What happens after you die has fascinated and confused humanity for thousands of years. One explanation comes in the form of ghost stories. Join Viktor Athelstan each week as he shares medieval stories and discusses aspects of medieval culture. Today’s story-driven episode features twelve fifteenth-century ghost stories from Byland Abbey, England.
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.
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.
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.
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 13 Oct. 2021.