Many aspects of life in the Middle Ages may puzzle the modern reader, but some are stranger than others. What can possibly explain the following event reported from Orford Castle, in Suffolk? This is an amazing tale and was told by Ralph of Coggeshall in about 1205. Ralph reports an incident that happened about 40 years earlier.
Men fishing in the sea caught in their nets a wild man. He was naked and was like a man in all his members, covered with hair and with a long shaggy beard. He eagerly ate whatever was brought to him, but if it was raw he pressed it between his hands until all the juice was expelled. He would not talk, even when tortured and hung up by his feet. Brought into church, he showed no signs of reverence or belief. He sought his bed at sunset and always remained there until sunrise. He was allowed to go into the sea, strongly guarded with three lines of nets, but he dived under the nets and came up again and again. Eventually he came back of his own free will. But later on he escaped and was never seen again.
Parts of this story are really shocking. The guards at Orford castle were curious: what language did the strange man speak? So they tortured him just to satisfy their curiosity. It is disturbing to note how Ralph reports this atrocity without any negative comment, in the same way that Walter Map (as we shall shortly see) reported the sexual abuse of a supposed fairy-woman.
‘As to whether this was a mortal man, or some fish pretending human shape, or was an evil spirit hiding in the body of a drowned man’, Ralph could not say. And neither can we. Whatever was going on at Orford, if anything at all, is now lost to us. But what Ralph commented next is particularly interesting. He then casually remarked: ‘. . . so many wonderful things of this kind are told by many to whom they happened.’ So, apparently, Ralph was getting news of events like this all the time. For him it was just an everyday story of mermen and monsters.
Monks, like Ralph of Coggeshall, who wrote the great medieval chronicles occupied a position midway between historians and journalists, and their position on that line depended on their personal interest and inclination. As well as recording events from the past up to their own time (using whatever sources of information were available to them and often simply copying existing histories), their other main objective was to record the news and events of their own day. These events were frequently written down as a fairly contemporary record. But before this causes anyone to assume their reliability, it must be remembered that these medieval chroniclers interpreted and judged, gossiped and condemned and were often highly selective in both their choice of events to record and the interpretation they placed on them. This was particularly the case if the event in some way affected the religious house of which they were a member. Surviving chronicles range from sober – if at times biased – accounts of political and religious developments through to more sensational records of signs and marvels. It is this latter type of document which forms the basis of this chapter. We frequently do not know the sources of the wilder tales but, nevertheless, they offer us a view into the mindset, world view and cosmic view of the Middle Ages. They need to be set alongside the evidence on town trade, church building and manor court judgements if we really want to get the ‘full flavour’ of living in medieval England.
Signs and marvels in the sky
As the location of heaven in the medieval world view, it is not surprising that unusual events which occurred in the sky were held to be of particular importance. Some of these, as recorded in medieval chronicles, are inexplicable as natural phenomena. One of these would be that recorded in theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 685: ‘In this year in Britain it rained blood, and milk and butter were turned into blood’. Some are more easily imagined as unusual arrangements of clouds, such as this account, again from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 773: ‘In this year a red cross appeared in the sky after sunset. This same year the Mercians and the Kentishmen fought at Otford; and strange adders were seen in Sussex.’ What is revealed in this description is the belief that such an event must signify something – it was a sign. While the chronicler does not actually say there was a link between the red cross and the battle, a connection is implied. Occasionally a marvellous event is noted but no link made, such as in the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclefor 806: ‘On 4 June the sign of the holy cross appeared in the moon one Wednesday at dawn’. However, more usually such a sign would be seen as a portent of some kind. A clear combination of natural events and supernatural signs comes from 793 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It refers to the sacking of the monastery of Lindisfarne in a Viking raid.
In this year terrible portents appeared over Northumbria, and miserably frightened the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning [‘exceptional high winds and flashes of lightning’ in manuscript D], and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these signs; and a little after that in the same year on 8 January the harrying of the heathen miserably destroyed God’s church in Lindisfarne.
Strange sights in the sky are found in a great many chronicler’s accounts. In The Chronicle of John of Worcester, under the year 1048, is a reference which may refer to severe lightning: ‘A great earthquake occurred on Sunday, 1 May at Worcester, Droitwich, Derby and many other places. Sudden death for man and beast swept many regions of England, and fire in the air, commonly called wildfire, burnt many townships and cornfields in Derbyshire and several other regions.’ The same chronicler records a series of events which may be references to a comet, under the year 1106.
On Friday, 16 February, in the first week of Lent, a strange star appeared in the evening, and shone in the same shape and at the same time between the south and the west for twenty-five days. It seemed small and dark, but the lustre which shone from it was extremely bright, and darts of light, like huge beams, flashed into the same star from east and the north. Many said that they saw several unusual stars at the same time. On the night of Maundy Thursday [22 March], two moons were seen, a little before dawn, one in the east and the other in the west, and both were full, for this moon was fourteen days old.
