The Witchcraft Werewolf Trials of Amersfoort och Utrecht

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Shapeshifters on Trial

By Lucas Cranach the Elder – Gotha, Herzogliches Museum (Landesmuseum), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

In The Netherlands in the 1590s, tales of the Devil’s evil machinations once again conjured up fear and horror in the minds of the inhabitants of Amersfoort and Utrecht. This time the cause was a trial that combined accusations of witchcraft and sorcery with the unnatural state of animal shapeshifting.

The trial held in 1595, led to the execution of Folkt Dirks a 62-year-old farmer from the Hoogland province of Utrecht and his 17-year-old daughter Hendrika along with members of their ‘coven’; Anthonis Bulck and Maria Barten. The main evidence against them was provided by Dirks’ sons, in particular 14-year-old Hessel and 13-year-old Elbert.

Elbert in his testimony spoke of having had made a pact with the Devil, along with his father, sister, older brother, and two younger brothers; 11-year-old Gijsbert and 8-year-old Dirk. He also claimed that the Devil had given his father a hairy belt after receiving the family’s oaths of loyalty. The belt gave them the power to turn into wolves. In this form, they had, after accepting the gift, immediately gone to the fields in Eemland, where he, together with his older brother, and his father had drunk the blood of cattle [1]. Elbert continued that the Devil had also ordered them to undress and had changed them into cats. In this guise, they had been taken to a place near Amersfoort where they had found other cats with whom they danced until two in the morning [2].

“The Water Torture.— Facsimile of a Woodcut in J. Damhoudère’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium: in 4to, Antwerp, 1556.” – Used to illustrate. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Hessel’s confession ran on very similar lines to his brother’s. He recalled that on one occasion while he was with his godmother, the Devil had come down the chimney along with a woman who danced for the Devil’s pleasure. In the original text, the woman is described as a “red cat (Tom)” (although it is unclear if she was already in the form of a cat when she first appeared). The Devil had given him a piece of black leather and a black cloth with pins in it [3]. Eventually, the Devil had stopped the woman’s dance with the words “Thou ugly beast, now you will go with me” and had tied a leather belt around her, changing her into a wolf. The Devil and the female were-wolf had then, along with Hessel (also in his wolf form) flown up the chimney to a field, where they attacked and fed on the local livestock [4].

After hearing this evidence, the local officials brought Folkt Dirks to listen to his sons’ accusations. After having gone through two separate stints of torture, the water test, and hearing his sons condemn him to his face, Dirks finally broke and on his knees confessed to being an emissary of the Devil, practicing witchcraft, and having taken the form of a wolf. He told his torturers how after receiving a black doublet a few years earlier he had been compelled to commit evil acts and had been given the ability to shapeshift. On the 14 June 1595, Dirks was sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake the very same day [5].

A week later, Hendrika Dirks, followed in her father’s footsteps. She admitted to having surrendered to the Devil when she was eleven years old and having for the last few years been sexually intimate with him. She spoke of attacking cattle in the fields [6] and described how she, accompanied by some unnamed female relatives, attended dances during the witches’ sabbath in the form of either a cat or a wolf [7] (there seems to be some confusion here as to which). During her interrogation, whether under duress or not, she gave her torturers the names of others whom she claimed had been present at these orgies. Based on her testimony; Grietje Segers, Cornelius Hendrik Bulck and his son Anthonis and Maria Barten were also condemned. Grietje Segers committed suicide in prison but Cornelius Hendrik Bulck managed to escape and was never heard from again. Anthonis and Maria were tortured and were finally executed alongside Hendrika [8].

The lives of Dirks’ sons; Hessel, Elbert, Gijsbert and Dirk were spared due to their youth but they were severely whipped until their backs ran with blood. They were also forced to watch the executions of their sister and Maria

The case of Folkt Dirks is an interesting one. It is more than likely that the Dirks’ family had been under suspicion for a long time. If they hadn’t then Hessel and Elbert must have really hated their father and sister in order to accuse them of committing such terrible, heretical crimes. At certain points during the trial, the boys seemed confused, unsure of what they were saying. This is reflected in their testimonials where they sometimes contradict themselves e.g. they state that they had never taken part in the mutilation of cattle but a local official testified that they had admitted to him of having been involved. Maybe they were under pressure to testify or were being controlled or were simply terrified.

One story which had floated about for about a year prior to his arrest, alludes to Dirks’ dark skills and in particular his unnatural control over animals. According to a female neighbour, Dirks had bewitched her horse with the words “what a nice bay that is, god bless him” [9]. The woman gives no further details about why he would want to curse her horse. Possibly she thought he had done it out of envy or spite. It is also interesting that another rumour existed that Dirks’ wife was descended from a matrilineal hereditary line of witches. Although there is no mention of her (probably she had already died), it might explain the accusations against Hendrika and possibly why it was considered safe to allow the boys to go free.

There is one more case that occurred at the same time in the same area and that was the trial of Kanti Hans and his wife. They admitted to being followers of Satan and having been given the power to turn into bears as a reward. There is no evidence as to why they were arrested and since their statements were made whilst they were being tortured, it is difficult to believe the sincerity of their confessions. The fascinating point with the case of Hans and his wife is that they were given the power of transforming into bears and not wolves. Compared to the number of witchcraft trials happening in Europe at the time, only a small proportion included accusations of shapeshifting into were-wolves [10] and even less involved were-bears.

German Woodcut 1722. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Studies of this case have agreed that the judgment passed on the Dirks’ family was one based on witchcraft rather than on werewolfery (although werewolf trials at that point in time were being held, albeit in much lower numbers than witchcraft trials). That being said there is one main element of both these stories that link them to the more straight-forward trials of suspected were-wolves e.g. the 1598 trial of Peter Stumpp, that is the role of the wolfskins and bearskins in the Dirks’ and Hans’ confessions.

The Battle Lust of the Berserkers

By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The idea that a bite can cause a person to become a were-wolf is a relatively recent idea. More common in the past was the belief that the change was caused by a salve rubbed on the body or by the wearing of animal skins. The concept of the transformational power of animal skins has a long history which more than likely originated with the emergence of powerful and feared fighters who eventually became the berserkers of Viking sagas and legends.

When someone talks of berserkers the image that appears in our heads has been so strongly influenced by the mythology that arose around them that it is hard to extract the reality from the fantasy. The berserkers ‘bear-shirts’ were originally an elite group of warriors who served under the Scandinavian kings in honour of Odin, alongside another group known as the wolfskins (heathen wolves). There seems to be confusion in the sources over whether or not the wolfskins were part of the berserker brotherhood or a separate group altogether [11]. It is possible that berserkers and wolfskins form two subcategories of one group, with each choosing a different totem and as a result assuming the characteristics and mannerisms of that animal. It is more than probable that these warriors wore either a wolf or bear skin over their armour [12]. This would have accomplished a number of things; the skins would have provided insulation from the harsh weather of Northern Europe, afforded them extra protection in battle which would partly explain their reputation as being invulnerable to weapons and also given them the “appearance of grimness and ferocity” [13] which would strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Add this to them being intoxicated with battle lust; biting their shields, attacking boulders and trees, and even killing each other whilst waiting [14] and you get a striking image.

The Haraldskvadet, a 9th-century skaldic poem honouring King Harald at Hatrsfjord perfectly captures the maniacal nature of the berserkers when it describes how the “Berserkers roared where the battle raged, wolf-heathens howled and iron weapons trembled” [15]. It is not then surprising that their foes seeing the berserkers’ primeval and maniacal behaviour would assign them supernatural powers, abilities which to their minds would have been attributed to the wearing of animal skins.

The Legend of Sigmund and Sinfjotli

Woodcut image of one of the Vendel era Torslunda plates found on Öland, Sweden. It probably depicts the god of frenzy Óðinn followed by a Berserker.  Public domain via Wikimedia.

This idea that by covering yourself in animal skins the wearer can take on the power of the animal was passed down through popular tales and legends in northern Europe and was initially associated with sorcery. In the wild saga of the Volsungs, it is told how Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli came across a house where they found two men asleep and above them hanging up, wolfskins. Knowing that the sleeping men had dealing with witchcraft the brothers dressed themselves in the wolfskins and were immediately overtaken by the “nature of the original beast” [16]. With the power of the wolf, they went on a ten-day rampage which ended when Sigmund gave his son a lethal bite on the neck. The son only survived because a kind raven gave Sigmund a feather imbued with healing powers [17].

The Werewolf of Landes

By Hans Baldung – Source: R. Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004), Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The belief that wolf skins could turn someone into a wolf was not confined to Northern Europe, it existed all over Europe and even further afield. Eventually, the story subtly changed and by the medieval period, it was believed that it was the Devil who gave those who he wished to corrupt, pellets or belts, in order to commit atrocious acts in his name.

This can be seen in the story of Jean Grenier who lived in Landes in the South of France. Jean admitted to local officials that he had sold his soul to the Devil who had in return given him a salve and wolf pelt which had conferred on him the power of transforming into a wolf. He said he had the wolf skin in his possession and that he went out hunting for children to devour at his master’s command.  Jean’s evidence matched the circumstances surrounding reported child disappearances and several children testified to having been attacked by him. An enlightened sentence for the time stated that Jean was an imbecile and dismissed his confession of being in league with a demonic figure. Jean was sentenced to confinement at a local monastery for the rest of his life [18].

The Beast of Bedburg

The most notorious and famous werewolf case is that of Peter Stubbe, a wealthy farmer who lived in the late 1500s in Bedburg, Germany. He was accused of the killing and mutilation of livestock and multiple murders including 13 children and two pregnant women, whose foetuses he ripped from their bellies, feeding on the unborn babies’ hearts. He was also believed to have sexually molested his own daughter and having killed his son and eaten his brains. The townspeople of Bedburg initially believed that the crimes had been committed by wolves but later feared that it was the responsibility of a demonic force or a werewolf. At his trial, Stubbe admitted to having received a wolf’s pelt from the Devil at the age of 12 which would turn him into the likeness of a wolf with an insatiable hunger. He said when he removed it, he would return to his human state again. His confession obtained on the rack does make one wonder about its veracity. His punishment was severe and terrible, he was placed on a wheel and his flesh removed with red hot pincers. His arms and legs were broken and his head cut off. His daughter and mistress were accused of being his accomplices, strangled and their bodies burnt along with his. Suffice it to say, the belt was never found [19].

Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne. Public domain via Wikipedia.

One recent interpretation of Stubbe’s case is that the accusation was motivated by greed and jealousy; Stubbe was a very wealthy and powerful man. It would have been in some people’s interests to destroy him and his family and in that, they were successful!

Conclusion

Returning to the Dirks family, the fascinating part of their story is not their being accused of witchcraft; witchcraft trials were numerous during this period, but the werewolf side of it. In many countries in Europe, witches were believed to have the power to shapeshift, so these accusations were not unusual in itself but linking their tale and that of Hans and his wife to were-wolves and were-bears is. It combined two elements that people in the medieval period feared the most, witches and werewolves, whilst at the same time continuing a long-held belief that went back to the berserkers and the power of the ancient gods.

The Company of Wolves. Directed by Neil Jordan. Palace Pictures 1984.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Werewolf Witch Trials, https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Werewolf%20witch%20trials&item_type=topic

Willem de Bleucourt, https://www.faculty.umb.edu/gary_zabel/Courses/Phil%20281b/Philosophy%20of%20Magic/Arcana/Witchcraft%20and%20Grimoires/deBlecourt-womenaswitch.pdf

The Truth about Viking Berserkers, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.historyextra.com/period/viking/the-truth-about-viking-berserkers/amp/

The Wild and Insane Viking Warriors, https://www.historia.ro/sectiune/general/articol/the-wild-and-insane-viking-warriors

Berserkers and other Shamanic Warriors, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/others/berserkers-and-other-shamanic-warriors/

History of the Werewolf Legend, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.history.com/.amp/topics/folklore/history-of-the-werewolf-legend

Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden tijdens de zestiende en zeventiende eeuw, https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_tie002200201_01/_tie002200201_01_0037.php

The Werewolf of Bedburg: The true story of a monster that terrorized a German village, https://www.liveabout.com/the-werewolf-of-bedburg-2597445

Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, ed. Alison Rowlands, 2009

Peter Stubbe, http://www.scaryforkids.com/peter-stubbe/

Germany’s Brutal Werewolf Belt and The Gut-Wrenching Execution of Peter Stubbe, https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/germany-s-brutal-werewolf-belt-and-gut-wrenching-execution-of-peter-stubbe

Werewolf Witch Trials, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werewolf_witch_trials

Werewolf Trials, https://m.ranker.com/list/werewolf-trials-facts/Inigo-gonzalez

The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865

Mythical Creatures: Mysteries, Legends and Unexplained Phenomena, Linda S. Godfrey, 2009

NOTES

[1] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[2] Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden

[3] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[4] ibid

[5] Werewolf Witch Trials

[6] Lycanthropie en weerwolfprocessen in de Nederlanden

[7] Werewolf Witch Trials

[8] ibid

[9] Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe

[10] Werewolf Witch Trials

[11] The Truth about Viking Berserkers

[12] The Book of Were-Wolves

[13] ibid

[14] The Truth about Viking Berserkers

[15] ibid

[16] The Book of Were-Wolves

[17] History of the Werewolf Legend

[18] The Book of Were-Wolves

[19] History of the Werewolf Legend

Medieval Death: The Danse Macabre

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Denise Poncher before a Vision of Death_Getty

Ms. 109 (2011.40), fol. 156 c 1493-1510. Getty collection.

