How Can We Explain Possession?


Possession was the act of the Devil or one of his demons inhabiting and controlling the actions and thoughts of a human. People who were possessed showed symptoms such as aggressive convulsions and fits, rigid limbs, inhuman strength, previously unattained ability to speak in old languages such as Latin, distain towards religious or holy symbols, blasphemy and certain people would foretell the future. In the case of Sarah Bower (1693), the possessed 14-year-old suffered symptoms such as ‘strange and unaccountable fits’(3), making a ‘most hedious noise’(6) and the ability to have ‘great force and violence, that scarce six men could hold her in’(6), among other symptoms.

Looking back on this phenomenon with a modern viewpoint the concept of possession is an unlikely. One might immediately conclude that the majority of these cases were the result of mental or medical illnesses that contemporary people were unaware of. Others might argue that a number of occurrences  would have been the due to fraudulence. The possessed, unlike witches, often received sympathy, as it was commonly believed that getting possessed was not a choice. As an outcome of this sympathy, people would often receive alms of money, food and other forms of charity. Furthermore, they would be given a voice in the community, as although possession was fairly common at the time, it was still a curiosity that the majority of people were interested in.

Despite the fact that these are both plausible explanations, and undoubtedly both are true, are they the only two explanations for possession in early-modern Europe? Sure, we can attribute the physical symptoms, such as the fits, to illness, but if we take note of people experiencing mental illness today it is not common behaviour to be averted towards religious symbols or unholily blaspheming. So what then, must be the cause of these symptoms?

It is argued by Brian Levak in his book, The Devil Within, that the symptoms could be a result of an unconscious script that was ingrained in the minds of religious people as they would have been exposed to possession through their community or communities near them, pamphlets and sermons. An example of something similar to this that we can understand today would be pseudocyesis, also known as false pregnancy, in which a woman would believe herself to be pregnant so firmly that she might experience all the symptoms of pregnancy without actually being pregnant.

Levak discusses a selection of examples of possessions in a podcast about his book that could support this claim, including ‘epidemic’ (7:25)  like scenarios where whole towns, convents or orphanages would become possessed. Further more he points out that the symptoms of possession vary depending on which form of Christianity the possessed follows (8:30 – 12:30). For example, a catholic would react very strongly towards things that symbolised the body of Christ, however, a protestant would react strongly towards the Bible, the most significant thing in the Protestantism. Secondly, Catholics were more likely to have symptoms that were of a sexual nature due to the fact that sexual sin was considered a major sin in Catholicism. Protestants however, did not distinguish between major and minor sins and so the possessed would commit sins such as dancing or playing cards, and this would be considered equally as unholy. Thirdly, due to the nature of Protestantism, Protestant exorcisms would rely on praying to god to cure the inflicted person. Catholic exorcisms however, were considerably more dramatic, and so they tended to be more successful, as the possessed person would believe the demon to be cast out given the dramatic display. He also suggests the rise in possessions during this time was due to the upheaval in the church, and the common belief that the apocalypse was coming, resulting in higher awareness of the devil (15:50).

Wellcome Images – Scene of a Catholic possession

Going back to the case of Sarah Bower, the symptoms started after she was struck on the back and taken for dead. However, the only symptom she displayed for several months were fits. The source explains how several doctors came to examine the girl (3), and no one could figure out what ailed her. This could explain how the issue developed into what was believed to be a possession. After months of occasional fits and no seemingly obvious explanation as to why these fits were occurring, the girl could have come to some subconscious conclusion that she was possessed. Perhaps it was discussed around her as a possible cause of the fits, and thus she could have been subconsciously fulfilling these expectations, however that is speculation, as the source does not mention any such conversations, but it is not hard to imagine this scenario. If this was the case, then the other symptoms that followed the fits were a result of the girl believing she was possessed, rather than possession itself or the original illness that caused the fits. There are other symptoms in the source that are still a mystery, such as ‘the spirit [throwing] her from one end of the bed to the other’ (6), however, it is probable that some signs recorded are a consequence of exaggeration of the person recording the details.

In conclusion, non-fraudulent cases of possession can not be rationally explained by just illness alone, as many of the symptoms are too specific to religion and contemporary life, and have nothing related to how we understand mental and physical illness today. However, the concept that several symptoms of possession were due to a belief in possession could plausibly explain the symptoms that we do not understand. The example of Sarah Bower’s case shows clear delay in the initial onset of symptoms and the sudden change to symptoms of possession, making it very possible that this was a result of desperately trying to understand and explain the fits Bower was suffering from.


Fleeing the crime: Bestiality in Early Modern Europe.


Bestiality is something that today you are unlikely to hear occurring, in Early Modern Europe however it seems an act as disgusting as that took place far more regularly. People in Early Modern Europe lived far more intimately with animals than we do today as farming was a far more common job and peasants lived in very rural areas, this may account for its regular occurrence. Despite intercourse with an animal, or “buggery” as it was often called, being a crime punishable by death there are still numerous documents from Early Modern Europe that state it taking place, whether it be eye witness accounts or trial reports. In a statute in 1533 it was declared that bestiality was a crime punishable by death and beyond this it was seen as an ‘Abominable sin’ amongst Christians[1], how then did those accused of such a crime react?


