Poltergeists Through History


Borley Rectory – reputedly one of the most haunted houses in England (source: wikicommons)

As a researcher on the supernatural, it is difficult to come up with a themed blog post for Halloween. For better or worse, everything is relevant. But after finishing Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters, a fictionalised account of Harry Price’s investigations into the hauntings at Borley Rectory in the 1920s and 30s (a great book, btw), I thought it would be fun to embark on a whistle-stop tour through the cultural history of the poltergeist. Let us first consider the following:


“There was […] a large and spacious, but ill‑reputed and pestilential house. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of fetters; at first it seemed at a distance, but approached nearer by degrees; immediately afterward a phantom appeared in the form of an old man, extremely meagre and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the gyves on his feet and hands. The poor inhabitants consequently passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, threw them into distempers, which, as their horrors of mind increased, proved in the end fatal to their lives. For even in the day time, though the spectre did not appear, yet the remembrance of it made such a strong impression on their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and their terror remained when the cause of it was gone. By this means the house was at last deserted, as being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity which attended it, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.”


The staging of the above extract will not be alien to those familiar with the tropes of haunted house stories. Strange noises, unusual apparitions, occupants who fled it terror –  these have long been a staple of ghost literature and horror movies. Rather than being the synopsis of a screenplay, this description actually comes from the pen of Pliny the Younger (d.113CE) who included the tale in a letter addressed to the Roman senator Lucius Licinius Sura.


Pliny the Younger: a teller of ghost stories (source: wikicommons)

The sound of knocking or scratching is arguably the main component of a poltergeist encounter. Poltergeist literary means an ‘angry, rumbling spirit’. Other indicators that a house was haunted by poltergeists include the movement of objects, the throwing of stones and, in an interesting overlap with the nightmare tradition, the physical assault of members of the household. Medieval historiographies contain their fair share of poltergeist exempla. One such case can be read in the Chronicle of Sigebert of Gembloux (ca. 1030-1112), which describes events that were said to have occurred in Mainz during the ninth-century. Again, the details will be somewhat familiar to horror aficionados:


“An evil spirit in the bishopric of Mainz was casting stones, striking the walls of houses as if with a hammer […]. It then aroused many people’s wrath against a man in whose house it lived, and which it burnt down […]. When the priests celebrated the litanies, the demon hurt several of them by throwing stones. Sometimes it was calm and sometimes excited, but things continued in this vein for three years until all the buildings in the area had been consumed by fire” (trans. Lecouteux)


In this extract, the poltergeist is explicitly referred to as a demon. By contrast,  in a famous 1323 account of a domestic haunting in Alés, France, the perpetrator of the ‘strange noises’ turned out to be the ghost of the man who used to live in the house, Guy of Corvo, permitted by God to return home to seek absolution.

The ontological ambiguity surrounding the nature of ‘rumbling spirits’ – were they evil spirits, ghosts of the dead, or something in between? – is something that can be discerned in the famous account of the Drummer of Tedworth (c.1661). The story begins with a vagrant drummer named William Drury, who was accused of bewitching the house of a landowner, John Mompesson, with whom he had recently quarrelled in a lawsuit. Soon after, loud drumming and scratching noises began to plague the Mompesson household. The theologian Joseph Glanvill paid a visit to the Mompessons and experienced the strange happenings first-hand. The haunting of Tedworth is one of many similar stories used in Glanvill’s Saducismus triumphatus (1681) to refute atheism and substantiate the existence of supernatural phenomena.


Image of the Tedworth spirit from the third edition (1700) of the Saducismus triumphatus. Note how other devils flock to the sound of the drum (source: wikicommons)

Poltergeists remained a cause for concern in the eighteenth-century and beyond. The notebook of Charles Wesley,  digitised in full by the John Rylands Library in Manchester, details how Epsworth Recory (residence of the Wesley family) was plagued by the ghost of a former servant named  ‘Old Jeffrey’. From December 1616 to January 1717 it terrorised the household by walking unseen through the stairways and making loud, terrible noises. The hauntings stopped just as suddenly as they started.


Charles Wesley: younger brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (source: wikicommons)

As the the above examples attest, historians and theologians rarely agreed as to the true meaning behind a poltergeist’s appearance. Whether it was perceived as a restless ghost, demon, or even a folkloric spirit, the mischievous and malevolent aspect of the poltergeist’s agency is what made it so fascinating to contemporary audiences. The strange events that led to the abandonment and ultimate destruction of Borley Rectory –  reimagined for modern readers through The Ghost Hunters – would not have been out of place in Pliny’s letter to Sura.



