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THE SOCIAL, PERSONAL, AND SPIRITUAL DYNAMICS OF GHOST STORIES IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND

  • LAURA SANGHA (a1)
Abstract

In early modern England, spectral figures were regular visitors to the world of the living and a vibrant variety of beliefs and expectations clustered around these questionable shapes. Yet whilst historians have established the importance of ghosts as cultural resources that were used to articulate a range of contemporary concerns about worldly life, we know less about the social and personal dynamics that underpinned the telling, recording, and circulation of ghost stories at the time. This article therefore focuses on a unique set of manuscript sources relating to apparitions in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England to uncover a different vantage point. Drawing on the life-writing and correspondence of the antiquarian who collected the narratives, it lays bare concerns about familial relations and gender that ghost stories were bound up with. Tracing the way that belief in ghosts functioned at an individual level also allows the recovery of the personal religious sensibilities and spiritual imperatives that sustained and nourished continuing belief in ghosts. This subjective angle demonstrates that ghost stories were closely intertwined with processes of grieving and remembering the dead, and they continued to be associated with theological understandings of the afterlife and the fate of the soul.

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Department of History, University of Exeter, Exeter, ex4 4rjl.s.sangha@ex.ac.uk
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My thanks to participants of the ‘Inner Lives’ University of East Anglia workshop 2017, to seminar audiences in Bristol and Manchester, and to the anonymous reviewers for their incisive comments and questions on earlier versions of this article. I am also particularly grateful to Sasha Handley for her generous engagement with an early draft, and to Mark Hailwood for his assistance in shaping the research for publication.

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1 Thomas, Keith, Religion and the decline of magic: studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England (London, 1971), p. 5.

2 Ibid., ch. 19.

3 Thomas argued that belief about ghosts was a ‘shibboleth’ which distinguished Protestant from Catholic, but Peter Marshall has shown that the writings of reformers were structured by both theological debate as well as traditional or ‘popular’ expectations about ghosts. Thomas, Religion and the decline, ch. 19; Marshall, Peter, ‘Deceptive appearances: ghosts and reformers in Elizabethan England’, in Parish, Helen and Naphy, Bill, eds., Religion and superstition in Reformation Europe (Manchester, 2003); Marshall, Peter, Beliefs and the dead in Reformation England (Oxford, 2004), ch. 6.

4 Davis, Natalie Zemon, ‘Ghosts, kin, and progeny: some features of family life in early modern France’, Daedalus, 106 (1977), pp. 87114; Gowing, Laura, ‘The haunting of Susan Lay: servants and mistresses in seventeenth-century England’, Gender and History, 41 (2002), pp. 183201; Gaskill, Malcolm, Crime and mentalities in early modern England (Cambridge, 2012), at pp. 217–19.

5 All subsequent references to the Thoresby ghost narratives refer to the Thoresby Society Archive, the Leeds Library, SD 9.

6 Marshall, Beliefs and the dead; Marshall, Peter, Mother Leakey and the bishop: a ghost story (Oxford, 2007); Handley, Sasha, Visions of an unseen world: ghost beliefs and ghost stories in eighteenth-century England (London, 2007); Davies, Owen, The haunted: a social history of ghosts (Basingstoke, 2007); Hunter, Michael, ‘New light on the “drummer of Tedworth”: conflicting narratives of witchcraft in Restoration England’, Historical Research, 78 (2005), pp. 312–53. The phrase is Handley's in Visions of an unseen world, p. 21.

7 For more on Thoresby's background, see my forthcoming article ‘Ralph Thoresby and individual devotion in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century England’, Historical Research (in press). Five volumes of Thoresby's life-writing are in the University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, Yorkshire Archaeological Society (hereafter YAS) (MS21–5). Other volumes are held at York Minster Library and the Royal Library, Copenhagen.

8 The shift in the status of ghost beliefs is noted by Finucane, R. C. in Ghosts: appearances of the dead and cultural transformation (New York, NY, 1984), ch. 5; Handley, Visions of an unseen world, esp. ch. 1; Bath, Jo and Newton, John, ‘“Sensible proof of spirits”: ghost belief during the later seventeenth-century’, Folklore, 117 (2006), pp. 114.

