Sunday, October 30, 2011

THE WITCH OF BERKELEY: A 12th century shiver tale for Halloween

mid 15thC witches
take to the air!
I thought in the spirit of the season, I'd post a witchy story told in The Deeds of the Kings of England (De Gestis Regum Anglorum) by William of Malmsbury circa 1125. (The monk responsible for the Historia Novela, dedicated to Robert of Gloucester and a chronicle pro the Angevin cause during the anarchy).   It's an anecdotal account, but William presents it as being just as true as the details of the kings whose lives he is chronichling. It's fascinating to look at primary source beliefs, folk rituals, and political slants on matters - enjoy!

THE WITCH OF BERKELEY.

... At this time and event occurred in England which was not a celestial miracle, but an infernal wonder. I am sure none of my listeners will doubt the story, although they might in fact wonder at it. I heard of these events from a distinguished man who swore he had seen them for himself, and I will be ashamed not to believe him…
… In Berkeley there was a woman who, so it was later said, was accustomed to wickedness and to the practice of ancient methods of augury and soothsaying. She was a creature of immodesty, who indulged her appetites. She had taken no heed scandal throughout her life but she was beginning to grow old and fearful of the battering footsteps of death. One day, as she was dining, a little crow which she kept as a pet uttered a cry that sounded like human speech. This startled her so much that she dropped her knife. Groaning sorrowfully, her face suddenly grown pale, she said: ‘Today my plough has turned its final furrow. I am about to hear and undergo great sorrow.’ At that moment, a messenger arrived, and hesitantly gave her the news of the death of her son, and the catastrophic annihilation of all her family's hopes.
            Wounded to the very heart, the woman took to her bed and, pained by a deadly sickness, summoned her remaining children, a monk and a nun. In a gasping voice, she said: ‘My children, I have enslaved myself to the artifice of the devil and have been the mistress of forbidden things. But despite my evil doings, I have always been accustomed to hope that my miserable soul might be eased in the end by the comforts of your religion. In my desperate straits, I always thought of you both as my champions against the demons, and my guardians against the most savage enemy. Now, as I end my life, I am likely to face the prospect of being tortured and punished by those very beings who used to be my advisers in sin. I implore you, therefore - I who brought you into the world and suckled you - to do all that you can from faith and pity to alleviate my coming torment. I do not expect that you can deflect the true judgement from my soul, but perhaps you can help me by attending to my body in the following way. Sew me up in the hide of a deer, and then place me face upwards in a stone sarcophagus, the lid sealed with lead and iron. Bind the stone with three heavy iron chains, and let there be 50 Psalms sung each night, and masses said each day to lessen the ferocious attacks of my enemies When I have lain secure in this way for three nights, bury me on the fourth day - although so grave are my sins, I fear the Earth itself might refuse to receive me to it's warming bosom.’
            All was done as she directed, her children attending the matter with great zeal and affection. But such had been her wickedness that no amount of piety and prayer availed against the violence of the devil. On the first and second night in vigil when choirs of clerics had gathered to sing melodious psalms around her bier, demons pulled apart the outer edges of the door of the church, which had been bolted with an iron bar, although the central part of the door which was of a more elaborate construction held fast). On the third night, around cock-crow, the enemy arrived making the most terrible noise, and all of the monastery was shaken to its foundations. One demonic creature larger and more terrible than the others, threw down the entrance door which was shattered into fragments. The priests stood rigid with dread, hair on end and voices stopped in their throats as the creature approached the sarcophagus with an arrogant swagger. The creature called the woman by name and ordered her to rise up, to which the reply came she was unable to do so because of the chains that bound the sarcophagus. ‘By the power of your sins you will be unbound,’ said the demon, and at once pulled apart the iron chain as though it were no more than a cord of flax. The coffin lid was thrown off, and the woman was seized and dragged out of the church before the horrified gaze of the observers. Outside the portals of the church a fierce black horse stood neighing with iron barbs protruding from along the length of its back. Onto these hooks the woman was placed, and the entire demonic retinue quickly disappeared from sight, although their cries of triumph and the woman's pleas for mercy could be heard up to 4 miles away.
            These events will not be thought incredible by anyone who has read the dialogues of the blessed Pope Gregory, who tells of the wicked man who was buried in a church and who was then passed out of it by demons. Among the French also the story is often told of Charles Martel, a man of such great prowess during his life that he forced the Saracens to retreat to Spain after their invasion of Gaul. Ending his days, he was buried in the church of St Denis, but because he had plundered the estates of almost all the monasteries of Gaul to pay his soldiers, his body was snatched from his tomb, and has never been seen since. This was later revealed by the Bishop of Orleans and the story has become widely known…

5 comments:

Korinna said...

Love this story! I also enjoyed the "hidden moral" of the last story reported by the Bishop of Orleans (Don't plunder monasteries.)

Sophia Rose said...

Wow! I don't think I'd care to witness that first hand.

Ammy Belle said...

Gotta love those old fashioned tales of horror and dread - thanks for sharing! :D

Geri the history lady said...

Excellent tale! Of course the church is showing that you CAN repent too late.

Steve Skarratt said...

When I was 16, we were staying at a site owned by Birmingham City Council Education department at Sharpness. We had a trip to Berkeley Castle and Church, and this story was told to us at about 4pm, late November whilst we were sitting in the church where it was supposed to have happened. It was getting dark, and the weather was poor so easy to imagine it all. Made a huge impression at the time.