Sexual minorities and ongoing sound change

As part of our Pride Month celebrations, we caught up with Dr Damien Mooney, Senior Lecturer in French Linguistics and Language Change, to hear about his research into how sexual minorities participate in ongoing sound change, and the importance of inclusion in research and beyond.

Language variation and change

The study of language variation and change attempts to identify the linguistic and social factors that influence the pronunciations and grammatical features that speakers use. Sometimes, for relatively arbitrary reasons, new pronunciations – and other linguistic features such as new words – enter into being and establish themselves in the language. These slowly replace old pronunciations or ways of speaking. The way this happens is very simple: one speaker who already uses the new feature interacts with others and, if the relationship between them is favourable (i.e. if they like each other and seek each other’s approval), they are likely to adopt features of each other’s speech, including new pronunciations.

On a larger scale, these basic interactions between speakers lead to language change, whereby more speakers adopt the new pronunciation or word into their repertoire and then begin using it in their interactions with others. For example, this is how the common English phenomenon of ‘dropping your ts’ – known in linguistics as glottal stopping – spread from Cockney English to almost all varieties of English in the UK. In essence, linguistic changes spread throughout the speech community because we adjust our linguistic behaviour to conform to other people like us. So, what happens when you’re different? When you’re gay or trans or not white? Does the same motivation to conform exist?

Why is this piece of research important?

When a sound change (where an established pronunciation is replaced by a new one) is underway in a given speech community, young female speakers have been repeatedly shown to act as the vanguards of change. They push the change forward and implement the use of the new pronunciation as much as one full generation ahead of male speakers.

Set of Lego people, each a different colour to represent the Progress Pride Flag

Up until now, sociolinguistic studies have implicitly assumed that the male and female speakers in their samples are heterosexual. While some research has considered the role of minority ethnicities in large-scale sound changes, a more nuanced articulation of gender, which takes a male or female speaker’s sexuality into account, has been absent from these studies. A small number of studies have examined the speech of homosexual male and female speakers, usually with the aim of analysing pronunciations that act as a perceptual cue for homosexuality when heard by others. These studies did not, however, focus on how gay men and women engage in sound changes in progress, but on what makes them sound gay. The present study asks the questions that other research did not; in particular, what is the role of sexual minorities in driving language change forward?

What does the research project involve?

The project began in 2022 with a pilot study in Paris, France. I collected speech samples from 22 native French speakers that self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual. All speakers were required to read a short text and a long list of words for which there was a possibility of using a new pronunciation or an older pronunciation. The pilot study focused in particular on the ongoing changes affecting the pronunciation of the Parisian French nasal vowels in words like bain (‘bath’), banc (‘bench’), and bon (‘good’).

I am currently in the process of analysing the data acoustically, using speech analysis software, in order to identify fine-grained differences in pronunciation between speakers and groups, if they exist. The analysis of heterosexual speakers will have the dual aim of documenting the progression of this change, known to be underway in French, and of providing a baseline against which to compare the evidence for these changes in the speech of the gay and lesbian participants.

What impact is this research expected to have?

While there is some research on the role played by African American and Latinx people in predominantly white speech communities, this project will be the first to consider sexual minorities as an integral part of the wider social order.

The data-driven principles advanced by this study will constitute a significant point of reference for future studies of language and sexuality, providing an in-depth empirical analysis of the speech of gay men and lesbians. The project will contribute a more comprehensive examination of sound changes known to be underway in the sociolinguistic literature on French. The research will also provide a framework within which to undertake quantitative linguistic research that is experimental, focusing on language variation and change, but also theoretical, examining the extent to which an individual’s performance of sexual identity influences the extent to which they engage in sound changes set in motion by their heterosexual peers.

The cross-disciplinary methodology will demonstrate the contribution that sociolinguistic theory can make to the central focus of queer studies, namely interrogating heterosexuality by dismissing its claims to naturalness.

What are the next steps?

