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The gruesome crowd; a true medieval ghost story from Normandy

Vintage postcard of Saint-Aubin-de-Bonneval Normandy

This week our postcard match is a tiny village in the Orne region of Normandy. Here in the 11th century lived the priest Walkelin and it is his, terrifying, ghost story our guest blogger re-tells today.   Our blogger is Orderic Vitalis; Benedictine monk, 11/12th century chronicler and friend of Walkelin. The translation aims to be true to Orderic’s intention and is of course a little medieval in tone.  The story is thought to be the first European ghost story ever to be written down. Over to Orderic…

Spooky Saint-Aubin-de-Bonneval match!
Spooky Saint-Aubin-de-Bonneval match!

A true medieval ghost story, retold by Orderic Vitalis

I consider that I ought not to suppress and pass over in silence what happened to a certain priest of the diocese of Lisieux, in the beginning of January.

In a village called Bonneval there was a priest named Walkelin who served the church of Saint Aubin of Anjou, who from a monk became bishop and confessor.

At the commencement of the month of January 1091, this priest was summoned in the night time, as the occasion required, to visit a sick man who lived at the furthest extremity of his parish. As he was pursuing his solitary road homewards, far from any habitation of man, he heard a great noise like the tramp of a numerous body of troops, and thought within himself that the sounds proceeded from the army of Robert de Bellême on their march to lay siege to the castle of Courcy.

The moon, being in her eight day in the constellation of the Ram, shed a clear light so that it was easy to find the way.

First, a club wealding giant

Now the priest was young, undaunted, and bold, and of a powerful and active frame of body. However, he hesitated when the sounds, which seemed to proceed from troops on the march first reached his ears, and began to consider whether he should take flight, to avoid being laid hold of and discourteously stripped by the worthless camp followers, or manfully stand on his defence if any one molested him.

Just then he espied four medlar trees in a field at a good distance from the path, and determined to seek shelter behind them, as fast as he could, until the cavalry had passed. But as he was running he was stopped by a man of enormous stature, armed with a massive club, who, raising his weapon above his head, shouted to him, “Stand! Take not a step further!”

The priest, frozen with terror, stood motionless leaning on his staff. The gigantic club-bearer also stood close to him, and without offering to do him any injury, quietly waited for the passage of the troop.

Tormented by evil deeds

Behold a great crowd of people came by on foot, carrying on their heads and shoulders; sheep, clothes, furniture, and moveable’s of all descriptions, such as robbers are in the habit of pillaging. All were making great lamentations and urging one another to hasten their steps.

Among them the priest recognised a number of his neighbours who had lately died, and he heard them bewailing the excruciating sufferings with which they were tormented for their evil deeds. They were followed by a troop of corpse-bearers, who were joined by the giant already mentioned.

They carried as many as fifty biers, each of which was borne by two bearers. On these were seated a number of men of the size of dwarfs, but whose heads were as large as barrels. Two Ethiopians also carried an immense trunk of a tree, to which a poor wretch was rudely bound, who, in his tortures filled the air with fearful cries of anguish; for a horrible demon sat on the same trunk and goaded his loins and back with red-hot spurs until the blood streamed from them.

Demon
Yup, demon

Obscene allurements and filthy delights

Walkelin distinctly recognised in this wretch the assassin of Stephen the priest, and was witness to the intolerable tortures he now suffered for the innocent blood he shed two years before, since which he had died without penance for so foul a crime.

Then followed a crowd of women who seemed to the priest to be innumerable. They were mounted on horseback, riding in female fashion, with women’s saddles which were stuck with red-hot nails. The wind often lifted them a cubit from their saddles, and then let them drop again on the sharp points.

Their haunches thus punctured with the burning nails, and suffering horrible torments from the wounds and the scorching heat, the women pitiably ejaculated “Woe ! woe !” and made open confession of the sins for which they were punished, undergoing in this manner fire and stench and unutterable tortures for the obscene allurements and filthy delights to which they had abandoned themselves when living among men.

In this company the priest recognised several noble ladies, and beheld the palfreys and mules with the women’s litters of others who were still alive.

A bit of carnal desire - medieval illumination
Filthy desires – medieval illumination

God seeth the inmost thoughts…

The priest stood fixed to the spot at this spectacle, his thoughts deeply engaged in the reflections it suggested. Presently, however, he saw pass before him a numerous company of clergy and monks, with their rulers and judges, the bishops and abbots carrying croziers in their hands.

The clergy and bishops wore black copes, and the abbots and monks cowls of the same hue. They all groaned and wailed, and some of them called to Walkelin, and implored him in the name of their former friendship to pray for them. The priest reported that he saw among them many who were highly esteemed, and who, in human estimation, were now associated with the saints in heaven.

He recognised in their number Hugh, bishop of Lisieux and those eminent abbots Manier of Evroult and Gerbert of Fontenelles, with many others whose names I either forget, or have no desire to publish. Human judgment is often fallible, but the eye of God seeeth the inmost thoughts; for man looks only to outward appearances, God searcheth the heart.

