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Ghosts and Fairies in the Middle Ages

by Gillian Polack Ph.D.

Illuminations by Gillian Polack
ISBN: 0-9722091-0-7

Folktales tell us where the boundaries of our world lie. In the Middle Ages these boundaries were often woods, water, night and death. Woods (Broceliande was the most famous) were where fairies came from, but they were also the homes of demons and devils and ghosts.


Night was the time of ghosts, and abandoned places, especially cemeteries, which could be very dangerous for the living.

William of Newburgh commented that the bodies of the dead left their tombs and terrified the living. To fight them, you needed holy water and other religious objects.

Ideally in the Middle Ages, a Christian died confessed and absolved of sins and given extreme unction. This left the Christian Middle Ages open to pleas from those who had died, for blessings and donations to assist their errant souls towards heaven.

It also left Christians open to emotional blackmail from those Church members who wanted more money for their building fund. Not all these donations were given out of kindliness towards the dead soul. Some were given out of fear of the dead soul's ghost.

Especially at risk, in theory, were those groups who were denied Christian burial: the unbaptised child, heretics, excommunicants, women who died in childbirth, suicides and non-Christians. Often exceptions were made for women who died in childbirth and for suicides, to allow them a proper burial. But their souls were still suspect, and the threat of them hung over the world.

In the twelfth century, we know that many oaths were taken over a dead person's tomb. This was not necessarily loyalty to the dead, it was to ensure that ghosts took revenge for perjury or that they acted as a supernatural witness - a link between the oathtaker and God. This shows that the belief in ghosts was rampant - even the sanctified dead could come back as ghosts in the right circumstances.

While it was also common for Jews to repent on the deathbed, the penalties were not so severe for the less-than-perfect soul, and so the threat of ghosts was not as intense. In fact, most accounts of ghosts we possess are of male, Christian ghosts.


This is the theory. Unfortunately, we only have limited evidence for how this entered people's night fears. Most of that evidence is transmitted to us through Church sources. The official position of the Church was that ghosts were the souls of people in purgatory and that they only rested when all their sins were accounted for, one way or another. This places an emphasis on "do this for the sake of your soul" which may or may not have applied universally in everyday life.

Hellequin's Hunt

One of the most important ghost stories of the Middle Ages is Hellequin's Hunt. My favourite version is by Orderic Vitalis.

He tells of a man who was caught out at night and saw things that were not really for human eyes. First, he heard the echoes of an army, then he saw a giant man carrying a mace. This giant told the observer to stay still and to watch. He saw a series of supernatural voyagers, the first on foot (including some of the watcher's dead neighbours) and lamenting.

The rest were tortured in different ways, reflecting their sins. One group, for instance, was of women on horseback, riding sidesaddle with the saddles studded with hot nails. Their crime was loving luxury and debauchery. But all social stations were represented - no-one escaped, and there was a group of noble men and a group of clergy being tortured according to their crimes.

Hellequin's Hunt might be linked to later tales of the Wild Hunt, although the Wild Hunt merits its own descriptions eg in the twelfth century, it was described as riding during Lent and Easter with 30 big and ugly hunters leading the pack and blowing horns.

Some other ghosts

Other ghosts are less formidable. Some are simple visions - not what we would call ghosts at all. Others are invisible presences, which affect the world around. Some ghosts (e.g., in Arles in 1211) gave secret information to their living confidant. So while they were not holy, they had special powers. This secret advice ranged from practical information (where something lost could be found), to announcing a coming death, to providing suitable religious instruction.


Fairies mostly come to us through high literature - the courtly Old French romances, for instance. Much of our information about fairies is from the twelfth century and later. Some modern scholars talk about a range of supernatural beings as fairies, including those that lived in barns or down wells.

Fairies, like ghosts, lived on the borders of life. Some lived in forests, others appeared at night. Those who were night-beings simply disappeared when dawn came. Some lived in water. From the thirteenth century there are mentions of a fairy realm, where King Auberon was the most frequently-named monarch. In romances, fairies and their possessions are extraordinarily beautiful. To call a woman "as beautiful as a fairy" was a real compliment.

Most fairies in tales were, in fact, women. Although there were also fairy knights who had all the trappings of the knight, plus some otherworldly power eg was able to change shape. Many fairy women appear in stories as lovers, who remain with their husband or true love until they have borne children or until a promise is broken. Melusine, the fairy ancestress of the Lusignan family, is one of these. She becomes a guivre and flies away when her husband breaks his promise. Other fairies guard places or objects.

Morgan, as a fairy, was quite different. She was known as "the wise" or "the fairy" and first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Life of Merlin (1148). From then on, she became the quintessential Arthurian fairy, ruling the Isle of Avalon in one tale.


Fairies and Their Kin

Queens, Ghouls and Medieval Religion

Ghosts in Medieval Yorkshire

© 2002 Gillian Polack

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