What is unusual in this account is that John of Worcester was content to leave it as a simple observation. A more usual approach would have been to consider it a sign of some kind. A good example of this is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1107: ‘Many declared that they saw various portents in the moon during the year, and its light waxing and waning contrary to nature.’ A similar entry survives from 1122: ‘On the Tuesday after Palm Sunday, 22 March, there was a very violent wind; after which numerous portents appeared far and wide in England, and many illusions were seen and heard.’ While the writer of these entries was not able to decode the ‘portents’, Henry of Huntingdon, in The History of the English People, saw a clear connection between bad government and signs in the sky. ‘In this year , due to the king’s pressing needs, England was squeezed by repeated gelds [taxes] and various exactions. Then there were storms of thunder and hail on 1 December, and in the same month the sky appeared red, as if on fire.’ Similarly, Ralph of Coggeshall, in his English Chronicle, was prepared to trace a political connection at the end of the twelfth century: ‘It is said, the appearance of a comet, visible even in daylight, prefigured the death of King Richard I.’ And for 1194: ‘Two strange circles in the sky presaged storms and famine.’ The same approach is found in a number of other chronicles, such as in the Chronicles of Edward I and Edward II: ‘In 1233 there appeared in the sky four suns, in addition to the true one, beyond the boundaries of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. This was a sure portent of the slaughter to follow in the Marches [in the Marshall Rebellion].’
At other times the accounts are simply impossible to decipher and we do not know if we are reading an elaborated description of a natural event or a tale which has grown hugely in the telling so that it bears little resemblance to any real occurrence. These – lesssigns and more marvels – are accounts of strange and striking events which embellish many medieval records and which are often recorded alongside straightforward accounts of Church and government. They clearly appealed to a sense of the supernatural, even when the events described did not have any apparent spiritual meaning. John of Worcester, for example, claims – in a very long and complex account – that in 1130 a bright light in the sky moved in and out of a cloud and that: ‘In shape and size it was like a small pyramid, broad at the bottom, and narrow at the top.’ Furthermore, something like a plank seemed to balance on the cloud. The description is hard to follow and even harder to visualize. However, John was determined to defend the accuracy of his account, claiming that: ‘This was seen by the clerks of St Guthlac in Hereford castle. It was also seen by the watchmen in Brecon castle as well as in Herefordshire by the shepherds watching their flocks that same night. I have written down what I have heard. May Christ’s mercy save us!’ A similarly puzzling event at Dunstable (Bedfordshire) is recorded by William of Newburgh, in The History, under the year 1188. According to William, observers one afternoon saw: ‘in the clear atmosphere the form of the banner of the Lord, conspicuous by its milky whiteness, and joined to it the figure of a man crucified, such as is painted in the church in remembrance of the passion of the Lord, and for the devotion of the faithful.’ What is particularly interesting in this account is the chronicler’s conclusion: ‘Let everyone interpret this wonderful sight as he pleases . . . What the Divinity may have intended to signify by it, I know not.’ Such reticence in interpreting God’s will was not always so apparent.
This phenomenon may have been a cloud formation, and this certainly seems the most likely explanation of an event recorded by Matthew Paris, in his Major Chronicles, under the year 1254. As witnessed by a group of monks from St Alban’s Abbey, staying at Redbourne (Hertfordshire), ‘there appeared in the sky, wonderful to relate, the form of a large ship, well shaped, and of remarkable design and colour’. A similar explanation seems likely to explain the ‘battle formation of warriors’ which appeared in the sky in Suffolk in 1285, according to John of Oxenedes, and the red and blue banners which seemed to clash with each other according to Knighton’s Chronicle, 1337–1396, for the summer of 1355. However, this may be better explained as an example of the Aurora Borealis, but seen particularly far south. When the same chronicler records night fires which appeared to follow travellers in 1388, he was possibly describing static electricity, or St Elmo’s fire.
Signs and marvels on (and in) the Earth
The sky was not the only place in which it was thought signs of divine origin might be seen; the Earth too was a place of portents. Henry of Huntingdon recounted events from 1144 in which churches were fortified against King Stephen by Robert Marmion and by Earl Geoffrey de Mandeville. As a result, ‘blood bubbled out of the walls of the church and the adjacent cloister, clearly demonstrating the divine wrath and prophesying the destruction of the wrongdoers.’ Henry went on to catalogue the way in which this judgement of God was seen in the lives of those involved in this outrage. Robert Marmion was killed; Earl Geoffrey died excommunicated; his son was captured and exiled; the commander of the earl’s knights fell from his horse and died with his brains pouring out; the commander of the earl’s foot soldiers was becalmed at sea, placed in a boat with his wife and some stolen money and sucked down by a whirlpool. Henry of Huntingdon was not alone in interpreting such ‘signs’ as portents. Thomas Walsingham, in The St Albans Chronicle, 1376–1394, also felt he discerned a message in unusual events which occurred in 1385: ‘Four days after this storm [thunder and lightning in 1385] an earthquake occurred around nine o’clock in the evening, portending perhaps the pointless trouble between the two kings of England and France, who had now assembled enormous armies.’
