Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
The Supernatural in Medieval England
Something strange and wicked happened in Medieval England. In Buckingham, a deceased man rose from the grave to visit his wife. In Berwick, a despised and rich man routinely returned from “purgatory” until the villagers destroyed the corpse. In Melrose, a dead chaplain haunted and terrorized noblewomen at a monastery. And, finally, an evil undead man came back to life and brought “pestilence” to the town of York.
Such events would be considered folklore. Nothing more than stories passed down from one generation to the other around the table to entertain, scare or teach a valuable lesson through storytelling.
However, these events mentioned were recorded by one of Medieval England’s most noted historians, William of Newburgh; a man who was reportedly very serious about finding the truth in history.
Who Was William of Newburgh?
William of Newburgh was a monk from the Newburgh Abby (also known as Newbury). He chronicled many events during his lifetime (1138-1198) and was noted for his accounts of the contentious reign of King Stephen of England.
William followed in the footstep of another influential historian, the scribe known as the Venerable Bede, and made careful and thorough studies of the era following the Norman conquest of England. In fact, his work is so highly regarded that modern historians often study his work to learn more about this particular era.
He was also a pioneer in critical writing and an advocate for producing research-based documents. By all accounts, he didn't appear to be the type that would fall for perceived folklore of the era. In fact, he famously, ridiculed another noted historian of the time, Geoffrey of Monmouth, for relying too heavily on mythologies and legends when writing about the reigns of English kings. He referred to Geoffrey as “being ignorant of ancient history” and that he “shamelessly and impudently…lies in almost everything.”
Yet, the proof is in his writing. William of Newburgh – a man who advocated for research-based documenting was essentially writing about perceived ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and vampires.
Ironically, William of Newburgh is considered by many folklorists to be the second Englishman to document accounts of the undead (Walter Map, his contemporary, beat him by six years). And that’s not all. He was responsible for collecting the account of green children emerging from the forest – later to be known as the Green Children of Woolpit.
With this final accomplishment, it makes one wonder – was one of Medieval England’s most noted historians also the first chronicler of paranormal activity?
Tales of the Revenants
Writing about the paranormal was not William’s main focus. In his major work, Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), he concentrated on such events as The Anarchy under Stephen of England between 1135 and 1153 when civil war followed by a breakdown of law and order spread throughout England and Normandy.
Still, in the same book, he found enough space to document stories he gathered from townspeople and peasants throughout the kingdom. These accounts were minor in terms of detail and accuracy; however, they captured the prevailing fear that the dead were rising from the grave to wreak havoc and terror on the living.
The entity in question was known as the revenant – a reanimated corpse. The word was derived from the Latin word revenans (“returning”) and the French verb revenir (“to come back”).
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Revenants had been described as “visible ghosts,” vampires, zombies, or ghouls. In early accounts, they were depicted as corpses returning for specific purposes. In many cases, as described by William, it was for revenge. Often, as he pointed out in his accounts, the revenant had been a wicked person in life and was bent on terrorizing anyone who got in his way (the exception to this was of the Buckingham man who returned for several nights to sleep next to his widowed and unsuspecting wife).
His accounts of these creatures were similar to those of European vampires. Also, the History Channel documentary Zombies: A Living History claimed that his description of the revenants were the “first documented accounts of zombies.”
The Green Children of Woolpit
Another strange account to be recorded by William of Newburgh was that of the Green Children of Woolpit. According to his writing, a brother and sister with green skin and speaking in an unusual tongue emerged from the woods surrounding the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England.
William wrote that during a summer in the 12th century, villagers discovered the children standing near one of several wolf pits in the area. In addition to having green pigmentation and garbled speech, the two reportedly only ate green beans.
Eventually, the children lost their pigmentation, learned to eat other foods, and began to speak in English. The boy, however, eventually died while the girl grew up to adulthood.
Later, after being married, she would reveal that she and her brother came from a place called St. Martin’s Land, an underground dwelling where green people supposedly came from.
The story would be documented by another historian and would eventually become the subject of a 19th-century novel from Bishop Francis Godwin called The Man in the Moone.
Interestingly, William never offered an explanation for what he called the “strange and prodigious” event. Unlike the revenant tales, there didn’t appear to be any real morals attached to the tale.
Later, scholars would point out that some parts of the Green Children's story may have happened. However, they felt that much of it was derived from several folk tales that were popular at the time.
William of Newburgh's Reasons for the Stories
William of Newburgh was one of the first historians to rely on primary sources such as documentation and eye-witness accounts. He stressed the need for realism and avoidance of relying on mythology. Still, portions of his work touched upon the supernatural.
It appears he believed many of these stories to be true. He wrote that “were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome.” On the other hand, he wrote of these tales “…as a warning to posterity.”
In all likelihood, William of Newburgh set out to find the truth and meaning behind events he perceived to be true. If he had been living today, he’d be offended by the idea of being considered a paranormal investigator (in fact, he may have been more of a skeptic and would have written these tales in a skeptical tone). However, he and nearly everyone else at the time took much of this information as the truth. This was a minor blemish in the career of a historian of his stature.
- William of Newburgh: Medieval Vampire Hunter? | Our Ancient History
- William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum | Lancaster University
- William of Newburgh, Latin Chroniclers from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Centuries | Bartleby
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Dean Traylor