Hor­rors of the Me­dieval mind

Me­dieval wood­cuts fixed some strange ideas in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, says Reece Shear­smith

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Ever since I was a small boy I have been in­ter­ested in the su­per­nat­u­ral. Magic and alchemy, witches and mon­sters have al­ways in­trigued me. I be­gan col­lect­ing books on hor­ror and folk­lore and (as I was some­thing of an artist and model maker my­self), I would even cu­rate my own mini ex­hi­bi­tions of bizarre odd­i­ties. Shrunken heads, Fiji mer­maids and the bones from a witch’s hand all made up my first dis­play. PT Bar­num would have been proud. Many of my ear­li­est encounters with these things were through rep­re­sen­ta­tions of such pe­cu­liar mat­ters via old wood­cuts. My books on sor­cery would al­ways in­clude a wood­cut of Dr Faus­tus mak­ing his pact, and in­evitably, come the sec­tion on witchcraft, English witchfinder Matthew Hop­kins, sur­rounded by imps and talk­ing fa­mil­iars, would make an ap­pear­ance.

These re­mark­able im­ages, many of them col­lected in Graven Im­ages, a new book on the art of the wood­cut, are printed in my mind for­ever. The Devil and his de­monic le­gion tor­tur­ing the damned of hell; witches in full flight on broom­sticks, or boiling ba­bies over crooked caul­drons – noth­ing seemed too ex­treme or bizarre for the Me­dieval mind to de­pict in wood­cut form. In con­text, these wood­cut il­lus­tra­tions are in fact a fore­run­ner of il­lus­trated news, of­ten used as a means of re­port­ing events through widely avail­able pam­phlets: ex­otic sea crea­tures, strange machin­ery, the trial and torture of witches. The im­agery is bold, strik­ing and un­for­get­table. It is easy to see how the dis­tri­bu­tion

Noth­ing was too bizarre to de­pict

of these im­ages helped fuel the mad­ness of the witch-ob­sessed 16th cen­tury. Sud­denly the pub­lic could see the Devil him­self and wit­ness his rit­u­als and his blas­phe­mous min­ions’ jaunts to the Sab­bat.

There is some­thing in­her­ently un­set­tling about much of the art in wood­cuts. Not only are they a form of time travel, but they rep­re­sent some­thing very strange and rather cu­ri­ous to con­sider; they give us di­rect ac­cess to an imag­i­na­tion much more an­cient than our own. Col­lec­tively, they of­fer com­ment on the fer­vour, the hor­ror, the ob­ses­sions of the Dark Ages and be­yond. They per­ceive the world through eyes very dif­fer­ent to our own, but al­low us a glimpse into much that re­mains in­trigu­ing and un­know­able to us to­day. We may look at some of these wood­cuts and smile at their naivety, but quite quickly re­alise, in some in­stances, that not much has changed. Hell is still hot. We wouldn’t draw the Devil with­out his horns.

An­i­mal magic: cryp­tid with a hu­man head (1658)

Beastly: top left, Wil­liam Bush’s ‘flying boat’ (1608); top, The fa­mous His­tory of the Lancashire Witches (1780); above, from Des Mon­stres et Prodi­ges (1573)

Wild times: Philo­cothon­ista, or the Drunk­ard, Opened, Dis­sected and Anat­o­mized (1635)

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