In the recent half term holiday I found myself looking after our nearly-four-year-old twins while our eldest went to the Safari Park. I was a little bit stuck for what to do because there are no (or very few) Stay & Plays/Playgroups open in school holidays. The previous day we’d been to Liverpool Central Library where, for the duration of the half term, there were daily kid friendly things. We (myself and all three kids) had seen a conjurer whose act, if I’m perfectly honest, failed to hold the attention of many of the forty or so kids assembled there, mine included. Maybe it was this that finally jogged my memory of something I’d been meaning to do since I first read about it.
The John Rylands Library – which I had never visited before – is a truly impressive neo-gothic building, and everything fans of M. R. James, Harry Potter, Strange & Norrell, etc might hope for in a late Victorian English University library. Crossing Deansgate towards the ornate and imposing Arts & Crafts influenced gatehouse doors one of the twins was so impressed he nearly fell off his balance bike. The library is no longer accessed through this grand portal, but via the revolving door of a modern building constructed around part of the rear of the original. This modern addition houses a information desk, gift shop, cafe, and provides access to the lift and stairs.
Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World is housed in the Christie Gallery, which is a room maybe 10 foot wide by 20 foot long, with two beautiful little library rooms – the Spencer and Crawford Rooms – adjacent. In this diminutive space are half a dozen or so glass exhibit cabinets, each holding a handful of items of magical significance. The aim of the exhibition is to provide an overview of magic and the supernatural in Europe between 1400 and 1800. Some non European texts and artefacts are present, but these seem to be included to show the influence of trade and travel upon European beliefs during that time as much as anything else.
With the Library of John Dee exhibition currently running at the Royal Collage of Physicians in London, one of the Manchester displays big draws for many will undoubtedly be the copy of Gesner’s 1555 De Remediis Secretis (Book of Little Known Remedies). This volume (like much of the exhibition) is on loan from Chetams Library which is even more of an old fashioned, dusty, beautiful space than John Rylands – founded in 1653, in a building built in 1421, it is now the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. Today the library is part of Chetam’s Music School but in the late 1500s the school was Christ’s College Manchester and its warden was none other than Dr. John Dee himself. Marginalia in this copy of De Remediis Secretis is therefore attributed to Dee.
You’ve got your “proper” sigil-laden, pseudo Arabic, ritual magic texts from the 1500s like Compendium Magiae Innaturalis Nigrae (Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic) and Tractatus de Nigomantia (Book of Black Magic), of course, but the exhibition also touches upon the everyday magic of the time. Most of what was (and is) feared is death in one form or another.
Children were considered especially vulnerable to witchcraft; special magical bracelets to ward off evil sit in one cabinet and infants are depicted being carried by a witch riding a twisted bone-horse in a print of Agostino Veneziano’s Lo Stegozzo (The Witches’ Procession) on display. An edition of Malleus Malificarum reminds the visitor of the fates which befell so many accused of witchcraft during the three centuries or so of active witch-hunting.
I admit now that I did not get a chance to examine the exhibition as thoroughly and carefully as I would have ideally. Without thinking, when one of the twins had asked me what the exhibition was about, I had replied “magic”. They knew they were in a library, just as they had been a couple of days before, and now I had promised them magic. There was, however, no conjurer here and they were sorely aware of the fact. “This is rubbish!” one began exclaiming loudly. That was my cue to leave.