Review: British Library exhibition ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’


Yesterday I had the chance to visit the British Library’s exhibition on the Gothic, entitled ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’. The exhibition traces the evolution of the ‘Gothic sensibility’, and its cultural transformation, from 1764 to the present day. 1764 was, of course, the date of the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which is generally accepted as the first English Gothic novel and, indeed, the first literary ghost story. The exhibition’s first exhibit was the first and second editions of the book, which was originally passed off as a medieval narrative by a Canon of the Church of St Nicholas, Otranto, ‘discovered in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England’.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that a key component of the Gothic, and certainly the early Gothic, was a delight in the exotic and dark aspects of Catholicism. The Gothic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is an inverted form of anti-Catholicism, where the fact that Catholic practices were regarded as an object of horror is turned into entertainment. This aspect of the Gothic certainly endured beyond the novels of Mrs Radcliffe like The Italian: or, the Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797) and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796); the exhibition also contained a poster advertising Mysteries of a London Convent (1866), a book about the abduction of a wealthy heiress to a convent in contemporary London. When she does not yield to the advances of a lecherous priest she is condemned to be immured alive in a sinister nocturnal ceremony, complete with black-hooded figures representing the Inquisition.

Anti-Catholicism (or an inverted, celebratory form of it) may have been intrinsic to the Gothic, but the pioneers of the Gothic also had a deep fascination with Catholic artifacts. On display was a 12th-century Limoges casket reliquary of St Thomas Becket which was given to Horace Walpole by the antiquary William Cole. The exhibition also featured another of Walpole’s prize possessions, John Dee’s ‘shewing stone’ in which Edward Kelley scryed for him. It is a highly polished Aztec obsidian mirror which is usually on display in the British Museum; not usually on display is its case, which contains intriguing scribbled notes by Walpole. The exhibition made me long to go back in time and visit Walpole’s ‘cabinet of curiosities’ at Strawberry Hill.

Perhaps my favourite exhibit in the whole exhibition was the cabinet containing seven ‘horrid novels’, inspired by the horrid novels given to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. These were all published by the Minerva Press before 1798, when Austen wrote Northanger Abbey, and included such gems as The Necromancer (translated from the German of Karl Friedrich Kahlert in 1794) and the best title of all, Horrid Mysteries (1796). I was also intrigued to read about a ‘Gothic pageant’ staged by a Derbyshire landowner, Sir Brooke Boothby, as early as 1783, which included knights, damsels in distress and wizards. I was left wondering what Sir Brooke’s recusant neighbours would have thought of all this. Also exhibited was a copy of Ebenezer Sibly’s Astrology, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences (1806), one of the first printed books in England devoted to practical occultism since Robert Turner’s publications in the 1650s. The exhibition’s only major omission was Francis Barrett’s notorious book The Magus (1801).

However, the exhibition also contained evidence of Catholics who experimented with the Gothic themselves, such as John Polidori, the author of The Vampyre (Catholics writing the Gothic is something I wrote about in English Catholics and the Supernatural; another example is Elizabeth Inchbald who, like Austen, essentially parodies the style). As the exhibition moved into the nineteenth century I was delighted to see a first edition of Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s ‘Carmilla’ (the first story to feature a lesbian vampire). I was still more delighted that the exhibition had a section concentrating on the nineteenth-century decadents, featuring a copy of The Yellow Book.

The great writers of ghost stories were not left out – here was a first edition of M. R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and the original manuscript of ‘Casting the Runes’. Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood shared a cabinet, which featured a first edition of Machen’s collection The House of Souls (1906), whose cover is still truly disturbing. Machen is, in my view, the greatest writer of macabre literature who ever lived.

All in all, I was extremely impressed by an exhibition that paid homage to authors that, whilst very important to me, are generally not widely recognised for their achievements. The exhibition runs until 20th January – pay a visit if you dare!


Article on Recusants in the Bishop’s Palace, Ely in Recusant History


My article ‘The Bishop’s Palace at Ely as a Prison for Recusants, 1577-1597’ has just been published in volume 32 number 2 of Recusant History, the journal of the Catholic Record Society. As it happens, 32:2 will be the last ever volume of the journal under the name Recusant History, as the journal changes its name to British Catholic History next year and comes under the umbrella of Cambridge University Press.

