Category Archives: Medieval Monsters

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a  working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.

With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…

Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.

I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland… Continue reading

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Medieval Chroniclers and the Demonization of Fairies

joseph_noel_paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_-a_midsummer_nights_dream-_-_google_art_projectI’ve already written about fairies in the witch trials on this blog. While it would be inaccurate to say that witches represented a survival of some pre-Christian Pagan religion, the idea of Pagan DNA lurking in the genetic makeup of Medieval and Early Modern Christian practises certainly bothered educated writers. In Buchard of Worms’ Decretum, written sometime around 1066, took time to attack perceived ‘Pagan’ practises such as dream travel, playing music around the dead, and dancing in cemeteries. Whether it was a deliberate campaign — not unlike the general campaign of imitation, assimilation and stigmatisation used through the rest of the spread of Christianity through Europe — or the result of writers attempting to use the Latin language to express native concepts, by the 16th and 17th centuries the idea had become entrenched.

We can see by the late 16th century, by which time the English witch trials were in full swing, and nowhere near the hiatus that would occur in the first Caroline era, that the ecclesiastical elite were very much of the opinion that witches whose work involved mention of the fairies were certainly minions of Satan. In 1579, in a book of medicinal recipes, William Bullein took time to attack a Catholic healer in Parham who used an ebony rosary and prayers to St. Anthony to cure illnesses caused by fairies and sprites.

In his 1590 Treatise Against Witchcraft Henry Holland, a graduate of Cambridge who was the Vicar of St. Brides while Christopher Marlowe was writing his Faustus, mentioned fairy witches in his list of terms for malevolent women, “the witches are sometimes called Thessalae, Thessalian Witches, Sagae, Wise Women, Magae, Persian Witches, Lamiae, Ladies of Fayrie, Stirges, Hegge…”

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Liber Vaccae — The Book of WTF?!?

This article exists behind a disclaimer: the magical book I’m about to write about is just weird. It’s weird, it’s disgusting, and there are a lot bodily fluids involved. Enter at your own risk.liber-vaccae Continue reading

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Why Are There Violent Rabbits In The Margins Of Medieval Manuscripts?

Rabbit 1Images like these have been very popular on the internet recently, with this listicle from The Poke giving some great examples of the genre, as well as the great Sexy Codicology website, and a lot of fantastic accounts on Twitter.

The image of cute little bunny rabbits doing horrible violence to people is strangely adorable – watching the twitchy nosed little guys beat the hell out of people who’d normally have then for dinner with Rosemary, thyme and sage – but it does beg a simple question: what the hell is going on? Continue reading

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Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Cleric

AOdo_bayeux_tapestry_detailh, the party Cleric. In my gaming experience there are two kinds of people who play the party Cleric: the pragmatic player who looks around the table, sighs, and then says “I’ll play the party Cleric”, and players who know the GM likes to fill dungeons with undead.

I’ve already touched on one of the sources of the D&D cleric class in my article on Paladins and Magic Swords. This was Turpin, the Archbishop of Rheims, who Gary Gygax’s first gaming group referenced (possibly) erroneously when they described ‘the priest Turpin who went into battle wielding a mace to avoid shedding blood.’

The ‘using blunt weapons to avoid shedding blood’ issue is one of the big non-myths of D&D: everyone Continue reading

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Spectacle, Tourism and Demonic Possession in Early Modern Europe

Saintfrancisborgia_exorcismThe historian Philip Almond describes 1550-1700 as ‘the golden age of the demoniac’. There are a lot of reasons, one of the biggest being the Reformation. Demoniacs had been important in the days of the early church, when church fathers were trying to build a new religion in an environment of borderline (and sometimes outright) hostility. On the other hand, as D P Walker tells us in his book  Unclean Spirits, by the middle ages there were no more pervasive threats to subvert. Christianity was the ruling religion of Europe, and those heretics who did exist could be hunted directly by fire and the sword.

This led to a somewhat differing attitude to demonic possession during the middle ages. Theological orthodoxy held that since demoniacs could be constrained to speak the truth, they should be allowed to do so. After all, Continue reading

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Saints Verses Demons: Casting Out the Unholy, and the Possessed as Saints

Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_191As the movie The Exorcist will show you, demons are a problem to this day. Modern clerics in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church still treat people who believe they’re possessed by demons (for the purposes of this blog I should state that I don’t care whether they really are possessed or not, I write about history not the paranormal).

