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 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