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Durham University

Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS)

Event Archive

Witchcraft and Magic - Historical and Anthropological Perspectives

1st May 2019, 14:00 to 17:00, Birley Room, Hatfield College

History and anthropology have long overlapped in ways that have been productive. Both disciplines have engaged with questions to do with agency, social structure, mentality, locality, belonging, resistance, gender, power, orality/literacy, and the broader ethnographic problem of reading different cultures, both in the past and the present. This is perhaps most true of the study of magic and witchcraft. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, historians such as Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane lifted work on early-twentieth century African society and transferred it to the study of witchcraft beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. There remain problems with that interchange of ideas, models and evidence, but it at least shows the potential for a conversation between history and anthropology in generating ideas and exciting new approaches.

In this session, we set three scholars of witchcraft and magic in conversation with one another. Prof Malcolm Gaskill (University of East Anglia) is the leading historian of his generation of early modern English witchcraft. Prof Alison Rowlands (Essex University) has written both about English and German witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and is sensitized to differences across Europe in the treatment of witchcraft before the courts. Prof Peter Geschiere (Amsterdam) is a leading anthropologist who has written extensively about contemporary African witchcraft, especially in its relationship to ideas about modernity. The objective of the session is to set their work in relationship – and perhaps in friction – to one another, teasing out difference as well as similarity, and thinking creatively about how perspectives on contemporary African history and society might inform (or contrast) with the English and German experience of witchcraft in the early modern period.

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