Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Guest Post: Magic, Witches and Devils in the Persian Book of Kings

by Dr Stephen Gordon

Belief in devils and witches was a central feature of the medieval and early modern worlds. From Ars Moriendi texts that taught the dying how to avoid the clutches of the devil, to treatises on the machinations of witches, interactions with malign, evil entities were an accepted − if unwelcome − part of everyday life. While much has been written on the Occidental traditions of supernatural belief, it should also be noted that the Islamic world shared the same concerns about the agency of evil spirits. The epic Persian poem, the Shahnama, or ‘Book of Kings’, contained numerous stories involving magic, witches and demons. The historic John Rylands Library in Manchester is home to a fine selection of meticulously illustrated copies of the text.

Written between c.982−1010 CE by Abu’l Qasim Firdousi of Tus (‘Ferdowsi’, d. 1025CE), who took over the project from Abu Mansur Daqiqi (d. 976CE), the Shahnama charts the history of the Persian people from the beginning of the world to the fall of the Sasanian Empire (642CE). As well as being the longest poem ever written by a single author, the Shahnama is notable for the purity of its written Persian, with very few Arabic loan words included in the text. Structurally, it is divided into three main parts, the mythical, legendary, and historical eras, and covers the reigns of forty-seven kings and three queens. Almost two-thirds of the text is devoted to the legendary section of Iranian history, of which the adventures of the hero Rustam (see below) are given particular prominence. The Shahnama places great emphasis on the differences between good and bad kingship, providing moral lessons to entertain and edify its noble readership. Demons and witches – that is, evil incarnate – provided the ideal obstacles for ‘good’ kings and heroes to overcome. The increased commercialisation of manuscript production in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, focused mainly on the city of Shiraz, meant that the Ferdowsi’s masterpiece began to enjoy a much wider circulation, able to be read, copied and patronised by royal and non-royal audiences alike.

The storming of the castle of Bahman is one of the most visceral supernatural encounters recorded in the Shahnama. Following a long and eventful reign, the Shah Kay Kavus decided to abdicate his throne, but could not decide whether his successor should be his son, Fariburz, or grandson, Kay Khusraw. Thus he announced that whoever vanquished the demon-filled castle of Bahman would become the new ruler. Fariburz’s assault failed after the ground surrounding the castle magically burst into flames, forcing him to retreat. When Kay Khusraw approached the castle, he commanded one of his retainers, Giv, to attach a letter to the walls proclaiming the castle would fall to the rightful king. Almost immediately the ramparts began to crumble. Kay Khusraw wasted no time in ordering his archers to fire, killing many ‘Divs’ (demons) in the process. Those that weren’t killed in the initial onslaught died after falling from the battlements. Kay Khusraw returned home in triumph and accepted the Persian crown. This page from Persian MS 910, written in 1518 but not illustrated until much later, showcases the aftermath of the collapse of Bahman’s walls (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The demon castle of Bahman, Persian MS 910, fol. 139a (c. 1518) (copyright of the University of Manchester)

Rustam is considered the greatest of the Shahnama’s heroic characters. In the tradition of other such legendary heroes as Herekles, Cu Chulainn and Beowulf, Rustam was a larger-than-life figure who, from an early age, performed many feats of strength, daring and courage. His most famous quest concerns the seven labours, or ‘courses’, undertaken to rescue the previously-mentioned Shah, Kay Kavus. Having been persuaded by a div disguised as a minstrel to invade the realm of Mazandaran on the Caspian Sea, the Shah and his army were captured and blinded by the infamous White Div (div-i safid), who had come to the aid of Mazandaran’s king. On hearing of the Shah’s predicament, Rustam determined to slay the Div, the blood from whose liver was the only substance that could restore the Shah and the army’s sight. In sequence, Rustam’s challenges included fighting a lion, finding a spring in the desert, defeating a dragon, a witch, the hero Ulad, the demon Arzhang and, finally, the White Div himself.

The fourth labour, the slaying of an evil witch, provides a fascinating insight into Persian conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ magic. Following his defeat of the desert-dwelling dragon, Rustam entered a valley populated by ‘sorcerers’ and came across a banquet that had been set up beside a stream. Noting that it was a “sorcerers’ meal” and that the participating divs had fled at the sound of his approach, Rustam sat down, picked up a lute and began to sing. His melodies reached the ears of a nearby witch, who approached Rustam in the guise of a beautiful young woman. Not knowing that she was a witch, Rustam offered her a glass of wine, invoking the grace of God as he did so. The witch recoiled at the mention of God’s name, an insult that prompted Rustam to ensnare her in his magical lasso. Ordered to “speak and show thy proper favour”, the witch transformed back into a hideous, wrinkled old hag. Rustam promptly stabbed her with his sword before continuing with his journey. While this illustration from Persian MS 9, produced in India, does not depict Rustam’s lasso, nor the witch’s hideous appearance, it clearly shows the moment when he is about to behead his adversary (fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Rustam and the Witch, Persian MS 9, fol. 78a (c. 1450s) (copyright of the University of Manchester). An inscription at the beginning of the manuscript states that it was once part of the collection of Sir Gore Ouseley (d.1844), the British diplomat who helped broker the Treaty of Golestan between the Persian and Russian Empires in 1813