However, as with the signs in the sky, some of those recorded on Earth are marvels designed to astonish. William of Newburgh, for example, has a story of two dogs which were discovered ‘On splitting a vast rock, with wedges, in a certain quarry’. The animals were, he claims, actually inside the rock. As if to support the reality of the claim he added that, while one of these dogs died, the other was ‘for many days fondled by Henry, Bishop of Winchester’ [Henry of Blois, bishop 1129–71]. In another quarry William claimed that ‘there was found a beautiful double stone, that is, a stone composed of two stones, joined with some very adhesive matter’. And inside this stone was ‘a toad, having a small golden chain around its neck’. On the bishop’s order the stone and toad were reburied. William himself believed these were made by evil angels to puzzle mankind and to capture their attention.
A related kind of marvel of secrets from within the Earth is recorded by Matthew Paris. He claimed that in 1236, near Roche Abbey (Yorkshire), ‘bands of well-armed knights, riding on valuable horses, with standards and shields, coats of mail and helmets, and decorated with other military equipments’ appeared from out of the ground and vanished back into it again. With this, though, we may be entering into a long tradition of other worlds existing beneath the ground. This, no doubt, had featured in pre-Christian beliefs and continued – adapted – into the Middle Ages. Sometimes this shows itself in beliefs in fairy worlds. At other times it appears in traditions of parallel universes existing under the ground. Sometimes the hidden realms are hostile; sometimes friendly; at other times neutral. While these accounts were recorded by literate Churchmen it seems clear that, in many cases, the Christian concepts of heaven and hell, realms of being and spiritual worlds were stretched by medieval folklore to accept ‘other worlds’ which had no relationship with Biblical concepts.
This idea of fairy realms appears strongly in the account, by Walter Map, of a legendary Saxon named Edric ‘the Wild’. In a collection of wondrous and engaging stories, called, appropriately, Courtiers’ Trifles, Walter recounted how Edric was travelling by night through ‘wild country, uncertain of his path’ when he chanced on a house within which were dancing women, ‘most comely to look upon, and finely clad in fair habits of linen only, and were greater and taller than our women.’ Edric is attracted to one and tries to seize her – despite, according to Map, being aware of tales of vengeance being done to men who disturb such groups of beings described as ‘nightly squadrons of devils’. Despite being injured by the other women, he succeeded in capturing this dancer. ‘He took her with him, and for three days and nights used her as he would, yet could not wring a word from her.’ It is remarkable how calmly Walter retells this tale of what is clearly the kidnapping, rape and sex slavery of this unfortunate ‘fairy woman’. This in itself tells us a lot about medieval male attitudes towards women and sex. In the story, the fairy woman finally agrees to marry Edric so long as he never mentions her fairy origins, or the women with whom she was dancing. However, when some time later he returns and she is not at home he forgets his promise and ‘. . . called her and bade her be summoned, and because she was slow to come said, with an angry look: “Was it your sisters that kept you so long?” The rest of his abuse was addressed to the air, for when her sisters were named she vanished.’ Edric then pined away and died. Incidentally, Edric was an Anglo-Saxon thegn who held manors in Shropshire and Herefordshire in 1066 and lived until about 1072. He revolted against Norman rule but eventually made peace with William the Conqueror. Attacks from the woodland gave him his nickname silvaticus (‘woodman, wildman’). He was mentioned by the Norman historian Orderic Vitalis as living ‘wild in the woods’.
Walter Map does not explicitly refer to a fairy world under the ground, but this was its usual location in such folklore. William of Newburgh claimed that at Woolpits (Suffolk):
two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations [wolf pits]. While wandering through the fields in astonishment, they were seized by the reapers, and conducted to the village, and many persons coming to see so novel a sight, they were kept some days without food.
The children refused to eat anything until offered raw beans, which they eagerly ate. They ate this for many months until they got used to bread. Slowly their colour changed, ‘through the natural effect of our food’ and they learnt English. They were baptized but the boy soon died; however the girl survived and was soon indistinguishable from a local girl. Later she married at King’s Lynn and lived in the area. They claimed they came from ‘the land of St Martin’. This appearance was supposed to have happened in the reign of Stephen. Ralph of Coggeshall, who places the appearance in the reign of Henry II, also told this tale. He claimed he gained his information from Sir Richard de Calne, in whose household the children lived. William himself wrote that he did not believe the story but that ‘I have been compelled to believe, and wonder over a matter, which I was unable to comprehend, or unravel, by any powers of intellect’. What compelled him was the supposedly large number of witnesses of this event. What is particularly interesting in this story is that the two children were supposed to have come out of pits dug to catch wolves. This connection with ‘the wild’ and with a way into the earth puts the story firmly into the category of fairy folklore.
William of Newburgh collected more than one such story, and another was set in Yorkshire. A peasant returning home one night heard singing which seemed to come from inside a hill. Investigating an open doorway into the hill, he found a room inside where men and women were feasting. Offered a drink, he poured out the contents but left with the cup. He was pursued but escaped with a cup ‘of unknown material, unusual colour, and strange form’. It was, claims William later, ‘offered as a great present to Henry the elder, king of England [Henry I], and then handed over to the queen’s brother, David, king of Scotland, and deposited for many years among the treasures of his kingdom.’
