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.
This is the first of three posts on early modern ghosts. Part 2 is here. Part 3 was published on All Hallow’s Eve and can be seen here.
St Johns Church, Leeds, in R. Thoresby, Ducatus Leodiensis (1715)
In seventeenth-century England the sepulchre was surprisingly likely to open its ponderous and marble jaws and cast up the dead. Apparitions in questionable shapes regularly made the night hideous and reduced people to jelly with fear. This belief was not restricted to old wives and children either, since people from all religious groups and every social level encountered ghosts, from servants to clergymen, soldiers to scholars.
[What, has this thing appeared again tonight?]
Traditional catholic belief, folklore and protestant theology each contributed to the contemporary understanding of what these ‘things’ were. Often apparitions had a clear purpose: they might appear to prophesy, to announce some strange eruption to the state, to reveal the location of treasure they had buried in life, or perhaps to request prayers for the soul that would ease their fate in the afterlife.
However, the nature of these apparitions was not something that was immediately obvious to those who encountered these spirits of health or goblins damned. An apparition might look like or wear the clothes of someone recently deceased, but its true nature could not be discerned from its appearance. Supernatural encounters with mysterious, otherworldly beings could be dangerous to the living, and were not to be entered into lightly.
[It wafts you to a more removed ground:
But do not go with it] Continue reading
To celebrate the launch of Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources the monster-heads have each written a brief post offering a personal perspective on the source type that they most like working with (the introductory post is here). Do tell us your own below the line, or on twitter #histsources
My favourite early modern primary source? When you have spent the last year working almost exclusively with one type of source you come to either love it or loathe it. In the case of the court depositions I have been reading extensively for the Women’s Work Project I’m glad to say it’s the former. They undoubtedly top my list.
Scenes of everyday life
For a historian driven above all by a desire to recover the everyday lives of ordinary women and men in the past the witness statements they gave in their tens of thousands before the courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries represent a rich seam indeed. In recounting the details surrounding cases in criminal, civil and ecclesiastical courts, deponents provide accounts of myriad aspects of day-to-day experience. They tell us about their working lives of course – about mowing corn, spinning yarn or shearing sheep at the time of witnessing a crime, say – but also how they spent their leisure time – about trips to the alehouse describing who they drank with, how much they drank, and who subsequently fell out with who. Continue reading
Last week Jonathan laid bare the attack on Christmas in England in the 1640s and 1650s, describing the puritan campaign to convince the public that Christmas was popish and profane, and to persuade people to abandon the traditional merry-making that took place on 25 December. This got me wondering about the resilience and enduring popularity of the festival. Specifically, what did Ralph Thoresby do when the day came around each year?
Ralph Thoresby, antiquarian, pious diarist, author of the first history of Leeds.
For those of you that haven’t met him yet – Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) is the pious Leeds antiquarian and life-long diarist that I am currently researching (view the related posts here). Disappointingly, but probably predictably, Thoresby’s diaries suggest that Christmas didn’t register that much on the antiquarian’s radar – Thoresby didn’t gorge on plum-pottage and mince pies, he didn’t entertain lavishly, he didn’t feast with his neighbours, and there is no evidence that he even indulged in a little tipple. On the morning of 26 December 1680 he did write that he ‘lay too long’ in bed, which we might chalk up to overindulgence the day before, but since Thoresby’s regular habit was getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to pray, we probably shouldn’t read too much into this supposed sloth.
Why do I say that this lack of interest is quite predictable? It is because Thoresby began his life as a moderate nonconformist, attending both dissenting meetings as well as Church of England worship (though in the 1690s he conformed fully to the Church of England). In Thoresby’s case, his nonconformity was of a distinctly puritan flavour, so his lack of enthusiasm for the festivities of the Christmas season are in keeping with his austere style of piety, his avoidance of unsuitable company and his horror of idleness. Yet clearly times had changed – this was the 1650s no longer. On Christmas day Thoresby did attend Church without fail (by contrast, during the interregnum churches were locked on December 25), often hearing a sermon ‘suitable to the day concerning the birth of Christ’. Continue reading
It is beginning, as the seasonal classic reminds us, to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. Shops are blaring out Mariah Carey and town centres are aglow with fairy lights, whilst trees festooned with tinsel are popping up everywhere. A good many of us, I expect, are rather looking forward to Christmas. Whether it is as a religious festival, a great big party, a consumer frenzy, a chance to get together with our loved ones, or even just an excuse to take some time off work, there is no denying that Christmas at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a still major cultural phenomenon, and a calendrical landmark of great prominence.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care…
What Christmas is not, today, is a political issue. Continue reading
On 26 June 1645, as the war between the King and Parliament raged, John Coleman sat down at his lodgings in London to eat a meat pie. As he ate it, a strange thought occurred to him: ‘What flesh eatest thou’?
At that moment, even as he chewed, a flood of doubts and suspicions swept into Coleman’s mind. Why had his landlady made meat pies on a fast day? Why had the girl who delivered it to his room been acting so oddly? What had happened to the child who had been missing the previous evening?
The answers must have struck him like a blow, because suddenly ‘hee could eate noe moore’, verily believing ‘the Pye was made of a Childs flesh’. According to his later testimony, Coleman then went out into the neighbourhood to try to learn more. Here he heard from several women that a child in a yellow coat had been seen wandering the streets on previous evenings and that a butcher’s wife had unexpectedly given the child bread and butter. A gentlewoman, it was said, was ‘almost madd for her chyld which was lost’.
Although Coleman’s testimony ends there, an incident six weeks earlier seems to reveal more. On May 13th, a crowd attacked Mary Hodges, saying that under her apron she had ‘sugar plumbs and dyer bread to entice young Children away’. Another group attacked Hodges on June 2nd, accusing her of being ‘a night walking whore’.
Then the story, like the pie, goes cold. Continue reading
Merry Christmas everybody! By now, the last scraps of turkey have hopefully been consumed, the last of the wrapping paper been thrown away. You might have decided to hit the sales; you might even be back at work; and you may also have asked yourself one or more of the following questions: ‘what shall we doe in the long winter nights: how shall we passe away the time on Sundayes, what wold you have us doe in the Christmas Hollydayes’? No need to risk a family feud by dusting off the monopoly board just yet, because John Rhodes, the Jacobethan ‘minister of Enborne’ (Berkshire) anticipated just such a need amongst ‘the Schollers of pettie Schooles’ and ‘the poore Countrieman and his familie’.
Rhodes’ solution for chasing away the winter blues, and passing the long winter evenings, was simple: sing! Rhodes dedicated his book for such as ‘are naturally given to sing’, so that they might ‘please their merrie minds a little’, and that by winning them ‘to sing good things’ they might ‘forsake evill’. Early modern carols were primarily a popular tradition, and Rhodes’ efforts might be mistrusted on two fronts. Firstly, his aim was clearly a moralising one, recalling the original purpose of metrical psalms, to supplant vain, bawdy or worldly songs with more godly fare. Secondly, pastiches of pastoral or country songs were a moderately popular genre, and examples of ‘countrie’ carols were often affected rather than genuine. In 1611, the enterprising composer Thomas Ravenscroft attempted to cover all his bases in Melismata Musicall phansies, by including a blend of tunes, striving to please ‘the noblest of the court, liberallest of the country, and freest of the city’ in their own respective ‘elements’. Continue reading