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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Meet Professor David Nash, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

One of the abiding research questions I ask myself, despite frequent diversions, is how and why has religion survived into the twenty-first century. The twentieth-century endlessly noted its apparent decline and was even swaggering enough to predict its total disappearance. When this not only did not happen, but we actually saw an upsurge in interest in religion, this left many historians scratching their heads and searching for alternative explanations.

My research has been seeking to provide an answer to this conundrum by thinking about how religion has a specific ‘use’ for people in the circumstances of their modern life. This means the religious and the secular are not so much beliefs as tools that people pick up to make sense of situations, events and happenings. In my last book (Christian Ideals in British Culture: Stories of Belief in the twentieth century. Palgrave Publishing) I explored how Christianity in Britain used stories of pilgrimage, remembrance, sickness and death, the ‘just’ war and salvation to make sense of existence and people’s place in this. These stories were so strong that secular versions of them could also be found. This meant that previous ideas of religion being replaced by the secular was not borne out by this evidence. People at large in the twentieth century primarily wanted explanations and comfort instead of thinking deeply about the theology behind them as many historians presumed. For people in search of meaning ideas helped and this was irrespective of whether they were religious or not. If this could be true throughout the century then the idea of religion waning in favour of the secular forever was not only untrue – it was actually probably irrelevant!

To complete this idea the current book I’m working on (loosely entitled ‘Secular Stories in the twentieth century) is the other half of the circle of my argument, and I am delighted to be the recipient of a Brookes Research Excellence Award to enable me to write several chapters of this during the spring of 2018. Through this book I am now looking at secular stories and how both the secular and the religious have used these in similar ways to make sense of the world and civilisation. These stories include the individual turning their back on religion, the power of science as explanation, stories of material progress and welfare, the quest for freedom of expression, human sexual freedoms and morality and lastly the disestablishment of religion within the state. As in my first book both the religious and secular have grasped hold of and made use of these stories and such actions have left an imprint upon twentieth century cultural history. Again they do not follow any pattern related to the secular triumphing over the religious. Indeed a central point of this second book is that religion did not sit idly by let these narratives be identified as secular. In a more organic process they came to be used by the religious to find accommodation with a secular world.

The long term aim of this project is to get us away from increasingly fruitless discussions of when religion declined, discussions that often fragment into pieces when you look closely at some evidence. Instead recognising the strength of religious and secular stories can help us produce an alternative history of people interacting with religion rather than being seen as passive shoppers and consumers for pre-packaged belief systems.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

A Very Short History of Dowsing

I just published the chapter, 'The Divining Rod. Origins, Explanations and Uses in the Thirteenth to Eighteenth Centuries', in: Kallestrup, Louise / Toivo, Raisa (eds.): Contesting Orthodoxy in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave 2017, p. 127-144.

The divining rod is a special variety of the magic wand which is itself just one of the innumerable versions of the staff as a symbol of power. The first sources that say clearly that the divining rod was used to find hidden or lost objects date back to the early 15th century. The divining rod gained popularity or rather notoriety in the 16th century when it was used – against the explicit criticism of Georg Agricola (1494-1555), the father of scientific mining, - in the rising mining industry of Germany.

During the early modern period, the divining rod turned into an all-purpose tool for divination: Dowsers claimed that they could find forgotten boundary stones, suitable sites for building, game in the exploited hunting grounds of the nobility, unoccupied spots in the churchyard, or even mistakes in history books. If you searched for hidden springs or mineral veins you did not even have to leave your study anymore: It was sufficient to hold the divining rod over a map. It would point out the spot where you had to dig. In 1692, the master dowser Jacques Aymar even managed to find a murderer who had escaped the law enforcement officers of Lyon. Even though the magical charlatanry of dowsing never went unchallenged the divining rod survived into the 21st century.

Whereas the early theoreticians of the divining rod had claimed that there was some mysterious connection between the rod and the materials you searched for, from the 17th century onwards the person of the diviner became more important. It was said that only especially sensitive persons were able to dowse. The 20th century witnessed a relative ‘democratization’ of the use of the divining rod: It was now claimed that you did not need any special kind of talent in order to work successfully as a dowser. All it took was a little concentration and one of the many, relatively cheap training manuals. Dowsing for supposedly healthy food – never mind what your doctor might say - seems to be the latest trend.

