Early Modern Covens and Contemporary Representations of the Witch

This roundtable brings together four scholars of early modern English history, literature, drama, and music, who research, write, and teach about the supernatural and witchcraft. We devise a new look at contemporary representations of “the witch as text” as viewed through an early modern lens.

Rachel Clark will analyze tangled attitudes toward disability, gender, and race in The Witcher, to examine how disability functions as a catalyst for magic, a supernatural excess of ability that also defies norms.

Colleen Kennedy sniffs out the scented and contested olfactive histories of early modern witches to tease out the layered accords and complicated phenomenology of contemporary niche and independent perfume houses.

Kendra Preston Leonard visits the metaphor and ethos of poetry covens, like Pussy Magic, Coven of Midnight, Luna Luna Magazine, and COVEN-19, who use the rhetoric of witchcraft and magic to create safe, inclusive spaces for writers and readers who are drawn to the supernatural and the idea of anti-racist, anti-patriarchal matrices of power.

Jennifer McNabb explores the boundaries between modern historian and historical texts/circumstances in both the novel and television series A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.

Together, these short papers ask: What happens when we trouble the boundaries between past and now when studying contemporary representations of witches? How is the body of the witch reinscribed as a(n) (a)historical text in contemporary media?


Rachel Clark

Dr. Rachel Clark (Ph.D., The Ohio State University, 2011) teaches British literature and directs the honors program at Wartburg College in northeastern Iowa. Her research focuses on early modern English literature—Shakespeare and his contemporaries—with special interests in disability studies and the history of the book. In 2018, she was selected as a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Scholar and participated in the summer institute “Global Histories of Disability” at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. She presents regularly at the annual conferences of the Shakespeare Association of America and the Sixteenth Century Society. Her current book project, Witchcraft and Disability in Early Modern England, argues that early modern witchcraft in England can be most productively understood as part of a discourse of disability and supernatural hyperability that sets ableist boundaries that have persisted for centuries.

Colleen Kennedy

Dr. Colleen E. Kennedy is the Assistant Director of Communications at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature at Ohio State University with a graduate minor in Theatre. Her dissertation and subsequent publications often focus on early modern perfumes, and she has also written about and presented on teaching Shakespeare. She previously served as a visiting faculty member at the University of Iowa and Shippensburg University.

Kendra Preston Leonard

Dr. Kendra Preston Leonard’s scholarly work focuses on women and music; music and screen media; and representations of the early modern onstage and screen. Her books include Shakespeare, Madness and Music: Scoring Insanity in Cinematic Adaptations and Music for the Kingdom of Shadows: Cinema Accompaniment in the Age of Spiritualism. She is the founder and executive director of the Silent Film Sound and Music Archive and the founder and manager of Shakespeare in Early Film, both digital humanities projects.Leonard is also a playwright, poet, lyricist, and librettist whose works draw on history, folklore, literature, and the mythopoeic: Her Four Songs for Lady Macbeth addresses the character from voices unheard in the play, and her play Moon-Crossed adapts All’s Well that Ends Well as a werewolf play. Leonard is a frequent guest lecturer and workshop leader on research and writing in the humanities and teaches poetry writing for Writespace Houston.

Jennifer Mcnabb

Dr. Jennifer McNabb is Professor and Head of the Department of History at the University of Northern Iowa. She is a past president of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association and currently serves as Chief Reader for AP European History. McNabb has received numerous teaching awards, and she has completed two courses for The Teaching Company: “Renaissance: The Transformation of the West” (48 lectures, released 2018) for The Great Courses and “Witchcraft in the Western Tradition” (10 lectures, released 2020) for Audible; a third 10-lecture course, “Sex, Love, and Marriage in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” is forthcoming from Audible. Her research has been published in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Quidditas, The Journal of the Wooden O, Women’s History, Cheshire History, and Amsterdam University Press. She is working on a book on medieval England for the University of Toronto Press.