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  • Myth, Reality and Revelation:The Performance of Divine Power on Dartmoor
  • David C. Harvey (bio) and Joanne Parker* (bio)

This article explores the nexus between the folk heritage of an unusual archaeological site, an early modern account of 'ball lightning', and the literary construction of an affective atmosphere. It examines how a violent storm in October 1638 provided a symbolic reservoir for narrative accounts of both the performance of God's power and the Devil's trickery, thereby providing lessons for civil conduct alongside explanations of some unusual archaeological features. Tracing a biographical life history of how the storm has been remembered at different periods since the event, we chart how various narratives of landscape can unfold over several centuries.

I. The Great Storm of 1638: Heritage Process and the Affective Register of Emotional Experience

Upon Sunday the 21. of October last, In the parish Church of Wydecombe neere the Dartmoores in Devonshire, there fell in time of Divine Service a strange darknesse, increasing more and more, so that the people there assembled could not see to reade in any booke, and suddenly in a fearefull and lamentable manner, a mighty thundering was heard, the ratling whereof did answer much like unto the sound and report of many great Cannons, and terrible strange lightening therewith, greatly amazing those that heard and saw it, the darknesse increasing yet more, till they could not see one another; the extraordinarie lightening came into the Church so flaming, that the whole Church was presently filled with fire and smoke, the smell whereof was very loathsome, much like unto the sent of brimstone, some said they saw at first a great fiery ball come in at the window and passe thorough the Church, which so affrighted the whole Congregation that the most part of them fell downe into their seates, and some upon their knees, some on their faces, and some one upon another, with a great cry of burning and scalding, they [End Page 91] all giving up themselves for dead, supposing the last Judgement day was come, and that they had beene in the very flames of Hell.1

Sunday 21 October 1638 was a stormy day, with heavy rain and strong winds. Many people sheltered from the storm in the church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor. All of a sudden, the ceiling of the nave collapsed and crashed down, as a pinnacle from one of the towers toppled and smashed through the ancient roof of the church (figure 1). The falling debris killed four people (with two further deaths over the following days), including Sir Richard Reynold's warrener from the rabbit farm close to Warren House Inn. This is all recorded in the church records, and is one of the earliest archival records of what is thought to have been ball lightning.2

Environmental and meteorological historians in the twenty-first century might well mark this as an early description of ball lightning but the contemporary accounts seem to be more intent on the reactions of those present; that they were 'fearefull', amazed and filled with lament. From reading the contemporary accounts, one can understand the congregation's astonishment:

[T]he lightening seized upon [Minister Lyde's] poore Wife, fired her ruffe and linnen next to her body, and her cloathes; to the burning of many parts of her body in a very pitifull manner. […] Beside, another woman adventuring to run out of the Church, had her cloathes set on fire, and was not only strangely burnt and scorched, but had her flesh torne about her back almost to the very bones. Another woeman had her flesh so torne and her body so grievously burnt, that she died the same night. […]

[O]ne man more, […] who was Warriner unto Sir Richard Reynolds, his head was cloven, his skull rent into three peeces, and his braines throwne upon the ground whole, and the haire of his head, through the violence of the blow at first given him, did sticke fast unto the pillar or wall of the Church, and in the place a deepe bruise into the wall as if it were shot against with a Cannon bullet.3 [End Page 92...


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