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Creative Histories of Witchcraft

24 July 2018

Bristol’s Dr. Will Pooley has just been awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council Early-Career Leadership Fellowship for his project ‘Creative Histories of Witchcraft, France 1790-1940’. 

Decriminalized in 1682, witchcraft was definitively excluded from legal consideration by the Revolutionary penal code of 1791. Yet, from the French Revolution to the Second World War, large numbers of French men and women believed that other humans could harm them using supernatural powers. More than eight hundred criminal cases involving witchcraft testify to how seriously many people took this belief. From 1791-1940, at least sixty seven men and women were murdered as suspected witches, and even more were assaulted. Hundreds of people were successfully prosecuted for fraud and illegal medical practice for claiming to have the power to bewitch or un-witch.

The project asks how historians can bring these fears of witchcraft to life, and how they can do this with sensitivity to the harms for which witchcraft beliefs are responsible. It adopts novel approaches to exploring the puzzling persistence of witchcraft, involving imaginative reconstruction and creative writing. Through collaborations with creative practitioners the project will explore dramatic and novelistic presentations of real-life witchcraft cases found in nineteenth-century court records and digitized newspapers. Rather than treating creativity as a way to turn research into entertaining outputs, what does it mean to embrace creative methods from the beginning of a project? 

Events on the project include a mini-festival of theatre and creative writing about witchcraft, and two workshops on creative writing, theatre, and historical research. These events will serve to catalyse work by historians interested in dramatizing their research and - more broadly  -working in the emerging field of creative histories.

Dr. Pooley said of the project: ‘I’m excited to start work on this unusual project, which will involve hiring a playwright and a short-form writer or poet. Above all, I’m really pleased that the AHRC recognises the value of collaborations between creative practitioners and historians. This is an area that lots of people in the Department have been interested in, and it’s one of the distinctive things about our research that so many of us have engaged with creative writing, theatre, and other creative collaborations. Although the research for the project deals with some very difficult themes and dark material, I really wanted to design something that was engaging, different, and even fun.'

Head of School, Professor Ronald Hutton, added: ‘As part of Bristol's historical association with radicalism and nonconformity, its university maintains an interest in the history of the 'Significant Others' of Western spirituality over the past fifteen centuries: paganism, magic and witchcraft. Will's very prestigious award reflects not only this interest, and the importance which major funding authorities attach to it, but the brilliance and innovatory flair of his project itself.’

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