“Forbidden Histories”: New blog by Andreas Sommer, Ph.D.

Andreas Sommer, historian of the human sciences and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge, has a new blog entitled “Forbidden Histories”. The blog “is primarily concerned with the functions of popular science and disciplinary history as knowledge management and tries to identify a variety of epistemologies and concerns (many of which, interestingly, have been mutually antagonistic), that have prevented mainstream historical information from entering common knowledge.”

Today, Sommer writes about “The Naturalisation of the ‘Poltergeist’“. His text deals with various figures who might be of interest to H-Madness readers, such as Carl du Prel, Charles Richet, and Eugen Bleuler (left):

An example of the historical continuity of scientific interest in unorthodox questions concerns ‘poltergeist’ phenomena, i.e. the very epitome of ‘things that go bump in the night’.

Probably coined by Martin Luther (a professed poltergeist victim) in sixteenth-century Germany, ‘Poltergeist’ means ‘rumbling spirit’. There is a vast amount of historical records of dramatic poltergeist outbreaks afflicting people from all walks of life, not infrequently resulting in interventions by state authorities, which in turn have produced some of the most detailed records. Among the bizarre but apparently robust features of alleged poltergeist phenomena over time are:

  • The centre of events is usually a specific person, often an adolescent.
  • Unexplained recurring sounds are heard, ranging from raps from within walls or furniture to deafening blows.
  • Sounds are sometimes responsive.
  • Household objects of all sizes and weights are observed to move, sometimes slowly and appearing as if carried.
  • Moved objects appear to penetrate closed windows or walls without causing damage, and they are often reported to be hot.
  • Stones are thrown from without, sometimes from a considerable distance.
  • If approaching a person, thrown objects often appear to recoil before the impact and drop to the floor.
  • Large quantities of water suddenly appear and disappear, and fires spontaneously ignite.
  • Persons are hurled out of bed, slapped or beaten as if by invisible hands, and bitten.
  • Writings and drawings appear on walls or in concealed spaces.
  • Apparitions are perceived, sometimes simultaneously by more than one witness.
  • Pets and animals panic or behave unusually.
  • In post-industrial times, disturbances correspond with malfunctions or unusual behaviour of electronic equipment.

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Traditionally, poltergeists were believed to be demons, elementals, or spirits of deceased evil humans, and their activities have often been associated with witchcraft and black magic. Far from being condemned as folly or superstition, such views were held by figureheads of the Scientific Revolution, such as Francis Bacon and later Robert Boyle (pictured on the left). While Bacon submitted bills for the penalisation of witchcraft, Boyle sponsored the English edition of The Devil of Mascon, a classical French poltergeist case, for which he wrote the preface. Boyle (who investigated cases of miraculous healings, premonitions and other supposedly supernatural events) also supported colleagues at the Royal Society such as Joseph Glanvill and Henry More who compiled natural histories of poltergeist disturbances and witchcraft. Historians of science have argued that these investigations were inspired by deep worries of religious deviance (such as popular atheism, animism, hylozoism and pantheism), which were perceived to undermine regulative moral functions of Christian belief in the reward and punishment of the soul in the afterlife.

To read the entire piece, click here.

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