“I ain’t afraid of no ghost!” Meet Huguette Roy: the seventeenth century Derek Acorah

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.

Leonarde’s Ghost: Popular Piety and “The Appearance of a Spirit” in 1628 Kathryn A. Edwards & Susie Speakman Sutch trans. & eds.


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

Transcribing and the Transcribathon

By Amy Powis

Three months ago, transcription was not something that I had ever heard of, yet here I am writing this blog post about my experience with it. How much can change in a short space of time! I was both interested and excited about learning transcription, the form of comprehending early modern handwriting, typing it phonetically into a specially designed website so that they can be preserved online, as original copies of primary sources are not normally something that I view. So getting to analyse and look at the recipe book in its original format was intriguing to me, as I could gain more knowledge about the subject especially the recipe in question.

Transcribing has many perks as these sources are then easier to access, meaning that the sources are easier to view by historians and people. There are specific websites to complete the transcription including Dromio, the site that I used, which allows users to pick sources, including early modern recipes and then transcribe them. Any transcription that we completed as part of the Transcribathon could count as part of our transcription assignment, so of course, I was going to take part.

The Transcribathon, hosted by the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC), took place on 9th November 2016, where over 100 people from across the world transcribed the 236 pages of Lady Grace Castleton recipe book (V.a.600) in under twelve hours. On the day of the Transcribathon, I tried my hand at transcription, for the first time, in a classroom that had been booked out for University of Essex students for three hours of the Transcribathon. Maybe not the best time for my first attempt, considering it was so new to me and I had no idea what I was doing, but the appeal of the Transcribathon was that it was open to professionals and amateurs alike including novice history students.

To my pleasant surprise, there was a bustling atmosphere in the room with discussions ranging from how transcription was easy, to people considering what a particular word in the recipe book was. As I started transcribing, I noticed there would be a social media aspect that made the Transcribathon enjoyable, as I could find others completing it through #Transcribathon. This was almost comforting knowing that other people were also having trouble with the recipes, which made the independent project feel that you were not alone, which was weird considering I was in a room with other people. It was also quite nice, as I got a few helpful tips through the hashtag. 

I encountered a few problems along the way, particularly in the beginning, constantly needing the Oxford English dictionary open to identify words, wondering what specific words were. For example, on page 17, whether a word was “Rose” or Kole, although I went for the latter initially. But it got easier with time as I only just found this mistake looking at my transcription for this post. The writing was also difficult for me at points particularly with the long “S” as encountered with “Rose.” This caused problems for me because believing that a letter could be something different can change the meaning of a word and a sentence. Like Tracy mentions on her blog, transcribing can be difficult with “ye” meaning “the” being used in the text, if I had not been told this previously, I would have struggled with it, not knowing what it meant. Dromio itself was useful, having buttons which did this for you, which was always useful. 


A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p. 17

Problems continued, especially with the handwriting at first, similar to Abbie, who also took part in the Transcribathon. For example, on page 17, I stumbled on particular words, thinking that a plant called “Egrimony,” as Agremony. I also thought that in places the handwriting was hard to read, cutting close to the bottom of a page meaning that I sometimes found it hard to understand, although with more practice this did become easier. This was seen on page 18 as in the beginning I did not know what the bottom of page stated, but with more perseverance, I understood it to be “a fare morter then take 3 pound of sheep scuer.


A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p.18

Abbie also mentioned the case of human error in the transcription process. Although this is something that I see as a problem, being a novice myself and making mistakes, as previously mentioned, the format of the event is quite helpful. It allows for errors to be cross-referenced to see which answer is the most accurate to what is written in the source. In this case, it means that by working in the Transcribathon suggests that human error may be less likely to happen, but not impossible. Human error could be a problem, however, causing the incorrect transcription to be used which could cause future mistakes, but this is unlikely especially if proof-reading of transcriptions is done effectively. 

I enjoyed being part of the Transcribathon, learning more about early modern recipes than I have before. For example, the ingredient list on page 17 contained “dragons.” I suppose that I would just laugh at this and think where would someone get a dragon, almost dismissing it. I mean where would someone in the 17th Century get a dragon! But on a historical basis, I would have to think what creature would a dragon have been, most likely a type of reptile maybe a snake, but where would it have come from? This meant that this was a glimpse into an Early Modern life that I would never have discovered had it not been for the Transcribathon.


