Ghosts in the Library: apparitions of the dead in the collection of the Queen’s College, Oxford
This small exhibition illustrated the variety of opinions held about ghosts in English and European thought, with works on display dating from the 15th to 19th centuries.
The topic of apparitions of the dead was a popular and controversial one in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and reflecting our collection the exhibition focused particularly on ghosts as they appeared in Reformation literature.
The exhibition was on display from April to October 2012 and was curated by Lynette Dobson.
Introduction to the exhibition
For the purposes of this exhibition, “ghost” means an apparition of a dead person. While this concept exists throughout history and cultures, the exhibition focuses on European and English ideas about ghosts, and, reflecting the collections held in Queen’s, particularly on ghosts as they appear in Reformation literature.
The topic of ghosts was a popular and controversial one in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The doctrine of Purgatory, a temporary state in which recently departed souls ultimately destined for salvation undergo purification in preparation for their entry into Heaven, allowed for the belief that the dead could return to earth and interact with the living. Likewise, the living could intercede on behalf of the dead and affect their fate. In this worldview, apparitions of the dead could readily be accepted as real appearances of dead souls.
The Protestant reformers did not in general believe in Purgatory, since they believed it had no basis in scripture. The soul went straight to Heaven or Hell. And if Purgatory didn’t exist, then neither did ghosts – or if they did they were miracles from God merely appearing to be spirits of the dead, or else deceptions or hallucinations.
However, despite the anti-Catholic sentiment that swept England and much of Europe during the Reformation, popular belief in ghosts remained widespread and spirits of the dead continued to appear in literature and theatre.
Later rationalism led to scientific explanations for apparent appearances of dead to the living, particularly in the 19th century, although psychological explanations were nothing new.
The books on display in the exhibition show a variety of ideas about what ghosts are, or are not, in general reflecting those viewpoints outlined above.