Sunday, February 7, 2010

Medieval Folklore

The more I learn about Medieval folklore the more I realize how little I know about it. When I was younger, I thought I was something because I knew who Thomas the Rhymer or Geoffrey of Monmouth was, but it wasn't until last year I learned anything about Bede and only until last night I'd read anything about the Seven Sleepers. For shame!
I suppose I ought to explain from where this complaint is originating. I began reading this morning about revenants, which, of course, led me to the works of William of Newburgh. Therein I found the tale of the Green Children of Woolpit, which led somehow--I don't rightly recall--to the Seven Sleepers. I now have a list of about five Medieval texts that I want to buy, which will amass a total of over a hundred dollars. Why are Medieval books so expensive?
Anyway, I decided to post some of the interesting stories I read today.
The first being the story of the Green Children of Woolpit. Apparently, sometime in the 12th century, two children appeared in the English town of Woolpit, Suffolk. These children were just like most children of the period, except for the small differences that they spoke an unknown language and their skin was green. Along with that, they only ate green beans. The boy died not too long after his arrival, but the girl was taught to eat other things. Her skin soon turned to the normal color and she was taught English--such as it was at the time. She was baptized and became the servant of a local knight. Her conduct was always considered rather wanton though, which tends to bring to mind the fairy folk. Speaking of the good people, while in the service of the knight, she told him that she and the boy had come from an underground land known as Saint Martin's Land, a place where everyone's skin is green. Interesting points are these: green beans are considered the food of the dead--I have yet to figure out why. Anyone with answers on that point is free to enlighten me. Second one: there is a sickness known in the older times as the green sickness. Now it is known to be an anemia that causes the patient's skin to turn green. I won't go into the explanations some people have given as I am the type to find the stories more interesting than the explanations. Moving right along.
The second story I found fascinating was the story of the martyrs known as the Seven Sleepers. Perhaps a Catholic would find this story old hat, but being raised a Baptist, I was not taught many stories of the Saints, which I see as a true shame. Regardless, the story is as follows--being in it's bare bones as in the form of the most common iteration: seven men during the reign of Emperor Decius, around 250 AD, were found to be Christians. This was, of course, when Christianity was persecuted. Decius, being the swell fellow that he was, gave all seven time to recant their error and return to paganism. When he saw that they gave their possessions to the poor and retired to a mountain cave to pray, he sealed the cave shut as punishment. Decius died in 251 and the seven men were forgotten, as martyrs were common at the time. It was not until the reign of Emperor Theodosius II--it lasted from 408 to 450, so sometime in that range--that the seven men were rediscovered. A landowner decided to open the cave, which was sealed for some reason unknown to him. Within the cave, he found seven men, all alive, sound asleep. They awoke, thinking they had only slept one day. One of the seven went down to Ephesus, the city from which they came, I believe, and was astounded to find crosses decorating the buildings, while the inhabitants were astounded to see him paying with money from two hundred years ago. The bishop of the town interviewed the men and they told him all their miraculous tale. The story is highly influential to many Medieval tales as well as many modern tales. One can clearly see similarities in Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle and H.G. Wells' When the Sleeper Awakes and even Transformers--anyone familiar with the Last Autobot story from the comic books? Many people argue that it gave birth to the "king in the mountain" motif, though it could only be another instance of it. It also reminds me of the the story of King Herla, though that would've definitely taken influence from this story.
For those who are wondering, the king in the mountain motif is used in stories where a warrior, king, religious figure are found or said to be sleeping in some out of the way place--usually a cave in a mountain--until they are needed. Often times, the sign of their appearing is when all the birds, or only certain ones such as ravens, go extinct. Examples of these tales are King Arthur and Merlin from British folklore, Thomas the Rhymer from Scottish, Bran the Blessed from Welsh, and even William Tell from Swiss legend.

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