Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

View of Roseberry Topping

Concerning the ghost of a man of Ayton in Cleveland

I’ve been saving this little story up hoping to come across a suitable image to accompany it.

It came back to me today, and finding inspiration, I have given up waiting.

But first, the featured image is, of course, of Roseberry Topping, “t’ biggest hill i’ all Yorkshur” that overlooks the village of Great Ayton1From a line in the play ‘The Register Office’, by Joseph Reed, first performed in 1761  at the Drury Lane theatre in London..

And it is a Great Ayton man that the story concerns, so there is a connection albeit tenuous.

It’s one of a collection of twelve ghost stories that were written down in Latin in the early 15th-century by a monk of Byland Abbey2Wikipedia Contributors. 2022. ‘Byland Abbey’, Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation) <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byland_Abbey#Medieval_ghost_stories> [accessed 16 November 2022].

The manuscript was translated by M.R. James in 1922 and published in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal3‘Yorkshire Archaeological Journal Vol. 27 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive’. 2017. Internet Archive <https://archive.org/details/YAJ0271924/page/372/mode/1up> [accessed 27 October 2022].

Concerning the ghost of a man of Ayton in Cleveland

It is reported that this ghost followed a man for four times twenty miles, that he should conjure and help him. And when he had been conjured he confessed that he had been excommunicated for a certain matter of sixpence; but after absolution and satisfaction he rested in peace. In all these things — as nothing evil was left unpunished nor contrariwise anything good unrewarded, God showed himself to be a just rewarder.

It is said, too, that the ghost before he was conjured threw the living man over a hedge and caught him on the other side as he fell. When he was conjured he replied, “ If you had done so first I would not have hurt you …… but here and there you were frightened and I did it.”

Now I know it’s not the best ghost story ever written — it is the shortest of the twelve — but it does show that a belief in ghosts was prevalent at the time. A time of high religiosity. The collection was probably intended as a basis for moral education.

A few of the words used may need some explanation. ‘Conjure‘ meant in the 14th-century  to “summon by a sacred name”4‘Etymonline’. 2018. Etymonline.com <https://www.etymonline.com/word/conjure?utm_source=extension_searchhint> [accessed 16 November 2022]. So our Aytonian might have conjured him “in the holy name of the Trinity and by the virtue of Jesus Christ” or whatever. The story is frustratingly silent as to how the ghost was absolved, but presumably a priest would have had to have been involved.

My understanding is that there were two types of excommunication in the Medieval. Minor, which is the exclusion from church and from the sacraments; and major, ostrachisation by all society. I think this story is about the lesser excommunication which can be invoked because of debt, in this case of sixpence5Lange, T. (2016). Introduction. In Excommunication for Debt in Late Medieval France: The Business of Salvation (pp. 1-29). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316536162.002.

So the moral is to clear your debts before you die, otherwise end up in everlasting damnation as a ghost.






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