Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 117
In 1994, Deborah Harkness was doing research at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library when she stumbled across the Book of Soyga, a long-lost manuscript treatise on magic that once belonged to Elizabethan scientist and occult philosopher John Dee. About fourteen years later, she had an idea for a story: a historian—who turns out to be a witch—discovers a lost and much-coveted manuscript that thrusts her into a world of vampires, demons, and magic.
Harkness’s idea became A Discovery of Witches, the first book of her All Souls Trilogy. The novel is now a television series starring Teresa Palmer and Matthew Goode. The show comes to AMC and BBC America on April 7. We asked Harkness to join us on Shakespeare Unlimited to talk about how her research influenced her fiction writing and to tell us about how witches, demons, and the supernatural were perceived in Shakespeare’s England.
Dr. Deborah Harkness is a teaching professor of history at the University of Southern California. She is the author of John Dee’s Conversations with Angels and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, as well as the All Souls Trilogy, originally published by Viking Press for Penguin Books. Harkness is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Page through images from v.b.26, the 16th-century Book of Magic, with Instructions for Invoking Spirits, etc. from the Folger's collection.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published March 19, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Excellent Witchcraft” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Shawn Corey Campbell and Bianca Ramirez at KPCC Public Radio in Pasadena, California.
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MICHAEL WITMORE: Okay, so a witch and an historian walk into a library. No, it’s not a joke. Stick with me.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Actually, what I said a second ago is the plot point that kicks off a runaway series of best-selling novels that are now getting their world premiere as a TV series. The All Souls Trilogy follows Diana Bishop, an historian at Yale who has been hiding the fact that she is actually a witch. The All Souls Trilogy was written by an old friend of the Folger: Deborah Harkness, who’s been doing research here since her days as a graduate student.
See, Deborah Harkness is not your standard historical fantasy novelist. She’s a PhD, teaching professor of history at the University of Southern California, who, in addition to her Trilogy, has also written two books on science and magic in the early modern period. And it’s her understanding of real people—like John Dee, Elizabeth I’s astrologer – that makes her novels so rich.
We had Deb in to the studio recently to talk about all of this for a podcast we call Excellent Witchcraft. Deborah Harkness is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Now you start your book with this incident that actually happened to you, in real life, I’ve read. In the book, at least, a witch, your protagonist, Diana Bishop, she finds a lost manuscript at the Bodleian Library. And this manuscript magically opens, and it’s readable, but only for her, and it promises to hold the key to just the origin of all magical creatures and, kind of, all of life. It seems, it sounds like—anyway, this discovery attracts the attention of other supernatural creatures who’ve been searching for it, and you’re off and running with the book. So, of course, your story, I assume, doesn’t involve actual magic or anything supernatural. But why don’t you tell us what happened when you discovered this Book of Soyga?
DEBORAH HARKNESS: The Book of Soyga. Basically, what happened, of course, is just that it took a lot longer than it did in the book. When I wrote my first draft of A Discovery of Witches, it took her forever to find the forbidden book. I think, like, 120 pages.
BOGAEV: Oh, and then your editor said, “No, no, no, let’s have some…” [LAUGH]
HARKNESS: And my editor said, “Let’s start with her actually just finding the book.”
HARKNESS: So the first thing I want to say [is this is?] of course for anybody who uses a library, whether it’s the Folger or any other library, you know that nothing is ever quite that instantaneous. I had been there for the summer, it was just the summer after I’d filed my PhD, which was the books of, and library of, John Dee, especially his magical books. I went to the Bodleian for the summer, and I was looking for a book by Al-Kindi that Dee had probably owned. I remember flipping through the catalog, and I got to the “A-L”s. And in the upper corner, it said Aldaraia sive Soyga, which is “Aldaria or Soyga.” And I thought: No!
BOGAEV: So, you recognized this? Because this was a long-lost book.
HARKNESS: Yeah. It was a long-lost book. Considered by Dee scholars to be sort of, like, the missing link. In that way, it’s very like the book that Diana finds. I call this book up, thinking, “I’ve just done my whole dissertation research, I would’ve found it by now.” But I put in my call slip. Up came the book. I opened it up, and I thought, “Oh my God. It’s the book.”
