Mindscapes: the Development of Psychogeography. Part One.

David Sivier.
Magonia 84, March 2004.

For Forteans, it is axiomatic that the exclusion of the weird and the bizarre from the modern rationalistic weltanschauung began in the seventeenth century with the rise of institutional Science. "The power, that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science", [1] as Fort himself said at the very beginning of the Book of the Damned.

Those awkward facts objects and events which couldn’t be explained by the rationalism of the academics were marginalized, ignored and forgotten. save only for connoisseurs of the weird and unexplained, like Fort. who were themselves intellectualy isolated and alienated from the governing intellectual paradigm of the times.

Unfortunately, like the stifling intellectual straitjackets Fort so loudly denounced this is itself a dogmatic statement that needs serious revision. The exclusion of what has since become known as the Fortean – freaks, prodigies, omens and other sports of nature – began two centuries before the Scientific Revolution, in the 15th rather than 17th century, and the intellectual discipline which pioneered their banishment was not science. but history. More specifically it was the changes in historiography pioneercd by avowed political writers such as Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini as the medieval chronicle gave way to the humanist monograph. [2]

In fact much of the debate about such Fortean phenomcna in the intellectual counterculture forged in the 60s has indeed been as much about history and their historical provenance, as about their scientific validity. Just as humanist historiography damned them in the fifteenth century, so they were reinstated. if only in part, with the rise of local legendary history in the academic chorographies of the 17th and the popular chapbooks of the ‘English Revolution’. While humanist historography ultimately won the academic intellectual battle, these latter were seized as models by the radicals of the 60s alternative culture for their tracts, of which the assault on establishment science was only one small part. This underground, modern antiquarian approach to history has in its turn spawned contemporary psychogeography, the exploration of the mystical aspects of place.

Although academic historians would no doubt strongly deny any connection with such an apparently spurious discipline, psychogeography does have an academic counterpart as historians, cognitive archaeologists and researchers of Cultural Studies explore the physical, changing topographies of landscapes. towns and other spaces in an attempt to delineate the mentalité these spaces express and generate in their citizens. Regardless of their intellectual respectability – or lack of it – both historiographies share a fundamental awareness of theintellectual and spiritual connection between a place and its inhabitants, and an approach to the exploration of both which is effectively summarised by that great countercultural hero and beardie weirdie Alan Moore: ‘When we excavate the place, we excavate ourselves – the inside is the outside – Hey, lady, that’s my skull!’ [3]

Whatever the specific area of inquiry may be, modern, post-renaissance historiography aims to be sceptical, carefully considering the value and biases of its sources, and concerned with the causes of the events it studies, whether they are the personal, psychological motives of the protagonists, or long term political, societal, economic or environmental forces. This scepticism particularly extends to the supernatural and mythical.

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s spurious account of the origins of the British from the Trojan Brutus recounted in his History of the Kings of Britain, was disproved first by the Scots historian John Major in 1521, and again by the Italian Polydore Vergil in his History of Great Britain of 1534

It began in the sixteenth century with Erasmus and the Bollandists, who, when writing the lives of saints, such as St. Jerome, broke with medieval hagiography by excluding the pious legends, which had gradually built up around their subjects’ over the centuries, concentrating instead on contemporary descriptions and records offering far more reliable accounts of their careers. This historiographical disenchantment also affected national mythology. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s spurious account of the origins of the British from the Trojan Brutus recounted in his History of the Kings of Britain, was disproved first by the Scots historian John Major in 1521, and again by the Italian Polydore Vergil in his History of Great Britain of 1534.

At the heart of this scepticism is the notion that the progress of history is accessible to the human intellect. It was an approach partly pioneered by Machiavelli and Guicciardini in the 15th century, who were determined to find the human, political reasons for the military turmoil experienced in Italy, torn between conflicting states and subject to foreign invasions, such as those of the French. Although humanist historiography contained much that is alien to modern historiography – viewing their genre as a branch of rhetoric, humanist writers saw nothing inappropriate in inventing noble speeches to put in the mouths of their heroes – this scepticism and rationalism has been their greatest legacy to modem historiography, and indeed has become its defining trait.

