Monday, March 13, 2006

The Green Children


Here, as an early Saint Patrick's day post, is a story I'm working on from William of Newburgh's History of English Affairs. I'll be delivering a lecture on it at this conference on March 17. It is a truly weird story that deeply disturbed William.

The narrative of the Green Children (De viridibus pueris, Historia 1.27) in William of Newburgh's wide-eyed account:

In East Anglia there is a village which is said to lie four or five miles from the famous monastery of the blessed king and martyr Edmund. Close to the village some very ancient ditches are visible. In English they are called Wlfpittes or wolf-ditches, and they lend their name to the village close by [modern Woolpit, in Sussex, a village that now uses this story to attract tourists]. At harvest-time, when the harvesters were busy in the fields gathering the crops, two children, a boy and a girl, emerged from these ditches. Their entire bodies were green, and they were wearing clothes of unusual colour and unknown material. As they wandered bemused over the countryside, they were seized by the reapers and led to the village. Many people flocked to observe this most unusual sight, and for several days they were kept without food. So they were now almost fainting with hunger, yet they paid no attention to any food offered to them. It then chanced that beans were brought in from the fields; they at once grabbed these, and looked for the beans in the stalks, but when they found nothing in the hollow of the stalks they wept bitterly. Then one of the bystanders pulled the beans from the pods and offered them to the children, who at once gleefully took and ate them.

For several months they were nourished by this food until they learned to eat bread. In the end they gradually lost their own colour when the qualities of our foodstuffs had their effect. They became like us, and also learned the use of our speech. Persons of prudence decided that they should receive the sacrament of holy baptism, and this was also administered. But the boy, who seemed to be younger, lived only a short time after baptism and then died prematurely, whereas the girl continued unaffected, differing not even in the slightest way from the women of our kind. She certainly took a husband later at Lynn, according to the story, and was said to be living a few years ago.

Once they had the use of our language, they were asked who they were and where they came from. They are said to have replied: 'We are people from Saint Martin's land; he is accorded special reverence in the country of our birth.' When they were next asked where that land was, and how they had come from there to Woolpit, they said: "We do not know either of these things. All we remember is that one day we were pasturing our father's flocks in the fields, when we heard a mighty din such as we often hear at St. Edmund's when they say the bells are ringing out. When we turned our attention to the sound which caused us surprise, it was as though we were out of our minds, for we suddenly found ourselves among you in the fields where you were harvesting." When they were asked whether people believed in Christ there, or whether the sun rose, they said that it was a Christian country and had churches. "But the sun does not rise among the natives of our land," they said "and it obtains very little light from the sun's rays, but is satisfied with the measure of its brightness which in your country precedes its rising or follows its setting. Moreover a shining land is visible not far from our own, but a very broad river divides the two." They are said to have made these and many other replies too long to narrate to interested enquirers. (1.27)

Addendum
Sometimes the riches of the internet cause my sense of wonder to ache.

Who would have imagined that there could be a site entitled feralchildren.com, and that it could have a whole section on the Green Children of Woolpit?

5 comments:

Ian Myles Slater said...

Thanks very much for posting this!

I've been familiar with the story mainly from seemingly endless variations of Keightley's nineteenth-century translation of the account by Ralph of Coggeshall (in, e.g., Katharine Briggs' "Encyclopedia of Fairies"), and I don't recall seeing more than snippets of William's version (usually by way of Keightley too, evidenced by his designation of "William of Newbridge").

Years ago I was ambitious enough to try Ralph's Latin; didn't get very far with it, but at least I turned up a copy. I don't think I ever found a copy of William.

J J Cohen said...

Glad you found it of use.

Ralph of Coggeshall, for those who don't know, offers another version in the story in which the Green Girl becomes a bit wanton rather than happily transforming herself into a housewife. William and Ralph didn't know each other's work, so that must surely prove these little green visitors really did disembark from an alternate universe. Really.

Anonymous said...

Alternate universe? The answer seems more obvious than that. Little gren people from the land of "St. Martin." From a place where the sun's light does not shine nearly as brightly? It seems to me obvious you have a couple of Martians on your hands.

wil said...

I love stories like this.

This tale makes me wonder, did (some? most?) people believe it? Was it fabricated wholesale? Is it based on a kernel of truth (a la feralchildren's interpretation)? Or is it largely/completely true...and my 21st-century skeptical mind is just coloring my judgment?

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I heard Paul Dutton suggest at a talk that the greenness of the children was due to a bad reaction to fava beans (favism). I'm not persuaded that we need to take the story quite so literally, but it's nice to know someone's doing research into this sort of thing.