A Very Ghostly Christmas: St Nicholas, the Slaughtered Students and the Murdered Merchant, by Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers

On the feast day of St Nicholas of Myra, we find out if the ‘Wondeworker’ Saint is a modern day Santa Claus or an early version of Sweeny Todd in these stories of ghostly apparitions, murder, and magic. Will there be a happy ending to this winter night horror story?

Find out below as Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers tells some lesser-known tales of St Nicholas for our Very Ghostly Christmas.

Anne Lawrence-Mathers is a Professor of medieval history at the University of Reading, specialising in medieval magic and science, and the interfaces between the two. Anne’s latest monograph, Medieval Meteorology, is available here.

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How to Find an Early Modern Witch, by Claire Smith

If you wanted to find a witch during the early modern period, one of the more notable people you could ask was Matthew Hopkins, self-declared Witchfinder General from 1644-1647. If, in the twenty-first century, you want to find evidence of early modern witches, there are many places to look. Extant sources from this period are increasingly being made available online in digital, facsimile, translation, or edition formats. Books, pamphlets, court records, and even contemporary plays, can tell us a great deal about the different ways in which people both perceived and responded to witches.

Matthew Hopkins, for example, developed methods by which to determine whether a person could be suspected of witchcraft — and in particular, of entering into a pact with the devil. These were explained and justified in his 1647 book, The Discovery of Witches. Some of these practises remain familiar when we think about witches today, such as that of ‘swimming’. (Not ‘ducking’, which was a punishment reserved for scolds.) Tied to a chair and thrown into the water, this act was intended to determine whether a witch had renounced their Christian baptism, in which case the water itself would reject them and cause the witch to float. The image below, from Francesco Maria Guazzo’s 1608 Compendium Maleficarum shows a male witch, having denied his baptism, receiving a ‘new mock baptism’ from the devil himself.

(Image in the Public Domain. Source: Claremont School of Theology, via The Internet Archive)
archive.org/details/compendium-maleficarum/page/14/mode/1up

When criticised for this inhumane and unlawful practice, Hopkins stated that many witches had confessed of their own accord and asked to be swum in this manner, having been advised to do so by the devil himself. Hopkins also deferred to the authority of King James VI and I. The second book of his treatise on Daemonologie, published in 1597, was very clear about the existence of witches and the dangers they presented, including the renunciation of their Christian baptism, and the presence of a bodily mark created by the devil. A witch-finder such as Hopkins could order a suspected witch to be examined for unusual marks upon their body, particularly those which had no feeling when pricked, or which did not bleed. These were considered to be the means by which a demon would make its connection with the witch by suckling, through the body of their animal familiar.

In the English court system during this period the onus was on the accuser to carry the burden of proof that an accused person was in fact a witch, rather than on the defendant to prove that they were not. Unlike other parts of Europe, early modern England had no formal inquisition process, and trials were usually carried out through the system of regular assizes. Records from both clerical and secular court hearings are an excellent source for finding out both the more local and personal, and wider cultural concerns which formed the background to accusations of witchcraft. These, along with popular printed pamphlets about witchcraft, sometimes take the form of a long list of accusations, by a variety of people, and often over an extended period of time. They need to be taken with a pinch of salt in terms of their reliability — even those documents which are intended to be formal and official. The National Archives have put together a selection of teaching materials using extant court records, along with suggestions for questions to consider when consulting this type of material.

Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches was published in the same year that he retired from witch-finding, having been accused of witchcraft himself on account of his success. The book is framed in the form of questions addressed to the judges of the Norfolk Assizes with regard to Hopkins, to which he replies in order to both explain and to justify his methods.

wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_discovery_of_witches,_Matthew_Hopkins.jpg
(Image in the Public Domain. Source: British Library.)

Some of his explanations are extremely thorough, in particular when he goes into great detail about his encounter with a ‘horrible sect of Witches’ in his home town of Manningtree. These are depicted in a woodcut illustration, opposite the title page. Here we can see the white kitten Holt, the black rabbit Sacke & Sugar, and Vinegar Tom — a greyhound with the head of a bull, who ‘transformed himselfe into the shape of a childe of foure yeeres old without a head’.

As well as supernatural abilities possessed by these familiars, imps or demons, witches were considered to have magical powers of their own. While control of the weather was not one of Matthew Hopkins’ particular concerns, it was however a long-standing one. The Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486, attributed hailstorms to demonic magic used by witches. Professor Helen Parish draws together the connections between dramatic and often devastating climate events with the fear of witchcraft in this blog post.

