story 6 story 5 story 8 story 9 story 10 story 11 story 12 story 7 home story I story 2 story 3 story 4 St Anselm College
British Museum MS. Royal 15 A. xx. fo. 142 b
  • Synopsis
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Story III is a well-told tale involving a restless spirit, ghost-busting youths, a parish priest and a gossipy epilogue. (LR)

3. Concerning the spirit of Robert, son of Robert from Bolteby in Kilburn seized in the cemetery.
It must be remembered that the aforementioned younger Robert had died and been buried in the cemetery, but he was accustomed to come forth from the grave in the night and disturb and frighten the peasants, and the dogs from the town were following him and they were barking greatly. At length young men from the town setting forth and coming together to the cemetery said amongst each other they would lay hold of him if only anyone could. But with his face seen, all fled except for two of whom one by name Robert Foxton seized him in egress from the cemetery and put him over the steps of the church, the other in a manly way acclaimed, “Hold him firmly, until I come to you.” To which the other responded “Go quickly to the parishioner that he may be conjured, because with God willing, what I have I will firmly hold continuously until the coming of the priest. Indeed this priest of the church hurried quickly and conjured him in the holy name of the Trinity and in virtue of Jesus Christ until the point when he responded to him to things asked. By which conjuring he was speaking in the interior organs and not with a tongue but as if in an empty doleum, and he confessed his diverse transgressions. Seeing these things, the priest absolved him but burdened the aforementioned apprehenders lest they reveal in a way his confession, and concerning the rest he rested in peace, placed by God.
And it is said that before absolution he would stand to the household door and windows and under the wall and city walls as if listening. Perhaps waiting if anyone may want to go out and conjure him by his need for aid. Some relate that he was helping and knowing of the death of a certain man, and he made another calamity concerning the one which must not be mentioned by a single person to the present day.

line 1 Roberti As is still common practice today, father and son are sharing a name; the ghost with whom this story is concerned is that of Robert, whose father (also Robert) is differentiated from his son by being from Bolteby. The younger Robert is from Killeburne.
Boltebi Boltby is a very small (2001 Census: population 149) civil parish in North Yorkshire, England, about six miles northwest of Byland Abbey.
Killeburne Kilburn is a very small (2001 Census: population 180) civil parish in North Yorkshire, England. Byland Abbey has its roots in Kilburn; the monk Robert de Alneto had a hermitage outside of the village which Robert de Mowbray converted to a Cistercian abbey in 1138. That abbey eventually moved to a couple of miles west and became Byland Abbey.

line 6 canes In this type of tale, animals often have a heightened sensitivity to supernatural activity, an idea still prevalent in modern times.

line 13 coniuretur This verb can be linked to Christian ideas of exorcism. The ”conjurer” invokes God, Jesus Christ, or the full Holy Trinity in order to get the ghost to talk. The conjurer may also make sign of the cross. To solve whatever trouble the ghost is causing, conjuring serves to find out the ghost’s name (nomen), cause of restlessness (causam), and a remedy for the restlessness (remedium). (Schmitt)

line 18  quo coniurato loquitur The process of conjuring allowed the spirit to speak.

line 19 quasi in vacuo dolio is a picturesque touch. These ghosts do not twitter and squeak like those of Homer (MRJ). In Classical times, a dolium was one of the biggest types of Greek pottery; used for transporting and/or storing large quantities of wine, oil, or grain. In medieval Latin dolium retains the meaning of a large storage vessel, but it now refers to a wooden cask or barrel (RMLWL). Regardless, a voice sounding “as if from an empty dolium” would sound hollow and echoing.

line 25 parietibus et muris Both of these words mean “walls” but specifically, paries is the wall of a house, while murus is a city wall.

line 29 de quibus non est dicendum There is the same caution here about mentioning the crimes of the dead man. (MRJ)


      Story III in the Byland Abbey collection fits in among the rest with few particularly distinguishing elements. Although considered “ghost stories,” the spirits in the Byland stories are walking corpses, not bodiless beings like we might imagine. Parallels for these reanimated corpses are found in folklore from Iceland and Scandinavia, and easily could have been handed down to descendents of ancient Northern settlers in Yorkshire (Simpson 390). However, as Simpson notes, many archaeological sites have been found which suggest that the concept of the dead rising from the grave was common in Medieval England, and beliefs about such occurrences lasted well into the 11th century (Simpson 390).
      The accounts by William of Newburg present restless dead as malevolent and violent, often attacking the living ruthlessly. However, the Byland ghosts are far more benign. They do not seek to harm the living people whom they encounter; they only wish to be absolved so they can rest in peace. The ghost in story III is seeking just that. He has spent time “standing beneath the household windows…perhaps waiting if anyone may want to conjure him.” This ghost lingers passively for the living to come to him, and eventually they do. Young men from the town set up an attack party, though when it comes to the actual meeting with the ghost, all but two run away. One of these men’s names is given, while the other remains nameless; their role in the tale relies on apprehending the ghost rather than their actual personage. Though the ghost is not violent, he causes difficulty for the young men, and one must hold him down while the other fetches a priest for aid.
      Upon the priest’s arrival, we are witness to a typical “conjuring.” This practice is central to both the Byland stories and others of their kind. It can be linked to Christian ideas of exorcism. The ”conjurer” invokes God, Jesus Christ, or the full Holy Trinity in order to get the ghost to talk. The conjurer may also make sign of the cross. According to Schmitt, the process results in finding out the spirit’s name (nomen), cause of restlessness (causam), and a remedy for the restlessness (remedium) (Schmitt 143). The name of the ghost is usually found in the introduction to each story, as here in story III. The cause of restlessness can be a variety of things, but generally it is that the spirit has sinned in some way and desires absolution. A clear Christian ideology is present here, as “spirits manifested themselves because of sins that had not been expiated” (Schmitt 143). The ghosts of the Byland stories are presented as souls trapped in Purgatory, unable to rise to Heaven and be at peace unless forgiven for their sins. This, then, leads us to the remedium portion of the conjuring. Sometimes, as in story III, the remedy is as simple as a priest granting the spirit absolution. With this done, the priest urges the other characters involved to never mention what has happened again. This seems an odd necessity, but it occurs multiple times in the Byland stories. It may be no more than a method of conclusion for the story.