To most of us in this day and age, the words ‘witch’ or ‘witchcraft’ will probably conjure images of fancy-dress Halloween parties or ‘straight-to-DVD’ horror films but for centuries many Europeans firmly believed in, and feared, the malign presence of witches in the world around them.
In the most general sense witches were believed to be people who possessed supernatural or mysterious powers to harm others. However, during the early modern period the idea took on a more specific meaning – a witch was a person who had made a pact with the Devil and consequently could exert malevolent magical powers. Witches were believed to be subversive agents against the State, God and everyday people, meeting for nocturnal gatherings to sacrifice innocent children, fornicate and mock the rituals of the Christian Church. Witchcraft therefore, came to be seen as the worst crime imaginable, inspiring frenzied witch-hunts where neighbour accused neighbour. Between 1450 and 1750 more than 100,000 people in Europe and North America – mainly women – were prosecuted for witchcraft, and tens of thousands were executed.
For modern students the study of witchcraft and its persecution serves to highlight how beliefs and events that can seem bizarre, ignorant and cruel must be understood in the context of the perceived realities of the specific time. Primary sources are one of the windows through which we can study the past and seek insight. Special Collections’ Damned Art web exhibition traces the history of witchcraft across two continents from the 15th to the 19th Century, listing many of the important texts which framed the witchcraft debate (all free to view in Special Collections), while providing context for the publication of each, and images of each work listed.
The exhibition was first created in the 1960s and has been updated several times, this being the most recent. It draws heavily on the Ferguson collection, some 7,500 volumes from the library of John Ferguson (1838-1916), bibliographer and Regius Professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow from 1874 to 1915.