Medieval Demon Vision Stories The Dialogue on Miracles | The Mediaeval Monk Ep. 2

Here is the YouTube link and audio file for episode 2 of my podcast, The Mediaeval Monk! Figuring out Spotify and iTunes has been slightly difficult, so I am posting things here until I get all that sorted out. Enjoy!

Today we return to the Dialogue on Miracles. This time I share some stories about clergymen seeing demons.

Source: Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles

https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/mode/2up

Medieval Demon Summoning Stories The Dialogue on Miracles | The Mediaeval Monk Podcast Ep. 1

Fun fact! I started a podcast. Here is a link to the YouTube video as well as the audio file itself.

Join me for the very first The Mediaeval Monk episode. Today I share some medieval demon summoning stories just in time for Halloween! Today’s stories focus on secular folk summoning demons and the consequences of stepping outside of a protective circle…

Source: Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles https://archive.org/details/caesarius…

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.

Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 2

As of the time I’m writing this, it’s still October, so there is still time to celebrate spooky season! This month I am sharing some medieval ghost stories written by an anonymous Byland Abbey monk. In my last post I discussed the first Byland Abbey ghost story. It is a short tale about a ghost, a man, and some beans.

Today’s Byland Abbey ghost story is the longest out of the twelve tales. Despite being longer and having different characters from the first medieval ghost story, there are several tropes that reoccur in both stories:

  • A shape shifting ghost
  • The living character asking God for protection
  • The ghost requesting the living to help them get out of purgatory
  • A water hating/fearing ghost

These tropes are pretty common in medieval ghost stories.

A demon grabbing a soul coming out of a corpse as it tries to fly to several angels (not shown) | Yates Thompson MS 3 f.201v | Source: The British Library

This ghost story took place during the reign of King Richard II of England. The written text itself dates to around 1400 AD. Richard II died in February 1400, so it is safe to assume the events of the story occurred shortly before the author wrote it down. The recentness of the event is probably why the author went out of his way to not name the ghost. Excommunication from the church was a big deal, so this was probably still fresh in the ghost’s family’s minds. Stating that a person’s loved one suffered as a ghost is insensitive at best and flat out slanderous at worst. Defamation lawsuits were a common enough occurrence in the Middle Ages, so I understand why the author was extremely vague about who exactly the ghost was. 

Story Two

Our main character is a tailor named Snowball. One night Snowball traveled from Gilling East to his home in Ampleforth. It was a normal enough night until Snowball heard several ducks washing themselves in a stream. I don’t know too much about ducks, but I assume they usually leave washing themselves to the daytime!

To add to the weirdness, a raven suddenly flew around Snowball’s head before flying into the ground. The raven looked dead so Snowball got off his horse and went to pick it up. (Depending on the translation Snowball either picked the raven up or was about to.) Then sparks burst out of the raven’s sides!

Needless to say, the sparking raven frightened Snowball. He crossed himself and prayed to God that the raven wouldn’t hurt him. The raven did not seem to like this as it flew off cawing. Snowball mounted his horse to return home. He didn’t get far before the raven flew into him again. Unfortunately for Snowball, this time the raven knocked him clean off his horse!

Snowball lay on the ground for a bit in a terrified swoon. Eventually he regained some bravery and tried fighting the raven with his sword. This did not work. Snowball asked in God’s name that the raven wouldn’t hurt him and if it wanted to, God would make it leave. The raven flew away wailing…before returning in the shape of a chained dog. Snowball was so scared he used the hilt of his sword as a cross to ward off any evil.

Because the spirit kept coming back, Snowball decided it was time to conjure it through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to see exactly what it wanted. (In the Byland Abbey ghost stories helping the ghost is the best way to get rid of them.) Conjuring a ghost included asking it its name, why it was being punished in the afterlife, and what exactly Snowball needed to do to make the ghost go away. Luckily for Snowball, this worked.

The ghost told Snowball his name (which the author did not provide), he was excommunicated, a specific priest (once again nameless) needed to absolve him, and that one hundred and eighty masses had to be said for him. The ghost gave Snowball an ultimatum: get the desired answers from the priest or the ghost would make Snowball’s flesh quite literally rot off his still living body. (Also apparently the only reason the spirit could appear to him was because Snowball did not go to mass that day or receive the Eucharist.)

