Bit of weird personal information from me (this might be more than you really want to know:) I never really properly knew either of my grandmothers.
From what I remember, though, one of them (on my father’s side) was awesome and probably contributed the genetic material that made me turn out how I am.
When hearing that my mother was pregnant again, she immediately started taking her out to a series of walks in Cemeteries, Crematoria and derelict lunatic asylums (well… I might have made that last one up).
That’s why it’s a bit strange that I remember hearing about this monster from my Grandmother, despite the fact that the numbers don’t really add up.
On the other hand, from what I know of her, I can imagine her telling this tale to a baby squalling in its crib:
“When the world was young, there were a race of giants with only one arm. They also had only one leg, and only one eye. In fact they lived as if they were split down the middle, with all their guts hanging down one side. Imagine what that would be like.”
That’s the story, imagine my surprise decades later when (in the course of my daily weirdness) I find out it’s a real thing. Or at least, an authentic piece of folklore, rather than Grandma trying to warn me that I might get my arms and legs chewed off.
Imagine the scene: you’re a medieval Geordie making your way back from the pub one night, feeling the toll of a hard day’s work and a hard night’s drinking, when you spot a perfectly good horse stand there at the roadside. Now, horses can be treated like bikes: there are places where someone can tie them up with some food and water, and go do their own thing. This, however, isn’t one of them. This is the roadside, not an inn or a stable.
So, you do the only thing you can do: you look both ways, call out feebly, and claim it for your own.
The beast behaves well. It walks well, it’s well fed and looks healthy. You decide to take it for a turn around the pond on your way home … which is where things start to go wrong.
As soon as you get near the water the beast tenses up, twitches, and bucks you straight into the pond. You splash and flounder in the water, coughing as you rise to the surface. What you see is a thing from your future nightmares: a shaggy, black, donkey-like thing with flaming blue eyes the size of saucers. You thrash to get away from it, but it turns tail and runs into the night, laughing an eerie, human laugh.
This week’s spooky creature is the Alp-Luachra, or Joint-Eater. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about weed. This rather unpleasant faerie won’t be munching on that sweet nail of Aunt Mary you cool cats have been burning up on (as you can see, I’m down with the kids). No, this creature will get under your skin, breed inside you body and starve you to death.
To understand why something would do this, particularly an intelligent creature like a faerie, presumably capable of reasoning, morality and abstract thought, we need to go to the manuscript of a Scottish priest named Robert Kirk, writing in 1691. Kirk’s book, called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, talks about the society and ecology of the fair folk, explaining how they live, why they live as they do and what it means to us.
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.
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.
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”
On 4th August in the Suffolk villages of Bungay and Blythburgh a terrible thing happened. A horrific force of evil was unleashed… but did it end under the wheels of a classic car?
John Stow, the protestant historian who would later write his incredibly important Survey of London in 1603, wrote about the incident in his additions to Holinshead’s Chronicles:
“On Sundaie the fourth of August, Tempest in Suffolke between the houres of nine and ten of the clocke in the forenone, whilest the minister was reading the second lesson in the parish church of Bliborough, a towne in Suffolke, a strange and terrible tempest of lightening and thunder strake through the wall of the sale church into the ground almost a yard deepe, draue downe all the people on that side aoue twentie persons, then rernting the wall up to the vesutre, cleft the doore, and returning to the steeple, rent the timer, brake the chimes, and fled towards Bongie, a towne six miles off. The People that were stricken downe were found groueling more than halfe an houre after, whereof one man more than fortie yeares and a boie of fifteen yeares old were found starke dead: the others were scorched. The same or the like flash of lightening and cracks of thunder rent the parish church of Bongie, nine miles from Norwich, wroong in sunder the wiers and wheels of the clocks, slue two men which sat in the belfreie, when the other were at the procession or suffrages, and scorched an other which hardlie escaped.”
However, the local Rector, Abraham Fleming, had a darker tale to tell. Fleming was a schoolmaster and a scholar, in addition to being the Rector of the parish church of St. Pancras Bungay, wrote a tale of warning about man’s debauchery, atheism and fornication. In a pamphlet called A Strange and Terrible Wunder, published in 1577, he said the events of August 4th were…
A spectacle no doubt of Gods iudgement, which as the fire of our iniquities hath kindled…
He told a tale of the villagers gathering for morning mass while a storm of terrible force battered the village, of rain ‘with no less force than abundance’ lashing his parishioners with violent force. Thunder and lightning crashed over the village, ‘rare and vehement’, so that the people of Bungay were huddling frightened and confused in the church.
As they sat shivering with fear, listening to Fleming’s sermon about sin and death, and the dangers of Sodomy (he’s very concerned about sodomy, he mentions it twice in the preface to the Strange and Terrible Wunder whereas every other sin only gets mentioned once) when thunder and lightning started crashing and flashing around the church itself.The air darkened suddenly, so that even with the candles lit the fearful locals could barely see each other when… Continue reading “Black Shuck, Revenant Roadkill?”