A similar and traditional association of a fairy hill and an other-wordly drink is found in the collection of stories Recreation for An Emperor, written by Gervase of Tilbury. The location of his fairy hill appears to have been in the Forest of Dean (Gloucestershire). There:
In a leafy glade of this forest was a hillock, which rose to a man’s height . . . if anyone strayed a long way from his companions and climbed it alone, and then, though alone, said ‘I’m thirsty’, as if he were speaking to someone else, at once to his surprise, there would be a cupbearer standing at his side, in rich attire, with a merry face, and holding in his outstretched hand a large horn, adorned with gold and jewels.
According to Gervase the drink was delicious – but strange – and refreshed the weary. Once more the motif emerges of theft of a fairy drinking vessel. In this case a knight steals the horn. However, his overlord condemned the thief, confiscated the horn and presented it to Henry I. Why this particular king is singled out by both William of Newburgh and Gervase of Tilbury is difficult to say.
Gervase of Tilbury also collected a story of a swineherd who pursued a pig into a cave at Peak Castle, near Castleton (Derbyshire) and:
came out from the darkness into a light place, and found that he had emerged into wide open fields; advancing into the countryside, which was cultivated all round, he found harvesters gathering in crops, and in the midst of the hanging ears of corn he recognised the sow, which had dropped its litter of several piglets.
The story was told to Gervase by Robert, Prior of Kenilworth [Warwickshire], who was a native of the Castleton area. He was prior 1160–86. In the story the swineherd was received in a friendly manner and allowed to go home with his pigs. On returning home he found it was still winter, although it had been summer in ‘the other world’.
The idea of a person vanishing into another world and then returning is also found in the Chronicles of the reigns of Edward I and II, although in this case there is no hint of what this ‘other place’ was like:
In the summer of 1315 a boy of fourteen was taken, completely naked, in the parish of St Botolph outside Bishopgate in London. No one knew what had become of him. A day later he was returned to the place from which he had vanished, to tell of many marvels.
Other supernatural beings occur in medieval accounts and show the persistence of pre-Christian beliefs in fairy folk, goblins and other similar creatures. Gervase of Tilbury records a belief in creatures that he names as ‘portunes’, which appear in peasants’ houses at night:
warming themselves at the fire and eating little frogs which they bring out of their pockets and roast on the coals. They have an aged appearance, and a wrinkled face; they are very small in stature, measuring less than half a thumb, and they wear tiny rags sewn together.
Gervase believed these creatures were not dangerous, but this was not the case with creatures he named as ‘grants’:
It is like a yearling colt, prancing on its hind legs, with sparkling eyes. This kind of demon very often appears in the streets in the heat of the day or at about sunset, and whenever it is seen, it gives warning of an imminent fire in that city or neighbourhood.
Gervase clearly had a great interest in such traditions, as he also gives an account of an event he believed occurred in Inglewood forest, near Penrith (Cumbria). While hunting there, a knight was caught in a violent thunderstorm and suddenly caught sight of a ‘huge dog running with fire darting from its jaws’. This creature, Gervase explains:
entered the house of a priest on the outskirts of the same town, passing through the doors though they were shut against it, and it set fire to the house together with the unlawfully begotten family.
In this one account the chronicler brings together two medieval intellectual strands. The first is a widespread belief in other-world beings. The second is an assumption that misfortune indicates punishment for sin. In this case the offence is in the form of a married priest, who has resisted the Church pressure (which was increasing from the twelfth century onwards) for celibacy.
Signs and marvels in the water
The idea that natural events reflected problems in society was a common medieval belief. This could show itself in a number of ways, and pools ‘bubbling blood’ was a striking one. There are a number of examples; the most famous ones are linked with Finchampstead, in Berkshire. The first time this claim appears is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1098.
In the summer of this year, in Berkshire at Finchampstead, a pool bubbled up blood, as many faithful witnesses reported who were said to have seen it. Before Michaelmas the sky appeared almost the whole night as if it were on fire. This was a very disastrous year because of excessive taxation, and on account of the heavy rains which did not leave off throughout the whole year.
This event made a deep impression on medieval writers. Henry of Huntingdon, in an entry written by 1154, recorded the same phenomenon. ‘1098. In summer blood was seen to bubble up from a certain pool at Finchampstead in Berkshire. After this the heaven appeared to burn nearly all night.’ In Henry’s record this follows a description of William II fighting rebellions and demanding heavy taxes.
Bad king . . . high taxes . . . pools bubbling blood. Henry does not make the link explicitly but the connection is clear: William II was a bad king because his rule caused rebellions and led to high taxes, and the natural world protested (the blood-red spring). If anybody had missed the connection, Henry recorded another outpouring of the spring in 1100: ‘A little earlier [Henry has just described the death of William II in the New Forest] blood was seen to bubble up from the ground in Berkshire.’ So, the spring which had protested at William II’s bad government now sent out another signal when he was murdered. Clearly, royal murder upset the natural world even when the king was bad.
The same connection between bad government and springs flowing with blood was made by William of Malmesbury, in The History of the English Kings, written in about 1126.
