Ghost Stories in Early Modern England: The Social, Personal, and Spiritual Dynamics
This blog accompanies Dr Laura Sangha’s Historical Journal article ‘The Social, Personal, and Spiritual Dynamics of Ghost Stories in Early Modern England’.
Let me begin with a ghost story. In the parish of Hovingham, North Yorkshire, in March 1707, the household of John Fawcet was suffering a severe haunting that was causing a ‘great disturbance’ to the family, disrupting their sleep and upsetting the servants. Every night for three weeks a knocking sound had been heard echoing through the house, but searching had revealed no natural explanation for the ruckus. Following the advice of their local minister, the family set about communicating with the knocker, instructing it to respond by knocking if the answer to a question was yes, and to refrain from knocking if the answer to a question was no. This tactic was successful, and by these means the knocker affirmed that it was the ghost of John Fawcet’s grandmother-in-law, one Madam Savage, returning from the grave to put right a wrong that had been done to her granddaughters.
In early modern England, spectral figures like Madam Savage were regular visitors to the world of the living and a vibrant variety of beliefs and expectations clustered around these questionable shapes. Historians have become adept at reading the social and cultural significance of narratives about such phenomena. Ghost beliefs personified people’s hopes and fears and provided a useful sanction for collective norms. The social dynamics that underpinned them meant they were deployed as legitimate and effective narrative strategies, put to use in daily life. As a ‘flexible imaginative resource’, ghost beliefs have also proven significant for understanding the process of the ‘long’ Protestant Reformation.
The ghost of Madam Savage is typical of the early modern period, and in my article I demonstrate how the story exposes the deep well of expectations about apparitions that informed contemporary experience, the way that social status and gender are bound up in the tale, and the lack of consensus about what precisely to believe about ghostly encounters. But the Savage story is not the only account I consider, since it is one of many contained in a set of manuscripts on the appearances of apparitions in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth- century England. The collection was gathered together by the Leeds antiquarian and pious diarist Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) and includes letters, written accounts and brief notes. As such, the manuscripts offer a unique opportunity to trace the way that belief in ghosts functioned at an individual level, and to recover the personal sensibilities and religious imperatives that sustained and nourished a continuing belief in spirits. 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. Thoresby’s private papers also include a diary and extensive correspondence that allow a deeper contextualization for the accounts, allowing me to build a more intimate picture of the emotional and religious resonances that ghost stories carried and created.
Image credit: Saducismus Triumphatus Or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions, Date 1681 (1700 edition), unknown engraver of the 17th century