Witchcraft and the Occult, 1400-1700
Ghosts, poltergeists, and spectres

first edition of the English translation of Ludwig Lavater,
De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insolitis fragoribus.
Early modern people lived among the ghosts and echoes of the past, just as they inhabited a world filled with portents of the future.  Although there was a great deal of social and geographical mobility among both the gentry and more humble folk, the same family had often lived in the same house or village for many generations, so the memories of past lives were ever present.  The strange phenomena associated with the dead were commonplace, but when more spectacular examples occurred they were often put to ideological use by powerful interest groups, much as demonic phenomena such as the Loudun possessions could be used.  On occasion, however, relatively lowly individuals could retain control of the meaning of their visions.

In December 1517, the Bergamo countryside in Italy was the scene of a series of portentous visions over several weeks. We have various accounts relating them in different ways which allow us to follow the transformation of a tradition and its social functions while crossing different cultural strata. We can trace  three possible levels: at the first level we find accounts confining themselves to report visions of fighting armies mainly, but of animals or merely ghosts as well; at the second level the visions are transformed and turned into a manifestation of the folkloric myth of the ravaging army, particularly widespread in the Germanic world. When the news relating the visions finally got to Rome, the Roman Curia managed to turn them into an instrument of religious propaganda for the crusade against the Turks which was being planned in that period.

When a nameless spirit visited Huguette Roy during the spring of 1628, Huguette became a local sensation. Neighborhood women, Franciscan preachers, and Jesuit intellectuals all tried to identify and control the apparition, who remained invisible to everyone save Huguette. She saw a helpful, if ethereal, young woman, and the spirit's gender was only confirmed when it explained that it was Huguette's aunt, Leonarde. As both a female vision and an aunt, Leonarde became manageable and understandable. All of those associated with the haunting - believers and doubters alike - assumed that standards and attributes of womanhood, as defined in the seventeenth-century Franche-Comté, would be applicable to the spirit, in particular woman's innate physicality.  Leonarde confirmed and conformed to these beliefs.  Moreover, she, Huguette, and their supporters manipulated these standards to enhance their legitimacy. In the process all of the participants abandoned any sense of paradox that physical standards were being applied to an entity who was by nature non-physical or, at least, whose physicality did not conform to worldly, corporeal standards.  Womanhood, in whatever form, became a universal category with physicality as its primary component.

Ghost stories rivalled demonic possession for popularity in seventeenth-century France, especially after the Crown moved to inhibit witchcraft and demoniac phenomena being used for partisan propaganda purposes.  During the French constitutional crisis of the Fronde (1648-52), over five thousand different   pamphlets flooded Paris in response to the demands of a curious and active reading public. In some of these pamphlets, ghosts, emissaries from God, and other supernatural beings appeared before French subjects and the queen to comment on the political crisis facing France. These supernatural beings admonished ordinary men to  take an active role in opposing the queen.  Borrowing a device from the theatre and exploiting a popular interest in the supernatural, the authors of the apparition pamphlets imagined a new political role for commoners in absolutist France.

A pamphlet by a Huguenot minister from the Jura, François Perrault (1577-1657), L'Antidemon de Mascon, ou la Relation pure et simple des principales choses qui ont esté faites & dites par vn demon, was translated into both Dutch and English.  The English translation was made by a prominent theologian, Pierre du Moulin, and prefaced with a letter to him from Robert Boyle, the natural philosopher.  It went through five editions and was much cited as the standard proof of the existence of demons.  It was soon joined by Joseph Glanvill's accounts of the demon of Tedworth and the drummer of Mompesson, in his Saducismus Triumphatus.  Stories of apparitions and poltergeists were eagerly collected.  The Bishop of Gloucester even collected stories of fairies.  Leading natural philosophers and divines, such as Henry More, John Wilkins, Edward Reynolds and Ralph Cudworth, participated in this great project to establish the reality of demons and witches, and therefore angels and God, on a natural historical basis.  Scottish tales of ghostly apparitions were read avidly in London, and Robert Boyle and others at the Royal Society took a serious interest in reports of "second sight" in Scotland.  The only substantial response to this project came from John Webster, a licensed surgeon-physician in Clitheroe, on the border of Lancashire with Yorkshire.  He was not an obscure man, having been a notable radical preacher in the 1650s and having published a major work on metals, the Metallographia of 1671, but he was hardly an established authority on what constituted religious and natural philosophical orthodoxy.  His Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677) was attacked by the Oxford and Cambridge heavyweights, just as his criticisms of the universities had been, twenty-five years earlier.

