Ghosts in Medieval Yorkshire

by Jacqueline Simpson

(from Ghosts & Scholars 27)

When M.R. James published "Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories" (in their original Latin) in the English Historical Review 37 (1922), pp.413-22, he explained that a monk of Byland Abbey (Yorkshire), around 1400, had written them on some blank pages in a much older manuscript on unconnected subjects. He remarks on the difficult handwriting, and on the "refreshing" quality of the Latin (a crack at its homely, non-classical style), but the only thing he says about the content of the stories is that they remind him strongly of Danish legends in E.T. Kristensen's collections, and that he is "fairly confident that the Scandinavian element is really prominent in these tales" - a plausible suggestion, as Yorkshire was an area of Viking settlement.

The stories have been translated by Pamela Chamberlaine in Peter Haining's M.R. James: Book of the Supernatural (1979), pp.34-49, and by M. Benzinski in Hugh Lamb's The Man-Wolf and Other Horrors (1978), pp.88-101, though I differ from both in some details. MRJ uses Danish parallels in his footnotes to explain a few puzzling points, but does not offer any general comments. This is a pity, since these ghosts are definitely odd, when seen from the point of view of a believer in psychic phenomena or from that of a reader of fictional ghost stories. I hope a look at their historical background and some folk beliefs may be useful in understanding them.

The first point to note is that these are explicitly Catholic stories, and that they are presented as undoubted facts. Most follow this basic pattern: an alarming ghost disturbs the living; someone urges it to say why; it replies that the reason is an unforgiven sin; a post mortem absolution is obtained from a priest; the ghost can rest. Such anecdotes would make excellent warnings which a preacher could quote in sermons about praying for the dead and preparing for one's own death: this must be why the monk wrote them down. Historically, as R.C. Finucane noted in his Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts (1982), they are typical expressions of the late medieval obsession with the fate of the dead; they concern 'suffering souls' sentenced to the torments of Purgatory (thought to be as bad as Hell, though of limited duration), who need prayers, Masses, and absolution. However frightening they look, they are not evil; on the contrary, they long for forgiveness and peace, but are unable to take the initiative themselves. They are waiting for a living man to ask what the trouble is, and offer help; then they can confess, be absolved, and disappear. Their grief and humility contrasts sharply with certain post-Reformation ghosts in both English and Danish folklore, whose haunting is aggressive, and who can only be 'conjured down' in a desperate tussle of will-power by some learned priest or local wizard (e.g. the legend of the haunting at Stubbergard Manor, which I fictionalised in G&S 23).

One striking feature is that several of the Byland Abbey ghosts are shape-changers, taking grotesque forms. In Story I, a man carrying a sack of beans meets "something like a horse rearing up on its hind legs with its forelegs in the air", which turns into "a whirling heap of hay with a light in the middle of it". The man exclaims, "God forbid you should harm me!", at which the apparition takes human shape, and explains who he is and why he haunts the spot. The man arranges for the spirit to be posthumously absolved and Masses sung, which frees him from his ghostly state. In Story II, a tailor, late at night, is attacked by a crow with sparks of fire streaming from its side, but when he draws his sword "it seemed to him that he was striking at a peat-stack". Then it reappears as a dog with a chain round its neck, which, when addressed, replies at length (presumably now in human form), but seems to be internally on fire, and the tailor can see right down to its guts through its open mouth. A few days later the tailor returns to tell the ghost the necessary absolution has been laid on its tomb. This time it comes first as a bleating goat, then turns into a huge man, "horrible-looking, and as thin as one of the Dead Kings in a painting". The tailor hears of other ghosts too - one who looks "like a thorn-bush or a bonfire"; one like a "bullock without mouth, eyes or ears"; one, a priest, who appears as a huntsman with a horn. In Story VIII, a ghost is first heard yelling in the distance, then closer, then appears as a pale horse, and finally rolls away in the form of a revolving vat.