In the thirteenth year of William’s reign , which was the year of his death, there were many sinister occurrences; among others, this was the most terrifying, that the Devil visibly appeared to men in woods and byways, and spoke to passers by. Besides which, in the village of Hampstead in Berkshire for fifteen days on end a spring ran blood so abundantly that a nearby pool was stained with it. The king heard of these things and laughed, caring nothing either for his own dreams about himself, or for what other people saw.
For William of Malmesbury it was important to show how the king reacted. It revealed what a bad king he was and this made it clear that the bloody spring was making a point about his bad rule and his bad attitude.
But this was not the end of the Finchampstead spring. In 1103 it was active again and once more the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle linked it to problems in the land:
In this year too, at Finchampstead in Berkshire, blood was seen coming from the ground. It was a very disastrous year here in this country by reason of numerous taxes and also as a result of murrain [cattle disease] and the ruin of the harvest . . .
Again, Henry of Huntingdon – writing about 50 years after this event – was sure that the event was once more linked to bad politics. ‘Blood was seen to bubble up from the ground at Finchampstead. In the course of the next year the king and his brother were at odds over several matters.’
It is clear that pools ‘bubbling with blood’ were a major event at Finchampstead – so much so that the reports of it were picked up by so many medieval chroniclers. The connection with some kind of national disaster was made by every one of them (high taxes, rebellions, death of the king, cattle diseases, poor harvests). A pool bubbling blood just had to be a sign of trouble in the land. It had to be some kind of pointer to just how bad a state the country was in. It was as if the natural world had to respond to problems in the human world; to act like a mirror. This is hardly surprising since red-coloured water suggests that the earth is bleeding.
In addition, to the Biblically aware medieval writers the springs flowing with blood-coloured water would have reminded them of the first plague of Egypt, when the river Nile turned to blood (Exodus, chapter 7, verses 14–24). Pools bubbling with ‘blood’ would suggest God’s judgement on human sins. In the same way, the Book of Revelation (chapter 16, verse 4),1 talks of one of God’s judgements just before the end of the world as being ‘. . . on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood.’
The coincidence of political unrest, an unpopular ruler, poor harvests and ‘blood-red’ springs will have meant only one thing to medieval writers. It was a sign of the anger of God. So, what was going on in Finchampstead? There is probably a very simple explanation for what was happening. There are 4,000 known species of red algae in the world and, though they are often present in tropical marine waters, they can also be found in fresh water. Their colour is due to a red pigment reflecting red light and absorbing blue light. The most likely explanation for the events at Finchampstead is red algae bloom in the water. The fact that two records clearly describe it as a summer event support this likelihood. Increased summer temperatures, along with excess nutrients, encourages the growth of algae. In the same way, modern summer heat has led to related blue-green algae in lakes, poisoning dogs who drank from it. The presence of red (and possibly semi-toxic) water will have been a very striking occurrence; especially at a time of political, or social, unrest. Sadly, the spring in question was destroyed by road widening in the early twentieth century.
The Westminster Chronicle, 1381–1394, records another way in which strange water phenomena were thought to be portents of great events:
On 1 February  near Abingdon the bed of the river Thames was empty of water for the length of a bowshot; and remained so for an hour, conveying a striking omen of events that were to follow [The crisis at the Westminster Parliament between Richard II and earls accused of plotting against him].
John of Worcester records a similarly strange event which happened in 1110:
Amazing things occurred all over England. At Shrewsbury there was a large earthquake. At Nottingham, from dawn right up to the third hour, a mile of the Trent dried up so that men walked along its channel dryshod. A comet appeared on 8 June and was visible for three weeks.
The clue here probably lies in the earthquake. It is not at all unusual for earthquakes to disturb springs and rivers. Unlike the Westminster chronicler, John of Worcester does not speculate as to the possible meaning of the event, although his tone suggests he felt something significant was happening.
As with other medieval records of wondrous events, some chroniclers also record accounts of marvellous creatures whose activities are not interpreted as portents but who form part of the medieval fascination with strange animals. In this fascination real creatures mix with mythological beasts but both are treated with the same level of seriousness. It is this absence of observational criticism which most clearly differentiates the medieval from the modern study of nature. However, it has to be remembered that popular modern interest still focuses on such things as the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot and the Abominable Snowman. In this respect there is little difference between some modern and medieval outlooks. And some cases – such as the Big Cat sightings in England – may occupy the mysterious twilight zone of possibly being based on real animals.
Gervase of Tilbury reports without comment on the existence of sirens off the British coast.
They have a female head, long, shining hair, a woman’s breasts, and all the limbs of the female form down to the navel; the rest of their body tails off as a fish. With the immense sweetness of their singing these creatures so penetrate the hearts of passing sailors that they succumb utterly to the sensuous enticement of their ears; they become forgetful of their duty, and very often suffer shipwreck through carelessness.
