There’s Something spooky in the collections


It’s nearly Halloween and this year we have chosen to mark the occasion by reading a series of Spooky Stories on our social media channels. Did you know that Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk all have many legends and folktales that tell of witches, ghosts, and mysterious creatures? The first story will be available on Monday 25th October. Join us to find out more, if you dare!

THe black dog of Bungay

Our first story is taken from a collection of the folktales of Suffolk, part of a series entitled County Folk-lore, the contents of which were collected and published in 1893. The story tells of a huge, black dog that appeared at two churches during a violent thunderstorm and caused death, destruction and terror. The legend of the black dog is not limited to Suffolk, appearances were described in other parts of East Anglia, where the dog is sometimes given the name Black Shug, or Black Shuck. The dog is said to have appeared to travellers on deserted roads, as well as in the churches in this story. In every appearance it is described as being huge, “as big as a calf” and having large, luminous eyes, and causing injury, death or destruction, or sometimes all three. The Folk-Lore (now Folklore) Society was founded in 1878 and is dedicated to the study of cultural traditions, including music, story, dance, drama, arts and crafts and customs and beliefs. The title page, below, refers to the folklore as having been ‘collected’ which would have involved the editor and researchers visiting the area they were researching and speaking to local people, then recording the tales and songs they heard, either by writing them down, or, later on, by using recording equipment to preserve the conversations. The work of the Folklore Society continues today, and you can find out more about them on their website.

title page of book entitled County folk-lore, printed extracts number 2, Suffolk
Suffolk, a volume of the series County Folk-lore

The flying serpent

The second story in our series is taken from a pamphlet published in 1885. The pamphlet is a facsimile (exact reproduction) of a work from 1669, entitled The flying serpent, or, strange news out of Essex […] and records the appearance and nature of the snake in question, as well as describing other dangerous serpents and one in particular, a cockatrice, which was, according to the author, killed near Saffron Walden.

Cover of facsimile pamphlet with original and new publication details of 1669 and 1885

Snakes are not unknown in East Anglia, Mersey Island has the highest concentration of adders in Britain, and adders and grass snakes have been seen on Campus at the University. None, however, has the size or apparent ferocity of this serpent, although, from the illustration, it looks rather friendly and the story only tells of one attack on a rider, after which the serpent hid in woodland.

The cockatrice, or basilisk, on the other hand, was a fearsomely destructive beast, capable of killing a person who touched it “though with a long pole,” and, the narrator tells us, was responsible for the near depopulation of Saffron Walden, until the intervention of a brave knight. This tale is preceded by descriptions of various snakes from around the world, as recorded by authors such as Pliny, with accounts of their size, terrible appearance and deadly nature.

Tall tales of strange events and wonders were very popular at the time the Flying Serpent was first published. The narrator begins by making reference to people craving news and to hear new things, so this strange tale, whether true or not, would have found a ready audience. The publication of the facsimile edition shows that there was still an appetite for the uncanny in the 19th century and, in the 21st century, the original pamphlet helped to inspire Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent.

The curse of the crooked cross

Our final story is about a monk from St. Botolphs’ Priory in Colchester, who makes the mistake of insulting a witch. The story is taken from a pamphlet published by the Essex County Standard and written by Alfred P. Wire, a teacher, scientist and microscopist, who describes how he pieced the two stories in the pamphlet together from notes made by his father.

Cover of a pamphlet with a picture of a monk with a cross on the top of his head, surrounded by other monks, one of whom is holding barber's tools
Cover illustration of Two Legends of Colchester

The cover illustration shows the victim of the witch’s curse, the crooked cross of the title clearly visible on his head. A further illustration shows the witch herself, who was called Dame Alice, in the act of cursing the monk for his rudeness and disrespect after a dispute at her fish stall.

Dame Alice curses Brother Francis after a dispute over her fish

The two legends in this pamphlet are further examples of “collected” folk stories. In this case they were collected by the father of the author, who made notes, and those notes were then rewritten by the author.

Folktales and legends in special collections

All three of the publications used in our Spooky Stories come from the collection of the Essex Society for Archaeology and History (ESAH). The Society was founded in 1852 and their library was deposited with the University Library in 2000. The library, named as the ESAH Collection, contains more than  15,000 volumes on archaeology, antiquities, ancient and modern history, with particular emphasis on local history, and related subjects. The collection continues to be enlarged with regular additions by the Society. The Society’s collection of rare books has also been transferred to the Library. This contains approximately 600 volumes, including some tracts published during and relating to the English Civil War (1642-1651).

The Harsnett Collection, the library of Samuel Harsnett, (Archbishop of York 1629-1631) includes works on witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum (or Hammer of Witches) and books on demonology. Harsnett himself published a work that expressed scepticism of the existence of demons and described exorcism and other rituals as “Popish Impostures” (frauds by the Catholic Church) which, sadly, is not part of the collection. This work is believed to have inspired the names of the invisible demons that Edgar, son of Gloucester, names in his disguise as poor Tom the beggar in King Lear.

For information about our collections, see the Special Collections website. Details of the printed books from all of our collections can be found using the library search from the library homepage.


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