While snuggled up on the couch a few nights ago watching one of my favourite films for this time of year (Sleepy Hollow), I began to think of ghostly apparitions in the Middle Ages and wonder if any pilgrims, real or literary were exposed to such visions while on their journey. I did a little bit of research and came across a medieval ghost story of a pilgrim’s encounter with a spirit while on the road to Santiago de Compostela.
In this tale, translated from a Latin collection which was compiled by a monk in the abbey of Byland early in the 15th century, Richard Rowntree from Cleveland sets out on a pilgrimage to Spain. His wife, who he has left at home in England, gives birth to a still-born baby. While on lookout one night for the group of pilgrims he is travelling with, Richard observes a ghostly parade. Behind this parade a small child follows, wrapped too tightly to even walk upright (in some translations he is wrapped in a sock and is forced to roll on the ground). This ghostly child explains to Richard that he is his son who has been buried in secret without being baptised. Richard immediately gives his shirt to the child and also a name, allowing the child to not only to walk upright but also cross over to the afterlife while his father can continue on with his pilgrimage. In one translation Richard brings home the stocking in which the child was wrapped in. When only one stocking is found at home he produces the one which he has brought with him and uses it to question the midwives and the truth about the burial of his son is revealed.
The child’s unfinished business which includes burial without baptism and the resulting lack of name and identity result in his ghostly condition, unable to walk upright and also leave the earthly realm. It is his father’s clothing and the provision of a name which offers him the chance to cross over. Richard is also shown to be virtuous man, capable of charity and compassion. But this tale also reflects the sinful characteristics of human nature including the deceitfulness of the midwives. Richard being his own son’s godfather is commented on in this tale and serves as a warning to others who would undertake such an impious act.
The ghostly child is a common motif even to this day in films such as The Others and The Ring but these figures are not often as benign as Richard Rowntree’s son so enjoy the scares that will undoubtedly come with such movies over the coming days and of course have a very Happy Halloween!
For more reading on the tale of Richard Rowntree please refer to the works cited below.
James, M. R. “Twelve Medieval Ghost-Stories.” The English Historical Review XXXVII.CXLVII (1922): 413-22. Print.
O’Connor, Anne. The Blessed and the Damned: Sinful Women and Unbaptised Children in Irish Folklore. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2005. Print.
Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998. Print.
Shinners, John. Medieval Popular Religion: 1000-1500 : A Reader. Peterborough: Broadview, 1997. Print.