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Thursday, 29 November 2012

THE GREEN CHILDREN OF WOOLPIT - INVESTIGATING A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY


If we are to believe the medieval chroniclers, during the Middle Ages Britain was a land not unaccustomed to the appearance of many extraordinary marvels and miracles - but few were stranger than the unheralded arrival in Woolpit of the green children.

This extraordinary episode is believed to have taken place during the reign of either King Stephen (1135-1154 AD) or King Henry II (1154-1189 AD), both reigns occurring during an unstable time of great poverty and hardship for the ordinary masses, and it appears to have been first recorded by two monastic scholars, penning separate but closely corresponding versions during the early 1200s. One of these scholars was Ralph of Coggeshall, who, in 1207, was the abbot of a Benedictine abbey in the Essex village of Coggeshall. The relevant passage, from his Chronicon Anglicarum, was translated into English from its original Latin by Thomas Keightley in his own book, The Fairy Mythology (1884). The other scholar was a well-educated Augustinian monk from Yorkshire, known as William of Newburgh, who documented the episode in his Historia Rerum Anglicarum.

Centre of modern-day Woolpit (Dr Karl Shuker)

In both versions, the locality where the strangely-hued visitors appeared was named as Woolpit, a small village just a few miles to the east of Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. 'Woolpit' is a corruption of 'Wolfpit', for in the Middle Ages wolves still existed in Britain, and on the outskirts of this particular village were a number of deep pits dating back to ancient times that were traditionally used for trapping these creatures. However, it is possible that on at least one occasion these pits ensnared - or released? - two much more exotic entities.

Alongside Woolpit’s village name sign, depicting the green children and a wolf (Dr Karl Shuker)

One day, some of the Woolpit villagers spotted two very unusual individuals near to the mouth of one of these pits. They seemed to be children - one was a girl, the other was a boy and somewhat younger in age. Both of them were dressed in unfamiliar-looking clothes, and spoke in a language that was unintelligible to the villagers - but by far the most bizarre characteristic of this peculiar pair was their colour. It was as if they had been skilfully fashioned from summer leaves or soft meadow grass, for just like their clothes, and even the strange hue of their eyes, their skin was green!

The banner of St Mary’s Church, depicting the green children (Dr Karl Shuker)

Totally bemused, the villagers decided to take these incongruous infants to someone whose elevated status and education would enable him to decide the best course of action to pursue regarding them. And so it was that the green children of Woolpit (whose original names appear never to have been recorded) were introduced to Sir Richard de Calne, a knight living at Wikes.

Not surprisingly, Sir Richard was initially as perplexed as the villagers had been by the sight of these outlandish youngsters, who were weeping bitterly. Were they just frightened, or were they hungry too? There was only one way to find out. After doing what he could to try to console them, he then set out to discover their favourite food, by offering them as many different dishes as possible - but all to no avail. Every type of food placed before them was instantly rejected, and their anguished howls became ever louder.

Finally, inspired more by desperation than deliberation, Sir Richard and his staff brought into the house some raw bean shoots - and to everyone's surprise the children immediately made it clear via non-verbal but no less evocative means that these were what they desired. When the shoots were handed to them, however, they amazed their observers by ignoring the bulging pods...and splitting open the stalks instead! Not surprisingly, they did not discover any beans, and so they hurled the shoots away in disgust and disappointment, until they were shown that the beans were contained in the pods. At once they began eating the beans, and from their evident delight it was clear that these were a familiar food to them.

Indeed, for several weeks to come they would not eat anything else, surviving entirely upon an exclusive diet of beans. Eventually, however, the girl began to consume other foods too, but the boy refused to do so. Inevitably, he became ever weaker, and in less than a year he had died. His sister, conversely, survived and prospered, maturing as the years passed by into a normal young woman, whose skin gradually faded to a more typical shade. In due course, she married a man from King's Lynn, in southern Norfolk (and in some later accounts she then became known as Agnes Barre).

Perhaps the most significant event in her acclimatisation was that she eventually learnt to speak English fairly fluently. At last, she would be able to shed some much-needed light upon the greatest mystery of all surrounding herself and her late brother - their origin. Where had these remarkable children come from?

