Here are some background for the Halloween fanatics or how to get the attention of undergraduates in a Medieval Fall classroom.
I made a florilege of resources from where to start.
in the Celtic World
Source: Bettina Arnold
Lecture given at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, October 31, 2001
Night of the spirits; Feast of the Dead; New Year’s Eve; the year’s turning; Calends of winter; Summer’s End; one of the “joints of the year”; beginning of the barren time; day of divination; festival of the harvest; doorway into the new year; Mischief Night; Punky Night; Samhain; Nos Calan gaeaf; All Hallow’s Eve. These are all descriptions of one of the most important seasonal festivals of the Celtic world, the night of October 31, this evening, Halloween. In Wales it is known as Hollantide, in Cornwall Allantide, and in Brittany Kala-Goanv. Samhain’s equivalent on the Christian calendar is All Saints’ Day, introduced by the Catholic church partly to supplant the pagan festival of the dead.
Halloween’s counterpart is the other great “hinge of the year”, April 30, Beltain or May Day Eve, which marks the beginning of summer. To understand the significance of these seasonal festivals, we need to step back in time for a moment, closer to the food production cycle than most of us are today. In pre-Christian Europe, most important holidays were celebrated on the evening of the day before the actual date of the transition from one season to the next, since the easiest way of measuring the passing of time was by observing a complete cycle of the moon – the origin of the english word “month”.
Samhain was the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. It coincided with the rounding up of the herds for culling and penning, the storing of crops, and the beaching and repairing of fishing boats and gear, all in preparation for the coming winter. Warfare officially came to an end at Samhain, partly for practical reasons related to weather, but raiding, especially of cattle, seems to have peaked between Michaelmas (September 29) and Martinmas (November 11), at least in the Border region of Scotland, where we have 16th century accounts of such activity during this time. Herds under cover are concentrated and easier to steal, whereas before Lammas (August 1) the cattle were dispersed in the high shielings. According to one official writing in the 16th century, at Samhain “are the fells good and drie and cattle strong to drive”. Night rides across landscapes like the Border region in Scotland looked a lot less attractive by Candlemas (February 2), due to the foul weather and the weaker state of the cattle. So Samhain was known in some, but not all, Celtic regions as as the feast of peace and friendship, during which no weapon was lifted. Hunting in Scotland also appears to have been limited by law to the period from Beltain to Samhain, in order to give the deer and especially the wild pig, a chance to breed. Samhain coincides with the onset of the breeding season of the wild pig, which lasts from November to January. The pig, wild or domestic, was thus the “sacrificial” animal of Samhain, and it is the pig that is associated with tribute from clients to lords: The Irish law tracts specify that “the name of the food that is carried to the lord before Christmas…is the Samhain pig.” The Catholic Church added its own explanation, depicting St. Patrick as giving the original Samhain pig to St. Martin, in gratitude for his tonsure.
Animals that might not make it through the winter were slaughtered at Samhain, to be consumed in communal feasts associated with the festival. The pastoral basis of the two halves of the year shows up in the terms used to describe food: meat was called “winter food” while dairy produce was called “summer food” or “white meat”. The timing of Samhain coincided with the availability of large stocks of food after the harvest, which is why this was the time that political assemblies were called, fairs and regional markets were held, horse races and other competitions were organized, and religious rituals were celebrated to mark the passing of the old year. According to the Irish sources, the Assembly of Tara, the seat of the High King of Ireland, the most important of the oneachs, or fairs, was held on Samhain. Alcoholic beverages such as mead and beer would also have been available in large quantities at this time of year, since the period just after the harvest meant a surplus of grain was available for the production of alcohol, which had to be consumed quickly in the days before refrigeration.