The key to the success of the divining rod or its more modern equivalent, the pendulum, is its very simplicity. The divining rod is the dilettante’s dream: It is cheap and can be handled by practically everyone, it requires hardly any training and no expert knowledge. Thus, the divining rod is the very opposite of a scientific instrument.

Professor Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The 'Alien' Royal Myth

In 1917, at the height of the First World War, George V renamed the royal family from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor . The name ‘Windsor’ was suggested by his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, who discovered that Edward III was known as ‘Edward of Windsor’ before he became king. At the same time a number of royal German cousins were also naturalised, the Battenburg family was renamed as Mountbatten, the Teck family became the Cambridges. To mark the centenary of the founding of the House of Windsor, Channel 5 has commissioned ‘Inside Windsor Castle’ and Channel Four has screened ‘The Royal House of Windsor.’ Both featured familiar and well-worn myths the royals about the German antecedents of the House of Windsor; myths that are in need of a long overdue debunking.

The Royal Family is German.
One of these myths is that the royal family is German. Well it is in origin, but there was never a German monarch. The usual claim for the royals being German is that in 1714 George of Hanover became King, and he was a German. And in 1840 Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was German. But in neither case were they German by the time they arrived in Britain. In 1705, the Princess Sophia Naturalisation Act laid down that Sophia, and all her descendants, were naturalised British subjects. It was her son who inherited the throne in 1714. Similarly in 1840 Prince Albert gave up his Coburg status and was, also by act of parliament, naturalised as a British subject.

In fact George I (r. 1714-1727) and George II (r. 1727-1760) were the last kings to have lived for any time in Germany. George III famously said: ‘born and educated in this country I glory in the name of Briton.’ So the idea that the royal family is German, or was for over a century and a half, is an illusion.

They Spoke with German Accents
Well George I and George II did and Prince Albert did. But the others did not. Why would they? George IV, William IV, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V were all brought up and educated in Britain. But this is a stubborn myth. In reviewing ‘The Royal House of Windsor’ in February 2017 in The Daily Telegraph, the journalist Harry Mount wrote of Queen Mary that she was ‘of German stock … speaking with a marked German accent all her life.’[1] Queen Mary was certainly ‘of German stock’ –her father was Prince Frederick of Teck- but she had a British mother (Princess Mary of Cambridge) and was brought up in Britain. Moreover recordings of Queen Mary survive, such as her Empire Day speech in 1923, which demonstrate that she clearly did not speak with a German accent.[2] This is a myth that has been repeated so often that it is sometimes assumed to be true.

The ‘alien’ view of the royal family has a long lineage. Saxons complained about Norman invaders, Tudors were derided as Welsh upstarts and the Stuarts regarded as Scottish interlopers. But the real alien myth began in 1714 when George I succeeded Queen Anne, who died without heirs. Jacobites, who favoured the restoration of the Catholic Stuart family from France, emphasised George of Hanover’s foreignness as a way of undermining his legitimacy. One writer questioned whether, as a Lutheran, he could become king as he had not been baptised by an episcopal chaplain (in fact it was soon shown that he had been). But the commonest myth was that the House of Hanover were very distant cousins of Queen Anne and had only a tenuous claim to the throne. The myth grew up that there were dozens of people more closely related to Queen Anne but had been debarred from the throne because they were Catholic (because the Act of Settlement of 1701 debarred Catholics from succeeding). This is a myth that has survived to the present day. In 2014, on the three hundredth anniversary of the Hanoverian succession of 1714, there was some coverage of the event on BBC radio programmes. Two historians made the claim that in 1714, when Queen Anne died, there were fifty people more closely related to her who were debarred from the throne because they were Catholics, so the throne passed to George of Hanover because he was a Protestant. Could there really have been fifty people closer to Queen Anne who had been excluded by the Act of Settlement? It sounded unlikely to me. So I worked my way through the genealogical tables to try to find if this was true. There wasn’t fifty or even fifteen people, there were six. I made the evidence available on the History of Parliament website.[3]

There are all sorts of ways in which royals are different from us, but foreignness is not one of them, however it’s a myth that takes a long time to die.

