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The Feast of Orme

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Prof. Nicholas Orme in discussion with Exeter PhD student Henry Marsh

Wednesday 29th March saw medievalists from across the University and the city gather for the climax of the Medieval Studies calendar in Exeter. This annual day of events, generously sponsored by Prof. Nicholas Orme, has long included both a postgraduate seminar in the afternoon and, in the evening, the public Orme Lecture. This year, however, the programme was extended by an additional talk in the morning, a change that made for a packed programme of events. The additional talk complemented the longstanding aim of the day, which allows us to showcase some of the research being undertaken by our PhD students as well as hosting a prominent visiting speaker. The ‘Feast of Orme’, as it is informally known, is always a memorable day, but the general feeling is that this year’s ‘Feast’ was particularly intellectually nourishing.

The day began with a ‘work-in-progress’ session led by Ryan Low, a Marshall Scholar studying for an MPhil in medieval history at UCL. Ryan’s unbridled enthusiasm shone through as he laid out a selection of his research questions for comment and discussion. Ryan outlined the broad aims of his project, which is centred around producing a bibliography that aims to ‘rehabilitate’ the thirteenth-century inquisitor and Dominican prior Bernard Gui. A lively discussion ensued, touching on all five ‘phases’ of Bernard’s life, while also bringing in questions of Gui’s own Occitan identity and how he would have presented himself. This ‘nerdy little kid’, as Ryan memorably described him, was to grow up to become ‘a regional actor with international clout’; in the wake of such a stimulating and thought-provoking presentation, we were all left hopeful of a similarly bright future for Ryan’s project.

After lunch, our attention turned to the day’s second set of speakers, whom we welcomed as part of the afternoon postgraduate seminar. First to present was Tabitha Stanmore, one of our AHRC DTP doctoral students who is supervised jointly by Ronald Hutton at Bristol and Catherine Rider at Exeter. Her paper examined the economics of the occult in late medieval and early modern England. Drawing on an extensive range of primary testimonies from both before and after the 1542 Witchcraft Act, she demonstrated that there existed an astonishingly developed market for the services of so-called ‘cunning-folk’, with rates of payment regulated by a complex unwritten system that took into account the value of magic to the client, as well as the perceived ‘difficulty’ of the magic to perform. The system could even account for discounts being offered to repeat customers. Clearly, as Tabitha showed in her fascinating presentation, the cloak-and-dagger world of witchcraft, with its ‘introducers’ and ‘dark corners’, was far from lawless.

Speaking next was Tom Chadwick, a final-year PhD student at Exeter. Tom based his presentation around an aspect of his thesis, inviting us to consider the polysemic and often-problematic term Normannitas. The term, coined in the nineteenth century in imitation of Romanitas, has been used since to present, as Tom aptly put it, a monolithic and deceptively uniform understanding of ‘what made the Normans Norman.’ The problem, Tom demonstrated, is that the multiple chroniclers writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries defined Norman identity in different ways. Dudo of Saint-Quentin, for instance, attributed different levels of ferocity, belligerence, cunning and celerity to each successive Norman monarch, whereas William of Jumièges, writing a century later, declined to mention the former (ferocitas) entirely. The waters of Tom’s research were further muddied by the fact that still more chroniclers, namely William of Poitiers and the anonymous author of the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, dispensed with any idea of the Normans possessing a distinctive ethnic identity at all and focused instead on their Frankish enemies and the figure of William the Conqueror. As Tom’s presentation skilfully showed, the perception of Norman identity across these chronicles is inconsistent, with Norman traits also being used to describe other gentes, and peripheral chronicles rejecting the notion of Normannitas entirely. Tom’s lively contribution elicited a wide range of questions from a room full of intrigued medievalists, and certainly proved that his talents for communicating research go far beyond re-enacting the Battle of Hastings and getting ready to kill some Saxons.