Once the results of the pilot study are processed, the hope is to establish a set of data-driven principles that can be tested in other contexts and in other languages. The findings of the Paris study will be formalised in a research article which will then form the basis of future studies on a wider variety of sexual identities, gender identities, and sound changes, in both French and English, in Paris and in other large cities such as London, Montreal, and Toronto.

The pilot study is the first step in a research project that will attempt to transform current theories of language change by providing a quantitative account of the way sexual minorities engage in mainstream linguistic change. The project will create an open-access corpus of natural speech – a database of speech audio files and text transcriptions – of both homosexual and heterosexual speakers, making all sound files and transcriptions from this study and from future, larger studies publicly available. The essence of the project, however, is its continued commitment to social justice: it aims to address the continued exclusion of sexual minorities from large-scale social scientific studies, which not only invisibilises queer people, but underlines their behaviour, linguistic or otherwise, as gender-deviant.

Learn more about research in the Faculty of Arts.

Visit the University’s Pride 2022 page to see how the University is celebrating LGBT+ staff and students.

Find out about LGBT+ equality initiatives at the University of Bristol.

Explore the University Library’s Pride Month page, which showcases a range of LGBT+ books, films, archives and other resources.

Same planet, different worlds: Environmental history conference comes to Bristol

By Professor Adrian Howkins, Department of History

In early July 2022, Bristol will play host to the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference. The conference – which usually takes place every two years – will have the overarching theme of ‘Same planet, different worlds: environmental histories imagining anew’.

This is only the second time the ESEH conference has taken place in Britain, and the first time it is happening in England – the first ever ESEH conference took place in St Andrews in Scotland in 2001. The decision to hold the conference in Bristol reflects the strength of environmental history research at the University of Bristol, as well as the city’s strong environmental reputation. More broadly, it reflects the strength of the University of Bristol in the wider field of environmental humanities, which includes environmental history research.

“Environmental humanities are interdisciplinary areas of research, combining the traditional humanities – such as literature, music, history and languages – with areas including science and technology to better understand the relationship between humans and their surrounding environment, both social and natural. Environmental humanities can help us learn about the environmental challenges of the past, address those of the present, and plan for the future.”

The University of Bristol’s Centre for Environmental Humanities (CEH) in the Faculty of Arts is firmly established as one of the leading centres for environmental humanities research in the UK, and there is a wide range of exciting projects taking place. Do follow our CEH blog to keep up with everything that is going on.

Group of researchers look out across a waterway towards a stone bridge in the distance. The area is grassy with trees in full leaf.
Centre for Environmental Humanities field trip

In preparation for the ESEH coming to Bristol, Adrian Howkins – one of the co-directors of the CEH – spoke to Marianna Dudley and Andy Flack who are organising the conference.

What is the European Society for Environmental History?

[Marianna] The ESEH is the leading scholarly organisation for people interested in environmental issues from a humanities perspective. It is European, but that doesn’t exclude people in other parts of the world working on this topic. It is very inclusive, and has grown to include a wide range of scholars. It offers networking, mentorship, peer-to-peer support, and a discount on the Environment and History journal. It also has by far the best academic conference going, which moves around Europe and is coming to Bristol this summer!

Why is it important that the conference is coming to Bristol?

[Andy] It recognises Bristol’s status as an environmentally aware and activist city as well as recognising that the University is involved in environmental issues through the Centre for Environmental Humanities, the Cabot Institute, and other research centres and clusters. It is the first time the ESEH has been in the UK since the first meeting in 2001 (St Andrews), and the first time in England. The decision to come to Bristol shows that despite political developments like Brexit, the United Kingdom is still at the heart of the European scholarly community studying environmental change. We love living and working in Bristol – it’s a fun, vibrant, welcoming city and we want to show our colleagues from around the world what a great place Bristol is.

What impact do you hope to have as a result of the conference?

[Marianna] It felt more important than ever to have an in-person conference after such a long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We’re looking forward to bringing our scholarly community together and reforging the connections that are so important to our work. In terms of academic legacies, we want to spotlight Bristol as a place to study environmental history and environmental humanities. We hope that other scholars around Britain will seek us out for postgraduate research, postdoctoral fellowships, and academic collaborations, maintaining and building the exciting work that is already taking place.