By Professor William Gibson, Director of The Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History

[1] Harry Mount, ‘From German dynasty to the UK’s first family’, Daily Telegraph features, 22 February 2017.
[2] (accessed 25 February 2017)
[3] [1] (accessed 25 February 2017)

Image: The text of the Princess Sophia Naturalisation Act, 1705

Friday, 17 March 2017

Dragons in Human Form

In a number of witch trials and folkloristic source we encounter a mysterious magical being called dragon (“Drache” in German “żmij,” in Polish, “pūķis” in Latvian, “aitvaras” in Lithuanian) that brought witches money, butter or grain. Usually, this kind of dragon was imagined as a flying snake or a streak of fire that quickly flew over the dark night sky.

Modern picture of an ativaras or Lithuanian dragon

The dragon was supposed to be a shapeshifter. In folkloristic sources, it sometimes appears as a chicken and changes into a snake-like form later on. I would like to thank the renowned Latvian folklorist Dr Toms Ķencis who generously shared some of the results of his research with me. He alerted me to Latvian folkloristic sources that suggest that the witch herself could turn into a dragon and steal produce from her neighbours in that form.

In witch trials, the dragon is identified as a demon. In a minority of early modern sources referring to witches and dragons, the dragon is said to be capable of assuming human form. In a Saxon witch trial from 1536, the culprit confessed that the dragon came to her every Thursday. It brought her butter, cheese and money. The dragon assumed the outward shape of a handsome young man. They ate together and had sex.

This idea seems to have been widespread in Eastern Germany: in 16th century Saxony, “Drachenhure” (dragon’s whore) was a common insult. In 1652, a woman from Saxon Fichtenberg claimed to have had a strange vision: She had seen a dragon in the sky that had sex with various women from her neighbourhood. Even though the contemporaries were willing to accept the existence of dragons in principle, this story was too outrageous. It did not cause a witch hunt; state and church officials chose to ignore it.

At first glance, the dragon as a shapeshifter reminds us of the medieval Sigurd tales that feature Fafnir, a shapeshifter who turned himself into a dragon in order to defend his treasure. However, the early modern sources talk about completely different issues and originated in a totally different social context.

Arthur Rackham’s Fafnir
The idea that the dragon appears in human form and has intercourse with the witch was probably suggested by demonology. Demonology interpreted every type of magic as witchcraft and most spirits as demons in disguise. The witchcraft doctrine suggested that the spirits of hell took on human form and had sex with their disciples, the witches. These elements were simply added to the dragon beliefs of folk culture.

One of the reasons why the witchcraft doctrine was so influential was its flexibility and its integrative power. It managed to include various bits of folk belief into a new coherent system and thereby provided an explanation for all of them: The witchcraft doctrine suggested that all the innumerable spirits beings of folk belief were simply demons. This explanation not only bridged the huge gaps between various kinds of spirits and all the local and regional traditions of spirit beliefs, it also made these beliefs absolutely compatible with learned demonology and vice versa.

By Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Meet Dr Hannah Yelin, Lecturer in the school of Communication, Media and Culture.

Hannah Yellin

Why did you choose celebrity memoirs as the object of your research?
In terms of high and low culture, ghost-written celebrity memoirs are often treated like they’re the absolute bottom of the pile. But if we take time to examine the genre properly, it has a lot to tell us about society, fame and even ourselves. Within these books, famous women tell us their story, in their ‘own words’. However, it is an open secret that constellations of ghost writers, management and market forces orbit these texts, undermining their promises that we can access the ‘real’ woman behind the celebrity image. As a result, the ghost-written memoir inhabits a complex grey area between biography, autobiography, fact and fiction.

