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MAGIC, WITCHES & DEVILS I N T H E E A R LY M O D E R N W O R L D Magic, witches, ghosts and demons are common to nearly all cultures and time periods. In Europe around the years 1400 to 1800 they took on especially vivid new forms. The John Rylands Library and other Manchester collections contain many rare books, prints, manuscripts and protective amulets that provide unique perspectives onto how early modern people feared, engaged with, and sometimes found pleasure in the supernatural world. These years coincided with major changes in European society, from scientific developments to religious conflicts to a great increase in the number of printed publications. One of the most important changes was increasing contact with other lands. Although our focus here is on Europe, we also include examples of how some non-Western traditions represented and tapped into powers beyond the everyday. These add to the rich and very diverse expressions of European supernatural beliefs and encounters. Jennifer Spinks and Sasha Handley Exhibition curators

Annotation by John Dee, in Conrad Gesner, De remediis secretis (Book of Little Known Remedies), Lyon, 1555. Courtesy of Chetham’s Library. MUN 7.C.4.214


A B R I E F H I S TO RY O F T H E S U P E R N AT U R A L IN EUROPE, 1400-1800 Early modern Europe saw aggressive witch-hunts, anxieties about devils and ghosts, and widespread beliefs in the power of magic. How did these develop? Here, we trace the most important contours of European supernatural beliefs, before looking at European and non-Western materials together in the booklet’s later thematic sections. In the years leading up to the 15th century, supernatural encounters were an accepted part of everyday life in Europe. Belief in Purgatory, the ‘third place’ where the souls of the dead were purged of sin, meant that it was expected that ghosts might return to earth, seeking prayers to help their passage into heaven. While belief in the reality of spirits remained strong, this period witnessed a gradual change in understandings of magic. ‘Heretical’ religious groups were accused of activities like flying at night to worship the Devil. This was an activity increasingly associated with witches. A decree against ritual magic issued in 1398 by the University of Paris marked a turning point. The main purpose of this landmark decree was to denounce necromancy; the elite practice of summoning evil spirits. Yet its many references to harmful magic and to diabolical pacts undoubtedly influenced how the church viewed practitioners of ‘simple’ magic, who came to be labelled as witches. The fact that witches often seemed to hold complete mastery over magic, whereas elite necromancers might fail to conjure even 2

a single demon, was one factor leading theologians to fear that witches achieved their power by committing themselves to the Devil.

Albrecht Dürer, Witch Flying Backwards on a Goat, Nuremberg, 1500. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. RP-P-OB-1229 Temptation to Avarice, Ars moriendi (Art of Dying), Strasbourg, c. 1475. Blockbook Collection 10123


Unknown artist, English Credulity, or The Invisible Ghost, England, 1762. Courtesy of the Whitworth, The University of Manchester. P.2007.24


From the 1480s, inquisitorial books like the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) increasingly helped churchmen to identify cases of witchcraft. Witches were often defined as female, as in Albrecht Dürer’s famous Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat (see p. 3). It was believed that they harmed or stole crops, attacked human health, and inhibited fertility. Elite male knowledge about magic based on learned books did not cease, but was not often in the public eye. The most extreme witch-hunts took place between the 1560s and 1650s, with dozens (and even hundreds) of people tortured and executed in some German towns. Cheap publications reported witchcraft trials and gruesome punishments across this period. Books continued to advise judges, rulers and churchmen on how to tackle the scourge of witchcraft, and reports of ghosts and demonic possession became common, forming part of a wider fear and fascination with the supernatural. Visual images of witches and devils became widespread. The Devil became more prominent in European culture, and was increasingly believed to be active on a global scale. In Europe, reports and even detailed images of witches meeting in a ‘sabbath’ – flying long distances to meet other witches, worship the Devil, make potions and learn magical techniques – fuelled anxieties that diabolical forces were attempting to destroy Christian society. The trial and execution of witches continued, in some places, into the 18th century. However, the decades after 1650 saw a decline in the number of cases prosecuted. The spread of new scientific philosophies introduced new standards of proof that demanded reliable first-hand evidence before knowledge was accepted as truth. This made it increasingly difficult to prove that crimes of a supernatural nature had