In the late Middle Ages, life was tough and brief, and King Death presided over all.  Plague, social upheaval, famine, and the Hundred Years War had all taken their toll on the population and this was reflected in the dark art of the fifteenth century.

Ars Moriendi, or Art of Dying, texts set out how a Christian could have a Good Death; Memento Mori images, such as the three living and the three dead, reminded people of the transient nature of earthly pleasures – and the judgement to come;  Cadaver or Transi tombs begged the passer-by to pray for the departed and so to quicken their passage through purgatory.

Grim traditions for a grim time.  However, the late Middle Ages also saw the development of the gleefully morbid Danse Macabre or Dance of Death which could be found in Northern Europe and as far south as Italy. It is worth noting that the subject of the Danse is a vast one which encompasses performance, literature and the visual arts.  This post will focus mainly two of the more well known, but now lost, visual representation of the Danse at Holy Innocents Cemetery in Paris and Old St Paul’s in London.

Origins of the Macabre

Nuremberg_chronicle Dance of Death (CCLXIIIIv) Via Wikimedia

Macabre, a word that evokes not just morbid themes, but also hints at a certain fascination or even relish for the subject.  A word that fits the art of the post plague Medieval world like a decaying body fits a tattered shroud.

There is scholarly debate as to the origin of the word macabre. It has been argued to be Hebrew, Arabic or a derivation of the Biblical name Maccabeus (the slaughter of the Maccabees was a popular subject of Medieval Mystery plays) [1].  Whatever its true origin, it soon became indissolubly linked with a particular form of Medieval Memento Mori art, the Danse Macabre.

The first literary reference that partners it with the Danse Macabre appears in 1376 in Jean Le Fevre’s Le respit de la mort, written, appropriately, when Le Fevre was recovering from plague.  Here ‘Macabre‘ appears to be a character or a personification of death:

I did the dance of Macabre
who leads all men to his dance
and directs them to the grave,
which is their final abode.[2]

This poem exemplifies the Medieval literary penchant for didactic poetry.  Such poetry often took the form of a conversation between the body and the soul, and usually had a Christian, moral theme entreating the reader to eschew the vanities of life in favour of preparing the soul for the afterlife.  This genre sat comfortably alongside other Memento Mori traditions such as the Three Living and the Three Dead.  Its didactic form was also a perfect fit for the Danse Macabre theme – with the personification of Death summoning his unwilling victims to the grave.

The hours of Dionara of Urbino’), Italy, ca. 1480

Dancing in the graveyard

The Danse Macabre usually depicted a line of dancers, from different estates in society, partnered by cavorting skeletons.  Dancers are drawn from all levels of the social hierarchy – from Popes and emperors, princes of the church, kings, labourers and even children. Later depictions added women and newly emergent professional classes such as doctors and merchants – all clearly identifiable by stereotypical dress.

Often text or dialogue accompanies each pair of dancers, death calling each one and the dancer bemoaning their fate. Examples were found on charnel houses, cemetery walls and in churches. As a subgenre of the popular Medieval Estates Satire, the Danse Macabre hammered home, like nails into a coffin that, no matter your position in society, death was the great leveller [3][4].

Marchants Danse Macabre, pope and emperor

Guy Marchants Danse Macabre from Holy Innocents Cemetery. c1491 -92.

The first known artistic representation Danse Macabre was to be found, appropriately enough, on the walls of the charnel house of Holy Innocents Cemetery, Paris. Holy Innocents cemetery was the oldest in Paris, dating from the end of the twelfth century and was situated next to the bustling marketplace of Les Halles. The cemetery would have been bustling with people, traders, scribes, sex workers. The Charnel house, a place where the bones of the dead, high and low, were all mixed together regardless of rank, would have been an ideal location for the mural.  The Images at Holy Innocents were also accompanied by Le Fevre’s text, forever linking the two in the popular imagination and creating what some have likened to a Medieval comic strip with images and speech ‘bubbles’ [5][6].

Locating the Danse Macabre in a cemetery fitted with folk belief as well, it has been noted that in popular culture, it was not uncommon for people to report seeing corpses dancing in graveyards [7]. Overall, the average Medieval person was concerned with the unquiet dead, sinners roaming about with unfinished business amongst the living – as many contemporary reports of revenants, attest.

Charnel House at Holy Innocents/Cimetière des Innocents, Paris. Via Wikimedia.

The mural was commissioned between August 1424 and Lent 1425, a period of truce in the One Hundred Years war.  The Treaty of Troyes gave Henry V, right to the throne of France, when he died in 1422, his son Henry VI, became king of France and England.  However, as Henry VI was only a baby, France was placed under the regency of John of Bedford, Henry VI’s uncle and a well-known patron of the arts.

The image is a macabre carnival – death mocks and pulls at his dance partners, the fat abbot is told he will be the first to rot, while death flirts with the handsome chevalier and gropes the physician.  There are 30 couples in all, from the highest to the lowest.  With an ‘authority’ figure to introduce the dance, and another authority figure and a dead king to deliver the moral of the dance [8].  As John Lydgate put it:

Come forth, sir Abbot, with your [broad] hat,
Beeth not abaissed (though thee have right).
Greet is your hede, youre bely large and fatte;
Ye mote come daunce though ye be nothing light.
[..]
Who that is fattest, I have hym behight,
In his grave shal sonnest putrefie. [9]

The subject matter of the mural may have been influenced by the contemporary political situation – the figures mainly depicted the ruling and martial classes, the king, constable and, of course, a corpse king.  It was also this political situation, a lull in the hostilities, that allowed English poet John Lydgate to visit Paris in 1426.

Lydgate was impressed with the image and accompanying text and was influenced to write his English translation of Le Fevre’s text with the addition of extra characters drawn from Mystery plays and masques of the time.  Lydgate also introduced some female characters to the text [10].

Danse Macabre at Tallinn by Bernt Notke

Danse Macabre from Talllinn by Bernt Notke c1500.

In 1430 a version of the Danse Macabre was painted at the Pardoner Churchyard, Old St Paul’s, London (commonly known as the ‘dauce of Poulys‘).  Both image and text were influenced by the Mural at Holy Innocents. This version depicted 36 dancers from different stations in life, summoned by death.  The St Paul’s images were augmented with dialogue between death and his victims, this time provided by John Lydgate’s translation ‘Out of the Frensshe’ [11].  Writing in 1603 in his Survey of London, John Stow described the St Paul’s Dance, thus:

“[..] About this Cloyster, was artificially and richly painted the dance of Machabray, or dance of death, commonely called the dance of Pauls: the like whereof was painted about S. Innocents cloyster at Paris in France: the meters or poesie of this dance were translated out of French into English by Iohn Lidgate, Monke of Bury, the picture of death leading all estates, at the dispence of Ienken Carpenter, in the raigne of Henry the sixt.”

Stow’s comments highlight how influential the Danse Macabre at Holy Innocents was on subsequent versions.

Another common feature of both Holy Innocents Danse Macabre and St Paul’s was that they were situated in busy areas bustling with life and frequented by the public, both became popular, and thought provoking, attractions.  Sadly, neither survive – Holy Innocents Cemetery was completely removed at the end of the eighteenth century and the mural at St Paul’s was destroyed in 1549.

Marchant's Danse of Death

Holy Innocents Cemetery by Guy Marchant c1491-92.

Many other examples of the Danse Macabre were created in the following decades, notable ones having existing at Basel (c1440), Lubeck (1463) and Tallinn, Estonia (1500).  Each was tailored to its own locale and reflected the patrons who commissioned it – where Holy Innocents focused on the martial classes, Lubeck featured more from the merchant classes.

Sadly, many examples are lost, surviving only in copies or as fragments of vast originals – such as the fragment at St Nicholas’ Church Tallinn by Bernt Notke (a copy of his earlier lost work at Lubeck).  Clearly, later ages did not share the Medieval fondness for macabre public art.

So, how did the Medieval viewer read such an audio-visual experience?

The Unwanted Dance Partner

Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke, image via Wikimedia.

Danse Macabre by Bernt Notke via Wikimedia.

The most obvious message that even an illiterate Medieval viewer could take away from the Danse Macabre, is that death is the great leveller.  No matter how high your estate, in the end death is coming for you.

The Danse was also personal, all of the estates of society could be found, so whether you were a king, a merchant or a labourer, or even a child, you could find your own representation in the danse; some of them even set the dance in a recognisably local landscape, for added impact.  The viewer could also, in a sense, participate in the dance, because many of the life size frescoes within churches, such as that at Tallinn, required the viewer to process along the fresco in order to see all of the original 48-50 figures[12].

The danse was also undeniably slapstick.  Viewers would have been familiar with figure of death or devils and their comedic antics in Mystery plays and even court masques so the viewer could laugh at the expense of their betters as they are dragged to the grave by a cavorting skeleton, whilst also being viscerally reminded of their own mortality.

A medieval burial, from a Book of Hours made in Besançon (detail), France, c. 1430–1440, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria.

A medieval burial, from a Book of Hours made in Besançon (detail), France, c. 1430–1440, Rare Books Collection, State Library Victoria.

But more than that, the Danse subverted the natural order of things.  The dead should be at rest, subject to the funeral mass, and quiet in their graves, not cavorting about.  It’s notable that many of these images were associated with graveyards – often sights of lively activity, commercial and personal, so much so that in Rouen in 1231 and Basel in 1435 edicts were passed prohibiting dancing in graveyards [13].  The Danse images were challenging the norm.  Dancing in Medieval thought was primarily associated with sin, paganism and seduction. Placing images of a sinful activity in a holy setting would seem to point to their purpose being penitential or confessional [14].

But, what of the text that sat alongside the images.  In a world where the majority of people were illiterate, how important was it?  While the images convey death as the great leveller, the dialogue between death and the living, prompts people to remember that earths glories are temporary, pride is the greatest sin of all, and that they should repent and prepare their souls for the afterlife.

However, while only a few would have been educated enough to read the text themselves, the message of atonement it conveyed would not have been lost on the illiterate.  The images would have been viewed in the context of lively sermons on the subject and oral tales reinforcing the message that death could strike at any time, so you should prepare your soul.  After the ravages of the Black Death this would have been particularly poignant [15].

The reformation and Death gets a reboot

The Abbess by Holbein 1523/5. Public domain.

In the sixteenth century, the religious and political landscape of Europe was drastically altered by the Protestant Reformation as well as technical innovations like the printing press. Nevertheless, it was during this period that the Dance of Death had its most famous reboot.  In 1523-25, Hans Holbein produce his famous version of the Dance of Death, however, rather than a public fresco in a church, his work was a series of woodcuts often reproduced in codex/book form.  This broke up the dance into a series of pages and also provided a more private and personal experience for the viewer. And, also, from a modern perspective, reinforces the link between the format of the Dance and modern graphic novel or comic strip art forms. Holbein’s Dance of Death also repurposed the genre as a tool of social satire and religious reform, rather than as a moral or religious lesson [16]. 

Dancing down the ages

The heyday of the Danse Macabre as religious symbolism was the Late Middle Ages, however, the striking visual image of death harrying the living has remained a popular subject for artists throughout the ages, although its message may have changed.

In the nineteenth century, Thomas Rowlandson collaborated with poet William Combe to produce the satirical series The English Dance of Death in 1815.  In the twentieth century, Ingmar Bergman’s Iconic film the Seventh Seal (1957) used Dance imagery, and in the twenty-first century, English Heavy Metal Band Iron Maiden’s 2015 album was named for the Dance of Death.

The English Dance of Death, Thomas Rowlandson 1815. Image from Haunted Palace Collection.And if you thought that the Dance of Death was now just the preserve of historians and heavy metal fans, one school of thought has it that the modern predilection for dressing up in scary costumes at Halloween can be linked back to that most macabre of medieval traditions [17].

