Things that Went Bump in the Middle Ages (Part 1)

March 14, 2011

A few years ago, I used to frequent the Ghost Hunters discussion forum on Syfy.com. Many of the regular members were highly skeptical of TAPS and extremely good at analyzing questionable evidence from the program. As one might expect, however, most of the members believed in ghosts or at least believed that it was plausible that ghosts could exist. One of the reasons given for this belief was the ubiquity of ghost stories. Even noted skeptic Alison Smith at one time thought the commonness of ghost stories was the most compelling evidence for ghosts:

To me, the best evidence for the existence of ghosts was the way they permeated every culture. They crept across the globe. If they didn’t exist, then why would so many vastly different cultures believe in them?

Or, as a believer puts it (warning: website is very colorful):

Ghost stories, whether modern or of old, all seem to tell similar stories about ghosts’ tragedies, unfinished business, unrest, visitations, and hopeless roamings among the living.  Ghost stories also sometimes share common ghostly messages of warning to aid those still alive, or tell of spirits with ill intentions, seeking revenge from those who wronged them in life.  Some ghost stories truly enlighten, while other ghost stories paint a picture of hell to frighten!

I understand this point of view to an extent, but I have always found that the history of ghost stories argues against the reality of ghosts because the ghosts tend to fit the culture from which they come. Ghosts and ghost stories change radically over time and from culture to culture.

To begin with, what is a ghost? If you ask the guys from Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab, Ghost Wranglers, Ghost Snatchers, World’s Deadliest Ghost Catches, Martha Stewart’s UnLiving, etc., they would probably say something vague about “energy.” This isn’t entirely surprising, since the culture modern ghost stories come from combines New Age and schmience, which vaguely resembles science, but not that much. Wikipedia offers a more traditional definition: “the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living.” Probably most people would agree that ghosts are insubstantial.

Now, there are already problems with this description. Often ghosts are visible, sometimes as shadows and sometimes as “full-body apparitions.” Sometimes they appear solid; sometimes they are transparent. Ghosts can often be heard speaking, whispering, laughing or breathing with non-existent vocal cords and lungs, although some of them only make themselves heard by imprinting their disembodied voices on recorders. Sometimes ghosts can interact with physical objects: they touch/brush against/push/attack people; they make knocking sounds; they throw things; they play with equipment. They can disappear and walk through walls, but they don’t generally sink through floors or the ground (unless they do so dramatically at a place of burial, for instance). Do they have mass or not? Are they bound by gravity or not? As far as I can tell, ghosts are bound by the laws of physics, sort of, except when they aren’t.

And that’s modern ghosts. What are we to make of medieval ghosts such as this one?

[In Berwick-upon-Tweed] a certain wealthy man who…had been given over to sinful behaviour, died  and was buried. However, with Satan’s help he kept emerging at night from his tomb and wandering here and there to the sound of loudly barking dogs. Every night he was the cause of great terror to townspeople before his return at daybreak to the tomb…. The simpler folk of the town feared that they might accidentally run into the lifeless creature and be physically attacked; the more thoughtful were afraid that, unless something were done quickly, the air circulating around the town would become infected by the corpse and so lead to general sickness and death in the town. It was apparent to all that something had to be done, and so they brought together ten sturdy young men who dug up the offending corpse, dismembered it and burnt the pieces in a fire. Once this had been done, the nightly perturbations ceased… (William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum, Joynes 98-99).

William tells several similar tales. One dead man “entered the bedchamber of his sleeping wife…[and] attempted to lie upon her in the marital bed” (Joynes 97). After his wife employed watchmen, he attempted to attack his brothers and “took to prancing among the animals in the byre” (Joynes 97).  In another case, “the doors of every house were bolted, and nobody dared go out to attend to any business from sunset to sunrise for fear of being attacked by the wandering monster. But even such a precaution…was useless, since, by the circulation of air poisoned and infected by the corpse, the neighbourhood became filled with the sick and the dying who had inhaled the pestilence” (Joynes 101). In three of the four cases, the haunting stops when the body is dismembered/beheaded and/or burned. In the fourth case, such treatment is suggested, but Bishop Hugh of Lincoln instead has a letter of absolution placed on the corpse’s chest.

