Thursday, 22 September 2016

The Green Children of Woolpit: Superstitions Past and Present by Catherine Hokin

There's been a bit of a trend on social media recently for parents posting back-to-school pictures of their offspring. I'm not sure a snap of my 21 year old lugging beer back to Manchester would be quite so edifying but his return to university did get me thinking about my study days (at the same place - many veils have been drawn). His last week at home was marked by much amusement over my
old (typewritten) history notes and thesis and a walk around our local area that showed how close our past really is to our present.

 Medieval Votive Objects Exeter Cathedral
My over-confident undergraduate ramblings were centred on politics, witchcraft and superstition in medieval England. The main thrust was the treatment of women but there was also a chapter on votive objects.These examples of medieval piety can be found at all the great 'tourist' pilgrimage stopping points across England and Europe and have their roots in practices stretching as far back as the human need to look at the world around them and search for answers to unsolvable problems. Votives can be separated into two kinds: 'thank you' objects for a prayer answered, often hearts stamped with the letters VFGA (Votum Fecit, Gratiam Accepit, a vow was made and grace was obtained); requests for help, particularly to cure sickness and in the form of wax figures or body parts.

This practice has not died out and votives can still be seen in Catholic countries and, perhaps more surprisingly, in Scottish woods.  

 The Fairy House
 Doonhill Fairy Trail
The Doonhill Fairy Trail, just outside the town of Aberfoyle, seems at first sight to be a whimsical thing. The first marker you meet as you follow the signs to the trail is a cutely carved house and a whole collection of little fairy figurines and pixies dotted about the tree roots. So far so tongue-in-cheek and we were quite giggly by the time we reached the fairy clearing at the top. What greeted us there was very unexpected and enough to quieten our mixed and, let's be honest, cynical group. The whole glade was covered in rag trees, something I had read about in my early research but never seen. These votive sites have an ancient history in Scotland and Ireland and many similarities with the medieval Christian practice of asking for aid in times of trouble: strips of cloth, sometimes from the sick person's clothing or from cloth used to wash the affected part, are tied to the tree and, as the rag disintegrates, the affliction is meant to fade away. We spent quite a while in the glade, it is hard not to, reading the messages accompanying the ribbons and what was particularly fascinating was the range of beliefs addressed, sometimes fairies and more traditional religions implored in the same small letter. Writers of historical fiction, myself included, often say that people don't change, times do - standing in that clearing, feeling years of human helplessness in the face of an uncontrollable world stretching from the present to a very distant past, there was no arguing with the truth of that.

 Battle of Mortimer's Cross
Some superstitions stay just that, some get unpicked by history and explained. The three suns which apparently appeared in the sky at dawn on the morning of the Battle of Mortimer's Cross in 1461 can be explained nowadays as the meteorological phenomenon known as a parhelion: a pair of bright spots appearing horizontally on each side of the sun, often with a halo-like glow. To the soldiers waiting to fight it was simply frightening; to the Yorkist leaders it was a wonderful propaganda opportunity, a living symbol of the Holy Trinity and proof that God was on their side. I am currently researching the twelfth century, a time when 'pagan' beliefs and stories were still closely inter-woven with the Christian teachings that had overlaid them. A prevailing belief was in an underworld inhabited by 'faerie folk' - an 'otherworld' reached through caves or underwater which existed side-by-side with our world and could intrude into ours, eg. at midsummer. The folk who lived here were often thought to be green-coloured and the colour green frequently appears in myths such as the Green Man and the Arthur stories.

 The Sussex Wolfpits
In the middle of the twelfth century, during the chaotic civil war period known as The Anarchy, it seems the faerie world wandered into ours. Two near contemporary chronicles (the Historia rerum Anglicarum and the Chronicum Anglicanum) report the story of two children found wandering in Thetford Forest near the village of Woolpit, by the wolfpits which give the village its name. The boy and girl had green skin, spoke a language no one could understand and wore odd clothing. The children were taken to the house of Richard de Calne where all attempts to feed them failed until the children found some bean pods which they ate, continuing to eat only these for many months until they could be induced to eat bread and other foods. This added to the mystery surrounding them as beans had associations with food eaten by the dead. When the children eventually learned English, they talked of living in a dark land where the sun never shone and everything was green. The boy died within a year of being found but the girl survived and has been, possibly, identified as Agnes Barre who worked as a servant for de Calne and eventually married a royal official, Richard Barre. The Chronicum Anglicanum describes her as "very wanton and impudent" but this may simply be to underscore her strange heritage as faeries were commonly associated with lascivious behaviour.

In 1998, historian Paul Harris put forward the theory that the children were Flemish, hence the strange language, had fled into the forest after their parents had been slaughtered and lived there, either in the dark undergrowth or in the miles of ancient mine workings in the area, until they were found. Some of his reasoning about the children's Flemish origin has been questioned but what I found interesting was his explanation for the children's colour. When they were found, they were very malnourished and only recognised bean pods, which they would have encountered variations of in the forest, as food. His theory is that the children were suffering from what was known at the time as 'green-sickness' or what we know today as hypochromic anemia which is caused by a diet very deficient in iron and protein and causes the skin to have a markedly green tinge. Given that the chronicles state that both children, once they began to tolerate a wider range of food, lost the green colour and turned pink, this seems like a logical explanation. Not green children then, just very sick ones.

The superstitions of the past are fascinating things as is the science that unpicks them. The lesson of the Doonhill Fairy Trail, however, suggests that even our increased understanding of the world can't totally unpick us: scratch the surface and we're all still mentally throwing salt, crossing our fingers and wishing.


Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating! I was intrigued by the Fairy Trail, because a few months ago, we were walking in woods on the Chilterns near where my sister lives, and came across a strange little grotto with toys and lights in the trees. I don't know why it was there - just someone's whimsy, or something that had more meaning?

Susan Price said...

I loved this, Catherine. Thank you. I've been fascinated by the story of the Green Children since I was a teenager, but hadn't come across Paul Harris' explanation. The theory about their green colouring is very plausible. I'm not so sure about the rest.

Near where I live, on the edge of the Black Country, is the ancient church of St. Kenelm. He was a Saxon king who was beheaded and 'where his head fell, a spring burst forth from the earth' - a legend often told to christianise a spring that was sacred to older religions. The spring is still there, just beside the church.

Near it is a tree hung with rags, ribbons, buttons, small toys and other offerings. Once, passing it while walking with a ramblers' group, I mentioned the pagan connections and was told fiercely (by a Christian who attended St Kenelm's) that it was 'a prayer tree' and very Christian indeed and nothing to do with paganism at all.

Odd that these prayer trees always seem to be found in woods and by old springs and near churches whose saints' severed heads caused springs to burst out.

Catherine Hokin said...

It's a little bit suspicious! This desire to claim things does cause issues.

Leslie Wilson said...

How interesting! I didn't know about the Green Children. The web, of course, is awash with pseudoscientific remedies.. I'm pretty sceptical, but you wouldn't catch me bringing May blossom into the house.. I do find rag trees distressing, though: I saw one in Ireland and the rags had killed the tree, not to mention people had used bits of plastic, some of which were blowing around, and it was near the sea.

Miranda Miller said...

I really enjoyed reading this, Catherine. In a few weeks I'm going to South Italy, where votive objects are still very much alive. When I was in Japan people used to tie messages to the gods onto the trees outside the temples. Most of them were very pragmatic, i.e. please help me to pass my exams.

Catherine Hokin said...

Thank you - I'm going to be in Sicily in a couple of months so should also be able to see some examples. I expected the ones on the trail to be pragmatic but they were very much concerned with illness, other people's - quite heart-breaking some of them.