Sources and notes

Binski, Paul, Medieval Death, Cornell University Press, 1996 [3] [13] [14] [16]

Cook, Megan, L, and Strakhov, Elizaveta, Ed. John Lydgate’s Dance of Death and Related works, Medieval Institute Publications, 2019 [1] [2] [4] [5] [7] [9] [10] [11]

Dodedans – St Paul’s dance, [8] http://www.dodedans.com/Epaul.htm#:~:text=The%20most%20famous%20dance%20of%20death%20in%20England,%28And%20fro%20Paris%20%2F%20to%20Inglond%20hit%20sent%29.

Ebenstein, Joanna, Ed. Death: A Graveside Companion, Thames & Hudson, 2017. [6]

Gertsman, Elina, The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn): The Preacher and His Audience, in Gesta Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003), pp. 143-159 (17 pages) Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the International Center of Medieval Art [12] [15 [17]

Platt, Colin, King Death: The Black Death in England and its aftermath in late-medieval England,  UCL Press.

Review: Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G. Horey

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Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G Horey

Frogman Publishing, 2019, 267 pages.

About the author

Philip G. Horey is from the North East of England. He is a Commercial Diver and Photographer. For 30 years he lived on the West Coast of Scotland after having sailed there in an old ship’s lifeboat in 1985. He now lives on the outskirts of Newcastle. ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ is his first writing foray into the legends and folklore of the British Isles having previously published two pictorial books ‘3rd Hung Kuen Championships 2018, 70-75 kg: Full Contact’ and ‘Islands of the Blue Men’, a pictorial voyage to the Shiant Islands.

Book Review

Horey is fascinated by the unknown and in his new book, ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ delves into the mysterious legends which envelope some of the most fascinating places and locations in Scotland and England.

The book is divided into twenty-two chapters with each chapter concentrating on one specific location or theme, exploring both the history and legends which surround it. The book covers a range of topics from spirits to the undead to UFO sightings. The book includes poetry written by well-known writers, as well as stories and legends from oral tradition and is illustrated with the author’s own photographs. All of this adds to the sense of otherworldliness which permeates through the pages.

Sandlewood By by Philip G Horey

Sandwood Bay by Philip G Horey

The book opens up with the poem ‘The Haunter’ by Thomas Hardy. A wonderfully atmospheric poem which was written by Hardy, himself a firm believer in ghosts, after the death of his wife, Emma, in 1912. The poem is written from the perspective of his deceased wife, whose increasing frustration at her inability to communicate with her grieving husband, is powerfully conveyed in the last stanza of the poem. The poem itself is the perfect introduction to the book and sets the tone for what follows.

Some of the stories Horley recounts are already well known such as the Loch Ness Monster, Culloden and Chillingham Castle with its multitude of ghosts and grisly stories. Others, less familiar such as ‘The Mermaid of Sennor’, ‘Windhouse’ on Shetland, ‘Sandwood Bay’ and ‘The Cloutie Tree’ are just as fascinating. Even with those legends that have been told and retold countless times, the author with his own unique style manages to resurrect them, making the reader feel that they are being introduced to the stories for the very first time. One particular chapter, ‘Bomber County’ was particularly moving. The loss of so many young men in horrific circumstances is in itself, heart-breaking but Horey in his description of the many hauntings associated with the airfields and crash sites stirs both our compassion as well as our dread. In a very different tone, Horey gives a detailed description of a ‘ghost hunt’ which he participated in, at Castle Menzies in Scotland. The ensuing account is hilarious, as he describes both the other participants and the various scenes he witnessed, revealing here, as elsewhere, both his self-deprecating sense of humour as well as his sympathy for the stories of those individuals he is recounting.

Throughout the book, Horey uses his photographs to illustrate the tales, capturing their spirit and enhancing their effectiveness. Horey is a skilled and clever photographer and I was particularly impressed with the powerful imagery of his black and white photographs.

Castle Menzies by Philip G Horey

Castle Menzies by Philip G Horey

Whilst describing the creaking door of an aircraft hangar at night, which had caught his attention and stirred his imagination, Horey ponders whether it is this that is the reason “why ghosts are more associated with the night, when one’s senses can more easily focus on something so subtle and vague, something easily overlooked with the distractions of the day?”. This sentiment for me sums up the feeling of the book; which is one of mystery, wonder and eeriness, with an author who believes that sometimes we are better off not really knowing the answers to our many questions.

I would strongly recommend ‘Where the Night Rooks Go’ for all who are interested in the supernatural, history and folklore. The book veers from achingly sad to amusing and back again but it is always informative and fascinating. It is well-written and on the whole, a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Where the Night Rooks Go by Philip G Horey is available at Frogman Publishing at http://www.spanglefish.com/frogmanpublishing/index.asp

Culloden by Philip G Horey

Culloden by Philip G Horey

The Legends of Agnes Hotot and Skulking Dudley

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The Etiquette of Duelling

The Code of Honor. Godefroy Durand, Harpur’s Weekly, January 1875.

  • No duels were to be fought on Sunday, on a day of a Festival, or near a place of public worship.
  • A Principal was not to “wear light coloured clothing, ruffles, military decorations, or any other … attractive object, upon which the eye of his antagonist [could] … rest,” as it could affect the outcome of the duel.
  • The time and place were to be as convenient as possible to surgical assistance and to the combatants.
  • The parties were to salute each other upon meeting “offering this evidence of civilization.”
  • No gentleman was allowed to wear spectacles unless they used them on public streets.
  • There was to be at least 10 yards distance between the combatants.
  • The Seconds were to present pistols to Principals and the pistols were not to be cocked before delivery.
  • After each discharge the Seconds were to “mutually and zealously attempt a reconciliation.”
  • No more than three exchanges of fire were allowed, as to exchange more shots was considered barbaric.

The above duelling rules were taken from the Royal Code of Honour which aimed to lay down a code of etiquette governing how duellists behaved[1]. During the height of duelling popularity a number of codes were written in Britain and in Europe, sometimes with conflicting rules and covering a range of topics including how to accept a challenge, how to behave after the duel and even how to die!

Codex Manesse. Early 14th Century. Public domain.

Despite slight differences expressed in the competing codes one area which they wholeheartedly agreed on was that honour of both the challenger and the defender must be maintained at all costs. This idea of personal honour goes to the heart of duelling and in turn acts as a mirror to the society in which duelling as a practice flourished. It also provides a thread connecting it to its distant medieval ancestors, trial by combat and the spectacle of the joust.

Duels were generally considered the preserve of men, in particular those from the aristocratic classes. To refuse a duel was viewed as a stain on a gentleman’s reputation. The most common reason to duel was over a perceived insult to a woman’s virtue but records show that on occasion women did take the initiative. In 1777 Paris, Mademoiselle Leverrier shot her former lover, Duprez in the face after he had left her for another woman. In fairness she had given him the chance to defend himself but chivalrously he had shot into the air, she had no such qualms[2].

The Honour of the Hotots

Another famous duel involving a woman reaches back in time to a period of history when jousts were not only a popular form of entertainment but also a pretty useful way of settling scores.

Medieval Jousting tournament. Public domain [?]

In 1390 a duel took place in Northamptonshire, on the line was family honour. The story believed to have been documented by a monk living in Clapton during the reign of Henry VII, tells of Sir John Hotot, a wealthy landowner who was in dispute with a man called Ringsdale over the title to a piece of land. Eventually the situation escalated to the point where the only way to resolve their quarrel was through a contest of skill and strength. Unfortunately when the appointed day came, Sir John was taken ill, suffering from gout and so his daughter and heiress Agnes “rather than he should lose the land, or suffer in his honor[3] decided to take her father’s place.

Dressed in armour “cap-a-pie” style[4], armed with a lance and astride her father’s steed, she set out to meet Ringsdale. She was said to have fought bravely and hard and finally managed to dismount her opponent. Once on the ground she removed her helmet and with her hair cascading down her shoulders revealed herself to a stunned Ringsdale. Another variation is that she also removed her breastplate in order to remove any doubts that the victor was in fact a woman. This action despite adding a dramatic flourish to the story is extremely unlikely, nothing to do with modesty but simply due to the difficulty of removing a breastplate from armour!

Miniature issue du manuscrit Les vies des femmes célèbres d’Antoine Dufour, 1504, Nantes, musée Dobrée.

The Crest of the Dudleys of Clapton

Having saved the reputation of her family, Agnes later married into the wealthy Dudleys’ of Clapton or Clopton, Northamptonshire. In honour of Agnes’ courage, her in-laws designed a new crest, depicting the bust of a woman with dishevelled hair, a bare bosom and a helmet on her head with “the stays or throat latch down[5]. The crest was rumoured to have survived for as long as the male line of the Dudley family held the lands of Clapton. In 1764, Sir William Dudley, the last male descendant of the Clapton Dudleys died.

Agnes and Skulking Dudley

This intriguing tale of honour and daring has over time become conflated with the darker legend of ‘Skulking Dudley’. In this version, Agnes is the daughter of Dudley, the bullying lord of Clapton Manor. Her father having insulted a number of his fellow landowners in the area was finally challenged to a duel by Richard Hazelbere of Barnwell. By nature a coward Dudley feigned illness, took to his bed in order to avoid having to fight and persuaded or forced his daughter to go instead. According to this account, Agnes despite fighting valiantly, loses. Just before striking the fatal blow, Hazelbere discovers her identity and allows her to live. Impressed by her courage and virtue, they marry shortly afterwards. Dudley finally gets his just deserts when he is decapitated by Hazelbere.

Bodleian Library. 14th Century Manuscript.

The Legend of Skulking Dudley

The actual legend surrounding ‘Skulking Dudley’ is much more unpleasant and has absolutely nothing to do with Agnes.

The most popular version is that Dudley, a member of the influential Dudleys of Clapton was known to be a violent and vicious character, bullying his servants and tenants. In 1349 he was believed to have committed a gruesome murder. Who he was supposed to have murdered is unclear but one account claims that it was in fact, Richard Hazelbere. Dudley was reported to have shown no remorse and instead revelled in the deed[6]. The tables turned when Dudley was killed by a scythe to the head when a harvester he was whipping fought back in self-defence[7].

 

Source unknown. Public domain [?]

For some reason at the beginning of the last century after an absence of nearly 600 years his ghost minus a head suddenly reappeared to torment the villagers (maybe for imagined slights inflicted on him by their ancestors). Locals reported having seen him make his way from the site of Clapton Manor, past the old graveyard, along Lilford Road to a small coppice (later named after him). His spirit was named ‘skulking’ from its habit of dodging in and out of hedgerows[8]. His soul was finally laid to rest by the efforts of Bishop of Peterborough aided by twenty-one clergymen. Skulking Dudley has not been seen since. A popular local tradition has it that Dudley was hunch-backed[9], a physical deformity which was in the past often viewed as the outward symptom of a corrupt and vicious nature – just think of the much maligned Richard III.

One other interesting variation of the Skulking Dudley legend manages to bring it back to the concept of a duel. In this description, Dudley killed his own cousin in a duel over the ownership of Clapton Manor House. Despite not being injured in any way, Dudley suddenly aged and withered, dying soon after[10].

Women who joust

Source unknown. Public domain [?]

How probable is the story of Agnes Hotot? In 1348 a British chronicler records how at tournaments beautiful ladies from wealthy families and of noble lineage would regularly take part in jousting competitions. At one event he recounts that as many as forty female contestants were seen participating. From his writing, it becomes clear that he holds these women in low esteem as he describes how dressed in divided tunics with hoods, wearing knives and daggers they fought on splendidly dressed horses and “in such a manner they spent and wasted their riches and injured their bodies with abuses with ludicrous wantoness[11]. Whether or not the chronicler’s disparaging remarks reflect how the medieval world in general really felt about female jousters is unclear but accounts of women fighting in tournaments do continue to appear in later centuries. So the evidence indicates that the legend of Agnes Hotot could very well be rooted in a real event, as to the legend of Skulking Dudley that could be stretching possibility a little too far!

