Sunday, 14 April 2019

Devil's doors: evidence, traditions and superstitions


A new book came out a few months ago that deals with Norfolk folklore - 'This Hollow Land: Aspects of Norfolk Folklore' by a pleasant chap called Peter Tolhurst. It's a fine book, and has already won an award, and everyone with an interest in the subject should immediately go out and buy a copy. Preferably from a local independent bookshop. Except sadly you can't. It has already sold out. See, I told you it was good. There are many reasons that I rate this book, not least that it has medieval graffiti on the front cover, and I even get the odd mention or two, which is always nice. It rather makes you feel that all those hours spent in freezing cold churches haven't been totally in vain. Probably.



However, when I first read the book I was a little taken aback. A little shocked even. I may even admit to being a tiny bit pissed off. You see, the first section of the book deals with the history of studying East Anglian folklore, and gives a nicely concise run through of all the major characters that have written upon the subject over the last few centuries. It charts, in effect, the development of folklore studies in the region. All the big names are there, dealt with chronologically, outlining their triumphs and achievements. Walter Rye, Enid Porter, George Ewart Evans - all the big hitters in local folklore and tradition - and then me. At the end. The last couple of paragraphs.

In truth it is barely a mention, but I will admit to being a bit taken aback. Leaving aside the fact that my name was being mentioned alongside some of the most influential of local writers, which I was slightly in awe of, it was the fact that I was being portrayed as someone who had contributed to the development of folklore. Folklore! Bloody folklore!

An overreaction I know, but the thing is that I have always considered what I do to be archaeology rather than any other more specific area of study. I have nothing against folklorists, but whatever way you look at it, there is still a certain sniffy snobbery amongst mainstream academics against those who study things like folklore. There is a suggestion that it lacks any real and tangible evidence. Even after decades of sterling work by individuals and organisations like the Folklore Society, the attitudes persist, and I suppose that is why I have always argued that all of the graffiti studies sit within the field of archaeology rather than anything else.

It is, in the end, all down to the evidence. Many academic disciplines study, in depth, a single strand of evidence. That strand of evidence is often formed of a mass of material, but it doesn't go beyond its own self limiting boundaries, and when it does it is sometimes a mere nod towards the term 'context'. The study of archaeology however, is the study of the material culture of the past. A material culture that, at least in my interpretation, takes in everything from the graffiti on the walls, to building chronologies, the written records, and the individual artefacts. I will even, at a push, talk to art historians. Archaeology is, in my eyes at least, the study of all forms of evidence - with the potential to draw all forms of conclusions. Even, upon occasion, to realise that different forms of evidence can never actually be reconciled, but with the secondary realisation that those historians that confine themselves to studying a single form of evidence may well be missing a trick or two.

This is quite a difficult concept for some people to apparently embrace. That two sets of evidence can be wholly contradictory, and yet, at the same time, correct. Some years ago I wrote about a tradition of the church that to be buried on the north side of the church was considered to be unfavourable. That the north side of the churchyard, being often in shadow, was thought of as being the less desirable place for your mortal remains to rest. The north door of the church itself, which led out into this unfavourable area, was also known as the Devil's door - for it was here that evil spirits were to be found.

Since writing that piece it has caused some controversy. Several well regarded historians have produced written counter arguments, stating that there simply isn't any evidence that this was the case, one describing the notion that people avoiding being buried on the north side of churchyards was no more than 'Victorian nonsense', and that the archaeology of churchyards 'proved' that this wasn't the case. Their arguments have been well researched, well evidenced, cogent, and broadly correct - and yet, at the same time, have largely missed the point.

My statement about the existence of a 'tradition' that considered the north side of the churchyard to be an 'unlucky' place to be buried is also wholly correct. Such a tradition existed, and existed at least as far back as the middle of the seventeenth century - at which time it was regarded as being an ancient, well known, and widely believed superstition - and this tradition has been often repeated throughout the centuries since then.

The "Exemplary Death of Mr Benjamin Rhodes, Steward to Thomas, Earl of Elgin", a pamphlet published in 1657, tells us that Rhodes himself requested he be buried on the north side of the churchyard in an attempt to 'crosse the received superstition' that burial there was unfavourable. A manuscript from the 1730s, once in the possession of the Bishop of St Asaph, clearly stated that 'None but excommunicated, or persons executed, or very poor, and friendless people are buried on the north side of the churchyard' (National Library of Wales, ms 2576).

Half a century later Gilbert White, writing in 'The Antiquities of Selborne' (1789), bemoans the fact that his parishioners avoid being buried on the north side of the churchyard, leaving the south side cluttered and overflowing. However, White noted that 'two or three families of best repute' had recently taken to being buried upon the less crowded north side, in the hope that 'their example be followed by the rest of the neighbourhood'. In 1801 Richard Colt-Hoare visited the churchyard of Gwyddelwern in Denbighshire, where he observed that 'the custom of not burying on the north side is scrupulously adhered to. On the other sides (sic) the graves are crowded'. The same year the Reverend W. Bingley also visited Wales, where he 'observed that, in most parts of North Wales, the same practice prevails which is common in England, of crowding all the bodies into that part of the church-yard which is south of the church'.

