A Magical Debate

Dr Catherine Rider, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, talks about Magic: from the Inquisition to Harry Potter, an event being held as part of the forthcoming Being Human festival of humanities.

Trial record image

Image: Magical Treatise from the Trial Record, © Cathedral Archives, Mdina, Malta

In the first of several events being held in and around Exeter as part of the Being Human festival, a group of academics from Humanities and the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, and guest speakers from outside Exeter, will be talking about magic.  Magic has been a source of fascination in many different cultures for centuries, and the success of novels like the Harry Potter series show that that interest hasn’t gone away.  But what is it about magic that fascinates people?  And what, if anything, do the modern stereotypes of magic we see at Hallowe’en (complete with potions, pointy hats and broomsticks) owe to the real experiences of the men and women who believed in magic, practised it, or were accused of witchcraft, in the past?

The debate will use as a starting point an Exeter-based project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’.  This project, which is being led by Professor Dionisius Agius in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, with Dr Catherine Rider in the College of Humanities, examines the case of Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur, a Muslim slave living in Malta who was put on trial for witchcraft by the Inquisition in 1605. The detailed trial record tells us much about Sellem’s life, and about magical beliefs and practices in Malta among both educated and uneducated people.  It also includes several magical treatises that Sellem was accused of using to teach magic to Christians. Dr. Catherine Rider comments,”It is great to be able to share Sellem’s story with new audiences, and to discuss with the public why magic is still such a source of fascination”.

In the debate we will tell Sellem’s story for the first time, and use it as a starting point to think about a series of broader questions about magic: Why did people believe in magic, and do it?  How typical were the accusations made against Sellem and how do they correspond with beliefs and practices that were current in Europe, or in Sellem’s native north Africa?  Can we draw connections between historical cases of magic like this one, and images of magic and magicians in our own time?

The panel of academics will debate these issues and invite questions from the audience.  We’re hoping for plenty of lively discussion and all are welcome.

‘Magic: from the Inquisition to Harry Potter’  is being held at Exeter Community Centre, St David’s Hill, on Thursday 12th November from 7pm-8.30pm, in partnership with the Devon Global Centre and the Exeter branch of the Historical Association.   Entry is free but advance booking is recommended.

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