Medieval Ghost Stories: miracula, mirabilia, prodigiosa (August 15, 2018)

 


Ghost, spectre, wraith, spirit, shade, spook, phantom, apparition, poltergeist, bogey, haint – the profusion of terms, with their different origins and linguistic histories, with sometimes distinct but often overlapping meanings, testifies to a continuing, evolving but seemingly fundamental anxiety concerned with the possibility of an afterlife and, more specifically, the idea of a restless soul or spirit of the deceased. From the vapours of Homer’s Odyssey to Plutarch’s account of the ghost of a murdered man, haunting the baths at Chaeronea, whose groans and shrieks caused terror amongst the people, or from the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father urging vengeance to Sweet William’s Ghost (Child Ballad 77), begging his still-alive fiancée to free him from his promise to marry her, literary ghost stories have taken a plethora of forms and functions.

Medieval ghost stories are both like and unlike earlier and later spectral traditions. Predominantly taking the form of unquiet spirits – souls of men and women caught between heaven and hell – they have often been seen as inhabiting a textual space somewhere between Christian teaching and vernacular belief, though as this month’s reading testifies much theological thought could be bound up in the spectral matters, while popular folkloric beliefs existing beneath – and separate to – Christian orthodoxy are rarely easily apparent, despite the best efforts of some historians of medieval popular culture. While the modern ghost story often aims to entertain the reader by frisson, the pleasurable enjoyments of medieval ghost stories are often various: they could be morally edifying, spiritually consoling, and occasionally downright terrifying.

Early Church writers and Latin historians are largely quiet on ghostly matters. St Augustine of Hippo in the De cura pro mortuis gerenda (c. 420-22) was adamant that the dead could have no influence on the lives of the living; and gave little credence to accounts of the spectral return, whether in dream or in waking life. At best, such visions of the dead were the workings of God; usually they were the manifestations of error. Pope Gregory the Great in his Dialogi of c. 592, however, seems to have accepted the presence of ghosts – specifically, restless, penitent souls – as part and parcel of the Christian experience. Nonetheless, Augustine’s views seem to have held sway – or perhaps it was simply that, in that age of Christian expansion, tales of spectres and the restless undead were too close to non-Christian belief systems.

Whether it was a result of the doom-laded portents surrounding the year 1000, the development of the concept and place of Purgatory in the early twelfth century, or the great outpouring of Latin literature – and especially the historiographical renaissance of the 1100s – that reanimated earlier suppressed vernacular beliefs in ghosts and other folkloric anxieties, from the turn of the first millennium the ghost returned to haunt the pens and imagination of many Latin writers.

Some Churchmen saw the potential for capital – both spiritual and financial – in the fascination with ghost stories. Peter the Venerable (c. 1092-1156), abbot of Cluny, at the zenith of its power under his authority, included several tales of ghostly apparitions in his De miraculis, representing ‘the pinnacle of the twelfth-century use of the ghost story for the specific institutional advantage of a monastic foundation. Many of these stories demonstrate Peter’s “external” political concern to defend Cluny’s interests as a territorial and financial unit’. In one tale from the De miraculis, for instance, the ghost of a baron appears, begging the forgiveness of the abbot for encroaching on lands near the abbey’s holdings.

Many other writings were less materialistic in orientation. Jacques Le Goff ties the outpouring of ghostly complaints to the consolidation of the belief in Purgatory around the twelfth century. Certainly a common theme of such tales at this time centre on spirits condemned for a specific time to Purgatory to atone for transgressions in their life, and who seek the help of the living to alleviate their torments – typically through intercessional prayer.

The narratives of these ghostly miracula show evidence of the influence of Gregory the Great. Other writers, such as William of Malmesbury and Gervase of Tilbury, seem to recount stories of the undead in a different, but never wholly unrelated, form of the mirabilia, or marvel. Such tales of wonder could serve many purposes. William, for instance, recounts his ghostly tales as means of registering his disquiet over necromancy and, perhaps, to associate it with certain forms of continental speculative philosophy. Gervase of Tilbury, however, adapted the form to a less strenuously ethical mode: for him, mirabilia were predominantly tales of sophisticated court entertainments. Related to mirabilia are the prodigiosa or ‘unnatural marvels’ of William of Newburgh, contained within his Historia rerum Anglicarum, and which are, perhaps, neither as didactic as William of Malmesbury’s ghostly tales, nor as overtly entertaining as Gervase’s slightly later spectral diversions.

Despite some of these generic, formal considerations of miracula, mirabilia and prodigiosa, it should be noted that any distinctions are hazy, and insisting on easy classifications is a pointless task. Ghost stories, like ghosts themselves, are liminal entities, existing at the margins of generic classifications, or buried deeply – though perhaps not too permanently – within a morass of other textual matters and materials. Tales of spectres rarely stand alone. Just as modern ghost stories may be contained within horror fiction, stories of the supernatural, or tales of the paranormal, or within a range of larger genres – weird fiction, thrillers, the gothic – so medieval ghost stories exist within a multitude of literary forms and genres: religious exempla, theological textbooks, the histories of a people, specula of marvellous phenomena, romances, sagas. They could be, and usually were, grouped with other miraculous, marvellous or ‘unnatural’ phenomena – tales that many, of later generations, might want to describe as uncanny. Indeed, there is something curiously pervasive in the ghost story, as it reappears again and again in new forms, alongside new tales, and contradictory theologies.

