While digital demons have upped the horror ante, medieval ghost stories still have the power to chill writes Ettie Neil-Gallacher

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Ghost stories have all but disappeared from contemporary culture. Sure, the BBC trots out the occasional MR James at Christmas, but as a literary and screen genre, ghost stories have become unfashionable. Perhaps, in such a secular age, many people have lost interest in the spiritual dimension. Or is it because ghost stories have been replaced by horror, tailored for audiences who have become so inured to shock that the incremental, creeping fear of a good ghost story fails to satisfy? 

Which is a pity, because the best ghost stories are chillingly gripping. The brilliance of a good one invariably lies in its subtlety, as fans of MR James, the master of the craft, will attest. Malevolent forces don’t leap out, bearing the mark of the beast, and bludgeon the protagonist to death while chanting satanic incantations. Indeed, the denouement often doesn’t involve direct confrontation with the malign; the suggestions of its intentions are sufficient. 

Dogs howl a warning in Premonition by Henryk Weyssenhoff, circa 1893

Ghost stories are also an integral part of our history: they go much further back than MR James and Edwardian England – to even before the Norman Conquest. They had been stamped out by the early Church because of their associations with paganism, but as the first millennium approached, bringing with it eschatological fears of the approaching apocalypse, there was a marked increase. As monks and clerics were generally the only people who could write, many medieval ghost stories were taken down by them. The Church spotted an opportunity to use this interest in the undead to her advantage, and many of the stories that appeared were exempla: didactic warnings to the faithful. 

James himself was a great fan of one particular writer: the Monk of Byland. Writing around the turn of the 15th century, the anonymous monk transcribed, in Latin, a series of ghostly occurrences, as reported to him by people in North Yorkshire; Ampleforth, Gilling and Cleveland all feature. Fragments of a dozen of these remain and have been collected and published several times in the intervening centuries, including back in 1924 by MR James himself. It is an important collection because, apart from some Icelandic sagas, they are among the best-preserved medieval ghost story artefacts – and while they may not have the subtlety of MR James, they still have the power to chill. 

This is perhaps because the narrative is in some ways quite modern. Unlike earlier exempla, the Monk of Byland’s focus on the phantasmagorical details suggests that he was aware of the stories’ capacity to entertain. As noted by author Andrew Joynes, ‘the Monk of Byland seems to have been more concerned to record the eerie, grotesque, and fantastic details of ghostly occurrences than to draw moral conclusions from his stories’. 

The Monk of Byland Abbey wrote ghost stories at the turn of the 15th century

So, in the second fragment, a shape-shifting spirit seems to speak ‘as if it were on fire and his inner parts could be seen through his mouth and formed his words in his entrails’; in the fourth, the spirit of a rector gouges out the eyes of his concubine; in the fifth, an observer notes the hands of a woman carrying a ghost ‘sink deeply into the flesh as though it were rotten’. 

Perhaps the best story from the Monk of Byland’s transcript concerns a tailor called Snowball, who is visited by a spirit that appears variously as a crow, a dog, a goat and finally as ‘a mad, cadaverous king of the dead’. The spirit needs Snowball to atone for his sins by having Masses and prayers said. Snowball takes care to protect himself from the demons torturing the spirit – he uses the hilt of his sword as a cross and when he meets the spirit, he draws a circle around himself, placing four reliquaries around the edge to form the same shape. He is rewarded for his efforts by being tipped off about the need to make reparations for swindling a friend who was away fighting on one of the crusades. Byland’s narrative is engaging more than a millennium on, and his graphic descriptions of the way the spirit’s voice emerges from the intestines of the dog, and of the torments the devils inflict, are just the right side of gruesome.

Perhaps the best place to enjoy the Monk of Byland’s tales would be among the ruins of Byland Abbey, where they were written, on a darkening evening. Once one of the largest Cistercian monasteries in Britain, it was destroyed during Henry VIII’s great act of cultural vandalism. What remains, however, while redolent of its former splendour, would certainly be an eerie setting for exchanging tales of the undead. As Eleanor Jackson, curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library, has observed, “the crumbled walls are pensive with memories and secrets. The dramatic outline of a rose window gapes into the sky as though crying out from a past long distant but not wholly dead.” 

