In many Gothic novels from the late 18th century, the seemingly supernatural events portrayed actually turn out to have rational explanations. The ‘explained supernatural’ became a means whereby the ghostly could be evoked to create atmosphere and suspense, but then explained away so as not to offend the Protestant audiences who associated the supernatural with Catholicism. Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk (1796), however, turned this expectation on its head. In The Monk the genuinely supernatural is everywhere.
The most famous of these supernatural episodes concerns ‘The Bleeding Nun of the Castle of Lindenberg’ – the ghost of a woman who, in life, had displayed lustful and murderous tendencies. The Bleeding Nun epitomises the sin of erotic desire, and her appearance serves throughout as a warning against the perils of surrendering to passion. The ghost also plays a key role in the plot of the novel. When the virtuous heroine Agnes attempts to elope with her admirer Raymond, her plan involves disguising herself as the Bleeding Nun. Unfortunately, the real Bleeding Nun appears and chaos and confusion ensue. In a cruelly ironic twist, Agnes, having impersonated the spirit of a dead nun in an attempt to find happiness and freedom, subsequently finds herself confined to a living death in the crypt of a monastery.
The episode of the Bleeding Nun was extremely popular, and various cheap editions (known as ‘chapbooks’ or ‘gothic blue books’ ) lifted the story from The Monk and presented it as a separate, stand-alone tale. The edition shown here dates from 1823 and contains hand-coloured illustrations depicting key moments from the story.