Leah Jean Larson

title.none: Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories (Leah Jean Larson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0212.003 02.12.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Leah Jean Larson, Our Lady of the Lake University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Joynes, Andrew, ed. Medieval Ghost Stories. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 162. $55.00. ISBN: 0-85115-817-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.12.03

Joynes, Andrew, ed. Medieval Ghost Stories. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. xiii, 162. $55.00. ISBN: 0-85115-817-x.

Reviewed by:

Leah Jean Larson
Our Lady of the Lake University

In general, critical studies of the ghost story genre tend to spend little, if any time examining medieval ghost stories. Perhaps a few pages are devoted to Beowulf, or if the author is willing to stretch a bit, to the Glam story in Grettir's Saga before rushing on to the nineteenth century. It is to be hoped that if Andrew Joynes collection of medieval ghost stories reaches a wide enough audience, the study of this genre will expand to include more space for the examination of the medieval forbears of the more developed Victorian and modern ghost story. Joynes has compiled an impressive and widely diverse collection of stories and bits of stories, none of which are more than a few pages long, including the secular and the sacred, the well known and the obscure. Although many of the stories seem fragmented when compared to later incarnations of the genre, they provide an interesting glimpse into the medieval world as well as providing a basis for the characteristics and concerns which are very much a part of the later stories.

Joynes divides the stories into four groups: "Miracula and the Monastic Vision of Ghosts," "Mirabilia and Ghosts in Court Writing," "Revenants, Prodigies and the Restless Dead," and "Ghosts in Medieval Vernacular Literature." He begins with a short general preface in which he sets up the criteria he used for deciding which stories to include. He separates stories which describe seeing ghosts or visions of the undead from such revelatory afterlife visions as those found in the works of Dante. He also justifies his inclusion of revenants, which although certainly undead are not ghosts in the strictest sense of the word. He states that because of their stronger and more mystical religious beliefs, medieval people may not have experienced the same chill moderns get when reading ghost stories. Joynes also includes an introduction to each section as well as introductory paragraphs for each selection.

"Miracula and the Monastic Vision of Ghosts" includes stories written by monks and other churchmen between the sixth and the thirteenth centuries. Joynes notes that the increase in number of such stories may have been due to the apocalyptic fears surrounding the approach of the first Christian Millennium. They also may represent the growing complexity in the view of the afterlife as well as the growth of the Cult of the Dead found in many Cluniac monasteries.

This section begins with two selections from the "Dialogues" of Gregory the Great, "The Spirit of Paschasius the Deacon" and "The Bathkeeper." Both of these stories concern ghosts who ask for the prayers of the living to lighten their punishments. The selections from "The 'Five Books of Histories' of Rodulfus Glaber" focus on the portentous nature of ghosts. In these excerpts, one sees a ghost and then dies. Also in one excerpt, "A Demonic Visitor," the ghost is described as demonic and goatlike rather than resembling the living human as the ghosts in Gregory the Great's selections do. The ghost found in the brief selection from "The 'Book of Visions' of Otloh of St. Emmeram" is reminiscent of Marley's ghost and his warning to Scrooge in Dickens's "Christmas Carol." In this selection, entitled "The Burning Spear," two brothers are traveling on horseback. Suddenly they see a hoard of ghostly horsemen flying right above the earth. One figure stops and tells them he is their dead father. He tells them he is suffering horribly for the sins he committed while he was alive. He asks his sons to give back land he stole from a monastery. When they refuse, he tells them that his armor burns him with intolerable fire wherever it touches his body. To give them an idea of his torment, he asks them to touch his spear. They do and feel a small bit of his torment. This touch is enough to make them decide not only to give back the land and ease their father's torment but also to change their lives so they will not suffer a similar fate. Like his later counterparts, this ghost delivers a chilling -- or in this case burning -- warning which results in reformation of his living kin. However, unlike many other ghost stories, this one contains the verification of Pope Leo. Another notable story in this collection is "The Crying Child" taken from "The Autobiography of Guibert of Nogent." In this story Guibert recounts how his mother was troubled by dreams and visions of a hellish abyss. Looking into the pit, she sees her late husband, Guibert's father. The constant crying of a little child torments him. Guibert relates how when his father was young and had been prevented from making love with Guibert's mother by an evil spirit, he had decided to test the limits of his curse by making love with other women. The result of his experiment was an illegitimate child, which died before it could be baptized. It was the apparition of this child, which haunted him and eternally tormented him with its crying. To relieve her husband of this torment, the wife adopts a child to make up for the one who died. This child is as troublesome as the ghostly one, but through suffering the same torments as her husband, the wife is sure that she is relieving him of his punishment. It is unclear exactly what lesson is to be learned from this story but it certainly provides an insight into acceptable medieval wifely behavior. Although these and other selections in this first section seem moralistic and didactic, this tone, although a bit exaggerated, is fully in keeping with the strong sense of morality characteristic of the genre.

