Thietmar of Merseburg

Halloween Special: Medieval Ghost Stories

Death

Something a little different this time. It's my first seasonal special, and it's somewhat Halloween-y. It's all about ghost (or revenant) stories from the 11th and 12th centuries, featuring Orderic Vitalis, Thietmar of Merseburg, William of Newburgh, and, briefly representing the 6th-century, Gregory of Tours. Thanks for listening!

I’ll start with a story.

Of the prodigy of the dead man, who wandered about after burial. William of Newburgh. 12th century. Quote.

“In these days a wonderful event befell in the county of Buckingham, which I, in the first instance, partially heard from certain friends, and was afterwards more fully informed of by Stephen, the venerable archdeacon of that province. A certain man died, and, according to custom, by the honourable exertion of his wife and kindred, was laid in the tomb on the eve of the Lord's Ascension. On the following night, however, having 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. The next night, also, he afflicted the astonished woman in the same manner. She, frightened at the danger, as the struggle of the third night drew near, took care to remain awake herself, and surround herself with watchful companions. Still he came; but being repulsed by the shouts of the watchers, and seeing that he was prevented from doing mischief, he departed.

Thus driven off from his wife, he harassed in a similar manner his own brothers, who were dwelling in the same street; but they, following the cautious example of the woman, passed the nights in wakefulness with their companions, ready to meet and repel the expected danger. He appeared [anyway], as if with the hope of surprising them should they be overcome with drowsiness; but being repelled by the carefulness and valour of the watchers, he rioted among the animals, both indoors and outdoors, as their wildness and [unusual] movements testified.

Having thus become a [similarly] serious nuisance to his friends and neighbours, he imposed upon all the same necessity for nocturnal watchfulness; and in that very street a general watch was kept in every house, each being fearful of his approach unawares. After having for some time [ran wild] in this manner during the night-time alone, he began to wander abroad in daylight, formidable indeed to all, but visible only to a few; for oftentimes, on his encountering a number of persons, he would appear to one or two only though at the same time his presence was not concealed from the rest.

At length the inhabitants, alarmed beyond measure, thought it advisable to seek counsel of the church; and they detailed the whole affair, with tearful lamentation, to the above-mentioned archdeacon, at a meeting of the clergy over which he was solemnly presiding… . he immediately intimated in writing the whole circumstances of the case to the venerable bishop of Lincoln ... whose opinion and judgment on so [extraordinary] a matter he was very properly of opinion should be waited for

... the bishop, being amazed at his account, held a searching investigation with his companions; and there were some who said that such things had often befallen in England, and cited frequent examples to show that tranquillity could not be restored to the people until the body of this most wretched man [was] dug up and burnt. This proceeding, however, appeared indecent and improper in the last degree to the reverend bishop, who shortly after addressed a letter of absolution, written with his own hand, to the archdeacon, in order that it might be demonstrated by inspection in what state the body of that man really was; and he commanded his tomb to be opened, and the letter having been laid upon his breast, to be again closed.

So the sepulchre having been 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 up, he was thenceforth never more seen to wander, nor permitted to inflict annoyance or terror upon any one.”

End quote.

Hello everyone, and welcome. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in Medieval World, special Halloween edition. If you are enjoying what you hear, if you want to keep the podcast sustainable and its bodies below ground where they belong, please do consider signing up for the Human Circus Patreon for as little as $1 a month. It all adds up, and it all helps make this whole thing doable for me. You can find that at patreon.com/humancircus, or through my website at humancircuspodcast.com. Now, back to the story. 

Except, it’s not back to the story with this episode. I’ll return to the fortunes of Robert, Geoffrey, and the rest of the Fourth Crusade, next time. Today, I thought I’d do something a little different, something a little Halloweeny. Today, it’s all about medieval ghosts and revenants. 

With the opening of the episode, you heard a story recorded by William of Newburgh, the 12th-century English historian. His Historia, the History of English Affairs, is a great source on matters high and low from 1066 to 1198, and in it, between certain scandalous events in London and the French and English kings storming one another’s castles, you find that ghost story. And it was not alone.

