Cornell University’s cofounder Andrew Dickson White was a huge bibliophile. With his librarian George Lincoln Burr, he amassed a formidable collection of books, with a special concentration on those that highlighted historic persecution and the experiences of the downtrodden. Out of this personal library came the Cornell University Witchcraft Collection, which holds over 3,000 objects on superstition and witchcraft in Europe, mostly acquired in the 1880s.
“He was interested in people on the margin and the underside of history, so another big collection that he acquired was the anti-slavery collection,” Anne R. Kenney told Hyperallergic. Kenney stepped down as university librarian earlier this year, and said that she wanted to cap off her career at Cornell with an exhibition on the Witchcraft Collection and its connection to women’s history.
Kenney is the co-curator, with Kornelia Tancheva, of The World Bewitch’d, which opens on Halloween at Cornell’s Kroch Library. “This is the first major exhibition from the collection,” Kenney noted. In an article for the Cornell Chronicle, Melanie Lefkowitz, staff writer and editor for Cornell University Library, notes that the collection is “the largest of its kind in North America.” The Witchcraft Collection is open to the public for research, and its Digital Witchcraft Collection offers over 100 English-language books, yet this is a unique opportunity to view its centuries of material. It also places this material within a context of gender and theology.
“Prior to 1500, most sorcerers were men because they were seen as powerful agents — think of Merlin — but as the ecclesiastical leaders began to think of a new form of witchcraft, it was the more powerless people whom the devil contacted to do his work,” Kenney said. “So they were not independent agents, but slaves of the devil. That powerlessness really became associated with women.”
Among the five featured books in The World Bewitch’d that were published before 1500 is the first written on witchcraft. Dating to 1471, it is still in its original binding. It was soon followed by the notorious demonology tome Malleus Maleficarum, first printed in 1487, of which Cornell has 14 Latin editions. “The book was second only to the Bible in terms of sales for almost 200 years,” Kenney explained. It not only served as a touchstone for subsequent treatises, it was used as the basis for how trials were conducted.
“It is mainly cited today for its misogyny in identifying women as being witches,” Kenney added. The text claims that women consort with the devil due to their uncontrollable carnal lust, and thus sex with the devil was a big part of supposed demonic pacts. Although there were exceptions, like Dietrich Flade, a city judge who spoke out against the barbarity of witchcraft trials in the 1580s (the minutes of his own trial are at Cornell), the majority of those accused and tortured were women. The World Bewitch’d uses its exhibition narrative to focus on seven individual women, and find their voices and stories in court records, depositions, and the surviving imagery.
These centuries-old manuscripts are joined by contemporary objects, including newly acquired film posters that show recent portrayals of witches, from the malicious figures in Rosemary’s Baby to the heroic wizards in Harry Potter. Familiars, the small animals that accompany witches, reappear in cinema through the forms of cats and owls, as does the trope of witches flying on broomsticks, which dates back to 1451.
“There’s the contemporary twist where witches in popular culture now are more powerful, whether they do good or bad things, whereas in the historical material, most of the women who were accused of being witches were powerless, they were victims of a mania that was occurring,” Kenney said. And that mania is difficult to comprehend without examining the religious, societal, and political forces at work in the 15th and 16th centuries. Estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 for the number of people burned, hanged, and otherwise executed for witchcraft.
“Most Americans know about the Salem Witch Trials, and not to diminish the horrible aspects of that, but only 19 women were hanged,” Kenney stated. “There’s this whole bigger story of witchcraft that is not very well known.”
The World Bewitch’d will be on view October 31, 2017 to August 31, 2018 at Kroch Library’s Hirshland Gallery (Cornell University Library, 216 East Avenue, Ithaca, New York).