LINEBURG


<< . .

 5
( 27)



. . >>

library of an ˜ancient catholic family in the north of England™.38
But Walpole™s real ambivalence towards Catholicism is nowhere better
demonstrated than in his use of ideas familiar from commentators on
sacrilege. As Kenneth W. Graham has observed, The Castle of Otranto ˜is
really about the ownership of property and problems in title™, and the story
is a prolonged meditation on two ownership issues central to sacrilege
narratives: usurpation and the longevity of curses.39 The novel begins with
Manfred, a prince of Otranto born to a usurping line, trying to marry off his
sickly son Conrad too early, as a ploy to fend off a prophecy ˜that the castle
and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the
real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it™ (p. 17). The threat of
growing too large, the reader soon learns, is to be taken quite literally “ the
most famous scene in the novel is the ¬rst, in which the enormous helmet
of Alfonso the Good, the unjustly despoiled ancestor of the rightful owner,
supernaturally appears and presages disaster to come.40 Walpole™s emphasis
is on a growing retribution, one which does not lapse with the death of
the initial usurper, but swells in proportion to the length of time that the
grievance has gone unavenged. This is a trajectory directly in line with how
34 Oral Culture and Catholicism
sacrilege narratives take the temporal unpredictability of divine justice for
granted, and emphasise how the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the
children. It might be the ¬rst impropriator who suffers, or it might be his
descendants “ but sooner or later, the family will be held to account. In
keeping with this, Manfred sees his son Conrad and daughter Matilda die,
before he abdicates the principality and retires into a religious house for
the rest of his life.
The sin of sacrilege could, however, be defrayed to some extent by gifts to
the church. Still pretending that the tale has been authored by a sixteenth-
century Italian, Walpole scolds himself in his own preface: ˜I could wish he
had grounded his plan on a more useful moral than this; that the sins of the
fathers are visited on their children to the third and fourth generation . . . And
yet this moral is weakened by that less direct insinuation, that even such
anathema may be diverted by devotion to saint Nicholas™ (p. 7).41 Here,
Walpole is referring to the way in which the original usurper, Manfred™s
grandfather Ricardo, delays the action of the curse by founding a church to
St Nicholas “ whereupon the saint appears to him in a dream and promises
that he will reign in Otranto ˜until the rightful owner should be grown too
large to inhabit the castle, and as long as issue-male from Ricardo™s loins
should remain to enjoy it™ (pp. 113“14). In The Castle of Otranto, Walpole
is pursuing two aims which are rationally incompatible but able to be
synthesised imaginatively: expressing disbelief in the type of curse which
the sacrilegious are supposed to incur, but giving powerful imaginative
realisation to the working out of just such a curse.42
Writing as editor, Walpole admits the power of his superstitious con-
struction in the preface, and equates it with religious polemic. Pretending
to guess at the date when the story was ¬rst told, he hazards that it was in
the humanist era when ˜letters were . . . in their most ¬‚ourishing state in
Italy, and contributed to dispel the empire of superstition, at that time so
forcibly attacked by the reformers. It is not unlikely that an artful priest
might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators; and might avail
himself of his abilities as an author to con¬rm the populace in their ancient
errors and superstitions . . . Such a work as the following would enslave a
hundred minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been writ-
ten from the days of Luther to the present hour™ (pp. 5“6).43 A dialogue
is going on here between Walpole as imaginative conceiver of supernat-
ural events “ famously, The Castle of Otranto was inspired by a night-
mare “ and the equally imaginary but elaborately rationalistic activities of
Walpole as self-styled editor and translator, distancing himself from his own
invention.
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 35
Walpole, together with all his family, would have had particular cause to
be familiar with the History of Sacrilege. Spelman™s case histories of families
who impropriated monastic lands, and subsequently failed to prosper, are
divided into two parts.44 The ¬rst gives the history of some of England™s
great families at the time of the Reformation; the second concentrates on
the environs of Spelman™s own home in Norfolk. Spelman tells the reader
about a statistical experiment he conducted around the period 1615“16,
when he took a compass and drew a circle twenty-four miles in diameter
round his own home on a map of Norfolk.