BOGAEV: You recognized it right away.
HARKNESS: Right away. There were signs that John Dee, it had passed through John Dee’s hands…
BOGAEV: What was it?
HARKNESS: Magical squares. Magical formula. I wrote a note to one of the… the Keeper of Rare Books, and I said, “I think I’ve found the Book of Soyga. Could you look at this manuscript? It’s in the hold.” Went home. Made dinner. Went back the next day, and when I walked in, the gentleman standing behind the call desk said, “The Keeper would like to see you.”
When he said, “The Keeper would like to see you,” I felt like I’d finally arrived at the library for the first time. I’d worked there for three, four years.
BOGAEV: That sounds like something out of Harry Potter. The “Keeper.”
HARKNESS: It really… “The Keeper would like to see you.” And the Keeper, Julian Roberts, was an absolutely lovely man. And he said, you’ve found something that we’ve been looking for a long time. And then, he had brought from All Souls College the other gentleman who’d done the library catalog, Andrew Watson. And I was sort of, slightly, notorious at that point, because everybody knew I was working on John Dee’s Angels, and Andrew Watson came up to me and he said, “Ah, you’re the angel lady.” So that was—
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS]. You were in.
HARKNESS: From that moment I was catapulted into this strange circumstance of having found something that these two gentlemen had been looking for, and it was literally hiding in plain sight.
BOGAEV: Okay, I had a couple questions about this, but first, I want to back up. So, in the book, when Diana, this protagonist of yours, first touches this manuscript, she gets a shock and tingle goes up her arm and her palms, you know, start to vibrate, and she describes this strange smell that comes off of it. Did any of that register with you?
HARKNESS: All of it but the smell.
HARKNESS: Yeah. Because I think as a scholar, if you find something that everyone’s been looking for, and suddenly, in the most prosaic way possible, it’s somehow in your hands? There is this very bizarre sense of a magical event having happened, and—
BOGAEV: Like the hairs on the back of your neck, or—
HARKNESS: The hair on the back of your neck, I mean, there it was, there was the Book of Soyga. This was the answer to all our prayers. It turned out not to be. But it was literally like I had the sense that I had just found a missing treasure, like, a magical box. I was going to open this book, and every unresolved question I had was going to be answered. It was just sort of an amazing journey, but the sort of the thrill and magic of discovery and the idea that the miraculous could be hiding right under your nose in plain sight. These were the things I drew from that.
BOGAEV: Even without all that, when you handle these old, old, old manuscripts—which you’re doing all the time, so maybe it becomes commonplace—the limited experience I have with it in the Folger in fact, it does give you this [inhales slowly]—a kind of shiver to think who else has touched this.
HARKNESS: There’s nothing like it. I remember, I called a manuscript up. I was a junior in college. I was at the British Library. Called up a manuscript. Had no idea what I was doing. Turned the page. There was Queen Elizabeth I’s signature on the bottom of a page. I had to actually get up and leave the desk, because the feeling of having something in your hands that connects you so directly to a person—I think this is one of the things that manuscripts really provide for us. I worry about what will happen, given how little paper we preserve. But right now, I’m teaching a course on introduction to historical methods at USC, and I’ve been buying documents on eBay, manuscripts. My first class, I just tipped a box, two—I bought a box, and it was described as “two-hundred Victorian pieces of paper”—I just tipped the whole box onto a table and I said to them, “All right, we’re historians. How are we going to come to terms with these two hundred things?” And I could see it happen to my students.
BOGAEV: That, they have this talismanic effect. The actual touching something, yeah.
HARKNESS: Yeah, they’d pick it up, and the paper feels different, the handwriting looks different, it smells different. They found old leaves. They found little tiny rings made of hair that were mourning jewelry. I mean, it was just this kind of material object thing that I think maybe historians do get a little bit immune to it. But I’m finding a resurrection of that sense of discovery, because of the fiction and now because of my teaching.
BOGAEV: Getting back to the book, the book that your protagonist finds, Diana, it is based on a different, but a real book as well, right? Ashmole 7-8-2, or 782, I don’t know how you say it, is an actual long-lost manuscript.