In case a sparking raven isn’t terrifying enough, the text describes the now conjured ghost as being on fire and he spoke through his guts instead of his mouth. Also Snowball could see the ghost’s insides through his mouth.

Snowball asked to bring a friend along when he returned. The ghost said no. However, Snowball was to bring the names of the four gospels and Jesus for protection because two other spirits lived in the area that were not as nice as him. These other ghosts took the form of a burning bush and a hunter so Snowball should avoid those things if he sees them. The ghost also requested that Snowball not tell anyone about this encounter besides the priests he has to ask about the absolution and masses.

Snowball promised he would and attempted to send the ghost to the stream, Hodge Beck. The ghost screamed at him not to do this so Snowball conjured the ghost to Brink Hill (or Byland Bank depending on the translation). The ghost found this agreeable and happily left.

Unfortunately for all involved, Snowball fell ill for a few days after this encounter. Once he recovered, Snowball went to York. In York, he visited the priest who excommunicated the ghost and asked about an absolution. The priest immediately said no. However, the priest promptly asked three other priests about what he should do. Snowball ended up having to bribe the original priest with five shillings to get the written absolution.

As a side note, five shillings was A LOT of money in the late fourteenth century, especially for a tailor like Snowball. The Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project estimates that Snowball would have had to work several weeks to earn five shillings.

As bribery is most certainly frowned upon, Snowball asked a clergyman named Richard of Pickering whether or not this absolution counted in the eyes of God and the law. Richard of Pickering gave Snowball the okay. Snowball proceeded to visit every monastic order in York to ask for the one hundred and eighty masses. The monks agreed to say them over the course of the next two to three days. Then Snowball buried the absolution at the ghost’s grave.

On his way to Brink Hill/Byland Bank to meet up with the ghost, Snowball’s neighbor confronted him about the rumor Snowball knew a ghost. The neighbor demanded Snowball tell him when and where he was supposed to meet the ghost. Snowball was afraid of displeasing God so he told him he was going right then and there and did the neighbor want to come along? The neighbor politely declined the invitation.

When Snowball arrived at the meeting place he drew a protective circle on the ground with a crucifix. Eventually the ghost appeared in the form of a she goat. The she-goat made some goat noises as it walked around the circle three times. It fell to the ground and then got up in the form of a tall thin man.

The author specifically says the ghost looks like one of the dead kings. This is presumably a reference to the popular medieval ghost story “The Three Living and The Three Dead.”

After the ghost made sure Snowball did everything he was supposed to, he explained after he was conjured to the time the absolution was buried three demons tormented him nonstop. However, now that he was absolved, the ghost and thirty other spirits would go to Heaven on Monday. (Or on the nearest moon depending on the translation.) The ghost told Snowball how to cure the wounds he gave him as a raven. (He had to wash himself with a piece of sandstone under a big rock in the river.)

Curious, Snowball asked about the two dangerous ghosts. The ghost refused to tell him their names, but he did elaborate on their backstory. The first ghost was a soldier who killed a heavily pregnant woman. This ghost was cursed to stay in the form of a calf with no eyes, ears, or mouth until Judgment Day. Even if Snowball conjured him, he would not be able to speak.

The second ghost was a religious man. He took the form of a hunter with a horn. Because he was devout while alive, he will be able to go to Heaven once a specific boy in the area grew up and conjured him.

Before leaving, Snowball asked there was anything he should do so he wouldn’t be cursed to become a ghost. There was. Snowball had to return the clothes he borrowed from his old war buddy. Snowball didn’t know where the man now lived, so the ghost told him he lived near Alnwick Castle. (According to Google maps Alnwick Castle is approximately one hundred miles away from Ampleforth, the town Snowball lived.)

Snowball then inquired about his greatest crime. The ghost told him it was the fact people were spreading rumors about which ghost Snowball met, thus accidentally slandering the good names of other dead people. Snowball asked if he should tell people the ghost’s name. The ghost said no.

Then the ghost told Snowball if he goes to live in one place he will be rich and in another he will be poor and have enemies. The text does not specify the place names. He also said not to look at any wood fires for the rest of the day before telling Snowball he couldn’t stand around chatting anymore and disappeared.

As Snowball walked back to Ampleforth, the ghost calf followed him. No matter how many times Snowball conjured him, the calf did not talk.

Finally, when Snowball returned home he was sick for several days.