Medieval Irish had their own ways to stop the undead
Source: Institue of Technology Sligo
Two skeletons discovered with large stones wedged into their mouths, were buried in this way around 1300 years ago to stop them rising from their graves to haunt the living, according to new documentary featuring the work of archaeologists from the Institue of Technology Sligo and St.Louis University. Such “deviant burials” are associated with vampires and also with revenants or ghosts who were believed to come back among the living, unless steps were taken to contain them in their graves.
The skeletons, both male, were found side by side in a historic site overlooking Lough Key Co Roscommon, and according to Chris Read, lecturer of Applied Archaeology at IT Sligo, this is the only such discovery of this kind in Ireland.
Similar discoveries have been made in Britain and other European countries. In 2006 the remains of a medieval “vampire” were discovered among the corpses of 16th century plague victims in Venice. The female skull had a rock thrust into the mouth, evidence that female “vampires” were often blamed for spreading the plague through Europe, according to experts. Read, along with his colleague Dr Thomas Finan from St Louis University, excavated 137 skeletons from a site at Kilteasheen, Knockvicar Co Roscommon during a series of digs from 2005 to 2009, in a project funded by the Royal Irish Academy. The archaeologists believe that there were close to 3,000 skeletons on the site spanning the centuries from 700 to 1400.
The two skeletons with stones in their mouths were not buried at the same time but both were males – one elderly and the other a young adult. Both are believed to have been buried in the 8th century. This puts them outside the time frame for vampires – a phenomenon which emerged in European folklore around the 1500’s.
Read explained that this remarkable discovery could reflect the ancient fear of revenants who were believed to have had the power to come back from their graves to harass their loved ones or others against whom they had a grudge.
“One of them was lying with his head looking straight up and a large black stone had been deliberately thrust into his mouth while the other had his head turned to the side and had an even larger stone, wedged quite violently into his mouth so that his jaws were almost dislocated,” explained the archaeologist.
He and a colleague, osteo-archaeologist, Dr. Catriona McKenzie carried out detailed tests on the skeletons at IT Sligo this summer. Read stressed that the revenant theory would be impossible to prove absolutely, but said there was no doubt that the skeletons had been subjected to deviant burials which are sometimes associated with demonic possession. Revenants or the “walking dead” often tended to be people who were outsiders in society when living, according to the IT Sligo lecturer .
There is a known tradition of revenants in Irish folklore and indeed it has been suggested that Bram Stoker got the inspiration for Dracula, not from a Romanian folk tale, but from an Irish legend about an evil chieftain who had to be killed three times after he came back looking for a bowl of blood to sustain him.
The IT Sligo/St Louis team became interested in the Kilteasheen site because of its links to the O’Conor kings of Connacht and also because of historical references to a Bishop’s Palace which had been constructed there in the 1200’s. They were amazed to discover that a raised platform on the land owned by John and Tina Burke from Knockvicar, was in fact a burial ground which had been used over several centuries. Initially, considerable circumstantial evidence prompted speculation that they had found a Black Death-related burial ground, but radio carbon dating ruled that theory out. Read pointed out that Kilteasheen is adjacent to the Boyle river which was a “medieval motorway” linking Lough Key with the Shannon. But the layers of history there go back much further as a number of pre-historic artefacts including stone tools and arrow heads were also found on the site.
The Medieval Walking Dead
On January 1, 1091, an army of the dead came to Normandy. For one priest, it would be a night that he would never forget.
The medieval world believed in ghosts and spirits – there are countless stories from the Middle Ages how people were visited by the dead. While people would naturally be frightened if they came across a ghost, rarely would the ghost itself come to haunt or torment the living. Instead they often appeared to those people that they knew while they were alive, and usually wanted something from them.
The concept of purgatory was fully realized in the medieval period – that when a person dies their soul doesn’t automatically go to Heaven or Hell. The Roman Catholic doctrine believed that even if the soul was not condemned to Hell, it still needed to be purified before entering Paradise. This would be Purgatory, where the souls would get tortured and punished for their sins.