William had a similar tale to tell of the town of Berwick, situated at the mouth of the Tweed River, in the realm of the King of Scotland. In Berwick, a wealthy but quite dead man had sallied forth from the grave by night. No one knew just how - perhaps Satan was the cause - but once up the man would roam about with packs of dogs following after, barking furiously. Up and down the land he would go, until he returned to his rest before daybreak. All of this was quite terrifying, and nobody would go outside after dusk, for fear of hearing the dogs close in, and knowing he was close.

All agreed that something needed to be done, the simpler folk out of fear that they would be caught in the road and struck down to their deaths, a very reasonable fear in the circumstances, and the wiser that this thing wandering about, if allowed to go on, would infect the atmosphere and cause more disease and death than after-dark encounters ever would. For that was how it had been known to go in affairs like this. 

The people arranged for ten brave men to dig the problem up, to tear its carcass from the earth, and hack it limb from limb, and then to feed the pieces to the fire. That was how this corruption could be cleansed. And so it was done, and the nighttime commotions ceased, but, quote, “a pestilence, which arose in consequence, carried off the greater portion of them.” That pestilence was all about England at the time, William said, but nowhere else did it do so much harm. Nowhere else did it rage so furiously. 

I think that’s a pretty interesting piece of this story, the way this horror of a corpse abroad in the night is then tied in with the spread of disease as a point of somewhat general knowledge. There were said “... frequent examples in similar cases,” as if, not just disease, but also the walking dead were rife in England at that time. As if one accompanied the other, hand in hand.

At times in these stories, the risen dead seem most clearly a personification of disease itself, a physical force against which people could strive and something much more easily grappled with then the invisible enemy that was killing your family and fellow villagers. For example, one of William’s stories concerns a man who, intending to spy on his wife, falls from his hiding place on a beam inside the house, and badly injures himself. He ignores advice to go and make his confession, to settle his affairs on Earth; he’s distracted by the events of the day, and puts off for tomorrow what he’ll never then be able to do. He dies in the night. He’s given a Christian burial, but it doesn’t help. He’d originally arrived in the area having fled from some troubles in York, and his evil propensities were said to have only increased since then. When sickness started through the town, it begad to be said that this man was known to come up from his grave at night and to wander the locked up courts and houses, and the people knew where to look for the source of their problems. 

In some of these stories, as in the one I opened with, it’s the clergy who take the lead in resolving these matters. Not so here. The town’s religious leadership do invite the wise and worthy to a dinner to discuss the matter and to bolster their spirits, but that feast only serves as a distraction. While all that spirit-bolstering is going on, two young men who have lost their father to sickness steal away and dig up the corpse the themselves. They find it “swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood,” and the cloth in which it had been wrapped torn to shreds. Of course, there were other explanations for all of this, but there were none that the two were willing to entertain. 

To quote William:

“The young men, ... spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which [uncontrollably] flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. This being torn piecemeal, and the body now consigned to the flames, it was announced to the guests what was going on[. They], running thither, enabled themselves to testify henceforth to the circumstances. When that infernal hell-hound had thus been destroyed, the pestilence which was rife among the people ceased, as if the air, which had been corrupted by the contagious motions of the dreadful corpse, were already purified by the fire which had consumed it.”

The genesis of this story is pretty easy to imagine. We don’t actually see the corpse do anything. It’s said to have come out of its grave and gone about pursued by packs of dogs, and the people to have locked their doors against it, and feared to meet it in the dark, but there’s no mention that anyone actually did. The corpse looked as if it had been sucking the blood from the village, but there is no actual sighting, no concrete attack, that is attested to. But that was not always the case, and I want to read one more story from William of Newburgh before we move along. This one I’ll share in full.

“A few years ago the chaplain of a certain illustrious lady, casting off mortality, was consigned to the tomb in a noble monastery… . This man, having little respect for the sacred order to which he belonged, was excessively secular in his pursuits, and -- what especially blackens his reputation as a minister of the holy sacrament -- so addicted to the vanity of the chase as to be designated by many by the infamous title of ... dog-priest; ... this occupation, during his lifetime, was either laughed at by men, or considered in a worldly view; but after his death ... the guiltiness of it was brought to light: for, issuing from the grave at night-time, he was prevented from injuring or terrifying anyone within the monastery itself only by the meritorious resistance of its holy inmates; therefore he wandered beyond the walls, and hovered chiefly, with loud groans and horrible murmurs, round the bedchamber of his former mistress.

