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This Christmas season we are celebrating the holidays Shakespeare style by bringing out some traditional Tudor ghost stories. For the 16-17th century, one popular time to tell ghost stories was during the Christmas holidays. A more accurate term for these stories might be “ghost narratives” because they are different than the stories we think of today as “ghost stories” Instead of being fictional tales for the purpose of entertainment, ghost narratives from Shakespeare’s lifetime were factual tales (or at least witness accounts) people would tell about encountering ghosts or other supernatural beings. Our guest, Dr. Francis Young, is here this week to tell us about these stories, their association with Christmas, and the details surrounding some evidence that suggests Mamillius might be about to tell one of these ghost narratives in Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale.
Francis Young obtained his PhD in History from Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He teaches for Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education and is the author of over twenty books on the history of religion and supernatural belief including Magic in Merlin’s Realm (2022) and Twilight of the Godlings (2023). He appears regularly on BBC radio and can be found on Twitter as @DrFrancisYoung with doctor abbreviated and no spaces or punctuation.on. Dr. Young’s debut collection of ghost stories is titled “Yellow Glass”, featuring seven stories of the supernatural and macabre, including ‘This Is My Book’ (winner of a prize in the 2018 ‘Ghosts in the Bookshop’ short story competition). The collection explores the dangers of being ignorant about history. Learn more and see links to Francis Young’s work and a direct link to his twitter page in the show notes for today’s episode.
Related Book From Dr. Francis Young: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55387144-yellow-glass-and-other-ghost-stories
I’ll be asking Francis Young about:
- Are ghost stories associated specifically with Christmastime for Tudor England?
- You mentioned in an email to me before the show that there’s some evidence Mamillius in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale might be about to tell a ghost story. Can you tell us more about the format used to identify a ghost story of this period, and what is the evidence that suggests we might be able to see a glimpse of a Tudor ghost story in this play?
- What are some of the real ghost narratives, or stories people told as fact, that survive from Shakespeare’s lifetime about individuals who claim to have seen ghosts or encountered the supernatural?
- …and more!
Resources Recommended by Our Guest
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic
Owen Davies, Social History of Ghosts
Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola
Book by Peter Marshall called beliefs in the dead which gives na overview and lots of examples.
Laura Sangah Angels in Early Modern England
Twilight of the Godlings by Francis Young (This book deals with fairies, witches, and the boggart he mentions today).
Watch Francis Young do a dramatic reading of the MR James story he talks about in the episode today on YouTube:
“Ghost Beckons Hamlet”— Stage Directions, Hamlet (I.4)
Ghost Stories Are Associated with Christmas
Telling spooky stories is associated with Midwinter, the Christmas season and of course, in Tudor England that would have been a traditional activity for Christmas Eve all the way to Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night is the evening of Jan 5, the eve of the Fast of Epiphany. I have even asked, “Is Hamlet a Christmas play?” for all the relationships with Tudor Christmas traditions found in that work.
There’s one place in Shakespeare’s play, The Winter’s Tale where Mamillius begins what Francis believes is the beginning of a ghost story. He starts by saying “There was a man, dwelt by a church yard…” He is interrupted and unable to finish the story, but Francis believes this is a glimpse of what ghost stories would have been like for Tudor England. Similar to “Once upon a time…” being the traditional phrase to mark the beginning of a story, a man dwelling in a church yard makes sense as the beginning to a spooky.tale about ghosts since they were known to live in churchyards, near the cemetery.
Francis shares an example of Wharram Percy, a village which was abandoned by the 16th century.
Maeve Kennedy, writing for the Guardian about this village, explains:
“The archaeologists who studied a collection of human bones – including the remains of adults, teenagers and children excavated more than half a century ago, and dated back to the period between the 11th and 14th century – rejected gruesome possibilities including cannibalism in times of famine, or the massacre of outsiders. The cut marks were in the wrong place for butchery, and isotope analysis of the teeth showed that the people came from the same area as the villagers of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire – a once flourishing village which had been completely deserted by the early 16th century.”Medieval villagers mutilated the dead to stop them rising, study finds | Maeve Kennedy, Guardian, 2 April 2017 | Accessed 5 Sept 2023
The village is an example of how people defended themselves against the dead, demonstrating that the belief that it was possible for the dead to come back to life in a zombie-like way to persecute, harass, or communicate with the living. Francis explains, “several of the burial sites have stakes driven down through the hearts of the corpses, and there was concern with people walking after their deaths, particularly concern for people dying unholy ways. If you were buried in unconsecrated ground, buried without rights of the church, or unbaptized, these were risk factors for reanimation after death.”
“Never, O never, do his ghost the wrong To hold your honour more precise and nice With others than with him!”— Lady Percy, Henry IV Part II (II.3)
Protestantism, Reanimation of the dead, and the Bible
The dominant religion in England for Shakespeare’s lifetime was Calvinism. Calvinism decrees that each person is either going to Heaven or going to Hell, and there’s no option for someone’s spirit to come back from any of those places. Once you die, you go to one or the other, and it is irrevocable. The people who go to Heaven stay there because they are with God and no one is allowed to come back from Hell because they are eternally punished.
“Any stories of people coming back to handle unfinished business is directly associated with Catholic belief in Purgatory. Where people who are still sinful have to go to an intermediary state before they can go to Heaven. Some people believe sprites in Purgatory have the right to comeback to earth and handle things they were involve din on Earth.”