The living world could help the dead in getting out of Purgatory – mainly by praying for their souls. By the late Middle Ages it was a popular practice for people to leave money in their wills to hire priests that would perform Mass for their souls.
Many of the ghost stories from the Middle Ages involve souls that were in Purgatory, but contacted their living relatives to ask for them to do something that would help relieve their suffering and assist them in entering Heaven. These could range from paying a debt, fulfilling a vow, or just making sure they were being prayed for.
One of the strangest stories to be written down in the Middle Ages comes from the pen of Orderic Vitalis, a twelfth-century monk. From the abbey of Saint Evroult in Normandy, Orderic wrote his Ecclesiastical History, offering one of the best accounts of the Anglo-Norman world up the year 1141. Orderic wrote about the reigns of the kings William I to Stephen, the political events that happened locally and abroad, and even about the news coming from his own monastery.
At one point in Book Eight of his Ecclesiastical History, Orderic pauses from discussing the warfare between William Rufus and his rebellious count Robert of Belleme, and states, “I am sure that I should not pass over in silence or consign to oblivion something that happened to a priest in the diocese of Lisieux on January 1st.” Orderic explains that the priest was named Walchelin, and “he was a young man, strong and brave, well-built and active.” On the night of January 1, 1091, he was returning home after a visiting a sick man at the far end of his parish. He was travelling along the road, far from from any homes, when he heard the sounds of a great army coming towards him.
Walchelin believed that these were the soldiers of Robert of Belleme, and he decided it would be best for him to hide behind the trees and let the army pass by. Orderic relates what happened next: But a man of huge stature, carrying a great mace, barred the priest’s way as he ran and, brandishing the weapon over his head, cried out, ‘Stand; go no further.’ The priest obeyed at once and stood motionless, leaning on the staff he was carrying. The stern mace-bearer stood beside him without harming him, waiting for the army to pass by. Walchelin stayed at the side of the road as he watched thousands of people walk by. First came the peasants, who were carrying across their necks and shoulders their clothes, animals, furniture and other worldly goods. To the priest they seemed to be a mob of people who were carrying off the plunder from an attack.
Then came hundreds of women, riding side-saddle on horses, but the saddles were marked with red hot nails. As the women rode, they would jump off their saddles and into the air, and then land back on the nails, leaving them burned and stabbed. After them came a crowd of priests, monks, even bishops and abbots, all dressed in black cowls and groaning and lamenting as they passed by. “Next followed a great army of knights in, which no colour was visible save blackness and flickering fire. All rode upon huge horses, fully armed as if they were galloping to battle and carrying jet-black standards.”
What scared Walchelin so much was that he recognized many of these people – they were his neighbours and fellow clergy, but they had all died in recent years. There were even people that Walchelin and others thought to be good Christians, even considered saints. But they were here too, walking with this army of the dead.
The worst of this group were those being carried on biers, suffering terrible punishments: On the biers sat men as small as dwarfs, but with huge heads like barrels. One enormous tree-trunk was borne by two Ethiopians, and on the trunk some wretch, tightly trussed, was suffering tortures, screaming aloud in his dreadful agony. A fearful demon sitting on the same trunk was mercilessly goading his back and loins with red-hot spurs while he streamed with blood. Walchelin at once recognized him as the slayer of the priest Stephen, and realized that he was suffering unbearable torments for his guilt in shedding innocent blood not two years earlier, for he had died without completing his penance for the terrible crime.
As Walchelin watched them pass by he realized this was Hellequin’s Army, which apparently had been a folktale for many years (although Orderic Vitalis is our earliest writer to talk about them). Throughout the twelfth-century this legend would spread around around Western Europe. Walter Map (1140-c.1210) explained that they got their name from ancient Briton king named Herla, who made a deal with a Dwarf king. The dwarf gives him a small dog, and tells Herla and his companions that they cannot dismount from their horses until the dog jumps off of Herla’s arms, otherwise they will be all turned to dust. Herla soon realizes the dog will not leave his arms, and so he and his companions are doomed to wander the Earth as a kind of undead.
