WRITING THE MAGIC OF THE CRIMINAL CORPSES

BY OWEN DAVIES

NOV 2nd, 2015

It is that time in a major research project when the final outputs are being worked on. In my case that is co-writing a short monograph entitled Executing Magic: The Power of Criminal Bodies. This will explore the magical ‘life cycle’ of the criminal corpse from the seventeenth to the early-twentieth century. The book begins with the living criminal body, primarily discussed in terms of the witch, and then moves on to looking at the magical aspects of the ritual of execution and the use of fresh body parts in medicine and magic. The next chapter explores the magical properties of the places of execution and the executioners’ tools, such as the hanging rope. The book takes a Europe-wide perspective, examining different religious and cultural traditions, as well as how different execution practices generated distinct magic-medical cures.

Title: A caza de dientes (Out Hunting for Teeth), 1799, Francisco Goya (1746–1828). Francisco Goya [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.]

I am co-writing the book with Francesca Matteoni, who spent the first two years of the project as a Postdoctoral Researcher working with me on our magical strand. Francesca had already researched the power of blood in early-modern Europe for her PhD, and for the Criminal Corpse project she travelled to various archives across Europe looking for sources about the use of criminal corpses in the period 1700-1900. Her trip to the Nordiska Museet Arkivet in Stockholm, for example, provided some valuable material on the practice of drinking the blood of beheaded criminals during the nineteenth century. By the time the Criminal Corpse project started, the extraordinary digitisation initiatives of the present day, such as google books and archive.org, meant that both of us could access a wide range of relevant nineteenth- and early-twentieth folklore publications from home. Only a couple of years before, it would have taken weeks of library visits, photocopying, and note making to accumulate the same material. Still, as Francesca’s visits proved, any study such as ours cannot rely on digitised sources alone.

Co-writing is a rewarding but challenging process. There are a variety of ways of going about it. The easiest way is to designate to each author sections of the article or book to be written, and then stick the results together with a bit of overall editorial glue. In our recent open access article, ‘“A virtue beyond all medicine”: The Hanged Man’s Hand, Gallows Tradition and Healing in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century England’, the co-writing process was much more complex. I am a social historian who uses folklore material, whereas Francesca researches and write from a cultural/folkloric academic approach. So in this case I took the lead in writing from a social historical perspective, drawing upon some research and sections of analytical writing produced by Francesca. The result is a true collaboration, but with a strong, single authorial voice. The book format enables a more varied tone and approach within a single study, and so we are both writing sections in each chapter that explore the subject from our different perspectives. The key is to ensure that there is a clear structure to each chapter and an agreed set of shared objectives, arguments and analyses. We then swap drafts back and forth to ensure an evenness in pace and style. A good co-written book should clearly demonstrate the respective contributions and expertise of the authors, but must also provide a coherent narrative.

The benefits of being in such a collaborative research environment as the Criminal Corpse project team, is that both of us have benefitted hugely from our other colleagues’ work as it progressed. Having multiple history, archaeological and philosophical expertise on tap has not only speeded up our own research but informed the questions we have asked of our sources, and illuminated new ways of approaching the topic of execution magic. I’ll expand more on this in my next project blog.

Owen Davies is Professor of History at the University of Hertfordshire and a co-investigator on the Criminal Corpse Project.  Much of his work concerns the belief in witchcraft, magic and ghosts from the ancient world to the modern era. This has also led to work on popular medicine and folklore, international comparative studies, and interdisciplinary research applying anthropological and biomedical knowledge to historical topics. Owen also has interests in landscape history. His most recent major work is: America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem (OUP). This explores the nature and strength of witchcraft beliefs in American society from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, including detailed accounts of the murder and abuse of suspected witches in European, Native American and African American communities.

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