A Medieval English Crime Spree?


The murder of Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral (source: wikicommons)


The study of the supernatural is inextricably linked with the concept of ‘bad’ death. Although this isn’t the time or place to dwell too much on the minutiae of anthropological theory and its application in medieval contexts, it suffices to say that death can only be considered ‘bad’ if judged against its opposite. For medieval populaces, ‘good’ death was said to occur at home, in bed, following the reception of Last Rites from a priest. Very rarely did everyday death performances live up to this ideal. As I have discussed previously, mourners often used a variety of strategies to ensure the soul of the deceased had an unimpeded passage into heaven. Even so, examples of deaths that were particularly ill-performed or ill-timed – suicide, murder, drowning – appear time and again in the English eyre rolls (ca.1198–1348).  These records, which detail the cases heard by itinerant royal judges as they travelled from county to county presiding over local courts (eyres), provide a fascinating insight into the types of accidental and not-so accidental deaths that beset local village life.

Drowning seems to have been a common cause of death. To pick but one example, a case recorded in the Berkshire pleas of 1248 notes how four men attempted to cross a river in a boat that also contained a horse. Owing to the ‘agitation’ of the horse, the boat capsized and three of the four men drowned. The horse survived.  A sense of tragi-comedy can also be detected in an unusual case from the Shropshire rolls of 1256, where it was said a certain William, son of Robert Seys, accidentally killed Thomas of Worthen by throwing a javelin at his head. Despite being a child of 8-9 years, William was known to be of ‘ill-repute’ and thus outlawed.



The Murder of Antiochus III (c.1415) (source: wikicommons)


Investigations into cases of suspected suicide are another common feature of the eyre rolls, with the prosecution of self-murder often leading to the forfeiture of the deceased’s chattels – hence why many of the cases often concluded with the less financially-ruinous verdicts of temporary insanity or ‘misadventure’. It was while investigating such cases in the Warwickshire Eyre Roll of 1221 that, purely by chance, I came across the following:


“Thomas the clerk of Sutton Coldfield, William son of Hasculf the chaplain, William the turner, Robert de Bromhal, Osbert the charcoal burner, and Geoffrey his brother robbed a house in Sutton Coldfield and carried off two loads of cloth. Thomas, William and William were taken in flight with the cloth and hanged, and the others are outlawed by suit of Hugh of Bordseley for another deed, namely for the death of Arnold the Reeve. Thomas’ chattels, 12 shillings, whence let the sheriff answer. The others were of the county of Worcester and therefore no chattels…”


So far, so interesting.  Domestic robberies feature heavily in criminal pleas from this era. Much later, while examining the Worcestershire eyre roll of the same year (1221), a reference to ‘Robert de Bramhal’ caught my eye:


“John Colfox, Obsert the charcoal burner and Geoffrey his brother, and Robert de Bramhal came to Roger the beadle of Beoley’s house by night and broke into it and took Roger and his wife and cut off Roger’s foot and his wife’s finger-nails and fled. And it is said that Geoffrey the charcoal burner was taken at Hereford. Speak about it there. John was living in Warwickshire at Beoley [i.e. Beoley was on the county line]. They are all suspected, and therefore let them be interrogated and outlawed…”


Had I stumbled upon two crimes committed by the same group of people? It certainly seems that this plea refers to the same Robert, Geoffrey, and Osbert as reported in the Warwickshire eyre. Reading between the lines, the evidence suggests that the gang had embarked on a quite significant crime spree, ranging from robbery to maiming and murder. The pointed absence of Thomas the clerk and the two Williams from the second plea, combined with the offhand remark that Geoffrey had been apprehended in Hereford, suggests that the gang – or what was left of them – were travelling westwards. The records do not specify if anything was taken from Roger of Beoley’s house, but the very act of cutting off his foot and removing his wife’s fingernails suggests that extortion  was most definitely on the criminals’ minds.  With the Warwickshire pleas being heard before the royal justices in the autumn and the Worcestershire cases in June, it can be presumed that the events took place within the first few months of 1221.

