The Burning Ghost: Part Two

Holy Cross Church, Gilling East

The story so far: Mister Snowball, a tailor from the village of Gilling, was riding home by night to Ampleforth when he was confronted by the ghost of an excommunicate trapped in purgatory. Having injured the tailor, he offered to tell him how to heal himself, provided that the tailor secured absolution for him. The tailor has now completed the ghost’s instructions and gone to wake up a nosy neighbour, to tell him that he is going to go back to the Ampleforth road, hoping that the ghost will fulfil his side of the bargain.

That night, the tailor had a dream in which he was warned not to displease God. He woke up and then alerted his neighbour, saying “I am going now. If you want to come with me, let us go and I will give you part of my writings which I carry upon me because of the terrors of the night.”

The other said to him “You want me to go with you?”

He replied “You seem to. I do not want to order you.”

Then the other finally said “You should go, therefore, in the name of the Lord and God speed you in all things.”

Once these things had been said, the tailor went to the place appointed and made a great circle of the Cross. He had upon him the four Gospels and other sacred words. He stood in the middle of the circle, placing four reliquaries on the manner of a cross on the fringes of the same circle. On these reliquaries were written health-giving words, specifically Jesus of Nazareth etc. Then he awaited the coming of the same spirit.

Then it came in the form of a nanny-goat and went thrice around the aforementioned circle, saying “Baa, baa, baa.” Once the tailor had invoked it, it fell prone on the ground and got up in form of a man of giant stature and horrible and thin, like the painted image of a dead king [a common motif on church walls].

After it had asked the tailor if his work had gone one way or the other, it replied to him “God be praised that it is so. I stood back in the ninth hour when you buried my absolution in the grave and were afraid. No wonder, for three devils were present there, who were punishing me with all kinds of torments after you invoked me on the first occasion, right up to my absolution, suspecting that they would have very little time to punish me in their keeping. You should know, therefore, that on Monday next I am going to be with thirty other spirits and we shall go into everlasting joy. Now, you should go to such-and-such a stream and you will find a broad stone, which you should lift up and under that stone you should take a sandy rock. You should also wash your whole body with water and rub it with the rock and you will be healed within a few days.”

The tailor asked it about the names of the two other spirits that lurked on the road but it replied “I cannot tell you their names.” He asked it about them again and it explained that one of them was a layman and warlike and he was not from that country. “He killed a pregnant woman and will not have salvation before the Day of Judgement. You will see him in the form of a calf without mouth and eyes and ears and he will not be able to speak at all, however much he may be conjured. The other was a religious man but he appears in the form of a hunter with branching horn. He will have salvation and will be invoked by a certain little boy not yet fully grown, as the Lord directs.”

After that, the tailor asked the same spirit about his own condition. It answered him “You are unjustly keeping back a certain hood and cloak belonging to a friend and fellow of yours in the war beyond the sea. Therefore you should make satisfaction with him, or you will atone for it severely.”

The tailor replied “I do not know where he is.”

The other replied “He lives in such-and-such a village, near Alnwick Castle.”

He asked further “What is my greatest fault?”

It replied “Your greatest fault is because of me.”

The living one said to it “How? How can this be so?”

It said “Because the people are sinning as a result of you, lying and accusing other dead people and saying ‘Either the dead man who was invoked is this person or that person or that.’”

And the tailor asked the same spirit “So what will happen? I will have to reveal your name.”

It replied “No. But if you remain in such-and-such a place, you will be rich and in such-and-such a place you will be poor but you have some enemies where you are.”

At last, the spirit replied “I cannot stand here and speak to you any longer.”

Once they had parted their separate ways, the aforesaid deaf and mute and blind calf went with the living man up to the village of Ampleforth. He invoked it in all the ways that he knew but it could not reply at all.

The other spirit, however, having been helped by him, advised him that he should put his best writings on his head while he slept. “And you should not say more or less than that which I order you and look at the ground and do not look at a wood fire, for this night at least.”

Once he had returned home, the tailor was seriously ill for several days.

*          *          *

It is to the folklorist interesting and to the believer in ghosts unencouraging that the way ghosts are presented in supposedly truthful accounts varies over time according to contemporary beliefs. The above is an example of what people believed ghosts were like in late-fourteenth-century England and, although the modern image retains certain features (such as the association of the ghost’s manifestations with the scene of its burial), other aspects have dropped out of English folklore. The motif of a priest turned after death into a horned huntsman (shades of Herne) is amusingly ironic. The shape-shifting abilities of ghosts are unfamiliar and the story as a whole owes a great deal to contemporary superstition.

At the time, England was still a Roman Catholic country and the people were taught that the soul even of a fundamentally good man would become trapped after death in purgatory, to atone for his sins, before passing on to Heaven. The Church was less specific, however, about the appearance or location of purgatory, a lacuna filled by popular belief. Wandering the earth, such as the ghost in this story does, was one of the forms purgatory was thought to take and fables of such unlucky spirits can be found even in such sober works as Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. The means of exorcising the ghost is also in line with Roman Catholic teaching, being achieved by a certificate of absolution bought and paid for by the living and buried with the dead. A country where the wealthy regularly left donations in their wills for priests to pray for them after their deaths thought nothing of treating salvation as a business.

This world would not last. A hundred and fifty years after the Yorkshire monk recorded this story, England was a Protestant country. Purgatory was abolished and with it, almost, belief in ghosts, for the English Church no longer saw any theologically sound mechanism whereby the soul might remain on earth detached from its body. One goes straight to Heaven or to Hell. There are no detours.

It is difficult to imagine today just how enormous a psychological revolution the Break with Rome was for the English, even bigger than Brexit (though similar in some respects). Yet it was not enough for the Church simply to tell the English, after nearly a thousand years of preaching purgatory, that a mistake had been made and it did not exist after all. In some parts of the country, especially in the north, the fearful and confused folk of England would go out in secret on the night before the great Feast of All Hallows and pray for their dead relatives, for fear that the dead might linger, if not hurried on to their way.

Photo credit: The Parish Church of the Holy Cross, East Gilling (Ian S) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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