The Bible does talk about the spiritual world interacting with the living world when we see the story of Samuel and Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28: 7-20. In that story, King Saul consults the Witch of Endor to try and speak to Samuel, who was dead. In the story, Samuel is contacted from beyond the grave and admonishes Saul for committing a heinous act. That’s an example of someone dead being reanimated the dead by dark magic. Some traditions about that story suggest that if God allowed contact with the dead, or for the spirits of the dead to come to Earth on that occasion, then there’s a possibility that maybe in exceptional circumstances, God’s providence might allow a ghost to appear. There’s not a definitive answer to whether ghosts are therefore demonic deception or an act of providence by God, some might suggest it is both. There’s a large theological debate around this issue.
Regardless of where Protestantism falls on the issue, the play Hamlet looks at this issue of ghosts in a big way, making it ambiguous throughout the play as to whether the ghost of Hamlet’s father is an act of the devil trying to interfere with Hamlet, and destroying his life, or is if the ghost is a singular providence of God sent to allow Hamlet’s father to correct injustice. Francis suggests Shakespeare was intentional about giving that question to the audience and not answering it.
“Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears, And none but women left to wail the dead. Henry the Fifth, thy ghost I invocate: Prosper this realm, keep it from civil broils, Combat with adverse planets in the heavens!”— Duke of Bedford, Henry VI Part I (I.1)
Real Ghost Narratives
There are no surviving first person encounters from this time period of people who interacted directly with ghosts. We do, however, have anecdotes and a few pamphlets which describe a specter returning after death. These pamphlets describe someone who hides a will before they die, and then after death returns as as specter, and they are wearing a burial shroud.
“That’s where the idea of a ghost in a white sheet comes from. After Elizabeth required her burial in linen, covered in a long shroud tied in a bunch at the top of the head.”
While first person stories may not survive, we do have fictional 16th century ghost stories. Erasmus writes one called “The Exorcism” which is set in England.
“Erasmus wasn’t English, but he did spend time there as professor of Greek at Cambridge, just before the English Reformation. Concerned about superstition, it tells a satirical story about a parish priest thinks ghosts are walking in a church yard. A group of students decide to play a joke on him—tie candles to the back of crabs, priest comes out after saying prayers and sees lights moving among the tombstones. Once it is revealed [to be a] hoax, they make fun of him, but even a satirical story sheds light on what people might have believed.”
“[Sings] A pickaxe and a spade, a spade, For and a shrouding sheet; O, a Pit of clay for to be made For such a guest is meet. [Throws up [another skull].”— First Clown, Hamlet (V.1)
“The work of Protestant John Gee used this line of storytelling for his anti-catholic agenda. He gives accounts of elaborate deceptions practiced on Catholic gentlewomen, where the Jesuits try to extort them for money. They had elaborate deceptions that involved the spirits of someone that was related to one of these ladies beseeching prayers and telling them to pay money to the Jesuits.”
“Patience, good lady; wizards know their times: Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night, The time of night when Troy was set on fire; The time when screech-owls cry and ban-dogs howl, And spirits walk and ghosts break up their graves, That time best fits the work we have in hand.”— Bolingbroke, Henry VI Part II (I.4)
Angels vs Ghosts
In contemporary English we think of ghost and ghostly as purely paranormal, but ghost means any kind of spirit (example: Holy Ghost). In 16th century, the Confessor was your spiritual father. When we come across the word “ghost” for the 16th century person, it simply means “Spirit” and it could mean an angel, but it could mean something wholly positive and wholly good, and there’s not very many cases in the 16th century of people claiming to encounter angels.
[Encountering angels is] out of the range normally of Calvinist theology. God is not much of an interventionist God, as his work was accomplished by death and resurrection of Jesus, so orthodoxy doesn’t follow that, but Anabaptist and some other unorthodox groups would claim to see angels. Famously, John Dee, would claim to talk with angels regularly and see them through his medium Edward Kelly. Not the average parishioner. Ghosts were much more common. But seeing a ghost in the 16th century is not necessarily a frightening experience. It was certainly disquieting, but it wasn’t always terrifying. Most of the ones from this time period aren’t sinister at all, but dead relatives that have come back to right a wrong, and most are positive, like they are telling people where they hid money, so there was a little bit of welcome for ghosts because of that reputation. Fairies are threatening and unpleasant, and of course human witches were dangerous, but ghosts were not threatening.
“Vex not his ghost. O, let him pass! He hates him That would upon the rack of this tough world Stretch him out longer.”— Earl of Kent, King Lear (V.3)
Popular Christmas Figures
For Shakespeare’s lifetime, there were figures as familiar as Santa is to us today, and those would have been figures of celebration, like Lord of Misrule, which was a servant allowed to give orders, and those orders would be to do silly things.
There was also the character First Foot, which was the person who, on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, would take on the role of being the first person to cross the threshold of the house. That person had to have dark hair and dark eyes, and that person makes the rest of the year lucky. The tradition of First Foot is related to hogmanay and wassailing.
In addition to witches and fairies, there was also the boggart, which was the embodiment of pure terror. From English folklore, this character is a malevolent household spirit that appears in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as JK Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Common to all cultures that tell ghost stories in the Winter is a contrast between your coziness safe by the fire, and at the same time, telling our stories about outer darkness. Literal of the cold, or the deeper outer darkness of evil or spiritual beings beyond our understanding. Origin of ghost stories, go back as far as Beowulf, heroes in the cozy hall but Grendel keeps breaking in and killing warriors.
The Ghost Stories of Anne Boleyn
In Tudor England, it was a tradition to tell ghost stories to celebrate Christmas, particularly on Christmas Eve. Here today to tell us about some of the ghost stories related to Anne Boleyn is our guest, historian, and author of The Final Year of Anne Boleyn, Natalie Grueninger.
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!