Getting a glimpse into the everyday lives of past peoples is one of the most gratifying aspects of studying history. I started off my investigations into the eyre records intending to find cases of ‘bad’ death and the unusual treatment of the body. In the end, I found myself on the trail of a gang of murderous outlaws. If anyone has any information about what happened to Robert de Bromhal and Osbert the charcoal maker, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!


Sources Cited:

Rolls of the Justices in the Eyre for Lincolnshire 1218-9 and Worcestershire 1221, ed. Doris Mary Stenton, Seldon Society 53 (London: Quaritch, 1934)

Rolls of the Justices in the Eyre for Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire, 1221, 1222, ed. Doris Mary Stenton, Seldon Society 59 (London: Quaritch, 1940)

The Roll of the Shropshire Eyre of 1256, ed. Alan Harding, Seldon Society 95 (London: Seldon, 1981)




The Monstrous Devourer

With the semester coming to a close, the final pieces of marking complete, and Christmas fast approaching, my thoughts are increasingly  turning to the respite of the holidays. Like many, I look forward to working myself slowly – though more likely quickly! –  through the chocolates, crisps, and various other foodstuffs that have been accumulating at home over the past couple of weeks.  While excess for the sake of excess is certainly frowned upon today, gluttony was a vice held in even greater disdain by the moralising pamphleteers of the seventeenth century. The curious account of the ‘Monstrous Devourer’, dated to 26th April 1675, is a case in point.


Source: Early English Books Online

The anonymous author ‘L.W’ does not pull any punches when it comes to explicating the moral of this strange tale, beginning his discussion with the observation that ‘the baleness of man is excessible and wicked Feasting, and surfeiting of drunkeness’. Gluttons, says the author, cannot escape ‘the all-seeing eye of the most high and mighty God, that will one day bring them all to judgement’. The ‘great devourer’ was one such soul punished by God for his wantonness. A vagrant, forever moving from town to town, this unnamed fellow was said to possess the most grotesque and ravenous appetite:

“For this fellow eats all that ever comes nigh unto him, intrels of Beast, Bullocks, Calves, Sheep, Hogs, or any other garbage he can come at, and never stands to wash it, but devours it as it comes from the cattle, with the dung in it, without picking or cleansing little or much, and as he travels along between town and town, if he lights of any dead horse by the way, that has been dead for three or four dayes, he will not leave it until he has devoured it all…’

The pamphlet goes on to describe – with a certain salaciousness, it must be said –  how he once wandered into a butchers market and proceeded to devour sheep guts, offal and bull entrails, all before a fascinated crowd of ‘many hundreds’. Eventually captured and forced to perform at the Saint George’s Day Fair at Guidford on 23rd April 1675, the Devourer astounded onlookers by ‘eat[ing] Dogs and Cats whole without their skins, never taking their guts out’ making all that viewed the spectacle sick with disgust.

What, then, are we to make of this wonder? ‘L.W’ certainly has a few theories. It was rumoured the Devourer was a convert to Quakerism who, presuming to act in the manner of Christ and fast for forty days and forty nights, was visited by a spirit that told him ‘the should eat and never be satisfied for the space of seven years’.  The irony would not have been lost on the pamphlet’s readership. Quakers were often scorned for their enthusiasm, religious excesses, and blasphemous practices. Their religious deviancies  were often reflected in their tendency for public disorder. The actions of the infamous preacher James Naylor, who, in October 1656, entered Bristol on horseback in imitation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and was promptly arrested for blasphemy, would surely have been fresh in the minds of L.W’s audience. As a vagrant and (presumed) Quaker in possession of a monstrous, parodic appetite, the Devourer was undoubtedly read as a paradigm of social and spiritual chaos.


