The Mysterious Case of the Ghost Who Wasn’t There
By Amy Amendt-Raduege
Paper given at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (2013)
Introduction: Sometime around 1400, an anonymous monk of Byland Abbey recorded one of the strangest moments in supernatural history: the story of a ghost that wasn’t there. Nowadays, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about a disembodied ghost, but in the north of medieval England, it was an event worth mentioning. In that time and place, people thought that ghosts were what we would call revenants: animated corpses that return from the dead to trouble the living. But this story is different. This story is remarkable because the long-standing tradition of living corpses seems to be giving way to something new: the idea of a ghost that can’t be touched. Given the rather uninspired name of “Story V” by modern scholars, the narrative goes like this:
There is something else, quite amazing, which I write of. It is said that a certain woman caught a ghost and carried it on her back into a certain house, into the presence of some men, one of whom reported that he saw the woman’s hands plunging deeply into the ghost’s flesh, as if its flesh were rotten, and not solid but illusory.
Brief though it is, this story contains one of the most puzzling and contradictory moments in medieval ghostlore: if the flesh of the corpse was not solid, how could it be caught? And if it was a physical presence, how could the woman’s fingers slip through it? Two distinct ideas about the nature of ghosts are at play here: the insubstantial spirits that populate the myths and legends of Southern Europe on the one hand, and the more solid revenants of Northern folktales and folklore on the other. The two forms meet and merge in medieval sermon stories called exempla, which ordinary people would have heard every week at church for nearly two centuries before Story V was recorded.
Ghosts abound in the literature of Southern Europe. Most famous, of course, are the ghosts that appear in The Iliad and the Odyssey, such as Patroklos, Agamemnon and Teiresias. Like most ghosts arising in what I will loosely call “the Southern Tradition,” these ghosts are apparitions, insubstantial and intangible. In over fifty ghost stories from Greece and Rome, I have found only three tales containing ghosts which are distinctly revenants able to physically interact with the living, and two of them are from the same source: the Mirabilia of Phlegon of Tralles. First and most famous of these is the tale of Philinnion. The story begins six months after her death, when a guest named Machates comes to visit her parents. This Machates must have been a particularly handsome young man, because she returns from the dead to sleep with him. Her old nurse sees the incident and reports it to Philinnion’s parents, who then confront Machates. Surprised to learn that the girl he had spent the night with was, in fact, dead, he agrees to fetch them when she returns. He does, whereupon the grieving parents rush to embrace their daughter. She tells them that by the will of the gods she was given three days to visit Machates, but now she has to go back to her appointed place. She then dies (again). When the authorities open her tomb, her body is not there, though the tokens of affection given to her by Machates are.