A Seventeenth-Century Ghost Story

Kathryn A Edwards and Susie Speakman Sutch. (editors and translators) Leonarde’s Ghost: Popular Piety and the Appearance of a Spirit in 1628. Truman State University Press, 2008

This translation of a 17th century French manuscript tells a story which shows how anomalous personal experiences are mediated through the culture of the times, locale and prevailing ideology. It was originally written by a local priest, Christophe Mercier, and transcribed later in the 17th century by another Leonel Dusilet.

It is the Spring of 1628 in the French town of Dole, where a young woman, Huguette Roy (Madam Roget) is having a bad time of it. She is the advanced stages of pregnancy, is down with a fever, and has a pain in her side. As is the custom, one day a presumed neighbour comes into the house and helps her. She is a “young woman dressed in white”, dressed like a country woman. She asks Huguette if she would like help and sets about getting her up while she makes the bed, warms a garment to put round her shoulders, puts shoes on her feet etc. and taking her to sit by the fire. She then makes the bed, does the housework, puts her back to bed and takes her leave. Lying in bed Huguette realises that she does not recognise this woman, and had never seen her before. When a friend comes to visit later in the day she asks her if she knows who the kind woman who came to help her was. The neighbour makes enquiries and says that no one knows a woman of this description, and indeed neighbours swear they saw no-one enter the house. Huguette now remembers when it seemed someone was about to enter, the visitor had disappeared, only to reappear when they had gone.

This is just the start of this complex ghost story, for H’s ghost is not your SPR approved 'seen and only heard as footsteps and sighs' ghost, she is a ghost who does the housework, and when the baby is born, rocks his cradle, No one else can see her, but do see, or fancy they see, the cradle rock. She also leaves messages. Much of the story is taken up with attempts by the clergy to ensure that she is an ideologically correct Catholic ghost, come back, as she asserts, from Purgatory, and not a nasty old demon. Complex conversations are conducted through Huguette by which the ghost reveals she is Huguette’s aunt, helping her being part of her penance.

Here we have many of the features that today’s paranormalists treasure, multiple witnesses, including 'respected members of the community', and claims that they saw the room uncleaned, left it unattended then saw it cleaned (though no-one claims to have seen the broom moving by itself, yet few of these paranormalists would be willing to take this story at face value. We can see that this ghost is a transitional figure, from the physical revenant of the past, to the modern 'hallucinatory' ghost. The spirit who does the housework is reminiscent of the brownies and domestic spirits of past tradition, we can also see it as a sort of anti-poltergeist, where the polt creates disorder out of order, and turns habitat into wilderness, this creates order out of chaos, and turns the 'wild' upswept house, into a tame and tidy one.

We can see that priests like Mercier performed in much the same way as today’s investigators and therapists, in shoe-horning anomalous personal experiences into the culturally approved boxes. -- Peter Rogerson.

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