Our third speaker was Ryan Kemp, another AHRC DTP student under joint supervision by Bjorn Weiler (Aberystwyth) and Sarah Hamilton (Exeter). He offered an equally intriguing reflection on part of his own PhD research: the provision of spiritual aid on the battlefield by bishops to their kings in England and Germany. In this comparison of ‘sacral landscapes’, he noted that portrayals of divine intervention described in twelfth-century English sources often required the intermediary of a bishop’s prayer to function properly. One particularly interesting example, which Ryan read with admirable fervour, is the case of Bishop Oda’s assistance to Æthelstan, as presented by Eadmer of Canterbury in his Life of St. Oda:

For while King Æthelstan was fighting, his sword shattered close to the hilt and exposed him to his enemies, as if he were defenceless… Oda stood somewhat removed from the fighting, praying to Christ with his lips and in his heart… [Oda] listened to the king and immediately responded with these words: ‘What is the problem? What is worrying you? Your blade hangs intact at your side’… At these words all those who were listening were struck with great amazement, and casting their glance towards the king they saw hanging by his side the sword which had not been there when they had looked earlier.

Bernard J. Muir and Andrew J. Turner, eds., Eadmer of Canterbury: Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 13-15

Lively tales such as this one are comparatively absent from the German tradition, a curious contrast that proved to be the germ of a great deal of discussion.

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Prof. Nicholas Vincent in full – and entertaining – flow as he gives this year’s annual Orme Lecture

After a quick pause for coffee, the gaggle of excited medievalists reconvened for the day’s centrepiece: the Annual Orme Lecture. This year’s speaker was Nicolas Vincent, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia. His lecture retraced the life and the afterlife of Henry of Bracton, ‘England’s greatest medieval lawyer’. Readers with long memories may recall that Bracton has made an appearance on this blog on a previous occasion; Nicolas Vincent’s lecture, however, offered an entirely new reflection on this singular figure. Both Bracton and the book of law that bears his name have, as Prof. Vincent demonstrated, frequently been interpreted as representing a ‘quintessentially English’ strand of legal thought, with the influential Frederic William Maitland dismissing the Roman law evident in Bracton’s work as nothing more than ‘poorly-applied varnish’. By retracing the textual history of Bracton’s Treatise, however, Vincent demonstrated masterfully that Maitland’s ‘flower and crown of English jurisprudence’ was not one man’s work alone. Instead, this 500,000-word codification of English legal practice was far more likely the product of multiple voices, and almost certainly flowed forth from the minds of scholars who were far closer to the ‘thought-world of the Continent’ than that of any ‘little England’. On the day on which Article 50 was triggered here in the UK, it was refreshing to learn that, even in the thirteenth century, scholarship could be ‘a thoroughly European affair’.

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Catherine Rider poses a question to Nick Vincent over a glass of wine
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Alcohol-fuelled conversation continues into the night…

Medieval-, Bracton- and Europe-inspired conversation continued into the night, first at the wine reception after the talk and then at dinner in Zizzi’s in Gandy Street. It was a long and full day, but certainly the high point of this year’s medieval calendar. All of us at the Centre for Medieval Studies would like to extend our sincerest thanks to our visiting speakers, as well as to all of those who gave up their time to help make the event such a success. We now head towards the Easter vacation feeling re-energised and inspired by five truly outstanding presentations, each of which demonstrated, in its own way, the vibrance and relevance of the research connected to medieval studies at the University of Exeter.

Edward Mills is a postgraduate research student in the Department of Modern Languages.

Anne Lawrence-Mathers on Medieval Magic, Part II

Anne Mathers-Lawrence
Prof. Anne Lawrence-Mathers

Interviewers: Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd

The second part of the interview conducted by our undergraduate magic specialists with Prof. Anne Lawrence-Mathers, when she presented a paper at Exeter’s Medieval Research Seminar on 15 February. Here the questions cover the material culture of magic, Merlin and, finally, Anne’s prognostications for 2017…


Q: How valuable are material objects to the study of magic?

