One of my favourite things about the medieval supernatural is the general strangeness: not silly strangeness – like bananas with fangs – but proper, John Carpenter’s The Thing, level strangeness. The strange and supernatural have a dream (or nightmare) logic that you never quite get if you just sit down and try to create something horrible with your conscious creative powers.
With that in mind, here are some of my favourite strange and disturbing creatures.
The Thing That Heralded The Great Fire of London
There were supposed to have been a lot of strange occurrences around the Great Fire of London: there was a pyramid of fire seen above London from St. James’ to Whitehall, it rained fish in Kent, and a group of apocalyptic anti-monarchists called (paradoxically) the Fifth Monarchists even predicted a fiery apocalypse on September 2nd, when the Great Fire started at 2am on that very day.
None of them were as strange as what the Spanish Ambassador to London said had been born up on Cornhill, only a few months before the Great Fire itself:
“A deformed monster… horrible in shape and colour. Part of him was fiery red and part of him yellow, on his chest was a human face. He had the legs of a bull, the feet of a man, the tail of a wolf, the breasts of a goat, the shoulders of a camel, a long body and in place of a head a kind of tumour with the ears of a horse. Such monstrous prodigies are permitted by God to appear to mankind as harbingers of calamities.”
Shapeshifting Medieval Spooks
As I’ve blogged before, the medieval dead are much more interesting and deadly than the ghosts of Victorian horror stories.
The ghost in the 1963 film The Haunting will hammer at your door, play tricks on you, and possibly drive you mad, but a revenant from Medieval England will kick its way in, drag you out of bed and beat you to death with its bare hands.
One of the other things the medieval revenant does is change shape prodigiously. M R James, my favourite writer of ghost stories, was no stranger to physically aggressive ghosts. The spook in ‘A Warning To The Curious’ isn’t trying to drive anyone mad. It finds the archaeologist who dug up its crown, stalks him, and gives him the kind of lethal violencing you’d reserve for someone who mugged your grandmother.
One of the other things that medieval revenants are good at is shape-changing disturbingly, which was something else that M R James knew all about. He was a Professor of Medieval Literature, and actually translated a collection of 14th century ghost stories now known as the Bylands Manuscript.
The ghosts here appear in a number of strange shapes: one appears as, “a horse standing on its hind legs, holding its front legs high up in front of itself…” which changes shape so that, “…it appeared in the shape of a rolling bale of hay, with a light glowing at its centre.”
The same revenant later turns itself into a goat, while another tells a human witness about a spirit that appears in, “the shape of a bullock without a mouth, eyes, or ears, and no matter how often he is sworn to confession, he is not able to speak.”
A Vampire that Robert Pattinson Couldn’t Play
The strangest supernatural/folkloric creature that I’ve heard about recently is flagged as a Vampire in Claude Lecouteux’s book, The Secret History of Vampires.
The story comes Schmitz, Germany, in 1565:
“A woman… gave birth to a diabolical being that had no head or feet. On its chest, near the left shoulder it bore a mouth, and near its right shoulder, an ear. It had suction cups instead of fingers, like a frog of toad; its entire body was the colour of liver and shook like lard or jelly. When the midwife set this being into a tub seat or basin to wash it, it emitted the most horrible cries… On the orders of His Lordship, Vratslaus, the aborted child was exhumed, placed on a cart, and given to the executioner to burn outside the village. Despite the enormous quantity of wood burned, it proved impossible to annihilate this diabolical mass; even the clothes in which it had been swaddled remained damp despite the heat of the raging flames, until the executioner cut it into tiny pieces and destroyed them in fire with the greatest difficulty.