Close-up of top of Woolpit's village sign, portraying the green children and a wolf (Dr Karl Shuker)

In reality, however, her testimony served only to deepen the mystery, which has now spanned over eight centuries without reaching a satisfactory conclusion. According to Keightley's translation of the green children's history as penned by Ralph of Coggeshall:

"Being frequently asked about the people of her country, she asserted that the inhabitants, and all they had in that country, were of a green colour; and that they saw no sun, but enjoyed a degree of light like what is after sunset. Being asked how she came into this country with the aforesaid boy, she replied, that as they were following their flocks, they came to a certain cavern, on entering which they heard a delightful sound of bells; ravished by whose sweetness, they went for a long time wandering on through the cavern, until they came to its mouth. When they came out of it, they were struck senseless by the excessive light of the sun, and the unusual temperature of the air; and they thus lay for a long time. Being terrified by the noise of those who came on them, they wished to fly, but they could not find the entrance of the cavern before they were caught."

Readers perusing the first portion of this excerpt may be forgiven for wondering whether I had slyly inserted a description of the Emerald City from L. Frank Baum's immortal children's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Certainly, there is an unexpected similarity between this fictional viridescent realm and the supposed origin of the green children - a parallel made even more intriguing by the fact that certain accounts of the Woolpit green children have actually claimed that they were transported to Woolpit by a whirlwind, just as Dorothy and her dog Toto were transported to Oz by a cyclone! Who knows - perhaps Baum was aware of the Woolpit episode, and incorporated a modified version of its theme within his book?

Be that as it may (or may not!), it is important to note that the version of the green girl's testimony documented by William of Newburgh differs from that of the Abbot Ralph, inasmuch as he claims that the villagers had found the two children wandering through the fields around Woolpit, rather than at the mouth of one of the wolfpits. A third chronicler from this period, Gervase of Tilbury, made the same claim, and his account also amplified some of the details given in those of the other two writers:

"We are folk of St Martin's Land; for he is the chief saint among us. We know not where the land is, and remember only that one day we were feeding our father's flock in the field when we heard a great noise like bells, as when, at St Edmunds [Bury St Edmunds], they all peal together. And on a sudden we were both caught up in the spirit and found ourselves in your harvest field. Among us no sun rises, nor is there open sunshine, but such a twilight as here goes before the rising and setting of the sun. Yet there is a land of light to be seen not far from us, but cut off from us by a stream of great width."

Could Woolpit be the land of light, and could the stream be a river - or even a sea?

Faced with such a bewildering if not bewitching tale, it is hardly surprising that down through the centuries the mystery of Woolpit's green children has attracted a diverse array of theories and proposed explanations - ranging from the mundane to the metaphysical.

The most striking feature of the story is the green colour of the children's clothes, eyes, and - most especially - their skin, which has attracted appreciable attention from folklorists, and for good reason. Green is the colour of Faerie, of Nature, and, in Celtic mythology, of Death. Several well-known examples and associations readily spring to mind - could the green children of Woolpit constitute yet another one?

Ornamental wall plaque depicting the Green Man (Dr Karl Shuker)

Prominent among these is a mysterious entity known as Jack-in-the-Green or the Green Man, depicted as a shaggy humanoid figure covered not in hair or fur but in sprouting leaves instead, and sometimes merely as a foliate head. He is portrayed in many church carvings and decorations, including ornate misericords, tympana, fonts, tombs, roof bosses, and screens, and is also preserved in the name and signs of many pubs and inns. Variously classed as a pagan god, a tree spirit, or the personification of fertility and the renewal of life in spring, the Green Man's complex symbolism as well as his longstanding association in art and religion is vigorously examined in William Anderson's fascinating book Green Man (1990).

Another Green Man wall plaque (Dr Karl Shuker)

Equally noteworthy, and possibly allied to the Green Man, is the enigmatic Green Knight, as featured in a classic if anonymous 14th-Century poem, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'. It tells of a mysterious knight with green skin, wearing green armour, and riding a green horse who arrived uninvited one day at the hall of King Arthur and challenged his knights to trade blows with him. Only one, Sir Gawain, accepted the strange visitor's challenge, and promptly chopped off his head - but instead of dying, the Green Knight merely picked up his severed head and told Gawain to meet him in a year's time so that he could return the favour. When Gawain did so, his bravery was rewarded by the Green Knight's failure to chop off his head - after which the knight revealed himself to be Sir Bertilak, at whose castle Gawain had been staying while awaiting his potentially fatal meeting with the Green Knight.

