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Ghosts in the Middle Ages

Updated on January 29, 2013

Ghosts in the Middle Ages

The fifth century marked the beginning of the Middle Ages. This period lasted through the sixteenth century. This period is marked with war, conquest, and pestilence. It was a time of great upheaval. Not only were leaders trying to take over the world, there was also a movement to unite everyone under one religion. At times this attempt at unification caused much bloodshed and fear. For some it meant practicing their religion and sacred ceremonies in secret. Fear and uncertainty gave rise to superstitions and questions on the afterlife. It was in 5th Century AD Constantius of Lyon, a priest from what is Auvergne in modern-day France, made the connection between ghosts and the improperly buried dead. Perhaps this association goes back to stories such as the one described by Pliny the younger in the first century AD. A philosopher in Athens bought a purportedly haunted house. His first night there he had his servants bring him his desk and writing tools and then sent them away. As the night progressed, he focused on his writing so his mind would not be bothered by imaginings of ghosts; however, he began to hear chains rattling. The rattling grew closer until it was in the very room with him. Upon turning around he saw the ghost of an old man in tattered clothing wrapped in chains who beckoned for the philosopher to follow him. After finishing what he was writing the philosopher did follow the ghost. He was lead into the courtyard where the ghost disappeared. The next day the philosopher dug up the spot where the ghost had disappeared and found bones wrapped in chains buried there. The bones were removed and given a proper burial and the haunting ceased.

During the Middle Ages, ghosts generally were put into two categories: souls of the living and demons. This classification was popular mainly in medieval Europe. Because of this when a ghost was encountered the living would demand the purpose of the ghost in the name of Jesus. It was believed that if it were a demon the mere mention of the name Jesus would cause it to disappear while a true spirit of a deceased person would answer truthfully. Most ghosts, it was commonly believed, were souls assigned to Purgatory, condemned for a specific
period to atone for their transgressions in life. Their penance was generally related to their sin. During this time the popular belief was that the souls of the dead would appear to the living in order to ask for prayers or to urge the living to confess their sins before death. These ghosts were very substantial, often reported as paler versions of themselves,and there are accounts of ghosts being wrestled with and physically restrained until a priest could arrive to hear its confession. They would even physically interact with the living such as phantom knights challenging living knights to a battle.

From the medieval period an apparition of a ghost is recorded from 1211, at the time of the Albigensian Crusade, or Cathar Crusade, a 20-year military campaign initiated by the Catholic Church to eliminate the Cathar heresy in Languedoc. Gervase of Tilbury,

Gervase of TilburyGervase of Tilbury or Gervasius Tilberiensis was a 13th century canon lawyer, statesman and writer, apparently born in either East Tilbury or West Tilbury, in Essex, England.-Life and works:...


Marshal of Arles
, wrote about a boy named Guilhem. Guilhem who was recently murdered in the forest, appeared in his cousin's home in Beaucaire, near Avignon
. These visits lasted all summer. Through his cousin, who spoke for him, the boy allegedly held conversations with anyone who wished to talk, until the local priest requested to speak to the boy directly, which lead to an extended disquisition on theology. The boy narrated the trauma of death and the unhappiness of his fellow souls in Purgatory
, and reported that God was most pleased with the ongoing Crusade against the Cathar. Catharism was a name given to a Christian religious sect with dualistic and gnostic elements that appeared in the Languedoc region of France and other parts of Europe during the 11th through 13th centuries. The time of the Albigensian Crusade in southern France was marked by intense and prolonged warfare.

Despite all the upheavals or perhaps because of them there were wonderful breakthroughs during the Middle Ages. Art, philosophy, and literature expanded. People were beginning to ask “why?” New discoveries challenged old long held “truths.” The earth is not flat. You will not fall over the edge. The Renaissance and Romanticism movements were born. The Renaissance was born in Florence, Italy in the 14th century and spread through Europe. It was an intellectual transformation. This era focused on the three R’s: reason, realism, and rationalization. An interesting theory to note is the devastation caused by the Black Plague caused a shift in the world view of people. This familiarity with death caused people to dwell more on their lives on Earth rather than on spirituality and the afterlife.

Society began to see ghosts as the product of uneducated superstitions. Ghosts even began to appear on stage in antiquated armor such as in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet thus depicting the “old” way of thinking. Furthermore, by the 1500-1600’s ghost began to figure prominently in British ballads. As the centuries passed society began to focus more and more on the here and now rather than the hereafter. Cities grew and major advances were made in science, medicine, art, literature, and politics. By this point in history ghosts were no more than ethereal mists. They had become stuff of folklore, fiction, and superstition. A new nation was born and people seeking to escape religious persecution moved there.

Religion in Europe in the 1600’s was more political than spiritual. Wars between Protestants and Catholics were common place. Leaders once again changed national religions in order to establish political power and further attempt to unify the people. There were even reformations within each religious sect. During the late 1500’s to early 1600’s smaller abbeys and convents were closed down and/or attacked. It is perhaps because of this religious upheaval that the concept of ghosts and haunting began to change once again and return to the forefront of societal conscience. During the late 1600’s Joseph Glavill was the chaplain of King Charles II. Joseph was also the first documented “ghost hunter”. Furthermore, in the late 1700’s a man by the name of Fredrich Nicolai attempted to find a cure for seeing ghosts. In 1799, he presented "Memoir on the Appearance of Spectres or Phantoms Occasioned by Disease." This book not only included various experiences with the paranormal but also the view that it could be cured by the application of leeches. Forty years later in America the Spiritualism movement would begin.


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