A quick look to heaven

In the realms of eternal bliss the clear light of an endless day is shed on all around, and the children of the kingdom triumph in the joys which attend perfect holiness. Nothing that is unrighteous is done there; nothing that is polluted can enter there; no uncleanness, no impurity, is there found.

Burning the dross of carnal desires

All the dross of carnal desires is therefore consumed in the fires of purgatory, and purified by sufferings of various degrees as the Judge eternal ordains. So that as a vessel cleansed from rust and thoroughly polished is laid up in a treasury, so the soul, purified from all taint of sin, is admitted into Paradise, where it enjoys perfect happiness unalloyed by fear or care.

The priest, trembling at these appalling scenes, still rested on his staff, expecting apparitions still more terrible. And now there followed an immense army in which no colour was visible, but only blackness and fiery flames. All were mounted on great war-horses, and fully armed as if they were prepared for immediate battle, and they carried black banners. There were seen Richard and Baldwin, the sons of Count Gilbert who were lately dead, with so many others that I cannot enumerate them.

Medieval battling, seemed such a good idea at the time...
Medieval battling, seemed such a good idea at the time…

A ghost begs for help

Among the rest, was Landri of Orbec, who was killed the same year, and who accosted the priest, and uttering horrible cries, charged him with his commissions, urgently begging him to carry a message to his wife.

Upon this the troops who marched before and after him interrupted his cries, and said to the priest; “Believe not Landri, for he is a deceiver.”

This man had been a viscount and a lawyer, and had raised himself from a very low origin by his talents and merit. He decided causes and affairs according to his own pleasure, and perverted judgement for bribes, actuated more by avarice and duplicity than by a sense of what was right.

He was therefore justly devoted to flagrant punishment, and publicly denounced by his associates as a liar. In this company no one flattered him, and no one had recourse to his cunning loquacity. He, who while it was in his power had shut his ears to the cries of the poor, was now in his torments, treated as an execrable wretch who was unfit to be heard.

Walkelin has a very bad idea

Walkelin having seen these countless troops of soldiers pass, on reflection, said within himself:

“Doubtless these are Hennequin’s people. I have often heard of their being seen, but I laughed at the stories, having never had any certain proofs of such things. Now, indeed, I assuredly behold the ghosts of the departed, but no one will believe me when 1 tell the tale unless I can exhibit to mortal eyes some tangible proof of what I have seen.

“I will therefore mount one of the horses which are following the troop without any riders, and will take it home and show it my neighbours to convince them that I speak the truth.” Accordingly he forthwith snatched the reins of a black steed, but the animal burst violently from his hold and galloped away among the troops of Ethiopians.

The priest was disappointed at the failure of his enterprise; but he was young, bold, and light-hearted, as well as agile and strong. He therefore stationed himself in the middle of the path, prepared for action, and the moment a horse came up, laid his hand upon it.

The horse stopped, ready for him to mount without difficulty, at the same time snorting from his nostrils a cloud of vapour as large as a full-grown oak. The priest then placed his left foot in the stirrup, and, seizing the reins, laid his hand on the saddle, but he instantly felt that his foot rested on red-hot iron, and the hand with which he held the bridle was frozen with insupportable cold which penetrated to his vitals.

Wicked past of a tormented Knight

While this was passing, four terrific knights came up and uttering horrible cries, shouted to him:

“What do you want with our horses ? You shall come with us. No one of our company had injured you, when you began laying your hands on what belongs to us.”

The priest, in great alarm, let go the horse, and three of the knights attempting to seize him, the fourth said to them:

“Let him go, and allow me to speak with him, for I wish to make him the bearer of a message to my wife and children.”

He then said to the priest, who stood trembling with fright: “Listen to me, I beseech you, and tell my wife what I say.” The priest replied: “I know not who you are, or who is your wife.

The knight then said: “I am William de Glos, son of Barno, and was once the renowned steward of William de Breteuil and his father William, earl of Hereford. While in the world I abandoned myself to evil deeds and plunder, and was guilty of more crimes than can be recounted. But, above all, I am tormented for my usuries. I once lent money to a poor man, and received as security a mill which belonged to him, and as he was not able to discharge the debt I kept the mortgage property and left it to my heirs, disinheriting my debtor’s family.”

A guilty ghost begs for help

“You see that I have in my mouth a bar of hot iron from the mill, the weight of which I feel to be more oppressive than the tower of Rouen. Tell, therefore, my wife Beatrice, and my son Roger, to afford me relief, by speedily restoring to the right heir the pledge from which they have received more than I advanced.”

The priest replied: “William de Glos died long ago and this is a commission which no Christian man can undertake. I know neither who you are, or who are your heirs. If I should venture to tell such a tale to Roger de Glos, or his brothers, or to their mother, they would laugh me to scorn as one out of his wits.”

However, William continued still to persist in his earnest entreaties, and furnished him with many sure and well-known tokens of his identity. The priest understood very well all he heard, but pretended not to comprehend it.

At length, overcome by importunities, he consented to what the knight requested, and engaged to do what was required. Upon this, William repeated again all he had said, and impressed it on his companion during a long conversation.

