The Hidden History of Tyneside Radicalism

If asked today, many people would probably spontaneously associate Newcastle with local football legends Alan Shearer and Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne or the cast of Geordie Shore. However, a new digital history project led by Northumbria University’s ‘History of Activism Research Group’ – including contributions by historians from Durham and Newcastle universities – seeks to correct this image by emphasising the historical importance of the region as an important centre of political activism. The ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ website, which was officially launched on 20 November 2015, aims to map the rich tradition of social and political activism in the region. As a matter of fact, since the late 17th century Newcastle and the adjacent boroughs of Gateshead, South and North Shields were vibrant hubs for popular movements in Britain and beyond. This radical tradition shaped the identity and culture of the region profoundly yet many important historical events are gradually vanishing from the public conscience. What is more, radical local politics were often embedded in international movements and the big political struggles of their time and made Tyneside a strikingly cosmopolitan place.

Giuseppe Garibaldi (1866)

During the 19th century, leading figures of international movements such the Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi (1854) or the American anti-slavery campaigners Frederick Douglass (1846) or William Lloyd Garrison (1867) visited Tyneside, and were enthusiastically welcomed by their local supporters. Similarly, many Geordies were actively supporting revolutionary movements abroad by collecting donations or offering asylum to refugees.

Lajos Kossuth, 1848

In 1851, a group of 12 members of the Polish Legion, who fought during the 1848 revolution against the Russian Empire, were received with thundering applause in a local meeting, subsequently finding asylum and a new home on Tyneside. In the same year, a mass meeting in Newcastle celebrated the arrival of the iconic leader of the Hungarian Revolution 1848/49, Lajos Kossuth, in Britain. Five years later, in 1856, Kossuth eventually visited Newcastle and paid tribute to the local support for the revolutionary cause.

Joseph Cowan, Vanity Fair, 1878

There was, however, also a strong home grown radical tradition of radical politics on Tyneside. This includes prominent figures such as the radical bookseller and land reform campaigner Thomas Spence, who was born on Newcastle’s Quayside in 1750. Spence became a leading member of the famous London Corresponding Society and is seen by many historians as one of the intellectual forefathers of the Chartists. Another prominent figure of Tyneside radicalism was the local newspaper proprietor and liberal politician Joseph Cowen Jr. Being well-connected with social reformers, international revolutionaries and the regional elites, Cowen put his full financial and journalistic weight behind a great number of causes. He supported the local miners’ unions, supported the early co-operative movement, resisted the Boer War and collected donations for revolutionary movements abroad.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne_from_New_Chatham_engraving_by_William_Miller_after_T_AllomAn almost forgotten yet even more fascinating local figure is Dr Ethel Williams. She belonged to various political organisations such as Women’s Social and Political Union, the Union of Democratic Control and helped to establish the Workers’ Education Association in Newcastle after the First World War. Yet, Ethel was pioneer in other fields as well. She was, for example, the first female doctor in Tyneside with her own surgery and also the first female motorist in the city. According to some accounts, she used her car to transport fellow suffragettes to protest meetings and direct actions in the region. In July 1917, Ethel Williams and Charlotte Despard (another veteran suffragette and sister of Field Marshal John French) tried to establish a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council in Newcastle to protest against the First World War. However, its first and only meeting was violently broken up a ‘patriotic’ mob and the council ceased its activities almost immediately afterwards.

Yet, the history of social and political activism on Tyneside is not limited to prominent individuals. Many historical instances of protest were only recorded as collective actions, and these are recorded on ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ too. Dr Andy Burn (Durham) discusses apprentices’ protests in 1633 that addressed grievances about the enclosure hitherto public land. He also contributes a description of the first recorded keelmen’s strike in 1660. One of my own contributions provides a vignette of the Guild Hall Riots of 1740.

Newcastle City Centre, 1917

These are just a few examples. Other events highlight the long and complex history of industrial conflicts, social and political activism in one of the early heartlands of industrialisation in the world.   The ‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ aims to raise awareness for this aspect of local history that is so deeply engrained in the collective identity of the region. Yet the approach to research and understand the spatial dimension of political activism also contributes to a better academic understanding of urban history and geography. It helps explain how certain localities, spaces and places became attributed with political meaning. For example, many meetings for liberal causes with a strong presence of middle-class supporters took place indoors in lecture halls and assembly rooms. This probably contributed to its perception as being more ordered, respectable and compatible with British political culture. In comparison, working-class activism very often took place in public places, for example in public squares, in pubs or in the workplace. The question how this spatial dimension influenced the perception of urban space and how it impacted on activism is another interesting aspect of this project.