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

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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_II_of_England

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 5: The Abbey of Bury St Edmunds’ Finances

For part five of my Misbehaving Medieval Monks series, we are once again returning to The Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds written by Jocelin of Brakelond. This particular text is chock-full of stories about tonsured men acting in ways that are rather unbecoming for men of God. Whether it’s being petty, actively malicious, or simply just being careless, this late 12th century and early 13th century has just about everything. Our first story features a monk being extremely careless.

***

In April 1182, Samson traveled to each of the manors he owned personally as the abbot of Bury St Edmunds as well as the manors the abbey/monks owned. While visiting, Samson made sure that everything was in working order. He also collected recognition from his tenants. (Recognition is a form of payment tenants give to their lord.) Samson had just been elected abbot, so this was a standard thing to do.

While Samson stayed at Warkton he was awoken by a voice telling him to get up and get up now. He did. To his horror, Samson found a lit candle in the lavatory that was just about to fall on some straw. Apparently, a monk named Reiner had left it there and forgotten about it. To add to the scariness of the situation, Samson quickly discovered that the house’s only door was locked and could only be opened with a key. And it gets worse. All the windows were impossible to open. Depending on the translation, they were either barred or just tightly shut. Either way, if there had been a fire everyone in the house would have been burnt alive.

Jocelin doesn’t comment on the incident any further, but it definitely makes me wonder whether the house was simply a fire hazard (like a lot of medieval dwellings) or if something more sinister was going on.

***

As time went on Samson’s financial skills increased. However, like all leaders, Samson wasn’t perfect (though Jocelin tries to get us to believe otherwise). Rumors spread that Samson was embezzling from the abbey’s sacristy, which was not the first time he was accused of doing so. Not only that, he was accused of saving his own money (as the abbot and the abbey’s finances were separate) instead of sharing the financial burden of running Bury St Edmunds, hoarding grain until he could sell it for a massive profit, spending more time at his manors than at the abbey itself and he let the cellarer do all the entertaining when guests arrived. Not only was Samson accused of being greedy but lazy when it came to hospitality. (Abbots shirking their entertainment duties off on the cellarer was a common problem at Bury St Edmunds.) By doing all this, Samson looked financially capable while the monks looked careless. After all, even if the abbot is the one taking the money, the convent will still appear to be inept if their accounts are low.

When Jocelin heard the criticisms he defended Samson. According to him, all the money from the sacristy was used to improve the church. Not only that, more good had been done with the abbey’s money in the fifteen years after Samson’s election than it had been in the previous forty years. Jocelin claims that even Samson’s worst enemy couldn’t deny that. Whether or not this is the truth is up to the reader. Jocelin justified Samson’s frequent absences from the abbey with the claim that Samson was happier at his manors than at home. Apparently, at the abbey, Samson was constantly bombarded by people who wanted stuff from him. Even so, I don’t think that gave him the right to avoid his monks as much as he did in the first few years of his abbacy.

As a brief side note, Jocelin recorded several incidents where Samson complained about how much he hated his job. When Samson wasn’t lamenting about wishing he never became a monk, he wished he was never made abbot. Apparently, he wanted to be a librarian.

***

At the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds monks going into debt was a common problem. In my last few posts, I wrote about previous incidents. Well, it was still a problem. At one chapter meeting, Samson collected all the monks’ seals that were used for taking on debts. There were thirty-three. Samson forbade any official from taking on debt over £1 without permission from the prior and the abbey. Jocelin notes that this was actually a pretty common thing to do. (Taking on debts of over £1.)

Besides going into debt, the monks also had a tendency to own stuff. This is a big no-no. Chapter thirty-three of The Rule of Saint Benedict explicitly forbids any monk from having personal possessions. (Unless of course, the abbot says it’s okay.) Samson did not say it was okay. He collected the keys to all the chests, cupboards, and hanapers in the monastery and forbid the monks from owning possessions without his permission. That being said, Samson did give every monk a small allowance to spend on good causes. One such good cause was the monk’s biological family (but only if they were poor).

Sources:

Brakelond, Jocelin Of. Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. Translated by Jane E. Sayers and Diana Greenway, Oxford University Press, 2008. 

“Jocelin of Brakelond: Chronicle of The Abbey of St. Edmund’s (1173-1202).” Internet History Sourcebookssourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/jocelin.asp. 