HARKNESS: It is. When I started working on this, I was not really sure what I was doing. I think I probably thought I was writing an op-ed piece. So I just kind of kept saying, well, imagine this. Imagine that. Imagine you really were a witch. Would you be happy to be a witch, historically speaking? No. Say you find a lost book. Oh, I remember that lost book that I never found! You know, I found the Book of Soyga. Ashmole 782 is still missing. So, I thought, okay, say you found Ashmole 782, what would be in it? Why might it have disappeared? I just kept setting up these sort of historical research questions, as if my character was a real person.
BOGAEV: Right, right! But, actually, all this, this whole experience started a long time ago, that you found the book. and you didn’t all this until, what, you were on vacation in 2008 in Mexico, right?
HARKNESS: Right. I found the Book of Soyga in 1994. I did not start imagining what it would be like to be a real witch, in a world that was kind of already starting to really prickle and be anxious about people who are different, until 2008. So that’s a long burn…
BOGAEV: In an airport. [LAUGH]
HARKNESS: In an airport bookstore in Mexico. So, again, you know…
BOGAEV: Why? What happened there?
HARKNESS: There was a whole wall of books about supernatural creatures, all of whom were gorgeous.
BOGAEV: So not just Twilight, which had…
HARKNESS: Oh, no. It was like a whole display, and it was, you know, books about elves and shapeshifters and werewolf-lovers, and everybody was clearly having a really, really, interesting, romantic life. And I looked at this wall, and I thought, “Wow, I’ve been in the library for a long time. Where have all these creatures come from?” Because it looked to me like an early modern bookshelf at the Folger had been weirdly put through a time machine and come out in, like, modern clothes? Because in the 16th and 17th century, people really wanted to read about all these beings. And I thought, “Why are we still fascinated?” That was what got me thinking about, like: really, is this what your life would look like? You’d be incredibly well-built and beautiful and have a girlfriend and everything—
BOGAEV: If you were a vampire? Right.
HARKNESS: If you were a vampire?
BOGAEV: Well, you know, we had—Stephenie Meyer had written the Twilight books. They had already come out in 2008, so what made you think—
HARKNESS: I think the last one was out.
HARKNESS: I don’t have children, so I hadn’t read them.
BOGAEV: You still had all these questions about vampires.
HARKNESS: I had all these questions. And I literally thought, what has happened? And my niece, who was in her teens, said, “What do you mean? Of course”—you know?—“I want a vampire.”
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] Vampires, they’re so in right now.
HARKNESS: “Haven’t you read Twilight?” I was like, what’s that? So, literally, I had spent the best part of the last three years in Elizabethan London, working on a book of history, which is shorthand for: you don’t read fiction, you don’t go to the movies, and if you don’t have children, you’re completely clueless.
BOGAEV: Well, you do have a lot of fun with these kinds of questions, though, with your main character, Matthew. The main vampire, Matthew. Diana finds herself falling in love with this guy, and Diana has been a non-magic practicing witch. It turns out she doesn’t know anything about being a witch, or vampires. She didn’t want it. She rejected this part of her heritage, her family business.
HARKNESS: Right, good historian—
BOGAEV: Right, she’s a historian.
HARKNESS: —you would reject that part of your history—I mean, if, in fact, you were a good historian, you’d think, “There is no future in this.”
BOGAEV: As you did, because you have an ancestor from Salem, right? Who was accused of being a witch.
HARKNESS: Yes. And executed for it. But, I did not know that when I started writing the books. I only discovered that in the last few years.
BOGAEV: Oh. Oh, that’s crazy.
HARKNESS: That’s very crazy.
BOGAEV: And you studied this material on magic.
HARKNESS: And my own genealogy, but it was down a little avenue of a family tree that I had never been down.
BOGAEV: So, you are Diana. I mean, in some ways.
HARKNESS: I guess, and, you know, it’s so funny. I’m all of them, but certainly, that has been one of the weirdest things, actually. I was absolutely adamant, I was like, look, I’m not descended from witches. I don’t get that. I don’t understand. Whatever. That’s all fiction. Then two years ago, it turned out not to be fiction.
