Denise Shaw


I studied the MA History at Oxford Brookes 
I thought that was absolutely fascinating and I did a lot of different modules. So, for example, Magic and Religion with Professor Johannes Dillinger and also American Political History with Dr Tom Robb. Both were excellent. My dissertation was about the trial of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, the wife of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, brother to Henry V and heir apparent to Henry VI in 1441. Political factionalism was a major contributory element to witchcraft charges against her. My research covered the role of magic in mediaeval England and where this ‘bled into’ maleficium or evil magic/witchcraft.

I've now started a PhD
My PhD research will extend my research into elite mediaeval women, magic and the development of witchcraft across Europe. Astronomy, astrology, alchemy were acceptable and valued intellectual pursuits for men but there is evidence that there was a thriving female trade in magic which ranged from hair dyes to magic such as activities to make someone fall in love with you or to ensure the birth of a male child. However, there was a fine line to be drawn between harmless activities and the perception that this was evil magic or maleficium. Elite women, who were involved in such activities, were politically vulnerable to dangerous accusations. It was a fine line to tread. That's the bit that I am interested in. What was the accepted practice of female magic in elite and European court circles and importantly, did this then ‘bleed across’ into the later socially wider European witch hunts? So it was about gender, power, reputation, beliefs and  witchcraft. I’m very fortunate that Professor Johannes Dillinger is my supervisor in the Oxford Brookes History department.

I tend to come to Oxford once a month
I do zoom meetings with Professor Dillinger - we have regular conversations, and catch ups. I'm still at the point where I'm looking at the archives, and reading many resources. He's been really helpful and sent me on my way to look at certain things. I'm hoping I'll be going to France in the summer because I was quite interested in looking at witchcraft trials there. As there was a celebrated  witchcraft trial in Louis XIV’s  reign, the Affair of the Poisons. So I'm going to go over to France and although my French is pretty good, I'm not sure how adequate it is for mediaeval French. Mediaeval English is enough of a challenge. 

I started out my career as a journalist
Then I moved over into government PR, and I've worked in more than ten government departments. I've worked across a range of communications disciplines, from ministerial speechwriting to crisis management. The bonus of this, which has helped me in all my academic work, has been that I have to be well organised and be able to respond quickly to any changes. So I use a spreadsheet (a programme plan) to track where I need to be on my PhD. I've got more case studies to do, I've done five of them already and now I'm looking at Elizabeth's I reign. Then I'm going to move on to the case of Thomas Overbury in the Jacobean period and then to France, for the Affair of the Poisons. Through my civil service training, we have to be very organised, or you get easliy lost, it teaches one to be organised, so that's how I do it.

What does studying history give you in the world of work? Historians should never underestimate how valuable their skills are after their degrees. They have unparalleled skills in language, narrative, analysis and a tenacity in pursuing a line of debate. They are also very good at talking to people - an often overlooked but really important quality - I've met very few historians who don't like talking endlessly about what it is they're working on 😀