However, demons could be a real problem if you were living in Medieval Europe. In fact, the idea that demons can get you killed is absolutely incontrovertible – in London of 1725 a drunk died of exposure in a well because neighbours ignored his cries for help, believing he was a demon. Not only that, but in 1597 Alice Goodridge, accused of sending a demon to possess Thomas Darling, died in prison awaiting trial for witchcraft.

Interestingly, though, those possessed by demons (demoniacs) occupy a more ambiguous status in the bible. Although John 8.44 describes The Devil as “a liar and the father of lies”, demoniacs in the Gospel were among the first witnesses to Christ, and often showed a clearer understanding of divine truth than the apostles. In fact, Christ himself was accused of being a demon, and of “casting out demons by the prince of demons.”

Literature from the medieval period showed a growing fascination with the demonic, especially verbal duels and other confrontations between clerics or saints and the possessed. Continue reading

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From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead

Malleus_1669I freely admit that I’ve never read the Malleus Maleficarum all the way through, simply because it’s the one witch hunting book that really bothers me. Heinrich Kramer (I refuse to call him ‘Institoris’) was, in my opinion, just a vile human being. He wasn’t trying to do the best he could in a bad situation, he was a genuinely insane, hateful, awful human being.

But here’s a story worth telling: apparently he was a vampire hunter.

Heinrich Kramer
I don’t have to call Kramer a madman, or impugn his abilities, because the Bishop of Innsbruck already did during his own lifetime. In 1484 Kramer was conducting the trial of an Innsbruck woman when he began departing from legal procedure to question the accused about her sexual history. In some times and at some places this wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but the Bishop of Innsbruck appears to have believed in a crazy thing called ‘the rule of law’.

The defence called for the case to be halted after such a strange and creepy deviation, and the Archduke decided to abandon the prosecution altogether. The Bishop wrote two letters to Kramer’s host in the town, first saying, “tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.” Continue reading

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Tales of the Doppelgänger

DoppelgangerPossibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival.

His story is the typically chilling tale of the supernatural: Robert was a student at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the most beautiful of the four Inns of Court. Unlike his cousin he fell into a decadent lifestyle of gambling, drinking and whoring. One night while studying alone (because his hedonistic lifestyle had severely damaged his studies) he became strangely spooked as the clock struck midnight.

Feeling the typical ghostly chill, Percival saw that a hooded, robed figure had somehow entered his room. Demanding to know the intruder’s identity, Percival took up his sword and lunged at the silent figure, only to have the blade pass right through it. Terrified, he attacked the spectre, managing to uncover its face: his own face.

As it pulled back its robes, Percival saw that not only was he looking at himself, but the doppelgänger had terrible wounds on its face and chest. Frightened, he attempted to reapply himself to his studies, but lapsed.

Totally dissolute, Percival ran up huge gambling debts, so much that the shady characters he was borrowing from eventually lost their tempers and he was found dead in a gutter: bearing exactly the same wounds as the phantom. Continue reading

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Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights

Photo by flickr.com/photos/vhhammer/

So what if strange noises don’t bother you? You might be too brave or industrially deaf to care about that strange voice under your bed, whispering the pet name only known by you and your childhood sweetheart (you remember the one? You haven’t seen her since that night but she knows what you did, dammit, she knows what you did.)

That’s okay! The Pre-Industrial darkness has another horror in store for you too! Stopping up your ears and screaming to drown out the whispers of “Help me… it’s so cold down here…” won’t be enough. There aren’t just strange noises, there are also…

Strange Lights

And here’s the worst thing: in the pre-industrial darkness, unexpected lights are as bad as the darkness itself. The nighttime was seen as the time when demons were leaking out of the air itself, and when the supernatural was licensed to be at work. This was where nonhumans like the faeries were thought to be using lights to tempt humans for their own purposes, and were old European folklore mixed with the new enemies presented by the Church.

One of the most common sources of light at night were Will-O’-The-Whisps, (also known as Ignis Fatuus or ‘Fool’s Fire’,) disembodied lights that could sometimes be mistaken for lanterns and took a perverse delight in leading travellers away from the safe path, often to their doom. John Pressy, a man from Massachusetts from 1668, set off to go home at night and encountered a series of strange lights that he hit with his staff. Immediately they vanished, and Pressy was dumped into the bowels of a pit. Continue reading

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