Secrets of the Hellfire Club: The Medmenham Monks Revealed

Carpentier, Dashwood, West Wycombe Park

This blog examines the history of identity and status by analyzing the secret society known as the Hellfire Club of West Wycombe or the Medmenham Monks.

Since its existence first became public knowledge in the 1760s, politicians, critics, and historians alike have represented the so-called Monks of Medmenham Abbey in a variety of ways.  The 4th Earl of Sandwich, Francis Dashwood, and John Wilkes, all early members of the group, publicized their libertine behaviours — drunkenness and hyper-masculine sexuality in particular.  They suggested that the grounds of West Wycombe manor, the parish church, and even the local chalk mines had been locations of the monks’ debauchery.  Within a generation, locals were regaling tourists with stories of haunted churchyards and caves, leading unsuspecting tourists on muddy romps to see the ghosts of the Franciscan Friars.  One hundred years later, the stories of the friars’ haunts had become infused with stories of black magic and satanic orgies.  When the National Trust took over the West Wycombe estate and the associated grounds in the 1930s, the stories about the area had become such a part of the local history that it became central to drawing tourists to West Wycombe.  By the 1950s, the oral histories of the Monks prompted the National Trust to introduce a Disney-esque array of wax figures into the re-opened chalk mines, promoting stories about eighteenth-century ritualized sex, ghostly tales, and black magic in the accompanying literature.  The West Wycombe lore found a ready audience, and the popularized version of black masses, poltergeists, and sex rituals found repetition in late twentieth-century history writing, X-Men comics, and even a Japanese cartoon series.  This blog is, in part, an attempt to separate the factual from the mythological stories surrounding the eighteenth-century Monks of Medmenham Abbey.  More importantly, however, it shows why the telling and retelling of the stories about the monks — in particular stories about their libertinism — have remained important to the construction of multiple social identities into the twenty-first century.

Link to the blog here: http://hellfiresecrets.wordpress.com/

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