It is easy to overlook the reactions of those who stand accuse of bestiality when looking at cases of it occurring, it is easy to assume that anyone who is guilty of the crime would be punished this was not however always the case. Erica Fudge wrote an article for ‘History Today’ entitled “MONSTROUS ACTS: BESTIALITY IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND”,  this piece looked at the case of one William Clarke who stood accused of buggery with a mare in 1656 after being witnessed by John Sweedale of Easby [20]. Despite Sweedale claiming to have seen the incident of bestiality Clarke unsurprisingly, with death the punishment if he was to be found guilty, claimed to be innocent. Clarke stated he was checking the mare for an injury he believed it may have suffered. In Sweedale’s account he says that Clarke told him that he would leave England within two days, although he did not and later stood trial. It seems that leaving the area in which the incident took place was a common theme for those accused of bestiality, it would have been better for the accused to disappear rather than face potential death in a trial. In the town of Birdham in the 1670s a young man fled the country following accusations that he, like Clarke, had also committed buggery with a mare[2]. This desire to flee falls in line with the Early Modern European belief that to commit bestiality was to remove oneself from society and God, they were in essence lost[3]. People fleeing after committing the acts could lead to accusations surfacing years after the actual crime is committed. A man named Thomas MacHaffie was first accused in 1647 and then again later in 1655 after he returned from Ireland[4]. It is clear then that the most common reaction of people accused of bestiality in Early Modern Europe was to flee. To be caught committing bestiality meant that the accused would not only face criminal trial but would also face exile from society and from religion, it is unsurprising then that they would choose to leave. It would be very easy for someone in this period to simply disappear, without the aid of modern technology and policing a person could leave a town and never be seen again allowing them to live peacefully elsewhere despite their crimes.

The image below taken from the Welcome library depicts a man fornicating with a goat

L0033076 A man copulating with a goat or deer. Gouache painting by

These accusations would not be made lightly either, a statute passed in 1548 stated that no person who could benefit from the death of the accused were permitted to act as a witness in the case [21]. Those giving witness statements are likely then to be telling the truth as there is nothing for them to gain by doing so. Was fleeing then an admission of guilt? Or simply a reaction brought about by fear of death and exile? Whether guilty or not it is unsurprising that people would run from such a threat and so it was a very common feature of cases of bestiality in Early Modern Europe.

[1] E. Fudge, MONSTROUS ACTS: BESTIALITY IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND History Today; Aug 1, 2000; 50, 8; Periodicals Archive Online, Page 21

[2] E. Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Springer, 30 Apr 2016) Pages 136 and 137

[3] E. Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Springer, 30 Apr 2016) Page 137

[4] T. Betteridge, Sodomy in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2002) Page 85


E. Fudge, MONSTROUS ACTS: BESTIALITY IN EARLY MODERN ENGLAND History Today; Aug 1, 2000; 50, 8; Periodicals Archive Online

E. Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (Springer, 30 Apr 2016)

T. Betteridge, Sodomy in Early Modern Europe (Manchester University Press, 2002)

The Infamous Physician

Early modern society in Europe was composed of many superstitions and beliefs formed around religious and magical views. There was strong faith in the medical society that magical and astrological powers were significant to treating the population. A man who can be seen as ‘striking from his grave’, the physician Simon Foreman (1552-1611) was an example of how the beliefs and principles lived by in the early modern period were very strange and calamitous at the same time.

Simon Foreman was a self-taught physician who believed in the powers of astrology, alchemy and the occult arts; he held the view that the natural world around him could be controlled and manipulated through astrology and cosmic medicine. In the medical community he was considered uneducated and uninformed, looked down upon by his peers and was never given a voice, albeit he formed around him a cult of followers who believed and practised his methods and medicine.

His grounded astrological beliefs derived from the Swiss German Paracelsus who was a radical thinker and again wanted certain understanding of the natural world around him through unorthodox methods. Like Paracelsus he shunned the College of Physicians, who believed in the Galenic model identifying the world to be divided into four separate humor’s composed of air, water, fire and earth; from this stemmed early modern medical belief and practise.  Simon Foreman believed his own lunacy in regards to reading the stars and providing health treatments like no other physician in Elizabethan England.

The current research on Foreman is incomparable to other physicians at the time, his casebooks record more than 8000 patients in which he consulted in great detail, he had data including the exact time, date of birth of patient, address’s, this further backed up by strong descriptions of astrological figures and therapies.  This unprecedented account of information, in many cases, would have legitimised his work on astrology and the occult arts. However up to 60% of his patients were understood to be women,  uncommon in many cases throughout medical history due to women believing their reproductive systems to relate to how astrology works.

