Tag Archives: Saint Modwenna

Revenants revisited

Last week, the Medieval and Ancient Research Centre at Sheffield held an event marking the Norman Conquest.[1] I offered to speak about a peculiar case of vampires or revenants in the Derbyshire villages of Stapenhill and Drakelow (which I’ve touched on before elsewhere in a different format), and to explore its connection to the Norman Conquest. As I started to put the talk together, I briefly regretted my decision. After all, what can a ghost story about events in the 1090s, as told in the 1130s, have to do with 1066 and all that? Happily enough, a little preliminary research has showed that it’s rather more than one might imagine, shedding fresh light on this very mysterious episode.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, the story goes something like this (you can read a translation of the original text here). Around 1090, two villagers from Stapenhill, owned by the abbey of Burton, fled to the neighbouring village of Drakelow, which was owned by a prominent Norman aristocrat called Roger. Roger helped them out by plundering the abbot’s lands, but desisted after his men were (miraculously) beaten in battle by the abbot of Burton’s forces. Meanwhile, the two troublesome villagers mysteriously died. They were immediately buried at Stapenhill. But…

…. The very same evening of their burial, they reappeared at Drakelow, carrying their coffins on their backs. The pair proceeded to haunt the village over the next few weeks, until hardly anyone was left living there. Eventually their corpses were disinterred and ceremonially mutilated, which put an end to the nightly visitations, though Drakelow itself was nevertheless abandoned as a settlement.

So much for the story. As it happens, we have a very good idea of what the two villagers had been running away from, because the abbey of Burton produced an estate survey listing the dues of the peasants in Stapenhill around the 1130s. The dozen or so residents that this survey names must have heard of, and some might even have remembered, the peculiar events of a generation earlier. What’s more, the estate survey was organised by the very same person who wrote the ghost story for us, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton. This raises all kinds of methodological questions (which I hope to explore in greater detail on another occasion).

But what has all this got to do with the Norman Conquest? At first sight, not much. The Normans did not introduce the kinds of obligations that the Stapenhill peasants were fleeing (weekly labour for their lords, dues in kind, etc), though they might perhaps have helped intensify them. Nor did they introduce ideas about ghosts or revenants. Both these things were present in England before as after 1066 (as John Blair, for instance, has explored).

However, the plot thickens if we look at the history of the villages concerned. Domesday Book tells us that before the Conquest,  Drakelow had been owned by an Englishman named Alric. Most of Stapenhill was owned by the monastery of Burton, but another Englishman, Godric, owned a parcel of land there as well. He may well have been a retainer of the monastery, or linked in some way, since his lands intersected with the monastery elsewhere too. After the Conquest, however,  a Norman named Nigel de Stafford somehow ‘inherited’ the lands of both Godric and Alric. And it seems that these consolidated rights passed onto Roger, who was a real mover and shaker in early Anglo-Norman England.

That means that, as a direct consequence of 1066, there was in 1090 a very powerful aristocrat whose rights overlapped with those of the monastery’s at Stapenhill, and who also owned outright another estate just next to it, Drakelow. This is probably why the villagers fled from Stapenhill to Drakelow: something our story doesn’t itself explain. Either the peasants were taking advantage of the situation to negotiate a better deal with a plausible patron who might have relished the excuse to take on the monastery; or they were innocently caught in the cross-fire as Roger and the abbey squared off (who knows, maybe they really were Roger’s tenants).

Ghost stories and revenants can often be connected with social tensions of some kind or other: in this specific case, they are associated with stress caused by the face-off between two powerful landowners, stress that was an indirect result of the slaughter of Hastings, which had created a tenurial shake-up (Domesday mentions that the abbot of Burton was involved in disputes over land at Derbyshire, providing further context). This makes the story a good illustration of how political events at the “top” could trickle-down with unexpected implications for the “bottom”. Medieval society was more integrated than it might sometimes seem.

But there’s another Norman Conquest dimension to the tale. Why did our author, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton, record it in the first place? The answer is that it was proof of the power of Saint Modwenna, whose relics Burton housed. Saint Modwenna is a shadowy figure, about whom we know very little (though we assume that she was an obscure Anglo-Saxon saint).  But not much more was known in the twelfth century either. When Geoffrey arrived as abbot at Burton c. 1114, no one seems to have known anything about these relics. That was why Geoffrey set about establishing Modwenna’s cult, not least by writing down her life – in reality mostly copied from an Irish text (!) – and including some more recent miracles.

It seems to have bothered Abbot Geoffrey, in other words, that his monastery’s Modwenna was so mysterious. This doesn’t however seem to have bothered earlier Burton abbots.  Maybe information about her had been lost as the monastery “Normanised”. More likely, Modwenna had always been fairly shadowy, but this was more of a problem for “incomers” than it had been for incumbents, for whom the relics had always been there and therefore didn’t require any explaining.

So, just as the events that Abbot Geoffrey documented were in some way linked to the tenurial reshuffle indirectly caused by the Conquest, so his eagerness to record them (and our knowledge of them) might reflect an attempt to plug a “cultural gap” that had opened up as a consequence of the changes the Normans imposed on the Church, at least in personnel terms.

This isn’t the only evidence in the story for a cultural gap, though. As it happens, the name Drakelow actually means “Dragon’s Mound”: an extremely ominous place name. [2] The peasants themselves would surely have known this – they were after all English-speakers – so we may imagine that their own interpretation of events might have been different from the abbot’s. Did Abbot Geoffrey not mention this fact because, as a French-speaker, he didn’t realise – or did he simply prefer a different spin on things? Further research will help to elucidate this and other puzzles.

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Update: you can see a page of the British Library’s copy of the Modwenna text here

The text itself is translated and edited by Robert Bartlett, Geoffrey of Burton: Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford, 2002). For further work on the social context of “strange happenings” in the Middle Ages, see M. Innes and C. West, ‘Saints and Demons in the Carolingian Countryside’, in Steffen Patzold and Bernhard Zeller (eds.), Kleine Welten. Ländliche Gesellschaften im Karolingerreich (forthcoming).

[1] Impeccably organised by Alyx Mattison and James Chetwood.

[2] Thanks to Matt Innes for pointing this out to me.  See http://kepn.nottingham.ac.uk/ for the details.