Phantom Histories: Thoughts on the Work of Medievalist Claude Lecouteux

In those days it was common to bury people at night and by torchlight: and it was noticed that whenever a funeral was toward, John Poole was always at his window, either on the ground floor or upstairs, according as he could get the better view from one or the other …

There came a night when an old woman was to be buried. She was fairly well to do, but she was not liked in the place. The usual thing was said of her, that she was no Christian, and that on such nights as Midsummer Eve and All Hallows, she was not to he found in her house.

— from “There Was a Man Dwelt by the Churchyard” by M.R. James

A wonderful collection of classic texts was discovered beneath the finely writ words of a Byzantine prayer book. Seven treatise by Archimedes, including the only known copies of his works The Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion, along with previously unknown speeches by the Athenian orator Hyperides and a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories from the second or third century AD, have been carefully reproduced by analyzing the traces left on the prayer book’s vellum pages. Some enterprising scribe had scraped them clean to reuse the sheets, overlaying prayers on top of a wealth of ancient knowledge.  

Mirroring the material focus of our time this discovery gives a very physical example of a process which is prevalent in all areas of culture. Hidden beneath folk tales, myths, familial anecdotes, and in between the lines of every song, book and treatise one can find the remnants of past revelations.

The Medievalist Claude Lecouteuyx’s Chasse fantastiques et cohorts de la nuit au Moyen Age and La maison hantee: Histoires des Poltergeists, recently translated as Phantom armies of the night: the wild hunt and the ghostly processions of the undead and The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses, From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations  respectively, published through Inner Traditions, provide perfect examples of the depths that can be found when one looks more carefully at common stories and popular beliefs. By examining folk traditions and orthodox references to the wild hunt, poltergeists, regional rituals, and beliefs, Lecouteuyx has been able to revive ancient concepts of mortality, discovering a complex philosophy of life and death hidden beneath a thin veil of legend and storytelling.

Hallucinatory and revealing, his books recover the cold tracks of popular beliefs, stalking their deeper associations through a careful study of literature, religious treatise and cultural expressions.  His specialty is the nightside realms of phenomenology, what contemporary philosopher and author Patrick Harpur describes as “daimonic reality,” and what derisive critique calls ghosts, goblins and ghouls.

In the year 1678, on the Sunday after Twelfth Day, William Medcalfe and his Wife went to church, leaving their only daughter Alice at home, and whilst they were there they said Alice heard a noise in the yard, and looking out the window she saw a man of a middle stature …

— The beginning of Joseph Glanvil’s account of the Medcalfe haunting from 1678 as recounted by Claude Lecouteux in The Secret History of Poltergeists

This is historical scholarship that holds all the chilling import of the best M.R. James stories, without falling on fiction to allow an easy suspension of disbelief as he explores our haunted world.  Astral doubles, witches, werewolves, vampires and hauntings take center stage, but this isn’t the pastiche reality you’ve come to expect from paranormal television.

Here the data gives voice to its own interpretation.  Case reports, documentation and personal testimony provide the platform for Lecouteux comparison of official histories explaining encounters with what officially does not exist. Unlike most of the stories that have been recently promoted through television, radio and podcasts these are not case reports from suburbanite minds.

These are the tales of the rusticus, paganus, the cacophonic reminders of the vox populi of earlier times where the sanguine truths of life hold resonant potency. One finds that these phenomena clothe themselves in the imaginal potential of those who experience them, and these tales are told by imaginations filled with the realities of agrarian existence, the blood and bones truths of rural living.

Abel, second son of Count Waldemar of Denmark, slew his brother in 1250 then fell in 1252, when fighting the Frisons. He was buried in St. Peter’s Church in Schleswig, but numerous hauntings occurred. His body was removed from the religious building and submerged in a swamp in the Pol Forest, near Gottorp, after the coffin had been pierced through with a stake.