Medieval writers could produce histories very similar in form and content to the humanist model of the monograph. For example, the Flandria Generosa, although originally composed as a genealogy of Count Baldwin I of Flanders, in particular anticipated its form as its compilers attempted to comprehend the political complexities, which emerged with the usurpation of Robert le Frison in 1070 and the murder of Charles the Good in 1127. [4]

In general, however, the medieval approach to history was very different. The predominant form of historical writing was the chronicle, in which events for each year were noted with varying degrees of detail and interest in the causation and motives of the participants. By and large the chroniclers had little interest in the ultimate motives of their subjects, and where they do attempt to probe their psychology, their descriptions are often curt and stereotyped.

This disinterest arose in large part from the monastic compilers’ essentially religious interpretation of history. The world, including human affairs, was ruled and driven by God, whose will was inscrutable and beyond human comprehension. There was thus no point in looking too far for the causes of historical events. At the same time this attitude also permitted the inclusion of Fortean material, such as prodigies, anomalous weather, monsters and spectral apparitions as it was through such obviously supernatural occurrences that God’s will could be directly discerned. Although the exclusion of such Forteana was greatly facilitated by the rise of cxperimental, rationalist science in the 17th century, the ultimate origins of their banishment to the intellectual margins belongs to the ‘Historical Revolution’, as it has been called by the historians Dr Kelley and D.H. Sacks, of the later 16th century. [5]

Coupled with this new rationalist historiography was an explicit class prejudice, which also aided the relegation of Fortean phenomena to the social margins in line with the perceived social status of the market for such literature. Renaissance ‘politick’ historians viewed themselves as writing primarily for the education, and edification, of princes. Machiavelli, for example, dedicated The Prince to Lorenzo De Medici. The Elizabethan writer Thomas Blundeville succinctly expressed the ‘politick’ historian’s line when he stated ‘Histories be made of deeds done by a public weal or against a public weal, and such deeds be either deeds of war, of peace, or else sedition and conspiracy’ in his The True Order and Methode of Wryting and Reading Hystories of 1574. [6]
Anything that departed from such lofty matters was ruthlessly excluded. These damned subjects, according to John Trussell, another Tudor historiographer, included celebrations like coronations and pageants, as well as novelties, prodigies and justice done on petty offenders, a list which effectively excludes most of the subject matter of today’s tabloid newspapers. Naturally, these subjects still remained immensely popular, particularly amongst the lower orders.

Although overtaken by the historical monograph as the premier vehicle of historical inquiry, the chronicle still survived and retained considerable popularity. Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicle, although first published in 1577, enjoyed a second edition ten years later, and the genre continued into the reign of James I/VI with Sir Richard Baker’s Chronicles of the Kings of England. Part of this popularity derived from the chronicles’ perceived suitability as a vehicle for such damned subjects, even though this made it dangerously suspicious in the eyes of the Tudor ruling elite. Edmund Bolton declared that their writers were ‘of the dregs of the common people’, [7] and considered that they had a corrupting influence on them.

How many of these depraved mechanics actually read Holinshed is actually quite moot due to books’ high cost even a century after the introduction of printing to England. The Chronicle, for example, cost twice the annual wages of the average Elizabethan labourer. Eventually the gap between such official and unofficial history was to widen still further so that such subjects were banished completely from history to form their own separate literature of marvels, such as A World of Wonders, and thence to haunt the literary margins of broadside ballads and chapbooks.

Such street literature was immensely popular. Although it’s possible to read too much into its existence, with some historians perhaps discerning nascent class conflicts and antagonisms in them which really only emerged later in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of the authorities’ fears about their subversive nature was by no means unjustified. Most chapbook authors were anonymous, but the identities of a few have come down to us. While not quite ‘the dregs of the common people’, these men certainly did not occupy an elevated position in society.

The Elizabethan chapbook author Thomas Deloney (1543-1600), for example, was a weaver, John Taylor (1580-1653), the most prolific of such writers, was a Thames waterman and a tavern keeper in Oxford and London, while going further down the social scale his contemporary Martin Parker (d. 1656) was an alehouse keeper. Unlike the more respectable taverns, alehouses were particularly regarded with suspicion by the early modern middle class. They were situated in private houses, quite often as a means of supporting themselves by people newly arrived in a city or unable to find more respectable work, serving home-brewed ale and quite often acting as brothels. With his background in such a notoriously immoral profession, it is not surprising that the respectable sections of Jacobean and Stuart society viewed Parker’s literary creations, and those of others like him, with distaste and suspicion.