What opportunities are there for our students to get involved in the Centre and/or the Conference?

[Andy] There will be opportunities for students to get involved in the running of the conference. This will put our students in touch with scholars from all around the world. Please get in touch if you might be interested in joining our conference team. If anyone would like to attend the conference to see what it’s all about, we’ll be offering day rates for University of Bristol staff and students to come to talks and meet with conference attendees. There will be interactive environmental art installations, a talk on wildlife film, science and humanities conversations, and a poet in residence.

If you would like to register for the conference, you can find further details here.

A tale of two cities: The historical links between Bristol and Dublin

By Professor Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval History

When we think of British cities with strong Irish links it is likely to be Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and London that first come to mind. In terms of historical longevity, however, no city on this island can match Bristol’s connections with Ireland.

The medieval connections

2021-2 marks the 850th anniversary of the conquest of Ireland by King Henry II of England. During his stay in Dublin at Christmas 1171, the king issued an extraordinary charter whereby he granted Dublin to ‘my men of Bristol’ and gave them permission to colonise their new possession.

Image of King Henry II's charter of 1171 - the paper is old and brown, with elegant script
King Henry II’s charter of 1171 (Dublin City Library and Archive)

Links between the two towns were already strong by this time. Ham Green pottery, manufactured on the banks of the Avon near Pill, was popular in Viking Dublin, and the vigorous trade in slaves conducted between Dublin and Bristol in the eleventh century inspired bitter criticism from churchmen before William the Conqueror and his successors brought this vile commerce to an end. After 1171, many important trading families from Bristol established branches across the Irish Sea, while stone quarried at Dundry, to the south of the city, was transported in large quantities to Ireland for use in the new churches and monasteries that the English began to build.

King Henry II issued an extraordinary charter whereby he granted Dublin to ‘my men of Bristol’ and gave them permission to colonise their new possession.

In February 2022 a symposium focusing on the medieval ties between the two towns was held in Dublin to mark the anniversary of Henry II’s grant. The Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin welcomed the Lord Mayor of Bristol to the event with a certain wariness, since the original charter of 1171 was never officially revoked!

The age of Edmund Burke and beyond

Statue of Edmund Burke atop a plinth at St Augustine's Parade, Bristol, UK
The statue of Edmund Burke in Bristol
(Credit: Tim Green, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

In Bristol, on 20 April 2022, the University hosted the ‘return match’, with a symposium considering more recent ties between Dublin and Bristol, beginning with the career of the great political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Burke was born in Dublin and was educated at Trinity College Dublin before developing a successful political career in England. Between 1774 and 1780 he was MP for Bristol, though his views on a range of issues made him unpopular with the city’s ruling elite. Two fine statues of Burke can still be seen today, one outside the gates of Trinity College Dublin, and the other on St Augustine’s Parade in the centre of Bristol, a few metres in front of the now empty plinth where Edward Colston’s statue once stood.

The University hosted the ‘return match’, with a symposium considering more recent ties between Dublin and Bristol.

The celebratory event

The University was delighted to welcome Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, Mr Adrian O’Neill, at the recent event, who spoke warmly about the opportunities the day had provided to further strengthen links between Bristol and Dublin. In addition, Professor Martyn Powell (Head of the School of Humanities), Dr Erika Hanna, of the Department of Historical Studies, and Professor Steve Poole of the University of the West of England delivered academic papers and a guest lecture was given in the evening by Professor David Dickson of Trinity College Dublin. To coincide with the event, an exhibition was staged at the venue, displaying some of the important Irish-related materials held in the University of Bristol’s Special Collections department. This included early editions of some of Burke’s published works, as well as a sample of Irish political pamphlets dating from between the eighteenth century and the Easter Rising of 1916. The close ties that have existed between the University of Bristol since its foundation and Trinity College Dublin were also explored in some of the exhibited material.