‘Mapping Radical Tyneside’ is, however, no exclusively academic exercise. The public is invited to make use of the information on the website to discover Newcastle anew from a different perspective. The makers are also keen to received input and recommendations which events and persons to include. Ideally, the website will become a repository for the various histories of activism on Tyneside curated by the public for the public.

AndreKeilDr André Keil is a Lecturer in Modern European History at Durham University. His work focuses on 19th and 20th-century Europe with a special focus on British and German history. His research interests cover the broad fields of political culture in Europe, the history of social movements and historical peace and conflict studies.

Order, the Universe and Everything

Ordered Universe

This week sees the first symposium for the Ordered Universe project as part of the programme under the new AHRC grant. It will examine Grosseteste’s treatises On the Liberal Arts (De artibus liberalibusOn the Generation of Sounds (De generatione sonorum) and the Middle English translation and exposition of both The Seven Liberal Arts. On Friday 27th, Dr Giles Gasper will give a public lecture ‘Order, the Universe and Everything’ exploring Grosseteste’s earlier life, his interests in sound, colour and light, and the purposes towards which he conceived learning as directed. The lecture is free and open to all: please book a place here. It takes place in the Ken Wade Theatre, Calman Learning Centre on the University Science Site. It will start at 5.30 pm, and is introduced by Professor John O’Brien, Director of the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies.

Order, Universe and Everything Public Lecture Poster

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The Paris attacks and the abuse of history

Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, does not shy away from controversy. His debate about the legacies of European colonialism with Pankaj Mishra in the pages of the London Review of Books is enough to show that. The recent horror visited on Paris has prompted from him another broadside, published in two Murdoch-owned titles, The Sunday Times and The Australian.

Cole the_destruction
The Course of the Empire: The Destruction. Thomas Cole 1836

In his op-ed, he argues that modern Europe, like the Roman empire in the 5th century AD, stands on the brink of collapse before insuperable external forces – but the 21st Europeans are too complacent to spot the obvious analogy. Where Rome faced barbarians, modern Europe faces Daesh. He quotes from Edward Gibbon’s lurid description of the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410, offering it as an obvious parallel to Friday’s massacre in Paris. Ferguson wants to push the parallel further: fifth century Rome was complacent about its frontier defences; so too, he argues on the basis of the recent influx of refugees, is modern Europe. The link he posits is causal: “Poor, poor Paris,” he concludes. “Killed by complacency.”

Ferguson admits he “do[es] not know enough about the fifth century” to trace what he would see as ancient parallels to the supine responses of modern European leaders to current threats. But I do know about the fifth century: it is my historical stomping ground, and I, along with others in the field (to judge by social media), have read Ferguson’s op-ed with dismay mounting to anger. He seriously misrepresents the historical experiences of the fifth century, which matters when a Harvard history professor purports to be presenting the past to a general audience. For all his lack of knowledge, Ferguson claims to have done some cursory research. In addition to Gibbon, he cites two important studies of the end of the Roman empire, both published in 2005: Bryan Ward-Perkins’s The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization and Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire.

But what he does with these works amounts to eye-wateringly simplistic distortion. For instance, basing his deductions on Peter Heather’s discussion of the economic attractions of the empire to its barbarian neighbours, he remarks: “Like the Roman empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its syrian-refugees-of-turkey-on-long-walk-of-hope-to-europemalls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.” Notice the pernicious conflation there between economic migrants and refugees: it is a point Ferguson labours elsewhere in his article, when he remarks “Things in their own countries have become just good enough economically for them to afford to leave and just bad enough politically for them to risk leaving.” For Ferguson, all these people, no matter how desperate their circumstances, represent an undifferentiated external threat.