Not unsurprisingly, such unofficial literature, aimed securely at the working classes, enjoyed considerable popularity during periods of social and political unrest, such as the English Civil War. The 17th century collector George Thomason amassed 22 pamphlets in 1640. By 1660 this had grown to include 22,000 assorted pamphlets, newspapers and newssheets. [8] Although such literature has been extensively studied by historians attempting to trace the theological and political doctrines expounded in them, it is often overlooked that purely theological tracts were very much in the minority. The majority of chapbooks during the period of the English Civil War were very much concerned with relating the latest wonder or prodigy to appear to the beleaguered nation. This did not, however, mean that their authors were not concerned with making a particular political or sectarian point.

The pamphlet A Miracle of Miracles Wrought by the Blood of King Charles the First recounted the miraculous cure of the 14-15 year old daughter of one Mrs. Baillie from a skin disease after being wiped by a handkerchief that had been dipped in the king’s blood after his execution. Needless to say, not a few of these tracts were distinctly radical in tone, qualities that made them immensely attractive to the nascent hippy New Left when it appeared in the 60′s. To the intellectuals of the dawning counterculture, reacting against capitalism and the stifling rationalism, which supported it, such radical pamphlets represented an autonomous, folk literature offering vital models and ideologies for the alternative society they wished to found.

Even nearly forty years after the counterculture has morphed into the less confrontational, far more capitalism-friendly ‘alternative culture’, vestiges of this fascination with 17th century radicalism still remain in the alternative press. Aporia Press, for example, publish a range of 17th century radical tracts by the visionaries Abiezer Coppe, John Robins and the Diggers, amongst others, as well as Fortean material in the Anomalous Phenomena of the Interregnum, all edited by Andrew Hopton, as well as more contemporary radical and anarchist material. As well as absorbing these authors’ attitude to the numinous and occult, the ideologues of the new counterculture also took over, to a greater or lesser extent, their attitude to history. This is effectively illustrated by the emergence of contemporary psychogeography from the ley-hunting milieu in the early 90′s.

Sixties ley hunting was essentially the hybrid child of Chinese geomancy and Alfred Watkin’s ‘Old Straight Track(s)’. From being merely the neglected remains of Neolithic tracks and pathways – damned by establishment archaeology, but not invested with any special numinous power – leys became indigenous British dragonlines – mysterious channels of supernatural Earth energies, enfolding the landscape in a web of occult architecture and power.

Instrumental in the development of such ideas was the archaeologist and paranormal investigator T.C. Lethbridge, [right] whose dowsing experiments led him into increasingly bizarre occult speculation on the nature of witchcraft, and the origins of ghosts and genius loci in emotionally charged images and events becoming telepathically imprinted on the fabric of the landscape itself. Bruce Cathie’s notion of the global energy web as a power system for UFOs is essentially an application of this idea to the UFO mythos. Much the same can be said of the idea, espoused inter alia by Arthur Shuttlewood, that the quartz contained in the constituent rocks of the ancient henge monuments allow them to operate like the crystals in early cat’s whisker radios, regulating the earth energies generated along such leys. [9] This, however, is an attempt to put a rationalist, scientific gloss on what is essentially an occult doctrine.

Although such ideas have now been effectively discredited, they have still left their mark, particularly in popular literature. The idea of the henge monuments, barrows and other Neolithic sacred sites as a primitive power grid for lost, antediluvian civilisations has been taken up in the 2000 AD comic strip, Slaine, whose Celtic hero draws on it to provide him with supernatural strength and ferocity during terrifying ‘warp-spasm’ battle rages. The effects of these are not unlike the physical contortions experienced by the Irish hero Cu Chulainn. Elsewhere in the strip such energies are used to propel merchant vessels through the sky, and power ‘leyser’ ray guns. Throughout, the strip is strongly informed by a pagan spirituality centred firmly on Danu, the Earth Mother.

