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The History of Witchcraft in the IHR library’s collections

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As part of the lead up to History Day 2017 I asked if I could write a blog post for it, and given that there was the general theme of the supernatural I suggested I would highlight some of the resources readers could find in the Institute of Historical Research’s library on the history of witchcraft.

Selection of works found in the library’s Ecclesiastical History collection

Initially I assumed the library may not necessarily be the first port of call for researchers in this field given the rich resources to be found in the Warburg Institute and the Harry Price Collection within Senate House Library. I knew we had a small handful of books in the general Ecclesiastical History collection, including general anthologies of sources such as The Witchcraft Sourcebook, edited by Brian Levack, as well as seminal texts like the Malleus Maleficarum and Jean Bodin’s De la Démonomanie des sorciers. Scattered amongst the other collections too were works on historiography (Palgrave advances in witchcraft historiography, ed. by Jonathan Barry & Owen Davies), as well as works on some of the more infamous cases from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such as the Pendle witch trials (Potts’s Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster), the Scottish witch trials of the 1590s (Witchcraft in early modern Scotland: James VI’s Demonology and the North Berwick witches and A source-book of Scottish witchcraft) and Salem (The sermon notebook of Samuel Parris, 1689-1694, Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt and The Salem Witchcraft Papers: verbatim transcripts of the legal documents of the Salem Witchcraft outbreak of 1692).

Subject search for the term “Witchcraft” in the library’s catalogue.

Yet, when I did a subject search in the catalogue, I was surprised by how many titles we had acquired over the years, not only ranging from works documenting witch trials in Britain and the North American colonies but also on continental Europe (for example Kölner Hexenverhöre aus dem 17. Jahrhunderts, The Salazar documents: Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias and others on the Basque Witch Persecution and Les sorciers du carroi de Marlou: un procès de sorcellerie en Berry 1582-1583) as well as colonial Latin America (Forgotten Franciscans: writings from an Inquisitorial theorist, a heretic and an Inquisitorial Deputy). I continued digging – metaphorically – and found there were rich seams of information to be found within various genres of sources we do have sizeable holdings of. Our collection of published British chronicles, for example, were useful highlighting the growing incidences of courtly witchcraft accusations throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries while the Times Digital Archive, accessible within the library, as well as our run of Hansard (Commons & Lords) were useful highlighting the course and aftermath of the Helen Duncan case in 1944.

With these discoveries in mind a small exhibition has been put together on the third floor of the Institute highlighting four examples from British witchcraft history. Case 1 considers the famous trial of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, as well as her associates, Margery Jourdemayne, Roger Bolingbroke and Thomas Southwell, the second display case considers the example of Ann Watts which, although a minor case, gives some tantalizing clues to late seventeenth century occult book ownership, the third display highlights the harrowing case of Ruth Osborne from the mid-eighteenth century – an Age of Reason? – while the final case* tells the story of Helen Duncan and the how the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was used for the final time at the Old Bailey towards the end of the Second World War.

The exhibition will be available to view over the next few months and certainly throughout History Day on the 31st October.

* We would like to thank the staff at Senate House Library for allowing some scans to be made from works within the Harry Price Collection included in this display.

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