So, I don’t know what you do, you know? These are the kinds of things that, again, if we were in the early modern period? Astrologers, physicians, they’d have a field day with that. Because—
BOGAEV: Right, they would read a lot into that, yeah.
HARKNESS: They would read a whole lot into that in terms of the occult, or hidden properties at work in the world that would somehow have brought this to pass, even though I didn’t know.
BOGAEV: Well, this is funny, because I was about to ask you, the fun that you have with this is that you set it up as a romance where Diana and Matthew are having this kind of get-to-know-you conversation over wine, and she doesn’t know anything about vampires, so she’s just asking all these really practical vampire questions, like, “Do you eat? What do you eat? You walk around in broad daylight, no problem, so why did people think that you couldn’t and would vaporize in the sun and that you sleep in coffins all day?” It’s a hilarious conversation they have, and it made me wonder: what answers did you unearth for why people did believe these things? Especially in Shakespeare’s day, what they believed about vampires, why they believed it.
HARKNESS: Shakespeare wouldn’t have recognized the word “vampire.”
BOGAEV: Right, he was all about demons and… Elizabethan England was about demons and witches, yeah.
HARKNESS: He would’ve gotten demons and witches. One of the things that was fun for me was sort of charting the rise and fall of these mythological creatures over time. They’re very prominent… then they’re not prominent. Witches are an interesting… slow, steady interest, and then they spike in the early modern period.
BOGAEV: And they were being persecuted during Shakespeare’s time, yeah.
HARKNESS: Right, right. As a scholar, what I’ve always been interested is, you know, why would someone in Shakespeare’s time have gone to an occult explanation for something? It was just that they believed there was more going on in the world than they could see with their naked eye. We’ve got radio waves, electricity, X-rays, MRIs… the early modern person had angels, demons, fairies. They were just technologies for uncovering what was hidden. It’s a very similar sort of human impulse. They just had a totally different worldview, which was that the visible and the invisible worlds were right adjacent to each other. Occasionally, you got to see through the veil that separated them.
BOGAEV: And they were very specific about, especially in Shakespeare’s time, about what was a witch’s purview and what was a magician’s purview. I mean, they’re…
HARKNESS: Which is highly, highly gendered.
BOGAEV: Highly gendered, right. Witches dealt in herbs, for one.
HARKNESS: [OVERLAPPING] Witches dealt in herbs. There’s…
BOGAEV: Akin to cooking.
HARKNESS: And also akin to medicine. Because the lines that separate a recipe for a cake and a recipe for a magical biscuit are very close. If you think about a witch’s cauldron, actually, the idea that a woman could take a very few ingredients and, tending that pot, feed a family of eight for an entire week, there’s something a little magical in that. It’s not surprising to see this witch’s cauldron as one of the iconic symbols.
BOGAEV: I’m thinking of the grimoire—which is, the Folger has one, it’s a book. It’s this fascinating mix of invocations and maledictions and recipes for fairy potions. We did a podcast on it with Teller, of Penn and Teller, but it made me think that in your book, I picked up on all these snippets of alchemy and spell-making, and they’re some of my favorite passages, because you describe the instructions as like some unholy combination of The Joy of Cooking and a poisoner’s notebook. “Take your pot of mercury and seethe it over a flame for three hours, and when it’s joined with the philosophical child, take it, and let it putrify until the black crow carries it away to its death.” Did you read that somewhere? I mean, where did that come from?
HARKNESS: I know, welcome to… Yes, it was sort of stuck together from a whole lot of different alchemical texts. It’s not one text, it’s sort of all of them, and I was… One of the things that I really love to do in the novels is to be able to try to describe to someone, who’s maybe never seen a grimoire, the confounding stuff that’s in it. Which, as you say, is—like, in here is a prayer to the angel Gabriel. Here’s how to summon an evil spirit. Here’s how to stop a toothache.
BOGAEV: It’s a real mixed bag [LAUGHS].