Bibliography

Pistol Dueling, Its Etiquette and Rules, Geri Walton, https://www.geriwalton.com/pistol-dueling-its-etiquette-and-rules/, 2014

Duel: A true story of death and honour, James Landale, 2005

Haunting History of Clopton, https://www.facebook.com/historyhaunted/videos/1824694297556642

Agnes Hotot, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_Hotot

The Encyclopaedia of Amazons, women warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Age, Jessica Salmonson, 1991

Dudley, Sir Matthew, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/member/dudley-sir-matthew-1661-1721

Dudley baronets, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dudley_baronets

Skulking in the Woods, https://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/news/opinion/skulking-in-the-woods-1-4402161

Haunted England: The penguin book of ghosts, Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson, 2010

A genealogical and heraldic history of the extinct and dormant baronetcies of England,  John Burke, 1838

Notes

[1] Pistol Dueling, Its Etiquette and Rules, https://www.geriwalton.com/pistol-dueling-its-etiquette-and-rules/

[2] Duel: A true story of death and honour, James Landale, 2005

[3] Agnes Hotot, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_Hotot

[4] Duel: A true story of death and honour, James Landale, 2005

[5] Ibid

[6] Skulking in the Woods, https://www.northamptonchron.co.uk/news/opinion/skulking-in-the-woods-1-4402161

[7] Ghostly Tales of the Unexpected, https://www.northantstelegraph.co.uk/news/ghostly-tales-of-the-unexpected-1-718777

[8] Haunting History of Clopton, https://www.facebook.com/historyhaunted/videos/1824694297556642

[9] ibid

[10] Ghostly Tales of the Unexpected, https://www.northantstelegraph.co.uk/news/ghostly-tales-of-the-unexpected-1-718777

[11] The Encyclopaedia of Amazons, women warriors from Antiquity to the Modern Age, Jessica Salmonson, 1991

Drowned maidens: Victorian depictions of female suicide

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Trigger warnings: this post references some recent cases of suicide that some readers may find distressing.

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“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”  Edgar Allan Poe

Ruslana Korshunova’s suicide reported on Fox News 2008.

In 2008, Fox News aired a crime scene video showing a twenty-year-old Model, Ruslana Korshunova, lying dead on the street, after apparently committing suicide by throwing herself from the 9th floor of her New York apartment block. Blood could still be seen oozing from her nose. The image was both shocking and intrusive. But, intrusive media coverage of death and disaster has become an accepted part of our appetite for sensation – a malady we like to think of as particularly modern. However, comments from the reporter, and subsequent comments on social media, which focused on the unworldly beauty of the woman’s corpse, revealed attitudes toward female suicide that find their origin in a much earlier nineteenth-century aesthetic. One that both romanticized female suicide for a male gaze, whilst also serving as a warning to women daring to step outside their proscribed gender roles.

Death becomes her

In the eighteenth-century, male suicide was fairly commonly depicted in art and literature, with Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, perhaps the most famous example. The novel created something of a moral panic and ‘Werther Fever’ and the ‘Werther Effect’ were linked to several copy-cat suicides of young men overcome by unrequited love or their own heightened sensibilities [1].

The Werther Effect. Public domain (?)

During the nineteenth century, the depiction of suicide underwent something of a gendered transformation which saw a proliferation in images of female suicide and far fewer images of male suicide [2]. This belied the reality, that in fact, in the nineteenth century, men were (and still are) much more likely to successfully commit suicide than women [3].  Before looking at why this change took place, let’s look at some examples of nineteenth-century images of female suicides.

Firstly, anyone who ever had a Pre-Raphaelite phase at college will be familiar with the poster-girl of drowned maidens, Ophelia.  Painted in 1851 by John Everett Millais, this is considered to be artistic ground zero for the huge proliferation of depictions of drowned females in the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain.

Ophelia, 1851, by John Everett Millais. Google Art Project.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia is pulled this way and that by the men in her life. Used by her father and brother in their court intrigues because of her implied liaison with Hamlet, she is then cast off by Hamlet and ultimately drowns through her own actions.  Maybe she was an innocent victim, maybe a fallen woman. Maybe it was an accident, maybe suicide.

Millais’s iconic image presents her watery death in a very eroticized way.  Her lips are half-open, singing as she drowned, perhaps, or expelling her dying breath; or just maybe her parted lips are meant to evoke something far more sexual. It is for the viewer to decide. There is a voyeuristic element to the picture, it is even framed in a proscenium-style arch, giving it a theatrical air – even though the actual death of Ophelia was not usually depicted on stage. [4]

L’inconnue_de_la_Seine. Image via Wikimedia.

The Second image will be familiar to anyone who has done CPR Training.  L’Inconnue de la Seine is said to be the death mask of an unknown woman found drowned in the Seine in the 1880s (although this has been debated).  She was judged to be a suicide. Her corpse was displayed in the Paris Morgue, as was the custom.  One of the morticians was supposed to have been so taken with her beauty, that he cast her death mask.

The image caused a sensation, Richard le Gallienne called her a modern Ophelia while Albert Camus described her ‘Mona Lisa Smile’.  Her mask became a popular, if morbid, fixture in many private homes.  Her image was romanticized and eroticized.  It became a ‘look’ to be emulated by the popular actresses of the day [5].

In 1955 Asmund Laerdal made her even more famous by using her image to create Resusci Anne, giving the unknown woman of the Seine the dubious distinction of having ‘the most kissed lips in history’.  That’s not creepy in the slightest!

The third image, Found Drowned, by George Frederic Watts, c. 1850, presents the scene following a woman’s apparent suicide by drowning. The title reveals something important about how female suicide was recorded, often there were no witnesses to drowning, so while the assumption might be that it was a suicide, societal taboos around female suicide often led to such deaths being hidden under the ambiguous label of ‘found drowned’. [6].

Found Drowned by George Frederick Watts 1850. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

The picture, which was inspired by the influential poem The Bridge of Sighs by Thomas Hood, assumes that the viewer understands the implicit backstory of this image.  The drowned woman is a fallen woman.  Seduced, abandoned and pregnant.  Rather than descend into shame, poverty, and prostitution, the only route left open to her by society, she has chosen to take her life and thereby redeem herself.

Despite the more sympathetic message of the image, the depiction of the woman is still sensual. The woman’s face appears luminous and her limbs flung wide, displaying the victim’s figure to the viewer.

Hood wrote the poem in 1844 and it helped to raise society’s awareness of the plight of the ‘fallen’ woman – who found the only option left to her was suicide.  In one famous passage, he describes how her sin has been washed away by her death:

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

However, its idea of a fallen-women gaining redemption through drowning, while generating public sympathy, may have also led to an unfortunate increase in life imitating art, as women saw their only option for social redemption, suicide, reinforced [7].

The Punished Suicide. 1863. Photograph by Carlo Vannini and from Ivan Cenzi’s book His Anatomical Majesty

Finally, a lesser-known image of female suicide, this time from Italy.   Ivan Cenzi has brought the story of how this extraordinary image was created to an English speaking audience [8][9]. The subject of this human taxidermy project was an unknown 18-year-old seamstress who drowned herself in the river at Padua, sometime in 1863.  It was pronounced that she had killed herself over an ‘amorous delusion’.

The nearby University of Padova had a long history of anatomical study, and the girl’s body was handed over to the chair of Anatomy himself, Ludovico Brunetti (1813-1899).

Brunetti had a very unusual plan – this was to be no simple anatomical dissection. He intended to create Great Art out of this girl’s pain. He proceeded to take a cast of the girl’s face and bust, then he skinned her, taking care to keep her hair pristine.  He then treated the skin with sulfuric ether and his own special tanning formula, in order to preserve her image for eternity.  The resulting bust is truly startling.

Unfortunately, as the girl had been dragged out of the river using hooks, her face had sustained some damage. However, Brunetti used these flaws to his advantage, seeing them as a way to convey a moral message, as well as display his skill at preservation.  What emerged from his creative processes was a shocking image known as ‘The Punished Suicide‘.  To ram the moral home, that suicide was a mortal sin and suicides would be forever tormented in Hell,  he enveloped her face in writhing snakes and used red candle wax to imitate blood gushing from her wounds.

Somewhat perversely, to modern sensibilities at least, her parents loved it. Brunetti and his Punished Suicide, later wowed the audiences at the Universal Exposition in Paris where he won the Grand Prix in the Arts and Professions category, which in itself says a lot about public attitudes to images of female suicide and public entertainment. This image is still on display in Padova University, and, to modern eyes at least, evokes a strong reaction. Personally, I find the use and display of human remains as art, without the informed consent of the subject, to be highly problematic.  However, nineteenth-century attitudes were clearly very different.

These are only a few of the many such images in nineteenth-century art, literature, and sculpture.  But why were they so popular and what was their purpose?

Women behaving badly

During the nineteenth century, Western Societies underwent a huge demographic shift as the Industrial Revolution lead to mass migrations from the countryside to towns and cities.  From living in traditional rural communities, where everyone knew one and other, many people now found themselves amongst strangers.  Factory work saw more women working outside the home and competing with men.  Poverty and overcrowded housing brought disease and disorderly behavior, drunkenness was a common outlet for the lower classes.  Add to this the blatant social inequality of Victorian society, where the poor (and particularly the female poor) were routinely exploited by those higher up the social ladder, and you and you can begin to see the cracks undermining the edifice of respectable Victorian society.

Overcrowding in Victorian London. Gustave Dore. 1872. British Library.

The Victorian establishment did not only fear the working class becoming politicized or organized via trade unions, they feared the traditional gender roles of society were being challenged.  Women were supposed to be the ‘Angel in the house’ described in Coventry Patmore’s poem, a sweet and passive homemaker for her husband and family.  However the economic reality for many women was very different, and when a woman transgressed society’s norms, particularly if she was considered a ‘fallen’ woman, she could suffer terrible consequences.

The Outcast. Richard Redgrave. 1851. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Influential sociologists writing about suicide, such as Henry Morselli, writing in 1881, and Emile Durkheim, writing in 1897, both linked urbanization and the breakdown of traditional gender roles as a factor in female suicide. While the stats they relied upon showed that male suicide was more common than female suicide, both promoted the view that women were weaker morally and were safer when protected from the struggles of society [10].

In doing so, they used the stats to reinforced traditional Victorian gender roles by concluding that married people and married people with children were less susceptible to suicide, whereas the unmarried, divorced, widowed or childless were more at risk.  In short, women should stay at home and look after their husbands and family – or risk the consequences. Of course, as Deacon has pointed out, the stats don’t tell the whole picture [11].

There was an underlying hint that perhaps suicide was one way to rid society of unwanted, ungovernable and surplus women.

Idealized family life – the woman is focused on the private home sphere.

Another popular Victorian preconception was that men tended to commit suicide for more important reasons.  Male suicide was viewed as linked to the social and economic well-being of the country, while women were seen as committing suicide for personal and emotional reasons, which were considered less important to society. This had the effect of trivializing female narratives and the reasons for female suicide, often downgrading them by centering them on women’s (failed) relationships with men [12].

As the century progressed, attitudes to suicide also changed, from being considered a sin and a shameful crime, people began to link mental illness to suicide. While this was a good thing, as it led to more understanding of the underlying causes of suicide, it also played into the idea of women as weak, emotional creatures who needed to be protected from themselves or risk the consequences. From Ophelia to the Italian seamstress suffering from ‘Amorous delusions’, women’s suicide was linked to madness and instability in the nineteenth-century mind, further devaluing it by refusing to see it as a final, if desperate, act of autonomy.

From sexual sirens to found drowned

John William waterhouse, Mermaid, 900

The Mermaid by John Waterhouse, 1900. Via Wikimedia.

The Victorians had a particular fondness for depicting women in water, no doubt because of the long-standing associations between femininity and water.  Women were seen as fickle and changeable as the sea, with sexual undercurrents and life-cycles made up of water, blood, and milk [13]. While sexual sirens might be depicted as mermaids or aquatic nymphs, leading men to drown in their transgressive embrace, the fallen woman was often depicted floating serenely, a beatific expression on her face, lovely to behold. Not remotely like a real drowning victim -bloated and muddy.

It has been suggested that this elevated the fallen woman’s suicide to a kind of redemption and washing away of sins – as implied in Hood’s poem. While this sounds romantic and sympathetic, it also created the pernicious cycle of life imitating art, real fallen women, cast out by society and facing a future of shame and prostitution, saw suicide as a way to redeem themselves and avoid becoming a burden on society because it was tacitly reinforced in popular culture.

Conclusion

To sum up, the Victorians fetishized the image of female suicide.  While male suicide was often seen as a final, possibly heroic, act of autonomy, for women, it was quite different.

Artistic images of female suicide had multiple purposes and meanings.  One of the most obvious was to commodify and pacify the female body by creating an ideal,  female beauty for the (male) viewer to appreciate.  The threatening unruly female, stripped of all power and autonomy after death, but still possessed of erotic and romantic fascination.

In addition this, in a society undergoing radical change, images of female suicide, bound up as they were with ideas of shame, madness, and sexual transgression were often used as a warning to women to keep to their proscribed roles and not try to compete with men in the public sphere.

In the 20th Century, widespread publication of Robert Wiles photograph of Evelyn McHale’s suicide made her death both public and iconic -which went against her expressed wishes for privacy.  More recently,  the 21st Century case of Ruslana Korshunova, where the reporter talked of Ruslana’s life and death, as a fairy-tale-gone-wrong, show that in some ways,  attitudes to representations of female suicide have not changed much since the nineteenth century.

