Medieval Period Dangers!

It was one of the most exciting, turbulent and transformative eras in history, but the Middle Ages were also fraught with danger. Here are ten of the biggest risks people faced…

1) Plague 

Medieval (Plague)The plague was one of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages – it had a devastating effect on the population of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Also known as the Black Death, the plague (caused by the bacterium called Yersinia pestis) was carried by fleas most often found on rats. It had arrived in Europe by 1348, and thousands died in places ranging from Italy, France and Germany to Scandinavia, England, Wales, Spain and Russia.

The deadly bubonic plague caused oozing swellings (buboes) all over the body. With the septicaemic plague, victims suffered from skin that was darkly discoloured (turning black) as a result of toxins in the bloodstream (one reason why the plague has subsequently been called the ‘Black Death’). The extremely contagious pneumonic plague could be contracted by merely sneezing or spitting, and caused victims’ lungs to fill up.

The Black Death killed between a third and half of the population of Europe. Contemporaries did not know, of course, what caused the plague or how to avoid catching it. They sought explanations for the crisis in God’s anger, human sin, and outsider/marginal groups, especially Jews. If you were infected with the bubonic plague, you had a 70–80 per cent chance of dying within the next week. In England, out of every hundred people, perhaps 35–40 could expect to die from the plague.

As a result of the plague, life expectancy in late 14th-century Florence was just under 20 years – half of what it had been in 1300. From the mid-14th-century onwards, thousands of people from all across Europe – from London and Paris to Ghent, Mainz and Siena – died. A large number of those were children, who were the most vulnerable to the disease.

2) Travel

Medieval (Travel)People in the medieval period faced a host of potential dangers when travelling. A safe, clean place to sleep upon demand was difficult to find. Travellers often had to sleep out in the open – when travelling during the winter, they ran the risk of freezing to death. And while travelling in groups provided some safety, one still might be robbed or killed by strangers – or even one’s fellow travellers. Nor were food and drink provided unless the traveller had found an inn, monastery, or other lodging. Food poisoning was a risk even then, and if you ran out of food, you had to forage, steal, or go hungry

Medieval travellers could also be caught up in local or regional disputes or warfare, and be injured or thrown into prison. Lack of knowledge of foreign tongues could also lead to problems of interpretation. Illness and disease could also be dangerous, and even fatal. If one became unwell on the road, there was no guarantee that decent – or indeed any – medical treatment could be received.

Travellers might also fall victim to accident. For example, there was a risk of drowning when crossing rivers – even the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick I, drowned in 1190 when crossing the Saleph river during the Third Crusade. Accidents might also happen upon arrival: in Rome during the 1450 jubilee, disaster struck when some 200 people in the huge crowd crossing the great bridge of Sant’ Angelo tumbled over the edge and drowned.

While it was faster to travel by sea than land, stepping onto a boat presented substantial risks: a storm could spell disaster, or navigation could go awry, and the medieval wooden ships used were not always equal to the challenges of the sea. However, by the later Middle Ages, sea travel was becoming faster and safer than ever before.

An average traveller in the medieval period could expect to cover 15–25 miles a day on foot or 20–30 on a horse, while sailing ships might make 75–125 miles a day.

3) Famine

Famine in the Middle Ages, (19th century).

Famine was a very real danger for medieval men and women. Faced with dwindling food supplies due to bad weather and poor harvests, people starved or barely survived on meagre rations like bark, berries and inferior corn and wheat damaged by mildew.

Those eating so little suffered malnutrition, and were therefore very vulnerable to disease. If they didn’t starve to death, they often died as a result of the epidemics that followed famine. Illnesses like tuberculosis, sweating sickness, smallpox, dysentery, typhoid, influenza, mumps and gastrointestinal infections could and did kill.

The Great Famine of the early 14th century was particularly bad: climate change led to much colder than average temperatures in Europe from c1300 – the ‘Little Ice Age’. In the seven years between 1315 and 1322, western Europe witnessed incredibly heavy rainfall, for up to 150 days at a time.

Farmers struggled to plant, grow and harvest crops. What meagre crops did grow were often mildewed, and/or terribly expensive. The main food staple, bread, was in peril as a result. This also came at the same time as brutally cold winter weather.

At least 10 per cent – perhaps close to 15 per cent – of people in England died during this period.

4) Childbirth

Medieval (Childbirth)Today, with the benefits of ultrasound scans, epidurals and fetal monitoring, the risk for mother and baby during pregnancy and childbirth is at an all-time low. However, during the medieval period, giving birth was incredibly perilous. Breech presentations of the baby during labour often proved fatal for both mother and child. Labour could go on for several days, and some women eventually died of exhaustion. While Caesarean sections were known, they were unusual other than when the mother of the baby was already dead or dying, and they were not necessarily successful.

Midwives, rather than trained doctors, usually attended pregnant women. They helped the mother-to-be during labour and, if needed, were able to perform emergency baptisms on babies in danger of dying. Most had received no formal training, but relied on practical experience gleaned from years of delivering babies. New mothers might survive the labour, but could die from various postnatal infections and complications. Equipment was very basic, and manual intervention was common. Status was no barrier to these problems – even Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, died soon after giving birth to the future Edward VI in 1537.