Source: Wikicommons

Degenerate Quakerism was not the only explanation. ‘L.W’ also speculates that the Devourer may have simply been husbandman who had fallen into melancholy. With his humoural balance destabilised, his body was thus ripe for demonic infiltration (‘and then the spirit entered into him’). This, indeed, is an incredibly orthodox interpretation of the mechanisms of demonic possession, deriving from the medieval scholastic tradition. The presumed location of the devil within the Devourer’s body also adheres to established popular beliefs: ‘only about the Rimm of his belly, is a kind of blew bunch and that is supposes to be the place where the Spirit lyes, as he and some others do declares’.  Indeed, the theory that demons were unable to penetrate the soul and able only to ingratiate themselves in the lower, baser parts of the human anatomy had been a central tenet of demonology since the time of Vincent of Beauvis (d.1264). Folkloric sources concerning the walking dead betray a similar understanding that unclean spirits – not necessarily demons – were compelled to stay in the fetid parts of the body. Writing at the turn of the fifteenth-century, an anonymous Byland Abbey monk relays the following about the corpse of a certain Robert Kilburn:

“I must tell you that this Robert the younger died and was buried in a churchyard, but he had the habit of leaving his grave by night, and disturbing and frightening the villagers […] and when he had been conjured he spoke in the inside of his bowels, and not with his tongue, but as it were an empty cask, and he confessed his different offences…”

Whatever the ultimate cause of the Devourer’s hunger, L.W. is adamant that he should be regarded not with disdain, but with pity and charity. After all, the Devourer’s plight served as a stark warning to those who placed more stock in gluttony and drunkenness than the state of their eternal souls.  L.W’s final admonishment  has the distinct tone of a modern public service announcement:

“So many women tells their husbands of drinking and keeping of bad company, why, some be so void of grace, that they tell them, they will do it though it be to their ruine, and I fear there are too many that find it so, to the undoing of soul and body…”

As L.W. sees it, there is a ‘monstrous devourer’ lurking in all of us. Something, then, to consider when tucking in to our meals on Christmas day!


Works Cited

Charles L. Cherry, ‘Enthusiasm and Madness: Anti-Quakerism in the Seventeenth-Century’ Quaker History 73 (1984) 1-24

L.W. The Monstrous Devourer, or Great Feeder (London, 1675)

A. J. Grant., ‘Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 27 (1924), 363–379.


The Mythos of Michael Scot

In the medieval and early modern worlds, the line between licit and illicit magical practice was often difficult to determine. A reputation for mastery in the dark arts could have a serious impact on an occult philosopher’s post-mortem reputation. Alchemists and astrologers had to tread carefully, lest rumours about their activities crystallise into something more substantial and scurrilous. As discussed most notably by Frank Baron, ‘Georg Helmstetter’ (d.1541), otherwise known as Faustus, is one of the most famous historical figures whose factual escapades became the raw materials for fiction. Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragic History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus (1592) and Johann Goethe’s Faust (1771) helped shape the identity of a minor, transient astrologer – by all accounts, a grubby and unscrupulous one – into the powerful and tragic figure we know today. However, Faust was not the only magician whose reputation was re-formed in this way. Michael Scot (?1170–1236), court astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (d.1250) and famed Arabic-Latin translator, had the same dubious distinction.

Despite the rich folkloric evidence surrounding Scot’s life and career, nothing concrete is known about his date of birth, early activities, or whether or not he was actually Scottish. It has been presumed that he studied in Paris before continuing his education in Toledo, here gaining a reputation as a translator of some repute. Indeed, the first mentions of Scot in the historical record can be traced to 1215 – where he accompanied Rodrigo, the Archbishop of Toledo, to the Fourth Lateran Council – and 18 August 1217, the date he completed his Latin version of al-Bitrogi’s On the Spheres. As well as his expertise in astrology, geometry and alchemy, Scot also seems to have had a keen interest in the medical sciences. On October 21 1220/1, whilst residing in Bologna, he was asked by a certain Albertus Gallus to examine the ‘stones’ (lapides) that came from the womb of Maria, a wise woman from the neighbourhood.


