Medieval Legends

Not many people know this, but I have a fondness for “Strange yet true!” tales, of the type that are clearly false (stories about aliens, Bigfoot, etc). Nothing like reading some Carl Sagan followed by Chariots of the Gods. Modern legends are easy to find, but older ones can be hidden, forgotten or wrapped into other tales. Still, if we look hard enough, we can still find “Strange yet true” (and by true we mean false) tales.

Robert Nixon, Prophet

Robert Nixon was born in Cheshire, England in 1467. He was said to be “simple,” possibly developmentally disabled. He spoke little. Then he surprised the villagers by predicting an ox would die. And so it did.

The boy continued to make predictions that continued to come true. He astounded everyone in 1485 by giving a real-time play-by-play account of the Battle of Bosworth Field and the death of King Richard III.

After Henry VII was installed as the new king, he sent for Nixon. Nixon was afraid to go, prophesying his own death. But went he did (hard to turn down a king). At first, he enjoyed good health with the king. But when the king left, Nixon was locked into a cupboard by his caretakers and subsequently starved to death.

Or maybe he was born in the 1620s. Or the 1700s.

Wikipedia, of all places, sums the whole situation up rather well:

It seems the prophecies of Robert Nixon were invented or modified to suit the political situation at the time.

The story remains a popular (?) piece of folklore in Cheshire. Cheshire Magazine has a short article on Nixon.

For a more scholarly look (and debunking), check out Legends and Curiosities.

The Golem

The Golem, an automaton created from dust, is a concept that dates to very early Judaism, and was certainly a topic discussed in the Middle Ages. However, the famous stories are from the Renaissance, where they parallel other alchemical ideas of creating life from nothing (like the homunculus).

Generally, the Golem was made from clay or dust (in some Jewish traditions, Adam could be viewed as a Golem, created from dust) and usually having to be returned to dust so as not to harm the household. Golems could not speak and were animated by a word written on their head. Erasing part of the word could “turn them off,” so to speak.

Probably the most famous version of the Golem story is of that of a defender and protector. Here is one such story from the 1500s.

Tannhauser, Poet and Knight

Tannhauser was a German poet who also slipped into legend.

We don’t know much about him, other than that he died sometime after 1265 and was active in the court of Frederick II of Austria. Indeed, we don’t even know his real name, as “Tannhauser” refers to a place.

In the 1430s, however, a legend appeared about Tannhauser as a knight. He travels to Venusberg and meets the goddess Venus, staying with her for a year. After he leaves, he visits the Pope, asking to be forgiven for his sins. The Pope refuses at first; by the time the Pope relents, Tannhauser has already returned to the mountain.

The Seven Sleepers

Another popular medieval legend was that of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

In about 250 CE, a group of Christian youths took refuge in a cave outside of Ephesus. They fell asleep and woke up about 300 years later. The world had been changed; Christians were no longer persecuted. Indeed, Emperor Theodosius II was Christian and involved in several theological disputes.

Upon awaking, the seven men were surprised to see crosses everywhere. They spoke with the Bishop and then died.

The story was popularized by Gregory of Tours, and there is even an Islamic version.

I love stories like this. There is something so wonderfully frightening about it. It’s scary in a way I know I can’t come true. Falling asleep and then waking up when so much about the world has changed? Yikes!

The Green Children

In the twelfth century, two children were discovered in Woolpit, a village in England. Not mere runaways or otherwise lost children, these were special: they had green skin, wore strange clothes, and spoke an unknown language. Were they aliens? Fairies? From a race of beings that lived beneath the Earth?

In 1220, historian William of Newburgh wrote:

During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering in the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange color, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations. … Upon this, one of the bystanders, taking the beans from the pods, offered them to the children, who seized them directly, and ate them with pleasure. By this food they were supported for many months, until they learnt the use of bread.

At length, by degrees, they changed their original color, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves, and also learnt our language. … The boy, who appeared to be the younger, surviving his baptism but a little time, died prematurely; his sister, however, continued in good health, and differed not in the least from the women of our own country. Afterwards, as it is reported, she was married at Lynne, and was living a few years since, at least, so they say.

After learning English, the children explained that they came from a land largely untouched by the sun.

A similar account is given by monk and chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall in 1189.

It’s impossible to say now if this event actually happened: while there are two records of it (more than many other events!) one is a great deal later than the other, so it’s possible one author influenced the other.

Possible explanations for the children (besides being fey or otherwise supernatural):

  1. At this time, England had a great deal of Flemish immigrants. It’s possible the children were Flemish (hence the strange language and clothing) and got lost or otherwise separated from their family.
  2. While rare, several illnesses can make the skin appear green. Many of those illnesses relate to malnutrition, so when the children were finally able to eat, it was no surprise their skin returned to normal.
  3. The children were abandoned.
  4. The children were poisoned (and then abandoned or escaped).
  5. The children were runaways.
  6. The story is completely fictitious or otherwise greatly exaggerated.
  7. Or some combination.