As his followers gathered he created a greater understanding of how astrology works and condemned those at the College of Physicians for not allowing his view and title as practitioner. He was arrested and imprisoned many times while he worked at the college due to his unrelenting persistence in learning and attributing the dark arts to medical practise. His intrigue in the dark arts were very problematic, this is due to early modern society having grounded religious beliefs and ideologies that specifically argued and nullified any basis for argument regarding witchcraft or the dark arts as it was axiomatically related to the devil. Self admittedly Foreman quoted that he had created effigies of his patients for the purpose of medical research to consider their ailments and infirmity.  His over reliance on the dark arts made him a notorious character in the medical world.

Those at the College were all university educated, humanist medical practitioners who had all been awarded the title of physician through years of practise, learning and training; the idea that these occult practises could ever be understood and practised in the medical world was unquestionable. They argued that an unlicensed physician should not be prescribing medicine, usually jobs done by a licensed physician and apothecaries. The arguments and convictions put against him by the courts and college were such: ‘asking the name and place of habitation of clients, declaring himself a prophet stating when deaths and plagues will occur. A statement from a client read that he asked personal questions, created an effigy giving his own personal opinion regarding illness hence demanding money for the medication a total of nine shillings and ten pence’ . Forman was making a living by being a self-proclaimed physician. He backed up his methods by arguing his knowledge of medical practises came from God and believed those that did not support this view were committing a sin. In a society that was socially and educationally inept it would be down to those who individuals who believed him or went against his role as an astrological physician. Furthermore he believed that those who understood astrological medical theory must have total compliance from the patient. This can be divided into two arguments, one that he wants to obtain the necessary information to determine his opinion on the disease or ailment, or two to create a sense of trust between himself and the patient insofar that he can convince or alter the perception of the patient’s view of him and his work, this is so he builds up a group of trust worth clients that can spread the news of his medicine and his methods.

As mentioned early as ‘striking from the grave’ Simon Forman was embroiled in a murder case four years after his own death in 1611. His casebooks had recorded evidence of a mistress and recipe’s of love potions and poison’s, which had led to the untimely death of the poet Thomas Overbury, his credibility and status was tarnished by county lawyers from then on.

Simon Foreman was using arguably some of the most technical and fascinating remedies on his clients equally equipped with some of the best medical record keeping at the time, however his uneducated character and ignorance of those in positions above him strayed him upon a path of false hope and lies that he gave to many of his patients. One last interesting aspect to Simon Forman’s life was his prediction about his death which he accurately predicted four days prior.

Bestiality – Its impact on Social and religious order

Sexual deviance is crucial if one wants to understand how early modern Europe defined the boundries between human and animal interactions, and the sort of relationship both species could have with each other. Bestiality is a form of sexual taboo and deviance and does not only refer to having sex with animals, it is also a metaphor to sodomy, homosexuality and a whole host of other sexual deviances that were condemned religiously and socially. In todays society engaging in bestiality would be a huge taboo, and it has never once been deemed standard, like other sexual acts that were once condemned such as masturbation. However these attitudes were not always seen as such a big taboo. For example in the second century A.D, records show a significant amount of human- animal relationships. However as time progressed, so did attitudes and opinions, and by the 16th and 17th century it had become a much more monstrous crime, that could pollute the population. In the 17th century Priests of the Irish penitential of Columban, “if anyone practices masturbation or sins with a beast he shall do penance for 2 years”[1]. However we must note that it was less sinful for a single man than a married man. This barbaric behaviour may have been due to a range of reasons. One religious factor being that a married man, by performing bestiality in effect is committing adultery on his wife. But also during this period we must consider that masturbation was seen as a sin,  so a couple during would only have intercourse for the purpose of pro- creation, and for a man to have enjoyed sex would have been considered sinful. Thus bestiality was condemned as a major sin and was depicted as a religious taboo because in many works and illustrations it was portrayed as supernatural and that these creatures being created were a warning from god, to warn us about our evilness, human’s foolishness and recklessness.

Bestiality was not only a religious taboo, but it was also a social taboo. Earlier we mentioned that bestiality, did not only refer to having sex with animals but it also referred to homosexuality. However as much as homosexuality was seen as sinful and disgusting, bestiality on the other hand was seen as a particular threat to the natural order and the natural hierarchy, “Bestiality broke the law of the land, they also broke the law of god and the natural order”[2]. One reason why bestiality broke the law of the natural order is because many people thought that humans and animals could reproduce with each other. One could not blame people for thinking in such a manner, as animals could be cross breed with other animals, “a mule, a cross between a donkey and a horse”[3], thus this led to tales and beliefs of human and animal interactions, “Aelian recorded the strange union of a human groom and a mare that produced a foal”[4]. A strange prodigy like a foal could have threatened the natural order because such creatures were not intended to be created, and these creatures where extremely unfamiliar and alien to humans. This emphasised that in the early modern period, what humans could not comprehend was perceived as terrifying and as a threat to the unknown world. But these creatures also highlighted the anxieties of the natural world that were particularly prevalent during the early modern period.

L0033076 A man copulating with a goat or deer. Gouache painting by
wellcome Library London, A man copulating with a goat or a deer. Iconographic collection.