English country legends as recorded in the nineteenth century include spectres quite as odd as these, alongside the more 'normal' white ladies and headless horsemen. In Cheshire, there was a ghostly pig with its back stuck all over with lighted candles, and also a headless duck; at Bagbury in Shropshire, a wicked squire 'came again' as a huge, roaring, skinless bull; a road in Crowborough (Sussex) was haunted by a spectral bag of soot which chased people. Ghostly horses, calves, and dogs were common, and often had fiery eyes; however, it is not clear whether these were supposed to be ghosts of humans, or of animals, or were supernatural beings in their own right, so to speak.

Yorkshire had plenty of these dramatic shape-changing phantoms. There is the Gytrash, described by Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre, 1847, Ch.12) as "a North-of-England spirit which, in the form of horse, mule or large dog, haunted solitary ways". Her brother Branwell in his unpublished fragment Percy also mentions a Gytrash, explaining that it does not fit into normal categories - it is "a spectre not at all similar to the ghosts of those who were once alive, nor to fairies, nor to demons", and appears mostly as "a black dog dragging a chain, a dusky calf, nay, even a rolling stone", as well as "an old, dwarfish and hideous man, as often without a head as with one, moving at dark along the naked fields". Branwell's biographer, Winifred Gerin, confirms that this accurately reflects traditions about an ominous apparition at Polden House, and adds that this Gytrash could also take the form of "a flaming barrel bowling across the fields".

Then there is the Padfoot, particularly belonging to the Leeds area. The folklorist William Henderson was told in the 1860s by one old woman that she often saw it on the road at night, rolling ahead of her like a bale of wool; others said it was invisible, though one could hear the soft padding of its feet, followed by an ear-splitting roar. A recent book (Liz Linaham, Pit Ghosts, Padfeet and Poltergeists, 1994) says it is still occasionally seen or heard, as a large black dog.

The Bargest of Lancashire and Yorkshire haunted stiles, dark lanes and churchyards, and portended death for anyone who met it. It could be invisible, or could appear in any shape it chose, most often a dog. One anecdote (printed in 1827) tells how a man heard one on the road near Grassington (Yorkshire), "brush, brush, brush, wi' chains rattlin' a' the while, but I seed nowt". He followed, out of curiosity, till he caught a glimpse of its tail, and then turned back home. But when he got home, there was "a girt thing like a sheep, but it war larger, ligging across t' threshold o' t' door, and it war woolly like". The thing refused to budge, and when he tried to hit it, it looked up at him with glowering multicoloured eyes as big as saucers, and only moved off when the man's wife opened the door.

In this relatively modern lore, a Gytrash or Bargest is not interpreted as the ghost of a human being. Standard Victorian folklore collections, such as William Henderson's Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties (1866), put them under some such heading as "sprites" or "hobgoblindom", and link them closely with the more alarming types of fairy, many of whom are notorious shape-changers who can turn into animals (especially horses) or even objects - in Shakespeare, Puck boasts he can appear as a three-legged stool. Such blurring of boundaries is not uncommon in the folklore of the supernatural: psychologically, any experience of the uncanny (e.g. a dark shape, a strange light, a sudden coldness) is understood through the belief-system of the perceiver and his/her community. It may be explained as an encounter with a ghost, a fairy, a demon, or a being from outer space - whatever seems plausible at that place and time. To our Yorkshire traveller six hundred years ago, a whirling heap of hay with a light in the middle of it could be credibly explained as a tormented soul from Purgatory; two hundred years ago, that man's descendant would say he'd seen a Gytrash, without defining too closely what a Gytrash was; today, maybe, he would talk about crop circles, leys, and earth energies - or, if a scientist, of ball lightning.

The ghost in Story III is not a shape-changer, but belongs to the 'walking corpse' type. He is named as Robert, son of Robert de Bolteby of Killeburne, and he "used to come out of his grave at night and disturb and terrify the townsfolk, and all the town dogs used to follow him about, barking loudly". A gang of youths went to the cemetery to catch him, but only two were brave enough to stand their ground when he appeared. One grabbed the revenant and pinned it against the churchyard stile, shouting to the other, "Quick! Go and get the priest to conjure him down, and what I've got I'll hold on to, with God's help, till the priest comes." Urged by that cleric in God's name to speak, the ghost confessed his sins, received absolution, and thereafter could rest in peace. This tale presents a physical revenant, common in Scandinavia, but invokes the power of the Church to lay it through forgiveness of sin, rather than recommending physical 'layings' by stake, fire, or decapitation.