ANNE LAWRENCE MATHERS: Apart from books and the technological side of things, not a lot survives. Professor Roberta Gilchrist, from the archaeology department of the University of Reading, did a whole project looking for evidence of magical artefacts. She looked for anything associated with magic across a massive span of medieval English burials and came up with hardly anything. Also people like Audrey Meaney, a long time ago, have looked into earlier Anglo-Saxon burials – in that period people were buried with grave goods – still had to speculate pretty ferociously about whether things were possibly magical in use or not. Recognising a magical object, when you see it, is quite difficult. I only wish there were more of the astrological magical objects, like talismans and the signs because there are fascinating texts on making rings, seals, signs, and instructions pretty much on how to trap your genie in a bottle! But until you get to the Renaissance, oddly, virtually none of it seems to survive. It is much easier to find this stuff from fifteenth-century Italy than it is from thirteenth-century England.


Q: Some historians tend to project back from the Renaissance and the early modern period, do you think that is a useful method? 

ALM: It all depends on what your evidence base is: if you want to research the approach to magic in a particular place and time, then you need to have the specific evidence. But, if you have got an evidence trail that takes you back to Antiquity and then starts again in the early modern period, I think it is fair to assume that there was some continuity in between.

CATHERINE RIDER: One of the things I find really useful from early modern studies is that the evidence is so detailed, so we can sometimes shed light on very cryptic or brief references to practises in the Middle Ages. You can’t know if it was exactly the same thing, but it is a possibility.

ALM:  Going back to where we started, it helps to go against the idea that all this was carelessly lost in the Middle Ages because they were too dumb to recognise an interesting scientific text when they saw one.

INTERVIEWER: I guess Italy is quite a different representative model for magic than everywhere else…

ALM: Yes, you do get far more continuity even in things like educational institutions and practices; just basic confidence with Latin takes a long time to build up somewhere like in Anglo-Saxon England.


Merlin BookQ: The focus of your most recent work was on Merlin: what is it that makes him such an interesting character in the history of magic?

ALM: What I found so fascinating was that medieval authors had a lot of fun with the figure of Merlin. Until I actually sat down and read all the romances from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that bring Merlin in, I had no idea that Merlin could be considered one of the first superheroes. It is fabulous stuff: when Julius Caesar’s affairs are going badly, for example, and he doesn’t realise that his wife is betraying him by having an affair with half the members of his court, Merlin appears to reveal this and then of course, being a magical character, after throwing the cat amongst the pigeons, he can just disappear again. Another one I liked was when a war bearing a resemblance to the crusades is going very badly and again Merlin comes in – I think disguised as a stag – and reveals his identity and it is great because, like with Superman or Batman, everyone has heard of him. He uses his magic and his magical knowledge to solve everybody’s little problems and gets them all going in the right direction and almost literally flies out like a superhero. I think it is the fact that, certainly on the romance side, authors were playing with the character and treating him as a fictional character but staying within certain bounds at the same time, because, what I said with that, this is definitely Merlin. This starts with the incredible fraud carried out by Geoffrey of Monmouth and I don’t have the skills or the inclination to go back to the pre-Merlin phase. I just don’t believe anyone is ever going to find the original Merlin.


Q: With that said, do you think anyone can actually claim Merlin, either the Welsh or the English, who would you say has a right to claim him?

ALM:  Geoffrey makes it pretty clear that the sources he is playing with come out of Wales. He claims to be “Geoffrey of Monmouth, the only one who can translate this long lost book into the British language”, whatever ‘the British language’ meant. When he wrote his Latin Life of Merlin, he is sort of riffing on the Welsh poems and he is doing it in poetry whereas in the prose Latin chronicle he is really creating a whole new Merlin. So, he’s pointing you to Wales. Unfortunately, his version of those poems in the Life of Merlin is actually older than any of the surviving Welsh poems.


Q: Now, for the final question on Merlin; what is the significance of Merlin’s association with natural magic in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain verses portrayals of him in other accounts?

ALM: I think in the History, Geoffrey is going out of his way to be very cutting edge and he is also showing off that he and his friend Walter the Archdeacon of Oxford and presumably other bright young men from the court of the bishop of Lincoln, such as Henry of Huntingdon, and the other ones he namechecks at the end of the book, have been doing their scientific and historical research. I think he is almost making Merlin the figurehead for a display of cutting edge science as perceived from England in the 1130s.