taken place, since many of them lacked visible traces. Some scientists nevertheless tried to test different elements of supernatural power, from the therapeutic power of stones, to the ability of witches to fly. Growing scepticism about the reliability of supernatural reports also accompanied new strands of religious belief. God was portrayed as working through the ordinary course of nature, rather than intervening with dramatic miracles and messengers. A healthy appetite for supernatural reports, however, remained. In particular, they were circulated to challenge the claims of radical religious groups that invisible spirits, heaven and hell, were artificial constructs created by church leaders as tools of social control. A handful of people preferred to think of the Devil as an allegorical figure, useful for encouraging good moral behaviour. Supernatural beliefs nonetheless continued to shape many aspects of early modern culture. Magical healing was a popular practice amongst monarchs like King Charles II who performed miraculous cures in elaborate public ceremonies to showcase his God-given authority to rule. The Devil’s power also remained an imminent presence within many households where people used amulets, images, prayers and rituals to defend themselves and their children against malevolent spirits. This persistent need for reassurance was shared across the expanding early modern world where the powers of darkness inspired fear, awe and fascination in equal measure. (JS, SG, SH) Jan Ziarnko, a witches’ sabbath, in Pierre de Lancre, Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et demons (On the Inconstancy of Witches and Demons), Paris, 1613. Courtesy of the University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections. Sp Coll Ferguson Al-x.50 (overleaf)




T H E S T E R EOT Y P I C A L WITCH Witch, magician, sorcerer: these words conjure different mental images, from elderly women dressed in rags and stirring toxic brews to elite men in magnificent libraries. The majority of convicted witches in early modern Europe were women, and two female stereotypes became particularly powerful: the alluring young woman, and the dried-up old ‘hag’. Regardless of age, female witches were believed to be in sexual thrall to the Devil, who was the source of their power. Yet this power came at a price and revealed the Devil’s deceptiveness: witches were given gold that turned to dung, or seduced by handsome men who later revealed their true, diabolical form. Visual images helped to establish these stereotypes. The story of the witch of Berkeley was illustrated for the first time in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle (opposite), told as part of a historical narrative in a Christian framework. The half-naked witch, wrapped in her shroud, is shown claimed by the Devil after her death as payment for the magical powers given to her in life. Non-Western stories about witchcraft also contributed to the stereotype of female witches as being ugly, old and devoted to evil.

Rustam slays a witch, in Abu’l Qasim Firdousi (‘Ferdowsi’), Shahnama (Book of Kings), Western India, mid 1400s. Persian MS 9


The Shahnama (Book of Kings) (shown below) was an epic poem that detailed Persian history from the beginning of the world to the arrival of Islam. It appeared in many manuscript editions and generated a vibrant artistic tradition. The story of Rustam’s fourth task saw the hero enter a land populated by demons and sorcerers, where he was approached by a witch in the guise of a beautiful young woman. Realising her true nature when she recoiled at hearing the name of God, Rustam ordered her to ‘speak and show thy proper favour’. Returning to her hideous, wrinkled appearance, she was quickly put to the sword. (JS, SG)

The witch of Berkeley, in Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg, 1493. Courtesy of Chetham’s Library. MUN I.8.2


M A G I C , N AT U R E AND THE BODY Belief in the supernatural helped people to understand mysterious aspects of the physical world, from alchemical and medical secrets to the health and protection of their own bodies. People believed that physical and emotional health was shaped by a mixture of the body’s internal operations, the natural environment, and the divine and diabolical forces at work in the world. Even Holy Scripture could offer a sense of physical and spiritual protection. In Islamic contexts, for example, miniature copies of the Qur’ān (as shown opposite) were sometimes used as personal amulets and carried by soldiers into battle. The career of Valentine Greatrakes (shown right), an Irish faith healer, shows that treatments for physical and mental disorders combined natural and supernatural elements well into the 17th century. Greatrakes treated the diseased body parts of his patients by stroking them and he believed that his magical gift was a form of exorcism given to him by God. He gathered many eminent followers, including King Charles II, although some accused him of fraud or performing the Devil’s work. Powerful rulers also had interests in alchemy, a procedure which aimed to transform the five base metals (copper, iron, tin, lead and mercury) into the precious metals gold and silver. On a mystical level, the alchemical process could be used as an allegory for the resurrection of Christ and the transformation of the human soul. This idea of ‘spiritual alchemy’ is expressed quite clearly in the 15th-century Book of 10

