My research focuses on the historical intersections among science, medicine, and religion, especially in the early modern era (roughly the 1400s through the 1700s). This was a time of great change in Europe and around the globe: new ways of thinking about God, nature, and humanity emerged in Europe and new ties bound together distant societies, disrupting older patterns of belief and action. In my 2011 book Witchcraft and Inquisition in Early Modern Venice, I revealed how people struggled to understand and distinguish natural phenomena from supernatural in this era, using the records of Inquisition witchcraft trials and other sources found in various libraries and archives in the city of Venice and in and around the Vatican.
I am currently exploring the influential place of healing clerics -- exorcists -- in early modern society for a book tentatively titled Spiritual Medicine: The Practice of Exorcism in Early Modern Europe. I will show how religious and medico-scientific authority aligned and conflicted in this era, and how an emerging professional community of exorcists constructed and defended their expertise -- for a time, anyway -- even in the face of significant resistance from powerful institutions in society. This is an issue we confront today as we are bombarded by claims about what “experts say” about this or that scientific or medical question. The question of who speaks for nature, who gets to determine what is or is not “natural,” is one that we struggle with in much the same ways as early modern society did. My work on this project has been supported by grants from the American Historical Association and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.
Undergraduates interested in these topics can contribute to a project I have put together on magic and witchcraft practices closer to home -- in colonial Pennsylvania. Apply for an undergraduate research fellowship through the College of Arts and Sciences! The classic witch-craze of Salem gets all the attention, but that episode gives a misleading picture of the beliefs and practices that European colonists brought with them across the Atlantic, as my research in this project is demonstrating.