Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Demons and illness in Exeter

Last week the Centre for Medical History hosted an international conference on ‘Demons and Illness: Theory and Practice from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period’ (22-24 April), which included a public lecture at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. The conference was the first to comparatively explore the ways different pre-modern societies thought about the relationship between demons and illness.

The conference addressed neglected area of both medical history and religious studies. In many near eastern traditions, demons appear as a cause of illness: most famously in the stories of possessed people cured by Christ. These traditions influenced perceptions of illness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam in later centuries but the ways in which these cultures viewed demons and illness have received comparatively little attention.

This genuinely interdisciplinary and international conference is organised by Dr Catherine Rider (History) and Dr Siam Bhayro (Theology), and brings together academics from subjects including history, religious studies and archaeology, and specialists on different religious traditions including paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Speakers at the conference are visiting from across the globe, including the USA, Israel, France, Germany, Spain and Finland.

Dr Catherine Rider said about the conference: “Siam and I have both been interested in beliefs relating to illness, magic and the supernatural for a long time, and we've been talking about them informally since we started at Exeter five years ago. It will be great to have the opportunity to discuss the topic with other researchers next week, and we are really excited to see how many other scholars from around the world and from so many different disciplines are coming to the conference.”

The public lecture at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum was by Dr Lauren Kassell, and titled ‘Dispossession and the History of Medicine in Early Modern England’. The Museum is also developing a ‘trail’ around their exhibits inspired by the conference, on the theme of ‘Interacting with the Supernatural’.

Tom Cadbury, Curator of Antiquities at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), said "The Demons and Illness conference had a full and interesting programme and it is excellent that some of this could be shared with the public through Dr Lauren Kassell's lecture at RAMM. In response to the conference a trail through RAMM's rich and diverse collections has been prepared. This will enable visitors to explore further the themes raised by the conference."

Greg Sheldon, Exeter City Council’s Lead Councillor for Environment and Leisure, said "Combining RAMM's knowledge of the city’s extraordinary collections with the University’s academic rigour is a great way to deliver excellence to a wider audience. RAMM, Museum of the Year 2012 and Exeter University, University of the Year 2012, are quite literally a winning combination."

You can find out more about ‘Demons and Illness: Theory and Practice from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period’ at the conference website.

Date: 19 April 2013

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