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What Medieval Ghosts can tell us about the Afterlife

By Peter Konieczny

People in the Middle Ages told tales of seeing and talking with ghosts. While these encounters could be quite scary, it was also an opportunity from them to learn about the afterlife. If one were to believe these ghosts, then you should expect to call your guardian angel Michael and have a good oil lamp.

Photo by fs999 / Flickr

In his article, “Ghosts and Ghostbusters in the Middle Ages”, Robert Swanson of the University of Birmingham examined how medieval people thought of ghosts and episodes where they purportedly communicated with them. His research revealed that there was a wide range of opinion in the Middle Ages about what ghosts were, and offers some fascinating sources that involved people talking with these spirits.

Medieval theologians usually said very little about the possibility of ghosts. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, accepted the existence of ghosts, but does not speculate what they might be. Others believed that some ghosts, or even all of them, might be evil demons who are trying to trick the faithful. The 15th-century writer James of Clusa, for example, wrote that true ghosts could only appear to Christians, while those that are seen by Jews and other infidels must have been demonic.

Swanson writes that:

Care was certainly needed when dealing with ghosts which might be deceits. Evil spirits claimed to be the Christian dead, so all had to be tested, and could be found wanting. In 1458 one seemingly benign ghost was unable to recite a prayer when tested, thereby revealing itself as a diabolic spirit. In the the thirteenth century Jacques de Vitry reported a more dangerous case, of a young Catholic woman tempted into Catharism by what looked like the ghost of her dead mother in glory, ascribing her state to her adherence to Cathar belief. The apparition was a demonic fraud: when the woman sought advice from Catholic priests, their masses and prayers compelled the devil to bring back the real mother, bewailing her fate and urging her daughter to remain a true Catholic.

There are a few stories from the Middle Ages in which church officials determined that ghost was that of a Christian soul, and that it was in the realm of purgatory, Most often, these ghosts were communicating with the world of the living in hopes that masses or good works could be done for them so that their stay in purgatory could be shortened, allowing the spirit to enter heaven. For priests and other people, this situation could be used to learn more about the afterlife.

Gervase of Tilibury, for example, reports about how a young man died in the French town of Beaucaire in July 1211, but soon was appearing to his female cousin as well as a priest. For the next few weeks, church officials, including Gervase, came to Beaucaire so they could talk to ghost via the priest. Swanson writes:

The ghost says that he dwells in the air among spirits, experiencing purifying fires. His state is directly affected by events on earth: his clothing changes to resemble his earthly garments when they are distributed to the poor; and he must wear a girdle of fire until a borrowed belt is returned to its rightful owner. All souls which will be saved enter purgatory, other than saints, who go to heaven. Purgatory is a place of days and nights where souls are cleansed in agony, tinged with joy. The souls there receive some respite at weekends, and when masses are celebrated or other deeds done on their behalf. Each soul has a guardian angel – all called ‘Michael’ to the name the office rather than an individual – and the souls join in commemoration of St. Michael’s Day by praising their personal angels. The sufferings of the damned are visible from purgatory, but they are not yet in hell. That subterranean pit will remain empty until after the Day of Judgement – until then the damned suffer aerial torments while anticipating the fullness of their damnation. The just are meanwhile in the bosom of Abraham, pending admission to heaven.

Another ghost story comes from 15th-century Germany – Henry Buschmann had died forty years earlier, but in 1436 his ghost appeared to his grandson Arnt Buschman. “Moreover, this ghost appears initially not as a human, but as a dog. It is some time before Arnt realises that it is a ghost rather than an evil spirit, and only after taking clerical advice does he formally conjure the ghost to declare itself, allowing the conversations and apparitions to begin. They then last for about six months, ending when the ghost secures release from purgatory.”

Some of the revelations by the ghost of Henry Buschmann were similar to other ghost stories – he has a guardian angel, and part of his existence in purgatory involves him being on the Earth – but he also offers some tidbits of information about other spirits. One widow, for example, passed through purgatory and is now sitting in the eighth choir of angels. Meanwhile, the spirit of one father was serving his time in his son’s home, and had killed seven of his grandchildren after their baptisms to punish his son and other relatives for their sins, at least until his daughter-in-law convinced his son to go to confession and penance.

One account from southern France in the 14th century involved a man who could communicate with the ghosts of many of the dead. Arnaud Gelis was a minor church official in the town of Pamiers, and apparently his role as a medium was a family trait. Swanson explains some of the details that Gelis revealed from his talks with ghosts:

The earth was crowded with the invisible dead, who had to be accommodated, and considered. Even energetic walking might harm them: ‘People who move their arms and hands from their sides when they walk about … knock many souls of the dead to the ground.’ This is also a somewhat uncharitable afterlife: if the the dead fall over, they cannot rise of their own accord but must wait for help from other souls who knew them while alive. Those who did not know them simply walked over them.

The dead with whom Gelis mingled were mostly Christians and sought Christian salvation, by serving out their own post mortem purification and asking Gelis to contact their relatives to have them commission masses and other charitable acts for their souls (although some make no requests for aid). He had also seen Jewish ghosts, whose experience was different, and who remained separate from the Christians. Nevertheless, they would still be saved by Mary’s intercession. The dead kept their earthly shapes but were more beautiful. Dead clerics were recognizable by their clothing (a former bishop of Pamiers still had his mitre), but others simply wore albs. Most of the Christian souls were undergoing terrestrial purification, prior to admission to heaven – but this was not the purgatory of contemporary Catholicism. The ‘good ladies’ of tradition, Gelis said, were the great and rich who were being dragged in the carts by devils over mountains and valleys, and across plains.

A striking feature of Gelis’s testimony is his emphasis on the connection between the dead and churches. The adult dead were constantly on pilgrimage, moving from church to church to purify their souls and secure salvation (the greater the penance, the faster they moved). They had a real affinity with their own parish churches, and with the churchyards where they were buried. They spent the night in churches. Any who had not made a pilgrimage to Compostella whilst alive did so after death. However, they rested from Saturday evening to Monday morning, could return to their family homes on Saturdays, and enjoyed wine and a good warm fire, but were fastidious about unclean houses. The dead preferred offerings of oil in lamps to altar candles, because the latter got blown out when walking. Dead women liked to return to check on young grandchildren; others returned to help people to sleep more soundly.

Photo by Lou Gabian / Flickr

The ideas about ghosts are intermingled with medieval views of purgatory, a concept that had only developed in the Catholic Church in the late 11th century. For Catholics, this was both a reminder of the soul’s continued existence and placed upon the responsibility of praying for the dead in order that they could leave that intermediate world behind and enjoy the rest of the afterlife in heaven. While today ghosts are often seen as things of evil, in the Middle Ages, they were spirits of men and women who probably just needed some help.

Robert Swanson’s article “Ghosts and Ghostbusters in the Middle Ages” appears in Studies in Church History, Volume 45 (2009).

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