Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Back to Pendle Hill

Who's up on Pendle Hill?
Photo by BasiliskSam

One of my Christmas presents (a rather unseasonal choice, as it turned out) was Jeanette Winterson’s latest foray into historical fiction, The Daylight Gate, a novel about the Pendle witch trials of 1612.  The Pendle trials saw 10 individuals executed for witchcraft, most famously the two elderly matrons Chattox and Demdike, but also the wealthy yeoman’s widow Alice Nutter, Winterson’s chief protagonist.

The Daylight Gate seems at first to be a realist and rational take on the Pendle material – the prosecutions presented as a cynical conspiracy against local pauper families by paranoid, misogynist local elites. In Winterson’s 17C Lancashire, people are routinely raped, tortured, starved, beaten and imprisoned in squalor, events here described with a reportage-style detachment.

However, The Daylight Gate slowly becomes something stranger, and engages at a pleasingly sophisticated level with research on early modern witchcraft trials. It’s been argued for some time now that the great witch-hunts of the 16C and 17C were made possible by a temporary fusion between the long-standing beliefs about witches found in rural traditional culture, and new intellectual, elite beliefs about the devil. Winterson weaves these two strands of early modern culture neatly together, plausibly linking up the spirit-conjuring of the gentleman magician John Dee in Elizabethan London, with Lancashire women boiling corpse heads in pots to injure their neighbours.

Historians are paying ever more attention to the claims of some early modern individuals that they were indeed witches able to wield dark powers – there are psychological explanations for this phenomenon, and even religious ones, as Michael Ostling has recently argued in his study of Polish witchcraft trials, Between the Devil and the Host. Winterson navigates these possibilities skilfully, giving us the Pendle witch scandal as its participants, with their 17C cosmologies, might have seen it. Pendle Hill itself is splendidly evoked, as a liminal place where boundaries between worlds might be crossed. If Hilary Mantel tries to make early modern England comprehensible to 21C readers by rendering it as a political and psychological thriller, Winterson presents a far stranger, more alien, and probably more authentic vision of that society.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Sitting with Pictures

Nesterov's Blessed St. Sergius of Radonezh, Russian State Museum.
© Andy Freeberg, reproduced with permission.
This weekend’s Guardian magazine carried a feature on the photographer Andy Freeberg, and his images of Russian art gallery attendants, Guardians of Russian Art. When I wander around art galleries, the attendants, sat on their little stools, staring into the middle distance, appear unsmiling and fantastically bored. So it was interesting to read that the attendants photographed by Freeberg talked to him passionately about their jobs – one woman, it was reported, came back to the gallery on her days off to continue looking at the paintings, while another commuted for hours to the job she loved.

Freeberg’s photos of the attendants sitting, silent and still, in front of the paintings they guard are gently humorous, but I also found them moving, and they made me think of historians. Freeberg is interested in how gallery attendants might come to look like the paintings they guard all day. I sometimes wonder if historians, like dogs and their owners, also gradually come to resemble the periods they study, or at least take on some of their characteristics.

In particular, however, the attendants in Freeberg’s photos give off a sense of contemplating, sitting, and being with the art objects they have responsibility for. That reminds me of historians in archives, who spend hours a day (also on uncomfortable chairs) in the presence of their documents, listening for voices, simply being with the past. So perhaps art attendants in world-leading galleries, and historians huddled over their sources behind the doors of archives, have a certain kinship, a kind of bearing witness to the endeavours, labours and lives of others, which leave many people baffled or unmoved.