Troubled By Spirits: The Overlap Between Demonic Possession, Witchcraft and Haunting

Dore_woodcut_Divine_Comedy_01First of all: apology/disclaimer: I’ve written this while on holiday, without my books, so it might be a bit scrappy

This is a bit of a stray thought/idea to be developed coming out of my research for my presentation at the ASSAP Seriously Possessed conference in a couple of weeks. In the research for my paper I came across a strange overlap between cases of demonic possession, haunting and witchcraft. It’s a bit of a work in progress, but here’s what I’ve got so far…

Haunting — The Tedworth Drummer
According to the account written by Joseph Glanville, Charles II’s Chaplain, a vagabond artist named William Drury was arrested for causing a public nuisance and travelling under false documents in the town of Lugarspal in Wiltshire, 1661. The tenant of Tedworth House, named Mompesson, confiscated the man’s drum and had him bound over by the local bailiff to be seen before the Justice of the Peace, at which the man confessed that he had forged his documents and begged to be given his drum back. Months later,

Continue reading “Troubled By Spirits: The Overlap Between Demonic Possession, Witchcraft and Haunting”

The Dancing Plague in Medieval Europe

Holbein_Danse_MacabreMany of us will be familiar with the image of the Danse Macabre: scenes depicting dancing skeletons, and the living dancing with the dead. In the work of Herefordshire chronicler Walter Map he describes a knight who rescues his dead wife from a dance of the dead.

What’s less well known is that for a disquieting length of time – from the 13th to 17th centuries – the Medieval European might be able to see a live enactment of the Danse Macabre as bands of strangers, friends and neighbours dancing themselves to exhaustion, or even death. This was the dancing plague: St. Vitus’ Dance, The Dancers of St. John, Tarantism. Continue reading “The Dancing Plague in Medieval Europe”

Spectacle, Tourism and Demonic Possession in Early Modern Europe

Saintfrancisborgia_exorcismThe historian Philip Almond describes 1550-1700 as ‘the golden age of the demoniac’. There are a lot of reasons, one of the biggest being the Reformation. Demoniacs had been important in the days of the early church, when church fathers were trying to build a new religion in an environment of borderline (and sometimes outright) hostility. On the other hand, as D P Walker tells us in his book  Unclean Spirits, by the middle ages there were no more pervasive threats to subvert. Christianity was the ruling religion of Europe, and those heretics who did exist could be hunted directly by fire and the sword.

This led to a somewhat differing attitude to demonic possession during the middle ages. Theological orthodoxy held that since demoniacs could be constrained to speak the truth, they should be allowed to do so. After all, Continue reading “Spectacle, Tourism and Demonic Possession in Early Modern Europe”

Things that D&D Got Right: Annoying Spell Book Limits

One of the most aggravating things about playing a magic-using character in 2nd Edition D&D was the spell book limits. Some groups ignored them, giving magic user characters a fantasyland Kindle, with full access to any spell they wanted, while others insisted on page limits, chances of correctly inscribing spells, and that worst of things: the travelling spellbook.

However, the nature of the transmission of magical books, and the condition of medieval book making, means that huge books with aggravating page limits (and having to copy things out themselves) were precisely what historical sorcerers would have had to deal with. Continue reading “Things that D&D Got Right: Annoying Spell Book Limits”

The Leper’s Plot: Rehearsal for the Witch Trials

LeprosoriumIn 1321 a strange hysteria gripped Southern France and parts of Spain. By 1320 a series of attacks called ‘The Cowherd’s Crusade’ (emulating a much more widespread series of attacks dubbed ‘The Shepherds Crusade’) had already targetted Leprosaria all over Southern France. The lieutenant of Sauventerre-de-Guyenne had already recorded in public records that he’d had to forbid the torching of a leprosarium at Sauvanterre, while the chronicle of Raymonde-Bernarde de La Motte, the Bishop of Bazas, stated that some of the pasgoureaux who were hanged had claimed to have found barrels of rotting bread while pillaging the leprosarium of a certain town (perhaps Mas d’Agenais.)

The lepers, it was said, had planned to use the bread in the preparation of some poison that would contaminate the wells. This is an uncommon libel this early in the 14th Century. One factor that might have precipitated the violence was that the Bishop of Dax had all lepers in his diocese arrested in December 1320. The Bishop was trying to preserve his jurisdiction over lepers from encroachments by the sire d’Albret. The latter had burned a leper accused of an unstipulated crime, one in which the lepers were implicated.

The ensuing kerfuffle over jurisdiction involved a number of ducal, episcopal and papal officials. Such widespread rumours of accusations could have contributed to the charges brought against the lepers in the spring of 1321.
Continue reading “The Leper’s Plot: Rehearsal for the Witch Trials”

Saints Verses Demons: Casting Out the Unholy, and the Possessed as Saints

Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_191As the movie The Exorcist will show you, demons are a problem to this day. Modern clerics in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church still treat people who believe they’re possessed by demons (for the purposes of this blog I should state that I don’t care whether they really are possessed or not, I write about history not the paranormal).

However, demons could be a real problem if you were living in Medieval Europe. In fact, the idea that demons can get you killed is absolutely incontrovertible – in London of 1725 a drunk died of exposure in a well because neighbours ignored his cries for help, believing he was a demon. Not only that, but in 1597 Alice Goodridge, accused of sending a demon to possess Thomas Darling, died in prison awaiting trial for witchcraft.