In 1899 the Reverend George Tyack, writing in his 'Lore and Legend of the English Church', claims that the tradition or superstition, call it what you will, was still at large, leaving old churchyards with 'few mounds or memorial stones on the northern side, whilst the southern one may be inconveniently crowded'. George Tyack was indeed a Victorian, but the evidence is very, very clear that the tradition existed, and was common, many centuries earlier.

Exactly why the north side of the churchyard might have gained the reputation, at least by the seventeenth century, of being the least favourable area to be buried in is open to question. However, there are certainly a few more old 'traditions' - many of which are supported by solid documentary evidence - that we might want to consider that do proffer some explanation at least.

As mentioned above, the north side of the churchyard was where those who had died un-baptised were reputedly buried - the still-born and infants who died before baptism. Strictly speaking they should not have been buried in consecrated ground at all, and should have been buried outside the churchyard, condemned as they were to eternal hell (the concept of 'limbo', a neither 'here nor there' state where un-baptised innocents went after death, is a relatively modern concept - invented by a Church that realised that eternal damnation in such cases might be 'hard to sell'). Although archaeology provides enough evidence of female burials that include that of a new born to suggest that such rules were not strictly obeyed, there are documentary references that indicate that the letter of the law was occasionally applied. Writing in the fifteenth century, John Mirk referred to a woman who had died in labour before the child was born, resulting also in the death of the child. Mirk recorded that it was ruled that the mother could be buried in the parish churchyard, but only after the dead child had been removed from her body, so that it could be buried elsewhere - outside the consecrated churchyard. In a similar vein, in 1398 a royal licence was granted to enclose part of the cemetery of Herford cathedral, with one of the supposed reasons for this being that it was to prevent the unlawful and secret burial of un-baptised children within the precinct (Daniell, C., Death and Burial in Medieval England).

However, the pragmatic parochial approach more generally appears to have been to bury them within the churchyard, and often against the northern churchyard wall or enclosure. Similarly, executed criminals and suicides, when not being buried at the local crossroads, face down and with a wooden stake through the heart or mouth, were reputedly interred just outside the northern edge of the churchyard - as close to consecrated ground as possible, without actually being able to enter it. It was only as recently as 1823 that an Act was passed allowing the burial of suicides within the churchyard itself, and then only without formal ceremony, and between the hours of 9pm and midnight. The same treatment was reserved for those formally excommunicated by the church. Like the unbaptised infants they should have been excluded from churchyard burial, but parishes often just turned a blind eye to such practices, as long as they were discrete. The burial register of Low Ham in Somerset recorded that the excommunicate Andreas Symock was buried in 'the northern corner of the churchyard, but by what person or persons I know not'. The author's claim that the burial had been carried out by 'persons unknown' was simply a way of ensuring that those who had buried Symock in consecrated ground would avoid the punishments that the church regulations stipulated they should receive for carrying out such an act.

Therefore, the association between the north side of the cemetery and burials of the condemned and damned may well have led to a reluctance for 'good Christians' to be buried there. This association with evil, misfortune and the dark may well also be the origins of the tradition behind the north door of the church being known as the Devil's door. The tradition is certainly widespread, but it's origins are unclear, despite it having been around for several centuries.


Edric Holmes, writing in 1920, repeated the tradition with reference to churches in Sussex, and certainly believed it to have been an ancient association - as did George Tyack, who repeated it in 1899. Nearly seventy years earlier, in 1832, the church of Carlton-in-Lindrick in Nottinghamshire demolished the whole north wall of the north aisle, in the process destroying the small doorway located near the western end, that was known locally as the 'Devil door'. The whole tradition has been recently examined by Dr Nick Groves, who has written a concise paper upon the use of the north door in the formal functions and activities of the medieval church ( https://www.academia.edu/12109373/Devils_Doors_Revisited ) where he concludes that the tradition is 'a piece of unintelligent post reformation antiquarianism'. Dr Groves also concludes that the tradition most probably had its origins in the fact that the northern side of the church was associated with the devil, and that these northern doors became so tainted by association.

So we have an unquestionable documentary tradition, stretching back over three and a half centuries, that states that being buried on the north side of the churchyard was considered unlucky. There really isn't any denying it. It's there in black and white. However, the counter argument, that what archaeology is available indicates that there is no such bias in the evidence, is also true. There isn't any denying that either. Viewed in isolation the two standpoints, the two strands of evidence, are completely incompatible. Which is why good historians and archaeologists rarely use only one form of evidence. In the same vein we have a tradition of the north door of a church being known as the Devil's door stretching back at least two centuries. It is, I personally believe, and as Dr Groves argues, a post reformation invention. However, it is also a long held tradition, and to try and trace its origins, if at all possible, may well give insights into just how such beliefs come to be established.


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