Medieval Ghost Stories: The Ghost Stories of Byland Abbey Part 4

It’s still October, so it’s time for some more spooky medieval ghost stories! Today I will cover stories four and five of the Byland Abbey ghost stories. Each story is pretty short. Story four is only a paragraph long and story five consists of two sentences. Unlike the previous ghost stories, stories four and five do not include anyone conjuring a ghost.

Bas-de-page scene of the Three Dead, of three skeletal cadavers, two partially wrapped in shrouds, with a caption reading, ‘Y was wel fair. Scuch ssaltou be. For godes love be war be me’. | Yates Thompson MS 13 f.180r | Source: The British Library

Story Four

A long time ago, a man named James Tankerlay died. Despite being the rector at Kirby, James Tankerlay was buried in front of Byland Abbey’s chapter house. He must have missed his old parish because James had a tendency to make frequent nightly visits. During one of these visits, James visited his old mistress…and blinded her by blowing out one of her eyes!

After this incident, Byland Abbey’s abbot and monastic community decided that something had to be done. Their solution was to dig up James Tankerlay’s body and coffin and hire a man named Roger Wayneman to chuck it into the nearby Lake Gormyre. (Or Gormire depending on the translation.) As Roger did this, his cart’s oxen became so frightened they almost drowned.

Story four ends with the monkish author claiming he’s only writing down what he was told and he hopes that God isn’t mad at him for telling the story. He also asks for God’s mercy and salvation.

Analysis

Unlike some of the previous ghost stories, this tale seems to be rather old. Or at the very least, it was a story that has been passed down through several generations. The anonymous author claims to have heard this story from some old men.  It’s possible the Byland Abbey monk’s sources either heard this story in their youth from someone older or it happened when they were young.

Another notable difference is the destruction of James Tankerlay’s body. Instead of the Christian solution of conjuration and prayers, the abbot’s choice to destroy the body is quite pagan. In early medieval ghost stories and Icelandic sagas, revenants’ bodies are often destroyed so they can no longer terrorize the local population. This solution supports the theory the story’s origin is much older than the previous ones.

Similar to the previous stories, this one both explicitly gives names and hides them. The ghost and the person who threw the coffin into the lake are named, but the abbot who ordered it to be done is not. This would imply that even if the author does not approve of the abbot’s decision to destroy James Tankerlay’s body, he still wants to protect the reputation of the clergyman who ordered it to be done.

Finally, I find the author’s anxiety around even repeating this story particularly interesting. He clearly did not approve of the less than Christian solution of digging up and throwing a body into a lake to get rid of it! However, while his anxiety made him ask for God’s mercy for writing the text, he clearly did not consider it too blasphemous to include. I can’t help but wonder if the author included the story as a morality lesson, especially one for priestly concubines. Learning that your lover will blind you as a ghost would certainly be one way to deter women (and some men!) from hooking up with clergymen.

Story Five

As this ghost story is only two sentences long, I will quote A.J. Grant’s translation in its entirety:

“What I write is a great marvel. It is said that a certain woman laid hold of a ghost and carried him on her back into a certain house in presence of some men, one of whom reported that he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh.” (Grant, pg. 371)

Analysis

This story is rather vague. There are no named characters and where exactly it takes place is not stated. There isn’t really even an ending. The author doesn’t tell us what happened after the woman carried the ghost into the house or why she did so. We also aren’t told if the ghost wanted to be absolved of their sins.

The way this medieval ghost story is written reminds me of how events were documented for certain chronicles. In that, the author wrote down the most basic information so the audience gets a general idea of what happened.

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

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, 2016, pp. 13–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv2t4d7f.5.

Medieval Ghosts Part 1: The Religious Ghost

Happy (late) Halloween! Originally I was going to post this on Halloween, but I was unable to finish it in time. Today I want to talk about ghosts. Originally I was going to talk about ghosts in the secular mindset as well as ghosts in religious stories. However, I have to do more research on the folkloric type, so I am just going to focus on the religious today.