Christian Classics Ethereal Library’s translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict. https://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0480-0547,_Benedictus_Nursinus,_Regola,_EN.pdf

Medieval Ghosts Part 2: The Revenant/Draugr

Even though we’re well past Halloween (as of my time writing this) I still want to discuss medieval ghosts. In my last article, I wrote about ecclesiastical ghost stories. These stories, often written by clergy, had a Christian motivation for why the dead returned. However, if there were Church-approved spirits, that implies the existence of nonapproved spirits. And there certainly were!

The Three Living and Three Dead | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.123r | The British Library

Revenants/Draugar

Thanks to popular belief, secular people had their own ideas of what the undead did and looked like. The undead were often found in Icelandic sagas. In these sagas, the ghosts were known as revenants or draugar. In this post, I will be using the terms “revenant” and “draugr” interchangeably. (As a side note, the word “draugr” is singular while the word “draugar” is plural.)

Despite the Church’s best efforts to Christianize revenant stories, many of them survived with their original pagan elements. That being said, they were written down by Christian scribes so it’s difficult to figure out just how much was changed. However, it can be quite obvious when the scribe decided to go all out when changing details. (One example is the epic poem Beowulf and its constant references to God. This includes the revenant, Grendel, being referred to as a descendent of the biblical figure Cain.) Icelandic sagas are one literary genre where the pagan elements are particularly strong.

Unlike ecclesiastical ghosts, revenants were not trying to get help to escape Purgatory. They were back on earth to cause chaos. Revenants were very similar to the modern idea of the zombie to the point that in some stories, draugar looked like rotting corpses. Instead of being immaterial, they had physical bodies. And not only did they have physical bodies, but revenants were also stronger and bigger than they were when alive. In some sagas, they were described as big as a cow! Due to their largeness, draugar were often too heavy to carry. If you were attempting to carry one to a church, the revenant would become heavier and heavier the closer you got. As long as they had flesh, revenants could rise from the dead.

Like the modern-day zombie, sometimes draugar were quite stupid. However, it was not uncommon for them to be eloquent and spout off prophecies to whoever was interacting with them. When they weren’t telling the living when they were going to die, draugar did the killing themselves. Revenants would kill livestock and terrorize then kill humans. Depending on the story they had different motives for terrorizing the living.

One such motive was reacting to grave robbers. Revenants “lived” (for lack of a better term) in barrows/howes where they had been buried. Because early medieval Scandinavian burials included treasure being buried alongside a body, it could be appealing to people to steal the treasure. After all, the person is dead so they aren’t using it! Revenants did not like that line of logic. So if you were unwise enough to try to steal a dead person’s treasure, the draugr could attack you either physically or with magic. Which, to be honest, I think is valid. But not all people visiting the howes wanted to steal from the dead. If you were related to the draugr you could go to the howe and politely ask for your relative’s stuff as a birthright. If you were lucky, they may even agree to give it to you.

Not all revenants stayed (sort of) peacefully in their howes. Some stories feature draugr wandering their old homes, terrorizing and sometimes even killing their living family members and servants. Other stories feature draugr wandering the farther countryside, also terrorizing and killing humans and livestock. When this happened, one solution was to simply move the howe to somewhere more isolated. Sometimes this worked. Other times it did not. If moving the howe didn’t work, one could get rid of a draugr by destroying their corpse. This could be either burning them or cutting off their head. In one story (the Icelandic saga Grettissaga) to defeat a revenant, the main character cuts off its head and placed it between its legs.

The sagas were written down when Iceland was completely Christian, so occasionally a few Christian characters and elements would slip in. In the Grettissaga, characters ask a priest to exorcise the local revenant. Unfortunately for them, this draugr was particularly smart. It hid until the priest got sick of looking for it and went away. In other sagas, it seems that chasing off revenants was an expected duty for priests.

Draugar did not live on in only the Icelandic sagas. Sometimes ghosts in ecclesiastical stories had traits similar to their pagan counterparts. This included attacking locals and looking like a rotting corpse. In one story written by a monk of Byland Abbey, the ghost of a priest gouged his ex-girlfriend’s eyes out! Obviously, he couldn’t go around doing that. Instead of having a good old fashioned exorcism, the local monastery decided to solve the ghost priest problem the pagan way: they dug up his corpse and chucked it into a lake. This apparently worked.

Not all clergy were gung-ho about solving revenant problems in the Scandinavian way. In the previous story, the author made his displeasure about the desecration of a corpse known in the text. In another story, a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.