Source: wikicommons


By 1227 Scot was in the employ of Emperor Frederick II in Sicily, where his reputation as an astrologer began to surpass all previous accomplishments.  Such was his expertise in divination that his death (c.1236) was greeted with the following words from poet and fellow courtier Henry of Avranches:


Qui fuit astorum scrutator, qui fuit augur / Qui fuit ariolus, et qui fuit alter Apollo

[Scot] was a scrutinser of the stars, was an augur, was a cunning man, and was a second Apollo’


By the 1300s, his infamy had gown to such an extent that he was given the honour of occupying a place in Dante’s Inferno. Specifically, he can be found in the fourth Bolgia of the eighth circle of hell (Canto XX) where, in a nice example of contrapasso, sorcerers and astrologers are condemned to wander the circle with their heads twisted backwards, an ironic punishment for trying to see too far into the future.


Giovanni Stradano, Canto XX (c.1587) Source: Wikicommons

By the early modern period, the name ‘Michael Scot’ had become almost synonymous with the practice of illicit magic. It took only a small mental leap to associate Scot’s skill at prophesising the future with a hypothetical ability to conjure and control the most dangerous of evil spirits. As such, necromantic manuals carrying Scot’s name began to make an appearance around the latter half of the fifteenth century. Rylands Latin MS 105 (c.1500), one of the ‘star items’ from the recent Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World exhibition, is a magical experiment purported to have been translated by Scot from an Arabic ‘original’. Indeed, what makes this experiment –  entitled, Almuchabola Absegalim Al Kakib Albaon, id est Compendium magiae innaturalis nigrae –  so interesting is the inclusion of the garbled ‘Arabic’ text as a precursor to the Latin instructions, with the manuscript itself structured like an Islamic booklet (that is, reading from right to left):



Preparations for the experiment in fake or corrupted Arabic (top) and the associated Latin ‘translation’ (below), Rylands Latin MS 105 (photos: Stephen Gordon)

My recent article on Latin MS 105 for the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library explores the contents, provenance and textual history of this experiment in detail. In brief, the Latin part of the text begins with an introduction by ‘Scot’, who notes that due to his ‘ignorance’ of Arabic (linguae insciciam) – one of many clues the text was written by a scholar with only an oblique knowledge of Scot’s actual career – he enlisted the help of a Rabbi to translate the instructions into Latin, but keeping the mystical prayers in their original language. The fact that ‘Scot’ signs off with ‘Michael Scot, Prague in Bohemia, the day before the Ides of February [i.e. the 12th], in the year 1261’)’ provides further proof that this is an imaginative, if not historically accurate, piece of literary fiction.


Warning by Scot to conduct the experiment with utmost care, lest it lead to personal ruin,  Rylands Latin MS 105 (photo: Stephen Gordon).

The experiment itself is remarkably orthodox. Following the drawing of a magic circle and the fashioning of a hazel staff, the magician is also asked to create a mitre and scapular out of ‘virgin paper’. The names of the demons to be conjured should then be inscribed with crow’s blood on black goatskin and affixed with a stick to the edge of the circle. ‘Prince’ Almuchabzar, Achunhab, Baltuzararz, and Aghizikke are the four major spirits mentioned in the experiment, with Suhub, Rabuliph, Almischack and Salhabari named as the four minor spirits. To my knowledge the names of the demons are unique to the Compendium magiae innaturalis nigrae textual tradition. If the preparations had been conducted properly and the invocations enunciated correctly, then the chosen spirit would be compelled to appear in the shape of a human. The text further mentions that the spirit would only be allowed to depart if the task given to it by the magician was successfully completed.