She, after this had frequently occurred, becoming exceedingly terrified, revealed her fears of danger to one of the friars who visited her about the business of the monastery; she demanded with tears that prayers more earnest than usual should be poured out to the Lord on her behalf as for one in agony. ... the friar -- for she appeared deserving of the best endeavours on the part of the holy convent of that place by her frequent donations to it -- piously and justly sympathized, and promised a speedy remedy through the mercy of the Most High Provider for all.

Upon returning to the monastery, he obtained the companionship of another friar of equally determined spirit, and two powerful young men, with whom he intended with constant vigilance to keep guard over the cemetery where that miserable priest lay buried. These four, therefore, furnished with arms and animated with courage, passed the night in that place, safe in the assistance which each afforded to the other. Midnight had passed by, and no monster appeared; when it came to pass that three of the party, leaving [only the friar] who had sought their company on the spot, departed into the nearest house for the purpose ... of warming themselves, for the night was cold.

As soon as this man was left alone in this place, the devil, imagining that he had found the right moment for breaking his courage, incontinently roused up his own chosen vessel ... . Having beheld this from afar, [the friar] grew stiff with terror by reason of his being alone; but soon recovering his courage, and no place of refuge being at hand, he valiantly withstood the onset of the fiend, who came rushing upon him with a terrible noise, and he struck the axe which he wielded in his hand deep into [its] body. On receiving this wound, the monster groaned aloud, and turning his back, fled with a rapidity not at all interior to that with which he had advanced, while the admirable man urged his flying foe from behind, and compelled him to seek his own tomb again; which opening of its own accord, and receiving its guest from the advance of the pursuer, immediately appeared to close again with the same facility.

In the meantime, they who, impatient of the coldness of the night, had retreated to the fire, ran up, though somewhat too late, and, having heard what had happened, rendered needful assistance in digging up and removing from the midst of the tomb the accursed corpse at the earliest dawn. When they had divested it of the clay cast forth with it, they found the huge wound it had received, and a great quantity of gore which had flowed from it in the sepulchre; and so having carried it away beyond the walls of the monastery and burnt it, they scattered the ashes to the winds. These things I have explained in a simple narration, as I myself heard them recounted by religious men.”

As you might imagine, William found it striking that to set down all such instances that he was aware of in recent memory would be, quote, “beyond measure laborious and troublesome.” He mused over the the times he lived in being uniquely beset by the return of the dead. He acknowledged that it was scarcely believable that it should happen at all, but then it had happened so often. There was such abundant testimony that what might have seemed unbelievable had become undeniable. But why now? Why had it not happened before? Why, to his knowledge at least, was there no mention in the ancient authors of any such thing? Surely, it would be very strange for them not to mention such an occurrence, when they made it their business to record items evenly moderately of interest. So what then was different of his time? By what cause was the era he had been born into, that of the risen dead? He makes no direct answer right then and there, but there’s a clear sense that something had somehow gone horribly wrong for such a thing to happen.

And you’ll be hearing more stories of things going horribly wrong, but first a little break. 

In Dr. Nancy Caciola’s Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages, she introduces our next set of stories this way: “All good ghost stories must begin with an act of violence.”

It’s a good place to start. In this case, the act of violence was not an isolated crime, an unsolved murder or anything of that sort. It was the massacre of a town, the fortified, Saxon town of Walsleben on the Elbe River. There, in 929, the Slavic Redarii, who had been tributaries of King Heinrich, founder of the Ottonian Dynasty in Germany, had rebelled against him. They’d captured the town and killed everyone there, or so it was said. 

All of this was still pretty fresh in 1013, when Bishop Thietmar of Merseburg began work on his Chronicon. Two of his great-grandfathers had died in the fighting with Slavs in 929, and during Thietmar’s own lifetime, the Wendish rebellion had brought warfare all along the Elbe. The bishoprics of Brandenburg and Havelburg had been occupied, the nunneries of Kalbe and Hillersleben attacked, and the last bishop of Brandenburg’s body had been dragged from its tomb and despoiled. Though things had since calmed down, at least temporarily, having endured the turning of the millenium and operating as a kind of frontier bishop operating at the intersection of cultures and religions, where German Christianity pushed up against and intermingled with Scandinavian and Slavic practices, Thietmar offers a fascinating presentation of a time and place, in his history of the Saxon lords and their doings in which he was an active participant, but also in his series of ghost stories or, more accurately, revenant stories.