The Wandering Jew

A popular medieval legend was that of The Wandering Jew.

The basic story is simple enough: As Jesus walked to the crucifixion, a Jewish man mocked him. The man was then cursed to live (wandering the Earth) until the time of the Second Coming.

While there are possible Biblical antecedents (such as Cain having to wander the Earth), the story doesn’t really take off until the Middle Ages.

In 1228, chronicler Roger of Wendover reported that the Armenian bishop met a man who claimed to have spoken to Jesus. The story was then repeated in England (such as by Matthew of Paris) and abroad.

Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale may reference the Wandering Jew.

Most recorded versions of the story, though, are much more recent, dating from the Renaissance and later. D.L. Ashliman has an excellent collection of such stories.

The story, unfortunately, is part of the anti-Semitic tradition of the time (other such stories included gruesome tales of Jewish people killing Gentile children for dark rituals, as well as violating the Host). There is some hope in the tale for the medieval audience, in that Jesus promises his return, and that in some versions the Wandering Jew has actually converted to Christianity and now proselytizes.

There is also a tradition of “people doomed to roam the Earth,” so it should be no surprise that such an archetype gets a Christian gloss.

Prester John, African or Asian King

Another popular, religious medieval legend is that of Prester John (also Presbyter John, Presbyter Johannes, etc), a Christian king of some far away land.

Much like the story of the Wandering Jew, there is a mix of racism and hope at play for the medieval audience. He is not just a Christian king, you see, but a Christian king of a land in the middle of Muslims and other pagans. He shows that those heathens might still be Christianized, that there was something universal (Christianity) in the world.

It was said Prester John was descended from the original Magi. Or maybe a successor to Thomas the Apostle, who was thought to have brought Christianity to India. Perhaps Prester John lived in Central Asia. Or Ethiopia.

Reports of the East were often distorted; Asia (and the Middle East and Africa, and basically any non-European place) was a land of wonders and fantastic creatures. Europeans (and Romans before them) had trade networks with Asia, and certainly some Westerners visited the East and some Easterners visited the West. But stories and reports were often exaggerated or embellished, or events/animals/etc. misunderstood. (One theory about unicorns is that someone observed a deer of some kind standing sidewise, thus giving the appearance of one horn. Early depictions of unicorns look more goat-like than horse-like.) Further, fictional (and pseudo-historical) tales fed the Prester John legend, and probably vice-versa. One can go to Snopes today and see that this still happens, the confusion of the real and fictional.

Prester John legends started in earnest in the late 12th century (much like tales of the Green Children and the Wandering Jew). The accounts are what we’d today call FOAF stories: friend of a friend stories. In 1145, a German chronicler reports meeting a man who claims to have been at the court of the Pope and there met Prester John.

Twenty years later, a letter from Prester John began to circulate throughout Europe.

Meanwhile, in the early 1200s, crusaders mentioned meeting Prester John (or his son or grandson). This king (David) had conquered Persia. Modern historians suggest these tales are based partly in fact, but it was not Prester John or Prester David, but Genghis Khan. As Khan grew in power, John’s story changed — now he and Khan were enemies, or perhaps one of John’s daughters married Khan.

In the 1300s, Prester John moved to Ethiopia (which many medieval Europeans thought was somehow connected to India anyway). Ethiopian ambassadors arrived in Europe and somehow the story became that Prester John was their religious leader. By the 1520s, Europeans called the emperor of Ethiopia Prester John.

By the 1600s, academics proved that Prester John was not Ethiopian, and probably fictional.

Lady Godiva

Lady Godiva, she of the naked horse ride and long hair, and creator of the first peeping tom.

Like many good legends, there is some truth. Godiva (Latinized form of the Anglo-Saxon Godgyfu) lived in the eleventh century and appears in the Domesday Book (though this was a popular name at the time, so there were several Godivas). A Godiva, at least, is listed as a female landholder in the Domesday Book.

Our legendary lady was most likely a widow who married Leofric, Early of Mercia. They donated generously to the church.

However, the story goes, her husband was harshly taxing the peasants. She implored him to ease up and finally he said he’d do it if she rode naked through town. So she did, though after first issuing a proclamation that everyone should stay inside (and thus not look at her). One person, Tom, does spy on her and is struck blind (and becomes, of course, Peeping Tom).

Another version suggests that the people were all gathered around her (maybe with their eyes shut?).

Alternatively, she might have been clad in her shift, as a penitent, and thus not exactly naked (though parading around in one’s underwear could still be humiliating and not something one would want others to witness).

Yet another (much later) version suggests that the lord had only levied taxes on horses, hence her horse ride.

Peeping Tom doesn’t occur in published accounts of the story until about the 1600s.

Not surprisingly, most scholars think the entire story is legend, other than that a woman (several, actually) named Godiva lived in the late 1000s.

 This content originally appeared in different form on Mirous Worlds

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