How do you help 21st-century “post-Christian” audiences to get inside the heads of the monks, nuns and devout laypeople who created England’s great medieval monasteries? The answer, according to the custodian of sites such as Rievaulx Abbey, lies with ghosts and gore.
This October and November, English Heritage will offer free expert-led tours of five ruined monasteries in Yorkshire and Cumbria, telling of spectres such as the priest who rose from the grave to gouge out his concubine’s eyeball. The tours, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, are the first of their kind from the conservation charity and may be extended to other regions. They use dark tales from monastic manuscripts as a lens for understanding religious communities that flourished for hundreds of years before the Reformation.
The repertoire focuses on, but is not confined to, local stories. At Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire some of the tales were recorded by a monk writing on the very spot over 600 years ago.
Dr Michael Carter, senior properties historian at English Heritage, a specialist in medieval monasteries and leader of the tours, said: “There’s this question of how do we engage people and make these belief systems understandable for an increasingly secular and, to some extent, post-Christian, audience? How do you get across concepts of death, damnation and, especially, the redemption of souls in purgatory? The role these monasteries played in the salvation of souls was so important — it was the whole purpose. One way of getting that across is through the ghost stories written by the Byland monk and at other monasteries.”
On a preview tour at Byland, which once housed around 100 Cistersian monks and 200 lay brothers, Carter described the arrival of the Cistercian Order from France in the 12th century and its revolutionising of the monastic landscape. He remarked on the “genius” of Cistercian monasticism in enlisting noble benefactors and also opening up lay brotherhood to a broad demographic of men who sought salvation through labouring on the order’s large estates.
He highlighted the Cistercians’ strict regime and medieval concepts of sin and purgatory by telling the story of Gertrude, a girl said to have died at a Cistercian convent aged nine. The 13th-century German Cistercian Caesarius of Heisterbach reported that, after her death, Gertrude was seen by her young friend Margaret to enter the choir, bow before the altar and assume her usual place in the choir stalls.
When the spirit returned the following day, the terrified Margaret asked her what she wanted. According to the translation from the German by H von E Scott and CC Swinton Bland, Gertrude replied: “I came her to make atonement; for I whispered with you in the choir at will . . . therefore I have been ordered to make atonement in the same place that I sinned. And unless you beware of the same fault, when you die, you will suffer the same punishment.” After Gertrude had made atonement, she told her young friend: “Now I have completed my atonement; in future you will not see me.” Then, still looking at Margaret, she went towards the cemetery, passing through the wall by supernatural power.
“Such was the purgatory of that maiden,” Heisterbach added.
Carter said: “I do think it gives an insight of the hardness of the monastic life and the constant state of vigilance they had to be in that they could risk this punishment for what we would consider to be a very minor violation.”
“It shows a kind of subtlety in medieval belief”Dr Michael Carter
As at all the sites, enough of Byland’s fabric remains to show the scale of the buildings and magnificence of their architecture. Standing at the site of the abbey’s library, Carter spoke about 12 ghost stories recorded in a manuscript once kept there and later transcribed and published by ghost story author M.R. James in 1922. The stories were written by one of the monks around 1400, on blank spaces in an earlier book containing works by classical authors. Carter said they had “markers of authenticity” throughout, containing the names of real people and beginning with phrases such as “The old people say” or “During the reign of the late King Richard [II]”.
One story involves a sinning canon of nearby Newburgh Priory. In the tale, a man was ploughing when he was accosted and wrestled by a spirt that appeared in the field. After overcoming the spirit, the labourer urged it to reveal its identity and the spirit said he was a former canon who was excommunicated for stealing some spoons. He asked the labourer to tell Newburgh’s prior where he had hidden the spoons and to beseech him for absolution. This was done, absolution was arranged and the spirit could rest in peace.
Carter said the story showed that medieval religious thought could be more flexible and merciful than we might imagine. “This guy had died, probably with an unconfessed sin upon his soul. In Catholic theology, theft is a mortal sin as well. He should have been condemned to burn forever in hell. But here in the story, interestingly, he’s been provided with an opportunity for postmortem absolution, forgiveness of his sins and to find rest. It shows a kind of subtlety in medieval belief, a certain compassion in belief too — that actually there’s still a get out of jail free card there, things can be put right. And it’s showing what the living can still do for the dead.”
At Byland’s chapter house, Carter explained the room’s importance within the abbey before relating it to the ghostly theme. He told the tale — recorded by the Byland monk — of James Tankerlay, a former rector of nearby Kirby who was buried in a place of honour on the chapter house threshold. Tankerlay was said to have risen from his grave to visit Kirby by night and to have removed the eye of his former mistress there. Learning of this atrocity, the abbot ordered that the sinning priest’s body should be dug up and dumped in a nearby lake. The oxen drawing the wagon carrying Tankerlay’s coffin allegedly panicked on entering the water and almost drowned through fear.
Carter said: “We’ve got a different kind of ghost here. These are revenants: fouled, almost demonic bodies, rising bodily from their grave and capable of doing harm. Other ghosts could be appeased by pious prayer. There was no such remedy for revenants. They’re like Dracula to an extent.”
On another preview tour, at Rievaulx Abbey, in North Yorkshire, the first Cistercian monastery in northern England, Carter described a visitation by the devil during the 1160s when the community was around 650-strong. A 12th-century account states that two monks bellowed dreadfully in their dormitory one night. Their groans echoed around the abbey and someone informed the abbot, Ælred, the next day. Ælred declared that the devil had attempted to seduce the brethren but had been forced to depart in confusion. Nevertheless, he said that someone had given in “a little”.
Carter said: “I don’t think it takes too much imagination to work out what might have been on the minds of monastic authors — what might have been going on the dormitory. Solitary sin, probably. There are numerous stories of this kind in medieval literature, of the devil coming to individual monks in a dormitory. It’s a warning to be ever vigilant. It isn’t just that you’ve experienced human desire or are of human frailty, or even that you’re finding your life as a monk difficult. No, it’s the devil himself who is coming to you.”
Carter will lead the ghost tours alongside Professor Dale Townshend, of Manchester Metropolitan University, who will talk about ghost stories in the context of gothic literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. The tours are free but visitors have to pay entry fees at some sites. It is not necessary to book.
1 October – 10.30am
2 October – 12pm
8 October – 10.30am
9 October – 12pm
5 November – 11am
6 November – 12pm
12 November – 11am
19 November – 11am
26 November – 11am
27 November – 12pm
The top image shows visitors at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. Photo: English Heritage.