Biography is fundamentally an act of necromancy, putting flesh on the bones of the deceased. As a mode of history writing it can be hugely challenging, especially when the subject is the opposite of likeable. The subject of my first book was a cantankerous Jesuit who thought rather highly of himself and, partly as a result, loved to fall out with people. Martin Delrio (1551-1608) also wrote perhaps the most influential book on witchcraft of the early modern period. My project was an accidental rescue mission. I started work on Delrio because I was interested in situating both the author and the witchcraft book in the context of the Dutch Revolt. Despite the Spanish name, Delrio was born in Antwerp and educated at the University of Leuven. As a devout Catholic Netherlander of Spanish descent, he played an important role in a conflict that was both a religious war and a struggle for independence from Spain. My project began by comparing Delrio’s understanding and depictions of heresy, rebellion, and witchcraft. Interesting though that might sound, I found the answers predictable and I became much more interested in Delrio’s lack of first-hand knowledge of witchcraft. In fact, Delrio’s other writings – a string of classical editions, a biblical commentary, a collection of sermons in praise of the Virgin Mary – all drew on very different type of knowledge, rooted in books. Delrio was a bookworm who read until his eyes gave out. My rescue mission, then, consisted of situating Delrio’s work of demonology, within this unexpected world of textual learning and within a wider intellectual project of Catholic Reform. Martin Delrio: Demonology and Scholarship in the Counter-Reformation was shortlisted for the 2016 Royal Historical Society Gladstone Prize for best first book in non-British history and was listed as one of History Today‘s Books of 2015.
The curse of writing a biography – especially a biography of someone as restless as Delrio – is that it does little to ground one’s research interests. I became interested in and wrote on the subjects Delrio was interested in. The themes that Delrio brought together – the Counter-Reformation, late humanism, and the history of witchcraft – still animate my research but Delrio no longer provides the glue that binds it together.
In the short term, I am researching a new witchcraft book. While working on Delrio, I became fascinated by the Bordeaux magistrate Pierre de Lancre, who led a commission to investigate witchcraft in the French Basque Country in 1609. I was struck by the parallels and differences between the two men. Both were related to Michel de Montaigne, the famous essayist and perhaps France’s most influential intellectual. I explored this relationship in an early article. Later I discovered additional sources relating to the witch-hunt he was involved in the Jesuit archives in Rome. I am currently on research leave until the autumn of 2021, funded by the Leverhulme and Humboldt foundations to write my second monograph. This is not meant to be a second instalment in a Machielsen series of biographies of demonologists. Pierre de Lancre’s perspective has dominated the way we have thought about the 1609 witch-hunt in the Pays de Labourd for too long. New sources and approaches will help us escape his elite male gaze, and provide a much richer perspective of what happened.
In the longer term, I am working on a number of Counter-Reformation projects. I remain preoccupied by the relationship between intellectuals, especially those in Catholic borderlands, and Rome – how these men saw the Eternal City and its libraries, how they sought to align their own projects with Rome’s, how they sought to influence its official (liturgical) outputs, and so on. I published a partial inventory of the correspondence of Guglielmo Sirleto (1514-1585), Cardinal Librarian, in collaboration with Early Modern Letters Online. I have also been working on approaching the Counter-Reformation in a different way, by looking at how Catholic Reform reshaped historical or mythical figures. I published an article on how Catholics, in the wake of the Reformation, fell out of love with Pope Joan – the mythical female pope – and I have written a chapter on the Catholic appropriation of the therapeutae, a group of Jewish ascetics who were recast as Christian monastics.
Finally, I have also been working on the Martyrs of Gorkum, a group of nineteen Catholic clergy, who were killed in 1572 by radical Protestants in the midst of the Dutch Revolt, and beatified by the papacy in 1675. Their beatification proceedings and the testimony gathered as part of it throw new light on the memory of religious violence, the role of aspiring saints in the medical marketplace, and the relationship between the local and universal Church.