There are other conflations too, this time underscoring an “us” versus “them” mentality of fear. He writes begrudgingly: “It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities.” But this is a straw man argument, producing a caricature of “us” that fails to account for the wide variety of opinions on matters of inclusion and tolerance to be found across Europe. In equal fashion, his construction of a Muslim “other” is a caricature devoid of nuance.

Edward Gibbon (by Sir Joshua Reynolds)

But this caricature aids his simplistic argument about a Europe beset by hostile forces from without. Some of my fellow historians have asked the obvious question why Ferguson fixates on the fifth century, when the seventh century in the East, which saw the rise of Islam, might present more obvious food for thought. Perhaps Ferguson knows even less about that. But there is another point here, in that it enables Ferguson to construct a narrative that fixates on the West. Edward Gibbon, whom Ferguson cites with approval, pulled a similar trick. In his ‘General considerations on the decline of the empire in the west’ that concluded volume 3 of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon made this European dimension explicit by considering how a similar chain of events might impact on the Europe of his own day.

Gibbon, then, saw the demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century as a peculiarly western tragedy; it was also one that risked happening again. No modern specialist of the period would accept Gibbon’s analysis as anything more than the posturing of an Enlightenment intellectual decrying the forces of “superstition” and “barbarism”. That Ferguson chooses to do so fits neatly with the primacy and ascendancy of the West in his historical vision. In this he is not alone: a string of right-wing commentators in the United States have expounded a similar vision equating modern America with ancient Rome, and issuing dire warnings that it risks a similar fate. This perspective has been subject to withering deconstruction by the late Jack Goody, who argued in his The Theft of History (2006) that much of world history has been shoehorned into a narrative framework derived from and designed to satisfy the experience of the West. It also purposefully leaves out of the picture the dynamic interactions and genuinely shared histories of the West and the rest of the world. But that is not a story that suits an agenda of “us” pitted against “them”.

Jacques Bertaux, Prise du palais des Tuileries (1793)

Even Gibbon came to question the validity of his analysis and see that not everything could be blamed on an external barbarian foe crashing inwards towards a civilised centre. The final, sixth volume of his Decline and Fall was published in 1788. A year later, France was thrown into the convulsive horrors of revolution. Gibbon was compelled to acknowledge that he had completely missed the significance of internal problems, notably civil war, in bringing about Rome’s demise. In notes made for a never-realised seventh volume of his history, he wrote: “Should I not have deduced the decline of the Empire from the Civil Wars, that ensued after the fall of Nero or even from the tyranny which succeeded the reign of Augustus? Alas! I should: but of what avail is this tardy knowledge? Where error is irretrievable, repentance is useless.” Ferguson would do well to meditate on this.

Peter Heather, one of the modern historians of Rome’s fall cited by Ferguson, allows for a more nuanced analysis of the empire’s collapse. He writes: “there is no serious historian who thinks that the western Empire fell entirely because of internal problems, or entirely because of exogenous shock.” I’ve often wondered what the obvious opposite of Heather’s “serious historian” – a frivolous one – might write. Having read Ferguson’s ill-judged and shallow analogies between 5th century Rome and 21st century Europe, I think I now know.

Poor, poor Ferguson. Undone by complacency.

Mark HumphriesMark Humphries is Professor of Ancient History at Swansea University. His research focuses on religion, politics and society in Late Antiquity. He is a general editor, with Professor Gillian Clark (University of Bristol) and Dr Mary Whitby (University of Oxford) of the series Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool University Press), which publishes scholarly translations of and commentaries on texts from Late Antiquity (AD300-800). He is also a member of the international advisory boards for the Irish Theological Quarterly and the Rivista di Cultura Classica e Medioevale. This piece originally appeared on Monday 16th November as a Facebook note and has since been shared several hundred times.

The World Machine (almost in entirety)

this is just great!