Interestingly, though, those possessed by demons (demoniacs) occupy a more ambiguous status in the bible. Although John 8.44 describes The Devil as “a liar and the father of lies”, demoniacs in the Gospel were among the first witnesses to Christ, and often showed a clearer understanding of divine truth than the apostles. In fact, Christ himself was accused of being a demon, and of “casting out demons by the prince of demons.”

Literature from the medieval period showed a growing fascination with the demonic, especially verbal duels and other confrontations between clerics or saints and the possessed. Continue reading “Saints Verses Demons: Casting Out the Unholy, and the Possessed as Saints”

From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead

Malleus_1669I freely admit that I’ve never read the Malleus Maleficarum all the way through, simply because it’s the one witch hunting book that really bothers me. Heinrich Kramer (I refuse to call him ‘Institoris’) was, in my opinion, just a vile human being. He wasn’t trying to do the best he could in a bad situation, he was a genuinely insane, hateful, awful human being.

But here’s a story worth telling: apparently he was a vampire hunter.

Heinrich Kramer
I don’t have to call Kramer a madman, or impugn his abilities, because the Bishop of Innsbruck already did during his own lifetime. In 1484 Kramer was conducting the trial of an Innsbruck woman when he began departing from legal procedure to question the accused about her sexual history. In some times and at some places this wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but the Bishop of Innsbruck appears to have believed in a crazy thing called ‘the rule of law’.

The defence called for the case to be halted after such a strange and creepy deviation, and the Archduke decided to abandon the prosecution altogether. The Bishop wrote two letters to Kramer’s host in the town, first saying, “tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.” Continue reading “From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead”

Tales of the Doppelgänger

Possibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival…

DoppelgangerPossibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival.

His story is the typically chilling tale of the supernatural: Robert was a student at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the most beautiful of the four Inns of Court. Unlike his cousin he fell into a decadent lifestyle of gambling, drinking and whoring. One night while studying alone (because his hedonistic lifestyle had severely damaged his studies) he became strangely spooked as the clock struck midnight.

Feeling the typical ghostly chill, Percival saw that a hooded, robed figure had somehow entered his room. Demanding to know the intruder’s identity, Percival took up his sword and lunged at the silent figure, only to have the blade pass right through it. Terrified, he attacked the spectre, managing to uncover its face: his own face.

As it pulled back its robes, Percival saw that not only was he looking at himself, but the doppelgänger had terrible wounds on its face and chest. Frightened, he attempted to reapply himself to his studies, but lapsed.

Totally dissolute, Percival ran up huge gambling debts, so much that the shady characters he was borrowing from eventually lost their tempers and he was found dead in a gutter: bearing exactly the same wounds as the phantom. Continue reading “Tales of the Doppelgänger”

Things that D&D Got Right: Paladins and Magic Swords

RolandRoncesvallesIf you’re playing a warrior class character (or whatever they call them now, I haven’t played since 2nd Edition) the greatest thing is the awesomeness of a magic sword.

The best kinds are the intelligent ones that come with a Swiss Army Knife’s worth of special powers (yes, when I was a teenager I spent some quality time with the Intelligent Weapon creation table in the DMG), but a good second choice is the Holy Avenger, the sword that can only be wielded at full power by a Paladin, the Lawful Good holy warriors of D&D cannon.

The Real Paladins

In this case ‘real’ is a relative term. I wouldn’t usually make this distinction, but there’s a great deal of mythology coming up that glamourises holy war, particularly war in the Middle East, which is something I want to be clear I don’t endorse.

The above disclaimer aside, there were real people behind the Paladins, or at least some of them. The word Paladin might come from the Latin word Palatinus, via the archaic French word Palatine, which was a word for imperial officials in the Roman Empire.

The Mythological Paladins were the twelve companions of Charlemagne’s steward Roland. Rather than doing all the hero-ing himself, Charlemagne delegates a fair share of it to Roland, acting as a medieval Charlie to his armoured, male angels.

While many of the Twelves Peers of Charlemagne, or Paladins, aren’t real (you have a cool Saracen warrior, a Ranger who uses fairy magic, a Danish warrior, and a treacherous Mordred-like turncoat) both Roland and the Archbishop Turpin were almost certainly based on real people. Continue reading “Things that D&D Got Right: Paladins and Magic Swords”

Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights

Photo by flickr.com/photos/vhhammer/

So what if strange noises don’t bother you? You might be too brave or industrially deaf to care about that strange voice under your bed, whispering the pet name only known by you and your childhood sweetheart (you remember the one? You haven’t seen her since that night but she knows what you did, dammit, she knows what you did.)

That’s okay! The Pre-Industrial darkness has another horror in store for you too! Stopping up your ears and screaming to drown out the whispers of “Help me… it’s so cold down here…” won’t be enough. There aren’t just strange noises, there are also…

Strange Lights

And here’s the worst thing: in the pre-industrial darkness, unexpected lights are as bad as the darkness itself. The nighttime was seen as the time when demons were leaking out of the air itself, and when the supernatural was licensed to be at work. This was where nonhumans like the faeries were thought to be using lights to tempt humans for their own purposes, and were old European folklore mixed with the new enemies presented by the Church.

One of the most common sources of light at night were Will-O’-The-Whisps, (also known as Ignis Fatuus or ‘Fool’s Fire’,) disembodied lights that could sometimes be mistaken for lanterns and took a perverse delight in leading travellers away from the safe path, often to their doom. John Pressy, a man from Massachusetts from 1668, set off to go home at night and encountered a series of strange lights that he hit with his staff. Immediately they vanished, and Pressy was dumped into the bowels of a pit. Continue reading “Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights”