Suffering Souls

Marina Warner

A young priest called Walchelin, returning home one clear night in Normandy around a thousand years ago, heard a great clash and din of an army approaching; he assumed it was the soldiers who followed a local warlord, and hid himself in fear behind some medlar trees. But what he saw, instead, was a ghostly troop: first the lay folk, on foot, weighed down by terrible burdens; then the clergy, bishops as well as monks, all black-cowled and weeping; another black-robed, fiery army of knights then rode by, on black chargers. All these numbers of the dead were suffering horrible tortures, the women especially, for they were riding saddles of burning nails, and were being lifted in the air by invisible forces and dropped down again onto the points. Walchelin recognised the procession: it was the familia Herlequini, or Hellequin’s rabble, the grim and unquiet crowd mustered by the lord of the dead, about which he had heard many stories.

The account is dated 1 January 1091 and is the earliest extant literary telling of this phantom army, taken down by Orderic Vitalis, an Anglo-Norman monk, from the report of his colleague, the eyewitness. Walchelin related how he thought he wouldn’t be believed if he didn’t bring back proof, so he left his hiding place and tried to catch and mount one of the riderless black horses going by: the stirrup burned his foot and the reins froze his hand. Fifteen years after his experience, the scars remained, the authenticating brand from the other world: Walchelin showed them to the chronicler.

He watched several thousand of these dead go and recognised many he knew: murderers, wantons, renegades, but also many he was surprised to find in this tormented parade, for they had seemed to lead exemplary lives. (‘So many, I had not thought death had undone so many.’) Several of the dead wished to talk to Walchelin, and give him messages, but he entertained only his brother, who reproached him bitterly for forgetting him, and implored him to pray for him and release him from the heavy penance he was paying for all his bloody deeds as a knight.

This early vision of the nameless, vast crowd of the damned lent support, Jean-Claude Schmitt argues, to two campaigns of the early medieval Church: to control and pacify the godless and lawless military, and to promote the liturgy of the dead. In this history of ghosts from around 500 to 1500, Schmitt searches for precise social functions for the stories he has patiently excavated from the archives, from annals, compendia of sermons, letters, treatises, anthologies of tales. That accursed rabble of Hellequin’s hunt reflects the clerical grief and disapproval that would lead to the founding of the Christian orders of knights, the Templars and the Hospitallers, in an effort to discipline the Crusades and their Christian militia. ‘We cannot define any better the ideological function that the Church assigned to Hellequin’s hunt than in this moral mirror that it held up to those for whom violence was a trade.’ (The Gallic accent of this translation is audible throughout.) At the same time, masses, rituals, prayers – the suffrages of the saints – on behalf of suffering souls formed part of the clergy’s bid to control secular lives and property: many a ghost who appeared to a priest confirmed the efficacity of churchmen’s offices, or expressed a wish that his family should bequeath more money or land to continue the monastic task of intercession.

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