TOP THREE MEDIEVAL GHOST STORIES

While the Monk of Byland’s tales are perhaps most likely to appeal to contemporary readers, there are others that retain the capacity to unsettle. Some notable motifs recur, perhaps the most important of which is that returning spirits aren’t malevolent forces but appear because there is a wrong they need to right and they need the help of the living to atone for their sins and misdemeanours. What is striking about these is the gradations of misdemeanours: souls are prevented from entering Heaven for corruption, incest and black magic, as well as for whispering in choir, stealing silver spoons and, in one of the tales from the Monk of Byland, a hired farmhand overfed the oxen and allowed them to get away with some lacklustre ploughing. 

Women are often depicted as conniving and depraved – they are mistresses, witches and soothsayers. This is even true of the tales written by women themselves. ‘Marie’, a French writer in the 12th century, tells the story of Bisclavret (the werewolf), an honourable noblemen four days a week who disappears when he knows he is going to turn into his lupine alter ego. His seemingly devoted wife finds out and tricks him into staying in this state permanently until he exacts his revenge, attacking her and biting her nose off. Thereafter, all her female descendants are born without noses.

The Witch of Berkeley, who practised the dark arts

The Witch of Berkeley

Recorded by William of Malmesbury in the 11th century, this gruesome story tells of a woman who practised the dark arts of augury and soothsaying. When her pet crow seems to speak to her, she realises it presages her downfall. Almost immediately, she hears that one of her sons has died, so gathering her remaining children, a monk and a nun, she gives them strict instructions as to the religious rituals they must perform to spare her an eternity of torment at the hands of the creatures she courted during her lifetime.

But the rituals aren’t enough to prevent demons coming after her and commanding her to rise out of her tomb, whereupon she is dragged outside, where ‘a fierce black horse… with iron barbs protruding along the length of its back’ waits for her to be slung onto the hooks and they ride away. 

The Demon at the Cradle

Walter Map, a courtier at the court of Henry II, transcribed the story of a knight whose first three children are murdered on the day they are born. While he and his wife await the birth of their fourth child, a stranger arrives and joins those keeping watch. The others fall asleep but the stranger is awake when an old woman arrives, just after midnight, and makes to slit the baby’s throat. The stranger seizes her and with everyone now awake, asks her name. The witch gives that of a good local woman, but the stranger doesn’t believe her and brands her with one of the church keys.

The good local woman is duly sent for and she looks identical to the human form the demon has adopted, including the mark from the branding. The stranger concludes that the woman is so good that demons wanted to drag her down by sending one of their own in her likeness. 

The Ghost of Anant

William of Newburgh wrote of ‘a man of poor conduct’ who begins to doubt his wife’s fidelity. Faking a business trip, he hides in the rafters to watch what she gets up to in his absence. Horrified to see her in flagrante with a young neighbour, he falls off the beam and lands between them. The wife convinces him that he is deluded, and he collapses. When a priest visits, he puts off taking the Eucharist and making his Confession until the next day, only to die that night.

Despite a full Christian burial, his spirit wanders the area each night and his corpse infects the air. Soon, people fall ill and die. The sons of one of dead dig up the grave to find the corpse ‘grotesque and distended, with a swollen, reddened face’. They strike it, but such a quantity of blood gushes out that it soaks the earth. Realising he is a vampire, they remove the heart and burn the body, freeing the town. 

The myth of the ‘Wild Hunt’ is a recurring theme throughout Northern European folklore

Ghostly hunts

Hunting features in many medieval ghost stories, perhaps due to the influence of the ‘Wild Hunt’ of Northern European folklore, where a troop of spirits, often led by a legendary, mythical or historical figure, rampages through an area, presaging doom. Joynes speculates that it “derives perhaps from the popular concept of the pagan god Wotan as a wandering huntsman”. Writers of the late Middle Ages turned this to their didactic advantage: the Wild Hunt was conveyed as a mirabilium, “a supernatural phenomenon which offered both diversion… and the opportunity for moral instruction”. 

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in an entry dated 1127-8, we find the tale of an abbot of Peterborough who gains this appointment through corruption. When he arrives in the area, witnesses heard ‘many hunters hunting. The hunters were dark and huge and ugly and all their hounds dark and broad-eyed and ugly; and they rode on dark horses and dark stags…The monks heard the sound of the horns that they blew in the night.’ 

And in The Courtiers’ Trifles of Walter Map, Herla, king of the ancient Britons, enters into a pact with a mysterious pygmy king ‘with a red beard so long that it touched his chest… a hairy belly, and thighs which tapered to goats’ feet’. Herla keeps his side of the deal and, having visited the pygmy kingdom, is allowed to leave ‘laden with gifts and presents of horses, dogs, hawks and everything necessary for hunting and falconry’. However, he discovers he has been gone for 200 years, leaving him wandering the Welsh borders forever more.