Peter Marshall. Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 336 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-927371-3.
Reviewed by Sammie McGlasson (Department of History, University of California, Riverside)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2008)
Telling Ghost Stories
Peter Marshall's Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story is a marvelously fun work of historical detection. Professor Marshall explains how the story of two seventeenth-century figures--Susan Leakey, the ghost, and John Atherton, the bishop--have been told and retold to fit a variety of uses. Marshall demonstrates how "the original protagonists became over time symbols or signifiers of changing attitudes" (p. 271). Marshall traces references to both people from the contemporary accounts of their lives and deaths across three centuries right to the present day.
The history concerns the apparition of Mother Susan Leakey to her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, and the events and consequences of this appearance. Shortly after the ghost appears, John Atherton, the bishop of Waterford and Lismore, Ireland, is hanged for the crime of sodomy. In the course of his investigation of the apparition, Marshall discovers that the bishop's story is entwined to a greater or lesser degree with the ghost and her family from that point on. The story moves, according to the political implications to which it is put, back and forth between Ireland and England, and it changes according to the needs of the tellers of the tale. Part of Marshall's efforts are in demonstrating how stories are changed, edited, and revised over time according to the agendas of the tellers.
This history has been made remarkably readable and enticing not just for scholars who would be particularly interested in the braiding of the micro-history of the Leakey family with the macro-world of government and religious politics, but also for the lay reader. For example, to help the reader unused to the myriad of names and dates in historical investigations, Marshall lists the cast of characters at the beginning of the book, much like a play. Marshall helps his readers keep track of the vast array of characters by consistently referring the reader back to the page on which a given character was first introduced. This unobtrusive consideration for the general reader who has no desire to develop a scorecard encourages a wider audience than Marshall's peers.
Not that there should be any complaints from those peers. Marshall's comprehensive bibliography shows his attention to the available secondary sources. It is, probably naturally, very heavy in the scholarship on witchcraft and the supernatural, and in consideration of the bishop's crime, the latest work on early modern homosexuality. Considering the tensions between Ireland and England through the period of his investigation, there might have been more secondary sources on the religious strains between the two countries as well as the tension between the indigenous Irish and those within the Pale. Marshall's intensive use of primary sources, both archival and printed, are used to support his narrative. He avoids clotting the tale with thickly laden references to other scholarship--these are in the notes--except where it improves the story. A useful point in the heavily annotated notes is the elaboration of early modern terms and practices as well as short discussions of the sources used.
While the book appears friendly with its clever cover (from a cartoon by George Cruickshank), snappy title, and inviting structure, the print size is forbidding. This would not deter a scholar (though those of us with bad sight might complain bitterly) but could make the larger audience to which Marshall is also appealing hesitate.
That would be a shame because Marshall excels in his transparent methodology and graceful storytelling. Effortlessly, Marshall guides us through the scholar's thought processes, the critical interrogation of sources, and the questions those sources raise, without losing the reader in the mechanics of scholarship. Through setting documents against their context and, perhaps more importantly, their history thereafter, Marshall demonstrates the kind of questions that evolve during consideration of documents over time. His discussion of the context of the print history of Atherton's story is a lesson in the effects of history on the reception and the revision of documents. These effects are also shown by the evolution of Mother Leakey, herself, from Goodwife to Hag with implications of witchcraft, as society changed over time and as Atherton's story was revised to fit the motives of its tellers.
While I thoroughly enjoyed Mother Leakey and the Bishop as a good read and solid history, as an educator I was struck by how useful this book would be for teaching. As the principal text of an upper-division methodology course, the deconstruction of each chapter would lead history students through a variety of approaches to history. The students would have exposure to the interrogation of primary sources, of secondary analyses of those sources, and the effects of culture, religion, politics, geography, and technology on the original and subsequent reception of those sources. And not just the sources can be speculated upon. As an example of the ripple effect history has for the researcher, Marshall shows us even the contemporary collectors of those sources should be a consideration of the historian (p. 245).
One area that might have been further developed was the general political/religious history in the background of Atherton's story. Marshall assumes the reader is fairly well acquainted with the plantation developments in Ireland, the sources of the conflicts between Laud and the Calvinists, the Civil War, the Restoration, the Glorious Revolution, and other major events, as well as their causes and results. While Marshall is obviously concerned with not cluttering his narrative with historical factoids, he makes it clear that the changing political landscape had an effect on the tale he is telling. Further explication of the impact of these events would make developments in his detective work more comprehensible to the casual reader.
With the reemergence of narrative in historical research, Peter Marshall's Mother Leakey and the Bishop is an excellent template for how to tell a history without falling into the trap of teleology. He does this by supporting each move forward in time with a reexamination of his original story against the new context. In the process, he has written a work appealing to the scholar, the student, and the everyday lover of history.
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Sammie McGlasson. Review of Marshall, Peter, Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story.
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