A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p.17

I enjoyed my experience taking part in the Transcribathon for the first time, as it was a nice way to engage and learn how to transcribe as well as allowing me to expand my knowledge on recipes in the Early Modern period. It was things like this that made the experience enjoyable for me as it was something new and I learned a skill that I have been credited for and can put on my CV and let’s face it how many assignments can you do that!

Cursed by mortality: exploring the Pre-modern European attitudes to death.

As a nineteen year old university student, I find myself stressing over an infinite amount of things. I am a self-proclaimed worrier but something that rarely makes my list of worries is death.

However, in early Britain, the average life expectancy was forty years old[1] and 40% of people did not make it to adulthood[2]. As a result of such low life expectancies, death was a big concern to people of all ages. People accepted that it could arrive at any moment and so were vigilant in identifying signs that their impending death was looming.

After reading Stephen Wilson’s, The Magical Universe. Everyday rituals and magic in Pre-modern England, my lack of concern about death became interesting to me. Wilson describes death as ‘frequent, public and inescapable’, therefore it comes as no surprise that death and dying were given much more importance than they are now. Rituals were put in place to help the dying and after death there was still many procedures to be followed. These included ensuring that the feet of the corpse were facing the door and all mirrors were covered. This ensured that the spirit of the corpse would be able to find its way to the afterlife with minimal difficulties.

What intrigued me about Wilson’s novel is his mention on the signs of which predicted the occurrence of death. Today, unless told so by a healthcare professional (or google if I have decided to look up my symptoms), we are unlikely to go around predicting death. However, pre modern Europe, ‘death was never considered as a purely natural event’ it was seen as something that had magical and mystical dimensions and so could be announced by signs. Signs that are seen to indicate death today are often physical and behavioural changes that occur within the person about to die and are usually noticed whilst the person is in the process of dying. However, Wilson speaks of signs that can be noticed in all aspects of everyday life, from animals behaving abnormally to the disturbance of certain household objects. Interestingly, none of these signs have any medical origins and seem like random daily occurrences to the uninformed person. Nevertheless I decided to note down these signs and see if death was on the horizon for me.

A grave mistake:

I would like to say that the results of my observation allowed me to conclude that I had a long and fruitful life ahead of me, however, that is not what my experiment revealed to me at all.

On Monday, I woke up at 9am to get ready for my lecture, upon doing so I realised that a picture of my two younger brothers had fallen from the wall which I had stuck it on. The falling of a family portrait was the first sign of my untimely death.

On my way to my lectures I looked out for birds as the cry or appearance of certain bird’s signalled death. Except for a few pigeons, (which are only a sign of death if they appear and remain in the same spot until a death occurs), everything seemed okay.

V0050705 A bat and three fully dressed birds flying by moonlight.
Birds flying by moonlight. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On Tuesday night as I attempted to sleep I heard what may have been a dog howling at an unusual time. This was then followed by my sighting of a German shepherd being taken for a walk the following morning. This seems relatively normal unless you were aware that a dog running wildly was another sign that death was round the corner.

What I found as the week went by was that although I did not necessary believe these signs indicated my death, I began noticing them more in everyday life. When I saw a magpie, I was relieved that it didn’t make any noise because the call of a magpie would be another indication that my days were numbered. I was also thankful that I hadn’t sighted it knocking at my window because apart from that being quite strange, this was another of the many things I needed to look out for.

By Friday I was over-analysing everything and began inspecting my bed sheets for coffin-shaped creases just to reassure myself I wouldn’t be dropping dead soon. Of course, if you look at anything long enough it can begin to take on coffin shaped qualities and so the results of this were not helpful at all. When my boiler began making noises, I debated whether or not boilers counted as furniture because furniture emitting loud wraps would be another signal of my upcoming death. On Saturday I decided to stop my experiment when my glass fell off the counter and smashed without reason. I had concluded that by pre-modern Europe standards my life was hanging on a very thin thread.

Digging too deep:

During my week, I encountered a lot of things that would be considered signs of death in early Europe. However, there were many more I did not notice, for example I did not hear a chicken crowing like a rooster or premonitions of death-bed scenes. What I happened to notice were often things with little significance which I gave importance to by over analysing them and turning them into things that I was looking out for.

I believe that the high death rates of early modern Europe caused the same effect in people. Death was not as feared as it is now, people were very aware of their mortality. Although a lot of these signs seem absurd to us today, it may have been oddly comforting to feel as though you have some insight into something so unpredictable.

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy/

[2] http://www.localhistories.org/life.html

Wilson, S. “Death and the Dead” in The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe (London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2000).