Conference Report: Living in a Magical World: Inner Lives, 1300–1900

Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott is a PhD researcher and seminar tutor studying Victorian magicians and conjuring in the School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies at the University of Portsmouth. She is most frequently found on Twitter.


Due to scheduling conflicts, my first day at the Inner Lives project’s ‘Living in a Magical World‘ conference at St Anne’s College in Oxford was also my last! It was a delight, however, to catch up with familiar faces from across the world (both from past conferences and from Twitter) and to meet entirely new, interesting people in one place to hear papers relating to the project’s focuses of emotion, identity and the supernatural.

In the first of two panels on ‘Magical Interiorities’ in the conference, Michael Bailey opened with an insightful paper on investigating the inner lives of magic-practitioners in the late Middle Ages, which tied in very well with the two subsequent papers from Fabrizio Conti on superstition and Christianization in fifteenth-century Italy and Lauri Ockenström on magical selfhood in early modern Europe.

After a largely early modern first panel, it was great to delve into different eras and disciplines in the second panel of the day on ‘Supernatural Thinking in the Modern Era’. Paul Cowdell opened with a fascinating paper detailing his research into community involvement with Spiritualism and engagement with ghosts (and how practitioners often prefer differing terminology). Bruce Hood presented on the psychology behind supernatural thinking, providing thought-provoking video footage showing how we still in engage in magical thinking and superstition today. Peter Lamont then used several examples from nineteenth-century stage magic to explore the varied nature of wonder (and whether the term disbelief is appropriate in regards to performance magic) as invoked by suspension tricks onstage. Finally, Kristof Smeyers rounded off the panel with an exploration of the prevalence of stigmata across Britain in the nineteenth century, with a great collection of original source material, images and visual representations of the distribution of Stigmatists and their own interpretations of this condition.

The Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford, home of Spellbound exhibition

To conclude the first day of proceedings, delegates were treated to a private view of the Ashmolean’s new, and highly popular, Spellbound exhibition on the history of magic and a drinks reception. The exhibition is very deserving of the high praise it has been receiving across the press and from audiences since its opening, showcasing a fantastic range of historical objects, wonderfully detailed woodcuts and etchings, and a range of complimentary contemporary art pieces. In particular, Katharine Dowson’s installation delivers a suitably Lynchian addition to the collection (you can view a brilliant video showing the making of the piece and Dowson’s thoughts behind it here), and it was great to finally be able to see Helen Duncan’s famous ‘ectoplasm’ up close.

If I have one criticism to make of an otherwise excellent first day, it would be that the conference programme for the day I attended (and of course, this was also due to my own panel choices and research interests – other panels were available) comprised of two all-male participant panels, which seemed slightly jarring in 2018. Looking at the schedule for the subsequent days, however, the programme looks to be much more diverse and balanced, and I hope that the remainder of the conference proved just as interesting as its beginning.


For full details on Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900, check out the project’s website. Lots more highlights from the Living in a Magical World conference can be found on Twitter – search for #InnerLives18.

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