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Medieval manuscripts blog

29 October 2020

Byland Abbey ghost stories: a guide to medieval ghosts

On an overcast day in October, the ruins of Byland Abbey in North Yorkshire seem just the place to meet a medieval ghost. Nestled beneath the towering crags of Sutton Bank, the crumbled walls are pensive with memories and secrets. The dramatic outline of a rose window gapes into the sky as though crying out from a past long distant but not wholly dead. Fittingly enough, it was here that a monk wrote down one of the most important collections of ghost stories to survive from medieval Europe.

A photograph of the ruins of Byland Abbey
The ruins of Byland Abbey, North Yorkshire, photo by Eleanor Jackson

The stories, twelve in total, were written in the early 15th century on the blank pages of a manuscript containing a collection of rhetorical and theological works, now British Library Royal MS 15 A XX (ff. 140v-143 and ff. 163v-164v). Despite being written in Latin, the language of the Church, the stories are mostly set among the rural communities of North Yorkshire. They are full of references to real local places, names of people and everyday details. Their clear local roots and lack of narrative structure gives them the feeling of folktales and hearsay.

A Latin edition of the stories was published by the great manuscript scholar and horror writer M.R. James in 1922, and English translations are available by A.J. Grant (1924), and Saint Anselm College (2014). But for anyone who hasn’t time to read the stories in full (or doesn’t dare), we’ve condensed the key points into this helpful guide to medieval ghosts. Perhaps it will come in handy this Halloween...

Medieval manuscript page written with ghost stories from Byland Abbey
A page from the Byland Abbey ghost stories, early 15th century: Royal MS 15 A XX, f. 141r

What are medieval ghosts?

The ghosts in the Byland stories are not the evil forces which seek to harm humanity in many modern horror tales. They are mostly people from the community who have died without confessing sins, righting wrongs or otherwise preparing for a ‘good death’. The ghosts cannot get to heaven until these issues have been resolved, so they rise from their graves to seek help from the living.

An illustration in a medieval manuscript of a man, lying in bed, being speared by the figure of Death, accompanied by a monk and Christ
An illustration of a medieval ‘good death’. A man in bed is struck by the figure of death, while a monk at his side urges him to ‘pray Christ thy soule to save’, and Christ promises ‘mercie thou shall have’. The Carthusian Miscellany, England (Yorkshire or Lincolnshire), 1460-1500: Add MS 37049, f. 38v

The sins in question tend to be relatively mundane. Story IX tells of a ghost whose crime is ‘a matter of a sixpence’. In Story VI, the ghost of a canon of Newburgh Priory is tormented for stealing silver spoons. In Story VII, a hired hand is punished for overindulging his oxen, feeding them on his master’s corn and letting them plough the land too shallowly.

The ghosts try a variety of tactics for persuading people to help. Story I tells of an enterprising ghost in the area of Rievaulx who helps carry a sack of beans in return for absolution. In Story III, the rather forlorn ghost of Robert of Kilburn wanders around the village at night, standing at windows and doors, waiting to see if anyone would come out and help. Eventually the priest hears his confession and he is able to rest in peace.

What do ghosts look like?

The Byland ghost stories include some wonderfully gruesome descriptions of the ghosts' appearances. They are clearly envisioned as decaying corpses, rather like modern zombies. In Story III, the ghost speaks not with his tongue but from the inside of his bowels, which are hollow and echoing like an empty cask. The shortest tale, Story V, tells of a man who witnesses a woman carrying a ghost on her back, when ‘he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh’.

The appearance of these ghosts was clearly influenced by the art of the period. In Story II, the ghost appears ‘in the likeness of a man of great stature, horrible and thin, like one of the dead kings in pictures’—a reference to the popular imagery of the Three Living and the Three Dead Kings.

Medieval miniature of three living kings confronted by three dead kings
A miniature of the Three Living and the Three Dead Kings, from the De Lisle Psalter, England (East Anglia), c. 1308–c. 1340: Arundel MS 83, f. 127v (detail)

However, the Byland ghosts are also able to shape-shift and they appear in such assorted forms as: a horse, a revolving hay-cock with a light in the middle, a raven with sparks of fire shooting from its sides, a dog, a she-goat, a bullock without a mouth or eyes or ears, and a revolving piece of canvas (perhaps a precursor to the classic white sheet?).

What should you do if you meet a ghost?

The best thing to do in this situation is to talk to the ghost and find out what it wants. Ghosts aren’t able to speak to living people unless someone conjures them, which involves calling them to speak in the name of God. But if you are planning on meeting with ghosts, you may wish to bring protection. In Story II, when Snowball the tailor goes to keep an appointment with a ghost, he draws a magic circle around himself and uses an array of amulets.

A medieval picture of a necromancer in a magic circle
A picture of a necromancer in a magic circle, from John Lydgate’s The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, England, 2nd quarter of the 15th century: Cotton MS Tiberius A VII/1, f. 44r (detail)

The worst thing you can do if you meet a ghost is to try to resist it. Snowball the tailor finds that his attempts to repel the ghost with his sword are completely ineffectual: it just feels like he’s striking a peat-stack. In Story IX, a ghost follows a man for 80 miles, throws him over a hedge and catches him on the other side. When the man finally speaks to the ghost, it tells him ‘If you’d conjured me in the first place, I wouldn’t have hurt you’.

How do you get rid of a ghost?

The best way to get rid of a ghost is to help it out. In most of the stories, the ghosts will quietly rest in peace once their unfinished business has been resolved. However, some ghosts are more troublesome. Story IV tells of the particularly malevolent ghost of James Tankerlay, rector of Cold Kirby, who walks from his grave at night and blows out the eye of his former mistress. The monks of Byland Abbey take action by having his corpse exhumed and cast into the present-day popular wild swimming spot, Lake Gormire.

Several other stories also hint that ghosts are averse to water: in Story I, the ghost will not cross the river, and in Story II, the ghost screams at the suggestion of meeting by Hodge Beck. This trope of supernatural creatures being unable to cross water has persisted into modern literature such as Dracula and Lord of the Rings.

A medieval miniature of a lady encountering the figure of death in a graveyard
A miniature of Death and the lady, from a Book of Hours, France, c. 1480-90: Harley MS 2865, f. 86r

The Byland ghost stories give us a glimpse of the kinds of tales that were probably once widespread but were rarely written down. They reveal medieval people’s very real fear of death and the uncertainties of what lay beyond, but also a surprising compassion for the undead.

So next time you hear something go bump in the night, don’t be afraid. Chances are the ghost won’t try to throw you over a hedge or do anything more sinister—it just needs a willing ear and a helping hand.

Eleanor Jackson

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Further reading

For the Latin text, see:

M.R. James, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost-Stories', The English Historical Review, 37 (1922), pp. 413-22.

For English translations, see:

A.J. Grant, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories', The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 27 (1924), pp. 363-79.

Byland Abbey ghost stories project, Saint Anselm College.