The topic seems to come to his mind quite unlooked for as he’s mentioning the massacre at Walsleben, and he recalls some more recent tales of that town.   

“That no one who is faithful to Christ may doubt the future resurrection of the dead,” he begins, “but may proceed to the joy of blessed immortality zealously and through holy desire, I shall confide certain things I have verified as true and that occurred in the town of Walsleben when it was rebuilt after its destruction.”

But Thietmar demonstrates this future resurrection in a somewhat surprising way. He speaks of a priest who had used to sing matins at the church there “at the first blush of dawn,” and maybe on this occasion the priest was running a little early because as he approached he church, he could see in the half-light that the cemetery was full of people. Crossing himself and drawing closer, he also spotted a figure standing at the doors of the sanctuary and receiving offerings from the crowd. Who were these people? Whoever they were, they were menacing, for the priest shook as he advanced. He passed among them, saying nothing, acknowledging noone. But a woman did eventually acknowledge him. She was someone he recognized, someone who had died not long before. “What are you doing here?” she asked. When he declared his business, the morning prayer, she replied that they had already taken care of all of that, and also, less reassuringly, that he would soon die. The priest reported this to his neighbours, and it turned out to be entirely accurate. He did soon die.

In the story of the priest, the revenants are physically unthreatening if probably quite worrying for the priest himself, particularly the prediction of his death. They neither attack the living nor roam the region with wild dogs at their heels. They spread no disease, and they ask for no favour from the priest, no aid in freeing them from their present situation. They seem to have just carried on in a Christian mode of life, attending church and making offerings, and thus somehow accruing things to offer, a parallel society to that of the living, fixed geographically by their burial in those church grounds. 

Elsewhere in Thietmar’s stories, people witnessed something strange around another cemetery, that of the merchants’ church in Merseburg. The guards there - or perhaps caretakers; it’s not totally clear - had seen and heard things which led them to call out the town’s most respected citizens as witnesses, and these witnesses did from a distance see candles lit and heard prayers sung. When they approached though, they found nothing. But Thietmar’s priest, by his own proximity to death, was able to brush up against the dead in a way the fully alive are not meant to, and to come back, if not for very long.

The idea of a Christian society of the dead, going about its business mostly unseen by the living, was not an invention of the Thietmar text. Back in the late 6th-century, Gregory of Tours had written of something of the sort in his Book on the Glory of the Confessors. He’d written that two men of the city of Autun were out wandering one day, when they heard prayer being sung in the basilica of St. Stephen, next to the cemetery, and astonished at the sweetness of the sound, they went inside. They sat and listened for a while, but when they got back up to look around at the choir around them, they found that they recognized no one, and that in the unlit space, the other occupants gave off a kind of glow. They stood stunned, motionless until they were noticed, and confronted. “You have done a despicable thing! How dare you stay while we perform the secrets of our worship to God! Leave now! Flee from our home or else you will leave this world!” One man did flee, but the other stayed and, as promised, he shortly left this world. It was unfortunate, certainly, but at least he had been warned. At other times, there would be less verbal communication.

Thietmar’s next story came to him by way of his niece, Bridgit, Abbess of St. Laurent, and was told while she lay sick in bed. He’d been talking of the ghostly goings-on around Merseburg, and she had been not at all surprised. In fact, she had a rather nastier tale to tell than of lit torches in the distance or faintly heard prayers at odd hours. It was of what had happened when the Bishop Baudry had arranged to renovate and re-consecrate a church at Deventer and had assigned a priest to this space, which, needing to be re-consecrated, had become vulnerable. 

This nameless priest, Bridgit said, had come to the church early one morning - so far pretty familiar - and he’d seen the dead celebrating mass inside the church - again, not a great departure. Sensibly, the priest had not confronted these revenants. He’d been to see his bishop,  who had directed him to sleep inside the church and deter any unwanted visitors. The priest had done so and, astoundingly, seems to have actually managed to fall asleep under these conditions. But undeterred, the dead came again and threw the intruding priest out and the bed he rested on with him.