I inclosed the Mansion-houses of about 24 Families of Gentlemen, and the sight
of as many Monasteries all standing together at the time of Dissolution; and I then
noted that the Gentleman™s Seats continued at that day in their own Families and
Names. But the Monasteries had ¬‚ung out their Owners with their Names and
Families (all of them save 2) thrice at least, and some of them 4 or 5 or 6 times, not
only by fail of Issue, or ordinary Sale, but very often, by grievous Accidents and
Misfortunes. (pp. 243“4)45

Because of the slur cast on the ancestors of the impropriating families
mentioned, and because Spelman implies that the present-day occupants
of the land should make retrospective reparation, this was plainly one of
the parts of the book most likely to cause offence. By the same token
the landowners in question are sure to have known about it, by repute or
in detail: perhaps from the time Spelman conducted his experiment, and
certainly after the book began to be circulated in manuscript, with a revival
of interest after it was printed in 1698.
It has never previously been noticed that the Walpole family are among
those whose genealogies Spelman scrutinises, and that Spelman lists the
Walpole family home at Houghton in his study of estates. Happily, the
Walpoles were designated by Spelman as one of the ˜good™ families who
did not receive impropriations and therefore prospered. But for a Gothicist
coming of a family within a small area where, uniquely for all England, sys-
tematic genealogical enquiries had been conducted to estimate the human
cost of sacrilege conducted at the Reformation, the imaginative effects
would have been profound and various. When in residence at Houghton,
Walpole and members of his family would have had daily intercourse with
families who had been named and shamed; would have heard gossip about
bloodlines that had died out entirely; and would have walked in a landscape
where certain buildings and parcels of land were thought to carry God™s
curse.
36 Oral Culture and Catholicism
Walpole was familiar with Spelman™s work, and outside an imaginative
context would probably have been dismissive of Spelman™s attitude towards
sacrilege, given the tone of his other recorded remarks on the topic.46
Writing to Sir David Dalrymple, he calls sacrilege ˜the lightest species [of
robbery] which injures nobody™; in another letter, discussing church plate,
he jokingly claims that Dr Johnson believed sacrilege to be ˜the sin against
the Holy Ghost, who, I suppose, he thinks has a particular fondness for silver
basins and ewers™. Elsewhere, discussing the execution in Italy of a criminal
who stole a cup from a church, his tone is sadder: ˜I could not sleep for
thinking about the poor creature, who was to suffer for so trivial a fault . . .
To me, ™tis shocking, that what they have branded with this formidable
title sacrilege, should be a capital crime.™47 A disproportionate emphasis on
sacrilege is invested with all the irrationality of which Walpole, and most
of his audience, would have convicted the Roman church in general “ and
High Churchmen like Johnson are considered foolish to believe in it.
In the end Walpole™s novel may repudiate the claims made by believers in
sacrilege, but it does so only after a prolonged, detailed and imaginatively
compelling exploration of them. The sacrilege narrative is, prior to Gothic
¬ction, the only genre to link two topics which were to become pervasive
in that ¬ction: family curses, and medieval architecture. Walpole™s story
utilises both, and in addition explicitly engages with questions of sacrilege.
How much of an in¬‚uence this had on his copyists and successors is a far
more open question. As Gothic ¬ction gathered pace, it became rapidly
clear that both themes were capable of much wider application; the family
curse, especially, developed a multivalency and wide suggestiveness which
could tend away from Walpole™s original emphases. Moreover, much Gothic
writing, in the late eighteenth century and after, has no bearing on sacrilege
at all, other than a standard invocation of awe at ruins. But as has been
commented, ˜Gothicists seized materials wherever they found them™,48 and
in the genealogy of Gothic, the sacrilege narrative must surely rank as one
of its ancestors.
The early twentieth-century writer John Meade Falkner, in The Nebuly
Coat (1903), is one of the rare exponents of Gothic who returns to source.
In this novel, the noble house of Blandamer has impropriated lands among
its possessions, and the plot relates the downfall of Lord Blandamer. The
narration is heavy with themes of providence, and at one point, Falkner
explicitly refers to the History of Sacrilege.49 Perhaps the most signi¬cant
imaginative writer to re¬ne Walpole™s use of the sacrilege narrative was
not one of Walpole™s immediate successors, but a near-contemporary of
Falkner™s, M. R. James.50 While his famous ghost stories hardly re¬‚ect at
all on the sacrilege of the English Reformation, they show James relocating
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 37
features of the sacrilege narrative to other periods and locations. Like
Walpole, he imaginatively reinvents the idea that one incurs supernatu-
ral penalties by encroaching upon territory, or appropriating possessions,
which are rightfully another™s; though where Walpole explores the idea of
a gradually accruing penalty for knowingly undertaken sacrilegious action,
James™s protagonists incur instant and automatic shocks, whether or not
they are aware they have trespassed. Treasure hunters may awaken malign
sleeping entities, as in ˜The Treasure of Abbot Thomas™, but so too, in ˜The
Rose Garden™, can people innocently engaged upon horticultural improve-
ments. James is issuing a warning to the curious, but also a warning against
disturbance of any kind. His ghosts are hard to read as anything but evil;
but they are not actively so, since they are only called up by meddlesome or
thieving actions. One is not allowed to sympathise with the precipitators
of supernatural revenge, since the ghosts have an atavistic right to do what
they do. James™s stories unsettle sceptics in a way that Spelman himself
would have endorsed.51