In this report, Gervase was giving a British location for something he would have known about from his reading of classical sources. However, classical sirens, such as those described by the Roman poet Ovid (born 43 BC), were half bird/half woman. By about AD700 descriptions of mermaid forms first appear. However, a beautiful woman with a fish’s tail had earlier appeared in the Latin writings of Horace (born 65 BC). By the mid-twelfth century the idea of the fish-woman was well established, though the bird-woman still sometimes appeared in some accounts. The location of sirens in English waters may simply have occurred due to a desire to link classical creatures with a familiar location. On the other hand, it may have been stimulated by the presence of seals on sandbanks. Nothing so simple, though, would seem to explain the Merman of Orford Castle described at the start of this chapter, and this fascinating claim must stand as an example of one of the strangest reports of marvels from the Middle Ages.
Another curious claim – given the ease of testing it as being false – is found in the mid-thirteenth-century Bestiary MS Bodley 764, which contains a strange tale about a bird which sounds like a confused combination of a kingfisher and a dipper. But the most amazing things about this bird, according to this writer, are that ‘If, after they have died, they are kept in a dry place, they never putrefy.’ As if this was not strange enough: ‘what is even more extraordinary, if they are hung by the beak in a dry place, they renew their plumage each year, as if some part of the living spirit was dormant in the remains.’ This astonishing claim refers to birds in Ireland, but the description of the birds and their natural habits would clearly have applied to kingfishers in England too. Perhaps the fact that the Irish birds were in another land seemed to justify them having particularly strange characteristics.
More easily understood is the medieval tradition regarding barnacle geese. When is a bird a fish? This was a serious question, according to Gervase of Tilbury. He wrote about an odd tradition near Faversham Abbey in Kent:
Small trees grow on the sea-shore, about the size of willows. From them nodes sprout but when they have grown for the time allotted in creation, they take on the shape of little birds.
Now this might seem odd enough, but:
At the end of the number of days required by nature, these birds hang down by their beaks and come to life with a light fluttering of their wings; then they drop into the sea. Sometimes they are caught by the locals, but sometimes they go free on the ocean-waves, escaping human grasp. These birds grow to the size of small geese.
The intriguing thing is that this is not the first time this claim was made. This legend was first recorded by an Arab writer in the tenth century AD. Similar descriptions are found in other medieval writings. But the reason why medieval monks were so interested was because:
In the season of Lent they are roasted and eaten, their manner of birth being taken into consideration for this rather than the fact that they taste of meat. The people call this bird the barnacle-goose.
This was not an isolated record of this impact of the supposed origin of barnacle geese on medieval fasting habits. The Bestiary MS Bodley 764 claimed that: ‘In some parts of Ireland, bishops and men of religion eat them during times of fasting without committing a sin, because they are neither flesh, nor born of flesh.’ Ranulf Higden, in The Universal Chronicle (written in about 1320), also knew about this belief:
The barnacle geese grew from trees, and hung by their beaks like the shellfish that clings to timber. When they were covered with feathers, they either fell into the water, or else flew away. They were eaten on fasting-days because . . .
At which point Ranulf reveals that he’s not convinced, because ‘they were supposed not to be born from animals, but none the less these birds were flesh’.
The reasons for this tale of an animal-wonder are fairly obvious. Barnacle geese flock on the sea shore when on migration. Now, large barnacles look a bit like eggs, plus the egg cases of fish such as ray, dogfish and skate are often found on the sea shore. Those produced by dogfish have tendrils used to attach the egg case to seaweed. They actually look like seaweed. This clearly encouraged the idea that these eggs were in some way connected to the flocking geese. The attraction of this belief, for some, clearly lay in the fact that it made it acceptable to eat roast goose in Lent. How far this was followed is impossible to know, and it may be that it only occurred in isolated incidents.
The walking dead
There was a very strong medieval fear of revenants, or the walking dead. The popularity of these stories may reflect the strength of Church teaching on making a good death through being confessed and absolved, receiving the Last Rites and being in a good relationship with the Church. What had its roots in common folklore tales of ghosts soon became an educational tool to encourage the correct attitude towards preparation for death. Interestingly, while clerical writers explained the walking dead as being re-animated by demons, more popular accounts stressed that they were those who had experienced a bad death coming back to life to harm the living. The 30 days after death were seen as particularly important in assisting the dead through purgatory by prayers and the saying of Masses. Prayers over new graves, for a period after death, both assisted the dead and protected the living as the buried body experienced decomposition.
One of the most striking accounts of revenants is found in the Life and Miracles of St Modwenna, written by Geoffrey of Burton. It involved two villeins living in Stapenhill (Derbyshire, now Staffordshire) under the jurisdiction of the Abbot of Burton. These villeins, seeking to escape their servile status, ran away to a nearby village called Drakelow – as Geoffrey put it, in a defence of the social status quo, ‘wrongfully leaving their lords, the monks’. The next day – on their first day of illicit freedom – the two men dropped dead and their bodies were returned to Stapenhill for burial. However, this was not the end, as:
they appeared at evening, while the sun was still up, at Drakelow, carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried. The whole following night they walked through the paths and fields of the village, now in the shape of men carrying wooden coffins on their shoulders, now in the likeness of bears or dogs or other animals. They spoke to the other peasants, banging on the walls of their houses and shouting.