Q: Going on from that, it’s in Book VII, and it’s quite different from the others, so do you think it could be viewed as an initiatory text for later esoteric novels due to its literary style?

ALM:  Yes, he was very clever and very good at Latin composition in all sorts of genres! The poetic life of Merlin is a beautifully done pastiche of a certain style of Latin poetry and does draw on poems which were presumably accessed in Welsh as we don’t know if they were translated into Latin this early. So, he seems to be reading across all sorts of things! The figure who sticks in my mind and the whole depiction of the Roman world and the lost Roman baths and buildings at Bath itself, and the idea that Britain once had this King Bladud who created Bath by tapping into the natural powers of the hot water and the springs at Bath, and then even a version of Daedalus. He is the one who constructs himself wings and flies off to London, overdoes it, gets exhausted and comes crashing out of the sky to his death roughly where St. Pauls would have been. He is pulling together all these ideas and stories, that his readership would have heard of, but wouldn’t necessarily be experts on. This is how Geoffrey gets away with it.


Q: Lastly, your lecture today is about the meaning of Eclipses in the Middle Ages and you gave a paper for the Ordered Universe conference in Rome last April focusing on weather and how it was used to predict the future in the Middle Ages. Considering how erratic the weather has been recently, what kinds of things can we expect from 2017?

Anne gives her forecast for 2017…

ALM: I have not done an actual astro-meteorological forecast, I meant to over Christmas, but I didn’t get around to it. But I did use the method in the Anglo-Saxon prognostics – the ones that go on right through to the fifteenth century – where you look for meteorological phenomena over the twelve days of Christmas and use those as forecasters for various things. Basically, I spent Christmas in Stratford-Upon-Avon, so this is a forecast for the Midlands; sadly it is very boring. It is going to be a completely average year as far as weather is concerned, except that every so often there will be something very nice, either in the way of some beautiful weather, or something involving golden light or even someone finding a buried treasure. Apart from that, really, really average!

Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd are final-year undergraduates in History

With thanks to Prof. Anne Lawrence-Mathers (University of Reading)

Anne Lawrence-Mathers on Medieval Magic, Part I

Interviewers: Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd

Magic SeminarOn Wednesday 15 February, Professor Anne Lawrence-Mathers (University of Reading) visited the Centre for Medieval Studies here at the University of Exeter. Prof. Lawrence-Mathers presented a paper entitled ‘Solar Eclipses: Signs, Portents or Science?’ and we were fortunate enough to meet her and interview her informally for half an hour beforehand. As final year history students studying Magic in the Middle Ages as our special subject with Dr Jennifer Farrell, we had discussed Lawrence-Mathers’ The True History of Merlin the Magician and were excited to hear her take on some of the questions we had prepared. It was a great opportunity to hear from someone currently engaged in an area of scholarship relevant to our recent studies and also to discuss the reasons why magic is valuable, both in its own right, and for the insight it gives into other aspects of the Middle Ages. We decided to focus on Merlin’s character and the significance of his association with natural magic in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Dr Farrell had provided us with a context to work with from our seminars and Exeter’s own Dr Catherine Rider (another important scholar whose work we have used) was also present at the interview and contributed some of her thoughts to the conversation. The opportunity to discuss what we had learned with Prof. Lawrence-Mathers in person was both illuminating and insightful, and will hopefully stand us in good stead for our upcoming exams!


Portsmouth library
Where it all began for Anne…

Question: What attracted to you to the study of magic?

Anne Lawrence-Mathers: As strange as it might sound, it was a hobby from when I was a teenager: one of my first jobs was working in Portsmouth Central Library at weekends. Its part in the national interlibrary loan scheme was the history of magic and the occult, so I used to hide behind my re-shelving trolley and read loads of books on the history of magic – and I have been keen on it from then on.


Q: What was it about magic that captured your imagination?

ALM: I was the kind of teenager who would have been a goth if they had been invented back then! It was just something that had a serious history, but was a bit outside the mainstream. At the time the history I was taught at school was the nineteenth century and it was all extremely worthy and fact-based, one reform act after another. This just attracted me as something much more interesting.


