Last week I looked at the new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft. It’s such a compelling collection of folk magic through the ages that I wanted to look a bit more in detail at a few of the magic books that were included in the exhibition, along with some of the art that belief in witchcraft inspired in pre-modern times.
Bull’s heart pierced with iron nails and thorns as a protection against witches. Found in a chimney at Shutes Hill Farm, Somerset, date unknown (c) Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.
A new exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum showcases 180 real-life magical items.
Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft explores the history of magic from the early modern era to the present day through objects ranging from Renaissance crystal balls to folk charms against witchcraft. It looks at basic human needs such as fear of death and desire for love, and how people have used magic to try to get what they need.
The exhibition also turns the question of magic and superstition back on the viewer. In the entrance hallway, you are invited to step under a ladder or go around it. The museum is counting how many people dare to tempt fate. I did, and I hope they post the statistics when the exhibition is over!
The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library has launched the largest exhibition on J.R.R. Tolkien in a generation.
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth showcases the library’s extensive collection of Tolkien’s papers, manuscripts, letters, and artwork, the largest of its kind in the world. The exhibition, which includes some 200 items, also brings together items from private collections and Marquette University’s Tolkien Collection.
J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973) spent most of his adult life in Oxford. He came to Oxford University in 1911, aged nineteen, to study Classics at Exeter College, but later switched to English. After serving in France during World War One, he returned to Oxford to work on the New English Dictionary (later the Oxford English Dictionary), while tutoring in English. After five years at Leeds University as Reader and then Professor of English Language, he returned to Oxford in 1925 and remained there for the rest of his working life, first as Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925 to 1945, and later as Professor of English Language and Literature from 1945 to 1959. He is buried with his wife, Edith, in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford.
As a writer, sometimes I get my inspiration in strange ways.
Going to art galleries is one. For some reason, enjoying fine art that isn’t writing fires up my writing. I also like to collect odd and interesting objects, although they have to be cheap because, you know, I’m a writer.
One of my favorites is this Roman coin that I snagged for 10 euros ($11.50) at a local coin shop. It was so cheap because the coin is in pretty bad condition. I didn’t care, because it’s cool to keep a piece of the empire in my pocket.
For a year I wasn’t able to identify it, but then at a party in Oxford I lucked out. I was showing it off and one of the people there knew a former numismatist for the British Museum. We took a couple of shots of it and sent it to her. An hour later I learned it was a coin of Magnentius, a usurper who ruled in the Western Roman Empire from AD 350-353.
I’ve always loved vintage travelogues. The world was bigger a hundred years ago, its cultures more distinct and isolated. Travel was hard and sometimes dangerous. Accounts of old journeys bring me back to a time when people could go to places like Africa and not be able to text home.
But there’s always been a problem with the genre. The vast majority of the books available in English are from the Western perspective, especially the Anglo perspective. So The Lost Oases, written by Egyptian Ahmed Hassanein Bey and published in 1925, came as a welcome change. It’s an Arab account of discovering two remote oases in the far southwest of Egypt, hundreds of miles from the nearest habitation.
Ahmed Hassanein Bey was a wealthy Egyptian of Bedouin stock who was educated at Oxford, so he is good at explaining his own culture to the Western reader and yet remains enough of an outsider that we can enjoy watching his learning curve as he visits his country cousins.
He was already an experienced desert traveler when he set out on this mission, and we’re carried through a detailed description of his preparations and planning. When all is ready, he goes to his father for a moving scene where the old man blesses him and the baggage for a safe journey.
After skirting the coastline, the caravan heads south along the Egyptian/Libyan border. At this point in history, Egypt was administered by the British Empire and Libya by Italy. The main group along the border, then and now, is called the Senussi. I mainly knew of them from their attempt to invade Egypt during the First World War at the urging of the Germans and Ottomans.
The heads and hands of two apostles, c. 1519–20.
Black chalk with over-pounced underdrawing
with some white heightening.
One of the highlights of my regular stays in Oxford is visiting the Ashmolean Museum. With its fine collections of all periods, especially Medieval Europe and Ancient Egypt, it’s a place I and my family keep going back to. It also has excellent special exhibitions. I wrote up last summer’s exhibition on Underwater Archaeology for Black Gate, and this year we got to enjoy the treat of studying some little-seen drawings of an Italian Renaissance master.
Raphael: The Drawings brings together 120 rarely seen works by the Italian master, including 50 from the Ashmolean’s collection, the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world. They came to the museum in 1845 following a public appeal to acquire them after the dispersal of the collection of the portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), who had amassed an unrivalled collection of Old Master drawings. A further 25 works are on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, which will show the exhibition in autumn 2017. The remaining drawings come from various international collections.
Minster Lovell Hall with St. Kenelm’s Church to the left
As usual in the summer, my family and I are in Oxford, where I ensconce myself in the Bodleian Library and research my books. It’s been a rainy summer, in stark contrast to last month’s frying heat of Lanzarote, and so we haven’t been able to get out and about much. Good for my wordcount, bad for my travel addiction.
So when the clouds finally broke last weekend we rushed out onto an easy six-mile country ramble along the River Windrush to visit Minster Lovell Hall, a 15th century manor house set in the lovely English countryside.
Roman amphora with coral, from the Levanzo shipwreck AD 275‒300
Sicily has been the center of Mediterranean history for centuries. Positioned at the halfway point between the western and eastern halves of the sea, and between Europe and Africa, it has been a nexus of trade and warfare ever since humanity started sailing. Now a major exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum looks at the discoveries by underwater archaeologists around Sicily’s shores.
This and other recipes were the subject of a talk by Caroline Yeldham, an expert on historic cookery. The recipe is below. Be warned it makes quite a lot so you might want to cut down the quantities. The end result is rich and tasty and you don’t have to eat much to fill you up. It’s also quite gingery. Is that a word?
Oxford is one of the most popular day trips for visitors to London thanks to its beautiful university and world-class museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers. It’s also worth staying overnight so that you can take advantage to the surrounding area, which offers some pleasant country walks.
One of the more enjoyable is a two-mile stroll along the Thames (locally called the Isis) that takes you to the hamlet of Binsey and the medieval church of St. Margaret’s. Set amid trees in the peaceful English countryside, the church makes for a relaxing stop and you can visit an Anglo-Saxon holy well that’s been an object of pilgrimage for centuries.