Author: menysnoweballes

Feminist medievalist, teacher of history, consumer of pop culture. Lecturer at the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Blogging in a personal capacity.

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

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A photomontage of fireworks from a Guy Fawkes Night display at Roundwood Park in Harlesden, London. Credit: Billy Hicks, under Creative Commons licence

Senior lecturer Caroline Nielsen investigates the history of Bonfire Night:

Most people in England are probably familiar with this rhyme:

‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot’

The rhyme refers to the 1605 Gunpowder Treason plot; a failed assassination attempt on King James I of England and Scotland. Rhymes like this one have been around more or less since the plot itself. They were designed to give children a mnemonic history lesson. Earlier rhymes could be detailed, like this nineteenth-century one:

‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder treason and plot

I hope that night will never be forgot.

The king and his train

Had like to be slain:

36 barrels of gunpowder

Set below London to blow, London up!.

Holla boys! Holla boys!

Let the bells ring!

Holla boys! Holla boys!

God save the King

A stick or a stake

For [Queen] Victoria’s sake,

And pray ye remember the bonfire night.’

(quoted in M. E. S. Wright, Rhymes Old and New (1900), p. 14)

But behind these simple rhymes lies a complex history of religious intolerance, persecution and violence.

The Gunpowder Plot was a religious sectarian plot against the Protestant monarch James I and his court. Early seventeenth-century England was fraught with religious divisions. Catholics were actively discriminated against in law and in wider society. Catholics were not allowed to practice their faith publicly. There were fines for not going to Protestant churches or for not educating one’s children to be Protestant or for hiding a priest. Catholics priests risked imprisonment or execution for saying Mass. Many English Catholics had initially hoped that James (who was married to a Catholic) would curb some of these laws, but that didn’t happen. Frustrated by James’ perceived unwillingness to help his loyal Catholic subjects, a small group of conspirators decided to act. The plotters would be deemed to be terrorists now: they were willing to kill potentially large numbers of people indiscriminately for their cause. The plot was stopped at the last minute. One of the conspirators, Guido (or Guy) Fawkes was caught red-handed in Parliament, not far from the pile of gunpowder barrels intended to kill James. Fawkes was arrested and taken away for interrogation and torture. This is why Fawkes is the most well-known of all the conspirators, even though he was not heavily involved in the early planning (Fraser, 97-100). Most of the other conspirators were caught over the next fortnight, and the main trials began in January 1606. (Fraser, 211-226.)

In recognition of his brush with death, James passed a law in 1606 that there should be an annual national ‘thanksgiving’ event on the 5th November. Contemporaries believed that God had acted to save James, and by extension the Protestant monarchy. The 5th of November was to be a day of state religious observance. It wasn’t until 1859 that James’ act for this national ‘remembrance’ day was repealed.

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century people commemorated in a set way. People were encouraged at church services and civic events to ‘remember, remember’. Souvenir sermons were printed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on the 5th November. All shared the same prejudicial theme: that Protestantism was inherently better than Catholicism.

People gradually began to add other rituals to the religious services such as processions, bonfires and fireworks. These rituals also tapped into the earlier religious traditions of having parties with bonfires for Halloween (31st Oct), All Saints (1st Nov) and All Souls (2nd Nov). Now synonymous with Bonfire Night, the ‘Guy’ ritual was actually one of these later additions to the event. It is thought to date from the 1620s. Effigies of the Pope would be paraded around the crowd and then ceremoniously dumped on top of the bonfire. One can’t imagine the fear and horror felt by seventeenth-century Catholics, watching as their neighbours and friends publicly burnt symbols of their faith. Sometimes the Devil would be burnt in effigy. According to historian David Cressy, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the effigy was identified as ‘Guy Fawkes’ (Cressy, 147).

The legacy of the Plot was heightened religious discrimination at a state level. The plotters were a tiny minority: they didn’t represent other English Catholics, the vast majority of whom just wished to practice their faith and live quietly. It was this silent majority which proved to be the victims. The plot hardened the English state’s already-prejudicial attitudes towards the Catholic minority. The plot was used to justify the passing of a series of acts which limited Catholics’ rights. Catholics could not practice law, nor serve in the military. They couldn’t officially act as legal guardians or executors in wills. They were barred from studying in English universities (although some did study in Scotland). They were banned from voting in elections until 1829.  People became openly more anti-Catholic. Wild rumours spread about Catholics, and there were even periodic riots against Catholic people throughout the eighteenth centuries and into the nineteenth. (Fraser, 283).