The second section, "Mirabilia and Ghosts in Court Writing," contains stories from a later period (mostly twelfth- and thirteenth-century) and written for a different audience than those in part one. The Mirabilia, which may be translated as "tales of wonder," offer a wider range of supernatural appearances including witches, demons, lamias, and jealous statues that come to life. According to Joynes, this wider focus grows out of the "Twelfth Century Renaissance" and its corresponding philosophical and cultural growth. New ideas and stories brought back by crusaders also contributed to this diversity. Another characteristic of these stories is their inclusion of elements from folklore and myth, particularly from the Celtic cultures of Ireland and Wales and from areas along the Rhone River. Although many of the authors, like those in the first section, were clerics, they were attached to the courts rather than to monasteries. Joynes is cautious about positing whether medieval audiences considered these ghost stories as entertainment, but they certainly would entertain and intrigue a modern audience.

Two excerpts in this section concern jealous supernatural beings. The first is from "The 'Deeds of the English Kings' of William of Malmesbury" in an excerpt entitled "The Jealous Venus." A young man, full of drink from his marriage celebration, foolishly puts his wedding ring on the hand of a golden statue of Venus. That night the statue comes to claim the new husband as her own, and from then on he is unable to make love to his living wife. It is only through contact with an otherworldly procession at a crossroads that he is able to find a way to banish his statue bride and consummate his marriage with his living bride. The second jealous supernatural being is found in "The Flying Mortar" excerpt from "The 'Imperial Diversions' of Gervase of Tilbury." In this story, a widow marries her late husband's sworn enemy, a man she had promised never to marry. The dead husband takes his revenge on his wife's wedding night by causing a mortar to fly through the air and kill her.

One story in this section is reminiscent of "The Burning Spear" from the first section. In "The Two Clerks of Nantes" part of "The 'Deeds of the English Kings' of William of Malmesbury," the eponymous characters vow that whichever one died first would return to let the other know whether the Platonic or the Epicurean view of the afterlife was the correct one. However, the first clerk to die had more than philosophical debate on his mind when his ghost visited his friend. Like the knight in "The Burning Spear" the clerk is suffering unbearable punishment and returns to warn his friend to change his ways before it is too late.

The third part includes stories of "Revenants, Prodigies and the Restless Dead." Although ghosts and revenants are not necessarily synonymous terms -- revenants usually taking a more physical and horrific form and always being malevolent -- Joynes wisely includes them in his collection and emphasizes the sense of alienation associated with these characters. Like the supernatural beings found elsewhere in the collection, revenants share many characteristics with the vampires and monsters of Victorian and modern horror stories and thus may provide insightful clues into the origin and nature of these figures. Joynes includes well-known revenants such as Grendel and the various draugr found in Icelandic saga literature. Joynes also includes "The Fragmentary Tales of the Monk of Byland" first translated into modern English by noted antiquarian and ghost story author M. R. James. In these brief tales, the supernatural beings return in the form of animals as well as in ghostly human form.

The final section is "Ghosts in Medieval Vernacular Literature." In this section, Joynes includes well-known works such as Marie de France's "Bisclavret" and "The Huntsman of Ravenna" from Boccaccio's Decameron. One of the more obscure selections, "The Vision of the Knight Lorois" from "The 'Lay Du Trot'" provides a humorous insight into the use of the supernatural as a courtship aid. A knight who is depressed because his beloved will not return his affection encounters a ghostly couple in the forest. The ghostly knight committed suicide because of his cold-hearted lady. Both were condemned to an eternity of his pursuing her and killing her. She would arise and the chase would begin again. The living knight brought his beloved to the forest to witness the spectacle and take heed. In another excerpt, from "The 'Awntyrs of Arthure,'" Guinevere's mother returns from the dead as a memento mori to remind her daughter of the quick transition from youth and beauty to death and decay.

In this collection, Joynes has truly produced a landmark work. This impeccably researched and very readable book should appeal to a wide audience. It is to be hoped that it will especially capture the attention of those researching the ghost story genre. The parallels between the medieval stories and their Victorian descendents are too striking to ignore, and they deserve further research.