(Image in the Public Domain. Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Witches also made their way into early modern popular culture. Perhaps the most widely known are the trio of witches from Macbeth, but Shakespeare was by no means the only playwright for whom witches were a dramatic device. Written in 1621 by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, the play The Witch of Edmonton supposedly represents real events. Along with the usual cases of mistaken identity, uncertain paternity, and complex relationships that we might expect from dramatisations of this period, the central figure of Elizabeth Sawyer is the catalyst for the introduction of demonic activity into the community when the devil appears to her in the form of a black dog. The Royal Shakespeare Company performed this play in 2014, and have an excellent synopsis on their website.

Rather than relying on the many misconceptions, stereotypes and modern representations that abound, if you want to find an early modern witch, it is now easier than ever to go back to the materials which were available at the time.

Claire Smith is a PhD Student of History, specialising in representations of witches in early modern secular non-fiction.

Further Reading:

Matthew Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (1647)
1931 facsimile edition:

King James VI and I, Daemonologie (1597)
1924 facsimile edition:  

https://archive.org/details/kingjamesfirstdm00jame/page/n45/mode/2up

Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum (1608)

1929 edition, translated by E. Allen Ashwin, with additional theological notes by Montague Summers:

https://archive.org/details/compendium-maleficarum/page/n1/mode/2up

Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, The Witch of Edmonton (1621)

1887 compendium edition of Thomas Dekker’s work:
https://archive.org/details/thomasdekker00dekkiala/page/386/mode/2up 

The National Archives

Online teaching materials using sources from early modern witch trials: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/early-modern-witch-trials/

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Sugar and Slavery: Reproductive Mills, by Jude Reeves

I have been given the opportunity to share my experience working as an intern at the Mills Archive Trust on Watlington Street, a registered charity dedicated to the protection and preservation of records of milling history, in the summer of 2021. My placement was funded by the University of Reading’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROP) programme, which offers six-week funded student research projects, supervised by a member of staff, in the summer vacation before final year.

This placement involved exploring how sugar milling during the era of slavery contributed to the development of new global markets in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. I researched the role played by enslaved people, especially women, in sugar milling and how this changed over time. I researched technological changes in sugar milling and I also considered the legacies of the subsequent decline in sugar milling on Caribbean islands in relation to the rise of tourism on the islands. My findings have all been collated into a digital exhibition which can be accessed, below. These are important subjects to research as Britain as a nation increasingly confronts its colonial past and seeks to develop more inclusive histories and associated teaching resources.

My placement saw me moving between the office of the archive and the university library to utilise both places’ resources, supervised by Emily West in the Department of History, and Liz Bartram, Director of the Mills Archive Trust. It was my first chance to be in an archive – COVID has a lot to answer for in that respect! Having begun university in 2019 and then going into lockdown in March 2020, this was my first opportunity to gain hands on experience in heritage and to get to physically touch history and learn in such a visual way. When I began my placement, I knew very little about the history of milling and so I was apprehensive about how I would settle into the research. It turns out, it was far more accessible than I expected. The first two weeks of my placement were full of reading, reading, and more reading. Getting my head around the topic and building my confidence were my top priorities of the first couple of weeks to make sure I felt confident going into the next stage of my placement.

The second half of my placement was surrounding the creation of the literature for the digital exhibition, including making use of the Mills Archive Trust’s extensive collection of images related to sugar milling. It made me focus in on selecting the best material that I had collected and collating it into a coherent narrative for the audience to view. This was where I felt I gained the most from my time at the archive, I was introduced to a totally new way of writing and presenting material. Until this point, I had only written in an academic style and in a rather passive voice. This was the first time I had written in such a direct way and it helped me develop an understanding of the way curators present digital exhibitions.

Partaking in the UROP scheme has been a truly formative experience. It has given me the opportunity to explore different areas of history and various jobs in the heritage sector. It has further invigorated my desire to work in curatorship in the future and I cannot thank Liz and everyone else at the archive enough for taking me under their wing and giving me this fantastic experience during possibly the most seminal period of my academic life.

Jude Reeves is a third-year student studying History and English Literature. Her UROP project focused upon creating a digital exhibition which displays the links between sugar milling in the Caribbean and the treatment of enslaved people, especially women. See below to view the digital exhibition of Jude’s UROP project at the Mills Archive Trust:

Learn more about the Mills Archive Trust and the University of Reading’s UROP programme.

