Francis Young

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Why Historians need Ghosts

NPG 962; Sir Henry Spelman after Cornelius Johnson

Sir Henry Spelman (c. 1562-1641)

The brilliant exhibition on the Gothic, ‘Terror and Wonder’, draws to a close at the British Library tomorrow. The exhibition shines a dark light on the origins of many of the most recognisable tropes of contemporary literature and art, and situates them firmly in the Gothic revival of the second half of the eighteenth century. However, the Gothic also had a profound impact on history and the historical imagination. As the exhibition makes clear, historical fiction developed alongside the more chaotic, supernatural fiction of The Castle of Otranto and its ilk, and then as now, historical fiction often served as a stimulus for real historical research. This was certainly the case for one of the earliest historical novelists, Sir Walter Scott, who was stimulated not only to antiquarian research by his desire to reanimate the past in his novels, but also to research into supernatural beliefs.

Many historians, I fear, still think of ghosts as the province of a small number of specialist ‘historians of the ghostly’, such as Peter Marshall, Sasha Handley and Shane McCorristine. They are prepared to acknowledge that belief in ghosts, like other supernatural beliefs, can be illuminating of the culture of a particular time and place. What historians are missing, however, is that there is an immense wave of interest in history sweeping Britain’s cities, towns and villages, peaking each year on 31 October, and drawing in people who would otherwise have no interest in history and heritage at all. I refer, of course, to the popularity of ‘paranormal history’. Every year, the number of ‘ghost tours’ and ‘ghost walks’ at historic sites grows larger, as the heritage industry latches onto the fact that this is a guaranteed way to get punters through the door of otherwise struggling historic attractions. Ten years ago, ‘ghost tours’ were considered cheap and vulgar, and largely confined to privately run attractions. Nowadays, highly respected heritage organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust are in on the act, and the Hallowe’en ghost tour has become an accepted part of the calendar at many stately homes and castles.

It is commonplace to dismiss this phenomenon as Americanisation, a regrettable necessity for the cash-strapped heritage industry. Heritage organisations tell ghost stories through gritted teeth while inwardly bemoaning the lack of interest in the unique historic features of their buildings. But the interest goes well beyond the annual ordeal of Hallowe’en. The one kind of local ‘history’ book that you can be guaranteed to find in any bookshop, however small, is something beginning with the words ‘Haunted…’ or ‘Paranormal…’ Indeed, books of this kind are often the only remotely historical literature that makes its way onto the shelves of supermarkets (I have even seen them on sale at petrol stations). There is a seemingly insatiable hunger for new ghost stories associated with places that people know personally; people want to get close to the ghostly. There are even self-styled ‘paranormal historians’ who collaborate with paranormal investigators, undertaking oral history studies on ghostly phenomena and advising investigators on where they should spend the night in the hope of recording evidence of discarnate entities.

Should professional historians look on all this with disdain? Many certainly do. But it is worth remembering that there is a long tradition of historical interest in the ghostly, which can be traced back at least as far as Sir Henry Spelman’s History and Fate of Sacrilege (written in 1633 but not published until 1698). Although Spelman does not mention ghostly apparitions, his work focuses on the supernatural vengeance meted out by the providence of the Almighty to the sacrilegious secular owners of monastic property. Many of the stories in Spelman’s book inspired a belief in bad luck associated with a particular house, that later manifested itself in the form of a spectre. Perhaps the most famous example of such a ghost is the ‘Black Friar’ of Lord Byron’s Newstead Abbey. Spelman’s History and Fate of Sacrilege was about the unquiet past coming back to bite the present which, on one interpretation, is what ghosts ultimately amount to. More specifically, Spelman imagined the violated pre-Reformation past wreaking vengeance on the complacent Protestant present.

The spirit of Spelman’s ‘supernatural antiquarianism’ was distilled in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by Montague Rhodes James, a writer who would never have anticipated his contemporary popularity; at the same time, I suspect he would be appalled that his considerable and ground-breaking historical work in church history is now overlooked by even the most die-hard fans of his ghost stories. James was not the only antiquary to bring his immense knowledge of the past, and developed sense of what digging into the past feels like, to bear in supernatural fiction. The ‘antiquarian ghost story’ found equally qualified exponents in A. N. L. Munby, E. G. Swain and Sir Arthur Gray. The question of whether M. R. James actually believed in ghosts is not, in my view, an especially important one: what is patently obvious from his stories is that he experienced the past as something alive (or ‘undead’) in the present. Every half decent historian has had this experience: for a moment, the past seems more real than the present, and the absence of the dead an absurdity. I remember experiencing this powerfully one day after a morning spent in the Suffolk Record Office in Bury St Edmunds. I was walking back through the Great Churchyard (a place James knew and loved as well), and I found myself momentarily uncomprehending of the fact that people who seemed so alive to me in my research were nothing but dust under the ground.

This, surely, is the root of James’ ghosts. They are history itself, at once alive and dead, discomforting and disturbing the certainties of the present (this is one reason why I am not sure it is possible to understand James’ ghost stories unless you understand his historical interests). However, if James’ ghosts are projections and manifestations of the historical imagination, then this can be said too of the popular desire for ghost tours and ghost sightings. These desires are more than just sensation-seeking, but speak of a deeply felt need to connect with the past. Local literature of the paranormal is a kind of ‘popular history’ that historians and heritage professionals would be well advised to engage with, because it represents an enormous opportunity to tap into people’s unwitting interest in history and heritage.

But what is the right way to engage with the ghost-hungry public? Most academics, even if they realise that ‘paranormal history’ might be a way to capture people’s interest in the past, are wary of engaging with it because they are worried about how they might be perceived; they are concerned that people will assume they believe in ghosts, or that they endorse all wild claims about the paranormal, just because they talk about ghosts. I think this fear is misplaced, and it reflects a rather Victorian way of thinking. Historians of religion prove, time and again, that it is possible to engage with communities and groups with particular spiritual beliefs without being thought to endorse those beliefs. It is perhaps because belief in ghosts does not command the same respect that we usually accord religious beliefs that it is not treated in the same way. But belief in ghosts is very widely held in Britain; indeed, it is possible that more people believe in ghosts than give their adherence to organised religion. Historians are no more qualified to rule on the existence or non-existence of ghosts than they are qualified to rule on matters of theology, and of course historians will come to the issue of ghosts with a variety of personal beliefs. To me there seems no reason why ‘public historians’ cannot engage with ghost belief and ghost stories in their local communities, helping people to set stories in their historical context and, where necessary, pointing out anachronisms and historical inaccuracies, without presuming to sneer at or cast doubt on the existence or non-existence of the ghosts themselves.

Personally, I have found that a study of supernatural beliefs produced an agnostic stalemate in me. Many historic cases are obvious fraud; others still make my blood run cold. But, true or not, the historical importance of ghosts, and ghost-storytelling, is undeniable.

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One comment on “Why Historians need Ghosts

  1. Pingback: 'The Grapes of Wrath' a Great Adaptation of Book's First Half

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This entry was posted on January 19, 2015 by .
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