During this time, the area became haunted and those who passed near it heard the sound of a hunting horn and saw a man. Everywhere, it was said that the man was Abel and that his mouth and his body were black and that he rode a small horse of the same color and that he was accompanied by three dogs glowing like fire.

– from the Schleswig Chronicle, Testimony of Brother Boissen, counselor to Duke Johann Adolph of Holstein-Gottorp, as quoted in Phantom Armies of the Night

By focusing on accounts of these anomalous events from functional historical media, such as religious treatises, old chronicles and news reports, he opens a deep examination of the process of interpretation itself. Functional media presents us with material intended to shape understanding, and Lecouteux’s use of church records and early Enlightenment era investigations provides a clear presentation of how ideologies work as an interpretive lens for experiential phenomenon. In doing so he also begins to develop a wider critique of how all official explanations serve less to investigate the experiential truth of an event, than to provide a place for that event within an acceptable social framework.

Lindow Man

Through accounts like the one found in the Schleswig Chronicle regarding Abel, Lecounteux demonstrates how narrative themes develop over time, with key markers such as the staked coffin, burial in the swamp, and the figure of the phantom huntsman, recurring throughout. These recurring themes can be traced back to pre-Christian beliefs and ritual observances, one thinks of the infamous bog bodies which show signs of ceremonial burial, providing keys to understanding how our relationship with the natural world as a symbolic system has developed.

One is also struck, beyond symbolic evolution, by the efficacy the anomalous phenomenon itself is afforded by even those skeptical of its origins or existence. By comparing text after text describing disruptive phenomenon we follow as explanations are offered to fit the events within a standard context supported by the prevailing world view of the time. Throughout we find explanations ranging from meandering spirits, malicious demons to mental unbalance, what never changes is the phenomena itself, and certain experiential factors that lead towards its manifestation.

Rather than seeking to clarify the causes of the phenomenon, Lecouteux looks at how authorities and official explanations contend with the frequency of anomalous events. Here we see interpretive structures develop over time to fit the periods acceptable social narratives.

In The Secret History of Poltergeists, this is shown through the changing interpretations of “knocking spirits” or “noisy hauntings,” reports of which can be found going back to the classical period. The events themselves repeat the same phenomenological profile … taps, raps, growls, moving objects, stones materializing in midair and raining down at great speed, and yet the reasons for these experiences are washed continuously in terms of what is metaphysically accepted as reality for the time period of the report.

Developing out of a close reading of texts from each period, is a clear picture of how popular insistence as to the veracity of these anomalies, supported by individuals within the orthodoxy who have themselves experienced them, creates a need for orthodox narratives that fit these events into an acceptable framework, or manipulate them as convenient propaganda.

This is a process which Jacques Vallee has outlined in great detail dealing with the subject of UFO and anomalous lights, and which has been brought up to date by Mark Pilkington’s book Mirage Men, which deals with the direct interference of intelligence agencies in creating politically expedient narratives that guide the understanding of anomalous events.

In speaking of orthodox narratives we are talking about all narratives that support the identity of a larger social narrative, be it political, scientific, religious, mystical or occult. What becomes very clear in Lecouteux’s work is that all explanations act as confabulations to describe the origins of phenomena that have no clear underlying cause within the accepted orthodoxies. Because these events are anomalous, the importance given to them by their framing is able to be manipulated to the benefit of the intention of the storytellers.

These phenomena can even become tools for justifying narratives which refute them, playing the dark foil to the positive enumeration of official existential norms.  When filtered through church documents, for instance, exorcism and prayer are used as a weapon against anomalous phenomena perceived as the agency of demonic forces lead by the devil. These holy rituals return the balance of divine agency which allows the phenomenon to stop, having renewed the rational (in relation to prevailing norms) structure. While the importance of these occurrences is downplayed by authoritative dismissal, they still play an important part in bolstering party line dogmas.

When all accounts are assessed, Lecouteux is able to analyze the actual efficiency of these religious interventions, and there is a clear discrepancy. As these official accounts are compared to those given by commentators outside of religious (or scientific) orthodoxy, the phenomena is often unabated by ritual means. Dualistic, mind vs. material, God vs. the devil arguments do not properly apply to these phenomena, and they remain uneasy outliers within official historical narratives.

