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Institute of Continuing Education (ICE)


Madingley Hall is not somewhere one would expect to meet the Devil. The Hall is just too beautiful and people who work or visit here, by and large, seem far too reasonable and busy to have time for that kind of thing; it would, I imagine, be very distracting. The Buddha that sits peacefully looking out over a pool under the North Terrace, appears a religious figure more suited to the character of the place than the Prince of Darkness, and the calm presence of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, that you pass on your way up the drive, and which has been there, in one form or another, for almost a thousand years, would, one assumes, make it unlikely that he would want to drop in.

However, as part of the research for a book I am currently writing, I came across the details of a trial held in Cambridge in 1659 in which some people were accused of not only meeting the Devil at Madingley Hall but supping with him too (whether spoons were used or not, or how long these might have been, is not on record). Indeed, two of the party arrived at the Hall for their diabolical dinner party one chilly November night on the back of an unfortunate woman from a nearby village whom they had changed into a horse; the victim showed off the injuries she received from the bridle in case there was any doubt about her testimony.

Plenty of people, including a number of scholars of the University, believed the woman's account. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress, went into print supporting her claims, and a pamphlet published in London entitled Strange and Terrible Newes from Cambridge made the incident a story of national interest. It was a serious accusation: if found guilty the accused would have been put to death.

Of course, accusations of magic are something that have preoccupied societies for millennia and raise fascinating questions of the kind we explore in a range of courses at the Institute. What, for example, do people really believe when they make such accusations? As the author Apuleius of Madura pointed out when defending himself against just such a charge in the Roman empire, those who really believe in the powers of magicians would surely be the last people who would risk taking such people to court. And as we can see in a range of different cultures and epochs, accusations of magic, like accusations of madness or badness, came to be part of the way that societies define themselves and keep those that are different or are perceived to be a threat to the status quo at bay. It is no surprise to find that the individuals accused of dining with the Devil were Quakers, members of an unpopular new sect that had recently arrived in Cambridge and some of whose female adherents had already been whipped through the streets of the city for daring to preach, something that had not gone down well with young, male clergy being trained in the University.

And what happened to the accused? They were fortunate to be acquitted. The judge decided that the whole thing was probably the result of a bad dream, a sensible judgement that resembles one a few decades later when another judge famously dismissed a charge of witchcraft on the grounds that he knew of no law in England against flying.

Interestingly, the Quakers went on to publish their own account of the case as they still felt the need to clear their name. In it they argued, amongst other things, that the accuser must be a liar because she claimed they had joined the Devil in a meal of mutton, rabbit and lamb but no one, not even the Prince of Darkness himself it seems, could possibly have got hold of lamb in November.

Things have clearly changed a great deal over the centuries; lamb can now be seen on the menu at the Hall in November. I still do not think that Madingley is somewhere you are likely to encounter the Devil but perhaps, on reflection, it is not as improbable as it once was.

Dr Justin Meggitt, ICE University Senior Lecturer and Academic Director for the Study of Religion

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