Gawain and the Green Knight (artist unknown to me)

This eerie tale has a direct link with Faerie, because it transpired that Sir Bertilak was transformed into the Green Knight by the enchantment of King Arthur's half-sister, Morgan Le Fay, and as with so many fairy links the colour embodying the enchantment was green. Green is, in any event, the favourite colour for fairy clothing, and some fairy beings, particularly elves, are often described as green-hued.

Green is the colour of Faerie and fairies

Even the land of Faerie as described in traditional folktales bears a degree of resemblance to the Woolpit green girl's account of St Martin's Land. While journeying through Wales in 1188 AD, Giraldus Cambrensis documented one such story - concerning the visit to Faerie by a boy called Elidor - in his subsequent narrative, Itinerarium Cambriae. Translated into English by R.C. Hoare, it includes the following description of Faerie:

"...a most beautiful country, adorned with rivers and meadows, woods and plains, but obscure, and not illuminated with the full light of the sun. All the days were cloudy, and the nights extremely dark, on account of the absence of the moon and stars."

Nor should we forget the legendary outlaw Robin Hood, dressed in Lincoln Green and sharing the sylvan seclusion of Sherwood Forest with Maid Marian and their band of Merry Men - for Robin and Marian are sometimes likened to or even directly homologised with the King and Queen of Faerie.

Robin Hood - Louis Rhead (1912)

Particularly pertinent to the folklore facet in seeking an explanation for the green foundlings of Woolpit is their especial liking for beans. According to ancient Celtic tradition, beans are the food of the dead - the sole sustenance of resurrected corpses and ghosts - thus enhancing the unworldly aura already encompassing these weird children.

The Middle Ages were extremely credulous, unscientific times brimming over with portents, misconceptions, exaggerations, and superstitious fancies of every kind. Hence it is a very hazardous task attempting to distinguish between fact and folklore, hearsay and truth when analysing accounts from this period. The green children of Woolpit may be nothing more than an imaginative rumour or fairytale given a semblance of substance by uncritical or distorted chronicling, but it is unlikely that this theory can ever be adequately tested.

'Family Tree' (Robert M Williams)

A very different and far more dramatic explanation was proffered by Harold T. Wilkins, an investigator of unexplained anomalies. In his book Mysteries: Solved and Unsolved (1959), Wilkins boldly proposed that the green children may have entered our world from a parallel version (existing in a separate dimensional plane but directly alongside our own), by accidentally passing through some form of interdimensional 'window' bridging the two.

Other writers have offered the equally radical scenario of a vast but gloomy subterranean world linked to our own by a worldwide labyrinth of interconnecting tunnels, and inhabited by a mysterious race of advanced humanoids, two of whose children accidentally became lost in one such tunnel and eventually wandered out into our own sunlit world above-ground.

Another dramatic proposal is that the green children are extraterrestrials. As long ago as 1651, Robert Burton opined in his tome Anatomy of Melancholy that they may have come from Venus or Mars. Much more recently, the extraterrestrial hypothesis has been pursued enthusiastically by astronomer Duncan Lunan, assistant curator at Scotland’s Airdrie Observatory. Based upon the children’s description of their twilit St Martin’s land, and the great river separating it from a luminous land beyond, Lunan has speculated that they may have originated from a planet whose one side permanently faces the sun and whose other is permanently cloaked in darkness with a twilit zone sandwiched between them. As for the great river, Lunan has postulated that this is actually a huge canal that encircles the entire planet and is used for planet-wide thermoregulatory purposes. He believes that they must have reached Earth by teleportation, and has suggested that this was accompanied by a bright auroral display, thereby interpreting the children’s description of a sweet sound of bells as a visual rather than an aural stimulus.

Bearing in mind, however, the claim by both contemporary chroniclers of the green children episode that once the two began eating normal food their green skin colour slowly vanished, and that the girl grew up into a typical-looking woman and married locally (there are even claims that some modern-day descendants of her lineage exist today, including one branch in the USA), it seems unlikely that they belonged to some alien species.