stones c ryin g ou t: n etley a bbey a nd t h e fat e
of wa lter taylor
Walpole, like Spelman, was employing theories about sacrilege which had
a symbiotic relationship with gossip, anecdote and folklore; he gives them
a sustained imaginative treatment which mounts a critique of Spelman™s
theological interpretation, even while drawing upon it. This section sup-
plements the previous one by tracing reactions to a real sacrilege narrative:
a story attached to Netley Abbey, one of the monastic ruins most admired
by early Gothicists. The tale is ¬rst reported by antiquarians in the early
eighteenth century, signi¬cantly before the age of the Gothic novel, and it
continued to attract interest into the nineteenth century, when imaginative
reactions to Gothic ruin had become more standardised. Some treatments
of it are ¬ctional, others are not, though most of the non-¬ctional accounts
address the question of whether sacrilege narratives are to be believed.
The story offers an example of how the authors of written texts entered
into scholarly and imaginative dialogue with orally transmitted material “
though, as ever, one should remember that one has no access to anything
other than a retelling, and that antiquarians were not immune from the
temptation to embellish a story.
Folklore itself is, inter alia, an explanatory mechanism. Stories attach
themselves to prominent and distinctive features in a landscape, and so
when a landscape changes, they evolve too. Ruins have always demanded
exposition, both for the educated and the uneducated observer:52 John
38 Oral Culture and Catholicism