However, more nuanced readings of these images are possible, readings that provide a deeper understanding of attitudes society held towards women and the public consumption of their bodies, both then and now.

While male suicides still predominate today, as in the Victorian age,  the recent tragic suicide of Love Island’s Caroline Flack, in the face of much negative media attention, has made it more important than ever to consider the unrealistic expectations that our society and the media still place on women.

Sources and notes

**Firstly, if you are having a hard time and need to talk to someone, you can contact Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/

Cenzi, Ivan, The Punished Suicide, 24 Oct 2016, <https://deadmaidens.com/2016/10/24/the-punished-suicide/> [8] [9

Deacon, Deborah, Fallen Women: The Popular Image of Female Suicide in Victorian England, c1837-1901, 7 April 2015, <https://www.uvic.ca/humanities/history/assets/docs/Honours%20Thesis%20-%20Deborah%20Deacon%202015%20.pdf> [2][4][6][7][11]-[13]

Durkheim, Emile, 1952, (originally published 1897) Suicide a Study in Sociology [3][10]

Meeson, Valerie, Res.Ma HLCS, Post-Mortems: Representations of Female Suicide by Drowning in Victorian Culture, [date unknown], <https://theses.ubn.ru.nl/bitstream/handle/123456789/3754/Meessen%2c_V.P.H._1.pdf?sequence=1> [4]

Mulhall, Brenna, The Romanticization of the the Dead Female Body in Victorian and Contemporary Culture, 2017, Aisthesis Vol 8 [5]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sorrows_of_Young_Werther#Cultural_impact [1]

A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Haunted Palace Blog

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In the dark and cobweb-filled corridors of the Haunted Palace, faint scribblings and mutterings can often be heard eminating from the book-strewn chambers high amongst its ivy-clad towers.  Lenora and Miss Jessel are custodians of an extensive library of peculiar tomes, from which they draw their ideas.  But one thing is missing from the library: a book of their own.  But not for much longer.

Yes, after 7 years and close to half a million views (thanks to you, our wonderful readers), Lenora and Miss Jessel have decided to publish a collection of a few of their favourite posts.

Just to make it extra special, and because copyright is a thing, we have commissioned two talented young artists to produce images for our book.

Naturally, because we at the Haunted Palace love all things creepy, we aim to publish our book for Halloween 2020. There’s a long way to go, but the cogs are turning!

In the meantime, we’d like you to meet the Haunted Palace artists in residence…and maybe give you just a teaser of what to expect in our book…

Iga Pencak aka Baba Jaga art: Freelance artist and costume designer

Iga Pencak studied and Central St Martins and VCA in London, and graduated in Theatre and Screen Costume Design. She is a talented portrait artist, costume designer and milliner. She has worked on large-scale mural projects and led community art workshops with Rohan Hall aka Chickenstein_.

Follow Iga on Instagram: @babajagaart 

And find her at:

etsy.com/shop/Igamagination
facebook.com/PortraitServicebyBabaJaga

Costume Designs, part of final degree project, by Iga Pencak

Tranquility, pen and ink, by Iga Pencak

Hanging Bat, paint on glass, by Iga Pencak

Rohan Hall aka Chickenstein_: Freelance artist and student

Rohan Hall aka Chickenstein_ is a freelance artist and is currently studying for his undergraduate BA degree in Illustration at Newcastle college. He has worked on large scale mural projects and led community art workshops with Iga Pencak.

Rohan accepts commissions.

Follow him on Instagram: @chickenstein_

The Bride of Chickenstein, pencil sketch, by Rohan Hall

Cthulu for climate change, relief print, by Rohan Hall

Memorial for Billy, acrylic on stone by Rohan Hall

And now a flavour of what they are both working on for the Haunted Palace and its Cabinet of Curiosities

Iga is producing the cover-art and full-page images for each section in the book.  She begins the process with a pencil sketch, then inks the images prior to digitalising them for publication.  Here are two of her works in progress.

First, for our ‘History’s lost and found’ section, which will include such dark tales as the dancing mania of the middle ages and the firey fate of the ladies of the ballet blanche, she came up with this darkly dynamic design:

Ballet shoes and skull, pen and ink, by Iga Pencak

Secondly, for this macabre sketch, for our suitably named ‘Macabre’ section, in which you will find such delights as a day out at the Paris Morgue, Iga was inspired by our post about Enon Chapel and its sinister secret.

Dance of Death, preliminary pencil sketch by Iga Pencak

Rohan will be creating smaller images for each individual post. He begins the process by creating a pencil sketch, he then digitalises the image for publishing.

He as already produced two very atmospheric images,  for folktales The King o’ the Cats and Hell-hounds, Hyter Sprites, and God-fearing mermaids (as well as producing our logo – see the about us page)

Illustration for the King O' the Cats

The King O’ the Cats digital sketch by Rohan Hall

Black Shuck by Rohan Hall

Black Shuck by Rohan Hall

We’ll still be posting our usual brand of in-depth darkness, but expect a few updates on how our book is progressing along the way!

We hope you will enjoy it.

Lenora  & Miss Jessel

 

 

 

Jealousy, bigamy, gin and a ghost: The murder of Elizabeth Beesmore

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Hanging outside Newgate Prison early 19th century

At 8 o’clock on Monday 18 September 1815, 51 year old Thomas Bedworth was hanged at Newgate for the murder of his on/off lover Elizabeth Beesmore. The details of the murder although vicious were no different to most other crimes of passion, except in one way, Thomas Bedworth claimed that he had been driven to confess in order to put an end to the relentless harrying of Elizabeth’s ghost.

Bedworth’s background

Bedworth was born in 1764 in Bloxidge in Staffordshire. According to him although his parents were good, honest people and tried to keep him on the right path, he was often in trouble. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a brindle bit and stirrup maker in Walsall but left after he had completed the apprenticeship in 1782. He eventually found himself in London and went to work at a factory owned by Mr Rowley in Drury Lane. He left in 1795 when he signed up to join the army.

A bigamous marriage

During his time in London he married Mary Bainer, the daughter of a tradesman from Soho with whom he had three children. He left the army in 1803 and went with family to Birmingham. In 1804 he joined the navy where he gained a reputation as a good sailor. He was discharged in 1813. On returning to his wife he found she had bigamously married again and had three children from this union.

The murder of Elizabeth Beesmore

Shortly afterwards he met up with Elizabeth Beesmore who had been deserted by her husband and left destitute with a child. They took up together and Bedworth promised to provide for her as long as she had no contact with her estranged husband. This she agreed to and they pledged themselves to each other to be as husband and wife. To make matters even more complicated she also happened to be the sister of Mary Bainer and so Thomas Bedworth’s sister-in-law.

Detail from William Hogarth’s ‘Four Times of Day’ series. 1738. Public Domain.

They were together for two years when out of the blue John Beesmore returned to London looking for his wife. Thomas was outraged, Elizabeth had broken her word and worse still was giving Beesmore money. Bedworth moved out and took up other lodgings. Attempts on both parties to reconcile failed and during the last altercation Elizabeth announced that she was returning to her husband. Hearing this news a jealous Bedworth vowed to kill Elizabeth.

On the 20 June 1815 Bedworth, his mood heightened by gin, made his way to Elizabeth’s rooms armed with a shoemaker’s knife. On the way he met a woman (Sarah Collis) who lived in the same lodgings as Elizabeth who told him that she was not at home. He and Sarah decided to go for a drink to wait for Elizabeth’s return.

Later he arrived at Elizabeth’s obviously drunk and she allowed him to sleep it off. On awaking he left (without his shoes and coat) and went back to the dram shop, had more gin and returned. He drank tea laced with gin provided by Elizabeth and announced he was going. Before he left, he called Elizabeth to the kitchen where she embraced him and he conflicted “between jealous passion and strong affection” drew his knife and slashed her throat, nearly severing it from her body. He then made his escape.

Cruelty in perfection (Plate III)

Willliam Hogarth. 1751. The Four Stages of Cruelty, Cruelty in perfection (Plate III). Public Domain.

Ghostly recriminations

Bedworth recounts that he first went to Spa-fields where under the cover of darkness he got rid of his blood-splattered apron and then wandered to Regent’s Park where he threw the knife into the canal. He spent the day hiding in Hampstead. It was during that night that he first heard the agonising moans which filled him with ‘disquietude and alarm’.

The next night, which he spent in St Albans, he heard the terrible sounds again and a voice which he recognised as belonging to Elizabeth, crying ‘Oh Bedworth! Bedworth! What have you done?…You have deprived me of all the happiness of this life’. Bedworth terror-stricken prayed for the apparition to leave him in peace.

The nightly visitations continued and grew worse. Tormented by guilt he wandered the streets of London until he came to Highgate Hill. There he saw Elizabeth’s grisly ghost in front of him, she walked by his side and taking his hand placed it on her severed throat. Bedworth fled in terror and lying down in a field felt her lay down alongside him.

Thomas Beesmore.

Thomas Bedworth. Detail from his Confessions. 1815. The Lewis Walpole Library_Yale University

Driven out of his mind and despite being by this time wanted by the police Bedworth managed to obtain a ‘walking pass’ from the Magistrates Public Office and left London. He eventually found himself in Coventry. Although still on the run he had at last come to terms with his guilt. The haunting had also ended. After arriving in Horsley, the torment returned and unable to cope any longer he went back to Coventry where on the 6 July he turned himself in. He was arrested and brought back to London where he signed his confession in front of a magistrate.

The confession of Thomas Bedworth

Frontispiece of Thomas Bedworth's confessions.

1815 Edition of the Confessions of Thomas Bedworth. The Lewis Walpole Library_Yale University

The above account of the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore is taken directly from a statement made by Bedworth the night before his execution[1]. He told his story to witnesses, one of whom wrote it down and produced an 18-page pamphlet costing 6 pence a copy. As always with first-hand accounts it is difficult to know how trustworthy the narrator is and some of the details vary significantly from the two witnesses, Sarah Collis and another friend, Ann Webber who were present at the time of the murder[2]. At the trial Bedworth argued with them causing the judge to admonish the defendant who he believed was trying to recant. Bedworth denied the accusation explaining that he just wanted everything to be accurate such as the murder weapon being a shoemaker’s knife and not a razor.

The major difference surrounds the supposed reappearance of John Beesmore. Bedworth claimed his return was the motive behind Elizabeth’s murder but Sarah Collis stated at the trial that Bedworth moved out due to a dispute with Elizabeth’s son, also called John (even Bedworth admits to arguing with John the day of the murder)[3]. Neither Collis or Webber mentioned Elizabeth estranged husband. It is difficult to know who to believe; maybe Bedworth thought that a crime of passion would gain more sympathy with the general public than a senseless murder committed by a drunk. It is also strange that if involved, John Beesmore never appeared to give evidence at the trial especially if Bedworth was telling the truth and Elizabeth had decided to go back to him.

It took less than an hour for the jury to bring in a guilty verdict of wilful murder. The judge sentenced Bedworth to hang on the following Monday and his body to be given to the surgeons to dissect and anatomise. He also hoped that Bedworth would spend the time he had left repenting and berated Bedworth for taking away Elizabeth’s chance to confess her own sins and die at peace.

A ghastly visitation

So on to Elizabeth’s ghost. The unique aspect of this case was Thomas Bedworth’s assertion that he had been plagued by the restless spirit of Elizabeth who pushed him to the brink of insanity and forced him to confess. Despite many attempts to convince people that ghosts and spirits did not exist through both religious arguments and scientific investigations, the belief persisted. Why a ghost would appear varied but general consensus was that it was more likely if the person had met a violent end and stories of ghosts seeking revenge for their untimely demise were told and retold in all parts of the country. So to many Bedworth’s account would have been entirely credible.

Setting aside the argument that Elizabeth’s ghost was real; the only other logical conclusion is that the ghost had been a figment of Bedworth’s imagination. How and why did Bedworth’s mind conjure up this hallucination can be attributed to two possible causes; alcohol and guilt.

 “Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, Makes human Race a Prey.  It enters by a deadly Draught And steals our Life away.”[4]

William Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane. Public Domain.

The above is the first verse of a poem which accompanied Hogarth’s print of ‘Gin Lane’ and it really says it all. Although since the 1751 Gin Act, gin was no longer viewed as the devil as it had been in the first half of the 1700s[5], its popularity did return during in the early 19th century. Gin could be easily bought in ‘dram shops’ which flourished in areas of extreme poverty and unemployment. Dram shops were small shops where you could either drink the gin there and then or take it away with you[6]. Later these small shops were overtaken by the popular Gin Palaces which sprung up in London in the Late Victorian period.

