Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 3

Once again we return to the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories! Today’s medieval ghost story is much shorter than our previous one. Medieval ghost story number three is only three paragraphs long. This ghost story also features a spirit looking for absolution before they can go to Heaven.

Two skull headed grotesques | Add MS 36684 f.87v | Source: The British Library

Story Three

Our ghost is known as Robert the son of Robert of Boltby of Kilburn. Now, the vast majority of corpses and dead folk stay nice and tight in their graves and do not bother anyone. However, Robert Jr. was not like most dead people!

Instead Robert Jr. had a tendency to get out of his grave, wander around, and scare people. The local dogs did not appreciate a ghost in their midst. They would follow him around on his nightly adventures and bark up a storm. The local young men did not appreciate a ghost in their village either. They decided they were going to capture Robert Jr. and put him to rest permanently.

However, the youths talked a big talk with absolutely no substance behind it. Once they saw Robert Jr.’s face they ran away!

Well, except two.

Robert Foxton and another (unnamed) youth stayed behind to handle Robert Jr. Robert Foxton grabbed Robert Jr. before he could leave the cemetery and forced him onto the steps of the nearby church. The unnamed youth told Robert Foxton to hold Robert Jr. until he could help him. (The anonymous Byland Abbey monk assures us that the youth said this is a manly way, not in a cowardly way. He was being brave and not running for his life!)

Robert Foxton had other plans. He told the youth to get the priest as fast as he could while he held Robert Jr. down. The youth did as he was told. The priest, of course, rushed to Robert Foxton and the ghost once he heard the news.

The priest conjured Robert Jr. in the name of Jesus Christ and the Trinity until the extremely restless spirit could tell them what he needed. Like the ghosts in the previous stories, Robert Jr. needed to be absolved of his sins. (He also spoke from his guts instead of his tongue like the other ghosts.) The priest gladly listened to Robert Jr. and did just that. Finally, Robert Jr. was able to rest in peace.

However, before our monkish author ends this tale, he throws in a bit of gossip. Apparently before Robert Jr. was absolved, he would stand at the villagers’ doors and windows. It seemed like he eavesdropped on the houses’ inhabitants. The author speculates that Robert Jr. was just trying to find someone who would conjure him so he could go to Heaven. The locals on the other hand theorized Robert Jr. helped murder someone as well do other evil deeds (the author does not specify exactly what they were). Clearly not everyone had a positive opinion of Robert Jr.

Analysis

In this story, our ghost is a physical being instead of a spiritual one. This is evidenced by the fact Robert Foxton tackled Robert Jr. and held him down. While there were transparent, spiritual ghosts in medieval folklore, another common type of medieval ghost was the draugr/revenant.

Draugr was the term used for revenants in Scandinavian folklore. They are similar to zombies, in that they looked like rotting corpses and are physical beings. The Norse settled in Northern England in the early Middle Ages, so it’s entirely possible this tale was influenced by Old Norse stories passed down over several generations.

Like the ghosts in stories one and two, Robert Jr. is looking for absolution for his past sins and will go out of his way to get it. However, unlike the other two ghosts, Robert Jr. seems to have had a bad enough reputation if the locals speculated his still living corpse was capable of planning murder and other evil deeds. The deeds must also have been pretty bad if the author did not want to name them!

In contrast to the previous stories, it is interesting that the author felt comfortable enough to actually distinguish the characters by name. The author must not have thought he would get in trouble for naming names. Assuming that this story features actual people who lived in the community, this implies one of several things:

  • The story took place sometime in the distant past and the ghost’s family is also dead. (And won’t be angry to hear some random monk is writing about their kin!)
  • The family was okay with people talking about their ghostly kin.
  • Or if the family was not okay with it, they might not have been powerful, thus the author was not particularly afraid of the consequences of telling the majority of the story.

Finally, I find it particularly interesting that Robert Jr. spoke from his belly instead of his mouth. A previous Byland Ghost did this too. Bowels and excrement were commonly associated with sin and demons. While I am not sure if this has any connection, it does remind me of later medieval depictions of Satan and his demons. Demons in their demonic forms (verses human forms they sometimes took to lure hapless humans into sin) were often drawn with faces on their bellies, groins, and knees.

Personally, makes sense to me if the author intentionally connected the two ideas. Ghosts who are too sinful to go to Heaven are also too sinful to speak from their mouths, so they had no choice but to use their bowels to communicate.

Works Cited

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

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits : Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, Cornell University Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Elliott, Dyan. Fallen Bodies : Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages, University of
Pennsylvania Press, 1998. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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. JSTORwww.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5. Accessed 13 Oct. 2021.

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