Claude Lecouteux, The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestation (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2012)

Joseph Glanvill, Saducismus triumphatus (London, 1681)

Pliny the Younger, Letters, trans. William Melmouth; rev.  W. M. L. Hutchinson (London: Heinemann, 1915)

Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Belief and Ghost Stores in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Pickering & Chatto , 2007)

The Devil Dog of Butley

A few weeks ago I was doing a bit of research on the burial of early modern suicides (as one does) and came across an interesting entry in the register of Butley Abbey, an Augustinian priory in Suffolk. As well as the fascinating account of the crossroad burial of one of Butley’s later priors, Robert Brommer (c.1509/10), I also happened upon an early version of the East Anglian Black Dog legend. Referring to the events of 1513, the chronicler writes:

“It was this year on the feast of St. Michael (29th September), after evening prayer […] that, during a thunderstorm, the Devil in the shape or species of a very black dog appeared in Essex; that is to say, near to a village called Chich, where part of the bell tower of the church of Sts Peter, Paul and Osyth caught fire. Eventually the dog departed without causing harm to anyone, thanks be to God.”

This is a very (very!) loose paraphrase of the original Latin text, but it bears close resemblance to the more famous tale of the Black Dog that terrorised the village of Bungay, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, in 1577. In both stories the devil-dog appears during a violent storm in which the local church was badly damaged after being struck by lightning. However, whilst the Bungay dog was said to have wrung the necks of two parishioners, killing them both, the residents of Chich (the modern-day village of St Osyth) seem to have escaped unharmed, the cost of rebuilding the bell tower notwithstanding.


Abraham Fleming’s pamphlet on the Black Dog of Bungay (Source: wikicommons)


As noted by the editor of the Register of Butley Priory, the Butley description is one of the earliest accounts of the Black Dog legend yet found in the written record. It would be interesting to see if any such stories can be detected in earlier chronicle traditions. As it stands, these sixteenth-century wonder stories are a stark testament to the pervasive nature of local belief. Devilish black dogs would continue to haunt the locales and landscapes of East Anglia for centuries to come.


Abraham Fleming, A Straunge and Terrible Wunder (London, 1577)

The Register or Chronicle of Butley Priory, Suffolk, 1510-1535, ed. by  A. G. Dickens, forward by J. N. L. Myres (Winchester: The Wykeham Press, 1951)

The Political Use of Walking Corpses in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum

‘Such things often happened in England’


This was the matter-of fact answer given to Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (d.1200), upon hearing that a walking corpse was causing a nuisance in an unnamed Buckinghamshire village. Unwilling to follow the advice of his advisors to burn the corpse, Hugh instead ordered that a scroll of absolution be placed on the dead man’s chest. Apparently this did the trick, for the revenant immediatly stopped terrorising his neighbours and loved ones.

Along with three similar stories, this episode is recorded in book five of William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum (c.1198). According to William, restless corpses were also encountered in Berwick, Melrose and ‘Anant’ (which scholars have taken to be Alnwick in Northumberland). Not all of those who encountered the undead followed Hugh’s example in absolving the deceased of whatever sins compelled him or her to walk. The residents of Berwick, concerned that their own walking corpse was infecting the town with corrupted, noxious air, decided that cremation was the only viable option, as ‘shown by frequent examples in similar cases.’ Religious houses were not immune to being pestered by the undead. Monks from the Cistercian Abbey of Melrose decided to burn the body of a priest who, in life, devoting more time to hunting and whoring than to the spiritual wellbeing of his flock. Having been buried in Melrose’s graveyard, he became much more of a nuisance in death, rising from his tomb each night to attack his former concubine and harass the inmates of the monastery.


Melrose Abbey, the site of a revenant encounter in 1196 (source: Wikicommons)

As a canon of the Augustinian Priory of Newburgh (N. Yorkshire) and somewhat of a religious conservative, William is coolly equivocal as to why such entities started to appear at this time. He says he can find no reference to them in Classical literature. And yet, his oblique references to such events ‘often happening in England’ and that ‘frequent examples [occurred] in similar cases’ suggest that revenants were causing much more trouble for local communities than the scant historical references indicate.  Even so, it is telling that William refers to each revenant as a ‘prodigy’ – that is, an entity whose appearance perhaps signified something else, something rotten, in the body-politic.

What, then, do these undead corpses signify? All four exempla were said to have occurred in the spring of 1196, a time of much social and economic strife in the English realm. As I discussed in a recent article for the Journal of Medieval History, William seems to be critiquing the activities of ‘social revenants’, that is to say, people whose political actions also caused the spread of disorder and death. It is perhaps no-coincidence that all four exempla follow William’s account of the treasonous activities of William FitzOsbert, a Londoner who tried to enact a rebellion and was put to death for his crimes.


FitzOsbert was hanged at Tyburn gallows, London, in the spring of 1196, where he quickly began to be seen as a martyr (pictured, the gallows at it looked c.1680; source: Wikicommons)

Pointedly, the revenant narratives precede an account of a famine that overtook England and, a few chapters later, a digression on the death of the hated Chancellor of England, William Longchamp (d.1197). The Historia Rerum Anglicarum does not pull any punches in its description of Longchamp:

“England rejoiced at his death, for the fear of him had lain like an incubus upon her; for when he might have done much with the king, and being a man of vast spirit, could not have been forgetful of his former expulsion from England, it was evident that he would frequently plot evil against the land which had vomited him forth as some pestilential humor.”

