Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Medieval Ghosts, plus my own medieval ghost story

Did people in the Middle Ages believe in ghosts? They certainly believed in restless spirits, which they called revenants, from the Latin meaning ‘to return’. It was believed that the unquiet dead, particularly those who had died by violence or by reason of a grudge, or those who would not give up strong passions and carnal pleasures, would return to haunt the living. These revenants might appear within a graveyard or in a particular area, known to them in life, and terrorize the living.

They also believed that the dead could be commanded to rise again and spirits or demons compelled to do a wizard’s bidding, through the dark art of necromancy. A surprising number of priests were interested in these dubious practices as a means of gaining power or knowledge. Priests might also seek to exorcise spirits possessing people, by means of prayer or sacred herbs or charms.

Vampires, however, do not really make an appearance until the fourteenth century. Why then?

In 1348 the Black Death struck Europe. Thousands died and thousands of rotting corpses had to be buried, often in mass graves. Sights of these bodies was often grisly and bloody, and so the idea of the vampire, feeding on the blood of the living, came into force.

In 'Dark Maiden' I have a woman who is tormented by a lusty revenant who comes to her bed and tries to lie with her. Yolande, my heroine, learns that in this case the restless dead is the woman's husband. As an exorcist, Yolande takes certain steps to ensure that his widow is no longer plagued. You can find out what she does in the novel.

Read Chapter One here.

Stories about ghosts have been popular since the middle ages. The Monk of Byland wrote several of these stories down in the 15th century. You can read more here

In honour of the old tradition of telling ghosts stories, especially in the dark days of winter, here is my own medieval ghost story, "Her Solstice Boy"


                                         Painting of Sheep in snow by Joseph Farquharson.)

                                                                 Her Solstice Boy

    Marguerite pressed her chapped knuckles deeper into her old patched cloak. She was muddle-headed tonight, her head full of nonsense. Of course she was worried: who would not be? She must endure her hopes and— yes— her fears, endure this blistering cold. Brought up to lonely country self-reliance, Marguerite had learned early not to complain.
    The priest might have something to say if he knew she came back here at this time every year. He might have tried to stop her, if he had known what she planned to do tonight.
    Best to hurry, or she would miss the boy.
    Marguerite knew it was her child, her son by David. Peter had his father’s loping walk, her own skill with animals. He might have been a shepherd like herself.
    Come midwinter, he would appear on this stretch of Carter’s Track. To send a child, his own son, to such a lonely place with only sheep for company! And David, always so careful....
    David Fletcher’s care. Now that their affair was over, Marguerite could see the signs, subtle as animal tracks, that should have forewarned her.
    She had been a young widow and David a bachelor, but he had never formally paid court to her. When they walked out in the fields, he never gathered her flowers, or sang to her. They never ate—unless she paid the pie-man. (She and David never went into ale-houses. He had said often enough, in that hearty, wrist-band-tapping way of his, that she was no brewster.) He never thanked her when she treated them. It was just another way of saving money, of hoarding that last silver pound in his thin leather money pouch.
    There were other signs, too. David was never disappointed when she had to call off a walk because of her shepherding work. “Watch out for a fletcher who does not have to trim his fingernails,” her old neighbour once remarked sourly, spitting out of the open door of her cottage onto one of Marguerite’s beloved but struggling herb-beds, often neglected because she had no time.
    David was a good lover, though, greedy and earthy, qualities Marguerite could understand and even appreciate. When she told him she was pregnant (smiling shyly because she was twenty-two, already once widowed and had almost given up hope of starting a family) David laughed and slapped her rump. He talked for a long time about the coin and treasure advantages of her being a mother and later rode away from her home without a backward look.
    With the grind of lambing time and her own morning sickness, it was three months before she went to his house, close on the edge of town. Nearing the outbuildings, her ancient nag was forced off the track by a huge pair of horses, pulling a wagon. Sitting beside Fletcher in his new, expensive cart was a dark-haired woman. Marguerite recognised her as Catherine de Tilsby, one of the tournament and boar hunting set, whose father had made good in the French wars and who had flocks of sheep far larger than hers.
    Marguerite was too proud ever to visit David again.
    Peter was born in the depths of winter, when her cottage was cut off by snow. Warmed faintly by the fire in the kitchen beneath her bed-chamber, she laboured alone to bring him into the world and afterwards kept him by her own efforts. He was all she had.
    For three years David Fletcher did not acknowledge his son. Then he simply stole Peter from her.
    She and Peter had been out with the sheep. There were sudden, heavy snows, too deep for any ox to plough through. Near the top of Carter’s Track, she was forced to walk the rest of the way with Peter on her back. He was a big three-year-old, heavy in his winter cloak—the same russet colour as her own—and strong boots. How had she lost him to Fletcher? Why could she never remember?
    Snow when Peter was born, and snow now, when she was seeking him.....
    It was quiet on the track. Drifted snow burst soft as puffballs under her heels. Her faded dress swung heavy with damp. A tree branch lolled down, dropping hoar onto the back of her neck, cold and sudden as a blade.
    That barking dog— ahead or behind? “Who is there?” she called out, cupping her hands round her mouth. “Who is it?”
    Marguerite quickened her steps. Nothing mattered except seeing the child, her Solstice Boy.
    Every year since she lost him, she had been drawn back to Carter’s Track. For some uncounted time there was nothing, but then a year or so ago he had begun to appear, a nine-year-old boy. That must have been his age when he died. Died. How had Peter died, and why? David Fletcher had not seen fit to tell her. She did not even know where her son was buried.
    His haunting always began with warmth: a thawing of her hands and face; the taste of summer in her mouth. Sometimes the strange spectral flock that was with him ran ahead, at times he came first, and always that ruddy glow about him, as though he were still the healthiest child alive.
    Each year she got closer to him. This year she would try to speak to him, tell him who she was—Could a ghost hear? Half-sick with mingled anxiety and hope, Marguerite’s stomach churned.