Rustam’s quest ended when he arrived at the White Div’s underground lair, the setting of the seventh and final labour. Entering the pitch-black cave and finding the demon asleep, he roused his opponent with a fierce roar and cut off the Div’s hand and foot before he had time to react. Following a brief but violent struggle, Rustam killed the Div by throwing him upon the ground, after which he removed the demon’s liver. As expected, the blood from the liver magically cured Kay Kavus and his army of their blindness. This illustration from Persian MS 932 shows Rustam stabbing the White Div’s torso after having already sliced off its limbs (fig. 3). The animated, violent nature of the scene suggests that the Div has not yet been killed. This, then, is the middle of the fight rather than its aftermath. The image itself is defined by the contrast between the frenetic action occurring within the cave and the consternation of the human and demonic characters without. The figure at the very right of the page can be identified as Ulad, who was captured by Rustam during the fifth labour and made to act as his guide through the lands of Mazandaran. Rustam tied Ulad to a tree before entering the White Div’s cave. The horse at the lower right side of the page is Rustan’s faithful steed, Rakhsh.

Fig. 3: Rustam and the White Div, Persian MS 932, fol. 87b (c. 1542) (copyright of the University of Manchester). According to a handwritten note on the reverse of the title page (fol. 1a), the book belonged to the library of the Kings of Oudh (Awadh, India) and was written in 1542. The note goes on to claim that this was one of the manuscripts consulted by Turner Macan (d. 1836), the first European editor of the Shahnama

Within the cave itself Rustam is depicted with his usual accoutrements of a leopard skin helmet and tiger skin robe. According to legend, the tiger skin was said to afford Rustam superhuman powers. As embodiments of chaos and social disorder, the divs are appropriately hybridised, a mixture of both animal and human parts. Their feral semi-nakedness also contrasts with the finery of Rustam and Ulad’s own clothing. Interestingly, the poem describes the White Div as being ‘a mountain that blotted all within, with a sable face and hair like a lion’s mane’. Thus, while the nomenclature ‘White Div’ would seem to refers to the demon’s hair colour rather than its skin complexion, the artist − perhaps aware of the difficulty of depicting a dark body on a black background − has chosen to make the creature entirely white. With Rustam representing the known, cultural world and the White Div representing the Other, the seventh labour can be read as a broad allegory of the fight between good and evil.

Demons and witches were an integral component of pre- and post-Islamic Persian folklore. Where the Shahnama is concerned, evil entities were a threat to the very coherence of the Persian court. The destruction of the castle of Bahman and the killing of the White Div ensured the maintenance of divine order. The Shahnama’s portrayal of magic is, however, much more ambiguous. White or ‘good’ magic seems to have been the sole property of heroes, seen especially in the positive connotations associated with Rustam’s lasso and leopard-skin helmet. More often than note, female magic was characterised as ‘bad’ and possibly demonic. Heroes could use magic for their own noble ends; females, by contrast, were shaped by the supernatural forces they wielded. As noted in Rustam’s fourth labour, the innate ugliness of the witch was concealed beneath a false, seductive glamour. Such beliefs find a corollary in Western conceptions of witchcraft. The ability to seemingly change shape and deceive the senses is considered, for example, in Part I, Question Ten of Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’, c.1487). Whether to entertain (Shahnama) or instruct (Malleus), to amuse or provoke fear, tales of the supernatural had a strong emotional impact on Eastern and Western audiences alike.

Further Reading: Jerome W. Clinton and Marianna S. Simpson, ‘How Rustam killed White Div: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry’, Iranian Studies 39: 2 (2006), 171-97; C. P. Melville and Barbara Brend, Epic of the Persian Kings: The Art of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (London: Tauris, 2010); Laurie Pierce, ‘Serpents and Sorcery: Humanity, Gender, and the Demonic in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh’, Iranian Studies 48: 3 (2015), 349−67; Basil W. Robinson, Persian Paintings in the John Rylands Library: A Descriptive Catalogue (London: Sotheby, 1980)