Finally, another way to get rid of a revenant was simply to exorcise it.

Sources:

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 31 Oct. 2020.

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2020/10/byland-abbey-ghost-stories.html

Medieval Ghosts https://www.medieval.eu/medieval-ghosts/

Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages by Nancy Mandeville Caciola https://www.amazon.com/Afterlives-Return-Dead-Middle-Ages/dp/1501702610

Remnants of Revenants: The Role of the Dreaded Draugr in Medieval Iceland http://caitlinscrossroad.com/wp-content/uploads/Remnants_Revenants.pdf

Pope Leo and Attila (Yes, THAT Attila) in The Golden Legend

Attila the Hun is one of those famous historical figures I knew existed, but know very little about. As a result of my ignorance, I was surprised to learn that there are accounts of Attila and Pope Leo interacting with each other. Instead of doing a full analysis of their meeting, I want to look at how the text The Golden Legend tells it. Because The Golden Legend is a compilation of miracle stories and hagiographies, it is not exactly a reliable historical source. That being said, I want to take a deeper dive into why the author wrote the story the way they did.

When people are writing historical accounts it’s important to remember these things:

  1. Who is writing it?
  2. Why are they writing it?
  3. Who is their audience?
  4. What is their motive for writing it?

The answers to these questions will impact how you view the text. (By the way, these questions can and should be applied to media today too!)

 

Leoattila-Raphael

The Meeting between Leo the Great (painted as a portrait of Leo X) and Attila | Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Before I begin my analysis of the story, I will retell the story:

Attila has invaded Italy. He is doing a very good job of destroying it too. Knowing that he can’t just let this happen, Leo spends three days and three nights praying in the church of the apostles for some kind of guidance. After doing this, Leo tells his men that he’s going to meet Attila and anyone who wants to come can join him. The two men meet up. Leo has just barely gotten off his horse when the mighty Attila throws himself at his feet!

Attila begs Leo to tell him what he wants. And Leo knows exactly what he wants! He wants Attila to leave Italy and release all of his Christian prisoners. (Apparently, Leo was not particularly concerned about anyone who was not a Christian.) The story doesn’t explicitly say whether or not Attila actually did this (as a side note, Attila did, in fact, leave Italy), but it does say how angry and shocked the Huns are at Attila’s conduct in front of Leo:

“And his servants reproved him that the triumphing prince of the world should be overcome of a priest.” (christianiconography.info)

Attila has an ominous response for his critics:

“I have provided for myself and to you. I saw on his right side a knight standing with a sword drawn and saying to me: But if thou spare this man thou shalt be slain, and all thy men.” (sourcebooks.fordham.edu)

And that’s the story of Leo and Attila’s meeting! Let’s start analyzing it.

The Golden Legend is a compilation of hagiographies, collected by a friar named Jacobus de Voragine. While he didn’t write all of the stories himself, he was still a Christian, thus he has a Christain worldview. His intended audience is made of Christians as well. Furthermore, this story was written by Paul the Deacon who was also a Christian, thus he would be affected by a similar worldview/motive as Jacobus de Voragine. Hagiographies are biographies of saints and they are supposed to tell of the miracles they performed. So it’s only natural that the story is going to focus on the miracles done by and the holiness of Pope Leo.

Historically, Attila and Leo met and they negotiated for peace. In reality, how exactly Leo got Attila to leave probably wasn’t due to an angel or what have you threatening Attila and his people with physical violence. There were definitely earthly matters at play. (Earthly matters such as the famine, sickness, armies fighting back, and perhaps even a ton of money from the government to get them to go away. All of which are fantastic incentives for any invader to think to themselves, ‘Huh. Maybe trying to take over this country is more hassle than its worth.’)

Personally, I don’t think Attila was actually threatened by a knight only he could see. It’s entirely possible he had a vision, but I don’t think it’s plausible. However, whether or not Attila actually had a vision isn’t really the point of the story. The point of the text is to show that Leo is holy, Heaven says he’s holy, and Leo is saving Christians from heathen invaders.