A Brief Account of Mr Valentine Greatrak’s, and Divers of the Strange Cures by him Lately Performed, London, 1666. Unitarian College Printed Collection D944.2

the Holy Trinity (shown opposite). ‘Practical’ alchemists such as Conrad Gesner focused on the health-giving properties of liquids distilled from plants and animals. John Dee, the suspected magician and former warden of Christ’s College, Manchester (now Chetham’s Library), had a keen interest in the subject, as suggested by the number of annotations in his copy of Gesner’s 1555 Book of Little Known Remedies (see p. 1). (SH, SG)

The death of Christ, in Frater Ulmannus, Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit (Book of the Holy Trinity), Southern Germany, mid 1400s. German MS 1

Qur’ān Scroll – personal amulet, Iran or India, 18th century. Arabic MS 50 (9)


S U P E R N AT U R A L S P A C E S AND VULNERABILITY Increasing European contact with Asia and the Americas fostered new supernatural anxieties and environments. When the Dutch attempted to establish trade with Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) in the early 17th century, they recorded their impressions of the religious rituals and objects encountered on their voyages. By interpreting and representing other religions as inferior to their own, European Christians were able to feel more powerful in unfamiliar environments. In one printed travel report, a ring owned by a Ceylonese king depicts a priestly figure and frames a scene of worship presented in diabolical terms (shown below). Rituals and protective objects were also used to counter supernatural threats. Particular stones, jewels and metals worn close to the body were invested with the power to safeguard bodies and souls from disease and diabolical forces. Iron, along with steel, was believed to repel witches and evil fairies. Iron bracelets such as those on display, one for a child and one for an adult, were used to defend against such threats and they offered a sense of safety and reassurance to their wearers. The vulnerability of children to diabolical forces was a belief that was shared with many people beyond Europe’s borders. This print of Chinese deity ShĹ?ki the Demon Queller (shown opposite) shows the strong, bearded God stabbing a demon with a parasol and sword. 12

Scene of worship in Ceylon, in Joris van Spilbergen, De Bry Voyages: India Orientalis, Frankfurt am Main, 1606. Special Collections 11123.6

Unknown artist, ShĹ?ki the Demon Queller, Japan, c. 1700-1724. Courtesy of the Whitworth, The University of Manchester. P.1996.163


Shōki’s image was typically hung in the homes of wealthy Japanese merchants to protect their young male heirs from malevolent spirits, especially on the annual Boys’ Day (‘Duanwu’) Festival.

A woman sweeps demons from her home, in Ulrich von Lilienfeld, Concordantiae caritatis (Concordance of Charity), Lower Austria, late 1400s. Latin MS 69


Other pieces of visual evidence point to the experience of fear and the association of witchcraft with wild environments. The Italian print known as The Witches’ Procession (shown below) shows a witch riding a terrifying, monstrous skeleton and accompanied by pagan attendants. Her victims include children clustered at her feet, and she grasps the closest child by its skull while holding a vessel. Legal and religious texts of the period sometimes described witches cooking infants to make deadly potions.

Diabolical threats were also encountered on the deathbed. Dying in a state of sin meant that the soul was liable to suffer the pains of damnation or else wander the earth as a ghost. The Art of Dying (see p. 3) was designed to help people achieve a good death. Images of poor deathbed performances (listed as faithlessness, despair, impatience, vainglory and avarice) were contrasted with those showing how the dying person should behave (with faith, hope, patience, humility and worldly detachment). ‘The Temptation to Avarice’ scene, for example, shows a group of demons pointing to the dying man’s possessions and loved ones, reminding him of the things he will soon leave behind.