Apart from such ideological purposes, ghosts and other uncanny phenomena could have more practical uses.  A substantial number of surviving pretrial depositions from early modern England show that preternatural evidence was important in trying contemporary murder cases, and this included testimony about ghosts and dreams. All social classes believed in cruentation, that corpses bled anew in the presence of the murderer.  James VI & I, in his Daemonologie, had spoken in favour of the bier-richt, and occasionally corpse-touching ceremonies were organized by authorities, often in the context of the post-mortem hearing on the body by the coroner.  In several of the sets of depositions concerning late seventeenth-century witchcraft cases that survive from the Northern Assize Circuit, there are traces of spectres being mentioned during the proceedings.

The use of such evidence most famously occurred during the Salem investigations and trials, and historians have struggled to come to a just assessment of its role there.  In witch trials, courts in England and New England were accustomed to allowing "spectral evidence" - testimony that the spectres, or shapes, of the accused afflicted their accusers, usually at night.  Legal treatises cautioned that spectral evidence was inconclusive, and its use was avoided by the Essex witch-hunters, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, because they felt it was often delusive, but it is often argued that the Salem judges accepted it as irrefutable and sufficient to convict many of the accused, who (as defendants in capital cases) had no legal representation.  The popular view of such apparitions was that it was the witch herself who was appearing in spectral form, as if she had been transmuted into a wraith.  The learned view was that it was the Devil who appeared in the shape of the woman.

Several ministers urged caution in the use of spectral evidence, arguing that the Devil was quite capable of representing the shapes of godly men and women as easily as those of witches.  In Boston, Samuel Willard preached consistently against the use of spectral evidence during the trials, and he was joined after much debate by Increase Mather, whose Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil  Spirits appeared to contradict the recently published opinions of his son, Cotton Mather.  However, it may well be that the influence exerted by the spectacular performances of the afflicted women has been exaggerated by historians.  It was the nonspectral acts that attracted attention from the court. No one charged only with spectral appearance was even tried.

The Mathers were well aware of the struggle being mounted against atheism in London.  They had read the books and were friendly with some of the participants.  They themselves had published books intended to show the reality of unseen phenomena and providential judgements.  The respectability of such notions among leading intellectuals, when combined with the Mathers' heightened millenarian expectations at the time of the Salem crisis, inevitably led to them being caught wrong-footed by the paroxysms of the accusers.  They wanted to believe but they feared that the Devil was deceiving them.

English translation of Pierre le Loyer, Discours des spectres, ou visions
et apparitions d'esprits, comme anges, demons, at ames, se monstrans visibles aux hommes


Kathryn A. Edwards, "Female Sociability, Physicality, and Authority in an Early Modern Haunting", Journal of Social History 33.3 (2000) 601-621

Malcolm Gaskill, "Reporting murder: fiction in the archives in early modern England", Social History 23 (1998) 1-30

Dennis E. Owen, "Spectral evidence; the witchcraft cosmology of Salem Village in 1692", in Mary Douglas, ed., Essays in the Sociology of Perception (London, 1982) 275-301

Daniel G. Payne, "Defending against the indefensible: spectral evidence at the Salem witchcraft trials",  Essex Institute Historical Collections 129 (1993) 62-83

Mark A. Peterson, " 'Ordinary' preaching and the interpretation of the Salem witchcraft crisis by the Boston clergy", Essex Institute Historical Collections 129 (1993) 84-102

Stephen L. Robbins, "Samuel Willard and the spectres of God's wrathful lion", New England Quarterly 60 (1987) 596-603

Wendel D. Craker, "Spectral evidence, non-spectral acts of witchcraft, and confession at Salem in 1692", Historical Journal 40 (1997) 331-358

Ottavia Niccoli, Prophecy and People in Renaissance Italy (Princeton, 1990)   BF 1812 .I88 N53213

Sara Beam, "Apparitions and the public sphere in seventeenth-century France", Canadian Journal of History 29 (1994) 1-22

Carleton S. Cunningham, "The Devil and religious controversies of sixteenth-century France", Essays in History 35 (1993) 33-47