The reformation and the scientific revolution, which occurred during the 16th and 17th century, (which coincidently is when attitudes towards bestiality began to shift and it as a result was looked upon as a more heinous crime) Began to inspect the human status and what differentiated a human from an animal. One of the main differences apart from the obvious physical features such as, standing on two legs, communicating in a complex manner, etc. A Human had a conscience, but during the early modern period it was still unknown as to how the conscience operated. Thus this embodies the fact that if animals and humans crossbreed, a monstrous creature with no conscience or self-awareness would be created thus undermining the natural and social order, which links back to bestiality being a social taboo, because wanting to have sex with a creature that has no conscience is extremely dangerous and threatening to the natural order.

Bestiality also evoked an emotional response among people that being, disgust, disbelief, ridicule and it had a powerful cultural resonance. Tales of bestiality were especially evident in the bible, “and you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean” [5] and literary texts. Bestiality was closely linked to profanity and ungodly like behaviours such as prostitution, adultery, drunkenness, sodomy, all of these disobedient acts threatened the social order. This is because during the early modern period there were very clear set rules on what was acceptable in society. For example men needed to be macho but also at the same time graceful, thus to apprehend such qualities men were expected to spend time with women to learn theses characteristics as well as spend time with other men. Thus bestiality could potentially cause social and natural in balances and undermine the human race through species pollution. And these species could potentially undermine the human race through their erratic behaviour threatening social order and civilization.

[1] Fudge monstrous acts, Bestiality in early modern England, Eric Fudge

[2] Fudge monstrous acts, Bestiality in early modern England, Eric fudge

[3] Fudge monstrous acts, Bestiality in early modern England, Eric fudge

[4] Fudge monstrous acts, Bestiality in early modern England, Eric Fudge

[5] Bible, Leviticus 18:23

The curious case of demonic infants

By Shaikor Paul

Throughout literature and films which have a supernatural theme to it, there is nothing far worse than a spirit infant, in this case demonic babies. The idea of a spirit baby is a disturbing thought, babies or children are pure and innocent, however, when linked in with demonic behaviour it portrays a very horrifying image. The narrative of these demon babies differs from each folklore throughout the world from Scandinavia to Asia. Although they share similar narrative they are quite inconsistent, but still share the same premise.


The most famous narrative of spirit infants is from Scandinavia and there are various similar narratives in Scandinavia, but have a slight twist to them. A Myling [1] is a repulsive restless demon spirit, which takes form of a fetus or a young toddler. Moreover, a Myling is the incarnation of the soul of a child that has been born out of wedlock however, it can also be a child that is unbaptised. These spectral infants have been either killed by their own parents or someone who has been hired by their parents. The most common method of killing these children born out of wedlock has been usually through drowning and discarded away in the forest. Children born out of wedlock were frowned upon as they are seen unholy and especially if the child was a female. This form of infanticide is prevalent amongst many cultures throughout the world as illegitimate children were seen as a burden and the community would look down upon them. However, in some cases, infants were still killed if they were born into a married couple. This is due to families having too many children and they are unable to stay alive, which lead to them simply killing the infant, however, this was not as prevalent amongst children born out of wedlock.


The narrative of Myling does reflect the real-world practices of infanticide, the infants that were not buried they were not given a proper burial which resulted a spirit taking over and having one aim, to get buried. The appearance of a Myling is a malnourished and decomposing body of the infant, obviously, an unpleasant sight, a Myling is a resurrected dead body. Due to no proper burial, a Myling is set to wander the earth until it can get buried by the help of a human. These infants are enraged because they were abandoned and rejected, therefore, it preys upon wondering humans around the site where the infant was buried. Once the infant has latched onto a human it demands it to be taken to a graveyard and buried, if the human fails to do so the Myling kills the human. While the human is carrying the Myling it becomes heavier and heavier with each step the human becomes weaker. If the task is completed, there are narratives where the Myling returns to peace and leaves the earth


Myling. Carrion House


Not just in Scandinavia these spirit infants have appeared in places like the Philippines, Japan, Bangladesh and in some Slavic regions. In Slavic mythology, it is called a Poroeniec[2] however, in this case a malevolent demon takes over and demands to be buried or it will wreak havoc. Once the Poroeniec is buried, it becomes a protective house spirit. Another example is in the Philippines, where they are quite like the Myling however, they are demonic creatures. They are described as a vampire like creature and takes the form of a newborn baby, they are a malevolent being and have an evil agenda. Tiyanak[3] is the name given to them and they have the ability to imitate a baby or an infant to lure humans and even abducting infants.  Although they may not be as similar as a Myling or Poroeniec the origin story of a Tiyanak is very similar, it is believed that the Tiyanak is the soul of an infant that has died before being baptised. In Japanese folklore, it is called a Konaki-jiji  and again very similar to the Myling. The Konaki-jiji lures humans and takes a form of either a child or an Old man and asks to be picked up. Upon picking up the Konaki-jiji becomes heavy and crushes the human. In some parts of Bangladesh, very similar to a Myling however, much more demonic and aggressive. These demonic creatures called foonga a literal translation meaning bastard in some dialects of Bengali, are infants who are born out of wedlock. Once they are killed, they seek out revenge by possessing pregnant women.