Jude will be giving a presentation about her project via MS teams on Wednesday 27th October at 1pm. To receive the joining link, please email e.r.west@reading.ac.uk.

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Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize, and a Challenge to White Fragility, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

NPR, the US American public radio station, was broadcasting some critical reporting on the day of the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize, 7 October. The journalists were discussing that, while the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o had been nominated many times, surely again the Nobel Committee would name not an accomplished and celebrated author from the global south, let alone a black writer, but to what many would be an obscure artist or eccentric choice of usually a white male from the west. Then the news broke that Zanzibari born Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Prize, the only second black African author, after Wole Soyinka from Nigeria in 1986, among a list of white writers from the region spread across 1957 to 2008. This set news agencies scrambling to find information on Gurnah and his work.

Much can be noted about this, not least considering that in addition to older forms of oral literature such as epics, Africa’s rich literary output since the mid-20th century in the genre of the novel has not merely added to or enriched the literary corpus. A British colleague pointed out to me a few years ago that literature is what was written by British authors up to 1900 and another colleague added that of course in English lessons at school one reads authors whose first language is English. The range of views on what that corpus encompasses still includes a significant articulation of ignorance, white privilege, and indeed what Robin DiAngelo coined ‘white fragility’, here the fear that ‘the other’, i.e. in this case non British English writers, the global south, black authors, has produced art that does not just rival but that stands shoulder to shoulder with works from the west.

Abdulrazak Gurnah
(*1948)
By PalFest – originally posted to Flickr as Abulrazak Gurnah on Hebron Panel, CC BY 2.0

When fellow Zanzibari born and British based artist Lubaina Himid won the Turner Prize in 2017, annually awarded to a British Artist (based or born), she was the first black woman to achieve this prestigious honour since its inauguration in 1984. Himid emphasises how much her positionality as a black woman informs her art and chosen role as a cultural activist. In whatever manner Abdulrazak Gurnah wishes to identify – black, Zanzibari, diasporic, after having lived the majority of his life in Britain – his art must be foregrounded in this critical discourse of the asymmetry of power in cultural, economic, and global relations between the west and the global south.

The Nobel Prize committee issued the Literature Prize announcement and press release with this explanation: Gurnah won ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’[1] This author cannot claim to have read all of Gurnah’s literary output. But there are two aspects that as an Africanist and gender historian one may take some issue with. The verb ‘penetration’ is an unfortunate choice for various reasons not least because it has been shown that it represents an androcentric and sexualised view of power and forcefulness that was part of the colonial and imperial discourse.[2] More importantly, one particularly celebrated work by Gurnah is his tremendous novel Paradise (1994) which is a beautiful, troubling, and wonderfully complicated exploration as a coming of age story of a boy, Yusuf. It is set in the early colonial period in what today is Tanzania, consisting of the mainland, first colonised by Germany as German East Africa from the late nineteenth century – and then after World War I handed over by the League of Nations to Britain as mandated territory when it was renamed Tanganyika – and the islands of Zanzibar which were under British rule. Both gained independence in the early 1960s and after a revolution in Zanzibar chose to join as the Republic of Tanzania in 1962. Gurnah carefully situates the novel indicating that German rule had arrived without engaging the theme of colonialism at all. Instead of, to paraphrase the Nobel announcement, ‘penetrating the effects of colonialism’ what Gurnah does brilliantly in this novel that made him globally famous is to look into the complexities of Swahili society and the lived experience of a boy pawned by his parents from a Swahili town in the interior to the coast.

Hamish Hamilton: London, 1994

The complex negotiations that characterised identities of the western Indian Ocean became even more pronounced in the nineteenth century. The volume and geographic reach of the East African slave trade increased after abolition in the Atlantic, and the Sultan of Oman moved his capital city to Africa, anointing himself the Sultan of Zanzibar, as it was here where the emirate was generating its wealth and where direct control of the merchant activities was important, with the main palaces facing the harbour, with the warehouses at their feet. The exceptional choice of composing this coming of age story of a boy before abolition of slavery on the islands of Zanzibar in 1897 and on the mainland in 1922 was, when first published, and is to this day mesmerising and astonishing. Who could one be in this world? With the boy Yusuf experiencing both bondage and accompanying a slave trading caravan into the interior, first love across ethnic boundaries with the complicated articulations of slave, Swahili (free or unfree), Indian, and Arab as some of the identities, in a predominantly Muslim world where Islam having arrived a thousand years before, the reader is literally and metaphorically taken on a moving exploration of self. One of the uncomfortable identity markers is the African and Arab othering of non-Muslims as washenzi (Kiswahili: barbarians, uncultured people) in contrast to Muslims as ustaarabu (Kiswahili: civilised). In the understanding of the time washenzi could be enslaved.

