Why Does it Always Rain on Me?

07 15 st swithinToday is Saint Swithin’s Day. According to English tradition, if it rains today, it will continue to rain for the next forty days. If it is dry, the weather will stay fine.

Details of the life of Saint Swithin are a bit sparse. He was tutor to Æthelwulf, who later became King of Wessex, and possibly to his son Alfred, who grew up to be Alfred the Great. Æthelwulf made Swithin bishop of Winchester in the year 853. He oversaw the building and repair of a lot of churches and possibly the building of the first stone bridge there. Aside from that, we don’t know a great deal. There are a couple of, once well-known, miracles attached to the saint. The first, the Winchester egg woman, is less interesting than it sounds. A woman was crossing the bridge with a basket of eggs. She was jostled, dropped the eggs and they broke. Swithin took pity on her and made them whole again.

The second is supposed to have taken place in the year 1050, quite some considerable time after Swithin died. It is the story of ‘Queen Emma’s Ordeal’. Queen Emma’s family life was terrifically complicated, but I’ll just tell you that she was married to both King Æthelred the Unready and, later, his sworn enemy Cnut, so there were plenty of people about who didn’t like her. Long after both her husbands were dead, she was accused of being overly intimate with the Bishop of Winchester. A man named Ælfwine. To prove her innocence, and his, she was made to walk in bare feet over nine red hot plough shares that were laid out on the floor of the cathedral. She prayed before the shrine of Saint Swithin and he appeared to tell her that she would not be hurt. When she was guided over the plough shares, she didn’t feel a thing. There are a couple of things wrong with this story. In 1050, Emma was sixty-five, a grand old age in the eleventh century. So if she was intimately involved with a bishop, fair play to her. But secondly, and perhaps more significantly, Bishop Ælfwine had died in 1047.

But back to Saint Swithin. He died around 862 and was a humble man. On his deathbed he requested that his body be buried not inside the church, as one would expect for a bishop, but outside the north wall. He wanted his grave to be where it would be walked over by ordinary people and where the rain from the eaves of the church might drip down onto it. He was buried according to his wishes but, a little over a hundred years later, his body was dug up and moved inside the church by Bishop Dunstan. His saint’s day is not the day of his death, but the day of his translation, the day his body was moved to its new resting place, July 15th 971. According to the story, when they started to move him, it began to rain and continued raining for the next forty days. This was taken as a sign of his displeasure and, ever afterwards, the weather on that day has been thought by many to determine the weather for the next forty days.

It isn’t true of course. It has been disproved over and over. Also there is no real historical evidence that it did rain on that day. It seems to have been a splendid celebration, enjoyed by all. What is more likely, is that the saint’s day has been linked to some pagan belief about changing weather patterns in early summer. There are many saints dotted throughout northern Europe with a similar legend attached to them. I mentioned another weather story in connection with the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus last month. There is a saint in France called Medard, who was once kept dry during a storm by an eagle that flapped around his head. In Germany, they have a pair of saints looking after their weather, Gervase and Protase. In Belgium, there is a saint called Godelieve, she was strangled then drowned on the orders of her incredibly unpleasant husband, yet she too has a feast day which is said to predict the weather. All these saints are commemorated in either June or July. I think if this proves anything, it is that the weather in Northern Europe is unsettled and unpredictable and it always has been. But we have always wished we had some way of knowing whether the summer was going to be nice or not.

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Birth of a Legend

07 07 weather balloonI did consider trying to find something else to tell you about today, as this is already well-trodden ground, particularly on the internet, but today is the anniversary of the Roswell Incident. On this day in 1947, the crashed wreckage of something was found on a ranch near Roswell, New Mexico. It was reported to the Sheriff’s office, who notified the military. They came and picked it up and took it away. At first it was reported that a ‘flying disc’ had been recovered, which was a bit mysterious. But the military announced that what had been recovered was a weather balloon. Years of speculation have led many to believe that it was a bit more that that. And it was. In the 1990s, the military admitted that they had been using weather balloons, with surveillance equipment attached. They were trying to find out if the Russians had developed and were testing a nuclear weapon and were hoping to pick up disturbances in the atmosphere that would tell them if that had happened. The equipment included a radar reflector, made from thin metal foil, which was used to track the balloon and the balloon itself would have probably been made from neoprene, a sort of synthetic rubber. It was a very secret project named ‘Project Mogul’. The balloons did detect the first Russian nuclear bomb in 1949, but the project was shelved in 1950. As a secretive method of surveillance, a massive balloon wasn’t really all that successful. A colonel, who had been in charge of the project said: “It was like having an elephant in your back yard and hoping no one would notice it.”