Ludwig Lavater (1527-1586), Of ghostes and spirites walking by nyght, and of strange noyses, crackes, and sundry forewarnynges, whiche commonly happen before the death of menne, great slaughters, alterations of kyngdomes (London, 1572)
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Pierre le Loyer (1550-1634), A treatise of specters or straunge sights, visions and apparitions appearing sensibly vnto men. Wherein is delivered, the nature of spirites, angels, and divels: their power and properties: as also of witches, sorcerers, enchanters, and such like (London, 1605)
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Thomas Bromhall, An history of apparitions, oracles, prophecies, and predictions, with dreams, visions, and revelations. And the cunning delusions of the Devil, to strengthen the idolatry of the Gentiles, and the worshipping of saints departed; with the doctrine of purgatory. A work very seasonable, for discovering the impostures and religious cheats of these times. Collected out of sundry authours of great credit; and delivered into English from their several originals, by T.B.  Whereunto is annexed, a learned treatise, confuting the opinions of the Sadduces and Epicures, (denying the appearing of angels and devils to men) with the arguments of those that deny that angels and devils can assume bodily shapes. Written in French, and now rendred into English (London, 1658)
[microfilm: Early English books, 1641-1700; 885:10, 1248:3]
also published as A treatise of specters: microfilm: Early English books, 1641-1700; 837:2


