By Kathryn Walton
Looking to get into the Halloween spirit? Check out a few of the ghosts that the medieval literary world has to offer. From the handsome reincarnation of Sir Gawain, to the skeletal, dirt-encrusted, toad-covered ghost of Guinevere’s mother, medieval literature has it all!
People have always been fascinated by ghosts. Tales of humans returned from the dead have appeared in folklore and literature from around the world for millennia. The medieval period was no different. Tales of actual hauntings were common in medieval folklore. Many people believed in the ability of ghosts to return and haunt individuals, places, or communities. The feature “The Ghosts of Byland Abbey” gives a great example of one haunting piece of folklore from the period.
But ghosts were also common in medieval literature, and ghost beliefs that circulated at the time shaped how they were depicted.
Belief in Ghosts in the Middle Ages
Belief in ghosts was not actually common across the Middle Ages. While the early people who inhabited Britain probably had some belief in ghosts, when Christianity arrived in the country, the new religion made some attempt to stamp out this superstition. Saint Augustine had denied that there could be any relations between the living and the dead; he’d insisted that apparitions of ghosts were demonic illusions. Later Christian thinkers echoed his ideas and attempted to deny that ghosts actually roamed the earth.
According to Jean-Claude Schmitt (whose book Ghosts in the Middle Ages gives a great overview of the history of medieval ghost belief) early Christian thinkers took this approach to prevent the worship of the dead, which was considered an inherently pagan practice. They also wanted to redirect attention towards the importance of the soul in heaven.
Belief in ghosts, however, lived on and was eventually accepted into Christian thinking. Gregory the Great composed a few small stories about dead people who spoke to the living to request their prayers. This idea appealed to later Christian thinkers and eventually ghosts began to appear in medieval ecclesiastical literature. Ghosts were understood then as souls stuck in purgatory who would appear to their relatives and others with warnings and requests for prayers.
This belief soon made its way into the literary world and some really fantastic ghoulish characters began to appear in medieval literature. There are too many to discuss in a single feature, but a few of the most interesting appear in the most famous literary tradition to survive from medieval England and France: the legends of King Arthur.
The Ghosts of Medieval Arthurian Literature
Many iterations of the legend of King Arthur feature ghosts. While the famous king is not typically associated with these ghoulish characters, the fallen foes and friends that surround his rise and fall, and the doom that he himself is destined to endure, make the appearance of ghosts a logical part of his story.
Probably the most famous ghost to appear to King Arthur is the ghost of his most loyal knight – Sir Gawain.
The Ghost of Gawain
Sir Gawain is one of the most famous knights of medieval Arthurian literature. He was an extremely popular figure in medieval England and many of the romances produced at the time focus on his adventures. The most famous text is, of course, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight which was turned into a film just last summer.
Sir Gawain is not, however, typically seen as a ghost, but in the lengthier versions of the Arthurian legend, that is exactly what he becomes. In the versions of the Arthurian legend that focus on Arthur’s downfall, Sir Gawain dies a few days before King Arthur. His death is bitter, unnecessary, and tragic.
The Alliterative Morte Arthure, which was written in the late 14th century, gives one of the most poignant accounts of his death. In the final days of Arthur’s reign, Gawain approaches Mordred’s army of 60,000 with just a small company of men. He fights valiantly, of course, but is ultimately killed when Mordred manages to stick a knife “through helm and head, up into the brain.”
His death is tragic. The poet describes him as “sprawled face down and clutching the grass, / His banners struck down, emblazoned with scarlet, / His blade and his broad shield all bathed in blood.” When Arthur arrives on the scene he is devastated by the sight of Gawain’s body. He “gruesomely groans through grinding tears” and cradles the body of his most loyal knight, kissing him until his beard is bathed in blood. He proclaims that “my glory is gone, and all my wars ended.” I quote from Valerie Krishna’s translation of the text which you can find in the anthology The Romance of Arthur.