9 For more on these collections, see Hunter, Michael, ‘The decline of magic: challenge and response in early Enlightenment England’, Historical Journal, 55 (2012), pp. 399425, at pp. 405–9; Bath and Newton, ‘“Sensible proof of spirits”’; and Finucane, Ghosts, pp. 119–50.

10 University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS25, p. 29. All subsequent references to printed sources were consulted at the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership. More, Henry, An antidote against atheisme (London, 1652); Glanvill, Joseph, Saducismus triumphatus, or Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions (London, 1681); Sinclair, George, Satan's invisible world discovered (Edinburgh, 1685); Baxter, Richard, The certainty of the world of spirits (London, 1691); Mather, Cotton, The wonders of the invisible world (Boston, 1693); Turner, William, A compleat history of the most remarkable providences (London, 1697).

11 University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS25, p. 134.

12 Glanvill corresponded with both Richard Baxter and Henry More and Glanvill's work was eventually posthumously edited by More. Fowler was another important supporter of Glanvill, and he contributed narratives to both his and John Beaumont's published complications. William Turner's work was the result of a collaboration with the editor of the Athenian Mercury, John Duntan, who in turn had connections with Fowler. Fowler encouraged Thoresby to collect material for publication when the two met in London in 1712.

13 University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS26, p. 243.

14 Schaffer, S., ‘Defoe's natural philosophy and the worlds of credit’, in Christie, J. and Shuttleworth, S., eds., Nature transfigured: science and literature, 1700–1900 (Manchester, 1989). See also Shapin, Steven, A social history of truth: civility and science in seventeenth-century England (Chicago, IL, 1994); Dear, Peter, Revolutionizing the sciences: European knowledge and its ambitions (Princeton, NJ, 2001).

15 See British Library Add. MS 4460, fos. 18v–24, 40v–80; University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS17, pp. 41–2.

16 Bovet, Richard, Pandaemonium, or The devil's cloyster being a further blow to modern Sadduceism (London, 1684); University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS25, pp. 152, 220, 193.

17 Marshall, Beliefs and the dead, p. 260; idem, Mother Leakey and the bishop, ch. 2.

18 Lavater, Lewes, Of ghosts and spirits walking by nyght (London, 1572), pp. 190204. In another of the Thoresby accounts, Bishop Usher apparently accepted the existence of a spirit that was haunting Bridget Pointon.

19 Ministers are mentioned in Anon., Strange and true news from Long Alley in More-fields (London, 1661), p. 6; Anon., Strange and wonderful news from London-wall (London, 1674), p. 4; Anon., A true relation of the dreadful ghost appearing to one John Dyer (London, 1691), p. 3; Anon., The wonder of this age: or, God's miraculous revenge against murder (London, 1677), p. 3; Anon., The wonderful, strange, apparition and ghost of Edward Ashley (London, 1712), p. 5.

20 University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS26, p. 168.

21 University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS23, pp. 255, 256.

22 Monk of Byland's ghost stories, trans. John Shinners from James, M. R.Twelve medieval ghost stories’, English Historical Review, 37 (1922), pp. 413–22, in Shinners, John, ed., Medieval popular religion, 1000–1500: a reader (Peterborough, ON, 1997), pp. 229–37.

23 Anon., Strange and true news from Long Alley, p. 7; Anon., The rest-less ghost: or, wonderful news from Northamptonshire, and Southwark (London, 1675), p. 6; Anon., The wonder of this age, p. 3; Anon., A most strange and dreadful apparition or several spirits and visions (London, 1680), pp. 34; Anon., A narrative of the demon of Spraiton…with a relation of an apparition or spectrum of an ancient gentleman of Devon (London, 1683), p. 4; Anon., A true relation of the dreadful ghost, pp. 2–3; Anon., The wonderful, strange, apparition and ghost, p. 6; Glanvill, Joseph, A blow at modern Sadducism (London, 1681), quote p. 56, other cases involving property pp. 235–6, 238.