Left: Magic Circle and Staff inscribed with efficacious symbols, Rylands Latin MS 105 (photo: Stephen Gordon)


Conjurations to compel the demon Almuchabzar to appear and then depart, Rylands Latin MS 105 (photo: Stephen Gordon)

Although the authorship of the Compendium magiae innaturalis nigrae was ascribed to various authorities over the years, ‘Michael Scot’ was the name most commonly used. Ancient and venerable names from history were often appended to necromantic manuals as a way of lending a sense of legitimacy to the illicit knowledge contained within. Operating alongside the ‘Scot’ manuscript tradition, there also existed an enthusiastic circulation of magical texts bearing the names of Solomon, Roger Bacon, Albertus Magnus, and even Faustus. Perhaps all it needed was for Christopher Marlowe to write a play about the mythical Michael Scot, expert conjurer of the Holy Roman court, for Scot to be as well-known as Faustus is today. This is not to say Scot’s name does not have a literary resonance. Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel (1812) provides wonderfully vivid accounts of his namesake’s fictionalised adventures in Paris and his vanquishing of witches and evil spirits, cementing his folkloric reputation as a particularly Scottish wizard. A quick Google search confirms that the mythos of Michael Scot is still going strong today.



Frank Baron, Doctor Faustus: From History to Legend (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1978)

Stephen Gordon, Necromancy and the Magical Reputation of Michael Scot: John Rylands Library, Latin MS 105’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 92 (2016), 73–103

Walter Scott, Lay of the Last Minstrel (London: Cushing, 1812)


Poltergeists Through History


Borley Rectory – reputedly one of the most haunted houses in England (source: wikicommons)

As a researcher on the supernatural, it is difficult to come up with a themed blog post for Halloween. For better or worse, everything is relevant. But after finishing Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters, a fictionalised account of Harry Price’s investigations into the hauntings at Borley Rectory in the 1920s and 30s (a great book, btw), I thought it would be fun to embark on a whistle-stop tour through the cultural history of the poltergeist. Let us first consider the following:


“There was […] a large and spacious, but ill‑reputed and pestilential house. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of fetters; at first it seemed at a distance, but approached nearer by degrees; immediately afterward a phantom appeared in the form of an old man, extremely meagre and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the gyves on his feet and hands. The poor inhabitants consequently passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, threw them into distempers, which, as their horrors of mind increased, proved in the end fatal to their lives. For even in the day time, though the spectre did not appear, yet the remembrance of it made such a strong impression on their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and their terror remained when the cause of it was gone. By this means the house was at last deserted, as being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity which attended it, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.”


The staging of the above extract will not be alien to those familiar with the tropes of haunted house stories. Strange noises, unusual apparitions, occupants who fled it terror –  these have long been a staple of ghost literature and horror movies. Rather than being the synopsis of a screenplay, this description actually comes from the pen of Pliny the Younger (d.113CE) who included the tale in a letter addressed to the Roman senator Lucius Licinius Sura.


Pliny the Younger: a teller of ghost stories (source: wikicommons)

The sound of knocking or scratching is arguably the main component of a poltergeist encounter. Poltergeist literary means an ‘angry, rumbling spirit’. Other indicators that a house was haunted by poltergeists include the movement of objects, the throwing of stones and, in an interesting overlap with the nightmare tradition, the physical assault of members of the household. Medieval historiographies contain their fair share of poltergeist exempla. One such case can be read in the Chronicle of Sigebert of Gembloux (ca. 1030-1112), which describes events that were said to have occurred in Mainz during the ninth-century. Again, the details will be somewhat familiar to horror aficionados:


“An evil spirit in the bishopric of Mainz was casting stones, striking the walls of houses as if with a hammer […]. It then aroused many people’s wrath against a man in whose house it lived, and which it burnt down […]. When the priests celebrated the litanies, the demon hurt several of them by throwing stones. Sometimes it was calm and sometimes excited, but things continued in this vein for three years until all the buildings in the area had been consumed by fire” (trans. Lecouteux)


In this extract, the poltergeist is explicitly referred to as a demon. By contrast,  in a famous 1323 account of a domestic haunting in Alés, France, the perpetrator of the ‘strange noises’ turned out to be the ghost of the man who used to live in the house, Guy of Corvo, permitted by God to return home to seek absolution.