Q: There seems to be a tendency in modern pop-culture to represent the Middle Ages as an age of superstition. Has this influenced historians’ perception of the role that magic played in that period?

ALM: I think this is part of the reason why it has taken so long for the history of magic to be taken seriously. Medievalists have seen themselves as almost on the defensive, showing that medieval history is serious. In my experience, medieval history has been very dominated by political historians and historians of the church. But magic, being categorised under superstition, is something that professional historians were a bit shy of because of the fear that it would play into the stereotype that everyone in the Middle Ages was very stupid and very superstitious and very ignorant. Because obviously only the stupid, the superstitious and the ignorant would believe in magic.

CATHERINE RIDER: Once, in a job interview, I was asked whether magic was ‘a bit marginal’. That is the kind of attitude.

ALM: The paper I’m about to deliver this afternoon, it started off with me being mildly outraged that someone, a very distinguished man [the director of the Science Museum] came to Reading and gave a paper about art relating to eclipses, art depicting solar eclipses. To give him credit, he covered the Middle Ages, but what he basically said was that the people were very stupid, that they didn’t understand eclipses and that their art is full of religious stereotypes. The same attitude is still around.


Q: The title of the paper that you are going to deliver contains the words ‘magic’ and ‘science’. Where would you draw the line between what was magic and what was science? Is it more important to accurately reconstruct their medieval meaning or is it more relevant to project our contemporary understanding? Is it even possible to make this choice?

Royal 6.E.vi, f. 396v.
Magic or science?

ALM: I think that it is always worth trying to analyse the past in its own terms. So much of the older approach to the history of magic that I have read starts out with a complete assumption that we all know what magic is. That assumption is based on the work of the classic anthropologists of the early twentieth century and is basically something used by those who, for whatever reason, don’t have science to interpret the world. I think that, in the medieval world, the boundary between what was magic and what was science was moving as things changed, as new ideas and technologies arrived and were developed. My working definition is that magic was what was dangerous or forbidden in some way, so not a specific content. As those attitudes hardened, theologians and natural philosopher were more and more saying that supernatural power can only come from God or from the Devil, put very crudely. Magic usually claims to be operating with angels and trying to reach God but it is always perceived by outsiders as being in contact with demons and the realm of the Devil. That is why, I think, the boundary keeps shifting: what is considered technology is not magic; you don’t need the Devil for that. It seems to me we still have that shifting boundary in the world of science. The ethical debates over fertility and children, for example, the issue of how far is it okay for doctors to use the genetic technologies that affect a foetus before it is born. We still say that it is up to society to decide what you can or cannot do. I think there is a comparison there.


Q: To what extent is the modern historian qualified to assess the history of astrology without the specialist knowledge of science and mathematics of medieval scholars?

ALM: I don’t know about assessing it, but certainly, in my own experience, it helped a lot when I learned astrology, in a very amateur way, and learned how horoscopes were cast and how to use planetary tables. I haven’t yet learned how to use an astrolabe properly; that’s next on my list. Proper replicas are expensive; I’ve tried downloading some material from the internet and making my own Blue Peter version, but it didn’t work very well! I think that just the experience of seeing how much work is involved and how difficult those calculations are, particularly if you’re using roman numerals, can make you appreciate how difficult this work actually was.


Q: An area of your research concentrates on medieval magical texts and books in which they survive. What have been the most interesting features of this study so far?

ALM: I would say the texts classified as ‘prognostics’, which is another ‘modern term’, a rather diminishing label for a large category of medieval work and science. They include astrological texts, but not just those. They describe different techniques and technologies for making forecasts of different kinds and they come up in all sorts of collections. Some of them are about calculating the calendar, so you find them in books from big churches; others are about making diagnoses, so you find them in medical collections. Some were included into works on chronology, chronicles, and history, because of the perception that everything was linked together and that the natural world worked as this amazingly complicated mechanism with time as part of it. Calling these things superstitious and magical and just ‘little prognostics’ really diminishes them. They were really widespread and played a big role in medieval culture. Plus, these books are not very pretty or highly decorated, so they are not really sought after. Most of them haven’t been digitised and libraries will let you handle them. Sitting there reading these things is sort of fab!