So what was to be done next? Clearly, the priest’s presence was unwelcome. He went again to the bishop to ask what to do. 

This time, the bishop ordered him to equip himself with relics, to scatter holy water about the church, and to on no account to leave it unattended. And that’s what was done. I suspect the priest felt rather shaken at this point, a little less than certain at how things were going and how they might go next. But he did as asked. He made all the preparations, and he lay awake, obedient but fearful. Priests commonly slept in their churches. It was convenient for them and meant someone was there to protect the building, but it could be an uncomfortable place to stay when there had been recent violence. And this priest obviously had reason to be afraid. He was waiting for the dead to come again. And they did not disappoint.

They came, and they seized his body. This time, though, they did not bundle it outside. They placed him on the altar, kindled a fire, and then, holding his body on the flames and embers, they killed him. 

Theitmar’s niece ended her story by saying that she would be able to tell him of many more such occurrences, if only she weren’t so ill. “Just as the day is given over to the living,” she concluded, “the night is the domain of the dead.”

But what are we to make of this story? It depicts another congregation of the dead and one that does not appreciate the intrusion of the living. However, these seem to have been devoted religious practitioners, but murderous ones: once, removing the unwanted priest from their space, and then, at the second offence, killing him and destroying his body so that it could not, even in death, join them. It’s hard to view the horrifying murder of an obedient member of the clergy as proving the concept of Christian resurrection - remember, that’s how Thietmar frames these stories - so what else might this episode have to tell us?

For Caciola, the clues are in the manner and place of the killing. The unfortunate man is not dragged outside and beaten to death as the people of William of Newburgh’s accounts seemed to fear would happen to them; he is not simply declared no longer of the living, as with the priest in Walsleben or the man in Gregory of Tour’s story. He is taken to the altar, and he is burned. That doesn’t sound like just getting rid of an annoyance. That sounds like an offering.

Only a few pages later, Thietmar himself is writing of people who every nine years, in the month of January, sacrificed 99 people and horses, along with dogs and roosters, all by fire; something very similar is attested to in Adam of Bremen’s writing, decades after Thietmar, and then in Helmold of Bossau’s Chronicle of the Slavs, a Christian missionary and a priest are “immolated on the altar,” for the Slavic god Sventovit. And there’s much more too, solidly predating Thietmar and also running well after him, discussing burnt offerings, to deities or to the dead, in the spaces of Slavic paganism either lately or not yet converted to Christianity. It was, as Caciola points out, the practice that defined those religions in the Christian imagination of the time, and Thietmar’s use it seems to indicate a body of local stories that moved between pagan and Christian populations, drawing elements from each, perhaps pagan stories that were Christianized in framing context only - the church, the priest, the prayer - making them acceptable, useful even, to an abbess or a bishop.

Maybe it’s not what Thietmar intended to show with his stories - it’s certainly not his stated intention - but his tales of revenants, taken as a whole, also seem to indicate something else in attitudes towards the dead. They were not only living in parallel to the living. They were waiting ready to claim the spaces that the living relaxed their hold on, including sacred ones. Where destruction or violence or its threat led to the lapsing of a consecrated space, they were ready to inhabit it, and in the case of that story of immolation, where their claim was challenged, with the priest outlining the space in holy water, they were ready to kill to sustain it.

Thietmar’s treatment of the dead in his writing was not limited to hearsay and legends. He had his own experiences too, if not quite so dramatic; he was not burnt alive. But he found them noteworthy because they showed that such events signified that something momentous was about to happen. 

For him the world of the night was alive with signs. On one occasion, he saw a great light coming from the church and heard a sound, a kind of groaning. His brother witnessed this, as did a chaplain, and some old men also, when he asked around, were found to have heard it. Shortly after, Thietmar learned that his niece, Liutgarde, had died, and he knew the events to connected. He would hear the sound of timber falling in the night or the dead speaking to one another, and he would know that another death was imminent. 

“All of this,” he says, “provides a sharp lesson for the unlettered and the Slavs, who believe in their ignorance that everything finishes at the point of mortal death. On the contrary, for the faithful these kinds of events are a firm reminder of life after death and future reward for good deeds.”