Earliest reports of the wreckage described strips of rubber, tin foil, paper and sticks. A lot of the what-ever-it-was had been fastened together with Scotch tape. Some of the tape had flowers printed on it. The material that was collected from the crash site weighed about 5 lb. There were no large pieces of metal, nothing that indicated it might have had an engine. It was bits of a balloon that had had something fastened to it. No one thought much more about it until around 1978.

Between 1978 and 1990, UFO researches interviewed hundreds of people who claimed to had a connection to the event at Roswell. They also received documents that supposedly contained secret information leaked by insiders. A document known as ‘Majestic 12’ claimed that an alien spaceship had crashed and that alien technology had been recovered that could be exploited. Then someone who claimed to be connected to the case said that there had been alien beings on the ship and promised footage of an interview with one of them. Nothing materialised. Majestic 12 is now widely thought of as a forgery, but it was the beginning of a really good story. People were fascinated by the thought that we could have been visited by beings from another planet and that the whole thing had been hushed up by the government. Books were written on the subject and a wild and unsubstantiated rumour amongst a few people moved into the mainstream consciousness.

07 07 roswellIn version one of the story, ‘The Roswell Incident’ published in 1980, a spaceship was struck by lightening and crashed in the desert, killing the aliens. The whole thing was covered up by the government. Some archaeology students, from an unidentified university, saw the crash site and the bodies. The material recovered was not a balloon but some strange, new, super-strong material. A photograph of the rancher posing with the recovered material had been faked. Witnesses had been hushed up. It was a popular book and others started to come up with their own versions.

By 1991, in a book called ‘UFO crash at Roswell’, a second crash site had been added to the story. The whole area had been crawling with military police trying to keep people away. Shortly after that, the story of three alien bodies being held at the Roswell Army Air Base emerged. It was the start of the ‘alien autopsy’ thread. This was followed up by a purported film of the autopsies. Its maker has since admitted that he faked to footage using rubber models, chicken entrails, sheep’s brains and raspberry jam. The following year, another book was published which claimed there had been two flying saucers and eight aliens, two of whom had survived.

In 1997, a book called ‘The Day After Roswell’ was published by a former army officer, Philip J Corso. He claimed to have seen the alien bodies from Roswell stowed in crates and that later, he was given material from the crash site. His job was to reverse engineer the objects he was given, so that alien technology could be exploited for corporate use. He claimed to have found technology which helped with the development of lasers, fibre optics, bullet-proof vests and microchips. Again, a fascinating story, but it seriously undervalues the work of all the scientists who actually worked very hard, over years and years to develop those things. There was one piece of equipment though, that he claimed he could do nothing with. It was a helmet that he believed the aliens had used to steer the ship telepathically. Recently, our scientists have come up with a way of controlling a computer directly from the brain. One day, it will be brilliant for people who are paralysed. They will be able to control their wheelchairs, switch on the TV, use a computer. And we’ve done that all by ourselves, with no help at all from Philip Corso.

Human beings are clever. I think it’s wrong to underestimate our ingenuity. I don’t think we needed outside help with our technology, any more than I think the ancient Egyptians needed alien advice when they built their pyramids. We are an inventive and curious people and we always have been. We are good at making objects and we are also good at making stories. What we probably have at Roswell, which is most interesting to me, is the birth of a legend.

It makes me think about the two completely separate lives of Roger Bacon, one real and one imagined. It makes me think about the Trojan War. It was fought by the gods and the children of gods and was thought to be just a legend. But now there is some archaeological evidence that it may actually have happened. There must have been years and years of people retelling the story, half remembering things, adding bits to make it more exciting. Conspiracy theories like Roswell are probably just no more than modern myths that fulfil our need for wild stories. We have no exciting pantheon of gods now, no Prometheus to bring us fire. We have aliens who bring us microchips and lasers.