HARKNESS: It’s a really mixed bag, and it’s hard for us because I think in some ways we are splitters. We’ve gotten to this place where we like to categorize and list and compartmentalize.
What I always tell my students is in the early modern period, there was a real sense that whoever died with the most stuff won. If you were keeping a kind of book full of really useful stuff, you’d chuck everything in it. It really is a the-more-the-merrier philosophy. I think in some ways, you really kind of see that in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where you’ve got this kind of whole world of magical creatures at play. That’s a very early modern way of thinking. They weren’t worried about, well, wait a minute, would Titania and Puck be in the same place? For them, it was like, let’s just put as many different things as we can into one spot, and see what happens.
BOGAEV: [LAUGHS] Oh, that’s wonderful. Getting back to this idea of your characters being this kind of mishmash of different supernatural creatures— vampires, witches, there are also demons in your trilogy—the supernatural is very hierarchical. They don’t mix, and at least, according to the witches, they were the top of the order. The demons are like these perpetual teenagers, you say, you write. They’re the criminal underclass. And vampires are lower than cats and dogs. And actually, humans are not even in the order. They’re just, like, irrelevant, except that they persecute the others. In many ways, I think your books are more about, or as much about, otherness, and just fearing what you don’t know or what you don’t understand about other creatures, as they are about anything else. How did that evolve? Was that the idea from the beginning for you, or did it slowly take shape?
HARKNESS: I think that was really my concern at the beginning. Looking at that book display in Puerto Vallarta, was again, I mean, I know people who are weeping because their child is marrying somebody of a different race. I looked at that wall full of vampires and humans, you know, and, like, there’s no friction in their universe. And I just thought, “Really?” I don’t think that would happen if you came home and said, “Hi, mom, I have a vampire boyfriend, can he come to dinner?” Because we have very complicated, conflicted ideas about difference. And I thought that vampires, witches, and demons gave us really good monsters to play with. There were all kinds of signs in 2008 that there was beginning to be a, kind of, sense of constriction.
BOGAEV: Despite gender fluidity and the sense that maybe we’re moving finally toward a post-gendered world.
HARKNESS: Right, but in 2008, we were locked in Prop 8 here in California. Ee were involved in a major ballot initiative over whether two people of the same sex should be able to get married, never mind a vampire and a human. I just couldn’t square all that in my brain.
BOGAEV: That’s really interesting. Because there is, of course, a whole feminist history about witches as an anti-woman movement. What do you think of that interpretation, as a historian, given this broader analysis, or viewpoint, that we’re talking about, about otherness? Is it simplistic to see the persecution of witches as gendered?
HARKNESS: I think there’s truth in it. But I don’t think that explains the whole story. You know, as a historian, the explanations that are the most satisfying and hold up the best are the ones that are multi-causal. The plain fact is there were women who were practicing something that looked like witchcraft an awful long time. The Middle Ages was not exactly feminist, and yet, there were not witch hunts. So the question I always ask my students, whether it’s, Why did the scientific revolution happen in the early modern period? Why did Shakespeare— what was going on to make theater so popular in the early modern moment? Why were there witch hunts? All of these things are happening together. There’s something called “The Monstrous Regiment of Women.” Most major countries in Western Europe were being run by women.
BOGAEV: Mm-hmm, which is very threatening.
HARKNESS: Which is very threatening. So the issue is not, I think, that it’s anti-women. I think the issue is that the power of women was a source of great anxiety in the period. And what makes you anxious has a power of you, and then that becomes something that demands a response to come to terms with it. I like to think of it as not so much anti- as that, you know, again, women became this place for people to park their anxieties, and then they park their anxieties on witches, and scapegoated them. And there were a lot of other “Others” in the early modern period that they were doing the same thing to, it’s just that the witches was a major, you know, form of this persecution.
BOGAEV: Well, one of those other “Others” are demons, and they’re interesting in your novels. You make them these poignant creatures despite their repulsiveness, I think. As you say, you describe them in the book as eternal teenagers, but they have no parentage or heritage, and they’re just born haphazardly to humans. Unlike the vampires who are made and have kind of vampire mothers or fathers, and the witches are born into witch families. These demons in your books, they yearn to find this lost manuscript, because it would finally explain their origin and where they come from, and their identity, really. It becomes this search for identity. What did Shakespeare’s time—since that is our focus in this podcast—what did they believe about demons, and how does that figure into your thinking or phenomenology of these creatures in your fiction?