The ontological ambiguity surrounding the nature of ‘rumbling spirits’ – were they evil spirits, ghosts of the dead, or something in between? – is something that can be discerned in the famous account of the Drummer of Tedworth (c.1661). The story begins with a vagrant drummer named William Drury, who was accused of bewitching the house of a landowner, John Mompesson, with whom he had recently quarrelled in a lawsuit. Soon after, loud drumming and scratching noises began to plague the Mompesson household. The theologian Joseph Glanvill paid a visit to the Mompessons and experienced the strange happenings first-hand. The haunting of Tedworth is one of many similar stories used in Glanvill’s Saducismus triumphatus (1681) to refute atheism and substantiate the existence of supernatural phenomena.


Image of the Tedworth spirit from the third edition (1700) of the Saducismus triumphatus. Note how other devils flock to the sound of the drum (source: wikicommons)

Poltergeists remained a cause for concern in the eighteenth-century and beyond. The notebook of Charles Wesley,  digitised in full by the John Rylands Library in Manchester, details how Epsworth Recory (residence of the Wesley family) was plagued by the ghost of a former servant named  ‘Old Jeffrey’. From December 1616 to January 1717 it terrorised the household by walking unseen through the stairways and making loud, terrible noises. The hauntings stopped just as suddenly as they started.


Charles Wesley: younger brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (source: wikicommons)

As the the above examples attest, historians and theologians rarely agreed as to the true meaning behind a poltergeist’s appearance. Whether it was perceived as a restless ghost, demon, or even a folkloric spirit, the mischievous and malevolent aspect of the poltergeist’s agency is what made it so fascinating to contemporary audiences. The strange events that led to the abandonment and ultimate destruction of Borley Rectory –  reimagined for modern readers through The Ghost Hunters – would not have been out of place in Pliny’s letter to Sura.



Claude Lecouteux, The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestation (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2012)

Joseph Glanvill, Saducismus triumphatus (London, 1681)

Pliny the Younger, Letters, trans. William Melmouth; rev.  W. M. L. Hutchinson (London: Heinemann, 1915)

Sasha Handley, Visions of an Unseen World: Ghost Belief and Ghost Stores in Eighteenth-Century England (London: Pickering & Chatto , 2007)

The Devil Dog of Butley

A few weeks ago I was doing a bit of research on the burial of early modern suicides (as one does) and came across an interesting entry in the register of Butley Abbey, an Augustinian priory in Suffolk. As well as the fascinating account of the crossroad burial of one of Butley’s later priors, Robert Brommer (c.1509/10), I also happened upon an early version of the East Anglian Black Dog legend. Referring to the events of 1513, the chronicler writes:

“It was this year on the feast of St. Michael (29th September), after evening prayer […] that, during a thunderstorm, the Devil in the shape or species of a very black dog appeared in Essex; that is to say, near to a village called Chich, where part of the bell tower of the church of Sts Peter, Paul and Osyth caught fire. Eventually the dog departed without causing harm to anyone, thanks be to God.”

This is a very (very!) loose paraphrase of the original Latin text, but it bears close resemblance to the more famous tale of the Black Dog that terrorised the village of Bungay, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, in 1577. In both stories the devil-dog appears during a violent storm in which the local church was badly damaged after being struck by lightning. However, whilst the Bungay dog was said to have wrung the necks of two parishioners, killing them both, the residents of Chich (the modern-day village of St Osyth) seem to have escaped unharmed, the cost of rebuilding the bell tower notwithstanding.


Abraham Fleming’s pamphlet on the Black Dog of Bungay (Source: wikicommons)


As noted by the editor of the Register of Butley Priory, the Butley description is one of the earliest accounts of the Black Dog legend yet found in the written record. It would be interesting to see if any such stories can be detected in earlier chronicle traditions. As it stands, these sixteenth-century wonder stories are a stark testament to the pervasive nature of local belief. Devilish black dogs would continue to haunt the locales and landscapes of East Anglia for centuries to come.


