In my last post I explained the protestant position on apparitions – which was that they were most likely to be the work of the devil. However, the evidence provided by a range of cheap, short contemporary pamphlets suggests that ‘lived experience’ of spirits was rather different for many people. These five page pamphlets reported news of spirits and haunted houses, and a rash of them were published in England between 1670 and 1700.
Whilst we shouldn’t assume that this type of ‘cheap print’ simply mirrors the beliefs of ordinary early modern folk, it does provide us with some understanding of common expectations about apparitions and the meanings that were attached to them. And since the printed word was interwoven with an existing web of communication practices, ‘popular’ oral culture suffused the world of print, bringing the two closer together than you might expect.
So what were the ghosts in seventeenth-century pamphlets like? Often they would come in the ‘shape’ of a deceased person, appearing as ‘the ghost of a woman of handsome comely stature’ or in 1683 as ‘the resemblance of an aged gentleman, like his master’s father, with a Pole or Staff in his hand, like that he was wont to carry, when living, to kill the moles withal’. Presumably these were not hazy spirits, but substantial phenomena, since on occasions an apparition of a person was mistaken for the person themselves by those who had not heard of their decease.
It was also common for a spirit to appear still wrapped in the winding sheet that they had been shrouded in for burial. Though woodcuts of ghosts are relatively rare, those that survive usually depict the ghost in this distinctive garb (so if your Halloween costume consists of a white sheet, congratulations – you are historically authentic!).
Spirits did not always take the mantle of a person however, they were prone to appear in the form of an animal: in the pamphlets there are black cats, horses, rats, chickens, a bear, a lion and a dove. There is a tendency for more demonic elements to creep in too, as ‘horrid ghosts’ and ‘dreadful spirits’ disturb and frighten the neighbourhood – one lady materialised on top of a wardrobe ‘like a monstrous dog, belching fire’ and chased a servant out of the room. Perhaps most memorably, in the 1680s in Scotland, a man and his wife were haunted by the shape of a head, and then an arm which ‘came v near as it were to shake hands with them’.
These spectrum also tended to be quite noisy, and noisome. They were often accompanied by ‘terrible groans and hideous cries’, or ‘great ratling’ ‘creeking’ and other audible manifestations. Indeed, some hauntings took the form of sound alone, as houses were plagued with ‘screeks, sad cryes and heavy groans’, knockings and footsteps. On occasions flashes of fire might accompany the strange noises, and a sulphurous smell or ‘brimstone stink’ was not unusual. When spirits were near the candles would burn low and blue, and dogs whined, whilst horses and hogs cowered and shivered.
Apparitions were active beings, not only chatting to those they appeared to, but performing a variety of actions from the mischievous to the more ominous. At the less threatening end of the scale, they opened doors and shifted furniture around: one ghost moved all the pewter about the kitchen whilst another made a barrel of salt march from one room to another. Somewhat bizarrely, this ghost also placed a hand-iron on the fire and spirited two flitches of bacon into it. Apparitions regularly disturbed people in their bed chambers, drawing the curtains of the bed to gaze grimly down on the occupants, or pulling all the blankets and sheets off the bed and chucking bedstaves about the room. One household was miserably disturbed in 1674 when all the ‘bedding, Linnen, Apparel, and Houshold-stuff’ was several times ‘cut to pieces by invisible means’. The mangled stuff included a pair of Gloves, several petticoats, most of the chairs, a mattress, and a pair of stockings (the culprit not taking the knitting needles out of them before slicing them end to end). There are a few instances of people being flung ‘heels over head’ across rooms, or transported out of a house entirely. One nasty piece of work in 1680 caused people to be strangled with their own cravats, and ‘shewed great offence’ at the Perukes (wigs) young men wore, tearing them from their head in a ‘strange manner’.
After encountering a spirit, people might respond in a number of ways. Some followed official protestant advice and set to praying and calling on God, such as the bold maid confronted with a spirit ‘in the likeness of a Goat’ in 1661, who ‘very confidently said “In the Name of God, avoid Satan”’, causing the spirit to vanish. It was also common to make an application to the local minister, asking for advice and assistance against the spirit. Yet many others ignored the instruction to view all apparitions as demonic, and instead acted as if they were seeing a spirit of the dead, returned to earth for some particular purpose. People thus responded to ghostly demands to sort out unpaid legacies or to find lost wills. They went on long journeys to find still living relatives and even visited the magistrates to accuse murderers and reveal the location of bodies and bones.
A few pamphlets also indicate that cunning folk were consulted in an attempt to get rid of a troublesome spirit. In one case a number of ‘conjurors’ visited a haunted house, ‘communally reading and making of Circles, burning of wax candles and Juniper-wood’, although none of these things had any effect. On one or two occasions the conjuring of an apparition seems to have been successful though, albeit for a limited time. In 1675 a spirit in a horrid but ‘familiar and human shape’ much frighted a maltster near Northampton. The spirit confessed that he was the spirit of a man murdered ‘two hundred sixty and seven years, nine weeks, and two days’ before, but that he had been ‘laid, and bound down by the Magical Act of a Fryer’, for two hundred and fifty of those years, during which time he was ‘confined’ from appearing on earth.
Among the blue candles, brimstone stinks, midnight groans and monstrous dogs we find precisely the ‘layering of beliefs’ that characterised early modern popular culture. Don’t be tempted to think that there was a clear distinction between elite/learned (demonic) and popular (folklore/traditional) attitudes when it came to ghosts though. Whilst protestant theologians might have been clear about the demonic origin of ghosts, the pamphlets indicate that ministers were just as likely as their parishioners to see and hear the spirits of dead people.
The evidence and images presented here are drawn from the following publications, and were consulted on Early English Books Online.
The just reward of Rebels, or the life and death of Jack Straw, London, 1642.
Strange Apparitions, or The Ghost of King James, London, 1642.
The World in a Maize, or, Olivers Ghost, London, 1659.
Strange and True News from Long-Ally, London, 1661.
A True Relation of the Horrid Ghost of a Woman, London, 1673.
Strange and Wonderful News from London-Wall, London, 1674.
News from Puddle-Dock in London, London, 1674.
The Rest-less Ghost or, Wonderful News from Northamptonshire, and Southwark, London, 1675 .
A Most Strange and Dreadful Apparition of Several Spirits & Visions, London, 1680.
A Narrative of the Demon of Spraiton, London, 1683.
Nathaniel Crouch, The Kingdom of Darkness, 1688.