The fear that the household could be infiltrated by demons is further emphasised in the Concordance of Charity (shown left), a typological handbook that showed how events from the Old Testament of the Bible prefigured the actions of Christ in the New Testament. In a detail showing the ‘Parable of the Unclean Spirit’, a woman sweeps away four imp-like demons from the roof of her house. The protective qualities attached to the act of sweeping have long been a part of European folklore. (SH, SG, JS) Agostino Veneziano (?), Lo Stregozzo (The Witches’ Procession), Rome, c. 1518-1531. Courtesy of the Whitworth, The University of Manchester. P.4890


DIABOLICAL FEARS A N D B AT T L E S Early modern people felt embattled by demons, for it was widely believed that the Devil could be given free rein by God to punish sinners. Yet the lines of authority were often unclear. When nuns in early modern French convents became diabolically possessed, who was responsible for their physical contortions, foul language and rejection of religious rituals? Lengthy, exhausting rounds of exorcism

at a convent in Loudun led to accusations that someone had ‘bewitched’ them. Priest Urbain Grandier was accused, tried and burnt to death for this crime, as one cheaplyprinted pamphlet on display reported.

Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women, Augsburg and Nuremberg, c. 1520 (printed 1684 or later) Holtorp Box 9/ Folder 2/ Sheet 1


The Devil in Calicut, in Pierre Boaistuau, Histoires prodigieuses (Prodigious Histories), Paris, 1561. Special Collections 6659


Death and the Devil were never far apart. In a print likely produced in hundreds of copies (see p. 16), a fashionable woman preens herself in a mirror. She ignores Death with his hourglass and the grotesque demons that stalk her. The image suggests that this woman should pay more attention to her spiritual life and less attention to her outward appearances and clothing. People who could afford to purchase the print might also have owned some fashionable clothing and other household luxuries, so the message would have been particularly relevant to them. Despite the moralising overtones, this was also intended to be an entertaining scene. The Devil was widely represented in domestic and local contexts, but increasingly took on a global dimension. In the early 16th century, not long after the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Portuguese explorers, one Italian traveller reported seeing a ‘devil’ in the southern Indian trading port of Calicut. Images of this demonic figure – more likely a misinterpretation of a Hindu god – were widely circulated, as in one well-known collection of wondrous stories (see p. 17).

successfully defeated the demons of Bahman would become the new King of Persia. Taking up the challenge, Kay Khusraw, the Shah’s grandson, ordered one of his retainers to nail a letter to the castle walls, commanding them in the name of God to fall to the rightful king. Almost immediately the walls began to crumble. Another scene in the manuscript tradition depicts Rustam’s seventh and final task: his battle with the White Div, a demon who had captured and blinded Kay Kavus and his army. Rustam killed his opponent by ripping off his limbs and dashing him upon the ground and here stabs the defeated Div in the abdomen (shown right). The blood from the demon’s liver was used to magically restore the sight of the Persian prisoners. (JS, SG)

The stories of the supernatural contained in the Shahnama would certainly have entertained the text’s high-status readership. It was a work that circulated widely in the Persian courts. When European collectors later began to acquire Eastern manuscripts for their own private libraries, the Shahnama’s witch, demon and monster narratives would come into direct contact with Western audiences. Two of the main figures from Persian legend, Kay Khusraw and Rustam, acquired much of their fame through the defeat of supernatural entities in battle. One story describes Kay Khusraw’s siege of the ‘demon’ castle of Bahman (shown right). The ruling Shah, Kay Kavus, devised a contest whereby whoever 18

The Persian army attacks the castle of Bahman, in Abu’l Qasim Firdousi (‘Ferdowsi’), Shahnama (Book of Kings), Tabriz, 1518. Persian MS 910

Rustam slays the White Div, in Abu’l Qasim Firdousi (‘Ferdowsi’), Shahnama (Book of Kings), Shiraz, 1542. Persian MS 932


