Just like today, many people in medieval England believed in ghosts and the paranormal. Throughout the Middle Ages, one can find countless references about the spirits of the dead wandering the land of the living. While at times they were things to be feared, these ghosts were usually not interested in haunting. Instead, these medieval spectres often needed help.
The stories about ghosts from medieval England (and other parts of Europe) were often connected to the Catholic idea of Purgatory. Emerging in the twelfth-century, this was the belief that many souls did not go directly to Heaven or Hell – instead, they would find themselves in an intermediate state, where they had to cleanse themselves of their sins before entering Paradise.
The living, who were understandably anxious about the souls of their dead parents and other family members, had ways of helping them – masses could be said for the souls of people, which would lessen the time they spend in Purgatory. By the later Middle Ages the church had a lucrative business going on, as they had set up a system, known as chantries, where people could pay the salary of a priest to have them perform masses for particularly people (this was often set up by the person in their will with the masses to be done for themselves), and by selling indulgences, where people could literally pay money to have their time in Purgatory reduced.
If the soul was not in Heaven or Hell, it had to be somewhere, and that place could be hanging around Earth, generally not getting in anyone’s way. However, some spirits could appear to and interact with the living. Often they did so because they wanted their assistance in leaving Purgatory. For example, one tale recorded in a 15th-century commonplace book explained that a man was visited by the ‘dark shadow’ of his dead mistress, who told him “I can be freed from the punishment I am suffering, if masses were said for me by good priests.”
In other cases, the ghost might ask a person to return a stolen good to its rightful owner, or even to pay a debt. In one story from 1457, a ghost demanded that his nephew go on a pilgrimage to Compostella in Spain, apparently the only place where a mass could be said that would release the uncle from Purgatory.
Among the numerous stories of paranormal activity written down in medieval England are twelve tales from Byland Abbey. Around the year 1400, one of the monks made use of a few leftover pages at the end of the book to record stories he had heard. These were often frightening tales – the monk was even scared to write it! – but they reveal how people dealt with ghosts. Jacqueline Simpson, in her article Repentant soul or walking corpse? Debatable apparitions in Medieval England, explains that “most of the Byland stories have the following pattern: a living man encounters an alarming ghost; he urges it to say why it has appeared; it replies that it is suffering because of an unforgiven sin, which requires posthumous absolution and/or some requiem Masses; the living man informs a priest, who fulfils the request; the ghost can rest.”
She adds that in most of these tales from Byland Abbey, these ghosts:
However frightening they look at first, they are not demonic, and they do not seriously injure people or spread plague; on the contrary, they long for forgiveness and peace, but being unable to take any initiative themselves must wait for a living man to ask what the trouble is, and offer help; they can then confess, be absolved, and find rest through Masses and prayers offered on their behalf.
These stories were first discovered by M.R. James and published in 1922. A few translations of them have been made, most recently by John Shinners in Medieval Popular Religion 1000-1500: A Reader. Here are three tales of paranormal activity that took place near the abbey:
Next, concerning another spirit following after William de Bradeforth and shouting “how, how, how,” three times over three nights.. It happened that on the fourth night, about midnight William returned to the new place [sic] from the village of Ampleforth. And while he was going back along the road heard a terrifying voice yelling far behind him, as if it were on a mountain. A third time he heard the voice shouting at the crossroads ahead of him, and then he saw a pale horse. His dog barked meekly, but then hid itself between William’s legs utterly terrified. When this happened, William charged the spirit in the name of the Lord and by the power of the blood of Jesus Christ to depart and not block his path. When the spirit heard this, it withdrew, looking like a canvas sail unfurling its four corners and billowing away. From this it can be gathered that this was a spirit greatly wanting to be conjured and given effective aid.
Remember that the said Robert, son of Robert Botelby of Kilburn, died and was buried in the graveyard. But it was his custom to go forth from his grave at night and disturb and frighten the villagers; the dogs in the village followed behind him barking ferociously. Finally, the young men of the village were talking together and they proposed to capture him any way they could. They met at the graveyard, but at the sight of him, they all fled except for two of them. Of these, Robert Foxton, grabbed him as he was going out of the graveyard and put him on the church-stile. His friend shouted bravely, “Hold him tight till I get there.” Robert yelled back, “Run to the parish priest who can conjure him. For God willing, what I’ve got, I’ll hold till the priest gets here.” His friend hurried swiftly to the parish priest and he came and conjured the ghost in the name of the holy Trinity and by the power of Jesus Christ to tell them what they asked. So conjured, the ghost started speaking not with his tongue but from deep within his innards, echoing like an empty barrel. He confessed his various sins. After the priest heard these, he gave him absolution. But he cautioned the two young men who had captured the ghost not to reveal any part of his confession. Afterwards, he left the ghost to rest in peace, God willing.
But it is said that before his absolution, he would stand at the doors and windows of houses, and beneath their walls and partitions as if listening, perhaps waiting for someone to come out and conjure him to help him in his need. Others say that he had aided and plotted the murder of a certain man, and that he had done other evil things the particulars of which should not be mentioned at present.
Old people tell how a certain James Tankerlay, formerly Rector of Kirkby, was buried in the Chapter House at Byland, but used to walk forth as far as Kirkby by night, and one night he struck out one eye of his former mistress. And it is said that the abbot and monks had his body dug up from the grave, together with the coffin, and forced Roger Wayneman to cart it as far as Gormire, and how when they were throwing this coffin in the water the oxen almost sank in too in their terror. May I not be in any peril myself for writing such things, for I have written just what I heard from my seniors! And may God Omnipotent have mercy on him, if indeed he might be among the number of those to be saved!
For another type of ghost story from the Middle Ages, see The Medieval Walking Dead
Jo Bath, “Dark Shadows: The English Ghost, 1100-1530” Medieval History, Issue 9 (2004)
A.J. Grant, “Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories” Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol. 27 (1924),
M.R. James, “Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories” English Historical Review, Vol.37 (1922)
Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies (Boydell, 2003)
Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society (Chicago, 1998)
Jacqueline Simpson, Repentant soul or walking corpse? Debatable apparitions in Medieval England
C.S. Watkins, Sin, Penance and Purgatory in the Anglo‐Norman Realm: The Evidence of Visions and Ghost Stories
Top Image: Byland Abbey – photo by Sam Simpson / Flickr