ANTIQUARIANS AND SKEPTICS
investigators of the paranormal one or two centuries ago as sceptical
as skeptics today and as rational in refuting dubious beliefs and
claims? Were the common people back then as superstitious and
naïve as 21st-century people in topics in religion, the
supernatural and the paranormal?
Magazine will help us find out in coming editions by reprinting a few
investigative-type articles originally published one or two centuries
of the writers introduced below were known as "antiquarians". Funk and
Wagnalls Dictionary defines antiquarian as "Pertaining to antiques or
antiquities." Several centuries ago the phrase "popular antiquities" or
just "antiquities" meant what "folklore" means now and was replaced
with "folklore" during the 19th century. In practice antiquarians
studied the folklore, customs, oral traditions and superstitions of
their era and adopted a sceptical attitude to many of them.
book that most nearly covers the topics that modern skeptics
investigate seems to be The Origins of Popular Superstitions and
Customs (Knowlson 1910) from which Investigator years ago reprinted a
The origin of Knowlson's book can be traced back to Antiquities of the Common People
(1725) by Henry Bourne which subsequent writers revised, commented on
and enlarged for the next two centuries. These writers were not like
skeptics today whose foundation for deciding between fact and false
belief is the discoveries of science, but could be regarded as
(Investigator 195, 2020 November)
HENRY BOURNE (1694 – 1733)
Bourne (1694–1733) was a tailor's son who became an English historian.
His scholastic ability got him directed into Royal Free Grammar School
(instead of into an apprenticeship) where he won a scholarship to
most acclaimed work was Antiquitates Vulgares; Or, The ANTIQUITIES Of
The Common People (1725) in which he describes customs, traditions,
omens and superstitions widely accepted by England's "Common People".
"The Preface" of the book says in part:
would not be thought a reviver of old Rites and Ceremonies to the
Burdening of the People, nor an Abolisher of innocent customs, which
are their Pleasures and Recreations : I aim at nothing, but a
Regulation of those which are in Being amongst them, which they
themselves are far from thinking burdensome, and abolishing such only
as are sinful and wicked…
they hold, are really sinful, notwithstanding in outward Appearance
they seem very harmless, being a Scandal to Religion, and an
encouraging of Wickedness. And therefore to aim at abolishing these,
will I hope be no crime, tho' they be the Diversions of the People.
to the opinions they hold, they are almost all Superstitious, being
generally either the produce of Heathenism; or the Inventions of
indolent Monks, who having nothing else to do, were the Forgers of many
silly and wicked Opinions, to keep the World in Awe and Ignorance…
JOHN BRAND (1744 – 1806)
Brand (1744–1806) was an English antiquarian, Church of England
clergyman, and Secretary to the Society of Antiquaries of London from
1784 until his death.
expanded Bourne's Antiquities of the Common People by supplementing
every chapter with his own observations and assessments.
book is titled OBSERVATIONS On Popular Antiquities: Including the whole
of Mr. BOURNE's Antiquitates Vulgares, With ADDENDA to every Chapter of
that Work... (1777). This is generally abbreviated when people talk about
the book to Popular Antiquities. Brand's work has been called the
"foundation of folklore studies of England."
Further revision was undertaken by Sir Henry Ellis:
SIR HENRY ELLIS (1777-1869)
Henry Ellis (1777–1869) of London was an antiquarian, an assistant in
the Bodleian Library, a librarian at the British Museum, a Fellow of
the Royal Society, knighted in 1833, and director of the Society of
Antiquaries 1853 to 1857.
writing academically on historical topics, Ellis edited John Brand's
version of Popular Antiquities and expanded it to two volumes of 1270
pages published in 1813 titled Observations On The Popular Antiquities
Of Great Britain.
Revised editions of Ellis' work followed in the 1840s and 1870s — the 1877 edition was in three volumes with about 1600 pages.
three volumes were revised further and converted to an alphabetical
dictionary by English lawyer, author and editor William Carew Hazlitt
in Faiths and Folklore; A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions
and Popular Customs (1905).
T.S. KNOWLSON ( 1867-1947)
Thomas Sharper Knowlson (1867-1947) authored The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs (1910).
was a prolific author concerned with training people to think
rationally and to base their conclusions on facts, as is seen by titles
• The Art of Thinking (1900)
The PREFACE of Knowlson's book on Popular Superstitions and Customs acknowledges the influence of John Brand:
• The Art of Success (1902)
• Originality; A Popular Study of the Creative Mind (1902)
• Logic for the Million (1905?)
• The Education of the Will, A Popular Study (1909)
• Business Psychology : A System of Mental Training For Commercial Life (1912)
• Think for Yourself : Letters on the Formation of a Personal Creed (1934)
following pages are based on Brand’s Popular Antiquities the edition
published in 1841, supplemented by the results of later investigation.