5) Infancy and childhood

Medieval (Infancy)Infancy was particularly dangerous during the Middle Ages – mortality was terribly high. Based on surviving written records alone, scholars have estimated that 20–30 per cent of children under seven died, but the actual figure is almost certainly higher.

Infants and children under seven were particularly vulnerable to the effects of malnutrition, diseases, and various infections. They might die due to smallpox, whooping cough, accidents, measles, tuberculosis, influenza, bowel or stomach infections, and much more. The majority of those struck down by the plague were also children. Nor, with chronic malnutrition, did the breast milk of medieval mothers carry the same immunity and other benefits of breast milk today.

Being born into a family of wealth or status did not guarantee a long life either. We know that in ducal families in England between 1330 and 1479, for example, one third of children died before the age of five.

6) Bad weather

Medieval (Bad Weather)The vast majority of the medieval population was rural rather than urban, and the weather was of the utmost importance for those who worked or otherwise depended on the land. But as well as jeopardising livelihoods, bad weather could kill.

Consistently poor weather could lead to problems sowing and growing crops, and ultimately the failure of the harvest. If summers were wet and cold, the grain crop could be destroyed. This was a major problem, as cereal grains were the main food source for most of the population.

With less of this on hand, various problems would occur, including grain shortages, people eating inferior grain, and inflation, which resulted in hunger, starvation, disease, and higher death rates.

This was especially the case from the 14th through to the 16th centuries, when the ice pack grew. By 1550, there had been an expansion of glaciers worldwide. This meant people faced the devastating effects of weather that was both colder and wetter.

Medieval men and women were therefore eager to ensure that weather conditions stayed favourable. In Europe, there were rituals for ploughing, sowing seeds, and the harvesting of crops, as well as special prayers, charms, services, and processions to ensure good weather and the fertility of the fields. Certain saints were thought to protect against the frost (St Servais), have power over the wind (St Clement) or the rain and droughts (St Elias/Elijah) and generally the power of the saints and the Virgin Mary were believed to protect against storms and lightning.

People also believed the weather was not merely a natural occurrence. Bad weather could be caused by the behaviour of wicked people, like murder, sin, incest, or family quarrels. It could also be linked to witches and sorcerers, who were thought to control the weather and destroy crops. They could, according to one infamous treatise on witches – the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486 – fly in the air and conjure storms (including hailstorms and tempests), raise winds and cause lightning that could kill people and animals.

7) Violence

Medieval (Violence)Whether as witnesses, victims or perpetrators, people from the highest ranks of society to the lowest experienced violence as an omnipresent danger in daily life. Medieval violence took many forms. Street violence and brawls in taverns were not uncommon. Vassals might also revolt against their lords. Likewise, urban unrest also led to uprisings – for example, the lengthy rebellion of peasants in Flanders of 1323–28, or the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England.

Medieval records demonstrate the presence of other types of violence also: rape, assault and murder were not uncommon, nor was accidental homicide. One example is the case of Maud Fras, who was hit on the head and killed by a large stone accidentally dropped on her head at Montgomery Castle in Wales in 1288.

Blood feuds between families that extended over generations were very much evident. So was what we know today as domestic violence. Local or regional disputes over land, money or other issues could also lead to bloodshed, as could the exercise of justice. Innocence or guilt in trials were at times decided by combat ordeals (duels to the death). In medieval Wales, political or dynastic rivals might be blinded, killed or castrated by Welsh noblemen to consolidate their positions.

Killing and other acts of violence in warfare were also omnipresent, from smaller regional wars to larger-scale crusades from the end of the 11th century, fought by many countries at once. Death tolls in battle could be high: the deadliest clash of the Wars of the Roses, the battle of Towton (1461), claimed between 9,000 and 30,000 lives, according to contemporary reports.

8) Heresy

Medieval (Heresy)It could also be dangerous to disagree. People who held theological or religious opinions that were believed to go against the teachings of the Christian church were seen as heretics in medieval Christian Europe. These groups included Jews, Muslims and medieval Christians whose beliefs were considered to be unorthodox, like the Cathars.

Kings, missionaries, crusaders, merchants and others – especially from the late 11th century – sought to ensure the victory of Christendom in the Mediterranean world. The First Crusade (1096–99) aimed to capture Jerusalem – and finally did so in 1099. Yet the city was soon lost, and further crusades had to be launched in a bid to regain it.

Jews and Muslims also suffered persecution, expulsion and death in Christian Europe. In England, anti-Semitism resulted in massacres of Jews in York and London in the late 12th century, and Edward I banished all Jews from England in 1290 – they were only permitted to return in the mid-1600s.

From the eighth century, efforts were also made to retake Iberia from Muslim rule, but it was not until 1492 that the entire peninsula was recaptured. This was part of an attempt in Spain to establish a united, single Christian faith and suppress heresy, which involved setting up the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. As a result, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and Muslims were only allowed to stay if they converted to Christianity.

Holy wars were also waged on Christians who were widely considered to be heretics. The Albigensian Crusade was directed at the Cathars (based chiefly in southern France) from 1209–29 – and massacres and more inquisitions and executions followed in the later 13th and 14th centuries.