At least, that was the intended lesson, the reminder he wished to leave his readers with, but, as we’ve seen, there were other reminders there too, of people troubled by questions of the afterlife, by the passing of the millenium, by clashes along political, cultural, and religious lines, and of how oral traditions weaved along and between those lines, resulting in rich stories. They were recorded as clear religious lessons and they may be read by us as simple ghost stories, but they are much more than than either of those alone. 

And after this break, one more story.

For our last medieval ghost story, we’re moving to the late 11th-century as seen in the ecclesiastical history of Orderic Vitalis, a monk born in the region of Mercia who spent most of his life in Normandy at the Abbey of Saint-Évroult. Orderic sourced his history, his Historia Ecclesiastica, from documents but also from contemporary oral accounts from the many visitors who came to the abbey. Here, we’re getting something from the latter, something with the commonly found feature of a messenger between this world and the next and a pretty clean outline of the three social orders: the people, the clergy, and the nobility. What you’ll be hearing is in the many-named tradition of the Wild Hunt, the passage of an army or hunt variously made up of fairies, or elves, or, as in this case, the dead. 

Orderic’s telling takes us to the beginning of January, 1091, and he says it came to him from a priest named Walchelin who served the church of St. Aubin d’Angers. This priest had been called out one brightly moonlit night to visit one of his parishioners, a very sickly man who lived at the furthest edges of his territory. It was as he headed home, not a soul to be seen on the road, that he heard the noise. 

It sounded like the movement of a great army, and immediately he thought it must be that of Robert de Belleme, marching to besiege the castle of Courcy. Now, this Robert was not a favourite of Orderic’s, not at all. Robert was a bitter enemy of Saint-Évroult’s protector and a consistently cruel and tyrannical figure in Orderic’s depiction. So when Walchelin heard what he took to be Robert’s men approaching, he wavered. Should he stand and offer his defence if needed, and what if Robert’s worthless followers were to attack him? Seeing a cluster of medlar trees in a field just a little ways from the path, he decided to hide.

But he was too late. An enormous figure suddenly loomed over him brandishing a massive mace. The sight of this giant froze him in his tracks, as did the command that came booming out: “Stand! Take not a step further!” So the priest stood in terror, he with his staff and the giant with his mace, waiting. 

The first of the army of the dead to arrive came on foot. They were not soldiers at all, but rather commoners, and some that Walchelin recognized that had died only recently. These people carried over their heads sheep, clothes, furniture, and all manner of things that a pillager might bear away. As they went, they bewailed their suffering and their evil deeds, and they urged one another on.

Next, came 100 men carrying 50 biers, and on each one a number of small men with large, barrel-like heads. Two Ethiopians carried a tree-trunk between them, a poor wretch lashed to it, his anguished cries filling the air, and on the trunk with him, a demon, that gouged at his back with burning-hot spurs. And Walchelin recognized the victim. He was the assassin who’d murdered a priest two years before, and then died without penance. Now, blood and screams both streamed from him in abundance.

Women on horseback were next to pass Walchelin, too many for him to count or even guess at. Every movement of their horses and even the buffeting of the winds brought agony, as they were lifted and dropped time and again on searing nails. And again, he recognized several of noble ladies among them, and he also recognized the palfreys of some that were still alive, to his horror realizing that their places’ had already been prepared for them in the afterlife.

“The priest stood fixed to the spot at this spectacle,” the text reads, “deeply engaged in the reflections it suggested.” And it doesn’t say what those were, but we can imagine. Viewing the horrific fate of those he had known and, in many ways worse, those he still did, he must have been thinking of his own destiny. Was it to be similar? Had he lived in such a way as to be certain that it would not?

As if underlining this line of thinking the next troop past him were the clergy, the monks, the bishops and abbots, all in black dress. He heard them wail in pain and sorrow and heard many cry out to him, imploring him to pray on their behalf, for the sake of friendship past. He saw not a few who had been very highly thought of in life, many even who were now thought of as saints, surely blessed in heaven. The eminent abbots Mainer of Saint-Evroul and Gerbert of Saint-Wandrille were there, and more whose names Walchelin either forgot or did not wish to make known, and also Hugh, the Bishop of Lisieux, a particularly interesting name to find in the list of the tormented.  

