On the Shelf – Medieval Ghost Stories

One book I’ve been dipping into over the past couple weeks is Medieval Ghost Stories by Andrew Joynes. The title is something of a misnomer, as this is really an anthology of what we might call supernatural tales not primarily based around miraculous events. Thus, the book doesn’t contain stories about saints and miracles, save only as they relate to other supernatural elements, be they ghosts or werewolves or black dogs or Grendel himself.

The tales, mostly excerpts from longer works, cover a wide variety of genres. Some are tales of monks written to emphasize the value of charity and moral behavior. Others are Scandinavian tales of draugr, the living dead, which play up the virtues of fighting men and traditional methods of handling these fiends over Christian prayer. Yet others are intended for amusement at court, whether for discussions of philosophy or demonstrations of the ethos of courtly love.

As stories judged on their merits for modern readers, the quality often varies. Still, there are a great number of them, so it’s likely most readers will find some that fit with their interests. One of mine is the fourteen-century monk of Byland’s “The Haunting of Snowball”, the tale of a tailor who encounters a ghost and sets about acquiring the masses and other requirements it needs to send it to the next life. In a later encounter, he draws a magic circle on the ground and converses with this ghost and others, who inform him on such questions as what his biggest problem is:

people mistakenly say of you that you go about consorting with the dead…

You tell them, Ghost-Standing-Outside-A-Magic-Circle! Nonetheless, it’s an interesting depiction of the popular ideas about spirit summoning that would have existed at the time of writing.

If you’re interested in ghost stories, or medieval narratives, this is a great book. Casual readers might get less out of it, but I don’t think there’s too many of them reading this to begin with.

Published in: on February 9, 2008 at 1:38 am  Leave a Comment  

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