 9) Hunting

Medieval (Hunting)Hunting was an important pastime for medieval royalty and the aristocracy, and skill in the sport was greatly admired. The emperor Charlemagne was recorded as greatly enjoying hunting in the early ninth century, and in England William the Conqueror sought to establish royal forests where he could indulge in his love of the hunt. But hunting was not without risks. Hunters could easily be injured or killed by accidents. They might fall from their horse, be pierced by an arrow, be mauled by the horns of stags or tusks of boars, or attacked by bears.

Status certainly did not guarantee safety. Many examples exist of kings and nobles who met tragic ends as a result of hunting. The Byzantine emperor Basil I died in 886 after apparently having his belt impaled on the horns of a stag and being dragged more than 15 miles before being freed.

In 1100, King William II (William Rufus) was famously killed by an arrow in a supposed hunting accident in the New Forest. Likewise, in 1143, King Fulk of Jerusalem died in a hunting accident at Acre, when his horse stumbled and his head was crushed by his saddle.

10) Early or sudden death

Medieval (Early Death)Sudden or premature death was common in the medieval period. Most people died young, but death rates could vary based on factors like status, wealth, location (higher death rates are seen in urban settlements), and possibly gender. Adults died from various causes, including plague, tuberculosis, malnutrition, famine, warfare, sweating sickness and infections.

Wealth did not guarantee a long life. Surprisingly, well-fed monks did not necessarily live as long as some peasants. Peasants in the English manor of Halesowen might hope to reach the age of 50, but by contrast poor tenants in same manor could hope to live only about 40 years. Those of even lower status (cottagers) could live a mere 30 years.

By the second half of the 14th century, peasants there were living five to seven years longer than in the previous 50 years. However, the average life expectancy for ducal families in England between 1330 and 1479 generally was only 24 years for men and 33 for women. In Florence, laypeople in the late 1420s could expect to live only 28.5 years (men) and 29.5 years (women).

Dying a ‘good’ death was very important to medieval people, and was the subject of many books. People often worried about ‘sudden death’ (whether in battle, from natural causes, by execution, or an accident) and what would happen to those who died without time to prepare and receive the last rites. Written charms, for example, were thought to provide protection against sudden death – whether against death in battle, poison, lightning, fire, water, fever or other dangers.

THE END

Sources:

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Ranworth: Its History & Myths

The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and one of Europe’s most popular inland waterways. The area is managed as a national park and it is claimed that it attracts more than a million visitors each year from all over the World. Before the ‘Broads’ were known as such, its waterways made up an essential transport network for peat, thatching reed and marsh hay. Today, the ‘Broads’ is used for recreation, including such activities as sailing, motor cruising, fishing and enjoying the wildlife. Then there are the opportunities to visit the lovely villages that find themselves embraced by the Norfolk Broads, along with their medieval country churches.

Ranworth Village 1

Ranworth is just one such place with its Staithe, which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, fronting Malthouse Broad and aptly named after nearby malt houses. There are great waterside views around Ranworth and within the village with its pretty thatched cottages which makes for ‘chocolate box’ opportunities for photographers and painters.

Nearby, on higher ground, stands St Helens Church below which is a large nature reserve  winding its way through woodland to the Norfolk Wildlife Conservation Centre; a floating thatched building right on the edge of what is Ranworth Broad . This is the information centre for the Broads and its history, including models of local scenes depicting peat digging, thatching and duck shooting. On the upper floor of the building there are facilities, including binoculars and telescopes, for bird watching.

Ranworth-Church 2
Ranworth offers St Helen’s Church, often called the ‘Cathedral of the Broads’.

This church, set on high ground and overlooking the village and the broads beyond, is well worth a visit for its furnishings, views from its tower, its history and its myths. There have been previous churches on the site but the present one on view was completed as far back as about 1450. Furnished by prosperous wool merchants, its walls were painted with biblical stories, its windows rich in stained glass and a great cross suspended above an elaborate rood screen.

Ranworth (St Helens Church)
St Helen’s Church, Ranworth, Norfolk. Photo: John Harper.

Unfortunately, many of the church’s medieval treasures were damaged or destroyed during the Reformation, although a surprising amount did survive. The building itself also fell into a long period of decline and disrepair and it was only in the late 1890s that the church was restored to what can be seen today. Much of the original rood screen with its medieval paintings still survives, along with its stylized white roses of York painted on the back of the screen, one of the finest in England. The church also has a 15th century illuminated manuscript, the Ranworth Antiphoner kept in a steel case and on view to visitors.

The Church Tower:
The tower dominates the Ranworth skyline and it would seem that visitors love to climb the eighty-nine spiral steps and two ladders to the top of the flint-lined tower for the wonderful views over the landscape. It is easy to understand why when from its heights, on clear days, one can see five Norfolk Broads and the impressive wind turbines of the wind farm at West Somerton.

Ranworth (Church Tower)
The tower of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Photo: (c) John Harper

 In fact, much of the Norfolk Broads river system is visible, interlaced with boats that weave their way in a constantly changing pattern of light through farmland and marshes that grow traditional Norfolk thatching reed. A recent survey using a calibrated telescope listed nearly two hundred sites in the Cromer–Norwich–Great Yarmouth area, including 116 churches, numerous windmills and wind drainage pumps, Happisburgh lighthouse and even the top of Norwich Cathedral.