HARKNESS: It’s a great question. In the early modern period, they were dealing with completely Christianized concepts of the demon, which always makes me a bit sad for them. Because daemons—as I spell them, d-a-e-m-o-n—were the Greek predecessor of the Roman concept of genius, a spirt of a place, or your guiding spirit.
BOGAEV: It’s like a soul.
HARKNESS: It’s like a soul. That’s what a daemon was. They kind of were there helping you make decisions, trying to lead you to the right path.
BOGAEV: Although, in the Christian mythos, it becomes this fallen angel.
HARKNESS: Right. Even more so, it becomes a voice that might be taking you away from God. You are not supposed to be listening to other little demons—kind of, think of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faust, right? The little angel and the demon sitting on the shoulder. So, I kind of wanted to rehabilitate them back to that Greek and Roman origins before they became the naughty, dangerous voice that the Christians didn’t want you to listen to if you were a recently converted pagan.
BOGAEV: Huh. Well, when you’re, then, doing something like that, or you’re making up personality traits for these characters, do you take pains to make them believable as humans for your reader, or do you just think, like, as you were saying, ah, let’s go with this anything goes?
HARKNESS: Right. So as a historian of science, especially one of the early modern period, you know, I am always really, really struck with how a world is built. There are rules. There’s an organizational system. You asked a question about hierarchy. There’s a hierarchy. There’s an order.
BOGAEV: Very strict. Yeah.
HARKNESS: Exactly. So, essentially, I probably am familiar with the same kind of worldview ideas that Shakespeare had, and it was about order, hierarchy, place for everything, everything in its place, distinctions, connections, and that’s the kind of world that I built. At the same time, in the early modern period, in Shakespeare’s day, they believed, absolutely, in these supernatural and preternatural creatures. So again, I just thought, what if those early modern people were right, and there is this invisible world that we aren’t seeing? Why as a human being might we not see them? Well, I was in Old Town Pasadena just the other day, and there was a homeless man sitting on the street with his dog. Not a single person looked at him as they went by. I thought, well, that’s how humans do it. A human being’s superpower is denial. A demon’s superpower is creativity. A witch’s superpower is that they have control over the elements. A vampire’s superpower is longevity. And then you just sort of start building that world, in a very early modern way.
BOGAEV: Well, that explains why there are these really interesting moments, where the supernatural creatures are kind of talking to each other and saying, “Oh, I can’t believe the humans can’t see that this is a whole room full of witches, or a whole gathering of vampires,” because denial. We’re very good at that.
HARKNESS: We’re very good at it, and we’re also very good at not seeing things that make us uncomfortable. When you walk into a cocktail party and you immediately gravitate to all the people like you, we do this all the time.
BOGAEV: Often unconsciously.
HARKNESS: Often unconsciously.
BOGAEV: Well, Diana, your main character, she is a historian, and, of course, you’re a historian, and historically, there was a controversy in post-Elizabethan times about how to view witchcraft, if you were living at that time. Whether you could just adapt whatever knowledge or recipes these so-called witches had, and use them for medicinal purposes—or, there were some, and King James was one, who really viewed it as magic. Actual magic, but—
HARKNESS: Actually, he believed he was a victim of witchcraft, among other things, yeah.
BOGAEV: That’s right, yeah, but… he really, he did believe that. So, how do you, as a historian, understand why some people chose one camp and not the other?
HARKNESS: I think that after many, many centuries of, sort of, coexisting happily with the notion that there were witches around, once the Malleus Maleficarum, The Hammer of Witches, got published in the 15th century by these two inquisitors—and it really focused on the idea of the witch as somebody who did maleficio, who did evil deeds. Over a period of 100 years, it became something that people could really focus on and say, “Oh no! My cow has died. It’s that woman down the lane.” It gave a kind of focus to people’s attention.