 

 

Main Sources:

https://www.christianiconography.info/goldenLegend/leo.htm

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume4.asp#Leo

The Golden Legend: Readings on Saints–Google Books

 

Other Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Attila-king-of-the-Huns

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attila

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns#In_Christian_hagiography

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Leo_I#Leo_and_Attila

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Legend

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_the_Deacon

Reattaching Pope Leo’s Hand in The Golden Legend

A few weeks ago I was looking through the manuscript Royal MS 10 E IV where I found a few depictions of Pope Leo having his hand chopped off. After some sleuthing, I discovered that these images were illustrations from a story in The Golden Legend. (More details about that text can be found here.) While Royal MS 10 E IV actually contains The Decretals of Gregory IX (AKA the Smithfield Decretals), I was still rather curious about the context regarding Pope Leo’s hand. Luckily for me, the internet is a big place filled with knowledge, so I was able to find what I was searching for! (I’ve put links to my sources down below in case you’d like to read a few English translations of The Golden Legend too!)

 

royal-ms-10-e-iv-f.195v-pope-leo-golden-legend-no-hand-virgin-mary-

Pope Leo and The Virgin Mary | Royal MS 10 E IV f.195v | Source: The British Library

 

Pope Leo’s entry in The Golden Legend contains four stories. Today I will be focusing on the first one. See, one day when Pope Leo was saying mass in the church of Saint Mary the More (or Saint Mary Major depending on the translation) a woman kissed his hand during communion. This innocent kiss made Pope Leo extremely…well, to put it delicately, it made him rather excited. In theory, men of God are not supposed to be tempted by lusty desires. Especially the pope! (In practice this couldn’t be further from the truth. See Pope Alexander VI for one example.)

So instead of taking a few deep breathes and maybe splashing some cold water on his face, Pope Leo cut his hand off and threw it away instead. While this is extreme, in Pope Leo’s defense he was just following some biblical advice. However, cutting your hand off isn’t exactly practical. Needless to say, it’s painful and you are going to need some recovery time. Because Pope Leo was no longer saying his usual masses, people started to talk. Seeing how not saying masses could be a problem, he prayed to the Virgin Mary for help.

Luckily for him, the Virgin Mary was listening. She popped down from Heaven and put his hand back on his body. She also told Pope Leo to go back to saying masses as well as offer some sacrifices to Jesus. Thrilled by this turn of events, Pope Leo returned to his duties and showed everyone his newly reattached hand.

Based on this text alone, a lot can be said about Pope Leo. Clearly whoever wrote the story had respect for the man, or at the very least had respect for how he dealt with feelings that are inappropriate for a pope. The unnamed woman was simply existing and showing respect. Instead of blaming the woman, Pope Leo knew his lust was all on him. As a result, he dealt with it not by harming an innocent person, but himself. While I certainly do not recommend chopping off any body parts, I do admire Pope Leo’s ability to know when he was in the wrong.

 

 

Sources:

https://www.christianiconography.info/goldenLegend/leo.htm

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume4.asp#Leo

The Golden Legend: Readings on Saints–Google Books

Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend

The other day I was browsing the manuscript Royal MS 10 E IV looking for images to feature on my Instagram account. While doing so I came across this bit of marginalia:

Pope Leo getting his hand chopped off | Royal MS 10 E IV f.194v | Source: The British Library

Naturally, I was a bit curious. What was going on here? Why had that man just chopped off both of the other man’s hands? Why was he wearing that hat? And why is everyone so nonchalant about this? My questions only grew when I went to the next page and saw this:

Pope Leo with no hands and missing a foot with the Virgin Mary and an angel | Royal MS 10 E IV f.195r | Source: The British Library

Now things were becoming stranger! Why no foot? Why was this happening in front of a church? What was that angel doing there? Was the woman the Virgin Mary or a queen? What was going on? Finally I went to the next page and was greeted with another picture:

Pope Leo and The Virgin Mary | Royal MS 10 E IV f.195v | Source: The British Library

At this point, my curiosity was overwhelming. I knew it was time to do a bit of research. Luckily for me, Royal MS 10 E IV’s content caption on the British Library’s website is pretty detailed. (Sometimes it’s not.) I quickly discovered that these are illustrations from The Golden Legend.

The Golden Legend is a compilation of hagiographies (or in other words, biographies of saints). The stories were collected by a Dominican friar (then archbishop) named Jacobus de Voragine. He wrote this text around the year 1260. For a while, The Golden Legend was one of the most popular printed book in Europe. Once the printing press was invented of course! That being said, it was also a pretty popular book before the printing press. At least 900 (perhaps more!) manuscripts survive. Some of these manuscripts are abridged versions of the full text. In 1900 Temple Classics published a seven-volume version of The Golden Legend, so it’s no wonder some scribes decided to make a few cuts!