They say that, when conditions and timings are right, Brother Pacificus may be seen rowing either towards, or away from, the Church. For those who master the climb up 89 steps and two ladders to the roof of the the tower but fail to see Pacificus on the water below – just turn around and look up to the weathervain!

Ranworth-pacificus_weather

Ranworth Church and Patron Saints:
Early Christians used the word ‘saint’ for all the faithful. In time though, a saint came to be a person of outstanding devotion. The earliest saints acclaimed by common consent were the apostles, John the Baptist, the Holy family and the first martyrs. As the Christian church became more structured, bishops took control of canonisations within their own dioceses. It was not until 1170 though that Pope Alexander III insisted that only the Pope could canonise.

Portrayals of saints dominated Christian art until the Reformation when many icons were destroyed. It is miraculous that so much of the rood screens in Ranworth and any of the lovely Upton screen survived the ravages of the 1500s when reformers believed that portrayals of human beings might tempt congregations to treat them as idols. The reformers’ passion led them to daub all bare flesh, feet, hands and faces with tar.

ranworth-st_helenRanworth Church is dedicated to St Helen, a popular patron of ancient English churches with perhaps 135 dedicated to her throughout the country. Some accounts say that she was a princess, the daughter of King Coel, King of the Britons and was born in Colchester where she is the patron saint of the City. Others say that she was born in York although most historians have it that she was born in 242 AD in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosporus Sea. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Despite her status as empress, she helped the poor and distressed and was known for her charitable acts. Helen had a great influence on her son Constantine.

Helen became a Christian late in her life and it wasn’t until she was an old lady that she made her famous pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Christ was crucified. The story is that she uncovered three crosses under a temple on Mount Calvary that she had ordered to be torn down on seeing smoke issuing from the ground. Helen recognised the one True Cross when it touched a dead man that miraculously resurrected. Helen built a basilica on Mount Calvary for the sacred relic and later, built two other famous churches in Palestine that celebrate the nativity and the ascension. She returned from the Holy Land in her 80s and died in Rome in 328.

Saint Helen, known also as Helena, is celebrated on August 18th and is the patron saint of treasure hunters, nail-makers and is invoked against theft and fire. She is usually shown holding a cross, just as she is outside Ranworth Church.

The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:

ranworthantiphonerT

Those who do visit Ranworth Church should not leave before heading over to the cabinet just to the side of the main door; usually it has a cloth protecting its ancient contents – it is the Ranworth Antiphoner.

In medieval times, services were held 7 times a day and these would consist of prayers said or sung from a book of psalms. Lines were read alternately, ‘antiphonally’, between the priest and the choir. Ranworth Church still has one of its two Medieval Latin ‘antiphonies’; the other earlier and smaller one is in the British Library. The book dates from the 1400s and has 285 vellum (animal skin) pages illustrated with gleaming colour pictures and gold leaf edging.

ranworthantiphoner2T

In 1549, when services were first published in English in the Book of Common Prayer, antiphoners were banned. Ranworth’s somehow survived, reappearing in the reign of Mary Tudor when changes were made to its calendar (e.g. the feast of Thomas a Becket, which had been scratched out during Henry VIII’s time, was reinstated). The Holdych family whose family dates appear in the margins of the calendar probably hid the book during Elizabethan times. The Antiphoner eventually became part of a collection offered for sale at the beginning of the 20th century. Its link to Ranworth was soon traced and the Parish raised the money to buy it. The book is now on show inside a unique security case made by the inmates of Norwich Prison. Unfortunately maybe for some but the case cannot be opened to meet requests, but the pages are turned occasionally to display the illuminations and the plainchant music that the church choir sometimes sings.

The Rood Screen:
The painted rood screen in St Helen’s Ranworth dates from the early 1400s. The Great Rood that was once above the screen was destroyed in the Reformation.

Ranworth (Screen) 1

Ranworth (Rood Screen)
Left section of the Rood Screen. Photo: John Harper

The Rood (from the Anglo-Saxon for cross) is a large crucifix usually placed above the entrance to the choir in medieval churches. Some were very large, carved richly in wood and painted or gilded. By the 13th or 14th centuries, the great rood had become a feature of almost every church. The rood, however, was often eclipsed by the screen over which it was placed. Paintings of apostles and saints including St George and St Michael both slaying dragons, survive on the screen in St Helen’s Ranworth.

St Lawrence Ranworth
St Lawrence holding the gridiron on which he was martyred. RANWORTH CHURCH

LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):

Ranworth-pacificus 1
Sandra Rowney

Ranworth and Ranworth Broad are said to be haunted by a friendly ghost named Brother Pacificus. The early bird may be in the best position to catch a glimpse of the monk, though he may also be sighted on quiet summer evenings. Wearing his habit, he may be seen rowing a small boat across the Broad with a small dog standing in the prow.

The story goes that during the 1530’s the brothers at nearby St Benets Abbey undertook the work of restoring the rood screen of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.