24 Capp, Bernard, When gossips meet: women, family, and neighbourhood in early modern England (Oxford, 2003), pp. 50–1.

25 Handley, Visions of an unseen world, pp. 88–91; Gowing, ‘The haunting of Susan Lay’.

26 Cunning folk or conjurors are mentioned in Anon., Strange and true news from Long Alley, pp. 7–8; Anon., Strange and wonderful news from Lincolnshire (London, 1679), p. 4; Anon., A full and true account of a strange apparition…in Cherrey-Tree-Alley (London, 1685), p. 3.

27 All the behaviour described here is taken from the pamphlets previously mentioned in this article.

28 Handley, Visions of an unseen world, ch. 3.

29 Hunter, ‘New light on the “drummer of Tedworth”’; Chambers, Paul, The Cock Lane ghost: murder, sex and haunting in Dr Johnson's London (Stroud, 2006); Handley, Visions of an unseen world, ch. 5.

30 For instance, William Nicholson the bishop of Derry and Carlisle, a bishop of the nonjuring Church of England, and the vicar of Sheffield all wrote to Ralph Thoresby in 1707 asking for more details about the ‘knocking ghost’, suggesting that the manuscript account was circulating and being discussed by a group of correspondents: University of Leeds Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS12, letter from George Hickes to Thoresby dated 5 July 1707; YAS MS8, letter from Nicholson to Thoresby dated 4 Sept. 4 1707; YAS MS12, letter from Nathan Drake to Thoresby dated 27 Nov. 1707.

31 Bovet, Pandaemonium, pp. 216–18. Keith Thomas discusses this practice in Religion and the decline, p. 286.

32 Bovet, Pandemonium, p. 218.

33 For early modern dream theory, see Hodgkin, Katharine, O'Callaghan, Michelle, and Wiseman, S. J., eds., Reading the early modern dream: the terrors of the night (London, 2008), esp. Erica Fudge, ‘“Onely proper unto man”: dreaming and being human’, pp. 37–9.

34 Thoresby was an acquaintance of John Mauleverer's brother Nicholas, a scholar and author who lived in the area – Thoresby mentioned visiting him several times in his diary.

35 Thoresby, Ralph, Ducatus Leodiensis, or, The topography of the ancient and populous town and parish of Leedes (London, 1715), p. 626.

36 Ibid., p. 614.

37 University of Leeds, Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS26, p. 188. Thoresby also refers to his dreams at pp. 43, 44, 47, 65, 252. Thoresby mentioned the Nicholson dream in his ‘memoir’ – a retrospective summary of his life that he began writing in 1710.

38 University of Leeds, Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS26, p. 24.

39 See Houlbrooke, Ralph, Death, religion and the family in England, 1480–1750 (Oxford, 1998), ch. 7; Beier, L. M., ‘The good death in seventeenth-century England’, in Houlbrooke, Ralph, ed., Death, ritual and bereavement (London, 1989).

40 University of Leeds, Brotherton Library Special Collections, YAS MS21, pp. 110–11.

41 Turner, A compleat history, Part i, esp. pp. 34–44 and 47–54.

42 For these temptations, see Marshall, Peter, ‘Angels around the deathbed’, in Marshall, Peter and Walsham, Alexandra, eds., Angels in the early modern world (Cambridge, 2006); Ryrie, Alec, Being Protestant in Reformation Britain (Oxford, 2013), pp. 464–8.

43 Marshall, Beliefs and the dead, p. 249.

44 The exact status of the doctrine of predestination in English religious cultures has been fiercely disputed: see Tyacke, Nicholas, Anti-Calvinists: the rise of English Arminianism, c.1590–1640 (Oxford, 1990); the debate between Tyacke and Peter White in Past and Present, 118 (1987), pp. 201–29; and Walsham, Alexandra, ‘The parochial roots of Laudianism revisited: Catholics, anti-Calvinists and “parish Anglicans” in early Stuart England’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 49 (1998), pp. 620–51.

My thanks to participants of the ‘Inner Lives’ University of East Anglia workshop 2017, to seminar audiences in Bristol and Manchester, and to the anonymous reviewers for their incisive comments and questions on earlier versions of this article. I am also particularly grateful to Sasha Handley for her generous engagement with an early draft, and to Mark Hailwood for his assistance in shaping the research for publication.

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