Malcolm Gaskill

Malcolm Gaskill is emeritus professor of early modern history at UEA. The Ruin of All Witches is due in November.

Short Cuts: Charity Refused

Malcolm Gaskill, 9 September 2021

Afew weeks ago,​ a man appeared in my front garden as I was trimming the hedge. Slight in stature, in his early twenties with short dark hair, he was wearing a huge hold-all as though it were a rucksack. His unsmiling face radiated intensity as he began his spiel: name, from the North, recent discharge from the army, trying to get back on his feet. He even gave his service number, as if old...

The world they sought to understand belonged to them all, and demanded that a gifted few should work together to interpret the writings of former ages. Alchemists resembled learned theologians poring over the gospels, wary of mangling a single meaning and so missing or misrepresenting a holy truth. And with alchemy, everything needed interpretation because everything was obscure.

At the House of Mr Frog: Puritanism

Malcolm Gaskill, 18 March 2021

Cartoonists​ find it as easy to draw puritans as they do Vikings. There’s an example on my pinboard. A behatted man, buttoned up in black, admires his wife’s sampler, which reads: ‘Way to Go, God.’ ‘Nice sentiment, Martha,’ he beams. Martha wears the same gloomy sub fusc, with black bonnet and broad linen collar. Putting slang in puritan mouths is fun...

Diary: On Quitting Academia

Malcolm Gaskill, 24 September 2020

InMay, I gave up my academic career after 27 years. A voluntary severance scheme had been announced in December, and I dithered about it until the pandemic enforced focus on a fuzzy dilemma. Already far from the sunlit uplands, universities would now, it seemed, descend into a dark tunnel. I swallowed hard, expressed an interest, hesitated, and then declared my intention to leave. A...

Man Is Wolf to Man: C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill, 23 January 2020

In​ 2000 Christopher Sansom took a year off from his job as a solicitor to write a novel: it had occurred to him that the dissolution of the monasteries might make a good backdrop to a murder mystery. He finished it, sent it off and returned from holiday expecting a stack of rejections. ‘To my delight,’ he told the Guardian in 2010, ‘my email was hot with people wanting...

In​ 2001 an architect called Danny Sullivan claimed to have found cine film of an angel while rooting around in a Monmouth junk shop. This was, unsurprisingly, a hoax, as were claims that Marlon Brando had paid £350,000 for the footage. But the alleged provenance was intriguing. Sullivan invented a psychical researcher called William Doidge, who had, he said, fought with the Scots...

Plot 6, Row C, Grave 15: Death of an Airman

Malcolm Gaskill, 8 November 2018

Van Dyke Fernald liked flying – ‘skylarking’, as he called it, was ‘glorious’, the ‘star stunt’ of the war. There were breathtaking views of the Alps and of the Adriatic and Dalmatian coastlines; the gloom he’d felt on the Western Front seemed magically to lift. A pilot from his squadron described Venice ‘glittering like a pink opal in the warm early sunlight’. A classical education led these young men to frame their experiences metaphysically; leaving the earth felt like separating body and soul. ‘We moved like spirits in an airy loom,’ Cecil Lewis recalled.

When​ my editor asked for dust-jacket ideas, I said I wanted something with snow. My book was about 17th-century America, and for all the sweltering, maize-shrivelling summers, it was the winters that had stuck in my mind. I’d found the perfect image: George Henry Boughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church (1867), a depiction of settlers in New Plymouth trudging through their first...

On Strike

Malcolm Gaskill, 5 April 2018

The university strikes​ reached the end of their fourth week just before the start of the Easter break. More than a million students at 65 universities had been affected and, according to the University and College Union (UCU), the body to which the strikers belong, more than half a million teaching hours lost. The casus belli is a proposed change to the operation of the pension fund held...

The Tudors​ knew all about the uncertainty caused by weak leadership and isolation on the world stage. After the break with Rome, complete by 1534, England stood alone. Henry VIII’s imperial claims, couched in Thomas Cromwell’s majestic legalese, were introspective, asserting the power of the monarch freed from the constraints of papal rule. The economy was beset by inflation,...

Unnatural Rebellion: ‘Witches’

Malcolm Gaskill, 2 November 2017

It is a semantic enclosure for variants from folklore, the Bible, product branding, Halloween parties and newspaper cartoons. In fiction and legend, witches can be white or black, good or bad: they can be heroines and healers or hexing hags. What classification can bracket such diversity? Roald Dahl offers a clue in The Witches, where he suggests that real witches don’t wear pointy hats and ride broomsticks but look normal.

Staunch with Sugar: Early Modern Mishaps

Malcolm Gaskill, 7 September 2017

On 15 August​ 1737 Samuel Wood was working in a windmill on the Isle of Dogs, when a rope tied around his wrist became caught in the gear wheels. The gigantic brake-wheel pulled him into the mechanism, tearing off his right arm. Wood staggered a short distance before collapsing. Bystanders staunched the wound with sugar, which was known to have antiseptic and healing properties, while they...

In autumn​ 1937 a statue of Katharina Kepler was unveiled in Eltingen, the village near Stuttgart where she had been born three centuries earlier. Barefoot, wearing a shift, sickle in hand, she represented the ideals of rustic nobility and honest toil cherished by the Third Reich. The mayor said that Frau Kepler also stood for the determination to uphold truth in the face of persecution:...

April 1944. Winston Churchill sent a memo to Herbert Morrison at the Home Office: Let me have a report on why the Witchcraft Act, 1735, was used in a modern Court of Justice. What was the cost...

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