Halloween! I always get the fun holidays. And as usual, when I dig around looking for a morsel of history, I turn up fascinating facts. Did you know that Oliver Cromwell’s hatred of witches was a serious factor in the particularly virulent outbreak of plague in England in 1665-6?
I was simply poking around, looking for any All Hallow’s Eve practices in the Regency era, when I stumbled across the fascinating bit about cats. It seems the superstitious believed cats were “familiars,” evil spirit guides for witches. Cromwell and his compadres had a decided Inquisition mentality and decided to eradicate witches…and cats. Honestly, I think the cats must have just looked smarter than Cromwell’s fanatics, which made the hunters paranoid–spooky cats will take over the world! Or suck your brains out.
I do not even want to consider what kind of sport they made of all those poor London alley cats, but the ghosts of those cats got their revenge. Without cats, the rats escaping the ships in England’s ports spread like wildfire. And we all know that fleas from rats caused the plague. So thousands of people died from superstition.
And kept on dying because once doctors figured out fleas caused the disease, they then condemned all cats and dogs to death because they carried fleas. Science and superstition, hand-in-hand, not a pretty sight.
Regency era Halloween was such a hodgepodge of customs, history, and muddled church and pagan rituals that most Anglicans simply celebrated Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th. Even then, the habit of begging for pennies or food—previously for prayers for the dead—became begging for pennies for
fireworks. The Scots still had their good Celtic celebrations, but Jane Austen wouldn’t have been familiar with the pagan celebration of a night when spirits slipped through the thinning veil between the old year and the new one. It’s possible English girls had heard the superstition about eating an apple in front of a mirror in hopes of seeing their beloved, but those kind of tricks, and treats like flummery (usually a molded porridge) and barmbrack (a type of Irish raisin bread), wouldn’t be recognized as a holiday celebration in Jane’s home.
But Jane would have read the same kind of horror novels as we read today. The Mysteries of Udolpho play an important part in Northanger Abbey, so Jane was obviously aware of gothic horror stories. Frankenstein was published in 1816, so there was some chance she read that. “The Headless Horseman” came out in 1820
and too late for Jane, but certainly fair game to the characters in our favorite era.
I know as a genre, we play fast and loose with the actual dates of the prince’s regency. My new release in the Regency Nobles series, Irish Duchess, is set in 1821,(Book View Café, November 6) but the characters romp through earlier books and years, so I count them as Regency related.
Since we don’t have kids around our house, we’ve been slacking off on the Halloween traditions. What will you be doing this year?