[1] Klintberg, af, Bengt. Death and the Dead. The types of swedish Folk Legend. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2010

[2] Zych, Paul. Vargas, Witold. Slavic Bestiary: The thing about gnomes, wodnikach and rusalkach. Bosh, 2014 

[3] Eugenio, Damiana. Philippine Folk Literature: An Anthology. University of the Philippines Press, 2008

Witches and their affiliation with the devil

Witches and their affiliations with the Devil was a widely-spread belief amongst many in Early Modern Europe. There was an increasing fascination with the concept of the devil and his presence amongst the Earth. The hysteria of the power of evil was heightened by the coming of the Reformation in the early Sixteenth Century. This sense of fascination enabled many of the educated elites to develop their own science of demons and this later become known as Demonology. However, it’s not just the concept of the devil that created intrigue but also the association that witches had with the devil that caused even more fear for concern. In this blog post I will explore and analyse the obsession of the devil and the affiliation witches had to him, which led to a wide-spread witch hunt hysteria in the early modern period.

The fascination with the devil amongst elites enabled its literary move amongst literature and art. An example could be found in the book Malleus Maleficarum (1486) written by Heinrich Kramer  who argued that the devil existed amongst us and that any entity  who were inclined to evil could actively ally with him. The association with witches and the devil was therefore a belief that was created amongst society as being sinful and perverse, and even disbelief in the idea itself was considered heretical, as it could permit witches to escape the punishments they deserved. The partnership with the devil and witches was first developed through promises, which the devil invoked himself and the witches were typically expected to sign contracts with him in their own blood. It was believed that the witches association with the devil enabled them to have power and as a result had the ability to invoke evil deeds such as, killing babies, to cause strange and lingering illnesses and to ruin crops and live-stock. Witches are also perceived to gather together in rituals and Sabbaths in order to pay homage to their satanic master and within these ceremonies they were expected by their master to proclaim the evil they had done for him and promise to do more. Richard Bernard believed in this sinful contract and preparation of sin by explaining, Before the Divell can come to solicitte for witchcraft, hee findeth some preparedness in such parties, to give him hope to prevaile.”[1]


Ulrich Molitor( Constance 1489) Woodcut depicts a women seducing the devil



Women were also perceived during the period of Early Modern Europe as being a “demon seducer” and were typically portrayed as adoring the devil and offering them sexual services. In Early modern treatises, engaging in intercourse with the devil was framed with a perverse understanding of the reproductive body and conception. Many writers asserted the notion that sex was never procreative and this raised the issue that if witches weren’t having sex with the desire to have children, then their actions were driven by their rampant sexual desire and sexual hedonism. The illustration above drawn by Ulrich demonstrates the perception of witches craving a lustful seduction for the devil. It was generally perceived by most in the early modern period that witches were responsible for sinful acts with the devil and it was claimed that it was “for her pleasure”[1] that the devil copulated with a witch and not his. Such witches were condemned further for their sexual lust for the devil, as not only did it involve an evil entity but their commitment to the devil was also motivated by sexual pleasure and their own gratification.

One may wonder what triggered such fear of the devil and his servants and why the accused witches were affiliated with him. One may argue that the Reformation in the 16th century enabled a strict and Protestant life that viewed the devil with fear. This consequently led to a New England society that made women an easy target for the witchcraft hysteria. Another reason for this hysteria was the widespread rise of literature that featured works about the theology of witchcraft and it’s association with the devil. The tensions and religious wars between the Protestants and the Catholics only drove forward social anxieties terror, consequently causing further fear of witchcraft during the period. One may also that women during the early modern period were already considered as inferior and prone to sinful actions and affiliating them with the devil as witches enabled men to condemn them for their own safety.



[1] Karlsen, Carol F.  The Devil in the Shape of a Women.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

[2]  Reginald Scot, Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft, p. 59

Religion, Beliefs, and Superstition

The view of superstition and magic have been an interesting part of culture to study, especially in the Early modern world of Europe. Today, they are both seen as part of a child’s fantasy and something that is practiced by the people who do not fit into the main streams of society. When you take a look back a few hundred years into the past, magic was a generally accepted concept and what we view as superstition now, was the reality and belief of the people. During the Early modern period, the beliefs of the peoples were constantly shifting with all the new innovations and advancements that were being made. New discoveries in the field of science during the Scientific Revolution led to the dissipation of various widespread beliefs, especially when it came to the field of medicine. People started to question what they knew and push further for the answers that they wanted. To really understand the reality of their surroundings and the underlying truths to their beliefs. Magic and superstition/belief was woven into everyday life before. When magic reared its head, popular belief was not far behind. What people believed would happen when coming in contact with a magical event or being is what we view as superstition today.

Christian religions were the most important aspect of life during both medieval and Early modern times. Because it was such a huge part of people’s lives, the Bible was a source for many of the popular beliefs for years. But it was not just the supernatural world that the bible preached about. The Bible preached that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” ( King James Bible) which aided in the belief of the world being geocentric (everything revolved around the earth), but during the Scientific Revolution the people discovered that the universe was actually heliocentric (everything orbited around the sun) instead. Indulgences to lift a soul out of purgatory were also popular until Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation to argue that they were just another way for the Catholic Church to take money from the good people. Everything new that was discovered was spread like wildfire thanks to the newly invented printing press.