Now you may be thinking, “That isn’t a ghost–that’s a vampire or something.” But how do we decide on the taxonomy of the undead? How do we decide who’s a ghost, who’s a vampire, who’s a zombie, who’s a revenant? Most of our ideas about these classifications are fairly modern and to some extent derived from literature and film. In earlier time periods, it’s more difficult to say who’s what among the undead. William of Malmesbury and Walter Map also mention walking corpses, and Old Norse sagas are full of them. Though in Norse there are several words for such creatures, the words are generally translated as “ghost.” These “ghosts” spread illness, but they also attack and kill animals and humans directly. Somewhat oddly, on the blurb on the back cover of Denton Fox and Hermann Pálsson’s  translation of Grettir’s Saga, the undead fought by the hero are called “wraiths,” which is an almost perfectly inaccurate description.

A writer known as the “Monk of Byland” lived in the same area as William of Newburgh around 200 years later. He tells a number of tales that resemble William’s. One concerns

James Tankerlay, the one-time Rector of Kereby….His spirit began to wander at night as far as Kereby, and one evening he gouged out the eye of his concubine who still lived there. It is said that the abbot and chapter had his body in its coffin dug out of the grave and that they ordered Roger Wayneman to convey it to Gormyre. When he was about to throw the coffin into the water, the oxen drawing his wagon panicked and were almost drowned with fear (Joynes 123).

Some of the “spirits” shape-shift into animal form, but it is clear that they are corporeal. While they sometimes jump on a living person, they are generally less dangerous than William’s ghosts. Most want to right a wrong and/or to receive absolution. By the time the Monk of Byland was active (end of the fourteenth century), the doctrine of Purgatory was widely known and accepted, and this helps to explain the differences between his tales and those of William, who was writing when the doctrine was still developing.

Indeed, Purgatory was a great boon for the medieval ghost story. According to Jean-Claude Schmitt,

[the Church’s influence] enabled an inculcation of the faithful with a religious morality centered on the notions of sin, penance, and salvation, culminating at the end of the twelfth century in the “birth of Purgatory.”  Henceforth all Christians could hope to be saved, but only under the condition that after death, they would undergo salutary punishments–the duration and the intensity of which depended…[in part] on the suffrages (masses, prayers, and almsgiving) undertaken by relatives and friends….Otherwise the dead person might appear to a relative or close friend to demand the suffrages needed…. Eager to support and organize the unity of the living and the dead, the church gladly repeated tales of ghosts (4).

Jaques Le Goff points out that

Purgatory would become the prison in which ghosts were normally incarcerated, though they might be allowed to escape now and then to briefly haunt those of the living whose zeal in their behalf was insufficient (82).

He further notes that Purgatory was popularized in part by ghost stories (177). The ghosts might warn loved ones to mend their ways or announce an imminent death. They might want their heirs to return stolen property. Increasingly, though, they asked/demanded that relatives pay for masses or prayers to be said for their souls. Coincidentally, many of these ghost stories came out of monasteries that had become, since the introduction of Purgatory, factories that manufactured masses and prayers for the dead. While these ghosts were generally a bit tamer than those described by William and the Byland monk, they sometimes still appeared corporeal, and sometimes they retained pagan aspects, as when they appeared in a Wild Hunt (Schmitt 115).

While modern ghosts may warn loved ones or attempt to right wrongs, they rarely ask for suffrages anymore. Another thing that sets medieval ghosts apart from modern ones is their lack of ambiguity. Whether they were corporeal or incorporeal, whether they wanted to beg forgiveness or kill loved ones, they didn’t seem to have difficulty making themselves known. They were visible; usually they were able to communicate clearly. People saw them, heard them and sometimes felt them. The reporters hardly ever say, “What was that? Did you hear that?” When the only way to record ghostly phenomena was with quill, ink and parchment, the ghosts were bold and clear. Now that plumbers are armed with a dazzling variety of video and audio recorders, as well as other magical ghost hunting devices, the ghosts have gotten much more shy.  Odd that.

ES

References:

Le Goff, Jaques. The Birth of Purgatory. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984.

Joynes, Andrew, comp. and ed. Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell, 2001.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998.

Simpson, Jacqueline. “Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England.” Folklore 114 (2003): 389-402.

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Hurrah for Dr. Madden!

March 8, 2011

Last night, when Eve brought this article to my attention, she asked, “Do you remember Tom Madden?”

I imagined John Madden. “Yeah.”

“You know he’s an expert on the Crusades?”

How nice for John Madden, I thought. “No.”

Sensing that something was wrong with my brain, Eve said, “Thomas Madden, from the SLU history department?”

