Carl Watkins takes us on a truly haunting journey, through the realms of the dead as envisaged by the people of England over the last 650 years, from the fifteenth century to the end of the First World War. In the beginning was the traditional Christian world-view of Last Judgment, the Resurrection of the Dead, still envisaged in the middle of the nineteenth century in John Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath. Watkins traces the transformations from this world-view through biographies, ghost stories, graveyards and memorials, drawing material from the south west and north east of England.
In the medieval world the dead walk among the living, and not just as vaporous apparitions, but as flesh and bones, if not blood, like Hollywood zombies. They spread plague and disaster around with them. The dead who did not walk the earth were in Purgatory, from whence prayers and penance could ease their passage. The Reformation did away with Purgatory, and in theory at any rate with ghosts; Puritans argued that these were either delusions of the imagination or demons in disguise. The dead were either in Heaven or Hell, hopefully the former. To grieve for them too much was sinful, for it was challenging God’s providence, and in any case your dead were likely to be the ones in bliss, it was the other fellow’s who were roasting down below.
The English Civil War and its radical sects opened up fears of atheism, so people like Joseph Granvil collected tales of ghosts and witches, such as that of the Drummer of Tedworth [right] to challenge them. It marks the coming of modernity and the reliance on evidence rather than faith. By the nineteenth century, the new spirit of rationalism was exorcizing the old ghosts. The radical William Lovett contrasted the mid-Victorian world of the steam engine and the Mechanics Institute with the ghost and goblin haunted Cornwall of his youth. The accent was on progress, though some like Lovett’s fellow radical Samuel Bamford deplored their passing before the new world of the factory chimney and the steam-hammer.
Watkins argues that what was banished from the country lanes was to resurface in the drawing room in the form of spiritualism and table turning. Spiritualism offered a new, rational empirical faith for the Gradgrind age of the holy fact, offering new comforts for the many whose loved ones were taken away by ‘consumption’ and the other merry diseases of Merry England. It reached its peak in the shattering grief of the First World War. The vision of an afterlife in which there were astral cigarettes and whisky was however perhaps something of a comedown from the beatific vision.
The disposal of the dead was a matter of concern, especially among those who took the idea of bodily resurrection literally, and there was much unease about cremation. Even into the twentieth and twenty first century these ideas persist. The book ends with the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, in which the innumerable dead and lost of the Great War were symbolically buried. In 2011 a woman had the body of a five-times great uncle who had been hung for the killing of his ex-girlfriend and dissected, reburied in his family parish church. In our own secular age, outside the period covered by this book, there is growing unease about human remains being housed in museums, parents are greatly distressed if hospitals keep any of their children’s tissues, more and more there are shrines to the victims of crime and accident and we still tell ghost stories. This book will be of great interest to folklorists and anyone interested in social and cultural history. -- Peter Rogerson.