The novel Paradise challenges western stereotypes of Africa as a continent of tribes, as Africa predominantly shaped by the black Atlantic, as Africa south of the Sahara a Christian world region threatened by recent Islamicist extremism. It takes the reader on an at times uneasy path, accompanying Yusuf growing up as he negotiates manliness and masculinity and tries to find a place in the world he inhabits, something that existentially all humans do as a rite de passage through puberty. For many westerners, and especially those with white privilege, that lived experience appears safe, achievable, and certainly well-deserved. What maybe is most astonishing about Gurnah’s literary achievements is that he weaves narrative without pointing an educational finger. His art invites the reader to travel and explore the human experience that we all share, takes us to raw and even painful places but also the magically beautiful and secluded garden where Yusuf experiences the longing of first love.


Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter. 

[1] The Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2021/press-release/, 7 October 2021.

[2] Much has been published since. For an early treatment, see H. I. Schmidt, ‘”Penetrating” Foreign Lands: Contestations over African Landscape. A Case Study from Eastern Zimbabwe’ Environment and History 1, no. 3 (1995), 351-376.

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Celebrating Black History Month: Citizenship, Belonging and the Political Imagination of Women in Rhodesia, by Shepherd Mutswiri

Re-posted from our Gender History Research Cluster

I was struck by the imposing Irish symbols and their historical meaning. The Irish Defence Forces marched on stage holding the Irish flag which had been chosen as the national flag during the Irish War of Independence in 1919.  As I sat there, I heard the national anthem and I looked up with a great sense of belonging and pride. Then we all stood up and pledged our fidelity to the Irish State. The Army Band under the command of Captain Carroll provided the music that day. The carefully choreographed ceremony was celebratory, and the mood was jovial, but it was the simple but poignant display of patriotism that was immensely moving. It left an indelible impression on me. Since then, my identity and belonging were intricately interwoven with the past and future of the Irish State, while being immensely proud to be Zimbabwean. When I look back at this internalization of symbols and images on the day of my Irish citizenship ceremony, I realise that identity is not static.

I had been a bit fraught wondering how long my application would take, but it turned out not to be an arduous wait. Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice (2011-2014) cleared a backlog of over 20,000 citizenship applications and in 2011 introduced the first-ever citizenship ceremonies in Ireland. Shatter was born to a Jewish family in Dublin. He remarked on the day of my citizenship ceremony how immigrants had contributed positively to Irish society.  Sadly, his reputation went up in flames in 2014 after a report by a barrister raised concerns about whether Minister Shatter had properly investigated complaints by a whistle-blower concerning Garda (national police force) misconduct. He would later write in his book that, ‘After my resignation from government all of the allegations that led to my political downfall would be discredited and established to be entirely untrue by two different independent statutory Judicial Commissions of Investigation’. He observed that ‘truth and justice matter but they do not inevitably win out’.[1]

Often tied to the idea of citizenship is the question: what underlies a sense of community and how is it constructed? Anderson (2006) suggested that communities are imagined through print culture.[2] Allman (2013) suggested that it is time to go beyond imagined communities that were formed through a shared print culture and explore how community was constructed through forms of culture such as song and dance to excavate claims of nationalism in performance.[3] This idea tests the limits of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities.

Belonging is an ongoing process that involves membership in, or exclusion from a community. In this regard, when people negotiate identities, it is done so with other people’s consent.  Newcomers to a community may not be imagined to be part of that community and shared identity might not necessarily be extended to them. Furthermore, others may choose not to seek belonging or reciprocal obligations that come with certain social identities. The concept of belonging is central to our understanding of how people ascribe meaning to their lives. The ascription of ethnic identities is a common subject in African studies. Ethnic naming and how people were categorised into distinct groups during the colonial period is also essential in researching belonging. Worby (1994) observed that the power to name others, and the authority to create maps and boundaries to categorise ethnic identities and culture formed an important part of colonisation.[4] These divisions had the potential to undermine or marginalise certain groups. A similar concern with the interaction between inventions and imaginings has been central in Terence Ranger’s writing on Zimbabwean history. His early work situated this dialectic in the form of contestation between collaboration and primary forms of resistance to modern political nationalism.[5] His complementary perspective on resistance and imaginings provided a more dynamic counterpoint in the face of any repression and oppression.