Less obviously neopagan, but no less informed by the numinous power of place, are the works of Alan Garner. As a recent review of his latest book in the pages of the Financial Times review supplement noted, Garner was strongly influenced by the Aboriginal Australian idea ofthe songlines – tracts of landscape forged and shaped by the superhuman ancestors of the Dreamtime, and still invested with their awesome power, accessible to their descendants as they travel across their ancestral ranges through myth and ritual. Garner’s landscapes are similarly invested with occult force, occupied and haunted as they are by powerful and predatory supernatural entities such as The Morrigan in the Moon of Gomrath, while time itself is fluid and permeable. His youthful, and sometimes more mature heroes can be transported back into the past during timeslips, while mythic figures from the Celtic dreamtime may intrude into the present. Some of this is a fantastication of Garner’s own experiences, growing up in the Peak district, in an area of awesome natural beauty populated, in his own words. by ‘people of living Chaucerian speech’.

Outside of the province of children’s literature, it’s possible to discern the continuing legacy of such mystic attitudes to place in the current vogue for Chinese geomancy proper, now robbed of its cultural context and domesticated, in line with the rest of the New Age marketing phenomenon, as a tweely mystical indoor decorating fad.

Ley hunting itself, however, practically collapsed in the late 1980s under rationalist criticisms of the spuriousness of its methods and concepts. The ancient alignments of which leys were allegedly composed were often widely separated in time and purpose, while some of the supposed geographical features sculpted by the ancients were nothing of the sort, but modern railway embankments, roads and drainage ditches. The result was the discrediting of this countercultural discipline as a whole, and some of the more notorious of its products in particular, such as the infamous Glastonbury Zodiac. It should be recognised, however, that despite these criticisms the discipline still retains its intellectual validity for some, and the Society of Leyhunters continues to meet and publish its researches.

Furthermore, some enthusiasts carried on to apply the same techniques of searching the landscape for patterns connecting disparate features to the urban environment, in which the bulk of the western European population now live. The result was psychogeography. The term first seems to have emerged c.1992 or thereabouts in the name of the London Psychogeographical Association, whose pamphlet claimed that various architectural features of the metropolis had been consciously planned by the Freemasons and other covert occult groups to form patterns channelling ley energy into Canary Wharf, thus aiding the secret power elite in their quest for world domination. This particular document appears to have been intended largely as a prank.
A few years previously, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett in their book Good Omens rather mischievously suggested that the course of the M25, or London Orbital Motorway, was deliberately planned as a giant Satanic sigil, energised each day by the angry passage of thousands of irate motorists who thus unconsciously performed an occult ritual designed to raise the level of misery and rage in contemporary Britain.

The outré claims about the Masonic architecture of Canary Wharf seems to be influenced by Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s joke, though a number of people signally failed to get it. There thus followed a series of articles in some of the wilder reaches of the weird press examining various global capitals for signs of Masonic and occult symbolism in their layout. One issue of Matthew Williams’ Truthseekers’ Review carried an interview with a Czech researcher who traced Masonic patterns and designs in the layout of Prague, while similar symbolism has been found in that of Washington DC. In the case of the latter, the designs are almost certainly there, as much of the city’s layout was indeed planned according to Masonic principles.

Unfortunately for those versions of the theory, which see such evidence of Masonic influence, as the marks of an oppressive, Fascistic conspiratorial elite, one of the city’s planners, Benjamin Banneker, was Black. To him Freemasonry, rather than being an oppressive, elitist force, probably represented the beginning of a new, more democratic order of universal brotherhood and freedom, regardless of colour or ethnic origin.

Going further into the realm of art, psychogeography has inspired groups of people to go out and explore the mystic, visionary aspects of the urban landscape. Moore’s `Beat Seance’, referred to above, is a case in point. At least in its CD form, it’s an hour long exploration of the weirder aspects of Highbury and its denizens, including Coleridge’s drug-induced hallucinatory peregrinations, Aleister Crowley’s residence, Joe Meek’s suicide and the 1923 football team’s brief experimentation with amphetamines, then legal, to assist their game, inter alia, all linked by their location in Highbury and grouped thematically according to the occult elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

As a piece of performance art, an exploration of the bizarre local history of one of London’s suburbs by a master of contemporary high strangeness, it works very well, according to your taste. To his credit, Moore doesn’t take psychogeography’s academic pretensions too seriously, wittily describing himself and his fellow performers as: ‘Rosicrucian heating engineers … cowboy operatives … read(ing) the street plan’s accidental creases and the orbit maps left by coffee cups.’ Moore intended it as art, and a mystical evocation of the spirit of a distinct place. It is not, however, intended as a work of serious history.