Bit of demony torture
Bit of demony torture

A hand that burns like fire grabs Walkelin

The priest, however, began to consider that he durst not convey to any one the execrable message of a dammed spirit.

It is not right” he said “to publish such things. I will on no account tell to anyone what you require of me.”

Upon this, the knight was filled with rage, and seizing him by the throat dragged him along on the ground, uttering terrible imprecations. The prisoner felt the hand which grasped him burning like fire, and in this deep extremity cried aloud: “Help me, holy Mary, the glorious mother of Christ.”

No sooner had he invoked the compassionate mother than the aid of the Son of God was afforded him, according to the Almighty’s disposing will. For a horseman immediately rode up, with a sword in his right hand, and brandishing it over Roger’s head, exclaimed:

“Will ye kill my brother, ye accursed ones ? Loose him and begone!”

The knights instantly fled and followed the black troops. When they had all passed by, the horseman, remaining alone in the road with Walkelin, said to him:

Do you not know me?” the priest answered “No.” The other said: “I am Robert, son of Ralph le Blond, and your brother.”

A brother’s love

The priest was much astonished at this unexpected occurrence, and much troubled at what he had seen and heard, as we have just related, when the knight began to remind him of a number of things which happened in their youth, and to give him many well-known tokens. The priest had a clear recollection of all that was told him, but not daring to confess it, he stoutly denied all knowledge of the circumstances. At length the knight said to him:

“I am astonished at your hardness of heart and stupidity; it was I who brought you up on our parents’ death, and loved you more than anyone living. I sent you to school in France, supplied you plentifully with clothes and money, and did all in my power to benefit you in every way. You seem now to have forgotten all this, and will not even condescend to recognise me.”

At length the priest, after being abundantly furnished with exact particulars, became convinced by such certain proofs, and bursting into tears, openly admitted the truth of what he had heard. His brother then said:

“You deserve to die, and to be dragged with us to partake of the torments we suffer, because you have rashly laid hands on things which belong to our reprobate crew; no other living man ever dared to make such an attempt. But the mass you sang to-day has saved you from perishing. It is also permitted me thus to appear to you, and unfold to you my wretched condition.“

Intolerable weight of flaming armour

After I had conferred with you in Normandy, I took leave of you and crossed over to England, where, by the Creator’s order, my life ended, and I have undergone intense suffering for the grievous sins with which I was burdened.

“It is flaming armour which you see us bear, it poisons us with an infernal stench, weighs us down with its intolerable weight, and scorches us with heat which is inextinguishable! Hitherto I have been tormented with unutterable sufferings, but when you were ordained in England, and sang your first mass for the faithful departed, your father Ralph was released from purgatory, and my shield, which was a great torment to me, fell from my arm.

“I still, as you see, carry a sword, but I confidently expect to be relieved of that burden in the course of a year.”

Detail of historiated initial 'C'(lergie) of a cleric, a knight and a peasant wiki free
Priest and knight chat

Clotted gore

While the knight was thus talking, the priest attentively listening to him espied a mass of clotted gore, in the shape of a man’s head, at the other’s heels, round his spurs, and in great amazement said to him: “Whose is this clotted blood which clings to your spurs?”

The knight replied: “It is not blood but fire; and it weighs me down more than if I had Mount St. Michael to carry. Once I used sharp and bright spurs when I was hurrying to shed blood, and now I justly carry this enormous weight at my heels, which is so intolerably burdensome, that I am unable to express the severity of my sufferings. Men ought to reflect on these things without ceasing, and to dread and beware lest they, for their sins, should undergo such chastisements.

“I am not permitted, my brother, to converse longer with you, for I must hasten to follow this unhappy troop. Remember me, I pray you, and give me the succour of your prayers and alms. In one year after Palm Sunday I trust to be saved; and by the mercy of the Creator released from all my torments.”

A wild warning from the dead

“And you, consider well your own state, and prudently mend your life which is blemished by many vices, for know it will not be very long. Now be silent, bury in your own bosom the things you have so unexpectedly seen and heard, and do not venture to tell them to any one for three days.”

With these words the knight hastened away. The priest was seriously ill for a whole week. As soon as he began to recover his strength, he went to Lisieux and related all that had happened to Bishop Gilbert, in regular order, and obtained, on his petition, the salutary remedies he needed.

He afterwards lived in good health almost fifteen years, and I heard what I have written, and more which has escaped my memory, from his own mouth, and saw the mark on his face left by the hand of the terrible knight. I have committed the account to writing for the edification of my readers, that the righteous may be confirmed in their good resolutions, and the wicked repent of their evil deeds.

Orderic Vitalis

Knight preparing to battle the seven deadly sins
Knight preparing to battle the seven deadly sins

 

Source: The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis Vol. II

 

A ghostly look into the old church of Saint-Aubin-de-Bonneval

3 thoughts on “The gruesome crowd; a true medieval ghost story from Normandy

  1. What a story, impressive today, how much more frightening it must have been to that priest in the middle ages.

  2. Delightful ! I have just read a similar passage in ancient Slavic manuscript and fell upon the book that gathers them all: Chasses infernales et cohortes de la nuit au Moyen Age, Claude Lecouteax… enjoy!

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