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 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.



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.