History wasn’t always as safe as it was meant to be. Whereas now to find scary history you have to come here to The Spooky Isles, in 12th century Britain waiting to jump out and convince you that there were horrible monsters lurking behind every corner.
Respected historians like Geoffrey of Monmouthshire collected tales that claimed Britain was named after a Roman called Brutus who came here and did a WWE/BFG crossover by getting his friend Corineas to wrestle all the giants to death (except two, who stayed alive and fought for him, and who are believed to be buried somewhere under London… although this is more likely to be a confused urban myth than real folklore, the confused memories of effigies used in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.)
Other historians, like William of Newburgh were frostier and kept to the facts – ordinary things like stories of dancing corpses, and an abusive husband who comes back from the grave to crawl back into bed with his wife.
Most of the people reading The Spooky Isles will have an idea who King Arthur is. Whether you’ve read Le Morte Arthur, or experienced the gentler teaching aid of Bradley James’ torso on the BBC show Merlin, you probably know the basics. Arthur’s a hero whose wife sleeps with his best friend, and then he’s killed by kid he made getting with his sister (well… his half-sister, but you can still see why Guinevere decided to explore incest-free relationships.)
The standard post-death of Arthur is well known: he’s taken to Avalon and healed by Morgan/Morgana le Fey. As Geoffrey of Monmouthshire writes in his History of the Kings of Britain, “Then that famous Arthur was mortally wounded, who from there, the river Cam, was taken to the island of Avalon for the healing of his wounds.”
Where is Avalon?
R.S. Loomis points out that the Irish world Ablach means ‘rich in apples’ and is used to describe the island home of Manannan, the God of the Sea. It’s also worth noting that in the Welsh tradition Avallach is the name of Moargana’s father, another possible early link between faeries, Avalon and water (a traditional home of the dead in early European mythology. Godfrey of Viterbo, a German writer, recorded a prophesy form 1190 where Arthur would be preserved in the depths of the sea and reign as he had on land.)
Glastonbury has also been associated with the sleeping/dead Arthur. Henry H Payton writes that the association came from a spurious etymology of the word Glastonbury with the eerie fortress of glass mentioned in the poem Preiddeu Annwn.
Monks were even said to have found Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury in 1191, reporting that he was a giant with a skeleton covered in nicks and chips as well as the final wound that ended him. Mallory’s Le Morte Arthur even tried to reconcile the two traditions with the already existing folk traditions of Arthur’s return, saying that he would go from the Isle of Avalon to be healed, and that from there he would be buried in Glastonbury until “he shall com agayne, and he shall wynne the Holy Crosse.” An older source, the Black Book of Carmarthen, contains the line, “Concealed till Doomsday the grave of Arthur.”
But this well known tradition isn’t the end for Arthur. There are a number of folk traditions that make it very clear that the Once and Future King definitely doesn’t sleep…
Gerald was born in 1146, the son of one of the most powerful Anglo-Saxon barons of all time. He was educated in Gloucester and Paris before eventually becoming the Clerk and Chaplain to King Henry II. In 1185 he accompanied the King’s son, John, to Ireland, thereby beginning his career with the book Topographia Hibernica. Topographia was a history of Ireland gathered as he journeyed with John’s Entourage. Three years later he joined Bishop Baldwin of Forde on tour in Wales, recruiting for the Third Crusade.
These books are incredibly important for students of history. While they might not be considered reliable history in their own right (William of Newburgh was one of the most reliable historians of the era, and even his methods are suspect by our own standards)they tell us a great deal about the politics and tradition of their time.
He also had a chance to hear about Werewolves and Poltergeists.
The Werewolf story came from Ossory, now known as County Laois. The story went that a priest was travelling from Ulster towards Meath when night fell more quickly than expected. Travelling only with a young man for company, the priest started a fire and they huddled around it, sheltering from the elements.
Famous around the Welsh borderlands (particularly Monmouthshire and Herefordshire), he’s a magic user of a very different kind to Faustus and Sylvester.
While their magic is capable of horrible wonders, Jack’s is more the magic of the stage magician.
In the play ‘John a Kent and John a Cumber’, by the playwright and spy Anthony Munday, Jack appears much more like a stage magician than a devilish sorcerer.