Story IV is short, and had been handed down by "old men". It concerns a dead priest, Jacob Tankerley, formerly Rector of Kirby, who would rise from his grave, and one night blinded his former mistress by blowing on her eye (a warning here to that most loathed and despised group of women, the concubines of the clergy!). He said his body must be dug up, coffin and all, taken by cart to Gormyre, and thrown into the river there. This was done, and the oxen drawing the cart were so terrified they nearly plunged in too. This tale resembles certain forcible ghost-layings in Danish and British local legends, where the revenant is disposed of by being driven into a pool or bog, or imprisoned in a box or bottle which is then thrown into water. I am not aware of any tales where the method is literally applied to the corpse and coffin, but archaeological evidence, notably of bog burials, suggests that it may have been done in ancient times.

Story V is even shorter, a mere two sentences:

"There is another astonishing thing I write of. It is said a certain woman once caught a ghost and carried it on her back into a house, into the presence of some men, one of whom reported that he saw her hands plunging deep into its flesh, as if the flesh were rotten, and only imaginary, not solid."

"This is most curious," comments MRJ in a footnote. "Why did the woman catch the ghost and bring it indoors?" I think I might hazard a guess, based on a legend common in Scandinavia - she did it for a bet or dare, and got more than she bargained for. In this legend-pattern, a servant-girl who prides herself on her courage accepts a ghoulish challenge from her employer or from (male) fellow-servants to go at midnight to fetch some object from a haunted church or churchyard. Sometimes the object is a skeleton or a sack of bones, left lying around because they have proved impossible to bury, or have been accidentally disinterred. But the skeleton takes offence, and leaping on her back forces her to carry it to a priest, or to somebody it had wronged when alive, to obtain forgiveness.

This plot (coded ML 4020, "The Unforgiven Skeleton", in the Norwegian folklorist R. Th. Christiansen's system) admirably fits the outlook of the Byland Abbey monk, and I feel confident that this was what he had in mind. But why did he treat it so briefly, to the point of obscurity? The clue may lie in the fact that it comes at the foot of a page; it is the last item on folio 142b, and the following page begins a new story. Perhaps the monk went back and jotted it down, as an afterthought, in a small blank space, noting only the one point that had so much astonished him: the permeability of the ghost's flesh. Evidently he expected revenants to be solid and graspable, as they are in Stories III and VI.

In Story VI, a man crossing a field is attacked by the ghost of a canon from Newbury, who wrestles with him and tears his clothes. The living man overcomes the dead one, and urges him to explain why he cannot rest; he admits he had been excommunicated for stealing some silver spoons, and says where they are hidden. The living man agrees to fetch them, return them to the Prior, and get the excommunication cancelled. He does so, and all is well - except that he falls ill and remains so for many days. The Scandinavian parallels are strong here; wrestling against the undead is common in Icelandic medieval sagas, while there is a strong Danish folk belief that those who see ghosts fall ill. That stolen goods must be returned is a universal element in ghost-lore.

Story VII is another penitent spectre, who begs his former master to forgive him for thefts and skimped work. Story VIII tells of a ghost which shouted "Hoo, hoo, hoo!" in a terrible voice, first a long way away and then much nearer; it then does some shape-shifting (first as horse, then as wine-vat). MRJ's note points out that "there are many tales, Danish and other, of persons who answer the shrieking ghost with impertinent words, and the next moment they hear it close to their ear." I have discussed the links between this motif, Danish legends about the ghosts of those who have shifted boundary stones, and MRJ's "A Neighbour's Landmark" in G&S 25. The story also involves two common folk motifs: that spectres appear at cross-roads, and that dogs fear them.

In Story IX a ghost, angry that a man whom he has been following for eighty miles has failed to speak to him, tosses him over a hedge and catches him on the other side. MRJ's footnote makes a comparison with a Scandinavian tale in which a Troll hurls humans over a church, but his daughter catches them and puts them down unhurt - "not very relevant, but less known than it should be". The same trick is used by household goblins in Danish legends, to punish anyone who teases them.