Abraham Fleming, A Straunge and Terrible Wunder (London, 1577)

The Register or Chronicle of Butley Priory, Suffolk, 1510-1535, ed. by  A. G. Dickens, forward by J. N. L. Myres (Winchester: The Wykeham Press, 1951)

The Political Use of Walking Corpses in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum

‘Such things often happened in England’


This was the matter-of fact answer given to Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (d.1200), upon hearing that a walking corpse was causing a nuisance in an unnamed Buckinghamshire village. Unwilling to follow the advice of his advisors to burn the corpse, Hugh instead ordered that a scroll of absolution be placed on the dead man’s chest. Apparently this did the trick, for the revenant immediatly stopped terrorising his neighbours and loved ones.

Along with three similar stories, this episode is recorded in book five of William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum (c.1198). According to William, restless corpses were also encountered in Berwick, Melrose and ‘Anant’ (which scholars have taken to be Alnwick in Northumberland). Not all of those who encountered the undead followed Hugh’s example in absolving the deceased of whatever sins compelled him or her to walk. The residents of Berwick, concerned that their own walking corpse was infecting the town with corrupted, noxious air, decided that cremation was the only viable option, as ‘shown by frequent examples in similar cases.’ Religious houses were not immune to being pestered by the undead. Monks from the Cistercian Abbey of Melrose decided to burn the body of a priest who, in life, devoting more time to hunting and whoring than to the spiritual wellbeing of his flock. Having been buried in Melrose’s graveyard, he became much more of a nuisance in death, rising from his tomb each night to attack his former concubine and harass the inmates of the monastery.


Melrose Abbey, the site of a revenant encounter in 1196 (source: Wikicommons)

As a canon of the Augustinian Priory of Newburgh (N. Yorkshire) and somewhat of a religious conservative, William is coolly equivocal as to why such entities started to appear at this time. He says he can find no reference to them in Classical literature. And yet, his oblique references to such events ‘often happening in England’ and that ‘frequent examples [occurred] in similar cases’ suggest that revenants were causing much more trouble for local communities than the scant historical references indicate.  Even so, it is telling that William refers to each revenant as a ‘prodigy’ – that is, an entity whose appearance perhaps signified something else, something rotten, in the body-politic.

What, then, do these undead corpses signify? All four exempla were said to have occurred in the spring of 1196, a time of much social and economic strife in the English realm. As I discussed in a recent article for the Journal of Medieval History, William seems to be critiquing the activities of ‘social revenants’, that is to say, people whose political actions also caused the spread of disorder and death. It is perhaps no-coincidence that all four exempla follow William’s account of the treasonous activities of William FitzOsbert, a Londoner who tried to enact a rebellion and was put to death for his crimes.


FitzOsbert was hanged at Tyburn gallows, London, in the spring of 1196, where he quickly began to be seen as a martyr (pictured, the gallows at it looked c.1680; source: Wikicommons)

Pointedly, the revenant narratives precede an account of a famine that overtook England and, a few chapters later, a digression on the death of the hated Chancellor of England, William Longchamp (d.1197). The Historia Rerum Anglicarum does not pull any punches in its description of Longchamp:

“England rejoiced at his death, for the fear of him had lain like an incubus upon her; for when he might have done much with the king, and being a man of vast spirit, could not have been forgetful of his former expulsion from England, it was evident that he would frequently plot evil against the land which had vomited him forth as some pestilential humor.”

The language of disease (‘corruption’, ‘infection’, ‘pestilence’) permeates the descriptions of the revenant encounters and is used to frame the malign activities of FitzOsbert and Longchamp. Wonders are some of the more weapons in an historians’ arsenal.  What better way to criticise the conduct of social malcontents than through the transgressive actions of a violent, pestilential corpse? Although he didn’t know exactly why the dead started to rise, William of Newburgh certainly knew how to put them to use.



