Given the notorious reluctance of ghosts to appear before impartial observers, anyone attempting to trace the history of the supernatural faces peculiar difficulties. Books on this subject usually centre on written sources, and so give prominence to the views of an educated minority, whereas until at least the 19th century most people’s images of ghosts were shaped by local tradition and anecdote.
In The Ghost: A Cultural History, Susan Owens, formerly curator of paintings at the V&A, illustrates the great variety of sources by including a wealth of visual material, from 12th-century manuscript illuminations to contemporary installations. (If Peter Ackroyd had not recently adopted the title for his own book, I suspect she might have called it The English Ghost, since her focus is entirely British, predominantly English.) Whereas a modern ghost, as she remarks, ‘might materialise, drift gently towards a door and disperse, in the medieval period it was more likely to break the door down and beat you to death with the broken planks’. Medieval ghosts tended to manifest as savage beasts or decaying cadavers, bent upon vengeance, seeking release from purgatory or simply acting as a memento mori (hence they proved a reliable source of income for the clergy). But with the English Reformation, ghosts were rendered homeless: ‘the gospel hath chased away walking spirits’, as one Elizabethan divine put it. Popular interest, however, remained as strong as ever: 16th-century pamphleteers made great play of the subject, producing works with titles such as Tarlton’s News Out of Purgatory, which chronicled the doings of the ghost of the famous Elizabethan actor Richard Tarleton, and Robert Greene’s News Both from Heaven and Hell.
From the Reformation onwards, official and popular views of ghosts continued to diverge. By the early 18th century, as Owens says, ‘a sceptical attitude to ghosts had become a litmus test for membership of intelligent, urban society’, whereas in street ballads and the like, ghosts continued to haunt and terrorise