Giant Nap

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Yesterday, I wrote about the Pied Piper legend, a story in which a whole village full of children disappear inside a mountain and are never seen again. Today I have another story about people who vanished into an underground cavern. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In Germany, June 27th is known as ‘Siebenschläfertag’ (Seven Sleepers Day). The weather on this day is meant to determine the weather for the following seven weeks. On this basis of that, I predict a little bit of sun, not very warm and looks as though it might rain in a bit. So no change there.

Siebenschläfer is also the name for an edible dormouse, which is a pretty sleepy animal. ‘Seven sleeper’ is also a term which had been used across Europe to describe a person who sleeps much longer that is considered necessary. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slept much longer than either a sleepy human or a hibernating dormouse. They were seven young Christian men who faced persecution from the Emperor Decius. They refused to worship what they saw as false idols and ran away to hide in a cave. In some versions of the story, they were walled up there by the emperor and left to die.

Many years later, their cave was opened again, by a shepherd who was hoping to use it as a shelter for his sheep. Or by a landowner who wanted it for a cattle stall. After he had gone away, the sleepers awoke but thought they had slept only one night. They sent off one of their number to buy bread in the city. Expecting to have to hide from his persecutors, he was surprised to find that the sign of the cross had been placed at the city gate and that there were churches everywhere. When he took out his money to pay for the bread, the baker was also very surprised. The coin he wanted to pay with was so very old that he thought the young man must have found some ancient treasure. It turned out that they had all slept for years and years. In some accounts it is 300 years, in others 208 or 180. The Emperor was now a Christian called Theodosius II and Christianity was now the dominant religion. Everyone was very excited, and crowds of people rushed to visit the cave and its newly woken inhabitants. There was, at that time, a debate about whether the promise of the resurrection could really be true. Here was living proof that God could raise people from the dead. The sleepers emerged from the cave and, after telling their story to the Bishop of Ephesus, they all died immediately whilst praising God. Of course a church was built over the spot, and you can still visit the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers today.

As you’ll gather from the discrepancies, there are many versions of this story and not all of them are Christian. There is a version of it in the Qur’an which is pretty vague about the number of sleepers, perhaps there were seven, but maybe five or three. The men fall asleep as Christian Berbers, but wake in a land that had converted to Islam. They too, convert to the new religion and can then die happy. This story also includes a sleeping dog who guards the cave entrance. In the Islamic version, only Allah knows how long they slept, which is a neat way of side-stepping the discrepancies between the various accounts. The location is not always the same either. Some place the cave in Jordan and there are several contenders in Tunisia. I think my favourite is at Chenini in southern Tunisia. There, if you visit the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, you will find very large tombs which are about four metres long. The legend there tells us that the men continued to grow whilst they slept and awoke as giants.

Leafy Pants and Angel Bread

06 12 onuphriusToday is the feast day of Saint Onuphrius, a desert dwelling hermit saint of the fourth or fifth century. The only evidence we have that he ever existed at all, comes from another saint called Paphnutius, who claimed to have met him.

I mentioned desert dwelling saints back in January when I wrote about Saint Anthony. In the third, fourth and fifth century there were a remarkable amount of hermits living in the deserts of Egypt and Syria.

When the Romans stopped persecuting Christians and made their religion legal, martyrdom was less of an option. So devout followers needed a new way to give up their lives to God. Many chose a life of austerity and solitude. They were all terribly fond of John the Baptist, who had lived in the desert, eating locusts and wild honey, before he baptised his famous cousin. They thought, all that dwelling in the wilderness had made him very holy and they wanted to emulate him.