His arsenal of tricks includes disguising himself as a Jesuit friar, producing magical music and strange mist.
His main interest in the whole plot (which is a fairly typical play about couples wanting to marry for love instead of money) is to harmlessly agitate the lovers while amusing himself by battling rival magician John a Cumber (who seems to be almost identical to Jack, except from Scotland.)
Even in this play, however, he seems to have real power.
There have always been people who led the way in science and thinking: Issac Newton led the way by thinking up the theory of gravity that we still use (until someone discovers that it’s all just magnets buried by aliens.) Plato and Newton both put forward pretty accurate theories about the Earth’s core, and Aristachus of Samos put forward a fairly accurate picture of the Solar System about three hundred years before the Crucifixion.
On the other hand, the world has changed: in the modern day politicians still want to screw you, but they’re more likely to tell you they’re doing it because it’s necessary, because they’re keeping you safe, or because if they don’t communism will take over. They’re less likely to say, “The universe works this way and therefore I should be in charge because… umm… God.”
In the days where that was more common there was one type of person who always eventually fell under suspicion: people who asked questions. What kinds of people tend to ask questions? Philosophers, Magicians and Scientists. That might sound like three very different groups, but for most of human history they were one and the same. The problem is that when someone in charge stands to lose out from people knowing too much, the people who know too much fall under suspicion.
William of Newburgh, a 12th Century monk, wrote that although it was hard to believe that zombies existed, they were an essential warning. He told a story about a dead guy in Buckingham who crawled out of his grave and tried to go back to bed with his wife. When friends and neighbors intervened to stop the corpse, it went mad and started biting chunks out of people.
And that’s not an isolated story. Walter Map, a Welsh Courtier from the 12th Century wrote a book about the people and places in the world around him, and he also commented on how England sure had a lot of zombies.
He talked about a local knight called William Laudun who came to his lord asking the strangest advice:
“Lord, I take refuge with you seeking advice. A certain evil Welshman quite recently died irreligiously in my village, and immediately after four nights he took to walking back to the village each night, and will not stop calling out by name each of his neighbours. As soon as they are called, they take ill, and writhing three days they die, so that already very few are left.” — De Nigus Curialium
How does the brave knight eventually solve the problem? Yeah, decapitation followed by fire.
And those aren’t the only zombie tales. Caesarius of Heisterbach, a Cistercian monk, wrote about a nursemaid who was looking after her master’s children in his book Dialogus Miraculorum. She saw the animated corpse of a pallid woman with tattered clothing wander out of the cemetery. The creature stared over the fence, moaned, then wandered into the neighbors’ house for a while before going back to her grave and peacefully de-animating. Continue reading “The Walking Dead, Medieval Edition”
Prophesy has always been a big deal here in Britain. In the run up to the Great Fire of London (and, of course, afterwards) the world was full of portents: In August 1666 the Spanish Ambassador claimed that a ‘deformed monster’ had been born in London. “[It was] horrible in shape and colour. Part of him was fiery red and part of in 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 camel, a long body, and in place of a head a kind of tumour with the ears of a horse.”
This wasn’t the only horrendous thing born of woman in troubled times: Meaux Abbey in Yorkshire said that a ‘human monster’ was born in Kingston-Upon-Thames, divided from the waist up with one half the upper body of a man and the other half the upper body of a woman (although this does sound rather more like a simple case of conjoined twins than anything in any way supernatural, especially since they became an accepted part of the community and lived until they were eighteen.) This unfortunate but mundane genetic abnormality/Satanic Hellbeast (probably the former) was seen as a portent of the Black Death.
An English poem form the time shows us the mood of the time:
“The rysing of the comuynes in Londe,
The pestilens and the eorthequake,
Teose threo things, I understand, betokenes the grete vengance and wrake,
That shulde falle for synnes sake,
As this clarkes canne de-clare,
Nou may we chese to leave or take,
For warnynge have we to ben ware.”
— A Warning to Beware, Anonymous, 1380.
Thomas Wimbledon preached at St. Paul’s Cross in 1388, saying that Armageddon would come in 1400, continuing a tradition stretching back to the earliest foundations of Christianity that the world was going to end really soon, and Christians would get the best end of it. Continue reading “Merlin: The Welsh Prophet”