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Lewes Bonfire Night, procession of the Martyr’s Crosses. Unknown author, under Creative Commons licence

Festivals and celebrations change meaning over successive generations. Our contemporary understanding and enjoyment of Bonfire Night is very different than that of the inhabitants of seventeenth-century England. To them, the 5th of November was a public religious event centred on Protestantism and a Protestant monarchy and driven by anti-Catholic sentiment. To us in the 21st century, Bonfire Night is now all about food, drink and watching beautiful fireworks displays with friends, family and our wider communities. ‘Firework Night’ is often used in schools as a way to teach fire and firework safety. The emphasis of the event now is very much on keeping everyone safe so we can come together as communities, rather than on encouraging religious division. Political effigies are still burnt in some places: the Lewes festival in Sussex featured in national headlines yesterday for its fire procession and its political effigies. But this event is now largely an exception. Effigies are not usually the central feature of contemporary Fireworks Night events, and are often omitted totally. But this omission doesn’t mean that we should forget the hidden histories of the 5th of November. We should be open about the history of this commemoration, and willing to highlight the historic legacy of the Plot.

If you would like to know more about the history of festivals, and of Bonfire Night, try:

  • David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London: Sutton, 2004), chapter 9.
  • Antonia Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996).
  • Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History (Pelican: 1998).

 

The Sad Story of a Victorian Ghost-Seer

This Halloween, senior lecturer Caroline Nielsen explores the sad story of a spooky storyteller…

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A young woman is sitting in a chair reading a story which has made her nervous. Engraving by R. Graves after R.W. Buss. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

This is the time of year when most of us begin to think about ghost stories as we witness the annual build-up to Halloween. So, in the spirit of the season, please allow me to introduce you to one of the best-selling ghost story collections of all time and to the foremost writers on psychic phenomenon of the nineteenth century: Mrs Catherine Crowe. Crowe’s story is one both of fame and triumph over adversity, but also a tragic history of the stigma around mental health problems.

 

Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature: or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers is one of the largest collections of ghost-sighting and psychic phenomenon to be published in English. It was a ground-breaking, systematic attempt to investigate the full range of haunting phenomenon, from death-bed visitations, death portents to ghostly lights. According to writer Roger Clarke, The Night-Side even helped two of Hollywood supernatural favourites gain further notoriety; the poltergeist and the doppelganger. Both had their origins in German folklore.[1]

 

The Night-Side was not Crowe’s first attempt to document supernatural phenomenon. In 1845, she translated and edited the short German biography, The Seeress of Prevorst, being Revelations Concerning the Inner-Life of Man, and the Inter-Diffusion of a World of Spirits in the One we Inhabit. Originally written by Justinus Kerner, the seeress ‘Mrs H.’ was reputed to be both a powerful clairvoyant and spiritual healer, who mapped the separate ‘spheres’ of the spirit worlds.

 

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Map of the spirit world. Credit: The Wellcome Collection

 

Reviewers were scathing of The Seeress. Tait’s Edinburgh Review sneered ‘save as an experiment on English credulity, one can hardly imagine a motive for translating this work’, which they apparently dismissed as ‘foreign’ nonsense.[2] They claimed The Seeress was an ‘entertaining nonsense-reading’ or a guide to abnormal psychology at best.[3] They took particular aim at Crowe’s spiritualist faith, her views dismissed simply because she was a known ‘believer’ in spiritualism and clairvoyance.

 

But Crowe did not back down. She eloquently defended her beliefs (and the applicability of them to English audiences) by writing The Night-Side, which contained an extensive collective of cases from across the UK. The reading public also did not agree with the critics.[4] The Night-Side alone went through sixteen print editions in six years.[5]

 

But I have to admit that I find Crowe herself far more interesting than her spectral subjects. A successful novelist and short-story writer, Crowe was an active member of the Edinburgh and London literati, corresponding with well-known society figures like Charles Dickens and the pioneering female journalist Harriet Martineau.

 

According to historian Lucy Sussex, Crowe’s legacy on horror and crime writing can still be felt now. This is because Crowe produced one of the first female-led amateur detective stories, where a murder is solved by an elderly female housekeeper-turned-sleuth. Move over, Miss Marple. If that was not enough, Crowe may have simultaneously brought the legal phrase ‘circumstantial evidence’ into prominence in the same book.[6]

 

Crowe’s achievements were recognised in her own time, but why haven’t more people heard of her now? Why did her reputation fade so quickly?