This horrific visitation took place every evening and night for some time, until a terrible disease broke out in the village of Drakelow and killed all its inhabitants except three. The manorial lord of the village, who earlier had been willing to accept the runaway villains, was Count Roger the Poitevin. In desperation he paid compensation to the abbey, via the reeve of the village, one of the three survivors. The local bishop then gave permission to exhume the bodies of these walking dead from their graves.
They found them intact, but the linen cloths over their faces were stained with blood. They cut off the men’s heads and placed them in the graves between their legs, tore out the hearts from their corpses, and covered the bodies with earth again. They brought the hearts to the place called Dodecrossefora/Dodefreseford and there burned them from morning until evening. When they had at last been burned up, they cracked with a great sound and everyone there saw an evil spirit in the form of a crow fly from the flames. Soon after this was done both the disease and the phantoms ceased.
Two sick villagers recovered and gave thanks to St Modwenna, and thereafter Drakelow became a deserted medieval village. This account is a concise piece of theological and social engineering. It combines warnings about dying with unconfessed sins with defence of the Church’s rights to demand villein service from its tenants (who should accept their lot). It also warns neighbouring lords not to poach labourers from Church-run manors. Furthermore, it was accounted to the credit of St Modwenna, the saint that Geoffrey particularly venerated.
There are many such stories. Walter Map retells one in which:
. . . in the time of Roger, bishop of Worcester [bishop 1164–79], a man, reported to have died unChristianly, for a month or more wandered about in his shroud both at night and also in open day, till the whole population of the neighbourhood laid siege to him in an orchard, and there he remained exposed to view, it is said, for three days. I know further that this Roger ordered a cross to be laid upon the grave of the wretch, and the man himself to be let go. When, followed by the people, he came to the grave, he started back, apparently at the sight of the cross, and ran in another direction. Whereupon they wisely removed the cross: he sank into the grave, the earth closed over him, the cross was laid upon it and he remained quiet.
This is a classic of the revenant genre of stories. The episode opens with a ‘bad death’ and is resolved when the bishop excommunicates the walking corpse.
Walter’s book contained a number of these warning tales. One, set in Northumberland, is similar to the Stapenhill/Drakelow story in its relatively crude defence of Church manorial rights and worldly power. In this next story, a knight is shocked by the appearance of his dead father. The walking dead asked for a priest to be called. The priest duly arrived and:
. . . falling at his feet the ghost said: ‘I am that wretch who long ago you excommunicated unnamed, with many others, for unrighteous withholding of tithes; but the common prayers of the Church and the alms of the faithful have by God’s grace so helped me that I am permitted to ask for absolution.’ So being absolved he went, with a great train of people following, to his grave and sank into it, and it closed over him of its own accord.
At other times such stories betray their links to older traditions of fairies and other worlds. Such a story is that recounted by Walter Map, which is without the social and theological content of Geoffrey of Burton’s account of the dead villeins, or Walter’s own account of the dead father of the knight:
What are we to say of those cases of ‘fantasy’ which endure and propagate themselves in a good succession, as this of Alnoth . . . in which a knight is said to have buried his wife, who was really dead, and to have recovered her by snatching her out of a dance and after that to have got sons and grandsons by her, and that the line lasts to this day, and those who come of it have grown to a great number and are in consequence called ‘sons of the dead mother’.
William of Newburgh combines the two themes – the walking dead and Church authority – in an event said to have occurred in Buckinghamshire. In this account a dead man ‘entered the bed where his wife was reposing, he not only terrified her on awaking, but nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body’. This horrible event, for which William offered no explanation, continued every night for several days and then the dead man took to haunting others and appearing in the daytime too. At last the bishop of Lincoln became involved and wrote a letter of absolution – since he thought that the ‘usual’ response of digging up and burning the dead person’s body was improper. The letter was to be placed on the dead man’s body. When the grave was opened:
the corpse was found as it had been placed there, and the charter of absolution having been deposited upon its breast, and the tomb once more closed, he was thenceforth never more seen to wander.
From the twelfth century onwards bestiaries became very popular, with their illustrated accounts of strange and exotic animals. Many of these were purely mythological fantasies, while others are clearly based on garbled travellers’ tales of unusual animals, such as giraffes and rhinos. Mixed in with this was an intellectual trend which was relatively new in the twelfth century. This change in learned thinking reveals itself in some very unusual tales of marvels regarding crossbreeding, both animal and human.
Gerald of Wales recorded claims of human–animal crossbreeds in Wales and in Ireland and had a particular interest in horror stories connected with sex. Furthermore, he wrote ‘there was a beautiful woman’, but things were not as they appeared because she ‘turned into a hairy creature, rough and shaggy while in the embrace of a man.’ The message is a mixture of belief in werewolves (half wolf, half human) and fear of women. Gervase of Tilbury, who wrote in about 1200, also claimed: ‘I have known at least two werewolves, one of whom devoured infants.’ Though he doesn’t actually claim these werewolves were cross-breeds, his story is part of the same fear of mixed animals and people. Exactly who these ‘werewolves’ were is unknown. They might have been psychopathic child killers for whom the only suitable description was ‘werewolf’. Unfortunately, Gervase does not give us any more clues.