Ordered Universe

Although on the damp side, the penultimate night of Lumiere Durham was a great success. Various members of the Ordered Universe team gathered in Durham, for the start of the Being Human, Festival of Humanities (see forthcoming post!). We were very glad to be joined for the day and evening by artist Alexandra Carr whose work is heavily based around science and natural phenomena. We were able through Keith Bartlett’s very kind offices to see the World Machine from an unusual vantage point; the results are below. The whole show really has been amazing to watch over the course of the last few days; to see the scientists from the Institute for Computational Cosmology, from undergraduates to the Directors, so involved in the project; and to see the results created by Ross Ashton, John Del’Nero and Isobel Waller Bridge exemplifying the Ordered Universe methodology, laying medieval conceptual frameworks and images over…

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Sound and Light: ‘The World Machine’ at Lumiere Durham

Ordered Universe

Lighting up the whole of Durham City Centre later this week, Lumiere Durham is back in town. This festival of light, or artistic collaboration and of amazing sights and sounds has taken place every two years since 2009, and a wonderful, inventive, dynamic series of installations and shows have been included. Lumiere always includes a sound and light show on the Cathedral. This year, this show takes its title from Grosseteste’s treatise On light [De luce]. The World Machine explores the human fascination with the universe, from the Middle Ages to the modern-day. It is the product of a very exciting collaboration between the designer and projectionist Ross Ashton, composer Isobel Waller-Bridge, sound designer John del’Nero, and the Institute of Computational Cosmology at Durham, and the Ordered Universe project.

As if within Durham Cathedral, a collision at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider creates a Higgs Boson…

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Gunpowder, Treason and Anniversaries

The longest surviving annual national anniversary is 5 November, established as a day of thanksgiving over four hundred years ago and outliving its official abolition in 1859. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that although some traces of its original form continue to exist (most notably the lighting of bonfires), today’s commemoration of the event is a far cry from its original form and purpose.

The Gunpowder Plot

Old Palace Yard, Westminster
Old Palace Yard, Westminster

The story behind the anniversary – the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 – is well known. It origins lay in the plans of Robert Catesby, a Northamptonshire gentlemen, devised in early 1604, to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament and kill not only King James VI and I, but also the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, as well as many courtiers, lords and MPs. A house neighbouring the old Palace of Westminster, where parliament was held, was rented by one of the plotters – Thomas Percy, cousin to the 9th earl of Northumberland – with the aim of tunnelling into the foundations of the palace, laying gunpowder and detonating it. Unfortunately, the walls proved too thick for the conspirators to make much progress before parliament was due to open and the plot looked like it would fail.

The undercroft beneath the House of Lords, as illustrated in 1799. At about the same time it was described as 77 feet long, 24 feet and 4 inches wide, and 10 feet high.

There it might have ended had it not been for an unexpected change of fortune. First, plague hit the capital, delaying the opening of parliament (initially to February 1605 and then to November). The plotters had a reprieve. Second, in January 1605, a vault beneath the House of Lords fell vacant and was rented by Percy. Now the gunpowder – about 900kg brought in under cover of night from a house in Lambeth during the summer of 1605 – could be packed directly under the conspirators’ prime target.

An anonymous letter, sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, was instrumental in revealing the plot’s existence.


But the plotters’ luck did not hold. An anonymous letter to William Parker, Lord Monteagle (probably from one of the plotters, Francis Tresham), warned the peer to stay away from the opening parliament. Monteagle reported the letter to some of James’s councillors, who then told the king. An initial sweep of the palace on 4 November, led by the Lord Chamberlain, the earl of Suffolk, did not discover anything amiss, even though the earl saw Guy Fawkes in the vault and asked him about a large pile of firewood (behind which the gunpowder hid). Fawkes merely said that it belonged to Percy. However, when Monteagle expressed surprise that Percy was renting the vault and noted that he was Catholic, James ordered another, late-night, search of the premises and the gunpowder was found.

Guy Fawkes

Celebrations for the plot’s discovery were immediate. James ordered bonfires to be set and bells rung on 5 November, both common forms of celebration. On 10 November, William Barlow, bishop of Rochester, preached a sermon on the plot at Paul’s Cross, the public preaching place in St Paul’s Churchyard which could accommodate an audience of up to 6000 people. Official thanksgiving services were also ordered to be observed in all parish churches around this time.

