An examination of interpretations of ghosts from the reformation to the close of the Seventeenth Century

An examination of interpretations of ghosts from the reformation to the close of the Seventeenth Century

Newton, John Geoffrey

Doctoral thesis, Durham University (2003)


This study examines the interpretations that were made of ghosts in England, and to a lesser extent Wales and Scotland, in the period c1530-1702, beginning with the shift that accompanied the Reformation redefinition of the afterlife, and how this led to shifts in the ways that ghosts were interpreted. It examines the various possible strategies that could be employed to interpret alleged apparitions in the period, and looks at the influence the drama had on shaping and reinforcing certain interpretative strategies. It then follows the way interpretations developed from 1640 until the end of the seventeenth century, particularly looking at how Henry More, Joseph Glanvill and their imitators influenced interpretative trends and caused a noticable shift in ideas of what ghosts were. The thesis also looks at how the ballads and pamphlets of the seventeenth century reflected or resisted this process, and in conclusion examines how traditional pre-Reformation notions continued to exist into the Restoration, albeit in a highly modified form.

In order to examine the interpretations and how these were frequently connected to people’s worldviews I make use of reader response theory, especially Stanley Fish’s idea of interpretive communities, as well as borrowing from theories of material culture. This is the first sustained examination of ghost beliefs which attempts to categorise and account for the different ways in which ghosts were interpreted. It explores the ways that early modern individuals made sense of ghosts, and the extent to which interpretations competed and co-existed, suggesting that no communal way of reading ghosts was monolithic.

Click here to read this thesis from Durham University

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