Today’s ghost-hunting programmes are often regarded with jest due to a tongue in cheek nature expressed in their filming and production. This is coupled with the majority of people believing that spirits beyond this world do not exist with the main aim of these programmes being to entertain. However there is slight eldritch minority for whom these productions shed just a little bit too much light on the subject for it to be all a distorted fantasy which makes me wonder are ghost stories that crazy after-all?
Turn the clock back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where religion played a greater role in explaining people’s lives and with the lack of scientific knowledge of the afterlife and death, it is not unhinged that a belief in ghosts was the norm. We need not look further than the story of Huguette Roy in 1628, which raised such interest it was documented by local clerical authority, Christophe Mercier. By consulting this account of events, edited by Kathryn A. Edwards and Susie Speakman Sutch, we can answer questions about spiritual apparitions, why people held these eerie views and the importance of religion during this period.
In seventeenth century Dole, France, the wife of a soldier who was not only pregnant but was deemed to be on the cusp of death through illness is claimed to have received numerous visitations from an initially unknown spirit. Initially heedful, Roy embraced her inner Ray Parker Jnr. and opened herself up to the spirit. These visitations began during her pregnancy and continued after the birth of her child. This spirit, dressed simply in the style of a young housemaid, cared for her and assisted with housework due to her condition, returning at the same time each day. After being originally stubborn, the spirit revealed itself to be the spirit of her deceased aunt, Leonarde Colin [pp. 53-69, 90].
It can be said this is the first example of attitudes of the time as Colin announced later on that she was serving penance to escape purgatory. This highlights the fact that a large proportion of society held highly religious views during this time as many held beliefs of the notion of purgatory and serving penance to limit their time there or to escape purgatory. This would have been the main justification for the appearance of spirits during this period and the explanation of Colin’s visit to Roy follows this analysis of the period. The fact that Colin was visiting her niece as a result of penance highlights the fact that Roy was highly religious herself and believed that spirits could appear based upon the notion of serving penance. It also highlights the intrinsic nature of religion to people’s daily lives during the seventeenth century and how it affected them.
Huguette Roy struggled with the idea of no one else having seen this spirit and being the subject of gossip especially of the negative nature, with those not believing Roy’s story of events [pp. 73-4]. This highlights that although there was a centrality in the religious beliefs of the time, people (Roy) still wanted to prove that they had seen the ghost to others to validate their sightings. It is also telling that Roy would have wanted to justify her religious stance as her aunt was visiting her as penance, this part being essential within the story. How religious Huguette Roy was stands out from the account as she trusted that God had sent her aunt to serve penance and was willing to help to ensure she was released from purgatory. Eventually the nature of her religious beliefs prevailed as a Friar arrived to prove that a spirit had appeared at her house to assist her.
“Friar, thus, left well assured that a spirit from the other world had been in this room, with the opinion that it was good and from God, no longer attributing everything that had happened up until then to imagination or fantasy.” [p. 65]
A Friar visited and based on his religious learning argued that a spirit must have been present, and from God and of good nature, this highlights the nature of the general seriousness of religion during this period – the idea that religion could provide the justification and answer for spiritual apparitions. This proves the essential relationship between the spiritual world and religion during this period. The account was recorded by Christophe Mercier and this highlights the literary importance of events and that even though there were townsfolk sceptics, people still wanted to hear about other-worldly goings-on.
Although in reflection, this may seem a sceptical account of a spirit appearing and helping her niece while she struggles with pregnancy, parenthood and illness, as Huguette was the only person to see the spirit, it does shed some light on the coupling between religion and the supernatural in seventeenth century France. It provides us with interesting information about the ‘ordinary people’ in Early Modern France and their beliefs of the supernatural and how they were justified by their religious beliefs and ‘proved’ by local religious authority.
As 2017 dawns has much changed? One third of British people believe in ghosts and a huge 45 percent of Americans believe in ghost or the return of spirits. It may be interesting to note the decline in religious beliefs, yet although it is not a majority, there is still a modest belief in the supernatural today. Maybe Derek Acorah has something to do with it.
Preview of Leonarde’s Ghost: Popular Piety and “The Appearance of a Spirit” in 1628 Kathryn A. Edwards & Susie Speakman Sutch, trans. & eds.]: all page references refer to this book. http://tsup.truman.edu/files/2008/05/leonarde-s-ghost-popular-piety-and-the-appearance-of-a-spirit-in-1628-preview.pdf