Ecclesiastical Ghosts

Because the Middle Ages was a period of about a thousand years (from the 5th century to the late 15th century) how people thought about ghosts changed over time. Someone from the 5th century may have a different idea of what a ghost was from someone in the 11th century and so on. In the early years of the Christian church, ghosts as a concept were not exactly welcomed. The idea that people could return from the dead was much too pagan for the Church’s liking. However, as time went on and Christianity became the norm, this changed. Ghosts could be used as a teaching tool for the living. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that by the late twelfth century Purgatory was an accepted part of the Christian afterlife.

Purgatory was an important part of ecclesiastical ghost stories. Due to it being an in-between place (you went there if you weren’t good enough for Heaven but not evil enough for Hell) it answered the question of how exactly ghosts returned to the living. After all, if you’re a ghost you are dead, but you’re still alive enough to interact with the living. Like Purgatory, ghosts are in a state of in-betweenness. It’s much easier to escape a state of transition than a state of permanence. A soul wouldn’t want to leave Heaven and it’s too late if you’re in Hell. There are a lot of different medieval writings on Purgatory. Depending on the source, souls either stayed there until the Last Judgement or they stayed until they had been purged of their sins. Either way, Purgatory is not a place one stays permanently.

Ecclesiastical ghost stories often had spirits returning from Purgatory to warn their loved ones about their sinful ways. Warnings about the afterlife would have a lot more impact on someone if it came from the dead rather than the living. A ghost has personal experience about what happens to your soul after death. The very much alive Father So-And-So does not. I’ll also note that some ghosts came from Hell to deliver their warnings. However, unlike the Purgatory ghosts, they were unable to ask for help. Once you’re in Hell it’s too late. You’re there forever.

So what kind of help did Purgatory ghosts ask for? Like modern-day ghosts, it was often unfinished business. Sometimes unfinished business meant returning something they stole while alive, apologizing to someone they had wronged, or even just begging people to pray for their souls so they could get out of Purgatory faster. It depended on the ghost and what they did.

However, if a ghost wanted help, they couldn’t just come up and ask for it. The living had to speak to them first by invoking God. Due to this restriction, sometimes ghosts would get creative to make people talk to them first. In one story, a ghost goes around staring at doors and into windows until a priest finally asks what they want. (The ghost wanted to say confession by the way.) In another story, a ghost literally throws a man over a hedge to get him to talk! (In the ghost’s defense, they do catch the guy before he hits the ground.)

Ghosts appeared in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes they appeared as their living selves, sometimes they looked like they had just before they died, and sometimes they took the form of animals, pieces of canvas, or a pile of hay. (Just to name a few examples!) A lot of ecclesiastical ghosts were described as apparitions. So they weren’t exactly immaterial, but not quite corporeal either. Again, it depended on the story.

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.

The Birth of Purgatory by Jacques Le Goff

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

Medieval Ghosts

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/n87/mode/2up

Misbehaving Medieval Monks Part 2: Pettiness and Drama that Happens When Selecting a New Abbot

In theory, a medieval monk was supposed to be a holy man who behaved himself and stayed out of trouble. In practice, a medieval monk was a man. As a man, he was not always perfect. Sometimes he sinned. And sometimes he sinned a lot. Today I will recount stories from Jocelin of Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. The chronicle is an excellent primary source, filled with stories about medieval monks not acting the way they should. If you want to read more about this topic, I’ve already written another article using the chronicle as my source.

An abbot and a monk holding books | Egerton MS 2019 f.231r | Source: The British Library

***

Around the years 1180-1182, the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot. The previous abbot, Hugh, had died in 1180 after a horse-riding accident and it wasn’t until 1182 that a new abbot was elected. During this time the monastery was extremely poorly run. (Though I will note that it wasn’t exactly running smoothly under Abbot Hugh either.) The person temporarily in charge, Prior Robert, was barely monitoring the obedientiaries and as a result they just kind of did whatever they wanted with very few consequences. (If they suffered any consequences at all!)

