the same language that newspapers at the time used to describe people who feared witches, which assumes that these people lived in rural areas. But the truth is, there were witchcraft disputes in all of the large cities, and even rural witchcraft cases often involved individuals who worked in nearby industrial centres, in mines, or factories.
What is the most common misconception people have about the history of witches and witchcraft?
The biggest mistake people make is to think that the history of witchcraft is over! The ways that we – including historians! – talk about the early modern trials as a ‘craze’ or a ‘panic’ imply that our ancestors briefly lost their reason, before cooler heads restored order. There’s actually a lot of work by historians now that questions this story of the progressive rationalisation and secularisation of criminal justice and elite culture.
It’s not the area I research myself, but I think one good way to put this story of progress into perspective is to ask: how many countries today have laws against witchcraft? Violent persecution of witches today is such a great problem that the United Nations Human Rights Committee and UNICEF have both been working on measures to combat the harms justified by fear of witches. Closer to home, the Metropolitan Police in London have a special unit devoted to cases of child abuse connected to spiritual beliefs.
I think it’s really important to be careful about the continuing racialisation of these harms in the media and by the authorities. UN agencies focus their attention on cases in sub-Saharan Africa, and a lot of the coverage of the cases in the UK has concerned immigrants, as in the terrible child abuse case in Haringey at the turn of the millennium. But from what I know of contemporary French cases, it would be hasty to assume that witchcraft disputes in Europe today are limited to immigrant groups. In Brive-la-Gaillarde in 2016, for instance, an old woman was badly assaulted by her family members for witchcraft. Many people who do know something about ‘modern witchcraft’ will assume that I research Wiccans and other modern pagans. But I’m more focused on the fact that, sadly, fear of witches and violence connected to sorcery have not gone away in Europe even today, although the scale may have greatly decreased.
Why is your research specifically – and arts and humanities research more generally – so important?
I’ve been very influenced by other historians who argue that history performs a similar function for society as literature does: it allows us to imagine how different things could be. And the advantage that history has over literature in this respect is that we know this is not just an imaginative possibility: I research events and processes that really did take place. The past contains vast and varied different ways of organising societies and culture.
It might seem that the topic of my research is something of a depressing one to choose from this point of view. Who wants to update their sense of progress by discovering that belief in witches has continued to cause serious harms into the present day in Europe? But I would say that we do have responsibilities to come to terms with that, and to adapt our own self-understanding to recognise that – perhaps – fear of witches runs so deep in our culture, or even in some more fundamental layer of the human mind, that it cannot simply be educated away in science lessons or religious studies. A suitably scary thought for Halloween?
But I don’t think it has to be understood in a purely negative light. Conflicts, and especially the most violent ones, glow in the darkness of our knowledge of the past. It’s much easier to find evidence, for example, where fears of witches led to tragic results. And that isn’t always what happened. It’s harder work, but I am very interested by cases where tensions were defused through the interventions of clergy, or healers, or local officials, or community leaders of some kind.
I know many historians are uneasy about learning ‘lessons’ from the past, but I do think it’s worth thinking about how some communities and authorities have succeeded not in eradicating the fear of witches, but in mitigating and alleviating the harms these fears can cause.
You know people for whom witchcraft is a real force in the world, even if you do not realise it. The problem is not how to persuade them they are wrong about this, but how to prevent a situation in which a belief like this could cause harm. I still have some faith in arts and humanities research to address real problems like this!