What does it mean for history to be ‘creative’? Why might historians take a ‘creative turn’?
The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded leadership project ‘Creative Histories of Witchcraft, France 1790-1940’ looks for answers to these questions through a combination of research into witchcraft in the long nineteenth century, and creative collaborations with writers and performers.
The project is the first attempt to document criminal cases involving witchcraft in France from 1790-1940. It draws on digitized versions of over two hundred and fifty different regional and national newspapers, as well as research in more than thirty different regional and national archives. This grows out of my own interest in popular and folk cultures in the very long nineteenth century (c.1789-1940).
But the project extends beyond this topic, to a wider consideration of creativity and history. How do historians and creative practitioners work together? What do they gain by doing so, and what risks do they run?
In early 2018, I applied to the AHRC for funding to explore questions like this… with a full-time poet and playwright. I wanted to work closely with two different creative practitioners, to see the research through their eyes, and to produce work that asked different questions, and took different forms.
Historians are not much used to thinking in terms of practice-based research. And yet many of us are already engaging in different ways of doing and making history, from theatre performances, to music, film, and creative writing. Witchcraft makes a particularly rich topic for creative collaboration. What makes strange stories real? How do historians write truthfully about uncertain phenomena? How do writers evoke feelings and beliefs respectfully?
Applying for this grant felt like a gamble: would other researchers see the value in a creative collaboration of this kind? I was surprised, but delighted, that the AHRC decided to fund the project, allowing me to hire the poet Anna Kisby-Compton, and the playwright Poppy Corbett.
Talking to other researchers and creative practitioners since the award, many people are also interested to hear that a project like this could get funding. Some people I talked to asked to see the application, and I’ve shared it with anyone who wanted to read it. Following the example of Brodie Waddell I’m also sharing it here, to give people working in similar areas an idea of how the project was conceived.
I hope it encourages other researchers working in this area to take the gamble.