Other artists influenced by the mindset and techniques of psychogeography in their work are Ian Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. Sinclair has stated in interviews that he believes “there are always these structures of domination and power and spirits, which can be articulated for ill within the grids, patterns and geometry of the city.” He did, however, reject the idea that there “was a sub-masonic cult that meet(s) in hidden rooms”, considering instead that “just the sheer fact of people endlessly having walked between this building and that building creates a band of consciousness which remains an active thing you can tap into.” [10]

His acute concern with the mystical impact of the landscape informs works such as his Lud Heat, while his 1997 Lights Out for the Territory, has been described as ‘a non-fiction diary of nine walks charting London’s mythology, secret history and counterculture.’ [11] Similarly, Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor was based on the conceit that the 17th-18th century architect, fictionalised as Nicholas Dyer, was a secret member of a Satanic coven, surreptitiously incorporating his occult designs into the fabric of the churches he was commissioned to build. As with the landscape features around Canary Wharf, these lined up into a distinct, conscious pattern: a pentangle. Ackroyd uses the fictional Hawksmoor’s life, and that of a twentieth century detective of the same name, investigating a series of bizarre and motiveless murders, to explore the depths of human evil.

Not all of Ackroyd’s work has shared this pessimism, however. One critic of Ackroyd’s oeuvre remarked that as well as occult horror, he had “also revived the myth of Albion as a spiritual Possibility wherein all the horrors and indignities of history are somehow healed in a timeless paradise that draws in the dark and the light and transforms it into Blakean chorale of love and reconciliation.” [12] Given these psychogeographical inclinations, however, it is no accident that Sinclair subtitled his most recent book, a travelogue about the M25, a chorography.

This was the study of local history with particular reference to its surviving physical remains. Although the classic English chorographical works appeared in the 16th and 17th centuries, with William Camden’s Britannia of 1586 as one of the foremost examples of the genre, like the other forms of historical writing it, too had its origin in renaissance Italy. It first emerged in the Roman world with Ptolemy, before being revived in 1453 by Flavio Biondo with the publication of his Italy Illustrated. This dcscribed the classical remains and antiquities surviving in the Italian peninsula, itemised according to its fourteen ancient regions. It was enormously popular, and once publishcd, national pride dictated that other scholars outside Italy would produce similar works to demonstrate the antiquity of their lands. Thus, Conrad Celtis, the poeta laureatus of the German emperor Maximilian I, produced his Germany Illustrated in the later fifteenth century, followed in England by Camden’s volume, amongst others. These were intended to show that Britain, too, could boast impressive Roman remains like her continental rivals.

Continue to Part Two


  1. X, ed., Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned, John Brown Publishing, 1995, p. 1.
  2. For a more comprehensive discussion of the development of Renaissance historiography and its break with medieval attitudes to history, see Burke, P., The Renaissance Sense of the Past, London, Edward Arnold, 1969.
  3. Moore, A., The Highbury Working: A Beat Seance, RE:, REPCD03, 1997.
  4. Discussed more fully in Dunbabin, J., ‘Discovering a Past for the French Aristocracy’ in Magdalino, P., (ed), The Perception of the Past in Twelfth Century Europe, London, Hambledon Press, 1992.
  5. ‘Introduction’, Kelley, D.R., and Sacks, D.H., The Historical Imagination in Early Modern Britain: History, Rhetoric and Fiction, 1500-1800, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  6. Quoted in Helgerson, R., ‘Murder in Faversham: Holinshed’s Impertinent History’, in Kelley, and Sacks, op. cit., p. 147.
  7. Ibid, p. 147.
  8. Friedman, J., Miracles and the Pulp Press during the English Revolution- The Battle of the Frogs and Fairford’s Flies, UCL, London,1993.
  9. See Shuttlewood, A., The Flying Saucerers, Sphere, London, 1976, pp. 27-32.
  10. Hedgecock, ‘The lain Sinclair Interview’, The Edge, no. 6, December 1997-January 1998, P. 19.
  11. Ibid, p.14
  12. Newman, P., ‘The Art of Shadows’, 3rd Stone, no. 44, Autumn 2002, p. 33.