Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society 
by Jean-Claude Schmitt, translated by Theresa Lavender Fagan.
Chicago, 290 pp., £26.50, May 1998, 0 226 73887 6
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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.

The French title of this book was simply Les Revenants, and ‘revenant’ catches better than ‘ghost’ the author’s view that the commemoration of the dead, in Christian ritual, seeks to still them so that they won’t come back: ‘the memoria,’ he writes, ‘as a form of collective memory, was a social technique of forgetting.’ The restlessness of ghosts reveals the limits and failure of the system, for these are the dead who cannot find peace until more is done for them. In the medieval past, revenants haunted survivors if their death had been unexpected, premature, violent or otherwise untoward: suicides, victims of accidents, babies who died up-baptised were greatly feared. (The Litany still begs to be delivered from ‘sudden death’.) The idea of limbo was invented in the 12th century as a refuge for the wandering souls of miscarried or aborted foetuses that could never reach paradise. Many of the ghosts Schmitt describes here are children; sometimes they have been seen by children, too, as in the case of a certain William, who was sent away from his home in Apt after a series of violent incidents and died in 1211 after a brawl. On several nights not long after his death, he appeared, naked except for some rags, to his 11-year-old girl cousin, who had been very fond of him. The news of the visions spread, and many local figures gathered to put questions to the ghost through the little girl; the bishop sent a questionnaire, to which William, prompted by Saint Michael who had appeared in support, gave full replies – about death, the afterlife and the structure of heaven and hell. He uses the word ‘purgatory’ – an early instance of the noun – and clarifies the condition of the bodies of the dead: they are but ‘images’ (effigies) but they feel acutely; the fires of purgation are corporeal, though the souls that feel them are not. Gervase of Tilbury reports these events, but does not tell us the name of the girl, an interesting predecessor of Saints Bernadette and Thérèse of Lisieux, or Elizabeth Radclyfe, Yeats’s psychic medium, and many more young females who have altered their status and their influence thanks to their persuasive skills in clairvoyance.

A vision and a haunting are different, however, because medieval ghosts were sinners, petitioning the living to help them join the community of saints. The various phenomena of spectres, phantoms, apparitions and shades aren’t easily distinguished, and the theology tangling with them remains knotty. St Augustine pondered the mobility of dream figures: he heard that he had appeared in someone’s dream a long way away ‘on the other side of the sea, at that very same moment I was doing something else entirely ... in any case, I was not thinking at all of his concerns.’ He dismissed such ‘imagos’ as mere semblances, having nothing to do with the person they invoked, and warned that the devil could assume many forms, including the appearance of dead loved ones. Souls, not bodies, should be Christians’ sole concern. He was distancing Christian practice from the pagan emphasis on ancestor worship, on family tombs and mortal remains.

However, as Schmitt shows here, neither Augustine’s scepticism about apparitions of the dead to the living nor his denunciation of dreams as a medium of true messages from the other world stifled the ghost story in Christian culture. Many of the phantoms explore their own condition, pondering what it means to be a ghost. One revenant explains that he can speak, though tongueless, by resonating the words in his chest; another that the penalties he suffers are real, the fires of purgation all too corporeal, and though he has no body, he feels them terribly; yet another that the dead continue to know their friends from the world above, but make no other acquaintance in the underworld. The illuminations in the sources are undecided: sometimes the spirit takes the form of a naked child, but ghosts never choose this shape, as it’s essential that they should be recognised for who they are; sometimes, the artist confines himself to the spectators’ reactions of awe and dismay, leaving a void where the spirit materialised. Schmitt claims to have identified the earliest image of the conventional Halloween phantom: standing, arms crossed, draped in white from head to toe, eyes only peeping from his shroud, this ghost announces the death of a child to his father in a manuscript of around 1272.

In the 13th century, with the establishment of the mendicant friars, tales of wonders were spread far and wide through collections of moral exempla and cautionary tales: guilty ghosts returned to make amends for their crimes on earth, to return stolen property and beg forgiveness of the wronged; guilty survivors were reminded of their shortcomings and given the chance to turn over a new leaf; a bastard child who had not been acknowledged materialised, weeping and begging for release from pain; and the vengeful husband appeared to his widow who was remarrying all too soon, and dropped a mortar on her head, cracking her skull until her brains spilled out. Through ghosts, the Church circulated its moral precepts and its dream of social order.

Schmitt is the author of an earlier study, The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children since the 13th Century, about the cult of a dog in a part of medieval France, and this interest in the odder byways of Christian thaumaturgy leads him to deplore the uniformity that stiffened ghost lore after the 13th century, when collectors gathered their material for pedagogical use, and in the interests of universality, smoothed away local peculiarities of custom, detail and narrative, as well as obscuring the names of individuals and their specific experiences.