2. Netley Abbey: from Francis Grose, Antiquities of England, 1783“7 edn,
vol. II, plate opposite p. 211.

Wootton™s ˜Riders pausing by the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey™, painted around
the mid-eighteenth century, is one of this era™s ¬rst pictorial recognitions
of how ruined abbeys may be objects of interest.53 Educated landown-
ers could do this by landscaping their grounds around them “ the ruins
of Fountains Abbey, for instance, form part of the moral perambulation
demanded of those who walk in the gardens of Studley Royal “ and fre-
quently, too, they became local occasions for literary re¬‚ection.54 Myth-
making of a more chthonic variety, feeding off the stereotypical association
of Catholicism with elaborate secrecy, was perpetuated by tour-guides “
like so many doubtful stories since. Discussing a picture of the Abbot™s
Kitchen at Netley Abbey, drawn around 1772, Francis Grose says: ˜The
hole seen on the right hand was, in all likelihood, a vault: according to the
vulgar opinion, it is deemed a subterraneous passage, formerly leading to
the neighbouring castle, and is always pointed out as such by the person
who shows the ruins.™55
Netley Abbey inspired a number of more literary narratives, and one
could write a micro-history of imaginative reactions to Gothic ruin sim-
ply by drawing upon the writings of those who were inspired by it.56 As
with many other medieval ruins, it was believed by some locals to be
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 39
haunted. Describing his visit there in November 1764, Thomas Gray told his
correspondent Norton Nicholls how ˜the Ferryman, who row™d me, a lusty
young Fellow, told me, that he would not for all the world pass a night
at the Abbey, (there were such things seen near it,) tho™ there was a power
of money hid there™. The incident, which Gray also mentions in another
letter, gives an authentic picture of the mixture of fear, fascination and
greed which must have coloured local conversation about the Abbey.57 As
in The Castle of Otranto, published that same year, superstitious members
of the servant classes are brought into play to voice the fears inseparable
from Gothic: fears which gentlemen can allow themselves to enjoy, but not
to endorse.
Gray, as self-aware a letter-writer as he was a poet, is also using the ferry-
man™s words to throw into relief his own, more artful evocations of Catholic
ghosts. Invoking the medieval inhabitants of the Abbey, he muses: ˜[The
Abbot] is walking slowly (good Man!) & bidding his beads for the souls of
his Benefactors, interr™d in that venerable pile, that lies beneath him . . .
did not you observe how, as that white sail shot by & was lost, he turn™d
and cross™d himself, to drive the Tempter from him, that had thrown that
distraction in his way.™ As George Keate re¬‚ected in an elegy discussed
below, ˜Scenes such as these, with salutary change, / O™er ¬‚att™ring Life
their melancholy cast; / Teach the free thoughts on wings of air to range, /
O™erlook the present, and recall the past!™ (l.85“8). Certainly Netley Abbey
was regarded as especially ¬ne by eighteenth-century gothicists, and insepa-
rable from aesthetic pleasure in ruins was the imaginative ability to summon
up the ghosts of former occupants.58 Horace Walpole, suggesting ways that
his correspondent Lady Ossory can amuse herself in Hampshire, explicitly
recommends this technique: ˜When by the aid of some historic vision and
local circumstance I can romance myself into pleasure, I know nothing
transports me so much. Pray, . . . try this secret at . . . Nettley Abbey.™59
One of the local circumstances of Netley Abbey would have engendered
more painful meditation: a story illustrating the ill-advisedness of sacri-
lege, orally transmitted in the ¬rst instance, and widely disseminated by
antiquarians.60 This story, which is a very characteristic example of a sac-
rilege narrative, dates from the ¬rst years of the eighteenth century and
¬rst saw print in the antiquarian Browne Willis™s A History of the Mitred
Parliamentary Abbies, and Conventual Cathedral Churches (1718“19). Willis™s
preamble to it runs as follows:

. . . about 15 Years ago, . . . Sir B[erkeley] L[ewis],61 who had the Propriety
of the Abbey, sold the whole Fabrick of the Chapel to one Taylor a Carpenter
40 Oral Culture and Catholicism
of Southampton, who took off the Roof (which was entire till then) and pull™d
down great part of the Walls. The entire Ruin of this noble Fabrick, which the
principal Undertaker did not live to ¬nish, having been since compleated, and
the Chapel and Abbey being both now quite destroy™d, it may may (sic) not be
improper to give some account of it; and add hereunto the History of the Fate
of the Undertaker Taylor, in regard that ™tis a thing so particular, and so generally
known in the Neighbourhood, and may be attested by divers Evidences, and very
credible Witnesses. (p. 205)

