Dramatic news of the horrid ghosts of early modern England, part I

Laura Sangha

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

Indeed, layfolk were cautioned against the assumption that an apparition really was the soul of a dead person, returning to earth to address some unfinished business. Before the reformation, catholic theology suggested that an apparition could have three possible origins (1) it was an angel, delivering a divine message (2) it was a devil, come to trick humans into sin (3) it was the spirit of someone recently dead, returning from purgatory to intervene in earthly affairs once again.


If an apparition appears to you, be sure: is it a devil, an angel or a purgatorial spirit?

For those of you whose late medieval catholic eschatology is a bit rusty: when you died there were three possible destinations. Either you were so sinful you were irrevocably damned and sent straight to hell; so saintly you were saved and went to heaven; or (and this was most likely) you were an average human who needed to spend some time in purgatory before progressing on to heaven. Purgatory was for those who died in the blossoms of their sin – in purgatory souls would be punished for any transgressions that they had not repented for in life. Purgatory was usually represented as being just as bad as hell in terms of the punishments meted out, but this was a temporal (not eternal) punishment. It was a daunting prospect, but since purgatorial souls always had the hope of salvation to come, it didn’t compare to the horrors of hell.

[Doomed for a certain time to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away

Whereas spirits did not leave hell or heaven, it was conceivable that a purgatorial spirit might return to earth as an apparition to request the prayers of the living and ease their passage through purgatory.


Souls in purgatory, detail from The Coronation of the Virgin (1454), Enguerrand Quarton

However, since there was no scriptural basis for the doctrine of purgatory, at the reformation protestants rejected the concept entirely. Protestants were therefore left with two possible interpretations of an apparition (1) it was an angel, sent with a divine message (2) it was a devil, sent to trick humans into sin. Since scripture provided women and men with everything necessary for salvation, it was thought very unlikely that God would choose to send an angel to earth – such miracles were only needed in the days of the primitive Church when men’s faith was weak. For a protestant then, the assumption should be that an apparition was demonic, and on no account was it to be trusted. Indeed, it was better not to speak to or interact with apparitions, whatever the circumstances – prayer should be the first and only recourse.

[What if it tempt you to the flood, my lord.
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff…
And there assumes some other horrible form
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?]

The ‘official line’ on ghosts was therefore straightforward – they were demonic tricks, the devil appearing in a clever guise in order to fool humans into bad behaviour. They were an example of the devil’s cunning, working on people in the depth of their grief, or on those prone to melancholy and distraction.


Lewes Lavater’s protestant treatise insisted that most ‘ghosts’ were in reality demonic tricks

[The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me]

The dead had no interest in the living, and the living could do nothing for the dead. Any encounters between the two were bound to lead to trouble.

Yet the surviving evidence suggests that the ‘official line’ never really overcame a shared cultural assumption that the spirits of the dead interfered in worldly affairs. People continued to act on the appearances of spirits and to honour their demands. As Peter Marshall and Sasha Handley have shown, early modern beliefs about ghosts combined traditional ideas about wandering souls with a tinge of diabolical agency, resulting in a close layering of beliefs that defied categorisation. In my next post on Thursday I will take a closer look at these layers of belief.

[There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy

The author of this post drew heavily on a faithful account of the fateful appearance of an apparition to a person of great quality from Denmark. The account was sent to me by his friend, a pious gentlemen of good credit, W. Shakespeare.

For more about early modern ghosts, try:

Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, chapter 6.
Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Beliefs and Ghost Stories in Eighteenth-Century England.
R. Finucane, Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts.
O. Davies, The Haunted: A Cultural History of Ghosts.

4 thoughts on “Dramatic news of the horrid ghosts of early modern England, part I

  1. Pingback: Horrid ghosts of early modern England, part II: creeks, screeks and…bacon? | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: the many-headed monster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s