A Tangled Wood at Twilight

As I prepare to formally begin my PhD research at the University of Exeter this Autumn, I have become aware that there is a fair amount of interest in my specialization and research topic. I study the history of magic. This is not to say that I study stage tricks or fiction – far from it. I study the history of magic that people believed in. Many manuscripts, and some artifacts, have survived that contain instructions describing how to perform various forms of magic, from charms for curing wounds to rituals for summoning demons. My PhD dissertation focuses on the surviving late medieval and early modern manuscripts which contain rituals intended to conjure fairy spirits (people during this period had a very different concept of fairies, as I am sure I will discuss in future posts).

In this blog I will give periodic updates about my research findings, as well as posts about other areas of historical magic. My goal is to share information about this subject, dispel common misunderstandings and preconceived notions about magic, and to do something that is a tall order for any historian… to make sober, grounded scholarship sound interesting.

While the history of magic has seen significant growth within academic circles during the past few decades, and many people are interested in magic, it seems to me that there is a divide between the scholarship on magic and popular perceptions of the subject. My hope is that this blog will help bridge that gap!

The history of magic is a rich vein of study. It stands between the history of philosophy, religion, medicine, and science – in fact, it often deals with subjects which fall in the overlap of two or more of these modern categories.

Yet anyone interested in learning more about historical magic is thrown into the tangled wood at twilight. There is so much misinformation written about magic that it is easy to become misled and misinformed, lost in the vague twists and turns of inaccurate webpages and outdated books. Some sources are written by people who feel that magic is wicked, and they spread false information based off of their ignorance. Some adore magic but, in their enthusiasm, spread inaccuracies born of their credulousness. Then there is the plethora of outdated and widely discredited academic theories which have seeped out into the public consciousness so that many people think that they are well informed about magic’s history, while historians have long since rejected their ideas.

Understanding this subject is difficult even when one has a strong grasp of what are reputable sources of information on historical magic. Throughout history magic has existed on the margins. The margins of orthodoxy, the margins of social acceptability, and (for most of the last century) on the margins of respectable scholarship. Fortunately, today there are many scholars all over the world who study the history of magic, hundreds of which form the Societas Magica, an international society of scholars who specialize in this field. While many people do not realize that studying magic from an academic perspective is an option, I hope that in time it will become more widely known that this subject exists, and is just as reputable a field as the history of science, religion, or politics.

If you have any suggestions or questions please send them to me on the “Contact” page and I will consider using them as the topic of a future post.

I look forward to sharing my research findings and other topics about historical magic with you!

Sam

“Hence every action has magic as its source, and the entire life of the practical man is a bewitchment.” – From The Enneads by Plotinus, edited and compiled by Porphyry circa 270 CE.

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Samuel P. Gillis Hogan

I am a PhD student at the University of Exeter in the UK. This blog is a means to share some of the progress of my research, and other topics regarding the history of magic, with a wider audience.

3 thoughts on “A Tangled Wood at Twilight”

  1. This is great stuff, got your blog details in BBC History mag this month and was delighted to see it – I am currently researching, purely for my own entertainment, the rise and fall of the popularity of natural healing entitled “Worcunner – Wise Woman or Witch? but have become mesmerised by the current section I am looking at which is the witchcraft point of view. I am living in rural Ireland and in the next county we have our own famous Wise Woman called Biddy Early, 19th century and was thought to have had special powers given to her from the fairy people. Some folks in Clare still talk about her from tales handed down via their parents or grandparents and yes as you say, it is difficult to sort fact from fiction and plain text from embroidery.

    Keep up the good work, and very best of luck for your PHD, I shall keep reading from time to time to see how things are shaping up, and our ideas may well travel along parallel lines!

    Like

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