Today we look at magic as something that a child would believe in and not adults. And those adults that do still believe and openly practice magic and constantly discredited by the general public who lost their belief many years before. When most people look back on history, they see cultures and societies that were backwards and almost barbaric in their beliefs in comparison to today’s world. They see what we know today and apply it to history. People in the past did not know what people know today, and magic was their way of explaining why odd things happened. When looking into the past, we must all consider this. It will help us look through different eyes and rationalize like the people of the day did. The world was a very different place with different popular beliefs that may or may not have been disproved in today’s world. People in the past were not backwards as we may think, they just did not have access to the information that we do in our society.

V0007639ETL A wealthy bürger refuses charity to an old couple. Etching b
A wealthy bürger refuses charity to an old couple (1622) Credit: Wellcome Library

When looking at superstition, we need to look at the main religions of Europe during Early Modern times. The Catholic Church was the most powerful religious organization until the 1500’s when one of the largest religious events occurred. The Protestant Reformation split families apart and further yet, changed many beliefs, both natural and supernatural. One of the big parts of the Reformation was that it wanted to get rid of the belief in superstition, the reformers wanted to alter the popular belief of the general public along with the religion (Scribner, 476). This created further tension between the two different types of Christianity as Protestantism rapidly spread.

Along with what is written in the bible, the ceremonies and traditions of the churches are also steeped in popular belief. The Eucharist, in the eyes of the protestants was there as symbolism (BBC). Many people converted to Protestantism during Early Modern times, even whole countries cut ties with the Catholic Church, for reasons such as the Catholic belief that the Eucharist was the blood of Christ himself. Another ceremony that may be viewed as superstitious is baptism. In the Catholic faith, infants are baptized in the belief that they will be washed of all sin, purified, and allowing Jesus into their souls for the rest of their lives (Vatican). Protestants, like with the Eucharist, did not like the idea of the dramatic reasoning behind the ceremony. They believe that “we all need to turn away from the darkness of evil and to make a new start with God” (Portsmouth). It is a welcoming of the infant into God’s life and protection with the rest of its family (Portsmouth).

V0039251 A woman holds a baby as others prepare for its baptism aroun
A woman holds a baby as others prepare for its baptism around the mother’s bed. Credit: Wellcome Library

Religion is full of different beliefs and is the base of many others when it comes to Early Modern Europe. People did not have the resources that we do today to help them understand the world around them so they turned to the biggest influence in their lives, the Church. Whether the church was Protestant or Catholic, there were beliefs on both sides that may be considered as superstition or the beliefs of the followers. From daily life to strange happenings in society, the people tried to explain everything with the supernatural world and beliefs that the Church had told them. These beliefs that are often viewed as superstition started to grow less with the passing of time and the discovery of new ways to explain the unknown, but some are still very much alive today. The world is filled with different beliefs which can be viewed as superstition but it is up to us to view them all with a skeptical eye and remember that the past was a very different world for that of today.

What Makes a Human, Human ? :Breeding and Bestiality in the Early Modern Period

Whilst reading Erica Fudge’s article Monstrous Acts, it was clear to see, that throughout time the topic of bestiality ,and cross-breeding has been a been an interesting conversation of topic. From Aristotle’s belief that ‘Indian dogs’ are the cross between to tigers and actual dogs, to the Early Modern Period, and  now to modern day (and that not just because I’m going to write a blog post about it !). Technological advances have questioned creations like the proposed Saudi-Arabian born ‘snake baby’, and how factual these creations are! Whether it is factual, or forged, the article explores the wide spectrum of different attitudes towards cross breeding and bestiality, in the Early Modern Period.

The Catholic ‘Monk-Calf’ :Image made to distort the views of catholic.

Image credit : Pitts Theology Library , Emory University

Although Fudge does touch upon this, I aim to evaluate deeper and ask the ‘big’ question: How serious was bestiality taken during the Early Modern Period?

So, Post- Reformation was bestiality taken seriously? The answer is yes, it was taken very seriously. The religious reformation and its publications had taken its toll, and people were starting to evaluate what made a human, human.[1]

An example of this can be found in Luther’s pamphlet, Duttung der czwo grewlichen Figuren Bapstesel czu Rom und Munchkalbs zu Freijberg ijnn Meiisszen funden, published in 1523, a catholic monk was portrayed as a ‘monk-calf’[2]

.With Catholics being portrayed as being cross- breeds, a propaganda method which aimed to show Catholics as their ‘true-selves’ using the tool of religious polemic, there was an excruciating amount of pressure to separate the men from the monsters. Whereas before the reformation, the Early Modern Period being a religious society, did punish because of Levitcus 18.23, Leviticus 20.15 was rarely enforced. After, a clear enforcement of Leviticus 20.15 and Exodus 22:19 was enforced as seen by a case in Scotland, Tom Betteridge explains in his book Sodomy in Early Modern Europe , which happened on the 1702, where two men John Moore and William McAdam, were accused of bestiality and were sentenced to be ‘stranglit at a stake, till they be dead and bodies burnt to ashes’[3]; A penalty which would happen rarely, before the reformation.