Story X does not involve ghosts, only scrying by a wizard. Story XI, however, is a fine example of a folktale known from several countries (including England and Scandinavia), which teaches that the soul of an unbaptised baby cannot rest. A certain Richard Rowntree from Cleveland went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Compostella, leaving his pregnant wife at home. In the course of the journey, one night he saw a procession of dead riders, at the tail end of which came a baby rolling along the ground in a boot. "Who are you, and why do you roll?" he asked. "You are my father," it answered. "I am your son, miscarried at birth and buried without baptism and without a name." At this, the pilgrim took off his tunic and put it on the baby, and baptised it, and it stood up and rejoiced. But the man kept the old boot. When he got home he told his wife to bring his boots, but she could only find one; then, to her amazement, he produced the other and told his tale. The midwife confessed she had buried the dead baby in the boot. Variants of this story are found in later folklore, e.g. on the Isle of Man and in Scotland, where the baby is laid by being given a name rather than by the specific religious sacrament of baptism: the underlying principle is that someone who has not been properly integrated into the community when alive cannot find peace in death. The tale is found in Scandinavia too, both in the baptismal and in the name-giving form.

The final story, number XII, concerns a woman who cannot rest in her grave because she wrongly gave title-deeds to some land to her brother, thereby doing injustice to her husband and sons. She is "captured after death" by a certain William, and taken to confront her brother, who refuses to hand back the deeds. She then warns him that though she will be forced to walk for as long as he lives, once he is dead she will be free and he will have to walk instead of her. The word "captured" (comprehensa) probably implies that she was subdued by physical force, like the revenants in Stories III and VI.

The specific Danish parallels mentioned in MRJ's notes are few: a warning in Story I that the man who has seen the fiery ghost should not look at a material fire that night, which MRJ links to several passages in Kristensen about the risk of falling ill if one looks at a candle or lamp after a ghostly encounter; the shouts of the ghost in Story VIII; the throwing over the hedge in Story IX. It is rather surprising he did not spot that Scandinavian tales hold the clue to understanding the obscure Story V, and that Danish ghosts are sometimes filled with internal fire, like the one in Story II. One can only speculate on which features he had in mind when he called these stories "redolent of Denmark"; the likeliest, to my mind, are the physicality of the ghosts, the fact that many are identified by name, and that they are casually encountered in familiar lanes and fields, not in conventionally 'spooky' places.

It is fascinating to wonder what impression these Yorkshire traditions made on MRJ when he first came upon them. He had explored the possibilities of physical interaction between a revenant and the living (e.g. in "The Mezzotint", "A View from a Hill", "The Uncommon Prayer-Book"), and of shape-changing ("Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance"), and it was one of his cardinal rules that a supernatural encounter must happen to ordinary people in the everyday world. To this extent, he would have felt at home swapping yarns with monks and farmers around Byland in 1400AD. But he cannot have been unaware of massive differences. MRJ's fictional ghosts are irredeemably evil, frequently destroying those who meet them, and though they may be in some way restrained or driven off at the end of the story, there is never any suggestion that they are laid to rest in a moral or spiritual sense. The medieval religious view was utterly different: the dead and the living were bound to one another, and to God and the Church, as part of a single spiritual network, and when the dead manifested themselves (even in grotesque or frightening ways) this was not a threat but a plea for help. If this plea was heeded, as it is in all the Byland stories, prayer would inevitably secure a happy ending in which the suffering soul, its sins forgiven, could go at last to Heaven. In the Protestant world of MRJ, this concept of the Purgatorial soul is not an option; the nearest he ever comes to the Catholic view is in Dennistoun's embarrassed admission:

"I hope it isn't wrong: you know I am a Presbyterian - but I - I believe there will be 'saying of mass and singing of dirges' for Alberic de Mauléon's rest. I had no notion they came so dear."

And even here, we must remember that it was not Canon Alberic's ghost but a demon which had appeared to poor Dennistoun.

Copyright © 1998 Jacqueline Simpson
October 1998

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