One evening upon his return the Abbey, Brother Pacificus found to his horror that his brother monks had been murdered by the King’s Troops as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by Henry VIII. Devastated, Pacificus was to linger for years amidst the blackened ruins where he eventually died. The local villagers who knew of his devotion to Ranworth took his body across the Bure and lovingly laid it to rest in the shadow of St Helen’s, a church that he clearly loved and for which he had worked so hard.

To some, he still returns to carry out his work, accompanied by his little dog. They say that he also comes back to pray. Sometimes in the early hours of morning, when it is just light, his little boat may be seen moored up to the bank and sometimes his little dog asleep in it, just waiting. Inside, the aged monk will be kneeling in an attitude of prayer before the centre opening of the rood-screen, but with the approach of anyone he will simply fade into nothingness. On the other hand and if left alone, he may be seen returning at nightfall to his boat and rowing back to St Benet’s with his little dog sitting up perkily in the stern.

Ranworth- Pacificus-Sophie Dickens
Sandra Rowney

It is best not to laugh at such happenings as that which confronted Pacificus and his journeys to and from Ranworth centuries ago. For note, it is on record that a certain Reverend James Brewster, D.D. of Baliol, whilst on holiday in 1930 and about to enter a narrow waterway leading to Ranworth Broad, saw a boat being rowed towards him. Pulling into the side to make room, the visitor waited for it to pass by; as he did so he noticed that the rower was a monk in a black habit and although clearly aged, had the kindest face he had not previously seen on any man. The Benedictine smiled his thanks as he passed and before dissolving into nothing just a short distance on. Dr Brewster thought that there had been a small white dog in the boat, but he couldn’t be sure. Apparently, he was so moved by this experience that he felt he had to make enquiries hereabouts. At Horning he was simply laughed at whilst in Ranworth he was to learn:

‘That what he saw was our monastic friend, Brother Pacificus, going home after his labours and there is no real or known reason why it should not have been.’

LOCAL MYTHS 2 (Colonel Sydney and the Devil):

Ranworth Hall (Old 1918)
Old Ranworth Hall 1918

Summer visitors to the lovely Ranworth Broad may find it hard to imagine this beautiful spot being the scene of one of Norfolk’s spookiest legends, but so it is. In July the nights are warm and balmy, but the scene of this story is a wintry one, December 31 1770 to be precise. This tale is worth telling to children on the boats that chug the Broads there – they won’t forget it easily, and it may well keep them from venturing on deck in the dark. Ranworth then as now was an out of the way place, the church tower dominating the landscape. The east wind of the winter blows across the marshes and broads with seemingly little in its way from the cold North Sea.

Ranworth Hall 1
Old Ranworth Hall (demolished)

In 1770 Colonel Thomas Sydney resided in Ranworth Old Hall. The former soldier was such a foul character that in spite of his wealth and position he was struck from the list of JPs. Sydney was a rake-hell: a drunkard whose already evil temper got worse when he was in his cups; a gambler; and perhaps worst of all for the English, a bad loser. Not that he got much practice at losing, for he was a noted sportsman, and his neighbours were wary of getting on his wrong side by besting him in a contest.

At the New Year’s Eve hunt meeting that year Sydney challenged a neighbour to a race, matching their horses over the fields. But much to the Colonel’s surprise his neighbour outpaced him, heading it seemed for an easy win. Not so damn likely thinks the Colonel, who draws his pistol and shoots the neighbour’s horse from under him. The frightened animal rears and sends its rider flying, his neck cracking just as the beast’s hooves trample the body. The evil owner of the Old Hall wins, and devil take the hindmost – though here he can claim the winner too.

With his neighbours too scared to act against him Sydney has no compunction about appearing at the hunt ball he is holding that very night, dressed in his finery, his brain still more befuddled by continued drinking. He roars at the top of his voice, totally without shame.

Ranworth Hall (Gatehouse)
Old Ranworth Hall Gatehouse.

Crash go the doors to the Old Hall. At the threshold stands a tall and slender figure, dressed all black that merges his shape with the night behind him. No features of the face beneath the elegant black hat are visible. Sydney’s mouth gapes, for once he is silenced. The figure approaches and throws the helpless Colonel across his shoulder, marches him outside, and throws the frozen figure across his saddle. The head of the Wild Hunt has come to claim his own. With studied ease the devil mounts his black steed, and in a second he, the horse, and the terrified captive are racing across Ranworth Broad, steam rising from the water wherever a hellish hoof touches. Sydney finds his voice now, screams, begs, curses, but not a jot of difference will it make to his awful fate. He is bound for the pit. Colonel Sydney was never seen again, at least not alive. But every year on New Year’s Eve, or so it is said, the devil rides across Ranworth Broad, Colonel Sydney held across his saddle.

Ranworth (Ghost)
Colonel Thomas Sidney disappeared into the steam and mist!

Sleep well children, sleep well!

THE END

Sources:
https://www.herbertwoods.co.uk/blog/terrifying-tales-from-around-the-broads/
http://jollygreenp.co.uk/ypsnorfolkranworth.html

NOTICE: ‘Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!’ is a ‘non-commercial’ Site which publishes only informative and/or educational items in the hope of broadening an appreciation of the history and heritage of the wonderful County of Norfolk. In pursuing this aim, we endeavour, where necessary, to obtain permission to use another owner’s material, as well as our own. However, for various reasons, (i.e. identification of, and means of communicating with such owners), contact can sometimes be difficult or impossible to established. NTM&M never attempts to claim ownership of such material; ensuring at all times that any known and appropriate ‘credits’ and ‘links’ back to our sources are always given in our articles. No violation of any copyright or trademark material is intentional.

