EAUH Conference 2018


Session SS15. Spatial Magic – Urban Spatiality and the Use of Magical Objects from 15th to 19th century

Coordinators: Jari Eilola (, Piia Einonen (

The construction and breaking of borders were a fundamental part of early modern witchcraft and magic. People dealt ritually with the dichotomy between the controlled and the uncontrolled. The boundaries of these areas are usually defined from within and are based on collective cultural knowledge. They may be physical boundaries in the landscape – such as walls and fences – or boundaries inside people’s minds. In both cases, they determine people’s conscious and unconscious behaviour. Because the borderlines were between the controlled and the uncontrolled, there was an occasional danger of their breaking. Therefore, socially important borders and their crossings were ritually maintained and ordered. (See Douglas, Purity and Danger.)

The idea of society was a powerful image, which had a form: it had external boundaries, margins, and an internal structure. Mary Douglas argues that the human body was a model which could stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries could represent any boundaries which were threatened or precarious. Mary Douglas's arguments offer a very useful tool for analysing early modern conceptions of the human body and space, especially when they are supplemented with the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin. (See Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World.) Society, or the controlled area, was understood as a collective body, which was ritually affected by using the physical body as a symbolic tool. Consequently, control of openings was crucial also in (urban) space as objects or individuals passing through such openings could have an effect on the controlled space inside the boundaries. Thus such openings were protected and strengthened with magical objects and rites. One way of using magic was to hide body parts of beheaded and hanged persons inside the walls or under the doorsteps.

Because each culture created its own special risks and problems, the control focused on those borders and openings that were regarded as socially and culturally significant at the time. Thus we invite presentations discussing themes such as:
• magic as a means of urban resilience
• spatial use and delivery of magical objects
• ritualistic control and strengthening of the borders of households, residential buildings, barns etc.
• borders created by reading spells and/or performing rituals.
Keywords: magic; witchcraft; early modern; borders; spatiality; resilience; rituals