On Halloween evening, dozens gathered in Kroch library for the opening of “The World Bewitch’d,” an exhibition — on display through August 2018 — exploring the history of witchcraft.
The exhibit features a variety of rare manuscripts, photographs and historical movie posters and is known to be the largest witchcraft collection in North America. The exhibit holds over 3,000 objects on superstition and witchcraft in Europe, mostly acquired in the 1880s but spanning multiple centuries of artifacts since the 1400s, according to the Cornell University Library website.
Kornelia Tancheva, co-curator of the exhibition, said the purpose was to show what witch-hunting actually meant in the original context and how it was reinterpreted in popular culture.
In her opinion, the broader significance of the exhibit is its connection to the modern day.
“There are a lot of accusations of witch-hunting in our present time, and it’s really interesting to see how anybody who feels that they are wrongfully persecuted for political, social, religious or whatever reasons, employs the trope of witch-hunting,” she said.
Anne Kenney, the other co-curator, said that the persecution of witches reveals a theme of scapegoating that is relevant in many other contexts.
“When you want to blame others for things, you blame it on something that is beyond your control, and the powerful become the victims is a very interesting twist,” she said.
The collection was started by Cornell’s very own cofounder A.D. White, who collected rare books and manuscripts. Since then, the collection has grown dramatically. The popular culture portion, most notably, was started in 2012, Tancheva said.
“It’s not just a single, finished collection of material, it’s something that’s very much alive and we continue to add to it,” said Anne Sauer, director of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
“This is the best witchcraft collection in the country,” Tancheva said.
“When I first picked the Nuremberg Chronicle up, I went, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’m holding this book,’” she said.
The stories of the women who were tried for witchcraft are Kenney’s favorite portion of the exhibition because these demonstrate the ordinariness of the women being accused of witchcraft.
“They were seen as possessing so much power but they were really powerless,” she said.
“Prior to 1500, most sorcerers were men because they were seen as powerful agents — think of Merlin — but as the ecclesiastical leaders began to think of a new form of witchcraft, it was the more powerless people whom the devil contacted to do his work,” Kenney said. “So they were not independent agents, but slaves of the devil. That powerlessness really became associated with women.”
Among the five featured books in The World Bewitch’d that were published before 1500 is the first written on witchcraft. Dating to 1471, it is still in its original binding. It was soon followed by the notorious demonology tome Malleus Maleficarum, first printed in 1487, of which Cornell has 14 Latin editions. “The book was second only to the Bible in terms of sales for almost 200 years,” Kenney explained. It not only served as a touchstone for subsequent treatises, it was used as the basis for how trials were conducted.
“It is mainly cited today for its misogyny in identifying women as being witches,” Kenney added. The text claims that women consort with the devil due to their uncontrollable carnal lust, and thus sex with the devil was a big part of supposed demonic pacts. Although there were exceptions, like Dietrich Flade, a city judge who spoke out against the barbarity of witchcraft trials in the 1580s (the minutes of his own trial are at Cornell), the majority of those accused and tortured were women. The World Bewitch’d uses its exhibition narrative to focus on seven individual women, and find their voices and stories in court records, depositions, and the surviving imagery.
These centuries-old manuscripts are joined by contemporary objects, including newly acquired film posters that show recent portrayals of witches, from the malicious figures in Rosemary’s Baby to the heroic wizards in Harry Potter. Familiars, the small animals that accompany witches, reappear in cinema through the forms of cats and owls, as does the trope of witches flying on broomsticks, which dates back to 1451.
“There’s the contemporary twist where witches in popular culture now are more powerful, whether they do good or bad things, whereas in the historical material, most of the women who were accused of being witches were powerless, they were victims of a mania that was occurring,” Kenney said. And that mania is difficult to comprehend without examining the religious, societal, and political forces at work in the 15th and 16th centuries. Estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 for the number of people burned, hanged, and otherwise executed for witchcraft.
“Most Americans know about the Salem Witch Trials, and not to diminish the horrible aspects of that, but only 19 women were hanged,” Kenney stated. “There’s this whole bigger story of witchcraft that is not very well known.”
The exhibit opened on Halloween in Kroch Library and will remain open until Aug. 31 2018.
See their Digital Witchcraft Collection to view 104 English language books from Cornell’s Witchcraft Collection.