Then as now people drank to drown their sorrows and forget the misery of their lives, if you were drunk then you couldn’t feel the pangs of hunger. Gin was cheap and strong and easily available[7]. It is noticeable that Bedworth was in the days leading up to the murder pretty much constantly drunk. A witness’ testimony that Bedworth’s was a ‘very quiet man when sober, but when drunk he used to swear a little’[8] seems odd considering Bedworth’s drunken, murderous exclamation at the Two Spies Public House that ‘it would be blood for blood’[9]. All involved on the day of the murder including Elizabeth herself were drinking gin even if it was diluted in water.

Even in the 1800s drinking in excess was understood to be one of the triggers behind ghost sightings. Gin in excess was believed to cause ‘terrible hangovers, depression, anger or even insanity[10]. If it was the effects of the drink which led Bedworth to murder Elizabeth then it must have been the withdrawal from alcohol, the DTs which caused Bedworth to hallucinate the spirit of Elizabeth raised from the grave. Side effects of DTs include ‘nightmares, agitation, global confusion, disorientation, visual and auditory hallucinations, tactile hallucinations, fever, high blood pressure, heavy sweating[11]. Maybe if Bedworth had been sober he would never have killed Elizabeth.

The Gin Shop. Cruikshank. 1829.

The product of a distorted mind

The most famous work in English literature depicting a descent into madness through guilt is Macbeth. Macbeth during the banquet scene sees the gory apparition of his murdered friend, Banquo and murmurs ‘when the brains were out, the man would die; and there an end, but now they risen again[12] This line encapsulates perfectly the struggle between logic and irrationality and the slow crumbling of a mind at war with itself.

Even in the Victorian period it was accepted that ghosts could be a product of illnesses such as melancholy which could lead to madness. The warning signs of melancholy included dejection, sadness, gloominess and haunting dreams. In many ways it is the modern equivalent of depression with the exception of hallucinations and visions. Melancholy was said to be the result of ghost stories told in childhood as well as anxiety brought on by religious enthusiasm, fear of bewitchment, grieving and guilt[13]. Murderers were known to see their victims and there are countless more recent reports of killers being haunted by the spirits of those whose lives they took.

One famous example is Al Capone who masterminded the murder in 1929 of seven members of a rival gang including James Clark. Shortly after Capone was arrested, his guards ‘would later report that he [Capone] would let out bloodcurdling screams, shouting for Jimmy to leave him alone’[14]. For the rest of his life Capone would see Clark’s ghost, he even hired a medium to banish the spirit but to no avail. [15]

So it is very likely that Bedworth’s guilty conscience did contribute to the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost.

The haunting immortalized

Dickens never claimed to have used the story of Bedworth’s haunting and deranged ramblings as inspiration for his depiction of Sikes wild behaviour, frenzied wandering and hallucinations after the murder of Nancy but the parallels are clear.

He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped it did the same. If he ran, it followed–not running too: that would have been a relief: but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose or fell…

At times, he turned, with desperate determination, resolved to beat this phantom off, though it should look him dead; but the hair rose on his head, and his blood stood still, for it had turned with him and was behind him then. He had kept it before him that morning, but it was behind now–always. [16]

It would be odd if Dickens hadn’t known about the murder since his friend, the artist George Cruikshank and illustrator of Oliver Twist had produced the frontispiece for another friend William Hone, whose pamphlet concerned ‘The Horrid Murder of Elizabeth Beesmore’. After Dickens death, Cruikshank claimed that the idea for Oliver Twist was his[17].

Oliver Reed as Sykes in Oliver! 1968. Dir. Carol Reed.

Oliver Reed as Sykes in Oliver! 1968. Dir. Carol Reed.

Elizabeth’s revenge

In my opinion the most likely theory for the appearance of Elizabeth’s ghost is guilt mixed with the effects of alcohol withdrawal but I do think that Bedworth did genuinely believe himself to be haunted by Elizabeth’s ghost. The loss of his grasp on reality can be detected in a newspaper article on the trial which reported that Bedworth appeared ‘insensible of the awful situation in which he stood, and was smiling and talking to all the persons about him[18].

Whatever the reason behind Elizabeth’s murder, whether jealousy, anger or drink one thing is certain ghost or not, Elizabeth did finally get her revenge.

Gin glass.

Here’s to Mrs Beesmore’s spectral revenge.

Bibliography

William Hogarth – Gin Lane.jpg, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hogarth_-_Gin_Lane.jpg

Delirium tremens, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delirium_tremens

The Haunted: Social history of ghosts, Owen Davies, 2007

The European Magazine, and London Review, Volume 68, Philological Society, July-December 1815

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Macbeth, William Shakespeare

British Executions, http://www.britishexecutions.co.uk/execution-content.php?key=3705&termRef=Thomas%20Bedworth

1800 – 1827 Public executions, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/1800.html 

Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England, Peter Marshall, 2004

Domestic Murder in Nineteenth-Century England: Literary and Cultural Representations, Bridget Walsh, 2014

10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost, http://listverse.com/2017/08/04/10-murderers-haunted-by-their-victims-ghost/ 

The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth: delivered to one of the principal officers of Newgate, the night before his execution, onSeptember 18, 1815, for the murder of Elizabeth Beesmore, in Drury Lane, Thomas Bedworth, https://archive.org/details/powerofconscienc00bedwiala

Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures, (ed.) Robert L. Patten, 2016

Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16, https://newspaperarchive.com/courier-sep-16-1815-p-2/

Gender and Crime, 1815-1834, Julie C. Tatlock, Marquette University, 2009

Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18150913-1-defend50&div=t18150913-1#highlight

Gin Craze, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_Craze

Gin Palace, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin_palace

How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the Spirits World: Why do some people fear gin?, Chaim Dauermann, 1 June 2015, https://www.eater.com/drinks/2015/6/1/8700045/why-gin-a-look-at-the-roots-of-why-some-fear-this-familiar-j

Notes

[1] The power of conscience exemplified in the genuine and     extraordinary confession of Thomas Bedworth
[2] Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815
[3] Ibid
[4] William Hogarth - Gin Lane.jpg
[5] Gin Craze
[6] Gin Palace
[7] The Haunted: Social history of ghosts
[8] Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16
[9] Thomas Bedworth, Killing: murder, 13th September 1815
[10] How Gin Came to Be Known as the Big Bad Wolf of the SpiritWorld
[11] Delirium tremens
[12] Macbeth Act III, Scene IV, Shakespeare
[13] The Haunted: Social history of ghosts
[14] 10 Murderers Haunted By Their Victim’s Ghost
[15] Ibid
[16] Oliver Twist
[17] Dickens and Victorian Print Cultures
[18] Courier newspaper, Saturday September 16

Fire and Brimstone: The Animal Kingdom on Trial

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‘The Law is an Ass’[1]

Image by Lenora.

One of the strangest practices that developed in the early medieval period was that of animal trials.

Animals were only brought before the law and punished if they affected people or society; animals killing other animals for food was seen as a part of the natural order of things – pretty sensible or there would have been no animals left.

For some reason the majority of cases seem to have taken place in France, maybe animals and insects held an unusually strong grudge against the French. Whatever the reason the industry surrounding animal courts and lawyers specialising in bestial crimes flourished there. Eventually it was decided that it was unfair that animals were being sentenced without the chance to prove their innocence. Obviously the animals and insects were unable to arrange their own defence and so under Francis I (1494-1547) it became illegal for an animal to be tried without a defence lawyer present to act as an intermediary between the animals and the injured human parties[2]. This practice was to some extent adopted in other mainland European countries.

There seems to have been two main types of charges; that of a single animal or small group of animals attacking an individual person and that of large numbers of a species causing harm to a community or society.

The punishment meted out depended on the crime. If an animal or insect could be identified as the culprit they could face a death sentence i.e. death by hanging, burning at the stake or decapitation.

The Death Sentence

Although dressing animals up in human clothes, appointing them a lawyer and conducting a trial is no longer employed, putting down animals which have injured or killed humans is still in use. Whereas today it seems to be dogs that are often in the news for attacking people, in the past it was pigs who dominated the animal trials.

A famous case occurred in Falaise in France where a sow was accused of killing a child and then devouring it. The sow was tried and found guilty of murder and condemned to be killed by the sword. Since the child’s head had been eaten as well as an arm, the sow’s foot was cut off and its face mutilated before it was dressed in men’s clothing and led away to face the executioner[3].

Trial of a sow from The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities, Public Domain.

Another occasion also in France, three sows were accused of killing the swineherd, Perrinot Muet. The sows were duly convicted but as if the case wasn’t strange enough two entire herds of swine were accused of being accessories to murder since they had heard Perrinot’s screams, ‘rushed’ to the scene of the crime and ‘witnessed’ his death. After appealing to the Duke of Burgundy, Prior Humbert de Poutier managed to get the death sentence dismissed against the herds[4]. This weird judgement was based on medieval law codes that stated that any living creature in the vicinity of certain serious crimes e.g. murder, rape and sexual assault could be seen as an accomplice and decapitated[5]. What did people expect the animals to do; fight the perpetrators, go for help or raise an alarm? It seems in these situations only Skippy, Flipper and Lassie would have survived.

Banishment

Sentences of banishment or exile were also used where the crime was not considered as severe or where the prosecutors felt sympathy for the perpetrators.

In Russia a he-goat was exiled to Siberia after butting an important official whilst he was tying his shoe[6] and in 1519 a community in Western Tyrol brought to trial some mice which were causing grave damage to the harvest. The defence lawyer argued that the mice served the community by eating insects and enriching the soil. Despite losing the mice were treated with leniency and kindness. Although they were ordered to leave immediately a fourteen day reprieve was granted to any pregnant mice that were unable to travel or any young that could not make the journey unaided[7].

Sometimes the situation was beyond the power of the law courts to deal with and the church was called in to intervene on behalf of the complainants. The church wielded two unique weapons; these were the power of excommunication and anathema.

Excommunication and Anathema

An excommunication in full swing. Public domain.

Excommunication involves ejection from the church and exclusion from its services and communion[8]. Anathema was a more severe form of excommunication and was often used to cast out the devil or his agents. Anathema involved using curses and denouncements to ban a person or thing from the light of the church and was implemented in religious solemnity by ecclesiastical authority[9].

The problem with excommunication was that how can you eject something from an institution that it is not a part of in the first place? The other difficulty is that it suggested that animals and insects have souls, something the Catholic Church at that time denied. That is why anathema was often seen as a more powerful and appropriate punishment.

How the excommunication or anathema was implemented could vary. Sometimes it was on the spur of the moment and at other times a representative was appointed to argue on behalf of the accused.

The Power of a Saint

In general the success rate of these judgements against insects, mammals and birds is unknown but in one case the records definitely confirm a win.

St Bernhard of Clairveaux Jorg Breu the elder. 1500. Public domain.

In 1121 St Bernard Clairvaux, initiator of the Cistercian Order and fervent proponent of the 2nd Crusade was preaching at the monastery of Foigny which he had founded when a swarm of irreligious flies entered without permission. These flies showed no respect for the solemnity of the occasion and proceeded to irritate St Bernard and distract his parishioners. The infuriated saint reaching the end of his tether suddenly addressed the flies and announced in a prophetic voice “I excommunicate you”. The next morning all the flies were found dead on the floor and had to be swept out[10].

It does seem that even though excommunication could be performed by any clergyman, effectiveness was more likely when performed by someone high up on the religious ladder.

The curse of the caterpillars

Caterpillars for some reason in particular seemed to have raised the ire of our medieval ancestors.

One of the earliest recorded excommunications took place in 1120 and was carried out by the Bishop of Laon when he issued a letter biding the annoying caterpillars to vacate the area. The caterpillars were apparently working in cohorts with some field mice as they were also named. It is really interesting that the formulae used by the bishop to deliver the proclamation was the same as that employed the previous year by the Council of Rheims which cursed priests who continued to marry ‘in spite of the canons’[11]. So in France it seems that rebellious priests and mutinous caterpillars warranted the same treatment!

Further decrees of excommunication against caterpillars were issued in 1480 by the spiritual court of Autun responding to complaints from the inhabitants of Mussy and Pernan, in 1543 in Grenoble, in 1585 by the Grand Vicar of Valencia who ordered the caterpillars to vacate his diocese and on the 9 July 1516 when Jean Milon, an officer of Troye passed this damning sentence,

after having heard the parties and granting the request of the inhabitants of Villenove, we admonish the caterpillars to retire within six days; and in case they do not comply, we pronounce them accursed and excommunicated [12]

In general it is not known how the caterpillars felt about these denouncements but in the case of the caterpillars of Valence in 1587 they stuck their suckers in and refused to budge[13]. It seems that the loss of the comfort of the church was less important than the pleasure of some tasty greens.