MECHANICAL MAGIC AND SCEPTICAL APPROACHES While belief in magic was a hallmark of early modern Europe – as was a desire to root out and prosecute manifestations of the supernatural – there were also sceptical voices. Some suggested that accused witches were not evil, but rather suffering from ‘melancholy’, and lengthy publications explored the limits of the Devil’s physical and spiritual power. Yet science and scepticism were not automatic bedfellows: some members of scientific societies studied ghostly visions and noises as proof of the reality of the

supernatural. Appearances of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena were investigated and sometimes defended by scientists and clergymen as visible

Unknown artist, English Credulity, or The Invisible Ghost, England, 1762. Courtesy of the Whitworth, The University of Manchester. P.2007.24


Musical organ with satyr and nymph, in Gaspar Schott, Magia universalis naturae et artis (Universal Magic of Nature and Art), Bamberg, 1674-1677, Farrar Deaf Education Collection. R172791

proof of the soul’s immortality and of life after death. These Christian principles were widely debated with the spread of more natural strands of religious belief that questioned the existence and nature of God, the Devil and the afterlife. Divided opinions about the existence of ghosts are vividly represented in one satirical print of the Cock Lane ghost (shown left). The bedroom is divided between educated gentlemen who ridicule the ghost as an elaborate fraud or an optical illusion, and believers − mostly women and servants − who surround the bed, fearing that the ghost is a messenger from God. Belief in supernatural phenomena was widely

satirised as the stuff of children’s stories told by ‘superstitious’ women and nursemaids. The rise of scientific activity fostered an enthusiasm for mechanical magic. Gaspar Schott, mathematician and Jesuit priest, wrote a lengthy book on magical machines and illusions. While he certainly did not reject religion or the existence of the supernatural, he was more interested in human inventiveness. Perhaps with a nod towards long-held beliefs about the diabolical nature of illusions, in the detailed illustration above, a devilish sculpture of a pagan satyr with hooves and horns blows musical notes through mechanical pipes. (SH, JS) 21

The Three Living and the Three Dead (detail), in Book of Hours (beginning of the Office for the Dead), France, early 1500s. Latin MS 38


S U P E R N AT U R A L ENCOUNTERS Encounters with death and with the dead fostered powerful emotional responses and moral reflections, but they also provided entertaining narratives. Swiss theologian Ludwig Lavater discussed how pious Christians should steel themselves and fortify their faith in the presence of ghosts. His best-selling book was translated into a number of languages, indicating an audience hungry for stories about the supernatural. Some readers wanted to be entertained by tales of wandering spirits but others wanted practical advice about how to behave in their presence and how to discern their nature – were they ghosts, angels or devils? One manuscript notebook (shown right) includes reports of ‘Old Jeffrey’; a spirit that haunted the Wesley family during the winter of 1716−17. The family and their servants were confused about how to deal with this troublesome spirit and used prayers, exorcism and even a large dog to chase it away. Jeffrey triggered a mixture of fear, guilt and shame within the family who believed it had been sent to punish their sins. Venues for interactions with supernatural beings ranged from ordinary households to the natural landscape. The Three Living and Three Dead (shown left) demonstrates the fearful impact of unexpected encounters. Having been approached by three rotting corpses while out hunting, the three living hold their hands up in terror at the sight of their doppelgangers (see copy on display). The message is clear: death is an unstoppable force that strikes nobles and peasants alike.

Supernatural beings need not always directly encounter their victims to make their presence felt. The Malleus Maleficarum (on display) records how the restless corpse of a witch caused a plague to ravage a nearby town. Only by decapitating the body did the pestilence cease, and it was believed that God had punished the townsfolk for ignoring the witch’s sinful activities in life. (SG, SH, JS)

Notebook containing manuscript copy letters in the hand of Charles Wesley, England, 1720s. Methodist Archives DDCW 8/15


MAGICAL BOOKS Educated magicians used spell books to perform ritual magic. These books were considered so dangerous that they were frequently destroyed if discovered by religious authorities. Western books of magic were often associated with the practice of necromancy − the summoning of evil spirits. With the rediscovery of classical learning in medieval Europe, more and more practitioners began to accumulate mystical texts newly translated from Arabic, Greek and Hebrew. Eastern works on astrology, alchemy and Jewish mysticism strongly influenced

the content of Western magic books. However, the incantations themselves were mostly based on the rites of the Latin Church, especially the prayer cycles used for exorcism. While officially-sanctioned exorcisms by priests involved the expulsion of demons, the aim of necromancy was to use God’s power to compel the evil spirit to do the magician’s bidding.

