By Brooke Bartosh
Paper given at the 49th International Congress of Medieval Studies, Western Michigan University (2013)
Introduction: Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of exploring medieval texts is that they often have a wonderfully random quality about them, either in the content itself or in organizational principles. The Ecclesiastical History of Order Vitalis is one such text. In Book VIII of this lengthy chronicle of Norman affairs, Orderic paused in his description of the political struggles between the sons of William the Conqueror to tell a ghost story.
According to the Orderic, a priest called Walchelin of Bonneval was returning alone from visiting a sick parishioner when he encountered a terrifying rabble of tortured souls . First came a number of people carrying sacks of goods “that raiders usually seize as plunder.” Following these souls came a procession of five hundred biers, each with two souls being tormented upon them. Next followed a troop of women riding horses whose saddles were studded with burning nails that tore and seared their flesh whenever they were jostled. After the women passed by, the priest encountered the souls of clergymen. Although Orderic noted that these men were also suffering punishment, no gory details were given in their case. Finally, Walchelin encountered a great army of knights, all undergoing punishment through the very instruments of their violent sin. Failing in his attempt to capture a riderless horse from this group for proof of his encounter, Walchelin was forced into conversation with some of its members, which included his own brother. After the vision subsided, Walchelin found himself seriously ill for about a week. Finally, he recovered, returned to Lisieux, and reported everything to his bishop. Orderic ended this episode by establishing the veracity of his tale, claiming that he heard the account from Walchelin’s own mouth and even touched a scar he acquired from one of the knights.
Midway through his tale, the souls in Walchelin’s vision are revealed to be “Herlechin’s rabble,” about which the priest had heard tales without believing them. This supernatural rabble represents an established motif in folklore and mirabilia, and scholars, especially in France, have explored its roots in archaic references from Tacitus, Augustine, and Paul the Deacon. Nevertheless, according to Jean-Claude Schmitt, the first clear and explicit mention of this horde is Orderic’s own account, written from 1123 to 1137, and the Germanic name “Herlechin” first appeared in Normandy. Schmitt traces the etymology of the name to “Heer,” meaning army, and “thing,” referring to an assembly of free men.
See also The Medieval Walking Dead