The Leeches of Geneva

In 1451 a pile of leeches were brought to court on the order of William of Saluces, the Bishop of Lausanne, to listen to the accusations against them. How this worked I have no idea as they don’t have ears but anyway it was against the rules to issue any legal edict without representatives from those accused being present. The leeches had been threatening the destruction of fish, in particular salmon stocks in Lake Geneva. The edict confined them to one specified part of the lake. It seems that the leeches on this occasion were not excommunicated as they obeyed and caused no further trouble[14].

Noah’s Ark Stowaways

Sometimes the ingenuity of the arguments given by the lawyers prosecuting and defending insects and animals smacked of brilliance and their arguments had a weird logic to them.

    An Inger…? Image by Chickenstein.

In 1478 the community of Berne in Switzerland asked for judicial help against a plague of insects called ingers which were destroying their crops. A proclamation made from the pulpit gave the ingers six days to leave and if they failed to do so they had to appear at one o’clock at Wifflisburg to face trial before His Grace the Bishop of Lausanne or his deputy. When the ingers did not appear they were appointed Thruing Fricker as their defence lawyer. The clever prosecutor dismissed Fricker’s statement that as one of god’s creatures they were allowed the right to live. He instead argued the opposite pointing out that ingers had survived the flood as stowaways aboard the Ark as they were not listed amongst the creatures invited by Noah. The prosecutor won and it was decreed that the ingers should be banned, exorcised and accursed and that wherever they go their numbers should decrease[15]. Maybe it worked, as I have never heard of ingers! If anyone has please let me know.

The Weevils’ Revenge

Probably the most drawn out animal court case concerns the weevils of Saint-Julien. In 1545 a lawsuit was taken out against weevils who were destroying a local vineyard. A preliminary judicial judgement was successful and the weevils left. Unfortunately forty-two years later they returned. This was seen as the weevils breaking the agreement. I think that this is very unfair considering weevils have a life span of at the most two months, which means at least 252 generations had passed between the original and 1587 miscreants. Even if weevils have an oral tradition it would have been unlikely this 252nd generation of weevils would have been aware of the original judgement. Nevertheless the new trial went ahead. It was finally decided that the accused should be given another piece of land where they could live in happiness and comfort although the opposing lawyers could not agree where that should be since the prosecutors’ choice was deemed as unsuitable. It is unclear what the final decision was as possibly in revenge of theirs and their ancestors’ blackened reputation either the weevils or some of their friends ate the pages outlining the trial summary and the court proceedings[16].

The Rat Attorney

Image by Lenora.

One of the most successful animal lawyers was Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, a French jurist and theologian who studied law in France and Italy. He worked in the service of the duchy of Milan and Pope Julius II but moved back to France after a plague outbreak where he became famous for defending a group of rats who were destroying a barley crop in the vicinity of Autun. The citizens of Autun finally applied to the Episcopal Court to get the rats excommunicated as all other means of removal had failed. The court appointed Chasseneuz to represent the rats. Chasseneuz studied the evidence and put forward an interesting argument for adjoining the trial i.e. that the rats had not been properly summoned to the hearing as not all the priests in the infected areas had issued formal citations. This approach did not result in a dismissal of the case so he then tried to delay the trial by arguing that not enough time had been allowed for the rats to present at court considering the physical peril they faced in having to negotiate the church cats[17]. I could not find a record of the sentence but this group of rats probably lost and were excommunicated.

The Deviancy of Birds

Birds did not escape the wrath of the church. Most often they were excommunicated for damaging harvest crops or livestock as in Canada at the end of the 17th century when a number of birds of prey were excommunicated, but occasionally there were other concerns.

In 1559 the Saxon vicar, Daniel Greyber, excommunicated a flock of birds which were residing in his church. Greyber was angry at them disrupting his services and even more concerned at their sexual shenanigans or “scandalous acts of unchastity”[18]. Possibly the vicar was worried about the birds setting a bad example!

Cockchafers and their Deceased Defender

Sometimes the law was ignored and insects not given their proper legal aid. For instance in 1479 in the Lausanne area some cockchafers (whatever they are) were invited to appear at the bishops’ court to face charges. Perrodet was appointed to represent them but neither Perrodet or the cockchafers showed up. Both had good excuses, the cockchafers were insects – enough said and Perrodet had been dead for six months. In their absence a judgement was given in the name of the Holy Trinity and Blessed Virgin and the insects ordered to quit the area forever[19].

Parson Hawker

One of the last known animal excommunications took place in England by the 19th century vicar, Robert Stephen Hawker of Morwenstow who excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays.

Image by Lenora.

The difference between this and most of the earlier examples is that Hawker was a minister of the Church of England and not a Catholic priest. Putting that aside his parishioners saw the excommunication as an extension of Hawker’s eccentric behaviour rather than religious adherence, for instance he was known to dress on occasion as a mermaid[20].

“Four legs good, two legs bad”[21]

The list of animals that faced a legal trial is a long one and includes aside from those already mentioned snails, slugs, locusts, moles, eels, grasshoppers and dolphins. Nearly 144 excommunications and executions of animals and insects took place between 824 and 1845[22] but in reality by the 1700s animal trials had begun to fall out of favour.

Although we can laugh at it now at the time animal trials were taken completely seriously as in the medieval mind the devil was working through these creatures and so they needed to be dealt with severely.

As to the views of the members of the animal kingdom that were executed, exiled and condemned, we are in the dark but if Christianity is wrong and Hinduism right about reincarnation then we know who has had the last laugh!

Miss Piggy on trial. Image by Michell O’Connell from Spiked 9 Sept 2015

Bibliography

Popular Science, Dec 1882, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JSsDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA248&lpg=PA248&d#v=onepage&q&f=false

Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38, Number 5867, 15 January 1870, https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SDU18700115.2.10&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1

Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages, Thomas A Fudge, 2016

Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, Charlie Campbell, 2011

Encyclopædia metropolitana; or, Universal dictionary of knowledge, Volume 18, (ed) Edward Smedley, 1845, https://books.google.co.uk/books

Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barth%C3%A9lemy_de_Chasseneuz

Popular Science Feb 1876, Feb 1876, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CSIDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA504&lpg=PA504&dq=the+bishop+of+laon+excommunicate+caterpillars&source=bl&ots=r8dx_n0saM&sig=Wq3xCjO7hpFd9NWYNoGsPww6zvw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj6lfGjyPfdAhXLKMAKHaD-ChgQ6AEwA3oECAUQAQ#v=onepage&q=bishop%20of%20laon%20excommunicate%20caterpillars&f=false

The criminal prosecution and capital punishment of animals, Edward Payson Evans, 1906

Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, Nicholas Humphrey, Chapter 18 in The Mind made Flesh, OUP 2002, http://www.humphrey.org.uk/papers/2002BugsAndBeasts.pdf

Fantastically Wrong: Europe’s Insane History of Putting Animals on Trial and Executing Them, Matt Simon, https://www.wired.com/2014/09/fantastically-wrong-europes-insane-history-putting-animals-trial-executing/

Bernard of Clairvaux, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_of_Clairvaux

Beasts before the Bar, Frank A Beach, http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/picks-from-the-past/041873/beasts-before-the-bar?page=2

Robert Stephen Hawker, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stephen_Hawker

Legal Prosecutions of Animals, William Jones, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_17/September_1880/Legal_Prosecutions_of_Animals

Anathema, https://orthodoxwiki.org/Anathema

Excommunication, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excommunication

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Notes

[1] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

[2] Popular Science, Dec 1882

[3] ibid

[4] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[5] ibid

[6] Beasts before the Bar

[7] ibid

[8] Excommunication

[9] Anathema

[10] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[11] ibid

[12] The Popular Science, December 1882

[13] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[14] ibid

[15] Bugs and Beasts

[16] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[17] Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 38

[18] Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages

[19] Legal Prosecutions of Animals

[20] Robert Stephen Hawker

[21] Animal Farm, George Orwell

[22] Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People

WGW: Whitby Goth Weekend Oct 2019

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Whitby Goth Weekend 24-27 October 2019

Twice a year Whitby, a quaint seaside town in North Yorkshire, becomes the mecca for the darkside. Goths, Steampunks, Victorian enthusiasts all gather for the Whitby Goth Weekend.  The event, which grew out of a goth music festival developed by Jo Hampshire back in 1994,  is now so huge that accommodation is often booked out for two years in advance and it’s estimated that it these two weekends bring in over a £1.1 Millions pounds to the local economy.

WGW brings in the crowds!

I’ve been going to the Goth weekend for many years with Bonnie and Occasionally Miss Jessel has managed to join us, but life and general mischance have meant I’ve not been since the 2015 October event.  My recollections of the at last visit was that there was a change in the air, the Goths who came for the music festival seemed to be in retreat in the face of Victorian enthusiasts and the Steampunk advance.  The locals also seemed to be growing tired of photographers and visitors disrespecting and damaging the historic graveyard of St Mary’s.  What had always seemed to be a very inclusive and welcoming atmosphere had developed fissures and the tensions were bubbling up to the surface. While I still enjoyed the evant, I was left wondering what would happen, if, indeed, it would survive.

WGW at Abbey Wharf

Doctor and the Medics at Abbey Wharf

I’m happy to say that WGW is going strong.  In the face of a huge explosion in popularity over the last few years and the diversity of alternative sub-genres in evidence, it is clear that the event has successfully evolved and regenerated into a wonderful and inclusive event.

These days the music events have diffused and WGW have many official events across the weekend.  The events are all free, but you can get fast-track and VIP tickets (which are worth it, as even after 11pm the Queues were long).  Jo and the other organisers seem to have successfully brought music back to the forefront of the event Abbey Wharf played host to a Stars and Moons Productions Barnum and Bailey/Greatest Showman themed night, headlined by the legendary Doctor and the Medics.  It was packed out and there were queues all night to get in.

The Bizarre Bazaar has also lost none of its allure since moving from Whitby Pavilion to Whitby Leisure Centre (just a short way along from the Pavilion).

Tourists flock through St Mary’s graveyard.

This year sadly  Miss Jessel was unable to join me, but Bonnie and I went down with some younger friends who had never attended the event before.  I don’t think that they were quite ready for how difficult it was to get anywhere without being swarmed by photographers! One of them even made it into the national papers (look for ‘woman in black corset and dramatic face makeup enjoying a stroll’ in the link below) not bad for her first visit!!

Modern Vampire hunters!

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7618815/Goths-steampunks-seaside-town-Whitby-twice-yearly-Goth-Weekend.html

Here are some of the images from Whitby Goth Weekend 2019.

The Goths and the Victorians

Victorian Vampires at St Mary’s Church.

Death stalks the St Mary’s graveyard.

Miss Jessel has a rival in this gothic governess.

Death and the maiden

Detail

The Vampire chained

 

Goth guy

 

Vampyra in the YHA (outfit designed and created by Iga Pecak)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Close up by the whale bones

Vampire Alley

 

RNLI guess the weight of the pumpkin!

Grey lady and gent

Purple lady

The Mad Hatter

Bride of the bat

Detail

Victorian Steampunk couple

The undisputed queen of the vampires

Steampunks and the rest

 

Steampunk Pirate hat by Iga Pecak

Detail

Steampunk explorers at the whale bones

Steampunk gentlemen

Gentleman playing the saw at the bandstand

STeampunk pixie girl

Gorgeous Georgians

 

You shall not pass!

Anime girl

Bring out your dead!

Where else but Whitby would you see a lady out strolling with her dragon?

And the final word goes to the fabulous Goth Cat and friend!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

FROM THE HAUNTED PALACE!!

Phantom fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?

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Phantom Fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?

“Ghosts commonly appear in the same dress they usually wore whilst living; though they are sometimes clothed all in white; but that is chiefly the churchyard ghosts.” (Francis Grose, 1787)

“How do you account for the ghost’s clothes – are they ghosts too?” (Saturday Review, 19 July 1856)

Just how do you account for ghosts clothing? A disarmingly simple – yet vexed – question that has been debated for centuries by both sceptics and believers.
If ghosts are supposed to represent the spirit or eternal essence of a human being, why, then, do they need to appear in something so prosaic as clothing or the ubiquitous white sheet? I mean, have you ever heard of anyone saying they saw the ghost of their dearly departed grandma – naked?

Naked ghosts

Naked ghosts are rare in the UK – it must be the weather. However, there are some examples, often with Medieval or early modern origin.

In Rochester a Medieval tale tells of the ghost of a priest who appeared to witnesses shivering and naked. His state of undress was important because his spectre had a message for the living – it wished to symbolise how his estate had been stripped bare by his corrupt executors. [1]

Image from an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery. Photo by Lenora.

A tale that circulated in London between the 15-18th Centuries, concerned the fate of five condemned men. In 1447 the men were said to have been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – a particularly grisly fate. Once hanged, the five were cut down from the hanging tree and stripped in preparation for the gruesome denuemont of their punishment. Their clothing was distributed to the gaping crowds. An added twist in the tale lends poignancy to their fate by claiming that a pardon arrived just too late to save them from their deaths.

