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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.

The Gast of Gy

Author unknown; scribe ascribes text to John Mandeville
Gast of Gy
th century

The tale of the Gast of Gy was a popular story in the Middle Ages, with manuscript versions existing in Latin, French, Swedish and German as well as English.  The plot is summarised by the title given to Queen’s Manuscript 383 in Coxe’s catalogue of manuscripts in Oxford colleges:

Legend of the ghost of ‘a citoniere of Alexto, hiʒt Gwydo,’ which appeared to his wife after death, in the year 1330, and of a dialogue which took place between the ghost and a Dominican Prior, of the state of men after death.

The story shows how belief in the existence of ghosts could support the doctrine of Purgatory.  There is no doubt that the apparition which appears is the spirit of a dead man currently undergoing a fiery purification.  The ghost states, “I am the goost of Gy that is deed."  Much of the conversation with the Prior centres on a discussion of the nature of Purgatory from whence he has come.

Gast of Gy
Of ghostes and spirites walking by nyght

Lavater, Ludwig, 1527-1586
De spectris, lemuribus et magnis atque insolitis fragoribus …

Ludwig Lavater was a Swiss Reformed theologian.  In 1570 he published this vast collection of ghost sightings which was later translated into English as Of ghostes and spirites walking by nyght.

Along with other Protestant reformers he rejected the idea that ghosts were the souls of the dead returned to earth.  Without the Catholic concept of Purgatory, this was an impossibility until Judgment Day.  However, Lavater did not deny that the living sometimes saw visions of the dead.  These he considered to be deception or illusions, or even visitations by angels or demons.

De spectris … was a seminal work which had great influence. James I used Lavater’s terms spectra and lemures to refer to apparitions of the dead in his Demonology.

De spectris title page

Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616
The tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark

Shakespeare’s King Hamlet is probably the most famous ghost in literature.  As was common in Renaissance writings, the apparition is a vengeful spirit, returned to avenge his murder.  Similar apparitions appear in Richard III, Macbeth and Julius Caesar.

Hamlet was first published in 1601, forty years after the Church of England had rejected the doctrine of Purgatory and at a time when showing support for Catholic doctrines could have been dangerous.   Despite this, it certainly appears that King Hamlet’s ghost is portrayed as a spirit from Purgatory, “doomed for a certain time to walk the night” (1.5.9-13).

In his 1624 New shreds of an old snare (also featured in this exhibition), John Gee, in countering what he saw as elaborate ghostly deceptions by Jesuits, referred to Hamlet when he asserted that staged apparitions could be seen for “far cheaper” in the theatre, perhaps an indication that stage representations of ghosts were considered harmless.

While popular belief in ghosts did remain, it is not clear whether Shakespeare intended the apparition of Hamlet’s father to be real or imaginary.  By the Victorian period his ghosts were widely considered to be hallucinations.

Hamlet title page 1701
New shreds of the old snare

Gee, John, 1596-1639
New shreds of the old snare. : Containing theapparitions of two new female ghosts …

John Gee, b. 1595, was a Church of England clergyman known to have consorted with Catholics.  This changed in 1623 when his narrow escape from death at the “fatal vespers”, a Catholic evensong in Blackfriars during which the floor gave way killing nearly one hundred people, led to a spiritual change of heart, and he soon began a campaign of words against the Catholic priesthood.

In New shreds of the old snare and its companion The Foot out of the Snare (also 1624), Gee warns of the deceptive tactics used by Jesuit priests to convert Protestants. These primarily involve the staging of apparitions, using tricks of lighting and theatrics, to convince weak minded individuals that a ghost has come to visit them from Purgatory.   In these visitations, they are warned to avoid the same fate by becoming Catholic.

The idea that apparent ghosts must in fact be deceptions, or else hallucinations, was common among Protestant reformers.

New shreds of the old snare title page
The displaying of supposed witchcraft

Webster, John, 1611-1682
The displaying of supposed witchcraft … Wherein also is handled, the existence of angels and spirits, the truth of apparitions, the nature of astral and sydereal spirits …

Like others before him, John Webster denied the possibility of souls of the dead returned to earth, but at the same time asserted that sometimes people did indeed see apparitions of dead people. In The displaying of supposed witchcraft he explains the phenomenon of apparitions of the dead with the concept of astral spirits, an idea which has existed in many cultures and in various forms. Webster’s particular take on the astral spirit was borrowed from renaissance physician and occultist Paracelcus, who believed that there were three essential components of a human: body, soul, and a middle substance between the two. This substance was the astral spirit, a type of matter in which was preserved a person’s thoughts at their time of death. Webster also refers to it as the “corporeal soul”. After death the astral spirit exists “by itself for some time, until it be dissipated and wasted, in which time it may (and doubtlessly doth) make these apparitions, motions and bleedings of the murthered bodies.”

