Goodreads review: Medieval Ghost Stories by Andrew Joynes

I discovered this book on the recommendation of a scholar who presented a paper about revenants (roaming dead) in Medieval England at this year’s Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. Since this is a topic near to my heart, in more ways than one 🙂 I picked up a copy at the publisher’s booth.

This book gives some great insight into the role of the supernatural in the lives of people around the turn of the first millennium, up to the 1300’s. It is well-organized by topics including: Ghosts and Monks, Ghosts and the Court, The Restless Dead, and Ghosts in Medieval Literature. Each of these sections includes a general introduction, placing the manifestation in context, then a series of excerpts from period works–chronicles, sagas and stories–that describe what happened and to whom.

As a fantasy author, and also as the leader of teen camps where I am frequently called upon to tell horror stories, this is just the kind of material I keep an eye out for. It includes some more familiar pieces, like the werewolf Bisclavret from Marie de France or a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron, but also many other works from less known sources–local chronicles and the like.

Most of these stories take place on the cusp of the Christian emergence, as local populations settle into the expanding religion, and are given a theological spin by their authors (frequently priests and monks–the most educated people of their day). So we hear souls tell of the torment they suffer because of their sins, and we see Guinevere offer to have masses sung for the restless spirit of her mother. These spirits are often laid to rest at last by the intervention of priests or of proper Christian burial.

To me, the most interesting narratives here are those from the Scandinavian sagas, where Christian motifs overlay a local aesthetic. Hence a woman wronged in life whose corpse is being brought to a monastery for burial to atone for the wrongs done her rises up in the night to make a meal for her funeral party because the miserly host has not done so–thus chiding the host for his failure to provide hospitality due to guests.

Although eager to find Christian meaning in stories of ghosts or the walking dead, Christianity in general had an uneasy relationship with the entire concept. The dead, according to doctrine, lay quietly to wait for judgment, if they were not already taken up, or sent down. The body was not animate of itself, and the soul had already been accounted for–so Church fathers are often at pains during this period to insist that ghosts and revenants simply didn’t exist, even as many laypeople accepted the stories as the proof of Heaven or Hell–because these spirits desired to reach the one, or to speak out in warning about the other.

But there is another category of stories, warning the living to make much of life–and especially of love, in which groups of wandering spirits are show as joyous or as despairing in proportion to their willingness to share love while they were alive, bringing to mind later works, like Andrew Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress.” Suggesting that man’s fascination with the dead, and his willingness to use them as examples to the living, whether for instruction or seduction, goes on.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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