Willis™s concern with trying to authenticate the story is manifest. Nor is it
merely a matter of common knowledge in the neighbourhood, but ˜credible
Witnesses™ are willing to testify to it; and the suggestive initials denoting Sir
Berkeley Lewis™s name hint at how the matter is still a living scandal. The
authentication strategies so characteristic of later, avowedly ¬ctional ghost
stories are all in place, as Willis proceeds to retell the supernatural element
of the story; but well aware that his readership would be eager both for
thrills and moral exposition, Willis had this story indexed under ˜Sacrilege,
the consequences of it™.
During the time that this Taylor (who was a Dissenter) was in treaty with Sir B“
for the Chapel, he was much disturbed in his Sleep by frightful Dreams, (and, as
some say, Apparititions (sic), in particular of a Person in the Habit of a Monk)
representing to him the Mischief that would befall him in destroying the Chapel;
and one Night he dreamt, that a large Stone out of one of the Windows of the
Chapel fell down upon him and kill™d him. He was so affected with this Dream in
particular, that he told what had happen™d to him in his Sleep to a Person of the
same Perswasion with himself, viz. one Mr. W “ a serious Man, who had a good
Esteem with him, who examining particularly into the Disturbance that had been
thus given him, advised him not to proceed in his Contract, there being reason
to fear, that some Mischief would befall him if he did; and that the Notice which
had been given him was to be looked upon as the kind Admonition of Heaven
to prevent his Hurt. The Undertaker, tho™ he was somewhat stagger™d with those
Intimations that had been given him, yet (forasmuch as his other Friends Advice,
to whom he had universally imparted it, was different) moved by the Gain he
propos™d to himself, ¬nish™d his Agreement with Sir B, “ and soon after set to work
on pulling down the Chapel; but he was not far advanced in it, when endeavouring
with a Pickax to get out some Stones at the bottom of the West Wall of the Church
or Chapel, in which there was a large Window, the whole Body of the Window
fell down suddenly upon him, and crushed him in pieces. (pp. 205“6)

Antiquarians other than Willis would have ranked fears of sacrilege high
among the several good reasons not to destroy ecclesiastical ruins; all the
same, Willis™s interpretation was not the only possible one.62 Some anti-
quarians, telling the story of Walter Taylor, used Willis™s account but took
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 41
pains to demonstrate their own scepticism, using a surprising variety of
rhetorical stratagems. Writing in 1798, William Gilpin went so far as to
give the whole story a facetious treatment. Referring, not without irony, to
˜that renowned antiquarian Brown (sic) Willis™, he adds his own improve-
ments to the ¬ctional structure:

From [Willis] we have an anecdote, which, he assures us, is founded on fact, of
a carpenter, who once traf¬cked with the owner of Netley for this elegant roof,
which he meant to pull down and convert into gain. As he retired to rest, his
slumbers were disturbed with dreadful dreams. These having no effect, the next
night visions appeared; venerable old men in Monkish habits, with frowning faces
and threatening hands. Still he pursued his wicked purpose. But the next night
he had scarce fallen asleep, when a monstrous coping-stone fell plumb upon his
head. He started with horror, and was hardly at length persuaded it was a dream.
All this having only a momentary effect, in the morning he went to work on
the execution of his design. No farther warning was given him. He had scarce
mounted a ladder, when a coping-stone fell in earnest from the roof, and put him
to instant death. Others, however, it seems, have been found, notwithstanding this
example, who have pursued the design, for a mere fragment of the roof only now
remains.63