The displaying of supposed witchcraft title page
Mrs. Veal

Defoe, Daniel, 1661?-1731
A true relation of the apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next day after her death :  to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury. The 8th of September, 1705.

This early eighteenth century pamphlet widely attributed to Daniel Defoe tells the story of Mrs Bargrave, who is visited at home by her old friend Mrs Veal.  It later transpires Mrs Veal was in fact ill in bed and died at the exact time of her apparent arrival at the house.

Although the story has clearly been embellished for literary effect, it is probable that this is a true account of a supposed ghost visitation.  In December 1705, three months after the account takes place, a report appeared in London newspaper The loyal post of “a remarkable passage that happned lately in the city of Canterbury.”  The popularity of the story at the time indicates that public interest in ghosts and ghost stories had not dwindled during the Reformation.

In an 1895 article in Nineteenth century (cited by Arthur Scouten), historian George Aitken showed that the people involved in Mrs Veal did exist, an argument strengthened by his discovery of a copy of the pamphlet which included manuscript additions recording an interview with Mrs Bargrave herself in 1714.

The apparition of Mrs Veal page 1
Sadducismus triumphatus

Glanvill, Joseph, 1636-1680
Sadducismus triumphatus: or, A full and plain evidence, concerning witches and apparitions

Joseph Glanvill, natural philosopher and Church of England clergyman, was unusual among his Protestant contemporaries in that he did believe in ghosts and other supernatural phenomena. In The haunted, Owen Davies states, “This was an isolated position … It smacked of Catholicism.” Sadducismus triumphatus, perhaps most well-known for its account of the famous Drummer of Tedworth poltergeist, includes records of ghostly appearances compiled as evidence of the existence of the supernatural, as well as arguments from scripture. With these, Glanvill aimed to counter the common reformed view that belief in apparitions was “ridiculous”, “impossible”, or merely adherence to “old wives fables”. One of the foundations of Glanvill’s belief in ghosts was the raising of Samuel by the Witch of Endor in 1 Samuel 28, which he took as proof that the souls of the dead could return to earth. This biblical scene is beautifully illustrated in the frontispiece on display.

Sadducismus triumpatus frontis
Sketches of the philosophy of apparitions

Hibbert, Samuel, 1782-1848
Sketches of the philosophy of apparitions; or, An attempt to trace such illusions to their physical causes

In the Georgian and Victorian eras, medics and psychiatrists became interested in the phenomenon of apparitions. Visions of ghosts were often attributed to sleep paralysis or perception disorders. Following on from the work of physician John Ferriar, who wrote An essay towards a theory of apparitions in 1813, this work by geologist Samuel Hibbert treats apparitions, including those of dead people, as hallucinations caused by excitement of the mind. He states, “Apparitions are nothing more than ideas, or the recollected ideas of the mind, which have been rendered as vivid as actual impressions.” Hibbert believed that certain types of people were more prone to such visions and lists causes such as hysteria, exhaustion, illness and bloodletting. The table on display describes the various stages of sleep and watchfulness coupled with the intensity of visions which might arise from them.

Hibbert's table
Bibliography / Further reading

Bowers, R. H., ed. The Gast of Gy : a middle-English religious prose tract preserved in Queen's College, Oxford, MS. 383.  Leipzig : Bernard Tauchnitz, 1938.

Burns, William E. “Glanvill [Glanville], Joseph (1636–1680), Church of England clergyman.” Oxford dictionary of national biography [online ed.].  Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004-. April 12, 2012. <>

Clericuzio, Antonio. “Webster, John (1611–1682), schoolmaster and polemicist.” Oxford dictionary of national biography [online ed.].  Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004-. April 12, 2012. <>

Coxe, H. O., ed.  Catalogus codicum mss. Collegii Reginensis. [Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1852].

Davies, Owen.  The haunted : a social history of ghosts.  Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Greenblatt, Stephen.  Hamlet in purgatory.  Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford : Princeton University Press, c2001.

Harmsen, Theodor. “Gee, John (1595/6–1639), Church of England clergyman and religious controversialist.” Oxford dictionary of national biography [online ed.].  Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004-. April 12, 2012. <>

Scouten, Arthur H. “An early printed report on the apparition of Mrs. Veal.” Review of English studies, New Series, 6.23 (1955) : 259-263. Online. March 26, 2012. <>