So, Saint Paphnutius had gone to the desert to see if the life of a hermit would be for him. He wandered for seventeen days and, during that time, he came across a man who he tried to shake by the hand, but then realised he’d been dead for ages when his arm came off. Next he met someone who claimed that an angel had come, taken out his liver, healed it, and put it back. Then, he came across a wild man on all fours. He had a long beard and his body was covered with fur. He was wearing a loincloth of leaves and he was shouting a lot. Unsurprisingly, Paphnutius tried to run away and hide, but the man called him back, telling him he was a man of God. Paphnutius returned and the wild man introduced himself as Onuphrius, a hermit and former monk. The two went to the hermit’s cell where they spent the evening together. Onuphrius told Paphnutius that he had been living in the desert for sixty years, enduring extreme thirst, hunger and discomforts. An angel had brought him to this place and given him a date palm and a magic spring (the water kind). The angel also brought him bread every Sunday. They talked a long time and, at sunset, some bread appeared for them, which they ate and then spent all night praying.

The next day Paphnutius discovered that Onuphrius was dying. Paphnutius thought it might be a sign that he was to stay in the desert and move into Onuphrius’s cell. Onuphrius said no, he must return to civilisation and tell everyone all about their meeting. The old hermit then blessed him and died. Paphnutius tried to bury his body but it was hard in a rocky desert. According to one account, he stuffed the saint’s body in a crack in the rocks and covered it with his cloak. In another, some lions helped to bury his body.

So maybe Saint Onuphrius was a real person. Or maybe he is just the sort of thing that the mind conjures up, in someone who has been wandering about in the desert for seventeen days. I’m pretty sure that such a harsh environment, with its extremes of heat and cold, combined with a lack of food and water would be bound to produce some kind of mystical experience sooner or later.

06 12 wild manFor reasons I can’t really fathom, the saint who was clad only in leaves and his own hair has become a patron saint of weavers. Oddly, hairy saints were once quite popular, Saint Onuphrius is not the only example. They fit in quite well with medieval European legends of wild men who live in the forest. Sometimes they possess a secret wisdom and if you get them drunk and tie them up, they might exchange that wisdom for their freedom. This sounds similar to the story of Silenus who is a character from Greek myth. He wasn’t at all like Onuphrius, but wild men in general seem to dwell just beyond our world. In the deserts, in the forests, in a country far away that a friend of a friend once visited. Or they live on the edges of our imagination, in myths and legends. Hairy saints probably belong with all the other wild men, giants with one eye and people who have a dog’s head instead of a human one. People like Saint Christopher, who I wrote about in my third ever post on this site last July.

Once and Future King

05 30 last battleOne of my great sources for this blog has been Robert Chambers, who published his ‘Chambers Book of Days’ in 1869. It’s full of absolutely fascinating characters and events that I’d never heard of. Today, he informed me that on this day in the year 542, King Arthur died. Obviously, I have heard of King Arthur, but he then went on to describe an Arthur I didn’t recognise at all.

Robert based his entry on the account of the king written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, published some time around the 1130s. Geoffrey’s Arthur defeated the Saxon invaders and made them promise to leave. Then he went to fight the Picts and Scots and eventually forced them all to live on the islands of Loch Lomond. But the lying Saxons had just sailed around the coast a bit and landed again at Totnes in Devon. So Arthur marched back from Scotland and defeated them again. After that, he conquered Ireland, Iceland and the Orkney islands and then Norway, Denmark and Gaul. His conquest of Gaul, which was then still under Roman control, upset the Emperor and he went to war with him too. Arthur and his knights won, but just as they were about to march on Rome, he heard that his nephew, Mordred, who he had left in charge of Britain had married his queen, and seized the throne. So he went home. That was how his final battle with Mordred happened, and how he came to be mortally wounded and taken to the Isle of Avalon. Who is this pro-active Arthur, rampaging across Europe like an early version of Genghis Khan?

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s story does contain some elements that I do recognise. He tells us that Arthur was conceived at Tintagel in Cornwall with the help of Merlin the magician and that his father was Uther Pendragon. He also implies that Arthur did not die, but merely passed on the crown, was taken to Avalon to be healed of his wounds and was never seen again. Not many people think that his account is in any way true. His near contemporary William of Newburgh, the man who told us about the Green Children of Woolpit and about revenants who returned from the grave to terrorise their communities, reckoned he made it all up. He said:

“Only a person ignorant of ancient history would have any doubt about how shamelessly and impudently he lies in almost everything.”