The Gunpowder Plot was a significant moment in James’s English reign. The plot’s eleventh hour discovery was widely regarded as a sign of divine providence and established the king’s credentials as protestant champion at a time when he was under fire from both some Catholics, who had expected a degree of toleration, and puritans who were disappointed that the Hampton Court Conference (1604) had not led to the reform of the church for which they had long wished. It also fed into growing popular anti-catholicism. For both of these reasons, a bill was introduced in the House of Commons by Sir Edward Montagu on 23 January 1606 to establish an annual thanksgiving. It made swift progress through both houses – passing through the Commons in just two days – and quickly became law. It is probable that the thanksgiving was also observed in Scotland. Though the earliest known order of thanksgiving we have dates to 1628, it indicates that the thanksgiving had been kept in James’s reign. An attempt to establish annual thanksgivings in Ireland was not made until 1614 but, for some reason, the bill did not receive English approval (as all Irish acts of parliament had to at this time).

Guy Fawkes and the Conspirators
Guy Fawkes and the Conspirators

If the fate of the annual thanksgiving in Ireland was (at least initially) problematic, in England it was enthusiastically embraced, celebrated with church services, bonfires, bell-ringing and feasting. After the ‘discovery’ of another plot in 1678 – the so-called Popish Plot which was largely the fabrication of Titus Oates who duped a paranoid and anti-Catholic parliament – anti-Catholic processions and the burning of effigies of the pope also became staples of the commemoration. Unsurprisingly, when (the Catholic) James VII and II succeeded his brother, Charles II, to the throne in 1685, there were attempts to restrict the celebration of the day. The privy council issued an order to discharge all bonfires that had not been permitted by the crown. In Edinburgh, the lawyer John Lauder of Fountainhall, complained that there were neither ‘bells nor bonfires’ on 5 November, in contrast to the previous years. A fillip was delivered three years later when William of Orange, husband of James’s eldest daughter, Mary, landed at Torbay on 5 November. William’s initial aim may just have been to force James to support the Dutch in a war against France but, ultimately, he claimed the throne, securing the protestant church. 5 November once again seemed to reveal God’s providential support of England and Protestantism. This was certainly how William’s propagandists spun the prince’s claim to the throne.

Though initiated by parliament, the annual thanksgiving for the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was not the first such annual celebration, either official or unofficial. From at least 1564, parishes, led by St Peter Westcheap in London, had celebrated Elizabeth’s accession on 17 November. It was argued to mark the restoration of the ‘true church’ (i.e. Protestantism) after the hiatus of Mary’s Catholic rule (1553-8). Though never officially recognised, and thus never an official holiday, Accession Day grew in popularity, first, after the collapse of the Northern Rising in the winter of 1569 (which was quickly portrayed as a Catholic conspiracy) and, second, after the ‘defeat’ of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Indeed, it continued to be marked at least periodically in some parishes after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, though this was not always (as some historians have argued) as a subtle criticism of James and Charles.

Gowrie Day

Falkland Palace, Fife

But it was James himself who established the first official annual thanksgiving: Gowrie Day, celebrated on 5 August. This too was a commemoration of the king’s escape from Catholic conspiracy, though the precise circumstances of the plot are rather muddy. The events occurred in Scotland in 1600, prior to James’s accession to the English throne (and hence had been marked in Scotland from that time). On 5 August, James VI travelled from his palace at Falkland in Fife to Gowrie House in Perth, allegedly lured by a story of discovered treasure told to him by Alexander Ruthven, brother of John Ruthven, the third earl of Gowrie. After the king’s arrival, he was separated from his attendants, dined with the Ruthven brothers, before being threatened by Alexander Ruthven. James managed to alert his courtiers, who rushed to his assistance; amid the ensuing violence, the brothers were killed. James emerged unscathed.

Gowrie_Conspiracy, Luyken
The mayhem at Gowrie House imagined by the Dutch illustrator Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

Though these are the bare facts of the story, much is unexplained. James’s relationship with the Ruthven family had long been tense for a variety of reasons, but the king’s account of why he visited Gowrie House and precipitated the confrontation are not fully clear. Nevertheless, James interpreted the event as an attack on his life and one that had been thwarted by divine providence. He ordered thanksgivings on 30 September and 5 October. On 15 November 1600, the Scottish parliament passed an act appointing an annual thanksgiving day to be observed on 5 August. The day was to be marked with services in the kirk and sermons, in the morning in rural parishes and in the morning and afternoon in urban ones. Scots were also expected to ‘spend the rest of the said day in all civill and lauchfull glaidnes … provyding thay use na exces, sclanderous or insolent behaviour’.