 Le paranormal introduit une relation entre un état psychique et un fait (la télépathie et la voyance, qui concernent le rapport entre deux pensées, se réfèrent en fin de compte à un fait, celui vécu par le tiers). Or, les sciences physiques ne disposent d’aucune définition de la pensée qui leur permette de la faire intervenir dans les faits .*

– Philippe Wallon, research fellow at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM)

This is a very compelling observation for a number of contemporary issues. Similar analytic criteria can be applied to the effectiveness of psychiatric drugs, as much as it can to practices of those active in deliverance ministries. Both of these areas present the physical manifestation of materialist and spiritualist belief systems, and both are aimed at reintegration of the individual identity within a conventional narrative.

We are either correcting the balance of assumed chemical or psycho-spiritual mechanisms within the individual that causes disparity. By examining the ways in which language and storytelling justifies a given treatment, and in turn the actual effectiveness as proven by experiential data, we are able to see that the complexity of life is not a reductionist proposition.

Here the ‘relation entre un etat psychique et un fait,’ or the relation between identity and fact, becomes a decisive element. One of the things that Lecounteux is able to demonstrate is that anomalous events such as poltergeists sit on the cusp of boundaries, whether it’s moving in to a new home which stirs up the Genus Loci, the place spirits, or finding oneself at the seasonal thresholds where barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead are less distinct. They are heralds of a change in state, moments of malleable identity,  and at times witnesses become participatory in accommodating these phenomena, or mirroring them, in order to expedite the processes invoked.

This participation is an important aspect of what skeptics delineate as fraud in these situations. In contemporary accounts of poltergeist activity it is often found that the phenomenon is aided, or skeptics would say directly caused by, those that are experiencing it. In R. Scott Rogo’s classic study of the phenomenon, On the Track of the Poltergeist, the first encounter that he relates eventually leads to the conclusion that at a certain point the daughter of the family experiencing the poltergeist activity is involved in deception.

In light of the participatory elements that Lecouteux uncovers in his analysis, however, this becomes something more than just trickery. The human actor takes on the role of the spirit in order to participate in the meaning that is trying to be communicated.  Anomalous phenomenon becomes intimately entwined with ritual participation.

“This kind of scholarship allows us to catch a glimpse of the power behind the ghost stories that keeps them forever fascinating, and forever relevant to our understanding of the haunted world we live in.”

If we understand poltergeist activity to be a sign that some boundary has been broken, be it a familial relationship, moving to a different house, or a disruption of the family unit through divorce, abuse or some other violation, then it really doesn’t matter how the ‘noisy spirit’ manifests, it is already existent in the violation and its signs can come through human agency or anomalous phenomena.

Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf,

I rede ye look weel to yourself;

Gin ye ca’ me fairy,

I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;

Gin guid neibour ye ca’ me,

Then guid neibour I will be;

But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht,

I’ll be your freend baith day and nicht.

Chamber’s Popular rhymes of Scotland

This participatory action is further revealed in Phantom armies of the Night,  were Lecouteux presents a case history of accounts dealing with discarnate troops of spirits, which appear in folklore under various guises, but whose activity, like that of the poltergeist, remain similar in each case.

We are familiar with this ritual participation through holidays such as Halloween and the act of dressing up in costume, even if in the Western world this practice has become a destitute of its original power. Lecouteux demonstrates through more potent examples, such as the Krampus tradition of the Alps, where the costumes consist of animal hides, and terrifying demonic masks, how these rituals connect to remembrance of ancestral dead, actions to maintain social balance and pre-Christian ritual which gain some of the liminal power of these events through embodying the narratives which surround anomalous phenomenon and allowing direct participation in these mysteries.

