Spirited Communication

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Pierre-Alexandre Wille (1748-1821) Portrait Of A Woman Reading A Letter
Oil on canvas 1776 46.4 x 57.1 cm ( 18,3 x 22,4 inch ), Private art collection https://www.fineartlib.info/gallery/p17_sectionid/10/p17_imageid/3662

Mr Backhouse is ‘in great spirits’ about the price of Cotton,[1] while Mrs Earle’s spirits are ‘much improved’[2]. John Eliot needs to rest his ‘distressed spirits’[3], but easiness with his family keeps Samuel Wesley’s ‘spirits from sinking’.[4] Meanwhile Anna Maria Allwood has spotted ‘the Spirit’ battling with ‘the Old Man of Sin[5] and Joseph Munby has ordered a ‘two ounce phial of volatile foetid spirit’ from the Chemist to pass to his friend.[6]  Spirits, it transpires, can be high or low, and they can be possessed by someone.  They can be the vital force that animates the body, yet they can also be absent.  One can be ‘in spirits’, suggesting a temporary state, or one can be ‘spirited’ which implies more permanence.  Despite being in the very early stages of our project, it has become clear that ‘spirit’ was a frequently used term in eighteenth-century letters, yet the potential meaning of the word is ambiguous and decidedly slippery.  A glance at the historian’s friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, reveals twenty-six different definitions for the noun ‘spirit’ and that is before you move on to phrases and related terms.

An important part of our project is the development of a database allowing us to capture embodied experiences in the past.  The database is searchable by keyword, but we are also categorising the content of letters to allow us to explore them using quantitative analysis methods later in the project.  In this context, ‘spirits’ have led to lengthy discussions in project team meetings.  How should they be categorised?  Are they a physical condition?  Something that can be measured and (if necessary) treated? Or are they more immaterial?  Something that can be felt but not seen?  After lengthy discussions we concluded that ‘spirits’ can be both material and immaterial and our database therefore contains two different ‘spirit’ categories.

Least problematic (from the perspective of our database, at least) are references to ‘the spirit’.  Such references almost always refer to a divine being, as when Elizabeth Rayner of Yorkshire wrote to Ralph Thoresby asking that God ‘grant unto me the assistance of his holy spirit in making a diligent search into my own heart’.[7]  Samuel Wesley praised the ‘Spirit of Christianity’ in his parishioners as they visited him on his deathbed.[8]  Rebekah Bateman praises the pleasure of ‘a spiritual mind so made by ye Spirit of God’ in a letter to her husband in 1786.[9]  The presence of a divine or holy spirit was clearly something that could be felt but not always seen – an immaterial presence that could be transmitted to others through good deeds and thoughts.

Spirits could have a physical presence, though.  In humoral bodies, the digestive process was understood to use heat to turn food into ‘vital spirits’ that could be transported to the heart and the brain to animate the body.  The cerebellum refined some of these ‘vital spirits’ into smaller ‘animal spirits’ which then were passed through to the feeling and moving parts of the body to create life and sentience.  Without spirit then, the body was just a shell.  The discovery of the circulatory system in the sixteenth century refined these ideas. Veins and arteries, it was suggested, circulated not only blood but also pneuma (the air or spirit without which there could be no life).[10] Pneuma was the seat of the sensitive functions – motion, perception and sensation.  Under these schemas for understanding the body, spirits were physical objects.  They could be located in areas of the body, they could be present, or not present.  They could therefore be treated, often through rest and recovery, or a change of air, or (if you were lucky) some sea bathing.

In the eighteenth century, Enlightenment enquiry made the inner workings of the body more visible than they had ever been, as the anatomists obtained more and more bodies upon which to practice dissection.[11]  The spirits, however, were conspicuous by their absence.  In the newly open and visible body, where were these animating life forces, that turned lumps of flesh into sentient humans? In the absence of any physical evidence of their existence, spirits could be seen as incorporeal, almost distinct from the physical body despite being firmly anchored to the individual.

Yet spirits (both material and immaterial) were heavily influenced by environment and social interaction.  So good news about the cotton trade enabled Mr Backhouse to be in great spirits.  ‘Little Boy Teddy’ could cry upon returning home to his mother, Frances Jerningham, but could soon be ‘now again in good spirits’.[12]  This engagement with environment and context makes spirits particularly interesting.  That spirits were affected by a connection with their surroundings draws us to engage with affect theory, or notions of ‘mood’.  Affect, it is suggested, ‘arises in the in-betweeness’ of bodies and the environment that they are in.[13]  It is the intensities of feeling as a body moves through the world – about where an individual is in relation to an event, and the encounters with both people and things through which that event is experienced.[14]  Spirits, then, are a powerful vehicle for understanding the body in the world, and embodied experiences.


[1] Liverpool Record Office, 920 TAR 4.16 (1792)

[2] York City Archives, MFP 2.92 (1806).

[3] Bodleian Library, MS Ballard 43 5-6 (1735).

[4] John Rylands Library, DDWF1/9 a (1727).

[5] Bateman OSB MSS 32 Box.1 Fol.2 (1) (undated).

[6] York City Archives, MFP 2.84 (1804).

[7] Brotherton Library, Leeds, YAS/MS6/4 (1675).

[8] John Rylands Library, DDFW 1/12 (1734)

[9] Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, OSB MSS 32 Box.1 Fol.6 (1) (1786).

[10] Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (New York: Harper Collins, 2007) p.183.

[11] Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection, and the Destitute (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[12] Cadbury Library, JER/10 (1784).

[13] Melissa Grigg and Gregory J Seigworth (eds), The Affect Theory Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[14] Brian Massumi, The Politics of Affect (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015), p.ix; Andreas Reckwitz, ‘Affective Spaces: a praxeological outlook’, Rethinking History 16 (2012) 241-258, p.250.

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