The commemoration of Gowrie day in Scotland was initially mixed, partly because James’s account of events was not fully accepted. In 1602, some ministers in Fife neglected to observe the day and James was forced to request that the General Assembly, the governing body of the Scottish Kirk, require observance of the day in all kirks. On the other hand, James also planned to prevent ‘riotous celebration’ of the day, but never issued the proclamation that he proposed. He was less dilatory in England. A little over a month after acceding to the English throne, James issued a proclamation for the apprehension or William and Patrick Ruthven, brothers of the deceased earl who had fled to England. On 12 July, the privy council instructed Archbishop Whitgift of Canterbury to order the annual observance of Gowrie Day in the province of Canterbury (roughly the southern half of England, as well as Wales); it is likely that similar instructions were issued for the province of York (the northern half of England). The council left the nature of thanksgiving worship to Whitgift’s discretion, and a form of prayer was duly published. It borrowed from forms issued in England for the thanksgivings for the failure of the Parry Plot (1585) and of the alleged plots of Dr Lopez and Patrick O’Cullen (1594). As a result, the Gowrie conspiracy became part of the English discourse on providence and the monarchy. In 1608, in his preface to a printed account of the trial of George Sprot (a Scottish notary implicated in the Gowrie conspiracy), George Abbott, who was later archbishop of Canterbury, praised God for protecting King James from both plots. But evidence from churchwardens’ accounts which record the payments for bell-ringers, candles and prayer books used during the celebrations suggests that Gowrie Day was not celebrated as widely as 5 November and, unlike its more famous successor, it did not survive James’s death in 1625.

lewes bonfire
Bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, southern England

5 November had greater longevity. It continued to be a potent symbol capable of sparking partisan conflict, most famously when Henry Sacheverell preached the anniversary sermon in front of the Lord Mayor, aldermen and council of London on the anniversary in 1709. With the other official anniversaries – the Restoration (29 May), Ireland’s delivery from the rising of 1641 (23 October) and the fast marking the execution of Charles I (30 January) – it was formally abolished in 1859 (Restoration day was abolished in Scotland in 1689). Nevertheless, it continues to be marked through popular celebrations. Though it is shorn of much of its confessional and partisan significance, the day and the figure of Guy Fawkes himself, is still used in some places to represent or articulate political dissent on the left and the right of the political spectrum.

Natalie Mears is a senior lecturer in early modern history, specialising in sixteenth and early seventeenth century English political and religious history. With her Durham colleagues, Professor Philip Williamson and Professor Stephen Taylor, she is co-investigator of British state prayers, fasts and thanksgivings, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which is investigating the nature of special worship (including anniversary occasions like the Fifth of November) from the 1530s to the present day. The first volume of three of the edition on these occasions, National prayers: special worship since the Reformation. Volume 1: special prayers, fasts and thanksgivings in the British Isles, 1533-1688, was published by the Church of England Record Society in 2013. 

AHRC state prayers

Hallowe’en and All Souls’ Day

Today, 2nd November, is All Souls’ Day. This feast was instituted for the first time in the eleventh century by Abbot Odilo of Cluny (961/2-1049). All Souls’ Day is now rather overlooked in comparison with the festivities surrounding Hallowe’en (31st October), the day before (or ‘Eve’) of All Hallows or All Saints’ Day (1 November); anyone who was out on Saturday night will have seen demons, zombies, witches and ghouls revelling in the streets (they were in Durham, anyway).  Yet the story of this feast tells us of a time when the demons were a terrifying prospect for medieval Christians.

Abbot Odilo’s decision to institute the feast of All Souls should be understood within both the broader Christian tradition of prayer for the dead,linked to the feast of All Saints, and within the context of the Cluniac monasteries and their purposes. The Feast of All Saints was celebrated from the eighth century to commemorate and honour the saints, those who were outstandingly holy and virtuous throughout their lives and had died in the love of God. The emphasis was on celebration of the saints’ holiness and virtue, and so a distinction was drawn between prayer at the memorials of the saints, and prayer for the ‘ordinary’ dead, whose fate after death could be rather different.