 

 

Sam Larner: His Singing and Dancing Community.

Do fishermen sing nowadays?  They used to be great singers when they got together years ago in their favourite pubs or at the annual jollifications of the beachmen’s societies.’  So wrote King Herring in an unidentified news article about northern singers. Perhaps he should have paid a visit to the Norfolk fishing village of Winterton where the old songs connected with the fishing community, those with plenty of salt in them, were sung until relatively recently. It used to be said that “They were all singers at Winterton”,  but foremost among them was Sam Larner, who knew dozens of such songs and whose extrovert performance style proved very influential to more recent singers. His impact was immediate and electrifying … and some thought that it was a privilege to be in the presence of such genuine greatness, a dominant figure due to his personality and extensive repertoire, in an area where singing was still commonplace in much of the first half of the Twentieth Century.

Sam Larner (Portrait)2
Sam Larner. Photo: Mustad

Samuel James Larner, (1878–1965) and known as Sam, was a fisherman because fishing was an almost inevitable occupation for one of nine children of a fisherman father and growing up in a village where, out of a population of 800 people, 300 were fishermen. Larner was once quoted as saying

“Why, for me and my brothers that was either sea or gaol, and that for my sisters that was service or gaol.”

Many Winterton families had been involved with the fishing industry for generations, most notably the Greens, Georges, Goffins, Hayletts and the Larners.  All were inter-related, as was common in close-knit communities, and all had singers amongst them.

Sam Larner (Fishing Fleet)
A Norfolk Fishing Fleet from the past. Photo: Mustad

Sam was born into this community in 1878, into a family of bricklayers and fishermen.  He first went to sea as a cabin boy on a sailing lugger at the age of 13 and in 1894 signed as a deckhand on The Snowflake, another sailing boat. It was a very tough existence as he later recalled, describing the dread when going to sea for the first time and that you’d be “on the knucklebones of your arse when leaving for sea.”  Some of the older fishermen “didn’t care for nothing … cruel old men.  You weren’t allowed to speak” and if you were sleepy they would “chuck a bucket of water on you to wake you up.” From 1899 he worked on steam trawlers and in 1923 married Dorcas Eastick who had hailed from Great Cressingham, near Watton. Sam met her when she was in service at the rectory in Winterton. Sam was to leave fishing due to ill health in 1933 and spent some time unemployed as well as doing whatever jobs he could find, including road mending and forestry.

Sam Larner started singing from an early age, learning the songs his grandfather and others sang in the pubs at Winterton, and earning pennies by singing them to the coach parties that visited the village. As a fisherman he learned the songs fellow crew members sang when pulling in the nets, as well as in singing sessions in pubs in fishing ports the length of Britain. He won a singing competition in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands in 1907.

Sam Larner Winterton Fishermen 1940)
Winterton Fishermen in 1940

Although some trips were ‘home fishing,’ meaning that the fishermen would return the same day, more often than not the trips would take them away for weeks at a time, sailing around the British Isles in search of the herring.  This of course meant stopping for periods in various ports when there was opportunity for musical diversion whilst ashore, as well as the possibility of adding new songs to his repertoire.  Indeed, Sam Larner recalled that he won a singing competition in Lerwick in 1907 with his rendition of Old Bob Ridley-O. As he recalled:

“There was a singing competition in the town hall at Lerwick – all among the fishermen though. And the Lerwick ladies, they had to judge; and the gentlemen had to judge the singin’.  And I got the most encore of the whole lot for that song.  They won’t let me sit down; I had to sing them another song.  That was in 1907.  These people all know it about here; I aren’t tellin’ stories.  And I got the first prize.”

Unfortunately no Winterton singers, other than Sam Larner, were recorded extensively, but his detailed and lively accounts of both fishing and singing do give us a good indication that many of his songs were learned from fellow fishermen, many of whom were close relatives.  One example was Butter and Cheese and All, a popular song in the village; Sam said:

“That’s my old dad’s song.  I heard him sing it when I was a little boy.  Used to sing all them songs, my old father did.  Yeah, old ‘Bredler’ they used to call him; Bredler Larner; Bredler used to call him.  Big man, about fifteen or sixteen stone.  Big man, he was.  Oh, and he could do the step dance.” 

Sam Larner (The Dogger Bank)1

If there was opportunity at times to add to a repertoire of songs whilst on these fishing voyages, the real outlet for performance seems to have been, unsurprisingly, when back home after a long voyage – such as  “The Dogger Bank”:

Now we are the boys to make a noise, when we come home from sea,
We get right drunk, we roll on the floor, and cause a jubilee;
We get right drunk and full of beer, and roll all over the floor,
And when our rent it is all spent, we’ll go to sea for more.

