Upstate New York town opens largest witchcraft collection in nation

On Halloween evening, dozens gathered in Kroch library for the opening of “The World Bewitch’d,” an exhibition — on display through August 2018 — exploring the history of witchcraft.

The exhibit features a variety of rare manuscripts, photographs, and historical movie posters and is known to be the largest witchcraft collection in North America. The exhibit holds over 3,000 objects on superstition and witchcraft in Europe, mostly acquired in the 1880s but spanning multiple centuries of artifacts since the 1400s, according to the Cornell University Library website.

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The majority of the Witchcraft Collection was acquired in the 1880s through the collaborative efforts of Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first President, and a prodigious scholar and book collector, and his first librarian, George Lincoln Burr. Due to the foresight of White and Burr, the Witchcraft Collection has become a rich source for students and scholars of the history of superstition and witchcraft persecution in Europe. It documents the earliest and the latest manifestations of the belief in witchcraft as well as its geographical boundaries and elaborates this history with works on canon law, the Inquisition, torture, demonology, trial testimony, and narratives. The collection focuses on witchcraft not as folklore or anthropology, but as theology and as religious heresy.Kornelia Tancheva, co-curator of the exhibition, said the purpose was to show what witch-hunting actually meant in the original context and how it was reinterpreted in popular culture.

In her opinion, the broader significance of the exhibit is its connection to the modern day.

“There are a lot of accusations of witch-hunting in our present time, and it’s really interesting to see how anybody who feels that they are wrongfully persecuted for political, social, religious or whatever reasons, employs the trope of witch-hunting,” she said.

Significant in the collection are a small and extremely rare number of works by theologians who opposed the Inquisition, such as those of Cornelius Loos, the first theologian in Germany to write against the witch hunts. The most important materials in the Witchcraft collection, however, are the court records of the trials of witches, including harrowing original manuscript depositions taken from the victims in the torture chamber. These documents, in both original manuscript and in print, reveal the harsh outcome of the more remote doctrinal disputes. Perhaps the most significant of all manuscripts in the Witchcraft collection is the minutes of the witchcraft trial of Dietrich Flade, a sixteenth-century city judge and rector who spoke out against the cruelty and injustice of the persecutions in the 1580s. The manuscript was discovered in Germany and acquired by Andrew Dickson White in 1883.

Anne Kenney, the other co-curator, said that the persecution of witches reveals a theme of scapegoating that is relevant in many other contexts.

“When you want to blame others for things, you blame it on something that is beyond your control, and the powerful become the victims is a very interesting twist,” she said.

The collection was started by Cornell’s very own co-founder A.D. White, who collected rare books and manuscripts. Since then, the collection has grown dramatically. The popular culture portion, most notably, was started in 2012, Tancheva said.

“It’s not just a single, finished collection of material, it’s something that’s very much alive and we continue to add to it,” said Anne Sauer, director of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

“This is the best witchcraft collection in the country,” Tancheva said.

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The process of putting together the exhibition took six months, during which time Tancheva and Kenney had to go through the collection and decide what to include.

“What I did was literally go through every single piece and do a lot of research on the pieces because most of the movies, as you can see, are not something that we are necessarily familiar with in our present time,” Tancheva said.

Kenney said that she was really impressed by the richness of the collection.

“When I first picked the Nuremberg Chronicle up, I went, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’m holding this book,’” she said.

The stories of the women who were tried for witchcraft are Kenney’s favorite portion of the exhibition because these demonstrate the ordinariness of the women being accused of witchcraft.

“They were seen as possessing so much power but they were really powerless,” she said.

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The most interesting Tancheva said she discovered during the research process was the conflation of witchcraft and sexuality in popular culture even though torturing witches in the nude was not common in the original context of European witch trials.

“If you look at popular culture, what do you see? Nudity, sexuality is everywhere,” she said. “That’s a very interesting conflation of witchcraft and sexuality. Sexuality in women is somehow dangerous and needs to be contained.”

Students like Ellen Haines ’18 attended the event on their own. Hains said her visit to the exhibit “just fit wonderfully with the Halloween spirit.” For others, attending the event was class-related.  Emma Stillings ’18 said her history professor for her Salem Witch Trials class recommended that she go.

Both said that they found the misogyny reflected in some of the material to be particularly interesting.

“I feel like I’m just so used to women getting the short end of the stick that it’s like, ‘Oh cool, didn’t believe us then, didn’t believe us now,” Stillings said.

Haines said she really liked a quote displayed on the wall: “More women than men are witches because women are more curious.” She said she found it funny and true.

*Portions of this article via The Cornell Daily Sun

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