27 May 2010


David Waldron and Christopher Reeve. Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay. Hidden Publishing, 2010

A valuable study in the origins of folklore, this book by an Australian academic and a local historian from the town, traces the genesis and evolution of the legend of the Black Dog. The legend originated with a violent thunderstorm in Bungay and the neighbouring town of Blythburgh on the 4th August 1577.
In the church of St Mary's Bungay, two men who had gone into the belfry, presumably to ring the bells to ward off the evil spirits of the storm, were killed by a lightning stroke, and several of the congregation were burned on their feet and legs by conducted electricity.

This shocking (in both senses of the word) event became the basis on which a tract was written by one Abraham Fleming, in which it was claimed, that in the midst of the storm, something like a black dog appeared in the church and disported itself among the congregation, killing two men and seriously burning another. This version does not appear in contemporaneous local documents or in Holinshed's Chronicles.

Christopher Reeve traces the local background to this story, and the processes by which it may have originated, placing it in the context of the disorientating religious changes and disputes of the Tudor period, and in rivalries between the two neighbouring churches in Bungay.

David Waldron places the story in the context of the black dog 'experiential folklore' of both this region, and wider and examines the basis of these stories. He makes the point that these stories have mutated over the last 200 years, from Black Shuck being an all purpose shape shifting boggart to that of the modern image of the giant Labrador with large glowing eyes. It is interesting to note that modern 'encounters' with shuck are encounters with this new model shuck, not the old one.

Like much 'traditional' lore the rise of the Black Dog to become the emblem of Bungay is quite modern, mainly due to the activities of a prominent local personality and civic leader Dr Leonard Cane in the 1930s. Cane sought to repackage Bungay as a "historic place" to compensate for the decline of local industries in the depression.

The authors note how even now these tales of black dogs can frighten children, and look for explanations in terms of Jungian archetypes. Another way of looking at these stories might be to see dogs as liminal creatures which straddle the divide between the worlds of the human community and wild nature, creatures of the domestic realm which can suddenly metamorphose into wild beasts. This may have been even more the case in the rural realms where these stories originated, where they were not cosseted lap-puppies but hard working and hunting beasts, and where starvation and ill usage, to say nothing of rabies, may have turned many a dog into something feral and dangerous.

The primal fear behind that of the black dog is that the hunter becomes the hunted, that the hounds which hunt foxes and rabbits and other wild beasts for humans could turn on their owners and hunt them down. The black dog then becomes the symbol of both the ultimate wildness of nature, and of death, merged as the universal predator.

We can then see that the appropriation of the symbol of the black dog for the names of pubs, clubs, sports teams and the like is a sign of the surface domestication, control and disenchantment of wild nature in our own scientific and technical age, but a domestication which is fragile, only just papering over the age old fears.

Though the coverage of the development of the story as folklore and its morphing into popular culture and pop paranormalism is very well covered, there is one aspect of the use of the story which the authors have overlooked, that is the presentation of the Bungay story by meteorologists as an early modern case of ball lightning. Such presentations have tended to take Fleming' story as a fairly literal description of events, a warning example perhaps of taking any of these old texts as literal descriptions of objective reality. - Peter Rogerson


  1. Anonymous2.6.10

    This is one of the author's of the book, David Waldron.

    We had heard the story of the ball lightning, but didn't have any real evidence per se to go on and so didn't follow it up. Now that you mention it, it is interesting how the term spirit in the old East Anglian dialect referred to both a ghost-like apparition and to a lightning strike and this follows through as late as the 19th century with Forbes lexicon of the East Anglian dialect making the same observation.

    It is something that I will look into in more depth as an another angle to take in future editions. We did make the overt choice though, to sidestep the queston of the Black Dog's empirical veracity to look at its social and cultural context for a new slant. I have to say however one cannot help but speculate on both the original event and several centuries of sightings.

  2. Anonymous13.9.10

    Dog gone it! I like it!