    Peter ran with outstretched arms, jinking from side to side to usher on the strays. (His father said he could not spare Peter a sheepdog.) Grey woolly rumps working furiously, black legs butting out channels in the snow, the flock waded forward. At its head, bleating and grumbling, David and Catherine Fletcher’s prize ewe, Round Molly, bobbed her polished horns and sounded the bell about her neck.
    Peter did not like Carter’s Track, especially the point where the trees bent over the narrow path and their branches scraped together, sharpening each other’s edges like whetstones. Catherine Fletcher claimed there had been a murder near here, and Peter believed her. When she looked at him like that, narrow and sharp as a needle, Peter doubted that she was really his mother.
    Something in the woods.... The boy hated leaving the open. He ran between wall-and-tree-shadows, whirling his arms, afraid to shout. A warm black face touched once against his leg and he threw the beast round with unusual roughness. Faster, faster he drove the flock, the sheep a lurching blur of motion. Outside his reach and control, Round Molly’s bell rattled like a pebble in an old metal cup, a noise horribly loud.
    Next time he would refuse to do this. He would not tread Carter’s Track again, never at sunset, never in winter. Was it footsteps dashing alongside him, or the patter of thawing ice? Do not look, do not look, his legs pounded out the warning. No choice but to go on: his father was waiting for him. “Girls younger than you walk miles, herding geese to London, be thankful you have sheep,” was his father’s glib comment, when Peter had protested about being sent along alone. “I am not wasting money, sending a waged man with you along a bit of a mile animal drive.”
“I agree with your father,” his mother Catherine had said at once, sharp and disapproving,  “and they are the sheep I brought to this marriage.”
Stretched above Peter’s head, the net of tree-branches chattered softly, applauding David and Catherine Fletchers’ good sense.

    A frozen leaf fell, striking its tree in tinkling bell-clarity. Marguerite stretched out her hands, beseeching the red evening. Oh God, was she too late? Peter, where was he? Was he in danger? She must run, reach him—
    Heat seared through Marguerite, blasting sight and breath. With streaming eyes she sought and saw him up ahead: her son, running with the flock. His hair was yellow and he was tall. Strange, how a ghost could grow each year, just like an ordinary boy.
    He was now less than twenty feet away from her. Marguerite held out her arms and shouted. Finally her question—how she had lost him—would be answered when they touched. Her memories would be complete.