This was not Hugh’s only mention in Orderic’s history. He’d earlier written of lightning striking the cross over the Lisieux church as mass was said below. The tower had collapsed down into the interior of building, tearing into the crucifix, and as lightning flashed through in the open space, burning hair and beards, 8 men and 1 woman were killed. The bishop was not one of those who died that day, but he would not have long to live. His passing is depicted as a most graceful thing, that of a man prepared to go, not rushed off before he could make arrangements. In his life, he had overseen the completion of a cathedral and co-founded an abbey, and the clergy and nuns argued over where his body ought to be buried. Both a gravestone epitaph and a short poem are recorded in the Orderic text, and both are filled with praise. But there he was, a few hundred pages later, in Walchelin’s nightmarish vision of torment the place in between. “Human judgement is often fallible,” the chronicler mused, “but the eye of God seeth the inmost thoughts.” Just as the vessel must be polished before being placed in the treasury, so must all impurities of the soul be cleansed in the sufferings of purgatory before entering paradise. 

Walchelin was shaken. He leaned on his staff, trembling, and wondering what might happen along next. And next was the army proper, clad all in darkness and flame, armed as if for immediate battle and riding under black banners. There were the sons of Count Gilbert, Richard and Baldwin, who’d been with William the Conqueror in England in 1066 and were both lately dead. There was Landry of Orbec who rushed up the monk and pleaded with him to carry a message home to his wife. But the others around shouted him down, urging Walchelin not to a believe a word of it. The man had been ever guided by avarice and duplicity when alive, closing his ears and mind to cries of the poor. Now, branded a deceiver, his own cries were thought “unfit to be heard,” and his punishment just.

As this endless stream of soldiers from beyond passed him by, Walchelin began to think on what they were, and he had not sprung from a cave without culture, without tales or legends. He knew of the Hunt of Hellequin. He’d laughed at the stories, thought them the foolish stuff of the ignorant and ill-informed. But now he beheld them clearly, and who would ever believe him. They would laugh, just as he had. He had to find some proof. So, stirred by the need for evidence into bravery bordering on idiocy, he rushed forward from his position at the side of the path and made to grab a passing horse which lacked a rider. He thought to steer the black steed home with him as a token to show his neighbours, but the first horse whose reigns he seized burst away from his grip.

Undaunted, he tried again, with a different horse. This time, the animal was more obliging. At the touch of his hands it stopped, and stood ready for him to mount, still but snorting out great clouds of vapour. Walchelin took the reins in one hand and placed the other on the saddle, but he immediately regretted it. He felt from a one a searing heat, and the other a cold that pierced through his core, and he was frozen there in place, when four knights rode up. 

They shouted at him, enraged at his attempt, for even those of cursed company that passes in death and darkness does not like to be stolen from and will protect what is theirs. The first three knights had violence in their eyes, and who knows what might have become of Walchelin if it weren’t for the fourth. He wanted something something else. He needed the priest, needed a living soul to free him from his torment.

This knight, this William de Glos, son of Barnon de Glos, counted himself guilty of too many crimes to be recounted, and admitted to having abandoned himself to evil deeds and plunder. But he was not beyond help. The thing that weighed heaviest upon him was an act of usury. He had lent money to a poor man and taken in return a mill as security. The man had not been able to repay the debt, and the mill William had passed on to his own heirs. Now, he opened his mouth and showed Walchelin the bar of hot iron from that mill which he carried there, “heavier than the castle of Rouen.” He had to be rid of it. He begged the priest to tell his wife, and his son Roger, to return the mill to those who had been disinherited.

But Walchelin wouldn’t do it. He would be laughed at if he tried to talk to Roger, or anyone else of this family. They would never believe him, and besides he did not know this William. He did believe him either. However, he came to be convinced. Initially, he pretended not to understand, but he was given signs and reasons to believe in what this ghostly knight had to say. He listened to William repeat his request, but then a second obstacle occurred to him. He could never transmit the message of a damned spirit. He would do no such thing.

At this, the knight grabbed him by the throat, his hand burning into the priest’s neck. He wrenched him down, dragging him bodily along, and all the while shouting, but, again, an intervention came. This time from a source more familiar. Walchelin cried out to Mary through the strangling, searing fingers, and relief arrived in the form of yet another knight.

