Dr Michelle Pfeffer
Academic position: Fellow by Examination
I received my BA in History from The University of Queensland (UQ), Australia and my MSc in History of Science, Medicine, and Technology from Harris Manchester College, Oxford, for which I was awarded the Charles Webster Prize. My PhD in History, supported by the Australian Research Council, was awarded by UQ in 2020. Before joining Magdalen as a Prize Fellow in Early Modern History, I taught history and was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at UQ. I have also been a Lisa Jardine History of Science scholar at the Royal Society of London. I am the winner of the 2021 John Bunyan Society Early Career Prize.
I am an early modern historian with research interests in the history of science, religion, and scholarship. I am currently working on three projects. First, I am finishing a monograph on the history of the idea of the soul in early modern England, focusing particularly on the development of the heterodox view that humans did not possess immortal souls. The early modern debate over this issue was an interdisciplinary one: it involved religion, medicine, and natural philosophy, but also historical scholarship. Building on this work, I am also writing a ‘biography’ of William Warburton’s classic Divine Legation of Moses (1738-41), a book about the biblical Hebrews’ belief in immortality that despite being a highly technical work of scholarship became a public sensation in the mid-eighteenth century.
Another key interest is the history of astrology in the early modern world. I’m writing about the process by which astrology, once a vibrant aspect of cultural and intellectual life, came to be rejected as a superstition outside the bounds of science – a huge shift that remains a major puzzle in the history of science. My main interest is the contribution of late humanist scholarship to this shift and to ‘disenchantment’ more broadly. In 2021, I organised (with Jan Machielsen and Robin Briggs) an interdisciplinary conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of Sir Keith Thomas’s classic Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), which was supported by the Past & Present Society; recordings of the event can be found here. I’m also interested in the fact that the marginalization of astrology was a pan-European as well as a global phenomenon – in that it was also felt in European colonies around the world – and I am in the early stages of working on the marginalisation of astrology in New Spain.
I’m also interested in the history of epidemics. I am currently writing about the role played by astrologers in early modern ‘public health’; a recording of a public lecture I gave at Magdalen on this topic can be found here. I am also curating an exhibition on the history of plague at Magdalen in the College’s Old Library, opening November 2022. I also contributed to a virtual tour of the Old Library that can be found here.
With the anthropologist David Zeitlyn, I am curating a major exhibition at the Bodleian Library on divination and astrology across the world and throughout history. The exhibition will open in winter 2024.
- ‘The Contribution of the Early Modern Humanities to “Disenchantment”’, Journal of Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 16 (3) (2021): 398-405.
- ‘The Society of Astrologers (c. 1647–1684): Sermons, Feasts, and the Resuscitation of Astrology in Seventeenth-Century London’, The British Journal for the History of Science 54(2) (2021): 133-153.
- ‘The Pentateuch and Immortality in England and the Dutch Republic: The Confessionalisation of a Claim’, in The Worlds of Knowledge and the Classical Tradition in the Early Modern Age: Comparative Approaches, eds., Ian Maclean and Dmitri Levitin (Brill, 2021).
- ‘Paganism, Natural Reason, and Immortality: Charles Blount and John Toland’s Histories of the Soul’, Intellectual History Review 31(4) (2021): 563-583.
- ‘Before epidemiologists began modelling disease, it was the job of astrologers’, The Conversation, 19 May 2020