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 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

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