Yet in their crude, even lurid way, the popular preachers’ manuals of Jacques de Vitry and Jacopus de Varagine induce the shudder that differentiates the pious tale from the ghost story, the saint’s vision from the haunting. With his concern for functional explanation, Schmitt never attempts a literary analysis, and remains uninterested in the rhetorical devices and narrative effects of the fantastic; he seems to accept the schoolmen’s exclusion of fantasia as a diabolical instrument of hallucination, and so omits the ghost-story aspects of divination, alchemy and witch lore. He quotes only briefly; and his tendency to précis and paraphrase sometimes makes for weary reading. Also, in a study of medieval ghosts, it’s wayward to allude to Dante only in passing on page one and thereafter in a single footnote. It is Dante, who with his indomitable intellectual ambition, attempts to encompass the condition of ghosts; Virgil expounds to him the Thomist view of their ethereality, using metaphors of elements in play, as in rainbows and flames:

e come l’aere, quand’è ben pïorno,
                      per I’altrui raggio che ’n sè si
                     di diversi color diventa adorno;
      così l’aere vicin quivi si mette
                     in quella forma che in lui
         virtüalmente l’alma che ristette;
      e simigliante poi alla fiammella
               che segue il foco là ’vunque si
               segue lo spirto sua forma
      Però che quindi ha poscia sua paruta,
                è chiamata ombra ...

In John Sinclair’s translation:

and as the air, when it is full of rain, becomes adorned with various colours through another’s beams that are reflected in it, so the neighbouring air sets itself into that form which the soul that stopped there stamps upon it by its power, and then, like the flame that follows the fire wherever it shifts, its new form follows the spirit. Since it has by this its semblance henceforth, it is called a shade ...

Ingeniously conjured from effects of light, insubstantial and incorporeal, yet endowed with presence and sense, these Turneresque wraiths move forward the possibility of making the ghostly sure thinkable, if not plausible.

Schmitt refuses to speculate on the antecedents of his medieval phantoms in earlier belief or on cross-pollination with cultures ancient and distant. But he allows glimpses, when he cites Scottish tales recorded by William of Newburgh in the 12th century, or the village hauntings taken down by the monk of Byland in Yorkshire two hundred years later, in which terrifying northern ghouls and vampires do not meekly plead for prayer but wreak havoc until their corpses are disinterred, chopped up and burned by the victims of their misdeeds and their hauntings. In these stories, some of the motifs of fairy tales recur, for the border that separates the quick and the dead is not impermeable: villagers marry fairy wives, tailors change shape and enchanted hunters blow their horns to summon the living to places of doom.

Schmitt is sensitive to the fusion of clerkly and oral literature, but he doesn’t see that he could have argued that the Church, in its insistence on suffrages and preparation for a good death, was simply instrumentalising a vivid corpus of existing fantastic beliefs about the dangers the dead pose for the living. Also, he doesn’t linger on comparative material which could have thrown light on the distinctiveness of Christian ghosts and ways of dealing with them: on the shaman’s flight, on zombies and spirit possession, on the bloodthirsty revenge exacted by wronged vassals in Japanese and Chinese literature and drama.

In Jacques Le Goff’s succinct phrase, ‘purgatory imprisoned the ghosts’: after the official recognition of purgatory at the start of the 13th century, Hellequin’s wild rout could no longer roam the night. However, the new taste for the macabre (the word enters the French language around a hundred years later) set skeletons dancing on the walls of cemeteries and their drums rolling as they marshalled mortals to join them. The macabre introduced the pleasures of comic horror that later infuse the Gothic and the modern ghost story. When I looked up the footnotes to one gory tale cited here, I found that M.R. James had done the only selected edition of the manuscript Schmitt quotes: the literature of ghosts is itself haunted by revenants, and in adopting a strict historical approach, Schmitt has muffled the deeper repercussions of his subject.

It seems that we are entering a new phase in the history of our connections with the dead, that memory has become the crucial and necessary means to achieve peace with the past, so that we no longer wish to lay the ghosts, but rather to bring them back for prolonged acts of reconciliation. Alongside angels, they’re also now invoked – even conjured – as pleasure-giving familiars uncoupled from death, reattached to life as images of inner selves, of spirits fluttering within – the geist, or breath, that gives us the word ‘ghost’. The uncanny has come home to take up its dwelling there with calm eeriness as opposed to horror in such contemporary works as Ghost by the sculptor and film model-maker Ron Mueck, now on display at the Anthony D’Offay Gallery. This ghost is a simulacrum of a woman, perfectly rendered in latex, with real hair and a simple bathing-suit and trompe l’oeil thread-veins on her thighs. She’s a perfect replica, a modern waxwork, but she disconcerts the viewer: impossibly, she has a child’s lanky limbs and a matron’s thick greying hair; she’s also nine feet tall. At the same time, at the Hayward Gallery, Anish Kapoor’s marvellous exhibition of new sculpture concludes with another Ghost, in this instance carved in Kilkenny limestone, a hard rock so black that it reflects like a still deep pool: in the shadowy concavity Kapoor has carved in the block, your reflection gradually gathers definition, a distorted, mutable, uncertain shade, which nevertheless offers a partial guarantee of your presence and your substance.

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