Cando eramos vivos,

Andabamos pol-os caminos;

E agora que somos mortos

Andabamos por entre os hortos

Tocando nas campanillas

E commendo pimentos …*

— Song of a troop of revenants in Manzaneda, Trives (Orense, Galicia) cited in Phantom Armies of the Night

Lecounteux’s examination of these troops of the dead shows how there is a very complex interplay between natural phenomenon (seasonal boundaries, certain celestial alignments, anomalous lights or sounds), conceptions of the afterlife, and ritual participation as they become entwined in these folk beliefs.

In Galicia the concept of the Santa Compaña, or Holy Company, relates how penitential spirits mete out their purgatory as nocturnal wanderers. In turn we find in Spain and Andalusia the powerful image of penitential believers dressed in capirotes, pointed hoods and capes that cover them completely,  making their pilgrimage during holy week.

Having never seen these penitents in person, and having not grown up with the stories of the Santa Compana, an outside observer would be hard pressed to find any difference in their immediate descriptive elements. An artist rendering either the spectral procession or the physical pilgrims would end up with the same image.

By exploring the interstices of these beliefs and practices we find a much deeper understanding than the strict orthodox interpretation of these rituals.  Moving further into the twilight we discover that some of these beliefs and practices take root in ancient beliefs now seen only in vague recollections.

The scholar Carlos Ginsburg in his work The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the 16th and 17th Centuries, recounts the persecution during the Inquisition in Italy of the Benedanti, or Good Walkers, who were said to travel in spirit form during certain times of the year to do battle with malefic spirits in order to insure a good harvest, maintaining a proper balance within the world. One of the signs that marked the Benedanti was to be born with a caul.

We are at present dealing with apparitions of the living only (including persons at the moment of death) ; and we have good reasons for thinking this a prudent limit to draw, inasmuch as this evidence for apparitions of the living is in several ways stronger than the evidence for post-mortem apparitions. But we must remember that this limit is an arbitrary one, fixed by ourselves; and that while we are treating death as the limiting point of apparitions, it may be merely the point of maximum frequency of apparitions …

– Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Nov. 1884

In such ritual observances the act of dying takes on initiatory resonance, and again we see the entwined conception of the supernatural as a relationship between identity and fact. Another cultic manifestation of these beliefs, the Societá do Oso, or Society of the Bone, as Lecounteux explains, was an initiatory society whose ritual practice involves taking on the persona of the dead during nocturnal marches.

Carrying candles, or bones, they are said to visit those who are soon to die. While the stories surrounding them associate this with a physical death, the complexity of these relationships leaves us to wonder if there is not something more meaningful here in relationship to an initiatory death, and resurrection, as found in something like the Masonic rituals in which a candidate is ‘raised’ from their former life into a new life wholly dedicated to serving the global society.

Contemporary Christianity has offered us a very poor conception of what is meant when we talk about a person’s soul. Psychologizing this belief has given it the assumed meaning of mental identity, but as Lecouteux’s work on folklore surrounding ghosts discovers this is not analogous to any of the ancient beliefs found examining the textual evidence. He identifies three types of spirit troops, in German they are called the Nachtscher (Night Troop), which are similar in purpose and function to the Benedanti, the Rechte Fhart (Just Voyage), which represent the spirits of the dead moving on to the realm of the dead, and the Hexen-fahrt (Witches’ Voyage), which are the maelific spirits. Both the Nachtscher and the Hexen-fahrt can include members from either the living or the dead.

The living participants in these ceremonies accompany the troop through what would be considered today out of body or ecstatic experiences. Lecounteux follows the work of other scholars, such as the Goetic scholar Jake Stratton Kent and witchcraft scholar Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold, who have discovered that underlying much of the magical lore existent from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, we find traces of ecstatic cultic rituals in which dream incubation (lucid dreaming), altered states of consciousness and sacred ordeal closely interact with anomalous experience.