About the author: Dr Stephen Gordon is a Postdoctoral Research Associate on Jennifer Spinks’ Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project ‘Magic, Diabolism, and Global Religion in European Print Culture, 1500–1700’ (grant number AH/L015013/1). One of the major outcomes of the project will be the exhibition ‘Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World’ at the John Rylands Library, from late January to mid 2016. The exhibition will be co-curated by Jennifer Spinks and Sasha Handley, who both lecture in early modern history at the University of Manchester, and it has also been supported by the John Rylands Research Institute. It will feature Persian MSS 9, 910 and 932 alongside other works from the Rylands collection. Stephen’s work more often focuses upon Western traditions of supernatural belief. One of the aims of the exhibition is to situate a small selection of non-Western works from the collection in a dialogue with material from European contexts, partly in the hope of fostering future collaborative work with specialists in this area.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Upcoming Event: The Sea Born(e) State: Empires and the Sea in the Late Middle Ages

Thursday 26 November, 6pm
Samuel Alexander Room A115, University of Manchester

The Sea Born(e) State: Empires and the Sea in the Late Middle Ages

A discussion by:

Dr Georg Christ 
Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern History

Dr Colin Imber
Historian of the Ottoman Empire and Honorary Research Fellow


Johannes Lotze 
PhD Student Chinese Studies, Ming Specialist

Free (Medieval Society members)/£5 (waged)/£2 (unwaged)

For more information, please contact Dr Hannah Priest 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Willem de Blécourt: Werewolves in Medieval Europe

Willem de Blécourt: Werewolves in Medieval Europe

29 October 2015
Room A112, Samuel Alexander Building, University of Manchester
All welcome - free (Manchester Medieval Society members), £5 (waged), £2 (unwaged/student)

Willem de Blécourt is a historical anthropologist and an independent scholar, as well as Honorary Research Fellow at the Meertens Institute, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is the editor of Werewolf Histories, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan this month. Apart from werewolves, his main areas of interest are the history of witchcraft in Europe from the late Middle Ages up to the twentieth century, and the history of fairy tales during the same period. Other recent publications include Tales of Magic, Tales in Print: On the Genealogy of Fairy Tales and the Brothers Grimm (2012) and two edited volumes (with Owen Davies) about witchcraft after the witch trials, Beyond the Witch Trials and Witchcraft Continued (2004).

For more information, please contact Dr Hannah Priest.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

CFP: Medieval Dress and Textile Society (MEDATS) Conference

The Medieval Dress and Textiles Society conference on Saturday 4 June 2016 will be titled:

‘On the Move’

Proposals are invited for 20-minute papers on relevant topics concerning the movement of dress and/or textiles and the use of dress and textiles in travel between c. 500 and 1600.

Topics might include:
Tents and their furnishings
Bags, wrappings, pockets
Peripatetic households
Prestige gifts
Travelling clothes
Waggon covers and emballage
Royal marriages
The Silk Road and other trade routes

Please submit your title and a 200-word synopsis to the Programme Secretary, Gale R. Owen-Crocker, by 31 December 2015.

The Conference will be held at The Art Workers’ Guild, 6, Queen Square London WC1N 3AT from 11am to 5.15pm.

For more information, please visit the MEDATS website.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies (MANCASS) Programme 2015-16

Monday 19 October 2015
Professor Don Scragg (MANCASS): 'Making Invisible Old English Visible'
5pm, Samuel Alexander Building, Room A4

Monday 9 November 2015
Dr Ryan Lavelle (University of Winchester): 'Viking - Alfredian - Late Anglo-Saxon? Reflections on the Periodisation of "Pre-Conquest" English History'
5pm, Samuel Alexander Building, Room A4

Monday 8 Feb 2016
Dr Alaric Hall (University of Leeds): 'Comparing Anglo-Saxon and Arabic Riddles'
5pm, Samuel Alexander Building, Room A4

2016 Toller Lecture
Monday 7 March 2016
6pm, Historic Reading Room, John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester

Professor Clare Lees (King's College London) will speak on 'Women Write the Past: Old English, New Literature and the Romance of Scholarship'

Friday, 18 September 2015

Manchester Dress and Textiles Discussion Group - Programme 2015-16

Venue: Seminar Room 1 or 2, The Graduate Suite, Ellen Wilkinson Building, University of Manchester. The room will be confirmed nearer the time.

Time: 5pm–6pm

Thursday 1st October 2015
Gale Owen-Crocker, ‘Headgear with a History’

Thursday 3rd December 2015
Carla Phillips, ‘Sprang a forgotten craft? Talk and have a go session’

Thursday 21st January 2016
Aislinn Collins, ‘Clothing in Early Modern Ireland’

Thursday 10th March 2016
Brenda King, ‘Embroidering the Truth or Putting the Record Straight about the Leek Embroidery Society’

Thursday 12th May 2016
Zoe Boden, ‘Opus Anglicanum and the Steeple Aston cope’

If you would like more information about the group, or are interested in giving a paper, please email Alexandra Lester-Makin.