Amalarius of Metz (c.780-850), a theologian and liturgist, noted the essential difference in this way: ‘For this reason anniversary days are kept for the dead, because we do not know what their situation is in the other life: so just as the anniversary days in honour of the saints are brought to our memory for our benefit, so those of the dead are performed for their benefit and for our devotion, and we believe that they will come to the company of saints at some future time.’ So while the saints were celebrated for their honour and our benefit, the ‘ordinary’ dead were remembered for their own benefit, and prayers for the ‘ordinary’ dead were offered to ensure that at some future time they might be worthy to enter heaven.

ClunyMapSmPrayers for the dead were important for almost all monastic houses in early medieval western Christendom, but they held a particularly special place at Cluny. Cluny was founded in the early tenth century by Duke William I of Aquitaine (c.886-918) as a Benedictine monastery, but one which sought to maintain a reformed way of life with a much more rigorous interpretation of the Benedictine Rule. The monks’ way of living meant that they were involved in perpetual prayer for the faithful, to the extent that some normal aspects of monastic life, such as manual labour, were abandoned. Unusually, the monastery was placed directly under the authority of the Holy See, which gave it a significant degree of independence from local ecclesiastical structures and secular nobility.

As Barbara Rosenwein and Megan McLaughlin have shown, the complex relationships between Cluny and the many hundreds of men and women who came into contact with the monastery centre around prayer, even when they appear in contexts that seem more mundane, such as property transactions. Those who came into contact with the monastery wanted the prayers of the monks, and to be treated – as the monks were – as servants of God and St Peter, to whom the monastery was founded. The monks at Cluny – like many other monks at this time – kept lists of the living and the dead who were associated with the monastery in some way, and offered prayers on their behalf, commending them to God

Winchester Psalter, London, British Library, Cotton Nero C.iv, c.1220-1229,
Winchester Psalter, London, British Library, Cotton Nero C.iv, c.1220-1229,

Jotsald (died c. 1052-1054), a monk at Cluny who wrote a biography of Abbot Odilo, tells us that the decision to institute of the feast of All Souls was prompted by an account from a pilgrim who visited Cluny on his way back from Jerusalem. He said that he had been forced to take shelter on an island near Sicily on his return journey, where he had been asked by a hermit whether he knew of the monastery of Cluny, and of Abbot Odilo. The hermit described nearby places filled with fire, where the souls of the dead were tormented by terrible and fearful demons; but, said the hermit, the demons lamented and complained that the prayers of religious men and the alms given to the poor liberated the souls from their torments – and especially, the house of Cluny and its abbot.

Some time between 1024 and 1033, Odilo issued a Statute concerning the Dead which formalised and explained the Feast of All Souls, at which ‘all the faithful dead who have lived, from the beginning of the world all the way to the end’ would be commemorated and prayed for, on the day following the Feast of All Saints. The monks’ ‘work’ here was to fight the demons which otherwise imperilled the souls of all the ordinary faithful, not only those who were already known to the monks of Cluny. It is worth noting too that these demons were not metaphorical, they were perceived as a real threat, terrifying and wicked beings with the power to damage the living as well as to torment the dead.

What we see here is something which was central to the idea of purgatory: the living and the dead were connected by bonds of prayer, and the living could alleviate the suffering of the dead through the offerings made for them. Ideas about the fate of the soul developed throughout the early medieval period, but the concern with offering prayers for the departed – and the fact that this had a very real and tangible effect on souls in the afterlife – was an essential part of the idea of purgatory for early medieval thinkers.

All Souls’ Day was not celebrated by the whole Church until the thirteenth century, but it remains part of the liturgical calendar in most western Christian traditions; Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches often say or sing requiem masses for the dead on this day, praying that they will rest in peace (as at Durham Cathedral). What has faded from the modern commemoration of the dead on All Souls’ Day though is the vivid idea of demons who torment souls, and against whom the prayers of the monks were offered up as weapons.

baby-devil-with-beer-tattooSo the next time you see a bedraggled demon holding a pint of beer during a night of Hallowe’en revelling, spare a thought for Odilo and his fellow monks, who saw it as their duty to offer perpetual prayers to free the ‘ordinary’ dead from the clutches of the fearsome powers of evil.

Helen Foxhall Forbes is Lecturer in Early Medieval History at Durham University. She is currently writing a book about purgatory in the early Middle Ages, focusing on the culturally connected region of the British Isles and northwestern continental Europe.