Monday, October 14, 2013

A monk hears a different sort of confession

At the start of October, I shared a story that I found in Andrew Joynes's Medieval Ghost Stories, a collection of retellings of accounts found in a number of medieval sources. The one I shared, "The Howling Ghost," from the collection of a Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Byland, reminded me of M. R. James--and it turns out that there's a reason: Joynes reveals in his headnote to that group of stories that James was one of the antiquaries who transcribed the Latin versions of the tales.

Joynes also goes into a bit more detail about the whole collection:
At the end of the fourteenth century, a monk at the Cistercian abbey of Byland in Yorkshire wrote down a series of stories concerning ghosts and spirits which he had been told by local people, and set them in the villages and ales of the countryside around his monastery. The stories were written on a few blank pages in a collection of manuscripts dating from the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and the anonymous monk must have intended them to be used as exempla in the tradition of Caesarius of Heisterbach.
The monk may have had heavenly intentions, but, as Joynes points out, that didn't keep him from attending to the stories' more earth-bound details:
The monk of Byland seems to have been more concerned to record the eerie, grotesque, and fantastic details of ghostly occurrences than to draw moral conclusions from his stories. In that sense, these fragments of popular legend, written down by the person to whom they were recounted in the neighbourhood where the various spirits supposedly appeared, bear a basic resemblance to the modern notion of a ghost story as an entertaining narrative which can be both frightening and enjoyable.
I just love the image that conjures up: a quiet monk talking with the people of the area, and perhaps the occasional traveler, hearing their stories, asking questions, and then in the wan light of a northern winter afternoon painstakingly writing them out as part of the essential record of the region.

And that night, come the starry winter darkness, amid the silence of the abbey's seclusion, perhaps he found that that writing them down proved to be no banishing force, as they returned to trouble his sleep. "It is said that downy cobwebs hung in strands from her right hand . . . "

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