Monday, 17 August 2015

CFP: Gender and Medieval Studies Conference 2016: Gender and Emotion

The University of Hull
6th – 8th January 2016

Call for Papers

The grief-stricken faces at Edward’s deathbed in the Bayeux Tapestry; the ambiguous ‘ofermod’ in The Battle of Maldon; the body-crumpling anguish of the Virgin witnessing the Man of Sorrows; the mirth of the Green Knight; the apoplectic anger of the mystery plays’ Herod and the visceral visionary experiences of Margery of Kempe all testify to the ways in which the medieval world sought to express, perform, idealise and understand emotion.

Yet while such expressions of emotion are frequently encountered by medievalists working across the disciplines, defining, quantifying and analysing the purposes of emotion often proves difficult. Are personal items placed in early Anglo Saxon graves a means for the living to let go of, or perpetuate emotion? Do different literary and historical forms lend themselves to diverse ways of expressing emotion? How does a character expressing emotion on stage or in artwork use both body and articulation to communicate emotion to their viewer? Moreover, is emotion viewed differently depending on the gendered identity of the body expressing it? Is emotion and its reception used to construct, deconstruct, challenge or confirm gender identities?

This conference seeks to explore the manifestations, performances and functions of emotion in the early to late Middle Ages, and to examine the ways in which emotion is gendered and used to construct gender identities.

Proposals are now being accepted for 20 minute papers. Topics to consider may include, but are not limited to:

- Gender and emotional expression: representing and performing emotion
- The emotional body
- Philosophies of emotion: theory and morality
- Emotional objects and vessels of emotion
- Language and emotion and the languages of emotion
- Preserving or perpetuating emotion
- Emotions to be dealt with: repressing, curtailing, channelling, transforming
- Forbidden emotion
- Living through (someone else’s) emotion
- The emotions of war and peace
- The emotive ‘other’
- Place and emotion
- Queer emotion

We welcome scholars from a range of disciplines, including history, literature, art history, archaeology and drama. A travel fund is available for postgraduate students who would otherwise be unable to attend.

Please email proposals of no more than 300 words to organiser Daisy Black by the 7th September 2015. All queries should also be directed to this address. Please also include biographical information detailing your name, research area, institution and level of study (if applicable).

Further details will soon be available on the conference website.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Brigitte Resl Lecture

Joint meeting of the Manchester Medieval Society and Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies
Thursday 23rd April 2015, 6pm

Noah’s Ark in the Earlier Middle Ages
Professor Brigitte Resl
Dean of Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of Hull

Venue: John Rylands Library, Deansgate

Non-Members are always welcome.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

MEDATS Spring Conference and AGM

Medieval Dress and Textiles Society

Saturday 30th May 2015
The Hall, The Art Workers’ Guild, 6 Queen Square, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 3AT
(Nearest tube Holborn or Russell Square. Buses: 59, 68, 168)

Occupational Dress


9.30 Registration

10.00 Welcome

10.15 David Rushworth: Fifteenth-Century Domestic Liveries

11.00 Tea/coffee. Opportunity to buy at the bookshop (cash/cheque only)

11.30 Dr Sven Hauschke: The “house books“ of the Nuremberg Twelve-Brothers-Foundation (1388-1806)

12.15 Dr Timothy Dawson: Law Enforcement Insignia and Uniforms in Constantinople, Tenth to Twelfth Centuries

1.00 Finger buffet lunch. Opportunity to buy at the bookshop (cash/cheque only)

1.45 Annual General Meeting (members of MEDATS only)

2.30 Dr Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ninya Mikhaila: “All my sea clothes”: Mariners’ Dress in the Sixteenth Century

3.15 Tea/coffee. Opportunity to buy at the bookshop (cash/cheque only)

3.45 Glynis Hughes: The Cryes of London: Clothes of London Tradespeople Depicted in the Earliest Series of Prints Held at the Pepys Library

4.15 Recap and discussion

4.30 End of meeting

Ticket Prices

Single member ticket - £25
Non-member ticket - £30
Student ticket - £15
Dual (1 member + 1 non-member
booked together) - £50
Ticket price includes refreshments and a light finger buffet lunch.

For more information, or to book tickets, please visit the MEDATS website.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Brook Lecture in Middle English

Thursday, 16 April, 5.30pm
Christie Seminar Room, John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester

Professor Stephanie Trigg
(University of Melbourne)

Changing Faces: The Dynamics of Facial Expression and Emotion in Middle English Literature

The Brook Lecture, part of the English and American Studies seminar series, honours the memory of G.L. Brook, Professor of English Language and Medieval English Literature at Manchester University, 1945–77. We are pleased to welcome as this year’s speaker Stephanie Trigg. Professor Trigg is the author of Shame and Honour: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter (2012), Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (2002), and many articles. She is one of the Program Leaders of the Australian Research Council-funded Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

Enquiries: David Matthews