My article explores the physical setting of the recusant prisoners in the Bishop’s Palace at Ely, traces the timeline of their incarceration and examines the products of their imprisonment: Sir Thomas Tresham’s designs for Bishop Goodrich’s Long Gallery,  Thomas Throckmorton’s Tabula Eliensis and George Cotton’s Japonian Epistles. I argue that the prisoners were able to have an active cultural life, not least because Thomas Tresham had a significant library of books in the Palace from which the other prisoners could borrow. I make the case that the prison writings and prison art of the recusant laymen imprisoned at Ely was every bit as significant as the contribution to Elizabethan Catholicism made by the imprisoned priests in nearby Wisbech Castle.

The article is the culmination of over two years’ work on the Bishop’s Palace at Ely, which included an archaeological investigation of the Long Gallery in October 2013.


Witchcraft in Fulbourn


Yesterday evening I spoke to Fulbourn Village History Society’s first meeting of the year on ‘Witchcraft in Cambridgeshire’. My talk covered the nature of malefic witchcraft in English folk belief and the history of witchcraft in Cambridgeshire from Hereward the Wake to the seventeenth-century witch trials. I also covered folk belief in witchcraft up to the Second World War.

I was extremely impressed by Fulbourn Village History Society, which meets in the Fulbourn Village Centre, a state-of-the-art community facility. My talk was attended by over 50 members of the Society, which has published a number of books on the village and has its own archive and archivist. The Society also regularly engages with the local community. It seems to me a good model for other local history societies to follow: not just a group of interested individuals, but a genuine resource for the entire community.

I always hope that when I speak on witchcraft to local historical societies, someone will disabuse me of my conviction that belief in witchcraft in Cambridgeshire is essentially dead, by providing some evidence that people still believe. In that sense I am following in the footsteps of Enid Porter, who collected her material on witchcraft 50 years ago through talking to WI meetings in church halls around the county. That did not happen last night, but one member of the audience did note that she was referred to a wizard by her GP in the 1960s when her daughter was sick – but that was in Devon rather than East Anglia!

The text of my talk can be read here.


Societas Magica and ‘Magic in Intellectual History’ Conference

Societas Magica

Today I became a full member of the Societas Magica (not to be confused with the Magic Circle), which is an academic society dedicated to the historical study of magic. It was founded in 1994 by Richard Kieckhefer, Claire Fanger and Robert Mathiesen, all of whom have pioneered the serious study of magic and, in particular, ceremonial magic in the Middle Ages and early modern period. I drifted into an academic interest in magic owing to my interest in exorcism and its liturgies, which were often taken over verbatim by magicians. Indeed, exorcism and magic are arguably indistinguishable activities.

Today I have also learnt that I will be a speaker at the University of York’s Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies (CREMS) on 5 March 2015, when there is a one-day conference on ‘Magic in Intellectual History’. It looks as though I am to be part of a panel entitled ‘Reformation, Religion and Magic’ and my paper is entitled ‘Liturgical Change and Ceremonial Magic in Reformation England’. I am especially honoured to be speaking on the same panel as Prof. Frank Klaassen of the University of Sasketchwan, President of the Societas Magic and one of the foremost scholars of the area.


Recent reviews of English Catholics and the Supernatural

Ecclesiastical History

A number of reviews of English Catholics and the Supernatural have appeared in the second half of this year. The book has been reviewed by Prof. Alexandra Walsham of the University of Cambridge, Dr Andrew Sneddon of the University of Ulster, Dr Elizabeth Ferguson of the University of Toronto and Fr Jerome Bertram of the Birmingham Oratory.

Andrew Sneddon’s review appeared in Social History 39:2 (2014), pp. 273-4. According to Dr Sneddon, the book ‘is a well-written, informative and much-needed account of Catholic attitudes to the supernatural and will become the natural starting point for anyone studying the subject. It demonstrates a deep understanding of English Catholicism, as well as an ability to locate it in its wider religious context’. Elizabeth Ferguson’s review appeared in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History 65-4 (2014), pp. 925-6. Dr Ferguson writes that ‘The strength of this book lies in its overall intention to understand English Catholicsrelationship with the supernatural primarily from a Catholic perspective’. She concludes that ‘Youngs study deepens our understanding of the complexity and uniqueness of English Catholicsviews on superstition’.

I am grateful to all the reviewers who have so graciously and generously commented on the book.