There are several tales about Hellequin’s Army, or Hellequin’s Hunt, some of which involve King Arthur or other medieval legends. Church writers apparently associated this ghostly ramble with Purgatory, offering a horrific example to the living on what awaits those who sinned when they died.
As Walchelin continued to watch the medieval horde pass before his eyes, he said to himself, “I have heard many who claimed to have seen them, but have ridiculed the tale-tellers and not believed them because I never saw any solid proof of such things. Now I do indeed see the shades of the dead with my own eyes, but no one will believe me when I describe my vision unless I can show some token to living men. I will catch one of the riderless horses following the host, quickly mount it and take it home, to compel the belief of my neighbours when I show it to them.”
He tried to grab the first riderless horse he saw, but it bolted away before Walchelin could reach it. Another steed came along: The horse stopped for the priest to mount, breathing from its nostrils a great cloud of steam in the shape of a tall oak-tree. The priest put his left foot in the stirrup and, seizing the reins, placed his hand on the saddle; immediately he felt an intense burning like raging fire under his foot; and an indescribable cold struck into his heart from the hand that held the reins.
Just then four of the dead knights rushed towards them, shouting ”Why are you molesting our horses? Come with us. None of our people has harmed you, yet you try to take what is ours.”
Walchelin was very frightened, but one of the knights told the others not to harm the priest. He identified himself as William of Glos, and he spoke about how his sins in life were punishing him in his death: “But most of all usury torments me. For I lent my money to a poor man, receiving a mill of his as a pledge, and because he was unable to repay the loan I retained the pledge all my life and disinherited the legitimate heir by leaving it to my heirs. See, I carry a burning mill-shaft in my mouth which, believe me, seems heavier than the castle of Rouen. Therefore tell my wife Beatrice and my son Roger that they must help me by quickly restoring to the heir the pledge, from which they have received far more than I ever gave.”
As Walchelin heard more about this knight’s sins and his demands, he decided not to help him: “It is not right to declare such things. In no circumstances will I carry your orders out to anyone.” The knight in a terrible rage then put on his hand and seized the priest by the throat, dragging him along the ground and threatening him. His victim felt the hand that held him burning like fire, and in his great anguish cried out suddenly, ‘Blessed Mary, glorious Mother of Christ, help me!”
Just then another knight appeared, waving a sword in his right hand and saying “Wretches, why are you murdering my brother? Leave him and be gone.”
This new knight came to Walchelin and revealed himself to be his brother Robert, who died in England. But Walchelin did not recognize him, or believe him, even after Robert revealed things that only his brother would know. Finally the dead knight exclaimed: ”I am amazed by your hardness and obstinacy. I brought you up after both our parents died, and loved you more than any living person. I sent you to schools in France, kept you well-provided with clothes and money, and in many other ways furthered your progress. Now you have forgotten all this and disdain even to recognize me.” It was only then that Walchelin believed him, and the two brothers talked for a while. Robert explained: “After I last spoke to you in Normandy I left for England with your blessing; there I reached my life’s end when my Creator willed, and I have endured severe punishment for the great sins with which I am heavily burdened. The arms which we bear are red-hot, and offend us with an appalling stench, weighing us down with intolerable weight, and burning with everlasting fire. Up to now I have suffered unspeakable torture from these punishments. But when you were ordained in England and sang your first Mass for the faithful departed your father Ralph escaped from his punishments and my shield, which caused me great pain, fell from me. As you see I still carry this sword, but I look in faith for release from this burden within the year.”
Finally, as the last of Hellequin’s Army went by, Robert said, ”I cannot speak longer with you, my brother, for I am compelled to hasten after this wretched host. Remember me, I beg: help me with your prayers and compassionate alms. In one year from Palm Sunday I hope to be saved and released from all torments by the mercy of my Creator. Take thought for your own welfare: correct your life wisely, for it is stained by many vices, and you must know that it will not be long enduring.”