The future

Following the guest lecture a reception was hosted by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, whose Irish background provided a fortuitous link to the day’s events. Professor Brady welcomed to the University Ambassador O’Neill, the Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Joe Costello, the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Councillor Steve Smith, and members of the Bristol Irish Society. Councillor Costello promised that on his return to Dublin he would continue to work with his counterpart in Bristol to bring about a new twinning arrangement between the two cities. Reviving awareness of the historical links between Bristol and Dublin seems likely to lead to their further strengthening in the years ahead.

Attendees at the 850th Anniversary of Henry II's Grant of Dublin to Bristol, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.
850th Anniversary of Henry II’s Grant of Dublin to Bristol, School of Humanities, University of Bristol.
From left to right: Professor David Dickson (Trinity College Dublin); Ambassador Adrian O’Neill; Bristol Lord Mayor Steve Smith; Professor Hugh Brady (University of Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor); Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin Joe Costello; Dr Erika Hanna (University of Bristol); Professor Brendan Smith (University of Bristol); Professor Steve Poole (University of the West of England) and Professor Martyn Powell (University of Bristol).

 

Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval History, is a Dubliner who was educated at Trinity College Dublin. He took up a lectureship at the University of Bristol in 1993. He has published extensively on the links between England and Ireland in the Middle Ages, and in 2018 edited volume I of the four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland, which was launched in Washington, D.C. in September 2018 by Joe Biden, now the president of the United States of America. Professor Smith is currently engaged in research projects examining the financing of English rule in medieval Ireland, with an emphasis on the deployment of Digital Humanities techniques and methodologies. He has received funding from The Jean Golding Institute to work with Mr Mike Jones, from Research IT, on the production of visualisations of the financial data contained in medieval Irish exchequer material. He will be presenting some of the fruits of this collaboration at the Bristol Data and AI Showcase at the MShed on 7 June 2022.

 

Jenny: Posed as a woman. An insight into trans history.

February marks LGBTQ+ History Month, a time to reflect upon the rich history of LGBTQ+ communities. It offers an opportunity to remember those who have fought for LGBTQ+ rights, consider the progress made, and look ahead to engage in a more inclusive, visible and equal future.

Piecing together history can be a fascinating puzzle. How can we properly represent the nuances of history in situations where the little information available to us comes from biased sources? What more can we learn about trans history? How can we talk about trans lives today by examining a story from over 100 years ago?  The Brigstow Institute brought together a team of researchers from different disciplines – history, law and performance art – to answer these questions.

‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ explores the life of Jenny Moore, a person from an impoverished background in Gateshead in the early 1900s. Little information was available about Jenny and her life, save for criminal records and a few related newspaper articles. How did living outside the law shape her identity and experience?

We caught up with Dr Sarah Jones, a social and cultural historian of gender and sexuality, to learn more about the project, breaking the mould of traditional historical investigation, and using performance to enhance research.

‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ is a fascinating interdisciplinary project bringing together the worlds of history, law and performance art. What led you to carry out this research, and why is this research important?

Often, the evidence about LGBTQ+ lives we find in the archives is focused on processes of regulation and control. While it is a rare gift to find personal testimonies or clues about what ‘real life’ might have been like for LGBTQ+ people in the nineteenth century, it is far more likely that we will find accounts of persecution and prosecution at the hands of bodies such as medicine and the law.

To some extent, this is true in the case of Jenny Moore – a person a judge said ‘always lived in the shadow of the prison door.’ When we encounter her story in our sources, we can learn a little about her arrests for theft or loitering, and perhaps gain little snippets of insight into the challenges of being what we might think of as a trans woman in Victorian Britain. Our research, though, attempted to tell new and different stories about Jenny and her life. Bringing together our different fields of expertise, combining creative and academic practice, we wanted to capture more of the rich, complex essence of a character like Jenny Moore. As well as helping us reflect on how our understandings of queer lives are shaped by archives focused on their often brutal encounters with the state, our project also sought to think about how we could tell fuller stories about LGBTQ+ people in both the past and present.