Horrid and strange news from Ireland: being a true relation of what happened in the province of Munster, at a castle of  one of the FitzGarrets, called Ballimarter, wherein there were very strange apparitions, the like never before heard of, to the amazement of all the beholders. Written by Henry Lovel Gent. being an eyewitnesse and a fellow-feeler thereof, now in London ready to averre the same for truth  (London, 1643)
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François Perrault (1577-1657), The devill of Mascon, or, A true relation of the chiefe things which an unclean spirit did, and said at Mascon in Burgundy in the house of Mr. Francis Pereaud, minister of the Reformed Church in the same towne / published in French lately by himselfe ; and now made English by one that hath a particular knowledge of the truth of this story. (Oxford, 1658)
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The vvonder of vvonders, or, a true relation of a late strange and miraculous accident that happened to one that dyed in the ship called, the Dunbar, who after he had been buried one shore above five daies, rise again, and standing upright in his grave, called to the fleet with a shrill voice at noon-day, telling them the events that should happen to all those ships that went towards the sound. With the several speeches made by him, to the wonderful astonishment and admiration of divers of the fleet, who were both hearers and eye-witnesses, and will justifie the truth of this great miracle. With a great and strange apparition of two armies that appeared in the north of England on Thursday last, with the exact manner of their engaging one another at noon-day with the thundring noise both of great and small shot (London, 1659)
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Strange and true news from Long-Ally in More-Fields, Southwark, and Wakefield in Yorkshire 1. The wonderful and miraculous appearance of the ghost of Griffin Davis (at the house of Mr. Watkins in Long-Ally) to his daughter Susan Davis ... 2. A more exact relation of the strruge [sic] appearance of the ghost of Mr. Powel near the Faulcon ... 3. The heavy judgment of God shewed on Jane Morris a widdow near Wakefield in Yorkshiere [sic] ... the truth hereof is averred by Sir. Rich. Keys, Mr. Hare, and several other persons of quality ...(London, 1661)
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A strange and wonderfull discovery of a horrid and cruel murther committed fourteen years since, upon the person of Robert Eliot of London, at Great Driffield in the East-Riding of the county of York. Discovered in September last by the frequent apparitions of a spirit in several shapes and habits unto Isabel Binnigton, the wife of William Binnington, the now inhabitants in the house where this most execrable murther was committed. Together with a discourse that passed between the spirit and the said Isabel Binnington after its first appearing. Taken upon oath at the examination of the said Isabel, before Sir Thomas Rennington Knight, and Thomas Crompton, Esq; two of His Majesties justices of peace for that riding, Septemb. 2. 1662. (London, 1662)
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A true relation of the horrid ghost of a woman, which hath frequently been seen in various habits, in the house of  Nicholas Broaday, at the Three Mariners in Depthford, upon the third, fourth, and sixth of this instant April, 1673. By Peter Griffith, Robert Predam, and John Stolliard, belonging to His Majesty's ship, called the Monck, and several others of the family (London, 1673)
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A pleasant treatise of witches. Their imps, and meetings, persons bewitched, magicians, necromancers, incubus, and succubus's, familiar spirits, goblings, pharys, specters, phantasms, places haunted, and devillish impostures. With the difference between good and bad angels, and a true relation of a good genius.  By a pen neer the Covent of Eluthery (London, 1673)
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News from Puddle-Dock in London, or, A Perfect particuler of the strange apparitions and transactions that have happened in the house of Mr. Edward Pitts next door to the still at Puddle-Dock (London, 1674)
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The rest-less ghost: or, Wonderful news from Northamptonshire, and Southwark. Being a most true and perfect account of a persons appearance that was murdered above two hundred and fifty years ago. First about three weeks since, to one William Clarke at Hennington in Northampton-shire, whom it appointed to meet in Southwark, and did there appear to him again, and several others, on Sunday last the 10th. of this instant January. Where it discovered a great parcel of money, and some writings buried in the ground, which were disposed off by his order, and then seeming satisfied it disappeared. This relation is taken from the said Will. Clarks own mouth, who came to London on purpose, and will be attested and justified by Will. Stubbins, Iohn Charlton, and John Stevens, to be spoken with any day, at the Castle Inn without Smith Field-Barrs, and many others (London, 1675)
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Strange and wonderful news from Northampton-shire, or, The discontented spirit. Being a true relation of a spirit that appeared to one Richard Lake of Hinnington in Northampton-shire. That had been murthered, 267 years, and odd days, he was seen several times about Richard Clarke yard: and at last he comming from ... his mault, the spirit met him at the door and shov'd him into the orchard, and there spoke to him, saying that he must go to London, and so to Southwark to be his messenger, and he would be his guide to go with him, (which the said Clarke did) and what he saw, is expressed in this following ditty. The tune is, Summertime. (London, 1675)
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The deemon of Marleborough, or, More news from VVilt-shire in a most exact account of the aparition of the ghost, or spirit of Edward Aven : published heretofore, but now much augmented, with many more discoveries, containing wonderful passages, from its first appearance there, to the 24th of  Jan., 1674/5 : being the examination of Thomas Godard, the said Avens son in law, taken before the major, and other magistrates of that borough (London, 1675)
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Strange and wonderful news from Linconshire [sic]. Or a dreadful account of a most inhumane and bloody murther, committed upon the body of one Mr. Carter, by the contrivance of his elder brother, who had hired three more villains to commit the horrid fact and how it was soon after found out, by the appearance of a most dreadful and terrible ghost, sent by Almighty Providence for the discovery. As also the manner of its appearance in several shapes and forms, with fresh bleeding wounds, still pursuing the murtherer from place, to place; with the relation how he endeavoured to conjure it down, and of its appearance and declaration of the murtherers, and of the confession of the murderer when apprehended, with many other remarkable circmstances [sic]. This was communicated in a letter to a gentleman of very good quality in London, the truth of which is attested under the hands of George Smith, James Simson, and Gregory Wilson, men of good repute and fame, living near Stampford (London, 1679)
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Great news from Middle-Row in Holbourn: or A true relation of a dreadful ghost which appeared in the shape of one Mrs. Adkins, to several persons but especially to a maid-servant at the Adam and Eve, all in a flame of fire on Tuesday-night last, being the 16th of this instant March, 1679. With the full account how she discovered to her the murther of two children, and where they were buryed, where upon search the bones were accordingly found, with many other amazing and most dreadful circumstances (London, 1679/80)
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The most strange, wonderful and surprizing apparition of the ghost of General C--n, which appeared to the man who wore the yellow sash at the battle of Dettingen (London, 1680)
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A Narrative of the demon of Spraiton. In a letter from a person of quality in the county of Devon, to a gentleman in London, with a relation of an apparition or spectrum of an ancient gentleman of Devon, who often appeared to his sons servant. With the strange actions and discourses happening between them at divers times. As likewise the dæmon of an ancient woman, wife of the gentleman aforesaid. With unparalell'd varieties of strange exploits performed by her: attested under the hands of the said person of quality, and likewise a reverend divine of the said county. With reflections on drollery and atheism: and a word to those that deny the existence of spirits. (London, 1683)
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A strange, true, and dreadful relation, of the devils appearing to Thomas Cox a hackney-coach-man; who lives in Cradle-Alley in Baldwins-Gardens. First, in the habit of a gentleman with a roll of parchment in his hand, and then in the shape of a bear, which afterwards vanish'd away in a flash of fire, at eight of the clock on Friday night, October the 31th. 1684 (London, 1684)
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A true and impartial relation of a wonderful apparition that happen'd in the royal camp in Flanders, the beginning of this instant September, 1692. concerning King William. In a letter to a gentleman in London, from his friend, a captain in the King's camp (London, 1692)
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A true relation of an apparition, expressions and actings, of a spirit, which infected the house of Andrew Mackie in Ring-Croft of Stocking, in the paroch of Rerrick, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, in Scotland. By Mr. Alexander Telfair, minister of that paroch: and attested by many other persons, who were also eye and ear-witnesses. (Edinburgh, 1696)
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