Black dogs are a common tradition attached to many locations, most often appearing black and shaggy, of enormous size, with eyes like saucers that glow in the dark, but sometimes invisible, with their presence only detected from the blast of their hot breath and padding footsteps.
By the time these traditions were recorded, some confusion between originally distinct sorts of manifestations may have set in, for in some tales, Black Shuck (or Shock) seems more like a shape-changing bogey. Now and then he takes the form of a calf, and on one occasion appeared with “a donkey’s head and a smooth velvet hide.” Black Dogs commonly haunted lanes, footpaths, bridges, crossroads and gateways - all points of transition, from ancient times held to be weak spots in the fabric dividing the mortal world from the supernatural. Shuck often appears as a phantom, and Black Dogs are generally thought to be connected with the pack of spectral hounds that accompany the Wild Hunt. Perhaps they were originally psychopomps - escorts of the dead on their journey to the underworld. Certainly they sometimes act as “fetches,” appearing as portents of death and disaster.
This would explain a certain ambivalence in attitude towards Black Dogs, which in some places are disposed to be friendly, acting as guardians and guides to lonely travelers. While in Suffolk Shuck is usually harmless if let alone, in Norfolk none can set eyes on him and live, again a characteristic of the Wild hunt. It is in this demonic character that he first appears in print, in an old tract by Abraham Fleming (d.1607), entitled “A Strange and Terrible Wunder Wrought very late in the Parish Church of Bongay” which details that on Sunday, August 4th 1577, between nine and ten in the morning when most people were at church, there broke over Bungay “a great tempest the like whereof hath been seldome seene” with cracks of thunder that made the church “quake and stagger.” Hard upon this there appeared what to the congregation a great black dog (“an horrible shaped thing”). “This black dog… running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people.. passed between two persons, as they wee kneeling uppon their knees, and wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clean backward.” Passing another man in the congregation, the dog gave him a frightful burn, “that therewith he was presently drawn together and shrunk up, as it were a peece of lether scorched in hot fire; or as the mouth of a purse or bag, drawen togither with string.” This man survived, as did the church clerk, who was outside cleaning the gutter when a violent clap of thunder knocked him off his perch. In proof that the dog was not a hallucination, says Fleming, “there are remaining in the stones of the church, and likewise in the church door which are marvelously rented and torn, ye marks as it were of his claws or talans.”
The Black Dog visited the nearby town of Blythburgh on the same day, appearing upon an overhead beam in the church, then leaping down and killing two men and a boy, and burning someone’s hand. Both here and at Bungay his activities sound suspiciously like the effects of ball lightning, which is told entered a church during a tempest in about 1649, “killing many.” And indeed if we look in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577) we find the events of Bungay narrated without mention of the Dog. Fleming’s timing is slightly different than Holinshed’s, as is his list of casualties, while the way he describes the man shrunk up “like a peece of lether” as believed to be “yet alive” suggests that he had a local informant. To this informant we could owe the Black Dog: in other words, Fleming might be telling us what the people of Bungay thought of the event which to Holinshed and the outside world was simply a “strange and terrible tempest.”
But, it has to be said, Bungay’s apparition is not unique. A pamphlet entitled “The Wonders of this Windie Winter” had already appeared in 1613, telling of a Sunday in a Kent church during a tempest, when people were at evening prayer, there “broke into the Church a most ugly shape or the air like unto a broadened bull.” This apparition struck the minister’s left arm, leaving it blackened and paralyzed, and in the stampede that ensued, a miller was killed. After that, the bull vanished, taking with it part of the wall. All this, it is implied, came about because people would talk in church. Even setting aside bulls and Black Dogs, was there simply a good tale making the rounds within these communities?
Whatever the truth, a standard erected in 1933 concludes with its inscription:
All down the church in midst of fire The hellish monster flew; And passing onwards to the quire He many people slew.
Written by Reverend Abraham Fleming in 1577, this small article depicts an encounter with Black Shuck at St. Mary’s Church in Bungay, England.
“A Straunge and terrible Wunder wrought very late in the parish Church of Bongay, a Town of no great distance from the citie of Norwich, namely the fourth of this August in ye yeere of our Lord 1577. in a great tempest of violent raine, lightning, and thunder, the wherof hath been seldome seene. With the appeerance of an horrible shaped thing, sensibly perceiued of the people then and there assembled. Drawen into a plain method according to the written copye by Abraham Fleming.”