One obedientiary was a man named Samson. He was the subsacrist. (The sacrist, William, was busy spending money he did not have and giving stuff away that he had no right to. I talked about William in detail in my other article.) According to Jocelin, Samson actually did his job. The monk was also pretty ambitious. One day Samson decided that the abbey’s great church tower needed to be built and somehow he got the resources to do it. However, when your abbey is deep in debt and you suddenly gain access to a bunch of stone and sand, people will start to get suspicious. And suspicious they did get.

After being confronted about the source of income, Samson claimed that it was a secret donation from some friendly townsfolk. A few of the monks did not buy this. They claimed that Samson and Warin (the monk who ran the abbey’s shrine to Saint Edmund) were stealing a percentage of the shrine’s offerings. To be fair, the accusations did have some validity to them. Apparently, it was pretty well known that other monks were stealing offerings for their own purposes. To avoid being accused again, Samson and Warin made an offertory box specifically for the church tower. This box was placed away from the shrine so people would know that it wasn’t for the shrine.

Whether Samson stole the money or not, this story still features misbehaving monks. Samson was potentially a thief and a liar or other monks were spreading rumors about him. And of course, you have the monks flat out embezzling. Either way, these men were doing things good holy men do not do!

***

Even though the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was without an abbot for a little over a year, that doesn’t mean the monks weren’t trying to elect one. There were a lot of discussions about who was right for the job and who wasn’t. In Jocelin’s records of the discussions, we get a peek into the monks’ concerns over the potential candidates. While I’ll only be detailing one of the discussions, it definitely stuck out to me as an example of how humanity really does not change over the millennia!

One monk describes the candidate as the perfect choir monk. He’s wise in both secular and religious matters, has good judgment, follows The Rule of Saint Benedict (as all good monks should), is educated, eloquent, and has kept himself out of trouble. However, someone else points out that while that’s all true when the candidate is a choir monk, the second he gets any sort of power it goes straight to the man’s head! It’s like a switch is flipped and he becomes a completely different person. Instead of being a wise sort of soul, he becomes impatient, scorns his fellow brethren, gets a bit too friendly with laymen, and gives everyone the silent treatment when angry. At the end of the day, you don’t want an abbot like that!

***

During these discussions, Jocelin of Brakelond learned the hard way that one should be careful when they speak and to whom. Without thinking, Jocelin told someone in confidence that he didn’t think his best friend would be a very good abbot. To make matters worse he said he thought someone he didn’t actually like would be better at the job. Well, word got out to Jocelin’s friend. Jocelin claims that his intentions weren’t bad and that he just wanted the best for everyone but it was too late. No matter what Jocelin did, no matter how many gifts he tried to give him, and no matter how hard he tried to repair the friendship, it was ruined forever. Even to the day he was writing the chronicle, Jocelin’s ex-best friend hated him. After this incident, Samson’s lesson about keeping your mouth shut was really hammered home.

***

A year and three months after Abbot Hugh died, the king ordered the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds to elect a new abbot. Thirteen monks, including Samson, were chosen to go to court to do this. On their way, Samson suggested that they should all agree that the new abbot “would restore the churches of the convent’s demesne to the hospitality fund” (pg. 18). All of the monks thought this was a good idea. Well, all of them except the prior. The prior hated the idea so much that he got pretty snippy. He told Samson that they had all promised enough, they were trying to limit the abbot’s power, and if they were going to keep doing that he wouldn’t even want the job!

In the end, the thirteen monks decided not to go with Samson’s suggestion. Jocelin comments that it was a good thing they decided against it. Why? Well, he speculates that if they did swear to it, their oath would not have even been kept!

***

Our last story isn’t really a story, but more of a funny tidbit I wanted to include. Before the thirteen monks had set out for their journey to court, they had some senior monks choose some potential candidates from the abbey. They did this in such a way that twelve out of the thirteen men didn’t know who the potential candidates were. (It was done like this to avoid any hurt feelings in case the king decided he was going to chose the new abbot and not the monks themselves.) So when the king approved the monastery’s request for an election, the document was opened.