Gilpin™s beautifully orchestrated crescendo of threats has only the smallest
basis in Willis, but by elaborating upon the story in this manner, Gilpin is
giving an ironist™s response to it. E. W. Brayley took an opposite approach.
While admitting that the ruins ˜have often furnished a theme for poetical
description, and moral precept™, his account of the story is more explicitly
rationalistic. He scoffs that the accident ˜has been regarded by the vulgar as a
judgment in¬‚icted by Heaven, for [Taylor™s] presumed guilt, in undertaking
to destroy a sacred edi¬ce; but more enlightened understandings can only
regard it as the effect of a fortuitous combination of circumstances, in
perfect accordance with the established laws of Nature™. All the same, several
generations after the event, it is still enough of an issue for Brayley™s source
to engage in a point-by-point amendment of Browne Willis, and to make an
enquiry about the facts of the case from Taylor™s family. These investigations
result in a considerably emended version of the story which now includes
the warning of Taylor™s friends, the identity of ˜Mr W™ “ Isaac Watts, father
of the hymn writer of the same name “ and the sequel of Taylor dying while
being operated upon.64 As Brayley further comments, sacrilege narratives
are entirely bene¬cial in so far as they prevent the destruction of ruins:
˜Whether this accident occasioned a direct stop to be put to the demolition
of the Abbey is uncertain, but the superstitious gloom which it generated,
42 Oral Culture and Catholicism
has had an evident tendency to the preservation of the ruins in more modern
times.™
Brayley is self-consciously writing as an heir to the Enlightenment, but
some of his Victorian successors were to exhume the half-buried fears about
sacrilege. In his guide to Southampton, Philip Brannon agonised about the
sacrilegious actions of the destroyers in terms less guarded than his anti-
quarian forebears, which the Catholic revival in England was beginning
to make more acceptable.65 An intriguing question, which lies beyond
the scope of this chapter, is the extent to which the sacrilege narrative
helped prepare the ground in nineteenth-century England for the wide
interest outside Catholic circles in the polemicised connection of Gothic
and Englishness associated with the priest and architectural historian John
Milner, and the Catholic architect A. W. N. Pugin.66 A consciousness of
the depredations suffered by England™s medieval buildings, and a desire
to put things to rights by refurbishing them in an archaeologically correct
manner, was certainly fundamental to England™s Gothic Revival, and it
may not be too large an imaginative leap to see it as motivated in part by
instincts of reparation. As in previous centuries, High Churchmen were
likeliest of all to take sacrilege narratives seriously, and Spelman™s The
History and Fate of Sacrilege was edited, and ringingly endorsed, by the
prominent Anglo-Catholic J. M. Neale in 1846 “ with the last reprint in
1895.67 But perhaps the sacrilege narrative™s increasing lack of credibility, as
England moved into the twentieth century and Catholicism became a
more unremarkable confessional choice, is best demonstrated by Cardinal
Gasquet, a writer not slow elsewhere to comment reproachfully on the
English Reformation. Mentioning the story of Walter Taylor in an account
of Netley Abbey, he refrains from commenting on it, beyond calling it an
accident.68
Via antiquarian accounts, the earlier sacrilege narratives surrounding
Netley Abbey became an inspiration to imaginative writers. For instance,
in Netley Abbey, an imitation of Gray™s Elegy showing a nostalgic sympathy
for Catholics, the poet George Keate makes use of the story. The manner
in which he does is suggestive. In his preface he takes care to demonstrate
a concern with reliable evidence, and says of Browne Willis that he was
˜possessed of a happy Credulity . . . [crowding] a Page or two in his History
of Mitred Abbies, with every Circumstance of every old Woman™s Story
he could meet with™ (p. 13). This, however, does not stop him repeating
the Walter Taylor story in generalised form “ Sir Berkeley Lewis™s various
purchasers are said ˜by the Neighbours, to have been visited by Judgements,
Abbey ruins, sacrilege narratives 43
proportioned to the different Degrees of their imagined Sacrilege™ “ and
repeating a less well-known sacrilege narrative, inspired by one of the heaps
of stone on the Abbey ¬‚oor.
A PURITAN, in the Reign of JAMES I . . . is said to have defaced many of [the
Abbey™s] Ornaments, and to have intended the Demolition of the whole; but,
while he was giving Orders to his Workmen, was crushed to Death by the Fall of
Part of the Building. The Heap of Stones under which he is supposed to lie buried,
is still pretended to be shown. Superstition made its proper Use of this Fable, and
was very probably the Means of protecting the Fabric . . . (pp. 13“14)
Nothing could demonstrate the licence given to imaginative genres more
vividly than the difference between Keate™s preface, pragmatic and cynical
as it is, and the treatment he gives the story in the actual poem. He begins
with a suggestion that readers suspend their disbelief, and attend to what
oral tradition has to relate:
Here too (Belief could old Tradition claim)
Where swells the rocky Mound in shapeless Heaps,
(His Name forgot, his Guilt divulg™d by Fame)
Some rude Dismantler of this Abbey sleeps.
Long, long in Thought the patient Earth he curs™d,
That bore the Fabric™s then unbroken Spires;
Long wish™d the Pow™r to bid Volcano™s burst,
Or call from Heav™n thought-executing Fires.

<< . .

 5
( 27)



. . >>

Copyright Design by: Sunlight webdesign