05 30 king arthur and the giant, walter craneGeoffrey’s work does have its sources though. ‘Historia Brittonum’ was written in the ninth century. It is the where we find the story of how Britain was settled by the descendants of Aeneus who fled Troy. Arthur is mentioned here not as a king, but as a warrior. He fights, not only Saxon invaders but also dragons, giants, witches, dog-headed people, cat monsters and even an enchanted poisonous boar with a pair of scissors in its head.

Meanwhile, in France, the story of Arthur was developing in a different direction. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the stories focused more on the adventures of his knights such as Lancelot, Galahad and Gawain. This is where we find the introduction of the Holy Grail into the legend and Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere. Arthur became a wise, dignified and frankly rather dull king. A cuckold who was sidelined in his own legend. His nemesis, Mordred became his own son who was the result of an incestuous relationship with his sister. His perfect Utopian court was destroyed by his personal flaws. This version of Arthur became rather fixed in Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ in the late fifteenth century.

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During the Renaissance, people became less keen on medieval romances, but interest in Arthur’s story continued when the Tudors tried to claim that they were descended from him. By the eighteenth century, there was more enthusiasm for the classical texts of Greece and Rome and he rather fell out of favour.

All that changed in the nineteenth century though, when the romantics came along. Le Morte d’Arthur was republished in 1816 for the first time in almost 200 years. Nineteenth century gentleman built an entire code of ethics around the chivalric ideals found in the romantic portrayals of King Arthur’s court. When Alfred Lord Tennyson published his reworking of the Arthurian legend ‘Idylls of the King’ in 1859, it sold 10,000 copies in the first week. This Arthur was a huge influence on the Pre-Raphaelites and their imitators well into the twentieth century.

Arthur has reappeared in various guises throughout the twentieth century, in novels on stage and on film. Maybe the real Arthur, whoever he was, really did die on this day in 542, but we’ll probably never know who he really was. He seems a bit quiet at the moment, but he’s probably sleeping under a hill somewhere, ready to pop up again soon.

05 30 the last sleep of arthur edward burne jones

Many Happy Returns

05 26 draculaToday, it is Dracula’s birthday (sort of). ‘Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’ was published on this day in 1897. As I was born in Whitby and lived for a time in the house that the author visited on his holidays, I feel I can’t let the occasion slip by without mention. I probably don’t need to tell you his story. Aside from Sherlock Holmes, he is the most frequently portrayed character on film. But I thought I could tell you a bit about the history of European vampires and of the Count himself.

I’m afraid it isn’t going to be pretty. Some of the stories, supernatural elements aside, describe people who were not so much ‘undead’ as clearly just not dead. At least at the point when they were put in the ground. In centuries past it was not always so clear whether a person was actually dead or not, especially if there was a plague or something and you were trying to bury a lot of people, quite quickly.

Tales of supernatural beings that feed on the flesh or blood of the living are present in almost every culture. In Europe, it can be traced from the Ancient Greeks, who told stories of a bronze-footed demon who seduced men before feasting on their blood, through to the the Romans, with tales of nocturnal bird-like creatures who feasted on human flesh and drank their blood. None of these early, blood-drinking fiends were human. But there are a couple of English accounts, dating from the twelfth century which describe men who had risen from the grave to terrorise their family and neighbours. One comes from William of Newburgh, from whom we also have the earliest account of the Green Children of Woolpit, whose story you will find here.

William doesn’t give a name to his walking dead, but they certainly seem very difficult to lay to rest. The approved method appears to have been: burn their bodies and scatter their ashes to the wind. He recounts four stories about beings who return after death, get into bed with their wives, riot among the animals, poison the air with their foetid corpses and generally run about the countryside with packs of dogs. His description of the revenants is not one we would recognise from the vampire stories we are used to. They were not pale and thin. Their bodies, when exhumed, were found to be bloated and red, as though filled with the blood of their victims and their shrouds were torn to pieces.

It is, however, a description that was familiar to the people of Eastern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which is where vampires really started to get seriously out of hand. In 1656 a man named Jure Grando, who lived in Istria which is now in Croatia, died and was buried. But it seems he returned to terrorise his village and bother his widow for a further four years. This horror was brought to an end after some brave villagers opened his grave and sawed off his head. This is the first historical record of an actual person being described as a vampire. Digging up bodies to have a look at them and make sure they were really dead must have become quite widespread because, by 1679, a man called Philippe Rohr wrote an essay on the subject of dead bodies who were found to have chewed through their shrouds.