Texts
This month’s reading consists of selections from five important, and diverse, writers. Though the extensiveness of medieval writings on spectres is at least as wide as modern and contemporary writings on ghosts, I have here selected only clerical writings in Latin. A future reading group may wish to consider later vernacular writings on spectral encounters, and in a wider range of genres.

The first set of extracts are taken from two of the most important Latin Church Fathers, St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Pope St Gregory the Great (c. 540-604). Though their respective writings on spectral afterlives are short, their influence on later ecclesiastical writers was profound. Crucially, they assumed very different positions of the possibility of ghostly hauntings. For Augustine, famously, the dead, by their very nature, have no ability to interfere with the lives of the living. The spirits of the dead, awaiting judgement, have no ability to appear to the living – at least of their own volition. For Gregory, as so often, the position seems to have been different. Not only can the unquiet spirits of the dead appear (at least to learned, pious men), but they can also ask for service from the living. The extracts are taken from Augustine’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda (c. 420), a letter written to his fellow bishop, Paulinus, detailing the care to be had for the dead, and the fourth book of Gregory’s Dialogi (c. 593), which deals with the souls of ordinary Christians. The latter proved influential on later writers’ use of the ghost story as miracula, ‘in that they are not hagiographical accounts of saintly episodes but stories which use the extraordinary – the appearance after their death of ordinary people – to uphold and exemplify theological or moral points which the writer wishes to emphasise.’

The second group of spectral tales come from three English writers of the twelfth and early thirteenth century: William of Malmesbury, William of Newburgh and Gervase of Tilbury. William of Malmesbury (c. 1090-1143) was an enormously important historian of the twelfth century – at the very vanguard of the historiographical renaissance that was to include Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth and William of Newburgh. His De gestis regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings) was begun in 1125 and, indebted to Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731), represents highpoint in the revival of English literary and intellectual culture following the post-Conquest years. As Rodney M. Thompson notes, ‘in his scholarly and literary achievement William is on the one hand unique and outstanding, on the other representative of his concerns, traditions, virtues and limitations of Benedictine monasticism. He was living near the end of the great age of Benedictine scholarship, and though he apparently sensed that new forces were at work, associated with the continental Schools, he had little contact with them.’ Within his broad gestis are various anecdotes of the deeds of supernatural events, which are notably free of historical scrutiny. Also noteworthy is William’s disapproval of certain acts of necromancy (communication with, and/or summoning of the dead), which in the tale of Two Clerks of Nantes he associates with speculative philosophy.

The Yorkshire canon, William of Newburgh (1136-98), included a short collection of prodigiosa, or unnatural marvels, within his Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs). The subject of previous MEMORI reading groups [here], William’s work is of great importance to historians of the twelfth century, as well as students of historiography. His famously well-balanced, considered and at times idiosyncratic history of contemporary English affairs led him to be described as ‘the father of historical criticism’ by Edward Augustus Freeman in the nineteenth century. Parts of his work has also proven attractive to those working in folklore studies (as well as more dubious historians of the paranormal) for its depiction – questioning, open-minded, sometimes hesitant – of revenants, vampires and the famous ‘green children’ of St Martin’s Land. In his account of the Buckinghamshire Ghost, the Berwick Ghost and the Hound’s Priest, several critics have seen what they estimate to be Scandinavian influence – and a general belief in the former Danelaw in the existence of monstrous nightstalkers. Unlike several other monastic depictions of ghosts at this time, it is notable how important the role of lay persons – as opposed to the priests – are in the resolution of the narratives.

Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1150-1220) was an English canon lawyer, statesman and writer. Born in Tilbury, Essex, a manor in the hands of Henry II, Gervase spent most of his working life within the extensive Angevin network across northern and western Europe. He travelled widely, taught canon law at Bologna, found service in the court of William II of Sicily, Henry of Anjou, and William of Champagne, Archbishop of Reims. Sometime after the death of William II of Sicily, Gervase settled in Arles, and was later made Marshal of the Kingdom of Arles by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor (and grandson of Henry II). Between 1210 and 1214 Gervase wrote Otia imperialia (Imperial entertainments) for his patron, as well as some devotional works. The Otia imperialia is an encyclopaedia of mirabilia (or marvels), and an important example of speculum literature. As a survey (speculum), the book is divided into three parts – history, geography and physics – and contains a wealth of many tales and wonders, including several ‘ghost stories’, all of which were devised as courtly, intellectual entertainments for Otto’s court.

Questions for discussion
1. How do Augustine and Gregory negotiate what we may loosely consider as ‘classical’ (or, in other instances, Judaic) traditions relating to funerary rites, and/or conceptions of the spectre?
2. What are the purposes/roles of Augustine’s and Gregory’s writings?
3. Is it possible to reconcile Augustine’s and Gregory’s writings on spectres, or are they mutually exclusive?
4. Do (all) these Latin writers present similar or very different conceptions of (a) ghosts and (b) ghost stories when compared to modern and contemporary presentations of spectres and spectral narratives?
5. Consider the corporeality (or incorporeal nature) of the ghosts in these texts
6. Ghost, revenant, spectre, spook, apparition, nightstalker, shade – is a taxonomy of ‘ghosts’ possible? Is it useful?
7. To what extent do these texts reveal an interplay between Church teaching and popular folklore?
8. Miracula, mirabilia, prodigiosa – to what extent do the generic literary presentations of these ghost stories affect the way we understand them?
9. Given all this generic and formal play – messiness, might be a better word – the obvious question is, what counts as a ghost story?

 

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