Many of us will be familiar with the image of the Danse Macabre: scenes depicting dancing skeletons, and the living dancing with the dead. In the work of Herefordshire chronicler Walter Map he describes a knight who rescues his dead wife from a dance of the dead.
What’s less well known is that for a disquieting length of time – from the 13th to 17th centuries – the Medieval European might be able to see a live enactment of the Danse Macabre as bands of strangers, friends and neighbours dancing themselves to exhaustion, or even death. This was the dancing plague: St. Vitus’ Dance, The Dancers of St. John, Tarantism. Continue reading “The Dancing Plague in Medieval Europe”
One of the most aggravating things about playing a magic-using character in 2nd Edition D&D was the spell book limits. Some groups ignored them, giving magic user characters a fantasyland Kindle, with full access to any spell they wanted, while others insisted on page limits, chances of correctly inscribing spells, and that worst of things: the travelling spellbook.
I 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.
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 “From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead”
Possibly 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…
Possibly 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 “Tales of the Doppelgänger”
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.
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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Take a look at the image at the side of the article here. It’s a woman, draped at the feet of a man wearing a cloak. It has a touch of the 1970s about it, like the cover of a fantasy novel that makes you wonder if the artist should have stopped for a cold shower. Except the closer you look at it, the more WRONG you see: for example, yes, she’s naked, but she doesn’t look happy… in fact from the way she’s grabbing onto his arm, it might almost be as if he’s dragging her by the hair. Oh, and then there’s her face: ‘not happy’ is an understatement, she looks like an early version of Munch’s The Scream.
So, who is this woman, what’s going on?
It’s simple: she’s a Selkie, a beautiful and innocent water spirit, what’s going on is that she’s being dragged off into a life of sexual and domestic slavery. Not the good kind of slavery, where there’s a safe word and lots of special equipment ordered off the internet, this is the full Fritzl: the Orkney Islands story of Goodman O’Wastness is a great example.
1942 was a terrible year for snow. RAF Davidstowe Moor records a significant spike in crashes wrecks due to bad weather. It was a dark time for the allies, but for one anti-aircraft gunner, time weren’t just dark. They were haunting.
Private Jack James was heading back for his bed, looking out over the moors, when he saw a mass of black spots. They were a long way off, but moving quickly, cutting across his path, lapping over one of the rolling white fields. Sheep and cows were a fairly common sight on the Cornish moors, but herds didn’t move so quickly or purposefully as that. This something much more dangerous than a herd, this was a pack.
Yell Hounds. Yeth Hounds. Wish Hounds. They’ve got many names and they appear all over Britain: in the North of England, Sussex and the West Country. Strange hounds with glowing eyes, baying on the Moors. Bringing back the kind of primal fear that we British have now forgotten: the fear of being outnumbered by predators, cornered and taken down. The fear of being forcibly returned to the animal world.
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.