The language of disease (‘corruption’, ‘infection’, ‘pestilence’) permeates the descriptions of the revenant encounters and is used to frame the malign activities of FitzOsbert and Longchamp. Wonders are some of the more weapons in an historians’ arsenal.  What better way to criticise the conduct of social malcontents than through the transgressive actions of a violent, pestilential corpse? Although he didn’t know exactly why the dead started to rise, William of Newburgh certainly knew how to put them to use.



English translations taken from Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England, vol. 4, part 2 (London: Seeley, 1861). Online edition, ed. Scott McLetchie, 2009, available from http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-intro.asp

Stephen Gordon, ‘Social Monsters and the Walking Dead in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum’, Journal of Medieval History 41 (2015), 446−465

Walter Map: A Medieval Humourist

At the start of each academic semester I always ask my first-year students to reflect on their own conception of the Middle Ages.  ‘Barbarous’, ‘disease-ridden’ and ‘superstitious’ are some of the more common descriptors used. Of course, the idea is to pick apart these stereotypes and show that the medieval world was not just a place of Monty Python-esque peasants wallowing in mud, but also a time of social and literary innovation. The possession of a sense of humour is one of the categories that is often overlooked when discussing the less pejorative aspects of medieval culture.  Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium (‘Courtiers’ Trifles’, c.1182) is representative of the kind of caustic satire that found great favour in the literary circles of the High Middle Ages.

A clerk in the court of Henry II (d.1189), Map was well known in his lifetime for being a raconteur who possessed with a wonderfully sardonic wit. His Courtiers’ Trifles – a haphazard selection of stories, anecdotes and personal asides written whilst in the king’s employ – contains numerous examples of Map’s witty, sometimes brutal putdowns. Most of these were reserved for his most hated of adversaries, the Cistercian Order.



Flaxley Abbey (pictured) encroached onto the lands of the church of Westbury-on-Severn, which had previously been held by Map (source: wikicommons)


Map was not alone in showing his disdain for the Order. An anonymous poem entitled De Grisis Monachis notes that the spread of the Cistercians can be likened to the spread of animal waste (shuta). However, the source of Map’s enmity seems to have been entirely personal. His contemporary Gerald of Wales (d.1223) – who, incidentally, had his own problems with the Order – notes that Flaxley Abbey, located near the Forest of Dene, encroached onto lands that once belonged to Map. From then on, Map needed no excuse to vent his anger against the white monks, reserving an especial ire for the most famous of contemporary Cistercians, Bernard of Clairvoux (d.1153). Consider Map’s remark upon hearing that Bernard failed to miraculously resurrect a boy who had recently died:

‘”Then he was the most unlucky of monks” said I: “I have heard before now of a monk throwing himself upon a boy, but always, when the monk got up, the boy promptly got up too”. The abbot got very red, and a lot of people left the room to have a good laugh’



Walter Map was not one of Bernard of Clairvoux’s biggest fans (source: Wikicommons)


Map seems to take particular glee in recounting Bernard’s failed miracles. On one occasion, it was said a madman chased the abbot through the streets of Montpellier, pelting him with stones, after a failed attempt at exorcism. Sarcasm can also be read in Map’s anecdote concerning a failed attempt to raise a certain ‘Walter, Count of Nevers’, from the dead: ‘[Bernard] cried with a loud voice: “Walter come forth”, but Walter, not hearing the voice of Jesus, had not the ears of Lazarus, and did not come’. Even in his later years Map did not ease up on his attacks. Writing at the turn of the thirteenth century, the subprior of the monastery of St. Frideswide in Oxford notes that ‘in youth and in old age Walter Map says derisory things in verse and prose about the spread of the white monks’.

Walter Map’s insults display an extremely sophisticated – some might say ‘modern’ – comic sensibility. They are suffused with sarcasm and irony. Taken as a whole, the Courtiers’ Trifles is fascinating insight into the mind of a man who was increasingly exasperated by life both inside and outside the court. It is well worth a read.



David N. Bell, ‘De Grisis Monachis: A Goliardic Invective against the Cistercians in London, B. L., Cotton Vespasian A.XIX’, in Studia Monastica 41 (1999), 243−259

Stephen Gordon, ‘Parody, Sarcasm and Invective in the Nugae of Walter Map’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116 (2017), 82–107

Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, ed. and trans.  by M. R. James; revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).

Dee, Demons and Necromancy

A Magician by Edward Kelly (cropped).jpg

John Dee and Edward Kelley conjure the dead (Sibley 1806) Copyright: Wikicommons


Welcome to my new blog, everybody! To begin I thought it best just to provide a few links to articles I’ve written for other blogs, based on the research I conducted for the Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World exhibition held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.


Here’s a little something on John Dee’s marginalia I wrote for the Inner Lives website


The exhibition also included a number of copies of the Shahnama (the Persian ‘Book of Kings’). See my overview of the Shahnama’s witch and demon stories for the Manchester Medieval Society blog


On the John Rylands Special Collections Blog you can read my explanation for the curious image of the ‘sweeping’ woman found in the library’s copy of the Concordantiae Caritatis typological handbook.


In recent months I’ve become increasingly interesting in early modern necromancy. Chetham’s Library contains a fascinating copy of the Pseudo-Roger Bacon Tractatus di Necromantia, which I wrote about for the Chetham’s Blog