Why does it matter if they’re ghost-written?
Looking at who ghost-writes and how both offers a fascinating peek ‘behind the scenes’ at the mechanics of fame-making and raises important political questions. For example, bestselling memoirs sold as the ‘true’ experiences of women are often co-authored by men. This is especially important to think about when the co-authored memoirs narrate stories of surviving sexual abuse as in the memoirs of celebrities Jenna Jameson and Pamela Anderson. This suggests that it is important we consider what power dynamics might lie in the construction of these texts and how that might shape the way stories are told.

What is the wider relevance of celebrity memoir?

In the process of examining memoir I get to interrogate values of contemporary society and the way that women are coaxed to perform certain roles. Memoirs are a particularly good example showing how that happens, especially when we consider how they are ghost-written. Looking at the conventions of this genre tells us about the space permitted to public women to tell their own stories. The contradictions of agency in self-representation shown in celebrity memoir can tell us about the wider contradictory demands that structure femininity in general.

What do you mean by contradictions of agency in self-representation?

Memoirs offer a certain amount of power to public women who wish to intervene in the kinds of stories that circulate around them in a media landscape largely populated by unauthorised exposés. This is important when we consider how much women’s stories have historically been erased. But memoirs also reveal the limitations that structure the way that women are permitted to represent themselves.

What is a Research Excellence Award and what will you do with yours?I have been lucky enough to receive funding from the university which I will be using to write my book and organise a series of events. The working title of the book is Subjectivity for Sale: the Gender Politics of Ghosted Celebrity Memoir. The events will be called the Celebrity Culture Club and they will bring together academics and people working in the media to discuss the urgent questions of the day relating to celebrity culture.
Dr Hannah Yelin is a Lecturer in Media and Culture at Oxford Brookes University

Monday, 6 March 2017

The Dragon as a Household Spirit: What does it look like?

In a number of witch trials we encounter the idea that a mysterious magical being called dragon (Drache in German) brought witches money, butter or grain. The dragon simply spat out money, milk or other goods when it had reached the house of its master or its mistress.

A modern picture of the dragon as a household spirit by Měrćin Nowak-Njechorński: The demonic being has turned into a fairy tale character.

The belief in the dragon explained – though in an entirely negative way - why some householders had more produce or more money than others.

It is surprising that a number of people in early modern Eastern Germany, the west Slavic areas or the Baltic actually claimed to have seen a dragon. They said that they had observed a dragon flying over the night sky. This is even more remarkable because almost nobody ever claimed to have seen a witch flying on broomstick.

People usually described the dragon as a ball of fire with a long fiery tale that moved very quickly over the dark sky. At least in witch trials, none of the witnesses mentioned that the dragon had any wings. It was said to have a big head - like a stag or a cow as a Saxon witch trial from 1652 had it. A little later in the same trial record, a witnesses explained that the dragon has a “thick front like a tub but its rear is thin and fiery.” In a Bavarian witch trial from 1699 a witness said that the dragon had “a black pointy head. It was the size of a large man, the upper half as black as coal and tar, but fiery downwards.” In other trials the witnesses agreed that the dragon looked like a flying fiery pole that threw sparks.

At least from the middle of the seventeenth century onwards, scientists explained the dragon sightings as meteorites. Of course, this explanation made no impression on the village level or in the court room. It is not enough for historians to explain the belief in the dragon as a somewhat quaint though entirely wrong interpretation of a natural phenomenon. The social context matters. Witnesses in witch trials said time and again that they had not only seen the dragon flying over the night sky, they claimed that it had flown into the house of a certain person, sometimes through a window, sometimes through the chimney. Any person who was said to receive visits from a dragon was supposed to be a witch. In the words of a witness of a Bavarian witch trial from 1670: “The Drache had come flying often and at various times into the house of the defendant’s father and thus the general suspicion had been voiced that the culprit could not be free of witchcraft.” Thus, sightings of dragons could lead to accusations of witchcraft.

We may safely assume that at first people who seemed to do better than their neighbors attracted some negative attention. Their economic success invited suspicions of witchcraft. These suspicions made the villagers ‘see’ the dragon fly into the house of alleged witches.

Professor Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.