Once the ghostly army had gone, Walchelin fell ill for a week, but he slowly recovered and told the local bishop of what he saw. Orderic Vitalis reveals that he himself had heard this story from Walchelin himself, and even saw the scar on his face caused by the evil knight. Walchelin would live for at least another fifteen years.
Orderic sums up this event by writing, “I have recorded these things for the edification of my readers, so the just men may be encouraged in good, and the vicious may repent of evil.”
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, Vol.4 , edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1973)
The Written World: Past and Place in the Work of Orderic Vitalis, by Amanda Jane Hingst (Notre Dame, 2009)
Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, by Jean-Claude Schmitt (Chicago, 1998)
Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies
Author: Andrew Joynes
Publisher: Boydell Press
Summary Stories of restless spirits returning from the afterlife are as old as storytelling. In medieval Europe ghosts, nightstalkers and unearthly visitors from parallel worlds had been in circulation since before the coming of Christianity. Here is a collection of ghostly encounters from medieval romances, monastic chronicles, sagas and heroic poetry. These tales bore a peculiar freight of spooks and spirituality which can still make the hair stand on end. Look at the story of Richard Rowntree’s stillborn child, glimpsed by his father tangled in swaddling clothes on the road to Santiago, or the sly habits of water sprites resting as golden rings on the surface of the river, just out of reach. The writer and broadcaster Andrew Joynes brings together a vivid selection of these tales, with a thoughtful commentary that puts them in context and lays bare the layers of meaning in them.
Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society
Author: Jean-Claude Schmitt
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press
Summary Through this vivid study, Jean-Claude Schmitt examines medieval religious culture and the significance of the widespread belief in ghosts, revealing the ways in which the dead and the living related to each other during the middle ages. Schmitt also discusses Augustine’s influence on medieval authors; the link between dreams and autobiographical narratives; and monastic visions and folklore. Including numerous color reproductions of ghosts and ghostly trappings, this book presents a unique and intriguing look at medieval culture.
The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe
Author: Bruce Gordon
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Summary Although much has been published on the social history of death, this is the first book to give a comprehensive account of attitudes toward the dead–above all the “placing” of the dead, in physical, spiritual and social terms–in order to reveal the social and religious outlook of past societies. The contributions range widely geographically, from Scotland to Transylvania, and address a spectrum of themes: attitudes toward the corpse, patterns of burial, forms of commemoration, the treatment of dead infants, the nature of the afterlife, and ghosts.
Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages
Author: Claude Lecouteux
Publisher: Inner Traditions
Summary This title reveals the nature of medieval belief in the double of the soul and demonstrates the survival of a pagan belief that each individual owns three souls, including a double that can journey outside of the body. It explains the nature of death and Other Worlds hidden beneath the monsters and superstitions in stories from the Middle Ages.
Monsters werewolves witches and fairies remain a strong presence in our stories and dreams. But as Claude Lecouteux shows their roots go far deeper than their appearance in medieval folklore; they are survivors of a much older belief system that predates Christianity and was widespread over Western Europe. Through his extensive analysis of Germano-Scandinavian legends as well as those from other areas of Europe Lecouteux has uncovered an almost forgotten religious concept – that every individual owns three souls and that one of these souls the Double can – in animal or human form – leave the physical body while in sleep or a trance journey where it chooses then re-enter its physical body. While there were many who experienced this phenomenon involuntarily there were others – those who attracted the unwelcome persecution of the Church – who were able to provoke it at will: witches. In a thorough excavation of the medieval soul Claude Lecouteux reveals the origin and significance of this belief in the Double and follows its transforming features through the ages. He shows that far from being fantasy or vague superstition fairies witches and werewolves all testify to a consistent ancient vision of our world and the world beyond.