Remember how I said twelve out of the thirteen monks had no idea who was selected? Well, one of the priors, Hugh, had both come on the trip and had elected the candidates. Turns out Prior Hugh was one of the potential candidates! The fact that Prior Hugh elected himself to be abbot definitely embarrassed the twelve other monks. After all, electing yourself isn’t exactly the most humble thing to do and monks are supposed to be humble.

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. 

Medieval Oblates: Who Were They?

Not all medieval monks had vocations. A good chunk of them had no choice about their monastic careers at all. Instead, they were donated to a monastery as children and raised to be the perfect monks. These boys are called oblates.

Parents donating their son to a monastery | Royal 10 D VIII f.82v | Source: The British Library

In my research, I’ve found oblates to be a group that is often mentioned but hardly ever elaborated upon. To make things more difficult, there isn’t really a lot of information online about them. And if there is, it’s often not easily accessible or free. Most of the books I’ve seen on oblates are either no longer in print or incredibly expensive. Or if the information is not in book form, it is a thesis/paper/article that you need special access to get to. However, because I’ve been researching oblates for over a year now (I’m writing a novel about one!) I have managed to collect a number of sources. Due to my own frustrations about the lack of easily accessible information, I have decided to write a little series of articles about oblates on this blog (with sources down below of course!). Today my first article will answer the question, who were oblates?

As previously stated, oblates were boys donated to monasteries by their parents. Typically they were about five to seven years old, but they could be older. For example, the monk Orderic Vitalis was given to his monastery when he was around ten or eleven. Eventually the boy would grow up and take monastic vows to become an official monk. He could take vows as old as seventeen or as young as fourteen. The monk/Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc suggested that an oblate could take vows whenever his monastic community he was deemed emotionally mature enough to do so.

Why all the variation? Well, oblation occurred for quite a few centuries across different monastic orders. Because of this, certain aspects of the practice would change over time depending on where the oblate was and what order the oblate was given to. Some orders frowned upon oblates while others welcomed them with open arms. In fact, in the early Middle Ages oblation was the primary recruiting technique for Benedictine monasteries!

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Sources:

Cerling, Rebecca King. “Taking Their Place: Benedictine Child Oblates at Eleventh-Century Canterbury Cathedral Priory.” University of Southern California, 2014. http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll3/id/423486

Hodgson, S. G. (2019). Climbing Ladders: Childhood and Monastic Formation in England, c.950-1200. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. (Can be found here.)

Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009. (This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)

Quinn, P. A. (1989). Better Than The Sons of Kings: Boys and Monks in the Early Middle Ages (Vol. 2, Studies in History and Culture). New York: Peter Lang Publishing,.

The Rule of Saint Benedict: Chapter Forty-Six, What a Monk Should Do When He Commits a Minor Fault

Today’s chapter of The Rule of Saint Benedict is titled “Of those who Offend in any other Matters” (Saint Benedict, pg. 61). It describes what a monk should do if he does something wrong. This is the last chapter that focuses on minor faults. (I have discussed major faults here, how monks are to make satisfaction for their behavior here, and what a monk is to do when he messes up in church here.)

The Beginning of Chapter Forty Six of The Rule of Saint Benedict | Harley MS 5431 f.74r | Source: The British Library

As you can tell from the chapter title, in Chapter Forty-Six Saint Benedict explains what a monk is to do when he “commit any fault, or break or lose anything, or transgress in any other way” (SB, pg. 61). Unlike in Chapter Forty-Five, which just focuses on mistakes made in church, this part of the text is about every other place in a monastery where someone can misbehave. (Which is everywhere of course!) However Saint Benedict does give us some examples of places:

“…while at work in the kitchen or the cellar, in serving the brethren, in the bake-house or the garden, or at any other occupation or in any place whatever…” (SB, pg. 61)

In Terrence G. Kardong’s translation and commentary on The Rule of Saint Benedict, he points out how the language here is specifically used to close up any potential loopholes a monk may try to find to get himself out of trouble (Kardong, pg. 368). By being both very specific and incredibly vague, there are very few loopholes someone can find to get away with their behavior. If there are any at all!

