In the region near the Cleveland Hills of Yorkshire, around the twelfth century or so, there was a man named Richard Rowntree. He got it into his head to walk the the Camino de Santiago, to the tomb of St. James of Compostela, in Spain, some 900 miles away as the crow flies — and Richard Rowntree was no crow. Why he wanted to make this pilgrimage I don’t know, but off he went, leaving behind his pregnant wife.
The Way of St. James was a popular one with pilgrims — so popular that some said the Milky Way was formed from the dust raised by pilgrims’ feet. But it was also a dangerous road, beset by robbers who preyed on the pious. So Richard wisely kept company with a group of fellow pilgrims, and when they stopped for the night, they would take turns keeping watch as the others slept. And so they traveled, following the Camino Real, which led them through a deep forest.
One night, in this forest, it was Richard’s turn to keep watch. As he sat with his back to a tree, trying to stay awake, he heard the sound of many people and animals coming down the Camino Real. Peeking his head around the tree, he saw a great procession of pale travelers, some on foot, and some mounted: on horses, or sheep, or oxen, or even on large dogs. They moved slowly down the road in the moonlight, silent except for their footsteps. And with a chill, Richard realized that he could see through them, to the trees on the other side of the road.
He huddled, trembling, behind his tree, trying not even to breath, in case they should notice him. And as the procession passed, at the very end, he saw a tiny baby, stuffed in a sock (caliga), rolling along the ground after the other travelers. Curious, Richard stopped the infant.
“Who are you, and why do you roll along the ground that way?”
The infant replied, “Don’t you know me? You are my father. I am your miscarried son, buried without baptism or even a name.”
Shocked, Richard took off his own shirt, and taking his son out of the sock, put the shirt on him. Then he did a makeshift baptism, making the sign of the cross over his son with water, and giving him a name. Little Richard, perhaps (sorry). Then the baby leaped up in joy, thanked his father, and then ran on his own feet down the road after the procession, disappearing into the darkness. But Richard kept the sock.
Eventually, he made it back to Cleveland, and his friends and neighbors threw a big feast for him in celebration. Afterwards, he asked his wife to bring him his socks. She went off in search, but only could only find one. Richard then pulled out the other sock, and told his tale. As the story says: “she was amazed.” Eventually, the midwife confessed that she took the sock to bury the baby in secret.
The mystery was resolved. Richard then divorced his wife, which seemed kind of harsh to me, and so, too, to the Byland Abbey monk who wrote down this story.
But I believe that this divorce was strongly displeasing to God.
This story is my much-embellished version of Story XI of the so-called Byland Abbey ghost stories, found scribbled on the blank pages of a twelfth century manuscript. The ghost stories were probably added about 1400. M.R. James first published them (in the original Latin), as “Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories,” English Historical Review 37 (1922). I used the translations by students in the Classics Department of Saint Anselm College, New Hampshire.
James was a bit flummoxed by the divorce part, too.
Evidently the wife was not accessory to the indecent burial of the child, and the sympathy of the writer is with her. The divorce does seem superfluous, since, though sponsors [godparents] were not allowed to marry, here was but one sponsor: but I know not the canon law.
Jacqueline Simpson says that variants of this story are known on the Isle of Man and in Scotland, as well as in Scandinavia. I got curious about the other versions. While I didn’t find any on a casual search, I did come across something related, and interesting: the myling.
In Scandinavian folklore, the myling is the ghost of an unbaptized child. Though not explicitly said, it’s implied that mylings are the ghosts of infanticide victims: babies born out of wedlock, or to parents without the means to support them. Many times, the babies were simply abandoned in the woods. Unbaptized, without proper burial, the souls of these infants can’t rest.
The myling jump onto the back of unwary travelers, and demand to be taken to a graveyard. Some stories say that the ghost gets heavier the longer the victim carries it (there’s a Japanese ghost like that, too). Some stories say the ghost drains life force from the person it rides. If the victim can’t make it to the cemetery, the myling kills them.
After learning about the myling, the divorce part of the story makes a little more sense to me. Perhaps the infant wasn’t miscarried, but killed — or aborted — with the midwife’s help. I can imagine that the wife felt abandoned — how long would a pilgrimage to St. James’ tomb taken in those days? — perhaps unsure that her husband would ever come back at all. If Richard suspected such a thing, that might drive him to divorce his wife. Or perhaps Richard suspected that the baby hadn’t been his to begin with….
At any rate, given the usual myling modus operandi, he got off pretty easy, I’d say.
- The Milky Way anecdote is from the Wikipedia entry on the Camino de Santiago.
- The word caliga can mean either boot or sock. The translation I read used sock, which I agree makes more sense, but boot is the more common translation, and made for a snappier blog post title.