We now know that Gerald’s and Gervase’s ideas were part of a changing view of animals. We can see it in the writings of a number of chroniclers from the twelfth century onwards. Before this time, animals and people were thought of as being totally different. Cross-breeding between animals and people was not thought possible. However, it was thought possible that animals might in rather strange ways influence human reproduction, though not through actually cross-breeding. The Bestiary MS Bodley 764, written in about 1250 but based on manuscripts dating from the late Roman period and earlier, suggested that:
many people think that pregnant women should not look at ugly beasts such as apes and monkeys, in case they bring children into the world who resemble these caricatures. For women’s nature is such that they produce offspring according to the image they see or have in mind at the moment of ecstasy as they conceive.
However, from the time of Gerald of Wales onwards, writers began to think that maybe it was possible that humans and animals might breed and produce cross-breeds. This made fears about bestiality even more terrifying. It was no longer seen only as a sin affecting the sinful person. The fear grew that it might also create monsters. Gerald believed that in Ireland there already existed monsters which were half human and half animal. In fact, Gerald had an interest in cross-species monsters even when no human being was involved.
‘In our own days,’ he wrote in 1188 about the English/Welsh border country, ‘there was born a deer-cow. A stag mated with a cow. From this union there was born a deer-cow. All its forequarters as far back as the groin were bovine; but its rump, tail, legs and hoofs were like those of a deer, and it had a deer’s colouring and shaggy hair. It stayed with the herds, for it was more of a domestic animal than a wild one.’
Gerald also had another similar story. ‘Again in our time a bitch near here had a litter by a monkey and produced puppies which were ape-like in front but more like a dog behind.’ But in case anyone asked to see these amazing monkey-dogs, Gerald had an answer as to where the evidence had gone: ‘When the warden of the soldiers’ quarters [in the castle] saw them, he was amazed at these prodigies of nature. Their deformed and hybrid bodies revolted this country bumpkin.’ And so the ‘evidence’ vanished because: ‘He killed the whole lot of them out of hand with a stick. His master was very annoyed when he learned what had happened and the man was punished.’ Gerald was not alone in his beliefs. Medieval bestiaries claimed there were five types of monkey, or ape. One, called the cynocephalus, had the face of a dog and a long tail. It is possible that Gerald had heard of this and then, when he later heard local stories of deformed puppies, he concluded they were these monstrous animals.
Strange and unusual people
In a world in which disabilities were not subject to modern sensitivities and belief in equal opportunities, Matthew Paris recorded the occurrence on the Isle of Wight, in 1249, of a boy with greatly restricted height. ‘He was not a dwarf, for his limbs were of just proportions; he was hardly three feet tall but had ceased to grow’. What is disturbing is how he was treated because he ‘deviated’ from the accepted norm. ‘The queen ordered him to be taken around with her as a freak of nature to arouse the astonishment of onlookers.’ An even more negative assessment of difference was meted out to a child born in Hereford. Matthew asserts that: ‘Within half a year his teeth were fully grown and he was as tall as a youth of seventeen.’ We may reject the exaggerated height but we are clearly here dealing with an unusually accelerated development, which is not unknown in certain rare cases. What is most revealing is Matthew’s verdict on the cause of this unusual growth. He reports the belief, without qualification, that the child was ‘begotten it was said by a demon’ and, as a result, the ‘mother was taken ill after the birth, pined away, and died miserably. Both of these were freaks of nature, the latter exceeding man’s natural size, the former not attaining it.’
Matthew also combines condemnation of lesbianism with the idea that a hidden sin cannot remain hidden, in a report that:
A woman of gentle origins, free and unmarried, made another woman pregnant. Their names were Hawisia and Lucia and they had two sons. The third pregnancy horrified the mother who confessed.
This, of course, went against all medieval ideas concerning pregnancy, which held that the male was solely responsible and the woman entirely passive in the act of conception. Clearly Matthew was prepared to accept that, in exceptional circumstances, this process might be overturned in order to reveal sin. In reality, the event might have resulted from an elicit heterosexual relationship which, on discovery through pregnancy, was for some reason blamed on a lesbian relationship as a way of shielding the father. This, though, is speculation.
Strange as the above account is, some stories of medieval marvels are so astonishing that they defy any possible modern rational explanation. They simply stand as testimony to a nonscientific mindset and a fascination with the bizarre. How else are we to explain the following report from Friar Roger Bacon? He claimed: ‘A woman in Norwich, stout and of good stature, did not eat or excrete for twenty years. A fact proven in front of the bishop.’ It would be interesting to see the nature of the ‘proof’.
But perhaps the last word should go to the Chronicle of Adam Usk, 1377–1421. In a type of reporting which might be found in some modern tabloid newspapers, he claimed that:
During this parliament , two valets of the king who were dining in London found, in five eggs which were served up to them, the exact likeness of men’s faces in every detail, the white having congealed and separated from the faces above the forehead in place of hair before passing down the jowls to the chin; one of which I saw.
Which suggests that there is a capacity to be entertained by the bizarre which is timeless.