Despite The Golden Legend’s popularity, during the sixteenth century, it became significantly less relevant. The text wasn’t printed as much and people were starting to question the sources Jacobus de Voragine had used. Eventually, The Golden Legend stopped being seen as a reliable source of information. Which is fair. Sometimes the lives of saints can be a bit unrealistic if you don’t believe in miracles. (And I say this as a person who considers himself culturally Catholic.) It probably also didn’t help that Jacobus de Voragine’s etymologies of the saints’ names are not the most accurate.

That all being said, The Golden Legend was still an important text for hagiographies. Even if you don’t believe everything in it, it can still be fun to read stories about the marvelous.

 

Sources:

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/

https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691154077/the-golden-legend  (The book description, not the book itself)

The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of Its Paradoxical History By Sherry L. Reames

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Legend

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: What Happens When Novices Return to the World

Today we have another cautionary tale of what happens when a novice attempts to return to the world after taking vows. It is also another example of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s dislike of knights.

Chapter Fifteen focuses on an old ex-knight named Benneco. Our narrator, The Monk, knew Benneco personally and they happened to be novices at the same time. Despite Benneco’s age, he wasn’t particularly religious. He was also pretty flip-floppy about whether or not he actually wanted to be a monk. As a result, he had a tendency to saunter back to the secular world and then come sauntering back to the monastery. The Monk uses a lovely metaphor when describing this:

“[Benneco] would not listen to the advice of his brethren, and as a dog to his vomit, so did the wretched man return to the world.” (pg. 22)

(I will note that this is not the first time Caesarius of Heisterbach uses the ‘dog to vomit’ metaphor in The Dialogue on Miracles. He seems to love this metaphor.)

Royal 11 D IX f. 213v Novice returning to the world

Novice returning to the world | Royal 11 D IX f. 213v | Source: The British Library

Even though Benneco leaves once, he does come back again. The Rule of Saint Benedict (the guide monastic orders follow) tolerates a monk running away and returning three times. After the third time, the hesitancy is deemed ridiculous and the monk isn’t allowed back at all. In Benneco’s case, he leaves a second time to return to his secular home. There he falls extremely ill. Unfortunately for Benneco, he isn’t given a third chance. Instead, he dies an unrepentant secular man.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking ‘Why is this considered a miracle? It’s just some old guy dying.’ And that’s a good question! See, while Benneco is dying there’s a storm going on outside. But it’s not just any storm. This storm is specifically happening outside Benneco’s house and from the wording, it appears to only be happening around his house. To make things spookier, a ton of crows are flying over the roof. The omens freak everyone in the house out and they book it out of there. Well, except for an old woman. She stays.

The Monk ends the tale with this extremely forboding one-liner:

“See then how they die, who depart from God.” (pg. 22)

The Novice lightly comments how all the omens must be the result of demons and The Monk agrees. The Monk then goes on to warn his young student that anyone who unrepentantly looks back from the monastic life is doomed to Hell. He adds in a bible verse to further emphasize his point. After all, you can’t doubt what Jesus says!

But The Novice does. Not fully convinced, he points out that in The Rule of Saint Benedict things are much more lenient for people who want to leave:

“If it is so mortal a sin for a novice to return to the world, what then is the meaning of S. Benedict’s instruction that when the rule has been read over to the novice, it should be said to him: ‘” This is the law under which thou desirest to enlist; if thou canst: keep it, go forward; if not, go in peace.”‘ (pg. 23)

Once called out, the Monk quickly comes up with an excuse. Being that Saint Benedict thinks leaving is a horrible thing to do but if you are going to do so, you should do it as a novice, not as a full-blown monk. Furthermore, once you’re a novice you can leave your monastery but you can’t leave the monastic life. (It’s all very contradictory, however, this could be due to a translation error.) And if you want to leave the monastery or Order you have to get special permission from the Pope. To stress just how serious monastic vows are, The Monk explains that even secular people who have made vows to the abbot must follow them. They are no longer allowed to have a secular career or get married.

Clearly, this story is an attempt at making sure no novices leave the monastery. It’s easier to make a reluctant person stay through fear then sheer faith. It’s definitely a sketchy practice, though, in my opinion, it’s not the worst way monks made sure their brethren couldn’t leave if they wanted to. (But that’s another article for another day!)

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n45/mode/2up