Today in central London I spoke to The Ghost Club, the world’s oldest organisation devoted to investigating ghosts, on the theme of monastic ghosts. My talk, entitled ‘”Beware! Beware! of the Black Friar”: Ghosts and the Dissolution of the Monasteries’, traced the origins of the monastic ghost (spectral monks, nuns and friars). The monastic ghost, I argued, is a composite cultural construction with three main contributory elements: the medieval and early modern reputation of monks as masters of the dark arts; spectres of monks and nuns in gothic literature; and stories of inherited curses on owners of monastic lands. Folklore concerning cursed monastic land, in particular, had a tendency to develop associated apparitions who personified the curse. The earliest of these, as far as I am aware, was the Black Friar of Newstead Abbey who features in Byron’s Don Juan (1823). A more recent development is the detachment of monastic ghosts from monastic sites, with black monks, grey friars and grey nuns now joining the ranks of universal, stereotyped ghosts that might turn up anywhere.
I am grateful to The Ghost Club for inviting me to address them on this subject and for the very stimulating and wide-ranging discussion that followed the talk.