From 1725, we have the story of Petar Blagojevich, a Serbian peasant who was believed to have returned from the dead and killed nine of his fellow villagers. His body had been exhumed, declared a vampire and then staked through the heart and burned. Around the same time, there is the case of Arnold Paole, who claimed he had been plagued by a vampire, but cured himself by eating soil from its grave and smearing himself with its blood. He died and then returned to kill four people. His body was exhumed and staked, as were the bodies of his victims. In 1731, there was another outbreak of vampirism in which seventeen people died. It began with a woman named Milica, who had eaten two sheep that had been killed by vampires. When the bodies of the dead were dug out of their graves for examination they were found to be plump with a ruddy complexion. Classic signs of the vampire. Their heads were removed and their bodies burned.

Also in 1725, a man named Michael Ranft wrote another essay on the subject of ‘ Masticatione Mortuorum’ – ‘The Chewing Dead’. He also described corpses who had been found to have eaten the linings of their coffins, even their own limbs. An unimaginable horror. He did, sensibly, suggest that it might be the practice of constantly digging up and handling the dead that was actually causing the all the unexplained deaths and he thought people should probably stop doing it. It didn’t really help. Vampire mania raged on, with the dead being burned, beheaded, pinned to the ground with stakes, to stop them getting up and having bricks forced into their mouths, to stop them chewing. In 1755, Empress Marie Theresa sent her personal physician to investigate. He concluded that it was all superstitious nonsense and, in 1768, she passed a law forbidding the desecration of graves.

The dead may have escaped further indignities, but their stories had been translated into other languages and they soon spread across Europe. The tales caught the imaginations of those who were so inclined, and it wasn’t long before they began to turn up in romantic poetry, where they began to take on the erotic overtones we recognise today. The earliest seems to be Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s ‘Der Vampir’ from 1748. The first Vampire 05 26 varney the vampireappeared in English fiction in Robert Southey’s 1797 poem ‘Thalaba the Destroyer’. On the night that Mary Shelly came up with her story of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati, in 1816, Lord Byron produced his ‘Fragment of a Novel’ about a mysterious aristocrat called Darvell. Darvell dies and his body turns black and decomposes within minutes. Byron’s doctor, John Polidori, later expanded on the story and published it as ‘The Vampyre’ in 1819.

In the mid 1840s a story called ‘Varney the Vampire’ was published in a series of cheap pamphlets known as ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. It’s a bit of a confusing story, but it does introduce several familiar tropes: The fangs, the two puncture wounds left on the victim, hypnotic powers and superhuman strength.

When ‘Bram Stoker wrote his novel, he was the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, and probably based the appearance and mannerisms of his Count Dracula on his boss, the05 26 henry irving actor-manager Henry Irving. This was probably not a slur on his character but more likely a hope that Irving would play the leading part in a stage version of the story. Stoker spent seven years researching European folklore for his book and he spent some of that time in Whitby. Dracula’s dramatic arrival to our shores on a wrecked ship piloted by a dead man was, almost certainly, based on a real shipwreck in the town. The name of the ship and its place of origin are practically identical to the one in the novel. If Stoker did not witness the wreck himself he would certainly have heard of it and seen a photograph of the beached schooner taken by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. He may also have heard stories from the locals about how the ship was full of coffins whose occupants continued to wash up on the shore for weeks afterwards.

05 26 Dmitry

Also, it is believed that Stoker came up with the name ‘Dracula’ for his character whilst doing some research in Whitby Library. ‘Bram had, at first, intended to name his character ‘Count Wampyr’. But after reading a book with the catchy title of ‘Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them.’ he came across the name Dracula and liked it. Vlad II, King of Wallachia, took the name ‘Vlad Dracul’ because he was invested in the Order of the Dragon who were all about fighting off the Turks. The name ‘Dracula’ derives from that. There’s nothing particularly sinister about it. However, his son Vlad III, Vlad the Impaler, does not have a good reputation.