So what is a monk to do when he does make some kind of transgression? Well, he’s certainly not supposed to hide his mistake, that’s for sure! Instead, a monk is to “come immediately before the Abbot and community” (SB, pg. 61) and confess. Though I will note that “immediately” is probably used more in a figurative sense. If a monk is working in the fields and his shovel breaks due to his carelessness it’s not exactly convenient for him to gather the entire community just to announce he broke a tool. Instead, it’s more likely Saint Benedict means that “one must wait for an opportune time, but not a time convenient to oneself” (K, pg. 369). After confessing the fault, the monk is instructed to “make satisfaction” (SB, pg. 61).

That being said, Saint Benedict is aware that not everyone is going to come forward freely and admit their mistakes. Some monks may try to hide it in hopes no one noticed or that their actions won’t be traced back to him. In case anyone thinks they can get away with this, Saint Benedict gives his monastic audience a harsh warning:

“…if [the wrongdoing] is made known by another, he shall be subjected to more severe correction.” (SB, pg. 61)

Not only will the monk be punished for his actions, but because he tried to hide it. It should be noted that at the daily chapter meetings, monks would have a chance to admit “their own faults and sometimes the faults of others” (K, pg. 369). Kardong wisely points out how it’s extremely easy for someone to go from reporting the wrongs of others to being a straight up snitch (K, pg. 369). I can imagine a petty monk falling into this habit! 

Despite the text’s harshness, Saint Benedict recognizes that not all mistakes and wrongdoings may be easy to confess to the entire community. Some wrongdoings are “hidden in [the monk’s] own soul” (SB, pg. 61). Or in other words, the bad thing he did might still just be a thought and not an action. Saint Benedict isn’t specific regarding these, but it’s easy to imagine that he could be referring to angry, jealous, mean, and lustful thoughts. (Among other negative emotions!) Because these sins have not directly affected the community but they do affect the monk’s spiritual health (K, pg. 370) it’s very important that the monk tells “it to the Abbot only, or to his spiritual seniors, who know how to heal their own wounds” (SB, pg. 61). Furthermore, it’s vital that the person whose advice is being sought “not disclose or publish those of others” (SB, pg. 61). 

Basically, Saint Benedict recommends that the monk with negative thoughts go to someone more experienced for counseling on how to deal with them and that the conversation remains private. It’s wise that Saint Benedict clarifies that a monk can go to someone other than the abbot for his problems. The abbot won’t be available at all times and he may not even be all that good at handling certain personal issues (K, pg. 370). For example, if a monk is having problems with gambling, it would be best to discuss it with a monk who grew up in the world and not an abbot who has lived in a monastery since the age of seven. And yes, there are records of medieval monks playing with dice and doing other not so holy things (Kerr, pg. 134)! It’s also wise that things are to be kept private. It would be very embarrassing if another monk blabbed to the community every little detail of Brother So and So’s struggles with lust!

 

Main Sources:

  • Saint Benedict. Blair, D. Oswald Hunter, translator. The Rule of Saint Benedict, With Explanatory Notes. Ichthus Publications.

(I bought my copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict on Amazon. You can purchase my edition of it here.)

(This version on Project MUSE was available to download for free in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is no longer accessible to the general public, I’ve included a link to it in case you have access to it through a university account or some other way.)

Other Sources:

Wikipedia’s overview of The Rule of Saint Benedict to double-check my interpretations of the text. Link to that article here.

  • Kerr, Julie. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum, 2009.

(This book can be purchased here. Some of it can be found here on Google books. It can also be accessed on ProQuest Ebook Central.)