Q: What is your methodology for analysing medieval texts and manuscripts. Are there any tips that you could share with us?

ALM: Particularly with texts on the borders between science and magic, I would say that you need to almost think yourself back into the way medieval readers were taught to read. Often these texts look very short and you have to go through that whole thing of analysing them according to different levels, really thinking around what’s going on. Sometimes these texts are like very simple recipes, but you, the reader, are meant to bring your whole pre-existing expertise and technological experience to it. Often you look at a magical text and you think ‘Really? Is that it? “Take three tea leaves and stir them at dawn?”’. You have to do a lot of work to try to get into what the text is really doing, unless that’s just me. Do you (Catherine Rider) have the same experience?

Magic in the kitchen…

CR: I don’t work so much on magical texts. I have been doing work on medical recipes and they are very short. Again, it’s kind of ‘take this herb, drink this…’. There is a whole world of scientific understanding behind that and the knowledge of the properties of different herbs, and then the question of what people actually did: did they know how to prepare these herbs? So there’s a lot you have to try to understand about back then.

ALM: Even the details: for example, if this is a magical or a medical text that was around in eleventh-century England and it mentions oil, what kind of oil is that going to be? How far will they have had to source it from? How much is it going to cost by the time it reaches pre-conquest England? Same with incense, which was then only produced in a very small part of the world, and had got to be fetched a very long way by specialist merchants. If you are a bishop or a member of a monastic community fine, you’ve got agents and supply routes, but if you are outside of that how do you get it?

CR: I suppose that’s one reason why scholars have recently argued that monasteries were really good places to do magic. I am thinking of the study on Canterbury by Dr Sophie Page (UCL). In monasteries, they had the ingredients, they had the books, and if the abbot turned a blind eye then no one was really checking…

ALM: And they had the workshops! They would have had a metal working workshop, often a herbarium, certainly an infirmary and most outsiders even the abbot and prior probably, wouldn’t have known. It is like going to a chemist’s shop now: unless you are an expert, you don’t know what everything is for.

The discussion continues in next week’s post…

Éléonore Raymakers, Emma Prevignano and Lauren Lloyd are final-year undergraduates in History

Malta’s Magic Hat

Recently three academics associated with the Centre for Medieval Studies visited the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, Malta, as part of a research project on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition.’ The project is funded by the AHRC, and the project team are Prof. Dionisius Agius from the Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies (principal investigator) as well as Dr Catherine Rider from History (co-investigator) and Dr Alex Mallett, project researcher. See here for more details.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina

The project is based on the records of the Inquisition in Malta, and it focuses on the trial of Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an Egyptian slave living in Valletta who was tried for practising magic in 1605. Several witnesses denounced Sellem to the Inquisition, claiming that he had done various kinds of magic for them, including healing, curing illnesses caused by witchcraft, and love magic. More unusually Sellem was also accused of more learned kinds of magic and divination. He admitted to having learned astrology in Cairo, and the inquisition also confiscated from him several divinatory texts, which he denied ever owning. After a lengthy trial involving many witnesses (some of whom were disgruntled clients), Sellem was imprisoned in the prisons of the inquisition, and this is the last we hear of him.


Inquisitor’s Palace, Birgu

The trial document is a very rich source full of anecdotal details and it tells us much about everyday life in seventeenth-century Malta, including magical practices, attitudes to illness and healing, and relations between the Christian Maltese and Malta’s sizeable population of Muslim slaves. Over the next eighteen months the project team will work with the Cathedral archives publish and translate this unusual and very interesting trial record., We will also be holding a workshop in Malta with a group of British, Maltese and French academics to study various aspects of the document. As part of the project we also hope to explore the inquisition records more fully: there is a huge volume of cases and several unexpected items, including a magic hat now on display in the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu. It was inscribed with Arabic writing, and was apparently worn to cure headaches, and the inquisitors confiscated it from a penitent in the early eighteenth century. It is not every day that you get to see a magic hat, even when you work on the history of magic – definitely a highlight of the trip.

Dr Catherine Rider