3-Minute Reads // Pranksters, poltergeists, and pain de campagne (some more ghost stories)

“3-minute Reads” are mini-essays and close readings of a variety of texts. Subject choice is eclectic, and based entirely on whatever I happen to be reading, watching, or thinking about at the time. Enjoy!


One of the most enjoyable things about doing a PhD on Living Death in Shakespearean Drama was using my thesis as an excuse to read literally All Of The Ghost Stories. There are, to put it mildly, some absolute crackers out there. Now that the nights are drawing in, I thought I’d share a few more of the spooky (and occasionally hilarious) shenanigans of days past that I came across while researching. Enjoy!

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Gast of Gy – the friendly French poltergeist who, in a hilarious misunderstanding ended up in a minor face-off with the papal military. We’ve all been there.

The story of Gy illustrates beautifully two hallmarks of interaction between the living and the spirits of the dead in medieval Christian tradition:

1) Generally speaking, ghosts and ghouls retained a physical presence, and therefore presented an imposing physical threat – as well as a spiritual one! – to the living.
2) The living, as a direct result of (1), were prone to overreact.

Sometimes, as with the soldiers that lined up to poke Gy with sharp things just in case the confrontation got out of hand, physical interaction was simply part of a process of more wholesome spiritual intervention, whereby the lost soul could eventually be saved through prayer and sent on its way to Heaven or Purgatory. In other cases, though, it was not unknown for physical altercation to replace spiritual intercession altogether.


One such story is related by Jean-Claude Schmitt. A deceased baker in a small village in Brittany returned to help his wife and children knead dough. As the tale goes, he would come at night, leaving fresh dough for his family to discover in the morning. Charming though this sounds, when word of his culinary excursions got out, his fellow villagers, presumably outraged at the ghost’s flagrant violation of food hygiene codes, smashed open his tomb and broke the corpse’s legs. While hardly an exercise in subtlety, the mob’s techniques nevertheless proved effective, and the ghost did not return. “Brown bread” indeed (sorry). [1]

 Post-Reformation, a degree of practicality was part and parcel of everyday Protestant teaching. Intercessionary prayer and the related concept of Purgatory were abolished, which meant that the dead could no longer “neither walke nor appeare in bodie or soule after death”. [2] Ghosts had been re-classified as fiction; painted devils to scare children.

As such the standard Protestant solution to any spooky occurrence was the application of simple, elementary scepticism, and the search for naturalistic explanations. Thomas Nashe, for example, in his 1594 treatise The Terrors of the Night, attributes ghost sightings to a number of thoroughly sensible things. Ghosts were simply bad dreams caused by melancholy, he argued, “the mother of dreames, and of all terrours of the night whatsoever”. It was also possible that ghostly visions were caused by nothing more than indigestion: Nashe warns his readers to beware “Anie meate that in the day time we eat against our stomackes.” Such unwholesome foodstuffs will surely “begetteth a dismall dreame”. [3]

 Some writers, though, posit more charmingly mischievous explanations, and suggest that their readers keep an eye out for practical jokes. Ludwig Lavater, one of the most prominent theologians of the reformation, attributes many hauntings to pranks by “pleasant & merrie young men, [who] disguise the[m]selves like unto Devils, or else shroud themselues in white sheets”. Perhaps experienced in such matters, Lavater imagines a “usuall and common” situation in which:

yong men merily disposed, when they travell by the way, comming to theyr Inne at night, tye roapes to the bed side, or to the coverlet or garments, or else hide them selves under the bed, and so counterfeating them selves to bee Spirits, deceyve and mocke their fellows. [4]

One of the most fascinating accounts of the kind of tomfoolery described by Lavater returns to to France – this time to the Chateau d’Arsillier, c.1746. The Chateau was plagued by a series of devilish attacks involving fire, smoke, and terrifying noises caused by a black demon with horns and a tail. One night a friend of the owner chased the spectre and shot it, upon which, in a scene straight out of Scooby-Doo, the demon transformed itself into the local bailiff, who had been attempting to scare away customers by sporting a leather spook costume. [5] Whether or not the owner’s friend suspected foul play before he shot the apparition remains unclear, but his refreshing pragmatism nevertheless serves to demonstrate a Catholic appreciation of human foibles.

If nothing else, I hope that all of this gives you some ideas for Halloween… Just avoid France, if you can: the locals there are done playing.

[1] Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval
Society (London: University of Chicago Press, 1998). 147-8.
[2] Perkins, William. A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (Cambridge: The University of Cambridge, 1608). Sig.H2.
[3] Nashe, Thomas. The Terrors of the Night (London: John Danter, 1594). Sig. C4v.
[4] Lavater, Ludwig. Of ghostes and spirites walking by nyght. Trans. R. H. (London:
by Henry Benneyman for Richard Warkyns, 1572). C3r-C3v.
[5] Calmet, Augustine. The Phantom World: The History and Philosophy of Spirits, Apparitions [1751]. Trans Rev. Henry Christmas (London: Richard Bentley, 1850). 1.250-2.

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