 The Emerald City, from L. Frank Baum's children's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

As an advocate of Ockham's Razor - a philosophical maxim stating that the simplest answer is usually the likeliest, provided that it fits all of the available facts - I personally prefer the rather more prosaic but much more tangible explanation offered by researcher Paul Harris, with whom I have corresponded at length concerning the history of Woolpit's green children. Paul has studied this fascinating case in considerable depth, and has presented his illuminating findings in a detailed Fortean Times article (spring 1991) and subsequently elsewhere too (see my own book Dr Shuker's Casebook, 2008, for full details).

Harris speculated that the twilit world of St Martin's Land and the underground cavern through which the green children came to Woolpit may owe more to local geography than to parallel worlds and interdimensional windows. Just over a mile north of Bury St Edmunds is the village of Fornham St Martin. Remembering that the girl referred to Bury St Edmunds merely as "St Edmunds", perhaps "St Martin's Land" was her own abbreviation for Fornham St Martin. If so, her story is no longer so opaque to interpretation.

As pointed out by Harris, northwest of Woolpit and separated from it by the river Lark are the thick woodlands of Thetford Forest, at the centre of which are numerous Neolithic flint mines. Looking out from this dim, shadowy region towards the more open, and hence sunnier, countryside surrounding Woolpit on the far side of the Lark certainly corresponds closely to the scene described by the green girl with regard to the "land of light" visible from St Martin's Land and separated from the latter by "a stream of great width". And the mysterious underground cavern leading to Woolpit could be any of the flint mine tunnels running from Thetford Forest and emerging on the opposite side of the Lark.

Babes in the Wood – 1879 woodcut by Randolph Caldecott

Prior to the reign of Henry II, there had been a significant influx of Flemish weavers and merchants into Eastern England, but these were severely persecuted by Henry, culminating in a massacre of the Flemish at a battle in 1173 near Bury St Edmunds. Paul deems it very plausible that the green children were Flemish children from Fornham St Martin whose parents had been killed, and who had fled away northward into the dense woodland terrain of Thetford Forest (whose dark shadowed interior would have reminded them of twilight), but survived there for a time in a half-starved state (recalling the traditional 'Babes in the Wood' fairy tale) before wandering out among the roaming livestock of farmers and later becoming even more disoriented within this region's maze of subterranean mining tunnels - leading them ever further away from their home territory. Eventually, while wandering aimlessly through one of these tunnels, they came by chance within earshot of the bells of Woolpit's village church, and after following the familiar sound of pealing church bells they finally emerged from the tunnel, confused and dazzled by the sudden glare of the outside world's bright sunshine.

St Mary's Church, Woolpit (Dr Karl Shuker)

To substantiate this proposed scenario, Harris offered the following three thought-provoking pieces of corroborating evidence:

Firstly: in medieval times, villages were extremely insular - so much so that villagers hardly ever travelled outside their own neighbourhood. Consequently, even the dialects spoken by villagers from nearby villages were very distinct from one another. This meant that the dialect of anyone visiting Woolpit from a fairly distant, non-local village, such as Fornham St Martin, for instance, would have been virtually unintelligible (and entirely so if the children had been Flemish) - just like the green children's speech, in fact.

Secondly: there is a type of anaemia known as chlorosis that confers a green tinge to the skin of sufferers. It is caused by poor eating - and is therefore a disease to which young children lost and starving in the outdoors would be particularly susceptible. Significantly, chlorosis can be cured if the diet of sufferers is improved - and the green girl's skin did indeed become pink after she had begun to eat a wider range of foods.

(A related proposal supported by some researchers is that the green children had been abandoned or orphaned as youngsters and thereafter reared by wolves. Because these feral children would have lived in caves with the wolves away from sunlight and would probably have had a very poor diet, they may have suffered from chlorosis, turning their skin green. Moreover, in a Daily Mail letter of 2 July 1997 discussing this theory, Laraine Bates of Brome, Suffolk, stated that after appearing at Woolpit both children were said to howl at a full moon and were sometimes seen running on all fours.)