I’ve often been asked by passing visitors to Whitby where they might find Dracula’s grave and I’m not entirely sure what they mean. If Dracula, the fictional character, has a grave anywhere, it is in Romania. Fictional characters can’t really die though. Just open the book and there they are again. But they can be born and I like to think that if Dracula was born anywhere, he was born in Whitby.

That Time God Was A Bit Weird

05 11 saint gangulphusToday is the feast day of Saint Gangulphus who died in 760. At first sight, he seemed rather dull. Gangulphus is one of those saints whose legend it has been difficult to track down. But he was certainly worth a bit of digging. Part of the problem is that he has a lot of different names He is also: Gengulphus, Gingulfus, Gongolphus, Gandolfus, Gengoux and possibly Jingo. Another difficulty is that, although Gangulphus was a very holy man, other people in his story were not; and the nature of their punishments have not lent themselves readily to art. He is the patron saint of tanners, shoemakers and horses. He is also the patron saint of husbands and is invoked against marital difficulties and adultery. Here’s why…

Gangulphus was, as I said, a very virtuous man. His wife however, not so much…

There are two miracles associated with the life of the saint. The first concerns a miraculous spring of water. Gangulphus purchased the spring in Champagne from a peasant. As a spring is not generally something you can wrap up and take away with you, the peasant thought he had a pretty good deal. He also thought Gangulphus was extremely stupid. So did his wife, when he got home and told her about it. But when the saint plunged his staff into the ground on his own land, beautiful, clear water poured out and the peasant’s spring dried up.

Whilst Gangulphus was away, buying magic fountains or preaching or something, his wife was having a bit of a fling with a clerk. When she protested her innocence, her husband wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt and decided God could judge her. This is where the second miracle comes in. He told her to put her hand into the miraculous spring water and she was scalded by it.

Neither the wife nor the clerk were in the least contrite and the clerk tried to cut off the saint’s head. He missed though, wounding Gangulphus in the thigh. He later died from his wounds. He must have been canonised pretty quickly because he had certainly achieved something of a cult status by 801 AD. There were reports of miracles occurring at his tomb not long after his death. Wikipedia tells us that his wife and the priest ran away and then died. I felt there was more to the story than that and after a bit of searching, I found out that God punished them in a really weird way…

The wife and the priest were so happy they danced for joy. After that for some reason the priest took himself off to the toilet and his bowels fell out. He then plunged, unrepentant, into Hell. The wife faired only a little better. When she was told that miracles were being performed by her dead husband she said ‘…if he can pour forth miracles from his tomb then I can work great wonders with my arse.’ These were the last words she ever said because from that day forth, whenever she opened her mouth to speak, all she could do was fart. Either that, or the farting thing only happened on Fridays. Which ever it was she didn’t have many friends any more.

05 11 head in wellIn England, his story was once best known from a collection of poems by Reverend Richard Harris Barnham called ‘The Ingoldsby Legends’. He rather expanded the saints murder and played down the punishments, but it’s still pretty good. In his poem, the wife and the clerk murdered Gangulphus and then cut up his body with sugar snippers. In case you’re picturing sugar tongs here, sugar snippers are are far less benign and very sharp indeed. You can see a pair at the bottom of this post. They cut off his long beard and stuffed it in a cushion and then hid his body parts around the estate. They dropped his head down a well. Then, a prince bishop, who was having a banquet, sent out a maid to draw water from the well. She drew up the saints head. She then ran back in to tell everyone and the head followed her, bounced onto the dinner table and demanded it’s legs. Suddenly, his legs were kicking at the window. They were followed by his other body parts which then reassembled themselves on the table. The saint’s body then performed appropriate miracles, according to which bit of his body you touched. Touch his toe, and you wound be cured of gout. Reach for the wound on his neck, and your sore throat would be gone. The only part of Saint Gangulphus that was not restored to him was his beard.

When his wife heard about the miracles, she didn’t believe it. She declared that her husbands body could no more perform miracles than the chair she was sitting on. But she was sitting on the cushion that was stuffed with the saint’s beard. The hairs of his beard immediately stood on end and poked out through the cushion like porcupine quills. They fastened the cushion to her bottom and it was stuck there for the rest of her life.

05 11 sugar snippers