Strange encounters
The Field|January 2022
While digital demons have upped the horror ante, medieval ghost stories still have the power to chill host stories have all but
ETTIE NEIL-GALLACHER

Ghost stories have all but disappeared from contemporary culture. Sure, the BBC trots out the occasional MR James at Christmas, but as a literary and screen genre, ghost stories have become unfashionable. Perhaps, in such a secular age, many people have lost interest in the spiritual dimension. Or is it because ghost stories have been replaced by horror, tailored for audiences who have become so inured to shock that the incremental, creeping fear of a good ghost story fails to satisfy?

Which is a pity, because the best ghost stories are chillingly gripping. The brilliance of a good one invariably lies in its subtlety, as fans of MR James, the master of the craft, will attest. Malevolent forces don’t leap out, bearing the mark of the beast, and bludgeon the protagonist to death while chanting satanic incantations. Indeed, the denouement often doesn’t involve direct confrontation with the malign; the suggestions of its intentions are sufficient.

Ghost stories are also an integral part of our history: they go much further back than MR James and Edwardian England – to even before the Norman Conquest. They had been stamped out by the early Church because of their associations with paganism, but as the first millennium approached, bringing with it eschatological fears of the approaching apocalypse, there was a marked increase. As monks and clerics were generally the only people who could write, many medieval ghost stories were taken down by them. The Church spotted an opportunity to use this interest in the undead to her advantage, and many of the stories that appeared were exempla: didactic warnings to the faithful.

James himself was a great fan of one particular writer: the Monk of Byland. Writing around the turn of the 15th century, the anonymous monk transcribed, in Latin, a series of ghostly occurrences, as reported to him by people in North Yorkshire; Ampleforth, Gilling and Cleveland all feature. Fragments of a dozen of these remain and have been collected and published several times in the intervening centuries, including back in 1924 by MR James himself. It is an important collection because, apart from some Icelandic sagas, they are among the best-preserved medieval ghost story artefacts – and while they may not have the subtlety of MR James, they still have the power to chill.

This is perhaps because the narrative is in some ways quite modern. Unlike earlier exempla, the Monk of Byland’s focus on the phantasmagorical details suggests that he was aware of the stories’ capacity to entertain. As noted by author Andrew Joynes, ‘the Monk of Byland seems to have been more concerned to record the eerie, grotesque, and fantastic details of ghostly occurrences than to draw moral conclusions from his stories’.

So, in the second fragment, a shapeshifting spirit seems to speak ‘as if it were on fire and his inner parts could be seen through his mouth and formed his words in his entrails’; in the fourth, the spirit of a rector gouges out the eyes of his concubine; in the fifth, an observer notes the hands of a woman carrying a ghost ‘sink deeply into the flesh as though it were rotten’.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE FIELDView All

Stills going strong

Some of our finest whisky distilleries have been run by the same families for generations, their spirits as unique as their history

8 mins read
The Field
January 2022

Walking in our grandfathers' footsteps

There’s no better way to enjoy unspoilt countryside, companionship and testing birds than on a walked-up day – just how it used to be

8 mins read
The Field
January 2022

Scotland, Fleming's other secret agent

Much like an extra character, Scotland has had a starring role in many Bond films – but was 007 a Scot?

8 mins read
The Field
January 2022

Well I'll be blowed

Bagpipes, long associated with royal reveille and haggis, are hitting the right note in other areas

8 mins read
The Field
January 2022

The battle for birds

Part of the fun of a shoot day is letting your dog retrieve a few of your birds, says David Tomlinson, bemoaning the advent of the big picking-up packs

4 mins read
The Field
January 2022

Dreaming of the perfect pools

As your mind wanders while sat on the riverbank during a slow day, try conjuring up the perfect stretch of salmon water

7 mins read
The Field
January 2022

The hunting horn

A passionate American hunter has compiled a comprehensive reference on the instrument that punctuates a day’s hunting

8 mins read
The Field
January 2022

Strange encounters

While digital demons have upped the horror ante, medieval ghost stories still have the power to chill host stories have all but

8 mins read
The Field
January 2022

HOW TO… … plan for a year of sporting achievement

As the first page of the 2022 calendar is turned, here is our month-by-month guide to ticking off those sporting firsts

10 mins read
The Field
January 2022

Art in the field

Madeleine Bunbury is travelling the globe to find 80 subjects to fill her life-size canvases. Janet Menzies tries to think of 80 breeds

4 mins read
The Field
January 2022
RELATED STORIES

How is the hunt for a cure going?

The deadly new coronavirus arrived by courier on Feb. 6, delivered to a windowless air-locked laboratory in a secret location on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

3 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
March 16, 2020

Crusading spirit: Bunting War Memorial Chapel, Scotch Corner, North Yorkshire

A War Memorial Chapel in a remote, but magnificent spot stands as a monument to the sculptor who created it.

9 mins read
Country Life UK
April 13, 2022

Family helps maid of 6 years to buy land and build home in Central Java

Ms Vivian Sin and her family felt strongly that their maid of nearly six years, Ms. Mayasari, deserved a reward for her dedicated service.

2 mins read
The Straits Times
November 23, 2021

WILL'S BACK ON FIRE AT SLICK MK

IF WILL Grigg’s fire was only smouldering at Sunderland, then it has well and truly burst into flames back at MK Dons.

3 mins read
The Football League Paper
May 09, 2021

AKINDE HAS GOT PLENTY LEFT TO PROVE

Striker’s 500 not out and as ambitious as ever

2 mins read
The Football League Paper
March 07, 2021

HOME AND AWAY

Loan star Scott Robertson on using first team football experience to better himself as a player

7 mins read
Celtic View
Vol 56 Issue 17

A WEEK AFLOAT STOCKHOLM ARCHIPELAGO

All within a day’s sail of mainland Sweden, these islands offer stunning scenery and the chance to escape the crowds, as Nigel Wollen discovers

9 mins read
Yachting Monthly
December 2020

DOM'S ON A MISSION WITH GILLS

Striker eager to recapture his best form

2 mins read
The Football League Paper
September 27, 2020

The greats of the beagling world

Frank Houghton Brown investigates the famous names of beagling

5 mins read
Horse & Hound
September 24, 2020

The Glories of Gillingham

Discover this town’s historic cottages and imposing houses built with local sandstone and red bricks, as well as the beautiful surrounding countryside

6 mins read
Dorset Magazine
August 2020