If you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)
Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.
However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.
As modern people we don’t always appreciate it, but the world has changed for us only very, very recently. There was a world not so long ago where milk was seasonal and streetlights didn’t exist.
In this milkless era two-thirds of Britain was covered in thick forest that swallowed up the light, meaning that on a cloudy or moonless night those forests would be filled with invisible ditches, riverbanks and pitfalls. The 17th Century diary of a Reverend Heywood in Yorkshire records of how a man walked out of his house only to vanish without trace. Another Yorkshireman, Arthur Jessop, lost his way and fell into a stone pit. In Aberdeenshire a fifteen year old girl died in 1739 because she lost her way on the path and fell down a freshly dug grave. One elderly Suffock farmer even boasted that he’d been going around at night without injuring himself, although he had once fallen off his horse and gone down a steep riverbank.
Even the cities were pretty bad: until the early 18th Century there was no obligation for the city authorities to provide any sort of artificial light, and paving was a ragtag mix of the cheapest stone that various householders could get their hands on (since the house owner was directly responsible for paving the section outside his house, and your average slumlord wasn’t going to fork out on much.) This meant rain, darkness and garbage created a slick coating of grease and faeces the put hundreds of soon-to-be-dead people into the river Thames over the years. Continue reading “Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)”
The artefact is just 6.4cm high, with a beautiful sapphire stone. It has a loop at the top for use as as pendant, with a compartment, possibly designed to contain some sort of healing relic. The rest of the Jewel’s design is linked with its purpose: an extract from the Latin mass, a scene from the crucifixion, and the word ‘Ananizapta’, a charm against epilepsy.
The idea of magical talismans for medicine was a mainstay of medieval medical thought. After the Crusades, a wave of culture came from the Middle East: works of philosophy and science previously lost had been perfectly preserved and developed upon in the Muslim East. The City of Toledo became a cultural melting pot, translating works of Hermetic Philosophy and Arab medicine into Latin, Hebrew and Spanish.
How and Why?
What makes a witch? It’s been a long time since you’d find anyone who argued it was the talent for magical power. Of the factors that come together to make someone a witch, alleged magical power was only one of many.
Witch stories have a strange mirror in the very myths made up society and religion for much society until the advent of the Reformation.
Part of this was how history was written. Almost until the Enlightenment, history was seen as an expression of the art of rhetoric. Historical events mines for morally pleasing stories, which could be adapted without troubling the historian’s conscience.
Adding to that, pre-Reformation law in Britain (which continued unmodified during the witch trials in many other places) involved torture as a mainstay of the trial process. Judges could only find a defendant guilty if they were able to secure two witness statements that agreed perfectly, or if the defendant could be persuaded to confess. The regulations for assessing the two statements were surprisingly strict, leaving many Judges little option other than to secure a confession.
Circumstantial evidence was enough to secure the Judge’s suspicion, which was grounds for torture. Suspected witches would be coerced into spinning a narrative that their interrogators could take into court. Motivated by the pain of torture, and the knowledge that their torturers could only stop when they’d reached a mutually agreeable narrative, witches would draw on the stories of their everyday lives.
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.
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Why would you dismember a corpse? Nancy Caciola wrote a fantastic article for Past and Present (one of my favourite journals) in 1996 suggesting one of the most obvious reasons: to stop it wandering around.
Caciola’s article was one of my first introductions into the world of medieval Revenants: the very physical, shape-shifting dead who can climb out of their graves and tear you to pieces. In a world where we have demons climbing into the fleshy suit offered by the unprotected form of a corpse, we can see why Bonocampagno wrote of the German custom for boiling and dismemberment of corpses. In the 12th Century burning, boiling or dismemberment was a popular solution for corpses who wouldn’t stay in their graves.
It’s equally important to know that medieval theology had a strongly held belief that until a body had dissolved, the soul would be trapped within it. That’s why William of Newburgh writes in detail about the intactness of corpses, like the corpse of a lustful dead husband who crawls into bed with his terrified widow. It’s not a surprise that the body doesn’t find rest until it’s burned to ashes.
1533 and Britain was entering the first stages of the Reformation. The Priory at Wherwell, Hampshire, had escaped relatively untouched by the reformers. Unfortunately for them, something far darker was hatching.
Down in the vaults of the Priory’s Minster, the Prior’s aged cockerel, nearing the end of its life, had found a cool, dark place to lay an egg. There in the darkness it laid a single yolkess sphere, with a tough skin like a serpent’s egg, and quietly expired. Serpents and toads made their homes in the cool damp of the chapel’s crypt, strangely drawn to sit on and incubate the egg… and all too soon, it hatched.
Instantly a terrible poisonous vapour started to seep out of it’s mouth and nostrils, killing the crypt rats and driving everything else out of the chamber. The Cockatrice, barely six inches long, feasted on the days old body of the Cockerel, hissing at the footsteps of the unsuspecting monks above it.
It was a nightmare thing: standing on two upright legs, like a chicken, with the feathered upper body and beak of a bird, a crown of wattles on its head. It’s lower body was a long, writhing serpent-like tail. It ate anything it could: carrion, scraps, corpses and other serpents. And it grew.
There is no single Halloween. The name itself, Halloween, comes from Hallowtide, also sometimes called Hallowmass, encompassing the festivals of All Souls’ on the 31st of October and All Saints on the 1st of November.
The ancient Celts celebrated it for three days before and after the part of the year that is now November 1st, and the Elizabethans observed Hallowtide from October 31st to just after November 5th, eventually all but combining the whole thing with their celebrations of bonfire night. But even that isn’t the whole story.
You might have heard Halloween called Samhain, or Sowan.
The quaint idea leaps to mind of a dark Pagan festival, brought from prehistory and forced to hide in Christian clothes… and the festival was dark: this was the dying of the summer, when the leaves started falling and food would become more scarce.
Most importantly, the night would come gathering in.
Darkness was a frightening thing before the era of streetlights: a moonless night was effectively blackness.
Even walking abroad could be fatal with travellers being killed as they fell down embankments and into ditches, without the predation of wolves and bandits. Strange shapes and noises would haunt the darkness.
As the world ground to a halt the ancient Celts needed something to get it started again, a ritual act that would kick the world’s momentum back into gear.
This was the night of the 31st.
In Ireland, folklore insisted that all fires would be extinguished for the night. Ulstermen and women would gather together, clustering around the leaders and kin.
In their crowded fortresses of light they would drink and dance in defiance of the darkness.
Nature’s slowing momentum meant that the world of man was weaker than ever.
A fragment written at the time says, “Any Ulsterman who did not come Samhain night to Emain (a fortress of the Irish Kings) would lose his reason and his… tomb would be and stone would be erected the next morning.”
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…