The image of Gawain’s death is heartbreaking in this rendition. And in this rendition, that death is final, but in other versions of the legend, Gawain returns after death as a ghost to visit his uncle.
In Sir Thomas Malory’s account, the ghost of Gawain appears to Arthur just before Arthur’s final battle. In a state of half sleep, half wakefulness, Arthur sees Gawain with “a number of fair ladies,” and exclaims in surprise that he thought he was dead. Gawain informs him that God has sent him back to Arthur in the company of all the ladies that he “did battle for in righteous quarrels” so that he can offer him a warning. I am using Helen Cooper’s translation of Malory in this case.
The ghost of Gawain then warns Arthur that if he should fight Mordred the following day, he will die. He also advises him that Lancelot is on his way and will be there to help in a month. Gawain tells him that if Arthur can delay for that long, his life and realm might be saved.
Gawain’s ghostly appearance in this moment serves a kind of prophetic purpose. It foreshadows Arthur’s ultimate fate and enhances the tragedy of the King’s death (which of course happens the next day anyways).
In terms of exciting or imaginative hauntings, however, this one is kind of boring. Malory doesn’t describe Gawain as covered in blood or as making ghoulish sounds; in fact, Gawain isn’t a frightening figure in the least. He seems to be a handsome image of his former self. But the depiction is a great example of the way in which medieval ghost beliefs transferred into literature. Ghosts could serve as messengers between heaven and earth and as prophetic agents who could play a role in determining the fate of the living.
A more exciting image of a ghost appears in another slightly more obscure Arthurian text, The Awntyrs off Arthure. In this text, the ghost functions as a warning and prophetic agent as well, but the description is a whole lot more frightening.
The Ghost of Guinevere’s Mother
The Awntyrs off Arthure opens with a description of Arthur’s court in all its glory heading off on a hunt. Gawain and a beautifully attired Guinevere travel together while the knights ride out with their hounds searching for pray. All seems well, but then, suddenly, the woods turn as black as midnight. The knights dismount in distress and search for a source of the darkness. Then, a vicious rainstorm begins, and the knights are forced to take shelter when hail falls so swiftly that it stings their skin. At that moment, a fire springs up in the middle of a nearby lake. It is then that a ghost appears.
The apparition in “the likeness of Lucifer, most hateful in hell” has no skin on its bones. It is crusted over with earth and its eyes are sunken and glow like coals. It howls and wails and makes fearful noises. It is covered in “unfathomable shrouds” and serpents circle it on all sides. Toads also cling to the fearful creature: so many that the poet is unable to count them all.
At the ghost’s appearance, the spectators cower in fear, the hounds hide their heads, and the birds take off in fright.
The ghost approaches Guinevere and Sir Gawain. Guinevere becomes frightened and herself wails asking Gawain what they should do. Gawain comforts the queen and says he will talk to the ghost.
The ghost announces that it has appeared before them in order to speak with the queen. The ghost tells Guinevere that it too was once a beautiful, wealthy, and beloved queen but now it is turned into a ghastly ghoul who resides in the company of Lucifer.
The ghost, who it turns out is Guinevere’s own mother, warns her daughter that the same fate could await her if she is not careful. She tells her daughter that her own life of adultery and sexual pleasure has led her to a gruesome and dismal afterlife where she suffers cruelly at the hands of fiends.
It is a dramatic sequence of events, and the purpose is twofold. Guinevere’s mother wants to warn her daughter of the fate that awaits her should she pursue a life of sin and adultery. The ghost also asks Guinevere to have masses said over her soul to bring her out of her fearful position.
It’s a spectacular image of a haunting and one very indicative of a medieval belief in ghosts and ideas of the afterlife. Like ghosts today, the ghosts of the medieval world could frighten and surprise, but more often they were doomed or lost souls looking to warn or seek solace from those they’d left behind.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne U 964. fol. 124r