How did the team go about this research?

The project brought together a group of scholars and artists to try and explore Jenny’s life through different lenses. On the academic side, a group of colleagues (Professor Josie McLellan, Dr Jeanie Sinclair, Professor Lois Bibbings, Nic Aaron, and myself) with backgrounds in history or law explored the background and context of Jenny’s life. We considered what her world might have looked like, and also tried to track down more details of what she got up to as the Victorian era gave way to the twentieth century.

While we tried to create as rich a picture as possible of her life and times, we also attempted to ‘fill the gaps’ through creative practice – to use our existing knowledge to imagine the kinds of spaces she might have frequented, and the people she might have met. All of this research was workshopped with Tom Marshman – an artist and performer interested in ‘the outsider’ and their story, particularly regarding the LGBTQ+ experience, and stories from the queer history that have been omitted through silences in the archive. This process of collaborative and creative research has been feeding into a performance created by Tom, alongside composer, singer, and musician Jenny Moore, writer and performer Enxi Chang, and puppeteer Emma Powell.

What impact has this research had?

At the most basic level, we’ve told a version of Jenny’s story. Her little corner of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain could have easily been totally lost to history – dismissed, perhaps, in traditional academic work because the evidence we have about what her life was like is patchy and our picture of her incomplete. Creative projects like this one give us room to tell different stories of the past, and to build insights into LGBTQ+ lives that might slip between the cracks in the archive. In a contemporary moment where the rights of LGBTQ+ (and particularly transgender) people are under attack, it feels more important than ever to engage the public with stories like Jenny’s.

Beyond this, we’re also hoping the project will have broader applications. Nic, one of the research team, is investigating how we might be able to use Jenny’s story to uplift trans people – especially, they note, those at the sharp end of criminalisation like Jenny was. As part of this, for example, Nic has connected our work with the Bent Bars Project, drawing links between Jenny and the experiences of trans people who are currently incarcerated. Our research, then, has helped us to reflect on how we approach LGBTQ+ history, engaged the public with some intriguing and timely trans history, and has started us thinking about how historical work around gender diversity can be relevant to trans communities today. In short, the project honours Jenny but is bigger than her alone.

What are the next steps for the project team?

For now, our collaboration is wrapped up. On the research side, Nic, Jeanie and I are preparing a chapter that reflects on the project and how and why we worked together. In that publication we look to reflect on the messiness of working with an incomplete and often problematic archive, and the benefits and challenges of multi-disciplinary and creative research. We also look forward to seeing the performance take shape. Tom has prepared a work in progress version of the show, and we’re hopeful that there will be a full performance coming to a theatre sometime this year.

Further information:

Learn more about ‘Jenny: Posed as a woman’ by watching ‘Brigstow Presents: Hidden Histories and Performing the Archive’ and visiting Brigstow’s project page.

Find out how the University of Bristol is marking LGBTQ+ History Month 2022.

Discover the wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses offered by the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Arts.

World Philosophy Day 2020 – Marvellous mysteries and the unity of science

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 Diagram titled 'An Old Reductive Dream' showing the levels‘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?

Illustration of a china cup decorated in a flower pattern
Illustration by Francesca Moro

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).

 

The Modern Histories of Witchcraft

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…

Old French postcard caricaturing rural life, showing man with arm outstretched and three women looking fearful. Text reads 'Le grand sorcier' (The great witch).
This image of ’The Great Witch’ was one of many black and white postcards, often hand colourised, which caricatured rural life and were produced by printers around France. This one was made by Dugas et companie in Nantes.

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.

Drawing from Gaston Vuillier's Sorciers et magicieans de la Corrèze depicting an anti-witchcraft ritual
Although the Catholic Church renounced responsibility for dealing with suspected witches, many of the rituals used by people who feared witches drew on Catholic rites, as in this image from Gaston Vuillier’s ‘Sorciers et magiciens de la Corrèze’.

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!