This one rode up brandishing a sword over William’s head, and maybe these dead men still had something to fear because William fled and his companions with him. At first, Walchelin did not recognize this new arrival, did not see him for who he was. “Do you not know me?” the knight demanded. “I am Robert, son of Ralph the Fair, and I am your brother.”

Like William, Robert gave proofs of his identity to the startled priest, these ones rather more personal. He talked of things they had shared from their youth together, things that no other one would know, so that soon Walchelin could only admit to himself that it was indeed his dead brother here in the night among the accursed dead. But he would not admit it to his brother, would not acknowledge him at all. And his brother, understandably, did not think much of this. 

“I am astonished at your hardness of heart and stupidity,” he said. “It was I who brought you up on our parents’ death, and loved you more than anyone living. I sent you to school in France, supplied you plentifully with clothes and money, and did all in my power to benefit you in every way. You seem now to have forgotten all this, and will not even condescend to recognize me.”

Walchelin burst into tears then. How could he not? It was indeed his brother and could not be denied, the brother who now told him that only through the mass he had sung that morning, was the priest saved from death and damnation for trying to take the horse, and only through his further actions might Robert, in turn, be saved. 

Look at this armour, this sword, these spurs caked in clotted blood, the dead knight said. It's all heavy, intolerably heavy, and it burns endlessly. It is our burden, and we cannot put it down, except for your intervention. Robert informed the priest that their father had once also been doom to travel with them, but had been freed when Walchelin was ordained in England and sung his first mass for the faithful departed, and Robert’s shield had fallen from his arm. Escape from this wretched host, this purgatory, was possible, and it was all down to Walchelin. 

Robert begged to be remembered, to be aided by his prayers and compassionate alms, and looked forward to being released from his torments within a year from Palm Sunday. And he also warned the priest to look also to himself, before it was too late. “Correct your life wisely,” he said, “for it is stained by many vices, and you must know that it will not be long enduring.”

The two went their separate ways then, the dead Robert riding on, and the living priest collapsing into sickness for a week. He would eventually tell Bishop Gilbert at Lisiuex all about what had happened to him. He would live for another 15 years, during which he would do what was needed to remedy his own situation, and he would tell Orderic what had happened that winter night in 1091.

The bulk of the story, as you’ve heard, concerns the knights, especially the three who pleaded for help from this soul that lived and could intercede on their behalf, and they reveal a tension I’ve talked about before, that of knightly life and the many measures that were being enacted to direct its un-Christian violence: the Peace of God and Truce of God, which sought to limit warfare between nobles and to protect noncombatants from it; the development of the concept of Just War; the founding of military orders by which monastic discipline was imposed. And then of course there was the difficulty of saving those who had not saved themselves in life. Walchelin’s father had been rescued, and there was hope for Robert too, but for all those others, without a blood relation in the priesthood, what was left? How long would they be riding through the night dripping blood and fire and always pulled down to the ground by the unforgiving weight of arms and armour, the very things that had been their tools in life made the instruments of their torment in death.

Orderic would finish by recording the following:

“I heard what I have written, and more which has escaped my memory, from his own mouth, and saw the mark on his face left by the hand of the terrible knight. I have committed the account to writing for the edification of my readers, that the righteous may be confirmed in their good resolutions, and the wicked repent of their evil deeds. I now return to the history I have commenced.”

And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing next episode. We’ll be returning to the history of the Fourth Crusade, of the struggles that followed Constantinople’s fall, and the troubled birth of the Latin Empire. I hope you’ve enjoyed this little aside for some Halloween fun. Thanks for listening everybody. Talk to you next time. 

Sources:

  • Joynes, Andrew. Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies. Boydell Press, 2006.

  • Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

  • Shinners, John, ed. Medieval Popular Religion, 1000-1500 (2nd Edition). Broadview Press, 2007.

  • Vitalis, Ordericus. The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy. Bohn, 1854. 

  • Warner, David A, ed. Ottonian Germany: The Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg. Manchester University Press, 2001. 

  • Widukind of Corvey. Deeds of the Saxons. Catholic University of America Press, 2014.