With that increased focus, inevitably, as it’s discussed, come the voices of doubt. “This is ridiculous. She’s just an old woman who lives down the lane.” Then there were the people who said, “Absolutely she is,” like King James, and had all kinds of theological, philosophical, historical kind of evidence to put there. Then there was also this sort of very interesting middle-of-the-road crew who thought something was going on, but weren’t quite sure of what it was, and thought maybe there’s a medical reason. Over the next hundred years, what we see is the witch craze really take off. The hunts take over.
BOGAEV: The witch hunts.
HARKNESS: Yes, the witch hunts. And then we kind of descend into the last of the hunts in 1692 in Salem. It’s this very interesting sort of 200-year moment almost, where it becomes, again, that, kind of, fashion to talk about witches and what their role is. There’s anxiety. There’re changing worldviews. There’s a lot of instability. Religiously, politically. This is why… I mean it’s sort of a multi-causal way of thinking about the witches, not enough to say it was just anti-women or misogynistic. There’s something that’s like a perfect storm of ingredients that makes it all happen, and I think that with that kind of attention, the whole worldview begins to crumble under the pressure, right? There are so many cases, so many accusations, so much new data being put in the system. You’re bound to get the… “This is all made… Nothing is happening.”
BOGAEV: The extremes. Polarity.
HARKNESS: Right. You get the skepticism, the true believers, and the people in the middle who kind of can’t decide which way to go.
BOGAEV: I don’t think I’m the only one who’s listening to you talk about this and equating it to our modern day situation. I mean, at that time, science and magic were indistinguishable, really, right? Now it makes me question what a historian of your period makes of the moment that we’re in now politically, when many people, they don’t trust scientific evidence about things like global climate change and they treat science more like mythmaking or religion or politics rather than fact-based knowledge.
HARKNESS: We’re in a weirdly early modern moment. We’re in a weirdly Shakespearean moment, I think, where people are having all of the things they thought they knew about the world, and how it operated, upended. What happens historically in a moment like that, is people look for somebody to blame. They begin to fear things they don’t understand. They fear people who aren’t like them, all of which we see. And it makes us…somebody who’s a historian of the 16th century, say, “What can we learn from this earlier moment about what happens when we go out and exterminate a group of people, as we did people accused of witchcraft, because we’re uncomfortable?” And every time I turn on the news, I think, there, there we are. We’re doing it here, we’re doing it here.
There’s both a sense of frustration and a sense of missed opportunity, because, seriously, there is so much to be learned from other moments. We are not in a unique moment, even if it feels like that to us, right? That we think, where did this come from? How could this be happening? This has happened over and over and over again, when the world turns upside down and inside out, and it’s a sobering thought to know that we’re bound to—even if we know history, we seem bound to repeat it. I think smarter minds than mine will have to figure out why human beings have to keep trying to learn this lesson, over and over, but, we haven’t done it yet.
BOGAEV: I have so much enjoyed talking to you. Thank you, and, you’ll have to come back, because there are two other books to talk about. [LAUGHS] And a TV series, and a TV series.
HARKNESS: I would love to come back. Two more books, I know. Next one’s actually in Shakespeare’s London. Yes. It’s a lot of fun. It’s amazing, just to think of how seeing an airport wall in Puerto Vallarta, having just finished a book on Elizabethan London can somehow alchemically combine to make the All Souls Trilogy. It’s been a real pleasure to talk to you.
BOGAEV: Well, thanks again.
WITMORE: Dr. Deborah Harkness is a teaching professor of history at the University of Southern California. She is the author of John Dee’s Conversations with Angels and The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution.
Deb is also author of the All Souls Trilogy, which began with A Discovery of Witches, originally published by Viking Press for Penguin Books in 2011. The TV version of A Discovery of Witches premiered in the US on January 17, 2019. You can stream it on Sundance TV or Shudder; rent it on Britbox on Amazon Prime; or, beginning April 7th, watch it on AMC and BBC America. Deb was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast episode, “Excellent Witchcraft,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Shawn Corey Campbell and Bianca Ramirez at KPCC Public Radio in Pasadena, California.
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Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.