The Burning Ghost: Part One

The road to Ampleforth

British Library manuscript Royal 15 A. xx, formerly in the possession of Byland Abbey in Yorkshire, concerns itself predominantly with the works of Cicero. Towards the end, however, a bored monk, apparently writing in the early fifteenth century, entered some stores of the supernatural that he had heard from the surrounding countryside. The stories were transcribed and published by the great M. R. James in the 1922 issue of English Historical Review. The following is one of those stories, alleged to have taken place during the reign of King Richard II, translated afresh for your delectation out of the original Latin. Badly.

It is said that on a certain night a certain tailor, Snowball by name, was riding back to his house in Ampleforth from Gilling. On the way he heard a sound like the sound of ducks washing in the stream and a little while afterwards he espied something like a raven flying around his face and descending right down to the ground, with his wings shaking, as though he ought to die alone.

The tailor came down from his horse and took the raven but as he did so he saw sparks of fire scattering from its sides. The tailor made the sign of the Cross and forbade the raven on God’s part to bring any harm to him on this account. It flew away with a great wail about a stone’s throw away.

Then the tailor got on his horse again and a little afterwards, the said raven flew down and forestalled him again. It struck him on the side and threw him off his horse onto the ground. He lay there prostrate on the ground, like one amazed and frightened half to death, exceedingly terrified.

Eventually, getting up and standing firm in faith, he fought with it with his sword until he was tired and it seemed to him as though he were striking through a stack of turf and he forbade it and defended himself on God’s part, saying “Far be it that you have power to harm me on this account but go away!” Again it flew away with a horrible wail, about as far as a flying arrow.

A third time indeed it appeared to the same tailor, as he carried the cross of his sword over his chest for fear. It forestalled him in the form of a dog with a chain around its neck. The tailor saw this and, courageous in faith, pondered with himself: What will become of me? I invoke him by the name of the Trinity and by the power of the Blood of Jesus Christ from the five wounds, which he said with him and it did not injure him at all but stood immobile and answered his questions and told him its name and the cause of its punishment, with a capable remedy. And he did so.

Having been invoked, it began to breathe and groan terribly. “Thus-and-thus I did [for data protection reasons, the original scribe does not reveal the name of the ghost or what he did in life to merit limbo] and I was excommunicated for such-and-such a deed. You should therefore go to such-and-such a priest, begging absolution for me. And I ought to make sure that nine times twenty masses will be celebrated for me. As for you, you can do one of two things. Either return to me alone on such-and-such a night, bringing back the answer to these things which I have said to you and I will teach you how you will be healed, so that you need not fear the sight of a wood-fire in the middle of the night [wood-fires, if seen after an encounter with a ghost, were thought to cause death – apparently]. Or your flesh will rot and your skin will waste away and quickly dissolve off you from the inside. By the way, the reason I was able to stop you just now was because you have not heard mass today or the Gospel of John, namely ‘In the Beginning’, nor have you seen the consecration of the body and blood of the Lord. If you had, I should not have been able to appear fully to you.”

While it was speaking to the tailor, it looked as though it were on fire. The tailor could peer through its mouth to its innards. It was not speaking with a tongue but formed its words in its intestines.

Now, the tailor begged permission from the aforesaid spirit to have another friend with him when he came back but it replied “No but you may have over you the four Gospels of the evangelists and the triumphal name of Jesus of Nazareth, because there are two other spirits sojourning here, one of which cannot speak, even if invoked. It is in the shape of a fire or thornbush. The other is in the form of a hunter. They are exceedingly dangerous to people on the road. Furthermore, you are to make an oath on this stone that you will not divulge my bones except to the priests celebrating for me and the others to whom you will send on my part who can be of benefit to me.”

He made on the stone the oath that he would not reveal. Then he invoked the same spirit that it should go up to the Hodge Beck until his return. It wailed “No! No! No!” in reply.
The tailor said to it “Then you should go to Brink Hill,” and it was happy about that.

The said man was indeed weak for many days. As soon as he recovered he went to York to the aforesaid priest who had excommunicated the offending deceased a little while ago, begging absolution. The priest refused to absolve him, calling a certain other priest to him to consult. But that one called another and the other a third, musing on his absolution.

The tailor said to the first priest “My lord, you know the phenomena that I have laid to your ears.”

He replied, “Truly, my son.”

At last, after various arguments among the parties, the same tailor gave them satisfaction in the form of payment of five shillings. He received an absolution written on a certain certificate. They warned him not to uncover the dead man but bury the certificate secretly in his grave, beside his head. The tailor took the certificate and went to a certain brother Richard of Pickering, a noble confessor, to enquire if the said absolution were sufficient and lawful. He replied that it was so. Then the same tailor travelled to all the orders of brethren in York and caused nearly all the aforesaid masses to be celebrated for two or three days. When he had returned home, he buried the aforesaid absolution, according to his instructions, in the grave.

Once he had properly finished off these tasks, he came home and a certain presumptuous neighbour of his, hearing that he was to report to the same spirit the things which he had done at York on such-and-such a night, warned him “Far be it that you go to the aforesaid spirit unless you give me advance notice of your return and of the day and hour.”

Will the tailor and his friend survive the second encounter with the Burning Ghost? Will they fall foul of the other two spirits that haunt the Ampleforth road? Will James Lloyd translate the next section as atrociously as he did this one? Find out next week in The Rural Voice!

Photo credit: View to Oswladkirk (Pauline E) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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