 

Two factors worked together to ensure that Crowe was marginalised in her late life, and then largely forgotten after her death; her legacy only known to a few academics and specialist interest groups. These factors were her chosen topics and her health.

 

Crowe’s work was very eclectic, but it tended to focus on women’s lives and domestic situations. She was not afraid of discussing the harsh realities of domestic life, and of crime. Several of her stories hinge on the treatment of women trapped in abusive relationships or situations. She even reworked Harriet Beecher Stowe’s iconic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin into children’s books, publicising the injustice of plantation slavery and racism to young readers.

 

Her preference for this important subject matter inadvertently helped to undermine her post-humous literary reputation. Serious literature was not supposed to be about women or written for children. Serious writers were certainly not supposed to write uncritically or sympathetically about ghosts and ghost-seers. Thus, Crowe was easily (mis-)labelled as a writer of minor fiction.

 

But something else happened to her which really affected her reputation: she also suffered the stigma of severe mental illness.

 

In 1854, six years after the first publication of The Night-Side, Crowe experienced a period of serious ill health. Accounts of exactly what happened differ, but she appears to have suffered a period of delusional behaviour. According to Charles Dickens:

 

‘[Crowe] has gone stark mad – and stark naked – on the spirit-rapping imposition. She was found t’other day in the street clothed only in her chastity, a pocket-hankerchief and a visiting card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went in that trim she would be invisible. She is now in a madhouse, and I fear, hopelessly insane.’ [quoted in Sussex, p. 60].

 

Her illness was short, but the effect of extensive public gossiping appears to have been long-lasting. Crowe tried to defend herself publicly against the accusation of delusional behaviour – which she blamed on a long-standing digestive problem – but gradually she seems to have faded from public life.[7] We do not know if she stopped writing completely or simply gave up on publishing her work. She died in 1872 aged 82.

 

I can’t help thinking that Crowe’s marginalisation is the real tragedy here, more tragic than any of the spectres were wrote about in The Night-Side. I hope that in writing this, I help to end some of her previous marginalisation.

 

If you would like to know more about Crowe and her world:

 

It is only very recently that Crowe and her writings have become the subject of academic interest. However, very few accounts of her work are currently available. Try the following sources:

 

  • Joanne Wilkes, ‘Catherine Ann Crowe [nee Stevens] (1790-1872), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online (2008).
  • Lucy Sussex, Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), ch. 3
  • Roger Clarke, A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (London: Particular Book, 2012).
  • Shane McCorristine, Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

 

The University of Kent Special Collections houses the Catherine Crowe archive, a large research collection compiled by Geoffrey Larken in preparation for his unpublished biography.

 

 

[1] Roger Clarke, A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (London: Particular Book, 2012), 87-88, 156-8

[2] ‘The Seeress of Prevorst’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine 12:141 (September 1845), 586-91.

[3] ‘The Seeress’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, 591.

[4] The second edition was published under the title, Revelations of the Invisible World by a Somnambulist; being the life of the Seeress of Prevorst: Her Revelations Concerning the Inner-Life of Man, and the Inter-diffusion of a World of Spirits in the one we inhabit, communicated by Justinus Kerner, Chief Physician at Weinsberg (London: C. Moore, 1847); Shane McCorristine, Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 10-11.

[5] McCorristine, Spectres, 10-11.

[6] See Lucy Sussex, Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 45-49.

[7] Sussex, Women Writers, 60-3.

Fellowship Success for Northampton Historian!

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Congratulations to Professor Matthew McCormack, who has been awarded a King’s College London Summer Fellowship on the Georgian Papers Programme! With his fellowship, Matthew will be conducting research at the Royal Archives at Windsor, for a project on ‘shoes and buckles at the Georgian court’.

Shoes were loaded with ideological meaning in the eighteenth century, so footwear choices could make a political statement, especially those worn by people in the public eye. In particular, Matthew is interested in the 1790s, when there was a shift away from the traditional elite ensemble of breeches, stockings and buckled shoes, towards trousers and boots. The former came to be associated with the excesses of the aristocracy, whereas the latter connoted martial masculinity and democracy. The buckle’s fall from fashion was disastrous for manufacturers in areas such as Birmingham, who petitioned the royal family to continue requiring them at court and in the military. This project therefore highlights an episode in the political history of footwear, and forms part of a wider project on the material culture of Georgian shoes.