‘It is fund be ane assyse that John Moor  and William MacAdam ar guiltie of the crymes of bestialitie contenir in ther severall dittays [indicments], and therefore the commisiooners and I in ther name ordane and adjudge thame to tane upon wodinsday  … there to be stranglit at the stake till hey be dead, and ther bodies burnt to ashes…’[4]

As mentioned in Leviticus 20.15 and Fudge’s article, there was also a reinforcement of how bestiality made the animal somewhat ‘dirty’ and because of this they had to die, especially after the reformation. this was also seen by the calves, of Moore and MacAdams, who were killed on the accusation of their crime[5]. To put this all in perspective, if bestiality made some innocent animals dirty, imagine how it made the human who committed the ‘vyild and fylithie’ crime look, in a time were distinguishing animals and humans were vital? (Hint: In case you didn’t get it, not so good!)

However, before the reformation, and very early in the Early Modern Period, it can be argued that bestiality wasn’t really taken as seriously, definitely less sternly than the post-reformation years. Mentioned by Fudge, bestiality and zoophilic relations was certainly not a new entity. The fact that it was even mentioned in the old testament should tell us this! An example of this is, in Aeliean’s On the Characteristics of Animals, were the relationship between a ‘groom’ and a young mare is shown, and whereby the young mare is in love with the horse, in second century AD[6]. Although, bestiality was a punishable offence as the very early modern century did follow the bible which includes Levitcus 18.23, the penalties compared to the post-reformation could be considered as somewhat unusually lenient. For example, in Fudge’s article it mentions how early penitential manuals found punishments were masturbation or sins with a beast, was only punishable by doing two years of penance. With this, the punishment varied whether the man had a wife or not. This reveals societies not so much acceptance but less concerned attitude when it came to bestiality. One may argue as Joyce Salisbury in The Beast Within (1994), that humans didn’t distinguish themselves from animals as much as they did post-reformation[7]. As an offence looked on by society as particularly disgusting, should surely have a more detrimental punishment, and shouldn’t considers your spouse, especially if its against God in a religious society, right?

Although, there are different levels of seriousness towards bestiality, it can also be noted that some had a completely different approach to the idea of bestiality; ‘a scientific approach’. Fudge lightly touches the topic, as she does discuss how Ambroise Parè in his works tries to derive to some kind of understanding of deformed baby’s origin. Looking deeper into this, I found in his work Des Monstres written in 1573, he does not continue blaming deformed births on a bestiality relationship, but instead on some supernatural elements – ‘Gods glory, Gods wrath or demonic intervention’[8]. This is similar to others such as Thomas Browne, who in 1646 wrote Pseudodoxia epidemica , where he explores the different reasons as to how ignorance and superstition of society has led them to believe the absurd folk tales which come along with the terrible crime of bestiality.[9]

The first page of Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646) : source

So, not everyone was dragged into the scientifically impossible tales of real ‘half monks’ it seems. As well as showing a different approach this approach to bestiality could also show the shift to a more modern society, where by folk tales and mystical explanations weren’t the only reasoning’s for different proceedings which occurred.

All in all, it can be said that during the beginning of the Early Modern Period the subject of being a human wasn’t not very relevant, and so the subject of bestiality, although frowned upon wasn’t enforced heavily with harsh punishments. Animals were seen as, voiced by  Salisbury, as being not too far off humans , sharing emotions ,such a ‘anger and jealousy’[10]. Bestiality was generally considered ‘a part of life’[11]. This not only showed that bestiality’s punishments were not enforced by religion, but instead the publications and the new reformation seemed to make a difference in how people saw bestiality, were punished, and how the uses of bible verses like Leviticus  supported this. Although there is the issue of how serious bestiality was taken, it is also clear to see, how others took a completely different approach using bestiality tales to build their case against deformed births, and the folk tales which came along with them. It’s safe to say the different views, are expected as would there be different views explanations on bestiality, and its produce today.


Betteridge, Tom. Sodomy in early modern Europe. Manchester University Press, 2002.

Browne, Thomas. Pseudodoxia epidemica. Vol. 2. University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Fudge, Erica. “Monstrous acts: Bestiality in eary modern England.” History Today 50.8 (2000): 20.

Melanchthon, Philipp. Deuttung der czwo grewliche [n] Figuren Bapstesels czu Rom und Munchkalbs zu Freyberg ynn Meysszen funden. Rau-Grunenberg.

Miletski, Hani. “A history of bestiality.” Anthrozoos-Journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology 18 (2005): 1-22.

Paré, Ambroise. Des monstres et prodiges. No. 115. Librairie Droz, 1971.

Salisbury, Joyce E. The beast within: animals in the Middle Ages. Routledge, 2011.

Scholfield, Alwyn Faber, ed. On the characteristics of animals. Vol. 3. Loeb Classical Library, 1958.