Because of the official white washing of these practices we are left piecing together folktales, songs and stories to get an idea of the actual importance and reality of these beliefs.  Lecounteux, as historical detective, provides us with a survey of the official narratives that have arisen to explain away these practices by hiding them behind an approved veil. This kind of scholarship allows us to catch a glimpse of the power behind the ghost stories that keeps them forever fascinating, and forever relevant to our understanding of the haunted world we live in.

Perhaps what strikes your disbelief when you hear a ghost story is not the revenant dead themselves, or those that walk in their place, but the false note sounded by orthodox fairy tales overlaying the true meaning of these events.

The human actor takes on the role of the spirit in order to participate in the meaning that is trying to be communicated.  Anomalous phenomenon becomes intimately entwined with ritual participation.

What is a ghost?

I’m no longer sure that the arguments of skeptics or believers hold much weight when the issue is brought forward in terms of phenomenal relationships. Rather than an expectation for encountering some discarnate entity in ectoplasmic glory, Lecounteux’s work reveals how our understanding of these phenomena relates directly to our relationship with the world around us.

In these ghost stories the importance is on memory and identity, and using phenomenal markers to aid in remembering the places memory and identity intersect in our living experience. Like the Archimedes palmiset, there is much to uncover beneath the layers of orthodox explanation. We can hold whatever opinion we like on the reality of ghosts, but one day we might just find ourselves carried away by the hunt and all opinion on the matter will be mute when the dogs are barking at our heels.


Phillipe Wallon — The paranormal introduces a relationship between a mental state (identity) and a fact (telepathy and clairvoyance,  which concern the relationship between two thoughts, refer ultimately to a fact, that experienced by the third). However, the physical sciences have no definition of thinking that will fit these facts.”

Song — When we were living/we traveled along the paths;/today when we are dead/we walk between the gardens/striking our bells/and eating peppers.

Note: Special thanks to Inner Traditions for providing copies of the recent translations of Claude Lecouteux’s work for research and review.

* * *

Claude Lecouteux is a former professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne. He is the author of numerous books on medieval and pagan afterlife beliefs, including The Return of the Dead, The Secret History of Vampires, and Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies. He lives in Paris.

For Further Reading:

  • “Chasses fantastiques et cohorts de la nuit au moyen age” (1999, Paris: Éditions Imago) Phantom armies of the Night. The Wild Hunt and Ghostly Processions of the Undead : Inner Traditions. Rochester (Vermont), Toronto, Canada , 2011.
  • “La maison hantee: Histoires des Poltergeists (2007, Paris: Editions Imago) The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses, From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations: Inner Traditions. Rochester (Vermont), Toronto, Canada, 2012.

Also by Claude Lecouteux:

  • Fantomes et Revenants au Moyan Age (1996, Paris: Éditions Imago) The Return of the Dead, Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Vaile of the Pagan Mind. Inner Traditions. Rochester (Vermont), Toronto, Canada, 2009.
  • Fees, Sorcieres et Loups-garous (1992, Paris: Éditions Imago) Witches, Werewolves and Fairies, Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages: Inner Traditions. Rochester (Vermont), Toronto, Canada, 2003.

Additional Resources:

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About David Metcalfe

In addition to writing De Umbris Idearum, David Metcalfe is the Books Editor for THE REVEALER, the online journal for NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He's also an independent researcher, cultural historian, and artist. He regularly contributes articles and reviews to Modern, Evolutionary Landscapes, Reality Sandwich, and Alarm Magazine.

Posted on July 16, 2012, in De Umbris Idearum and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. It sounds to me like the views expressed in this book really want to ask is: how much do we really know about these paranormal entities and in truth how much can we know to completely discredit them as a whole to being just fictitious elements of the human mind? Just because it goes against the grain of the “scientific” mind or doesn’t fit into the common percetion of acceptable or normal, does it really give anyone the right to say that there truly is no possibilty of there not being a solution saying that these happenings are real, despite the fact there arcaic as some of the old beliefs may be? there is alot of evidence that points in the direction of some of these events bearing truth to them, but there are always he nay-sayers, people who make things up for attention, and of course the ones who actually aren’t in their right mind.

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