‘Arabic’ writing and ritual paraphernalia, in Pseudo-Michael Scot, Compendium magiae innaturalis nigrae (Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic), Franconia, late 1500s. Latin MS 105


A depiction of a magic circle, in Pseudo-Roger Bacon, Tractatus de nigromatia (Book of Black Magic), England, late 1500s. Courtesy of Chetham’s Library. Byrom Collection. MUN Mun.A.4.98


The necromancer’s primary concern was often the acquisition of wealth, power and prestige. The Book of Black Magic and the Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic are typical examples of the genre. The Book of Black Magic records spells that allow the magician to converse with spirits, find treasure and summon the ‘Queen of the Pharies’. The Compendium is much more streamlined and contains a single set of instructions to summon eight evil spirits. Magic books were often written pseudonymously as a way of imparting authority to the text. The Book of Black Magic was sometimes circulated under the name of Roger Bacon, the famous English philosopher. The Compendium was attributed to the astrologer Michael Scot, whose infamy as a supposed magician was noted even by the famous Italian poet Dante. Intriguingly, the Scot manuscript contained strange elements of Arabic artifice. What appears to be a copy of an earlier spell, transcribed into corrupted or fake Arabic,

was included as a precursor to its Latin ‘translation’. This was evidently designed to lend a sense of mystery as well as credibility to the conjurations contained within the book. Books of magic were also circulated in non-Western contexts. Like some European charms and amulets designed to protect their owners, many were not considered demonic. The charms contained in the Christian Syriac manuscript The Protection of People from All Kinds of Evil were performed mainly for protective and medical purposes, for example, to cure back pain or prevent sudden death. They invoked the power of saints rather than evil spirits. (SG)

Mar Ab’disho on horseback attacking an evil . spirit in the form of a woman, in Nūtārē dabnaynāšā men kulmedem dbiš (The Protection of People from All Kinds of Evil), Hakkari, Southeastern Anatolia (?), 1700s. Syriac MS 52




Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-Hunts: A Global History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004). Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, trans. Dick Davis (London: Penguin, 2007). Stephen Gordon, ‘Conjuring Spirits in the “Tractatus de Nigromatia”’, Chetham’s Library blog, 14 August 2015. Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in EighteenthCentury England (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007). Brian Levack, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). Darren Oldridge, The Devil: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). Sophie Page, Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (London: The British Library, 2004). Glyn Parry, The Arch Conjurer of England: John Dee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). Deanna Petherbridge, Witches and Wicked Bodies, exhibition catalogue (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland / British Museum, 2013). Lyndal Roper, Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004). Vesta Sarkosh Curtis, The Legendary Past: Persian Myths (London: British Museum Press, 1993). Charles Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: Routledge, 2007).

For more information visit



Project team: Jennifer Spinks (JS), Lecturer in Early Modern History, The University of Manchester. Sasha Handley (SH), Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, The University of Manchester. Stephen Gordon (SG), Postdoctoral Research Associate, The University of Manchester.

With thanks to: Chetham’s Library – Michael Powell and Fergus Wilde. The Whitworth, The University of Manchester – David Morris. Hannah Barker, Aaron Moore, Natalia Smelova, Michael Smith and Edward Wouk.

Supported by: The John Rylands Research Institute (seed corn grant awarded to Jennifer Spinks and Sasha Handley). Arts and Humanities Research Council (Early Career Fellowship awarded to Jennifer Spinks: grant number AH/L015013/1).


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Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World  

21 January - 21 August 2016 free entry, open daily The John Rylands Library

Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World  

21 January - 21 August 2016 free entry, open daily The John Rylands Library