Sam Larner (Fishermans Return Pub)

An exaggeration maybe, but certainly the fishermen did adjourn to the village’s two pubs, The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners, for lengthy bouts of singing and step dancing during which time, complete respect was given to the singers so as to avoid the possibility of violence. Certainly the old songs and the performances were taken very seriously. Ronnie Haylett also remembers:

Sam Larner (The Three Mariners)1

“Now, Boxing Day, the pubs closed at half past two legally, you know, but they’d open here until four or five o’clock.  Policeman’d come in and have a look…….”Boys all right?”  Well, they’re all fishermen, you know…… Yes mister, Boys all right. Do you want a pint, mister?  No, I’ll leave you. He’d just go away and leave them.”

Sam Larner related more than once that “we used to have a rare old, good old time.  We used to get in the old pub, and we used to have a song, a drink and a four-handed reel … That was all there was for our enjoyment.”

Sam Larner (Dick Green)1
Dick Green. Photo Mustrad

Other singers at the time was Dick Green (b1909), another Winterton singer and fisherman; he was Sam Larner’s nephew but eventually turned his back on both the sea and singing to become a policeman, ending his days in Harleston.  In later years, he declined to be recorded singing the old songs as he felt his voice was not good enough to do so, but he was still able to recall such songs as Maid of Australia which he had sung in the village years earlier. Dick’s older brother Bob (1908-99) was another singer and fisherman, known locally by his nickname ‘The Devil’. He went to sea at fourteen as cook, working his way up to become a trawler skipper.  He also served in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War.  He sang such songs as were popular locally such as The Maid of AustraliaCruising Round Yarmouth, and Henry Martin as well as comic songs such as The Hobnail Boots My Father Wore and Paddy McGinty’s Goat.  The father of Bob and Dick Green, also Bob Green, (born 1882), was recalled as having regularly sung The Wild Rover which, apparantly, was his party piece.

Sam Larner (Tome Brown)1
Tom Brown. Photo: Mustrad

Then there was Jack ‘Starchy’ George (1888-1975), another Winterton singer, fisherman and trawler skipper. Caister singer Tom Brown, who was on drifters with Jack George, described him as “a great singer” who would sometimes “lean out of the wheelhouse window and sing, and maybe he’d sing while he’d be on watch.”  All of the male Georges seem to have been known as ‘Starchy,’ apparently from one former family member who favoured starched shirt collars.  As well as the songs popular locally, many connected with the sea, such as Herring on the Griddle-O, to which men would dance as if flames were rearing up, and Jack Johnson which he also sang at weddings

In this fertile environment for song acquisition and performance, Sam Larner certainly stood out as an outstanding singer.  With an extensive repertoire of traditional ballads, sentimental and comic pieces and, most of all, songs connected with the sea and fishing, all performed in a vigorous, exuberant style; it is easy to imagine him being the centre of any singing session in the village or whilst away fishing. As a natural entertainer, Sam would also recite Christmas Day in the Workhouse in the pub, with much histrionics.

Step Dancing:
As well as the singing, another part of the evening’s entertainment in The Fisherman’s Return and The Three Mariners was step dancing.  Sam was a good exponent of this, just like his father, George.  As someone recalled, “The tables in there years ago, they had a bead round like this; a raised bead like that.  They all had pints of two.  Cause, comin’ out the old barrels, they’d all be wet, wouldn’t they?  So they’d stand them there and somebody’d shift the pints and Sam’d come up and do a tap dance on the table.  Beer’d all spilt!” 

Often, there was no musician to play for the step dancing, so it was performed to singing and diddling. Sam Larner remarked, “I could do the Old Bob Ridley-O; that was a song and a dance.  I hadn’t got the wind to do it now.”  Whilst singing the song, he would pause half way through to comment “then they all step” which suggests something of a communal performance. Sam generally seems to have accompanied himself step dancing by diddling tunes such as The Sailor’s Hornpipe.

Cromer (Richard Davies)2
An example of Step Dancing from Richard Davies.

In the early 1960s, writer and broadcaster John Seymour described a visit to the Larners, in company with fiddler Alan Waller: ‘The Larners live in a little semi-detached cottage not far from the sea, and we all sat round the small kitchen while Alan played the fiddle and Sam sang, and Mrs Larner looked on and beamed.  And Sam could hardly restrain himself from jumping up and step dancing.  In fact he failed to restrain himself once or twice, and he is over eighty.  He kept challenging Alan as to whether he knew this jig or that step tune, and was absolutely delighted when he found that Alan knew them all.’

Sam Larner (His Cottage)
Sam Larner’s Cottage at Winterton, Norfolk
Sam Larner (Philip Donellan)1
Philip Donnellan

Sam Larner first came to wider public notice when Philip Donnellan, a radio producer for BBC Birmingham, happened to meet him in a pub in 1956.  Donnellan was making radio documentaries about working people in Britain and Sam was exactly the sort of person he was looking for to provide him with information.  He recorded about twenty five songs and some speech from him in 1957 and 1958.  Sam appeared in two of Donnellan’s radio productions: Coast and Country: The Wash on Sunday 15th September, 1957, for which he was paid £1.1.0. Then there was Down to the Sea which was recorded on Sunday 15th February, 1959 with a rehearsal at a house in Happisburgh known as ‘Thatchers’.  It was broadcast on Friday, 27th February, 1959 and Sam was paid £8.8.0.  These were live performances and the sound recordings made by Donnellan have been deposited in the BBC archives.