“Oh, yeah, yeah.” I said. I think I covered myself pretty well.

Turns out a few years ago Dr. Madden wrote an article that appeared in the National Review, called “Not Dead Yet,” about the Naked Archaeologist’s The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Calling Simcha Jacobovici a “Naked Archaeologist,” mind you, is like calling me a “Bejeweled Pro Wrestler”–he is neither an archaeologist nor is he naked. “Fully Clothed Failure” seems more apt.

Regardless, it was published in March 2008 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the release of the  Discovery Channel’s misguided airing of James Cameron’s goofy documentary, and it seems to fit within the scope of this site.

Enjoy!

RJB


Do you like despairing? Sure! We all do!

March 8, 2011

Then read the YouTube comments about the newly released police 9/11 video. Very disheartening. It’s a swarm of fail.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to do…anything else but look at those comments.

When I feel like crap, I look at movies of puppies:


RJB


The Week in Conspiracy 6 March 2011

March 6, 2011

This week saw the beginning of the end. It’s all coming together now. If you can believe it, it’s even more sensational than the previous week, which I misidentified as the climax of history. That’s this current week. Yes. For sure this time. I know this because it was announced on Twitter that today, March 6, is the beginning of the world uprising.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

I’m not enamored with the judgment of The View’s producers putting Alex Jones on, so I am going to air an oldie but goodie, Alex Jones getting slapped around by…some guy:

RJB


Dr. Hovind, Meet Dr. Whitey-Cat

March 3, 2011

It’s a happy day here at Skeptical Humanities. You see, my cat Jesse has received his doctorate from the prestigious Thunderwood College.

Jesse’s qualifications were so impressive that Thunderwood gave him the degree without even requesting that he write a dissertation. Jesse, being a conscientious cat, decided to produce one anyway:

Thunderwood College

Dissertashun for Doktor of Sciences In Baraminology

A Project Submitted to Chancellor Brian Dunning

Baraminology: Catkind is teh Best Kind And It’s All Kind of Crap

Submitted by Jesse in Parshul Fulfillment of Stuff

February 27, 2011

Dedicashun

i dedicate dis diss to me. O, and also Ceiling Cat i guess.

Acknowledgings

i wish to thank absolutely no one. No one helpded me. i did it all maiself. Tho I did get the inspirations from kent hovind. If he can haz doctorate, I can haz doctorate pls. kthxbai.

Introduckshun

Oh hai, i iz Jesse. I iz a kitteh evangelist. I live in mai house. I haz bin teeching kitteh wisdom to mai kitteh frends Mina an Gavin (aka teh stripey bastard) for a long time. As a evangelist, Ceiling Cat lieks me best an dont even mind wen I makes the misplaced modifiers.

Teh baraminses or kindses iz used to splain how so many critters cud fit on a boat. See, dere waznt a dog an a fox an a wolf an a poodul an a shitzu. Der waz just 2 goggies representing goggy-kind (or maybe it waz 7 or maybe 14). Which is 2 or 7 or 14 too mani.

Teh kitteh-kind eated most of teh udder kinds. Dats y u don’t see mouses or burds or skwirlz or gazelles or deers anymoar.

Table of Contentedness

Dedicashun, Acknowledgings & Introduckshun………………………………………..i

Teh Kitteh Baramin……………………………………………………………………………..1

Teh Udder Baraminses……………………………………………………………………..250

Bibbleleografy…………………………………………………………………………………251

Bibbleleografy

Teh Bibul.

Ceiling Cat. Personal interview.

Then he got tired and decided to take a nap in a box that is too small for him.

I’m sure he’ll get around to the rest of it eventually.

ES


Why do liberal-fascist academic elites want to homosexually abort your children’s minds with drugs?

March 1, 2011

Well, perhaps they really don’t.

Notice this picture is on the left.

At some point between the 1950s and 1960s (1:13AM on Tuesday, July 12, 1963, to be exact), the idea of the “egghead” academic developed into the “commmie-red pothead” character. A brief article from the Washington Post indicates that the real state of academia challenges the facile caricature of university and college teachers.

RJB (Solidarity, comrades!)


Somewhere, a president of the Catholic League is having a stroke…

March 1, 2011

Who said that the humanities are dull? Do chemical engineers stage orgies? (OK, I’m sure some do, but do they get tenure because of it? OK, again…)

Russian performance art crosses many lines.

RJB