Thursday, October 31, 2013

Haunting monks and Pepys

{Photos by rocketlass.}

Earlier this month, I drew on the tales of the unnamed monk of Byland Abbey, who collected ghost stories from the surrounding countryside. I imagined the monk, alone in his cell on the quiet, wintry moors, spooking himself as he took pen in hand--so I was pleased to gather some more context for my imaginings last week from Carl Watkins's The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead (2013):
The open country of the Vale of York lies to the south of this place but the moors rise steeply above it to the north. Although modest in height, they attract early winter snows, which make them a world unto themselves when the valley below is green. To medieval eyes this landscape was not beautiful but terrifying. Long before the abbey was built, the Venerable Bede thought these "steep and remote hills" more suitable for "dens of robbers and haunts of wild beasts than for men." Generations later, Bede's successors agreed. The monks who colonised the moors in the twelfth century entered "a place of horror and vast solitude," but they did so by choice, alighting on the place precisely because this was wild country, where minds could be bent to God free from distraction.
The exposure and isolation proved too much even for monks, however, and the abbey was eventually moved from the moor to the slightly more sheltered and accessible vale. But my imaginings of the spooky confines of an isolated abbey seem to have been on the mark nonetheless, at least by the fifteenth century, when the nameless monk began to collect his stories:
The heyday of the monasteries was in the past then. Outbreaks of plague and other epidemic disease had whittled away numbers at Byland and fewer recruits came forward to take their places. By 1400, a dozen or so monks were rattling around the cloisters. It was a good place to tell ghost stories and, as the abbey emptied of monks, the land round about was full of spirits.
And the monk had good reason to write down the stories he heard from the people of the surrounding country:
Stories about apparitions could not lightly be set aside and, since the chronicle of Byland warned that things not written down "slip away and wither as the sin of forgetfulness triumphs," there was reason to commit them to writing.
So the monk wrote, and so we know of a tailor named Mr. Snowball who fought a ghostly raven; and of James Tankerlay, a bad priest who walked after death and "blew out the eye" of his mistress; and of the fact that, as Watkins writes,
A soul detained [in Purgatory] suffered for its sins but could and should be helped through prayer and masses undertaken in its name. To write it off, to forget it, was a terrible thing. It was a sin. It was to rob the soul of the prayers that were its right. When a ghost walked, the living must harken to it. They must conjure it, let it speak, discover what it wanted, for it was likely to be suffering and in need of aid and deserved the benefit of the doubt.
Ghosts, however, change as we change, which makes the thumbnail history offered by Roger Clarke in his A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (2012) particularly useful:
Medieval ghosts were reanimated corpses or holy apparitions; Jacobean ghosts, demons pretending to be human.

Post-Restoration ghosts returned to correct injustices, right wrongs and supply information about lost documents and valuables. Regency ghosts were gothic. In Victorian times, ghosts were to be questioned in seances, and ghost-seeing became far more associated with women. Late Victorians embraced paranormality, seeing the ghostly as a manifestation of as yet understood laws of nature. The 1930s found the poltergeist.
And today? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's more vague:
In one study in 1999, a group of Manchester women thought that hauntings were more to do with malign presences--in other words, a bad feeling--rather than the soul of someone who is dead making themself known.

Ghosts are no longer souls. Ghosts are now an emotion field.
As for me--still a skeptical enthusiast despite having, I'm told, seen a ghost when I was a boy--well, I think it right to end the month with Pepys. The diarist, Watkins tells us, was
an affirmed sceptic about wandering spirits. But he still relished a good story about them. And his scepticism, under the right conditions, might be a fragile thing. Several times he whiled away a dark evening talking with friends about ghosts.
Watkins goes on to mention a time that Pepys stayed in a reputedly haunted house and managed to spook himself. A bit of digging locates the incident on April 8 and 9, 1661. In his diary entry for the 8th, Pepys tells of traveling to the Hill House at Chatham, where:
Here we supped very merry, and late to bed; Sir William telling me that old Edgeborrow, his predecessor, did die and walk in my chamber, did make me some what afeard, but not so much as for mirth’s sake I did seem. So to bed in the treasurer’s chamber.
Mirthful exaggeration or not, his sleep was not untroubled, as he reveals in the next day's entry:
And lay and slept well till 3 in the morning, and then waking, and by the light of the moon I saw my pillow (which overnight I flung from me) stand upright, but not bethinking myself what it might be, I was a little afeard.
Nonetheless, Pepys, that most earthbound, most familiar, most untroubled of men, is not bothered for long, as "sleep overcame all."

As October closes, howling wind and spitting rain and swirls of blowing leaves and all, would that we all could lay our ghosts so easily.

No comments:

Post a Comment