I would like to go back to the point Alan Shatter made about truth and justice. It resonates with what Cornel West, a scholar of African American studies perceives to be important in any discussion about gender, race, or equality. He states that ‘The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak’.[6] In analysing the transition from the imperial system to nation-states, some voices have been misrepresented or ignored. Oppressed peoples have often used religion and culture to express their freedom. In the 1940s and 1950s, Africans were driven off their land by the colonial state and put into Reserves which led to crippling overcrowding in Makoni, Manyikaland in Zimbabwe. In 1965, the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson sought to decolonize Southern Rhodesia and bring majority rule, but the Rhodesian Front (RF) led by Ian Smith’s minority government resisted the ‘winds of change’. To avoid majority rule, RF illegally declared independence from Britain. Although Britain was still legally responsible for Southern Rhodesia, it had great difficulty asserting power to end Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from 1965-1979. In the 1950s and 1960s, people in Makoni were desperate to align with anyone who would help them fight land alienation as a result of RF’s policies. Unfortunately, the revolutionary nationalists did not have it easy either. Nationalist parties were banned, and their revolutionary leaders were put into detention in 1964 and for 8 years there was no formal organisation of African opposition in Makoni. The banned political parties formed African National Council (ANC) and pinned their hopes on a Bishop of the American Methodist Church, Abel Muzorewa to lead the party in their absence.[7]

Women’s agency has previously been marginalised in political discourse and they were often regarded as passive observers in nationalist discourse. However, in Makoni, Ranger argued that the ANC nationalist party acquired most of its energy from the political participation of Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai (RRW), a women’s self-help group within the American Methodist Church.[8] The RRW women played a huge role in nationalist activities by taking part in pro-Muzorewa political protests. This mobilisation added to the fight against the colonial state, engendered by an idea of citizenship and belonging. In 1979, for the first time in the country’s history, citizenship was expanded to incorporate black Africans after Ian Smith conceded to ‘one man one vote’ to Rhodesia’s 6.5 million blacks and 268,000 whites.

Frederick Cooper has challenged historians to investigate the dynamics of citizenship in colonial Africa. Citizenship was not just about rights, but about belonging to a political unit that could make demands on its citizenry.[9] Social movements could also operate within the imperial system and make demands on the colonial state. More importantly, the political imaginations of workers, peasants or women did not always fit neatly into the nationalist framework.[10] We must reflect on the ethical importance of respecting these deeply interwoven narratives. To accommodate various imaginativeness that existed in Rhodesia, we must recapture the political imagination of RRW women through the appropriation of Christian theology and culturally idiosyncratic agency. This will require going beyond Benedict Anderson’s print capitalism’s explanation of imagined communities to looking at how political imagination was performed and articulated.

Recently scholars have looked at music and dance as forms of culture that not only construct but reflect claims of nationalism in performance. The performative art of song and dance had meaning in the lives of RRW women. Perhaps now we can begin to ask questions about how a sense of community can be constructed through songs and dance. This will allow us to get a clearer picture of the important roles played by women in mobilising and performing nationalism.

Shepherd Mutswiri is a PhD Student of History, specialising in nationalism and religion in Zimbabwe between 1960 to 1980.

[1]Alan Shatter, Frenzy and Betrayal: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination, (Dublin, 2019), pp.7-9.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, 2006), pp. 9-37.

[3] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History: African Nationalism and Decolonization’ in: John Parker and Richard Reid (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Modern African History (Oxford, 2013), 10-11.

[4] Eric Worby, ‘Maps, Names, and Ethnic Games: The Epistemology and Iconography of Colonial Power in Northwestern Zimbabwe’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 20, no. 3 (1994), pp. 371-92.

[5] Terence Ranger, ‘Connections between “Primary” Resistance Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa’, Journal of African History, 9, 3 and 4 (1968); ‘The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa’ in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983).

[6] Cornel West, There Is Joy in Struggle, Harvard Divinity School. (2019).

[7] Luise White, Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization (Chicago, 2015). p.214.

[8] Terence Ranger, Religion and Rural Protests: Makoni District, Zimbabwe, 1900 to 1980′, in J. Bak and G. Benecke (eds), Religion and Rural Revolt, papers presented to the Fourth Interdisciplinary Workshop on Peasant Studies, (British Columbia, 1982). p. 329.

[9] Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (New York, 1996). pp.266-268.

[10] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History, p.10.

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