English translations taken from Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England, vol. 4, part 2 (London: Seeley, 1861). Online edition, ed. Scott McLetchie, 2009, available from http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/williamofnewburgh-intro.asp

Stephen Gordon, ‘Social Monsters and the Walking Dead in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum’, Journal of Medieval History 41 (2015), 446−465

Walter Map: A Medieval Humourist

At the start of each academic semester I always ask my first-year students to reflect on their own conception of the Middle Ages.  ‘Barbarous’, ‘disease-ridden’ and ‘superstitious’ are some of the more common descriptors used. Of course, the idea is to pick apart these stereotypes and show that the medieval world was not just a place of Monty Python-esque peasants wallowing in mud, but also a time of social and literary innovation. The possession of a sense of humour is one of the categories that is often overlooked when discussing the less pejorative aspects of medieval culture.  Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium (‘Courtiers’ Trifles’, c.1182) is representative of the kind of caustic satire that found great favour in the literary circles of the High Middle Ages.

A clerk in the court of Henry II (d.1189), Map was well known in his lifetime for being a raconteur who possessed with a wonderfully sardonic wit. His Courtiers’ Trifles – a haphazard selection of stories, anecdotes and personal asides written whilst in the king’s employ – contains numerous examples of Map’s witty, sometimes brutal putdowns. Most of these were reserved for his most hated of adversaries, the Cistercian Order.



Flaxley Abbey (pictured) encroached onto the lands of the church of Westbury-on-Severn, which had previously been held by Map (source: wikicommons)


Map was not alone in showing his disdain for the Order. An anonymous poem entitled De Grisis Monachis notes that the spread of the Cistercians can be likened to the spread of animal waste (shuta). However, the source of Map’s enmity seems to have been entirely personal. His contemporary Gerald of Wales (d.1223) – who, incidentally, had his own problems with the Order – notes that Flaxley Abbey, located near the Forest of Dene, encroached onto lands that once belonged to Map. From then on, Map needed no excuse to vent his anger against the white monks, reserving an especial ire for the most famous of contemporary Cistercians, Bernard of Clairvoux (d.1153). Consider Map’s remark upon hearing that Bernard failed to miraculously resurrect a boy who had recently died:

‘”Then he was the most unlucky of monks” said I: “I have heard before now of a monk throwing himself upon a boy, but always, when the monk got up, the boy promptly got up too”. The abbot got very red, and a lot of people left the room to have a good laugh’



Walter Map was not one of Bernard of Clairvoux’s biggest fans (source: Wikicommons)


Map seems to take particular glee in recounting Bernard’s failed miracles. On one occasion, it was said a madman chased the abbot through the streets of Montpellier, pelting him with stones, after a failed attempt at exorcism. Sarcasm can also be read in Map’s anecdote concerning a failed attempt to raise a certain ‘Walter, Count of Nevers’, from the dead: ‘[Bernard] cried with a loud voice: “Walter come forth”, but Walter, not hearing the voice of Jesus, had not the ears of Lazarus, and did not come’. Even in his later years Map did not ease up on his attacks. Writing at the turn of the thirteenth century, the subprior of the monastery of St. Frideswide in Oxford notes that ‘in youth and in old age Walter Map says derisory things in verse and prose about the spread of the white monks’.

Walter Map’s insults display an extremely sophisticated – some might say ‘modern’ – comic sensibility. They are suffused with sarcasm and irony. Taken as a whole, the Courtiers’ Trifles is fascinating insight into the mind of a man who was increasingly exasperated by life both inside and outside the court. It is well worth a read.



David N. Bell, ‘De Grisis Monachis: A Goliardic Invective against the Cistercians in London, B. L., Cotton Vespasian A.XIX’, in Studia Monastica 41 (1999), 243−259

Stephen Gordon, ‘Parody, Sarcasm and Invective in the Nugae of Walter Map’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116 (2017), 82–107

Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, ed. and trans.  by M. R. James; revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).