The Dead and the Living. A struggle for ethernal peace.

What preserves the influence and the practice of a religion is given by the density of its traditions and its liminality. This very strong bound that perpetuated Christianity in the memory of a long generation of believers is the connection of dead with the living, but the practices and the customs of burials were not entirely unique: ‘The Egyptians worried greatly about the malevolent wandering spirit. This was a large part of the reason for the practice of mummification. If one’s body remained intact, one’s soul stayed with it and did not disturb the living’[1]

The fear of death is the fear of unknown and, thus, there had to be found a way to understand and check on the afterlife before we die. In the Early Modern Period, Christianity as a dominant aspect of the European people. In the same time, ghosts and other entities that appeared to humans either covered in mystery or self-revealing, and they also represented a great component of 1400s – 1700s culture.[2]

The true life for Christians is not the actual but the one after death. The Catholics expected the eternal bliss after serving the punishment in purgatory. On the other hand, the protestants believed that our soul had to be elected in order to get passage to heaven. Thus, as they rejected the existence of the Purgatory, there was no purpose in the prayers for the dead. The only rise of the dead was the resurrection on the Judgment Day. The Reformation taught free salvation, given by God – not related at all to merit – and preaching “the godly deceased are not lost forever but left for a time, not gone away from us, but sent to God before us”.[3]V0035170 Purgatory. Etching by E. Henne after P. Bruegel the elder.                                              Purgatory. Etching by E. Henne after P. Bruegel the elder.

In this context, the Catholics were not that sceptical about the return of the dead. On the contrary, there were chances for a person’s unnatural death or sinful life to have a restless afterlife.[4] It was possible even a physical return and not only the soul of the dead. In Breslau, 1591, a man had committed suicide but in order for him to get a proper burial, his wife has hidden the fact. Yet, the truth has revealed itself when a ghost resembling the features of the dead man started terrorising the people of that town. They exhumed the body and noticed that ‘he had grown more sensibly fleshy since his last interment.’ The decision was taken: ‘they cut off the head, arms, and legs of the corpse, opening his back, took out his heart, which was as fresh and entire as in a calf new killed’.[5]

The souls appear to have their unique way of communicating with the living and sometimes their message cannot be fully comprehended by the living people. However, there are cases when the dead come in immaterial form and reveal themselves to their loved ones in order to ask for help. They communicate and assure the living upon the existence of afterlife and, moreover, they suffer as the sinners were expected to. And, of course, they are a reminder to our world that our life will fulfil its purpose unto God and Christian life.

A wide belief among people was that the celebration of the Mass has the power to shorten the punishment given in purgatory to those who have sinned (However, this started to change gradually in the sixteenth century). For a fee, the priests would spend their days reading masses for those in despair at the demand of their caring living relatives. In 14th century Lancashire a man whose wife died appeared to him at night when he was returning from a trip. She had asked him to celebrate masses for her as she lived a sinful life. The number of masses her husband has to prepare were equal to the bunch of black hair she had given to him. When she was alive, her hair was blonde but it turned into black as a symbol of her punishment. As the masses were celebrated for her, the hair turned blonde and, with the last one, she appeared again thanking him and saying: ‘may you be blessed amongst all men for liberating me from the most dreadful punishment and now I am going happily’.[6]

Due to its unnatural aspect, it was hard to create a standing case for a lost soul that begs for salvation on the living relatives. Also, it would be difficult to believe that this is God’s work either. The case of a spirit in the town of Dole, 1628, is a very detailed investigation on the authenticity of the spirit’s good intentions. As she was seen only by an ill woman whom she took care of, the other people around were sceptical about this apparition. The spirit revealed its intentions gradually and proved herself worthy of trust, at least to some, when she drew the sign of cross using white chalk. The uniqueness of this drawing gave her credibility. And so she explained her purpose and required some pilgrimages on her behalf as a way of repaying the debt. When the woman recovered she took those pilgrimages for the soul who revealed herself as her aunt who died 17 years ago.[7]

These cases could be regarded as a mixture of fear and superstition with very religious grounds, given the amount of details and the intricate way of testing the dead’s tormented soul and the active participation of the Church. The possibility to see the loved one even when we lost the hope of meeting them again is comforting and meaningful. The lives of the people who encountered the Supernatural – Evil or Divine – became purposeful when entrusted with such a great mission.

[1] Jane P. Davidson, Early Modern Supernatural, The Dark Side of European Culture, 1400-1700 (Praeger, Oxford 2012), p. 142

[2] Ibid. p. 143

[3] David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death (Oxford University Press,1997) p. 388

[4] Darren Oldrige, Strange Histories (Routledge, London 2005)

[5] Henry More, An Antidote to Atheism (2nd edition, London 1655)

[6] English Historical Review, 38 (1923), 85-6 from David Englander, Diana Norman, An Anthology of Sources -Culture and Belief in Europe 1400-1600 p.16

[7] Kathryn A. Edwards and Susie Speakman Sutch, The History of the Apparition of a Spirit: Dole, 1628

“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.