Railing at the injustice and humiliation of their execution, the unhappy spirits were said to have risen up from their corporeal bodies in a misty vapour. The ghosts accosted the crowd demanding their clothes be returned and then fled. The tale persisted for around three hundred years, with occasional reports of five ghostly naked men importuning startled strangers apparently still seeking the return of their clothing – and presumably their dignity.[2]

Scotland, too, has reports of naked ghosts. In 1592, Agnes Sampson was accused of witchcraft, tortured and burned at the stake (in England witches were usually hanged). Her tormented spirit is said to walk naked in the grounds of Holyrood – although she sometimes covers up and wears a white shroud (again, it must be the weather).
These three examples fit into a Medieval ghost-type, the ghost who has suffered a wrong in life, and in the first two cases at least, is trying to right that wrong post mortem, so their nakedness is necessary to their stories.[3]

So, while sightings of naked ghosts clearly do occur, their nakedness is for a particular reason. In short, these cases appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule – that most ghosts prefer to wear clothes when being seen.

Of course, sometimes naked ghosts turn out to be something else entirely – in 1834 a primitive Methodist got very primitive indeed and scared the bejazus out of his neighbours by jumping out at them ‘dressed’ – or should that be ‘undressed’ – as a naked boggart. His eccentric prank was not appreciated by the judiciary, and he got three months hard labour for his efforts.[4]

What do ghosts wear?

Accepting that most ghosts wear clothing of some sort, what, then, do they wear?

White sheets – obviously

The popular image of a ghost is of a floaty, often transparent, figure in a white sheet – although most modern ghost sightings don’t seem to support this image. In fact, this version of ghostly attire has particular origins, which will be examined later.

The three living and the three dead. British Museum Collection.

The animated dead found in European Medieval art may often wear white but they look anything but ethereal – rather they look very solid and corpsey. There is no mistaking them as former denizens of the grave, with their mouldering bones poking out of tattered flesh and their wormy eye-sockets all a-stare.

The spectral fashion for white is linked to burial practices. Until about the 17th century, most people in Britain and Europe would have been buried not in a coffin, but in a simple undyed linen or wool winding sheet. It’s not surprising, then, that early ghost sightings tended to describe ghosts dressed in their winding sheets or shrouds.

Detail of grave clothes from Astrology (1806) by Ebenezer Sibly. Wikimedia.

By the eighteenth-century ghosts had a more extensive wardrobe to choose from. However, white clad ghosts were still sighted, Daniel Defoe, writing in his 1727 work ‘An Essay on the History of Apparitions’ describes the traditional ghost as:
[..] dress’d up …in a shroud, as if it just came out of the coffin and the church-yard
And Francis Grose, writing in 1787, reported some ghost as ‘clothed all in white’ but that those were mainly confined to churchyard sightings.[5]

But by the eighteenth century there had been a revolution in grave clothes. Funereal fashion had moved away from the long winding sheets and shrouds of old and developed a new line in more everyday death-wear: tailored shirts for men, and shifts for women. Examples of this fashion can be found in satirical prints by the likes of James Gillray (1756?-1815) and  George Moutard Woodward (1765-1809).  Many Christians believed in actual bodily resurrection for the Last Judgement, so a shirt or shift probably seemed like more practical and respectable attire in which to meet one’s maker!

Of course, while this change was great for the manufacturers of funeral clothes, not everyone appreciated the change. The 18th century saw the rise of Gothic literature and following publication of Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) came a growing appreciation of the beauty of horror. So, what is an artist or a theatre director to do, to recapture the ‘magnificent horror’ of the vengeful spectre? [6]

Artist unknown. University of Austin Texas.

The answer, it seems, was to be found in that other 18th century passion – classical antiquity. The ghosts of art and theatre now took on the white draperies of the ancient Romans or Greeks. Henry Fuseli, George Romney and Johns Flaxman all helped cement this image in the popular imagination and added a cloudy transparency to top it all off.

The white clad ghost captured the public imagination so much so, that this element was incorporated into the Hammersmith Ghost hoax of 1803/04 (in which the belief that ghosts wore white resulted in a tragedy when a white clad bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, was mistaken for the alleged spectre and shot dead).

The Hammersmith Ghost. Wikimedia

Even in the 20th century the power of the white draped phantom is used to particularly chilling effect by MR James in “Oh Whistle Lad, and I’ll come to you”. Here the classical drapery is replaced with more mundane, but no less terrifying, bedsheets that take on a ghostly form and possess an “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen.” Anyone who has ever slept alone in a room with a spare bed must surely feel horror at this description.

Their ordinary clothes

By far the most common attire reported, particularly in modern sightings, is a generic costume appropriate to the era of the apparition. A knight might appear in armour, a religious in the habit of their order, a lady might appear in the fashions of her day, granny might appear in her Sunday best.

Many reports of ghosts have them mistaken for the living, dressed in their ordinary clothes. For example, Daniel Defoe famously reported on the case of the ghost of Mrs Veal. Mrs Veal visited her good friend Mrs Bargrave and the two ladies had a conversation before Mrs Veal finally went on her merry way. Only later, did Mrs B find out her friend had passed away. In order to validate her experience Mrs B was able to describe her late friend’s silk gown in great detail: “you have seen indeed, for none knew, but Mrs Veal and myself, that the gown was scower’d” (to make the fabric softer) [7] so who could it have been but Mrs Veal? [8]

The Penny Story Teller – The Fated Hour 1832. Wikimedia.

Many modern sightings, particularly of deceased friends and relatives also follow this model, with the ghost appearing in their familiar garb (and as with Mrs Veal, sometimes this can make them appear less like ghosts and more ‘real’ to the witness).

Sightings of ghosts in particular period dress, such as Roman Legionaries in York or Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, are also frequently reported. However, as Owen Davies has noted, some periods are favoured over others – he provides a possible explanation in in that popular culture and cinema make it easy for most people to identify a Tudor ghost or the ghosts of Roman soldiers than, say, a bronze age ghost.[9]

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black. 2012. Dir. James Watkins.

Susan Hill’s 1983 novel ‘The Woman in Black’ fixed the black clad ghost firmly in the public psyche.  Jennet’s black clothing symbolise her mourning for her lost child and her malevolent nature as the bringer of death to the innocent.  However, black clad ghosts are rare in Britain compared to in Europe.  Owen Davies suggests this could be down to religious differences.  In Europe, and some medieval English ghost reports, black clad spirits often represent the souls passage through purgatory.  One example, provided by Joe Nickell, was of a corrupt money lender whose doleful ghost appeared to his wife, dressed in black for seven years.  To assist his soul’s journey through purgatory, she prayed at his grave for seven years, until his ghost re-appeared dressed white.  After the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, purgatory fell out of favour in Britain, and black clad ghosts became rarer. [10]

Things changed in the nineteenth century when the Victorian’s elaborate mourning rituals, including black mourning clothes, saw a spike in reports to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) of ghosts in black clothes.

Skeptics and believers

“[H]ow is a spirit, in itself immaterial and invisible, to become the object of human sight? How is it to acquire the appearance of dress?” (Anti Canidia, 1762)

“…as a matter of course, that as ghosts cannot, must not, do not, for decency’s sake, appear WITHOUT CLOTHES; and that there can be no such thing as GHOSTS or SPIRITS of CLOTHES, why, then, it appears that GHOSTS NEVER DID APPEAR AND NEVER CAN APPEAR” (George Cruikshank, 1863)

Both writers express the rationalist position in relation to the existence of ghosts. In doing so, they raise the vexed question of ghost’s clothing – a seemingly trivial question but one that actually strikes at the heart of the nature of ghosts and ghost sightings.

Clothing at its most basic level keeps us warm, but it also expresses social status, tribal identity, and sexual allure. If ghosts are supposed to represent the eternal spirit part of human existence, surely clothing is redundant?

This question, often highlighted by sceptics to support the non-existence of ghosts, forced psychic investigators and believers to examine more critically why this apparently illogical phenomenon is frequently reported by seemingly credible witnesses. Are there ghost clothes, or could ghostly clothing represent something else entirely – how the living receive and perceive such phenomena?

A very brief guide to how ghostly clothing has been explained

The nature of apparitions, how they appear, to whom and why some people see them while others do not, it is a vast topic. This is a brief overview of some of the views presented by early writers and psychical investigators.

The growth of spiritualism, mesmerism and clairvoyance promoted the idea that the sentient souls of the dead could convey thoughts and images to the living via the medium of clairvoyance.

Catherine Crowe (1803-1876), writing in 1848, seemed to support this view when she:
“If a spirit could concieve of its former body it can equally concieve of its former habiliments, and so represent them, by the power of will to the eye, or present them to the constructive imagination of the seer” and the reason for this “to appear naked [..] to say the last of it, would be much more frightful and shocking.” [11]
Basically, Crowe suggested that ghosts were trying not to offend the Victorian sensibilities of their audience.

Giles Scroggins Ghost. 1893. Wikimedia.

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, many psychical investigators, often working under the aegis of the SPR, wanted to encourage a more scientific approach.  Moving the focus away from the power of the apparition to shape it’s appearance, to the power of the viewer to do so.

Here are a few of the theories that came out of these investigations:

Spiritualist Newton Crossland (1812-1895) proposed a ‘spiritual photographic theory‘ suggesting that every moment of a life is psychically recorded and can be reproduced by apparitions – therefore a suitable outfit and props were always on hand.  This view was dismissed by many psychical researchers at the time.

Edmund Gurney of the SPR. Wikimedia.

Frank Podmore (1856-1910) pointed out that many cultures provide grave goods for the dead to utilise in the afterlife, so perhaps ghost clothing was not unreasonable.

Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), co-founder of the SPI, and Frederic Meyers, looked for a more scientific theory and both suggested some form of telepathy. That in the case of crisis apparitions, such as when a person is dying, a blaze of energy from the subject could telepathically project their apparition to a sensitive ‘receiver’ who then clothed the apparition via the medium of their own emotions and memory. Nora Sidgwick (1845-1936), working with Gurney, noted that many witnesses were vague on the detail when pressed to describe the clothing worn by apparitions, which might support this view.

However, this theory would seem to be focused on apparitions of the recently deceased and not to fit so well with historic ghosts where any final blaze of energy would surely be dissipated over the passage of time.

GMN Tyrell (1879 –1952), another member of SPR, considered ghosts as a hallucination of the conscious mind and supported the telepathic theory as the mechanism. He supported the concept of the ‘apparitional drama’ and proposed that clothing and props were part of the apparition as a whole and that the details depended on the viewers personality.[12]

The work of the SPR laid the foundations for a psychology-based approach to understanding why people see apparitions – and why they usually see them clothed.

Conclusion

In setting out to look into why ghosts wear clothes, I was surprised to find that how and what they wore was subject to so much debate. That the apparently frivolous question of where ghosts obtain their clothing, actually leads on to more serious questions such as: whether ghosts exist, why eternal immaterial spirits would need clothing in the first place, whether apparitions have ‘agency’ to create illusions of dress in the mind of the viewer, or whether the psychology of the person witnessing the apparition has bearing on the appearance.

While the jury is likely to remain out for the forseable future, on whether ghosts really do exist , for me the question of why ghosts wear clothes is answered best by Joe Nickell, in his 2012 book, The Science of Ghosts.  Nickell opts for the principle of Occam’s Razor, preferring that the simplest, most tenable explanation is most likely to be true. In this case, that apparitions (and their clothing) are the mental images of the living, appearing as they do in memories, dreams and the imagination.[13]  I like the elegant simplicity of this theory.

What do you think?

‘Oh Whistle Lad and I’ll come to you’. 1904 illustration by James McBryde. Via Wikimedia.

Sources and notes

Anonymous, 1762, Anti-Canidia: Or, Superstition Detected and Exposed. in a Confutation of the Vulgar Opinion Concerning Witches, Spirits, Demons, Magick
Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost-seers (Wordsworth reprint 2000) [11]
Cruikshank, George, 1863, A discovery concerning ghosts: with a rap at the “spirit-rappers”
Dafoe, Daniel, 1727, The History and Reality of Apparitions <https://archive.org/details/TheHistoryAndRealityOfApparitions> [7]
Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A social History of Ghosts, Palgrave MacMillan [1][3][4][9]
Grose, Francis, 1787, A Provincial Glossary [5]
Nickell, Joe, 2012, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for the Spirits of the Dead, Prometheus books [2][8]-[10][13]
Owens, Susan, 2017, The Ghost A cultural History, Tate [6]
Tyrell GNM, 1953, Apparitions, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd [12]