    The tree chattering increased. Darkness groped for him but Peter kicked it away, spraying snow high in the air. Tiring but needing to keep running, the boy grabbed two great handfuls of wool. Mouths and teeth closed into his hand. The ticks’ heads still clung to the wound after Peter had pulped the bloated bodies into the sheep’s back. Lost in the blackness, Round Molly’s bell clanked and twanged like the heavy bow which his father enjoyed using to despatch foxes and other vermin.
    Peter stumbled to a halt, breathless in the chill air. Half the flock turned and slithered back up Carter’s Road. The boy tried to stop the stampede of bodies and then heard his father’s pride, Round Molly, careering off in the opposite direction. Her bell rang madly for several moments before the sound snapped off and was killed. Afraid at what he would find, the boy started after her.

    He was coming closer. Already Marguerite could see that his eyes were still as blue as hers. This year it was right that she speak to him; he must know her. She would be as familiar to him as his own face. “Do not be afraid,” Marguerite whispered, “I am with you now.” She had waited so long for this, their summer reunion in winter.

    The darkness immediately ahead of him flexed, becoming an arm, a head. Terror-struck, the boy watched Round Molly as the ewe passed straight through the growing shadow. The contours of the shadow-body rippled, and then it began to solidify. The grey arm lifted and was moving to touch him. Its reaching fingers gleamed palely, like glow-worms.
    Peter yelled and charged forward, thinking only of how Round Molly had escaped the thing.

    She was the ghost, she—
    Death is too terrible to remember. The dead forget their own deaths, unless they are touched by the living. The blazing warmth of her son, his body thrusting through hers, scorched Marguerite, stamped her with one last terrible recollection. The missing link in her chain of memories, the final stage of her journey along Carter’s Track.
    David had met her here, ten winters back. About the time when it began to be whispered that Catherine Fletcher was rich only in money, barren in everything else.
    David threatened her with his bow and a knife. She refused to give him Peter until he fired over their heads, a hissing arrow shot in the semi-darkness. Fear for her son made her give Peter up, kicking and shrieking, to his father.
    Struggling with Peter, Fletcher dropped his bow in the snow and Marguerite surged forward in a reckless lunge. Her fingers ripped at Fletcher’s bulging money pouch, tearing the old leather, spilling the contents. She snatched hold of his arm, clawing at his face, desperate. “Peter!” she screamed, staggering and clutching her side.
    At first she thought Fletcher had punched her, until she felt the blood.
    Reliving her final moments—the shortening of breath, the bloom of pain spreading up through stomach and breast—Marguerite watched helplessly as her present, living, thirteen-year-old son shrank away. “Look at me! See me!”
    It was all no use; he gave no sign of hearing. The years of waiting had been in vain: Peter no longer knew her. She was tied to this day, endlessly forced to repeat her last, futile journey.

    Suddenly he fell, slithering headfirst into the ditch. The boy’s desperate, scrabbling fingers struck first a few white bones, washed up from their burial place by other snows and thaws, and then, under the bones, closed upon a broken leather pouch, a hoard of coins and a rusty knife. Sensing the presence stooping over him, he struck out with the blade. The rattle of the trees increased in a sharp crescendo.

    “Peter!” Marguerite screamed again, staggering and clutching her side; the ribbon of her life running to its end with this deadly variation: her son had struck at her—

    The shadow vanished. Would it reappear? thought the boy for several heart-stopping moments. No, it had definitely gone, perhaps forever.

    Shaken but laughing, pleased with himself, Peter buried the finds in the hood of his cloak. Now he could tell his father how he had seen off a ghost. He could show him the knife, and the ruined money pouch with the blurred initials scratched on the leather and the tarnished silver coins. His mother, too, would be proud of him now.

Lindsay Townsend


  1. I never even thought of this and this was so interesting peggy clayton

  2. Ooh, Loved that! Very atmospheric. Thank you.

  3. Loved the book, "Dark Maiden" and the additional story made my day. Thank you. Doris

  4. Many thanks, Peggy, C.A. and Doris! Glad you enjoyed it!

  5. I love ghost stories and the Medieval time period--and this story. It was fantastic. All the best to you Lindsay.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Thanks, Sarah! All the very best to you and yours also!