My aim has been to deal only with those superstitions and customs which
are operative at the present time; and, so far as is possible, to trace
these to their original sources. In some cases the task is fairly easy,
in others very difficult; whilst in a few instances the “prime origin,”
to use the words of Brand, is absolutely unattainable. Still, in these
days of pageantry, when the British people show some signs of
periodically reviewing the picturesque life of by-gone times, it will
be a source of satisfaction if in this book I succeed in tracing,
though it be for a century or two, the thoughts and habits which were
born in a remote past.
course many other books on paranormal topics were published in
Knowlson's time and prior to it, although nowhere near as many as now.
of the writers were selectively sceptical. They were skeptical
regarding some (or most) paranormal and supernatural claims but naive
regarding others. Their main basis for defending or criticizing was
sometimes not science but what best supported their religion.
example Herbert Mayo (1796-1852), senior surgeon of Middlesex Hospital
and Professor Of Anatomy And Physiology in King’s College, wrote
Popular Superstitions and The Truths Contained Therein (1852).
260 pages with fourteen "Letters" or chapters Mayo examines divining
rods, vampirism, ghosts, trances, delusions, demonic possession,
witchcraft, mesmerism, hypnotism, etc. He interprets some paranormal
claims in terms of operations of the mind and nervous system, but
accepted other dubious notions as fact such as the, "established … fact
that one mind can enter into direct though one-sided communion with
At great length Mayo defends divining rods; and regarding vampires he writes:
is no romancer's dream… Do I believe it? To be sure I do. The facts are
matters of history : the people died like rotted sheep.
To a skeptic he says:
skepticism will abate pretty considerably when you see him stealthily
entering your room, yet are powerless under the fascination of his
fixed and leaden eye—when you are conscious, as you lie motionless with
terror, of his nearer and nearer approach—when you feel his face, fresh
with the smell of the grave, bent over your throat, while his keen
teeth make a fine incision in your jugular, preparatory to his
commencing his plain but nutritive repast.
However, regarding Joan-of-Arc's visions of saints in heaven who conversed with her, Mayo is sceptical, and writes:
visions—they were palpably the productions of her own fancy, the
figures of saints and angels, which she had seen in missals, projected
before her mental sight; and their cause the instinctive workings,
unknown to herself, of her young high-couraged and enthusiastic heart,
shaping its suggestions into holy prophesyings—the leading facts of
which her resolute will realized, while their actual discrepancies with
subsequent events she pardonably forgot.
Mayo's entire book is available for free via the Internet.
writer James Thacher (1754-1864) authored An Essay On Demonology,
Ghosts, Apparitions And Popular Superstitions (1831).
was scientifically trained, being a physician, surgeon and Fellow of
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His book gives rational
explanations of unusual phenomena.
Albany Poyntz authored A World of Wonders With Anecdotes And Opinions Concerning Popular Superstitions (1845).
Poyntz" is believed to be a pseudonym used by English novelist
Catherine Gore (1798-1861). However, although Wikipedia lists 68 books
authored by Gore the list omits A World of Wonders…
of the author's real name the book's 52 chapters consistently
demonstrate an investigative and sceptical attitude while covering a
wide range of claims in the paranormal and supernatural including
Alchemy; Apparitions; Astrology; Comets; Divining Rods; Dreams; Fables;
Fortune Tellers; Ghosts; Giants and Dwarfs; Longevity of Animals; Lunar
Influence; Minor Superstitions; Monstrous Births; Nostradamus; Popular
Errors; Quack cures; Sorcerers and Magicians; Talismans; Vampires;
Werewolves; and much more.
author also covers mysterious natural occurrences concluding of, for
example, meteorites: "The fact of showers of stones being established,
all that remains to be proved is their origin." (p. 71) Other sorts of
"showers" get dismissed:
Livy, Solinus, and Julius Obsequius have recorded showers of blood,
milk, wool, money and pieces of flesh! Those authors make frequent
mention of such occurrences; dupes, no doubt, to the traditions of the
ancients." (p. 72)
Osborne Eaves of Harrogate, England, is an example of a non-skeptical
writer. He authored Modern Vampirism: Its Dangers and How to Avoid Them
the title we can infer that Eaves was a believer. In fact he seems to
believe in almost everything paranormal — Clairvoyance, Telepathy, the
indestructibility of mind, astral plane, voodoo, auras, etc. His
evidence for vampires is mainly anecdotes and hearsay; it's a weird
concludes our brief survey tracing skeptics back to antiquarians.
Many of today's debates were already going strong centuries ago but at lower
intellectual, scientific and factual levels. The evidence and reasoning
of believers has failed more often than that of doubters and
scientists, and many beliefs and superstitions once strongly held and
popular are now forgotten or in retreat.