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Pair of man’s steel and gilt wire shoe buckles, c. 1777–1785. LACMA Image Library. Photograph LACMA., Public Domain

Matthew developed an interest in the history of shoes via his work on masculinity, which he has considered in the contexts of politics and war during the long eighteenth century. His latest book is Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 (Routledge, 2019).

 

Saracen Go Home:Modern Islamophobia in Medieval Context

Dr Rachel Moss has recently joined History at Northampton as a Lecturer. A specialist in late medieval history, she blogs and tweets regularly about academia and feminist issues.

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In 2018, the police in England and Wales recorded a 40% increase in religiously-motivated hate crimes. Meanwhile, in the two weeks following the 15 March attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand which left fifty people dead, hate crimes in the UK soared. Many of the perpetrators directly referenced the New Zealand attacks. There is clearly a mood of heightened anti-Muslim sentiment in the UK.

As a medieval historian, I have been struck by how much Islamophobic rhetoric draws on the language and imagery of the medieval Crusades.  The Crusades are popularly remembered as violent clashes between the Christian West and Islamic forces. In fact the Crusades also featured intra-Christian struggle (most notably in the bloody sacking of Constantinople and in the crushing of those perceived to be heretics) and the conquest of pagan states. These complicating elements, or the fact that crusaders were often brutal and destructive, are left out of modern right-wing narratives that depict righteous Christian warriors heroically defending their territory from violent Muslim forces.

Knight and Saracen

Detail of a bas-de-page scene of an armoured knight fighting with a Saracen on horseback. British Library Royal 2 B VII  f. 150

So when I saw this story about anti-Muslim hate crime in Cumbernauld, Scotland, I immediately noticed the accompanying photo of the graffiti, which used the phrases SARACEN GO HOME and DEUS VULT. In 1095, according to the chronicler Robert of Rheims, Pope Urban II’s call for crusade were met with the cry “Deus vult” (God wills it). It may seem rather strange to see the rhetoric of the eleventh century replicated in spray paint in modern Britain. However, as the scholar Jonathan Lyons has noted, anti-Islamic discourses in the modern world, which “operate silently in the background as they shape our statements about Islam and the Muslims”, originate with the Crusades, categorising Muslims as “irretrievably outside the bounds of civilized society, reduced in status to little more than animals,” obliterating the many different cultures, languages and customs of the quarter of the world’s population into one violent, hateful, uncivilised stereotype: the Saracen (a term widely used in the Middle Ages to refer to Muslims and Arabs).

About 230 years after Pope Urban II’s call to crusade, someone composed the English language romance The King of Tars. In this story, the daughter of the Christian King of Tars offers to marry the Muslim Sultan of Damas in order to end war between their kingdoms. She falls pregnant, and the child she bears her new husband is born as a dark lump of flesh. Only after her husband allows her to christen the lump does it turn into a (white!) infant. Impressed by the power of the Christian God, the sultan also converts, and on his baptism his skin changes from black to white. In this romance, the product of a Christian-Muslim marriage is a child that is no child: it is a formless, lumpen thing that cannot really be classed as human. Only Christian people are human, the romance suggests – and Christian people are white.

A horseman impaling a bear

Hunting on horseback, British Library Add.MS.18866, f. 113r

The appropriation of the Middle Ages by conservative and far right commentators is not new. The Nazis loved medieval imagery, and excited discussions about the Crusades and Vikings have featured heavily on fascist message boards for years. Yet the significance of the Crusades as a symbol of Christian-Muslim discord seems particularly pressing in a time when hate crimes against Muslims are at a record high. As Professor Matthew Gabriele has written:

“It stems from an understanding of the past as unchanging, one where Christians have always been at war with Muslims and always will be at war with Muslims. It’s an argument that doesn’t care for historical context and one that relies on a false equivalence — either “they” (Muslims) were worse than “us” (Christians) or “they” (Christians of the past) are not “us” (Christians of the present).”

When historians have studied the Crusades from an Islamic perspective, they have discovered a period characterised not only by warfare but also by alliances between Christians and Muslims involving not only military truces but also economic exchanges and opportunities for knowledge-sharing. The far right’s preoccupation with an imagined white Christian Middle Ages obscures a history of far more complicated and interesting relationships between diverse peoples.