Thirdly: a centuries-old East Anglian legend tells of how two young children, heirs to the estate of their dead parents, were poisoned with arsenic and then abandoned by their evil guardian in the depths of Wayland Wood, in the vicinity of Thetford Forest. If this were more than a legend, it could conceivably explain the origin of the green children - and surely it is more than just a coincidence that one of the effects of arsenic poisoning, which is not always lethal, is that the victim's skin turns green.

Scroll enscribed with the green children's history inside St Mary Church, Woolpit (Dr Karl Shuker)

Speaking of coincidences: Over the years, several writers have alluded to a mysterious Spanish episode that duplicates almost exactly the events discussed here for Woolpit. A pair of young children, the elder of the two a girl, but both with green skin, are discovered at the mouth of a cave by villagers from nearby Banjos in Catalonia. They are taken to the home of a nobleman called Señor Ricardo da Calno (a name remarkably similar to Sir Richard de Calne!), who cannot tempt them to eat anything - except for beans. The girl gradually learns Spanish, and announces that she and her brother come from a permanently twilit land separated by a wide river from a much sunnier country.

Indeed, the only significant differences between the two stories are that the Banjos version is set in the 19th Century (the children allegedly appeared in August 1887), and the girl as well as the boy eventually dies.

Sussex-based researcher Frank Preston has carried out several enquiries in an attempt to validate this story, but all without success. Similarly, when the British Council Institute in Barcelona conducted their own investigations on his behalf, they too drew a complete blank. After methodically searching and contacting Spanish town hall, library, and museum archives, and perusing all of the relevant newspapers for August 1887, they were unable to locate a single reference to this singular incident. Clearly, therefore, it was a complete fabrication, evidently inspired by the Woolpit history - not that this is too surprising a revelation really...bearing in mind that the village of Banjos does not exist either!

But what about the green children of Woolpit? Today, more than 800 years later, they are still fondly recalled here, commemorated in a village sign and also depicted in the banner of Woolpit's church. Harris's theory remains the most convincing explanation put forward so far, but without any unequivocal physical evidence to examine we can never be absolutely certain of the truth behind this small Suffolk village's most celebrated visitors.

Yet assuming that they did indeed exist, and had inexplicably found themselves far from their home (wherever that may have been), a second link with L. Frank Baum's masterpiece The Wizard of Oz readily comes to mind. After all, their thoughts on finding themselves in Woolpit were no doubt akin to those voiced aloud by Judy Garland's Dorothy: "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore!" Nor is that the last of the Baum links.

Title page from the first edition of L. Frank Baum's novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

Several years ago, I visited Woolpit to see for myself the various relics there commemorating the history of the green children. These include the tall, elegant village name sign standing not far from St Mary's Church that depicts the two children, the church, and a wolf; the colourful banner of the church that also depicts them; and a scroll inside the church on which the history of the green children is enscribed. Walking through St Mary’s Church, moreover, I was surprised to find a most unexpected correspondence between Oz and Woolpit.

A mythological winged creature carved at the end of a pew in St Mary's Church, Woolpit (Dr Karl Shuker)

The church contains numerous carvings of animals, some real and others mythological, but one of the most startling of these, perched at the end of a pew, is an extraordinary composite beast that looks remarkably like a flying monkey!

The winged monkey carved on a pew inside St Mary’s Church, Woolpit (Dr Karl Shuker)

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends were, of course, pursued and harried by a flock of flying monkeys sent by the Wicked Witch of the West. Meticulously carved, with every feather beautifully delineated, this mini-masterpiece may be an opinicus, i.e. a griffin-related hybrid, sometimes combining a simian face with a lion’s body and the plumed wings of an eagle – yet another bizarre being finding shelter in the magical village of Woolpit.

Green – the colour of magic and mystery


2 comments:

  1. Remember, these were children who lived at a time when English differed considerably from place to place. We don't need to invoke Flemings to account for their strange language - it may have been a dialect form of English. I suspect their parents were fugitives in the forest. However, I sometimes think Occam's razor is invoked too often, however valid it sometimes turns out to be. Roger of Occam, by the way, to whom it is ascribed, did not actually enunciate it.

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    1. this green children story really made me think, wow, there are amazing things happened in this world, id like to believe them to be super true.... :)

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