Everybody can readily name a handful of superstitions, but few of us can really define the word, and if we try we realise how subjective the notion is – one person’s firm belief is easily branded by another as superstition if they want to belittle it.
But we can agree that superstitions are beliefs which are irrational, in the sense of not being provable by logical or scientific investigation and they include ideas of luck and fate as real forces, and that the future can be caused, manipulated or foretold by seemingly unconnected occurrences in the present, such as walking under a ladder, meeting a magpie, or saying or doing a certain thing.
While there are still some very superstitious people around today, there is no doubt that in general we are infinitely less superstitious than our predecessors, and we have a very small repertoire of beliefs compared to how things were a hundred years ago, and we don’t normally let them rule our behaviour.
While folklore is mostly about activities, the study of superstition allows us to investigate the thought processes and mental concerns of our ancestors, and the ways in which these affected their lives.
It is unlikely that Sussex ever had any unique superstitions, found nowhere else, or that local people were any more or less superstitious than others, but we are fortunate to have one of the best collections from mid-Victorian times: ‘Some West Sussex Superstitions lingering in 1868’ by Charlotte Latham, which documents in fascinating detail nearly 200 beliefs still current at that time.