Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 1

It’s October! To celebrate spooky season, I am sharing some medieval ghost stories. There are a lot of medieval ghost stories out there, so today’s source comes from Byland Abbey. Byland Abbey was a medieval monastery in Yorkshire England. Today all that remains of it are ruins.  

Luckily for people who like historical ghost stories, there was a fifteenth century monk who was just as interested in the genre as we are today. The anonymous monk wrote the ghostly tales down in the back pages of a twelfth century manuscript. The manuscript can now be found at the British Library under the number Royal 15 A XX.

Each of the ghost stories is relatively short. However because there are twelve stories in all, I will cover them either individually or I will combine them. Some of the stories are longer than others. (Story two is several pages long!) My goal is to cover all of them before the end of October.

A living man and a skeleton | Add MS 37049 f.83r | Source: The British Library

The ghost stories were originally written in Latin. The Byland Abbey ghost stories take place in Yorkshire. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, these stories offer a good insight into how the average person went about their day in the early fifteenth century, including their thoughts, concerns, jobs, and even their names. Some characters are named and others are not. It’s possible the author left out the names because he either didn’t know them or he wanted to keep the people involved anonymous. Either way, his stories are fantastic glimpses into the medieval period!

Story One

In this tale a living man is transporting a peck of beans. The story does not specify where exactly he’s carrying them, but I assume the man is taking them home or maybe to the market. Unfortunately for the man, his horse breaks its leg (or shin bone depending on the translation) so the man has to carry the beans himself.

As the man walked along he suddenly came across another horse in the middle of the road. However, this horse was not an ordinary horse. It stood on its hind legs with its front hooves extended out in front of it. I don’t know much about horses, but I don’t think they normally hang out in the middle of roads standing like humans! The man must have thought so too because in his terror he invoked the name of Jesus Christ and commanded the horse not to hurt him.

The horse transformed into a hay bale. However, it was no ordinary hay bale because there was a light in the middle of it. The man became even MORE terrified and invoked God to keep him from harm.

Finally the specter transformed once more. On the third time it transformed into a man. The ghost told the man his name, the reason he was wandering the roads (which the author does not specify), the remedy (again, the author does not specify, but I assume he wanted prayers for his soul), and offered to carry the man’s peck of beans.

The living man said yes to the help. The ghost carried the beans until they reached a river. However, the ghost did not want to cross the river, so he gave the man the beans back and disappeared. The author adds that the living man did not see how exactly the ghost returned the beans. One moment the ghost was carrying them and the next the man was!

Afterwards, the man arranged for masses to be said for the ghost’s soul. He also made sure the ghost was absolved of his sins. Apparently this helped the ghost.

Analysis

Our first story is a good example of how medieval authors occasionally mixed contemporary ghost beliefs in a single tale. Medieval ghost stories often fell under two categories: religious and revenants. To summarize, religious ghosts warned the living about the dangers of Purgatory and begged for prayers to help their souls get to heaven. Revenants caused chaos. The anonymous Byland monk documented both elements in this story. (The ghost scared the living man but he also wanted the man to help his soul.)

I also find it interesting that the ghost was unwilling (or unable!) to cross the river. Ghosts are figures that are stuck between the living world and the dead. Ghosts that are in Purgatory are stuck between Heaven and Hell. It makes sense that a figure stuck in an in between place can’t cross a definite barrier like a river. The accompanying essay to the English translation by the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project suggests that the river symbolizes purity. Because the ghost’s soul is in Purgatory (and thus not pure) he cannot cross it.

The fact that the man was carrying beans is significant too. In Ancient Greece, Pythagoreans believed beans carried the dead’s souls. Beans were also eaten on All Saint’s Day, which is the day after Halloween. Autumn was a time where people believed the living world and the afterlife were the closest, relating back to the ghost being in an in between space.

Web Sources:

A.J. Grant, ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79. https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/362/mode/2up

http://www.anselm-classics.com/byland/about.html

https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/byland-abbey/

Hildebrandt, Maik. “Medieval Ghosts: the Stories of the Monk of Byland.” Ghosts – or the (Nearly) Invisible: Spectral Phenomena in Literature and the Media, edited by Maria Fleischhack and Elmar Schenkel, Peter Lang AG, Frankfurt Am Main, 2016, pp. 13–24. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.