Donellan also brought Sam Larner to the attention of Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker who were engaged in producing the first of the innovatory “Radio Ballads”, which used songs, sound effects and music combined with the voices of people involved in an industry or common experience. Sam took part in the third program in the series “Singing the Fishing” which was broadcast on 16th August, 1960, to great acclaim. The series was about the East Coast fishing industry.  Ewan McColl’s song The Shoals of Herring,  which describes a fisherman’s progress from cabin boy to deckhand, was largely based on Sam’s life and written for the program. Over a period of time, after editing Sam’s songs and anecdotes about his life, they were left, in MacColl’s words, with “almost thirty hours of magnificent talk and three hours of songs, ballads, stories and miscellaneous rhymes” from this ‘octogenarian’, ex-herring fisherman from Winterton, Norfolk.  What a wonderful person he was!  Short, compact, grizzled, wall-eyed and slightly deaf, but still full of the wonder of life.  His one good eye still sparkled at the sight of a pretty girl.’

Sam Larner (MacColl & Seeger)
Ewan McCall & Peggy Seeger. Photo: The Guardian

McColl and Seeger were to record even more material from Sam who went on to perform in their Ballads and Blues Club in London where, having been introduced by Ewan MacColl, Sam ‘sat and sang and talked to the several hundred young people, who hung on his every word and gesture as through he had been Ulysses newly returned from Troy to Ithaca.  He never forgot it.’  “They liked them old songs, they did.”  Also, in 1960, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl published a book of English and Scottish folk songs called The Singing Island. They included thirteen of Sam’s songs: Maid of Australia, Clear Away the Morning Dew, Maids When You’re Young, The Wild Rover, Henry Martin, Cruising Round Yarmouth, Bold Princess Royal, The Dolphin, The Dogger Bank, The London Steamer, The Ghost Ship, Jack Tar and Butter and Cheese and All.  The copy they presented to Sam was inscribed: ‘Sam: a book in which your songs are not ‘written wrong.’ Many thanks for your songs and your friendship.  Peggy and Ewan.  1960.’ Certainly the songs that Sam had picked up from his community and fishing expeditions and sang so exuberantly were now reaching a much wider audience.

Sam Larner (Record)1This exposure to the world at large, or at least that portion of it interested in traditional song, reached a peak with the release of the LP Now is the Time for Fishing on Folkways Records in 1961.  This featured nineteen tracks of Sam Larner singing and talking about his life and the fishing industry, taken from the recordings made by MacColl and Seeger.  The interspersing of anecdotes amongst the singing put the songs in vivid context, with Sam’s rich dialect and turn of phrase, on what must surely be the first full-length LP issued of an English traditional singer.  A radical approach, perhaps, in 1961, which still stands as a seminal recording today.

In 1962 Charles Parker filmed both Sam Larner and Catfield singer Harry Cox for BBC Birmingham, singing and talking about their lives for a programme entitled The Singer and the Song.  As well as snatches of several old popular and comic songs Sam sang Now is the Time for Fishing, Clear Away the Morning Dew and The Wild Rover.  It was broadcast on BBC Midlands in 1964.

Sam Larner (Sitting Trio)
Sam Larner with two other Villagers at Winterton. Photo: Winterton on Sea.

By this time, Sam was a very old man of eighty six.  He had lived in Winterton all his life, aside from the often lengthy fishing voyages away after the herring, of course.  He had met his wife Dorcas there and had spent all of his working life at sea until ill health caused by the rigours of the fisherman’s life forced him to abandon this at the age of fifty six.  This grand old man of traditional song died on September 11th, 1965. He left £857.

Sam Larner (Neil Lanham)1
Neil Lanham. Photo Mustrad

About a year after Sam Larner’s death, Suffolk agricultural auctioneer and song collector Neil Lanham happened to be in Winterton, trying to find out in the churchyard about a relative who had been lost at sea in the area.  There he met retired fisherman Walter ‘Tuddy’ Rudd (1905-82) and asked him if he knew any of the old songs sung in the village. Rudd certainly did and arranged for several retired fishermen to get together at his house so that Neil could record them.  This happened on 17th December, 1966 when Tuddy Rudd and Johnny Goffin (1909-77) sang a variety of songs. These, unfortunately, are the only recordings made of Winterton singers other than Sam Larner, but they do give a good indication, together with the wealth collected from Sam, of this once-vibrant tradition.  Tuddy also told Neil Lanham that he got An Old Man Came Courting Me (Maids When You’re Young) from a fish-hawker in the village known as ‘Lame Jimma.’ Murray Noyes, once resident in the village, remembered Johnny Goffin’s father Roger, the gamekeeper on Lord Leicester’s Holkham estate, as a singer and learned Cruising Round Yarmouth from him.

Sam Larner (Record)2In 1974, Topic Records released a selection of fifteen of Philip Donnellan’s recordings as LP A Garland for Sam.  About the same time, collector Peter Kennedy issued his own selection of the Donnellan material as a Folktrax cassette (later CD) Sailing Over the Dogger Bank: Sam’s Saucy Salty Sailor Songs. Clearly, interest in Sam Larner’s singing and his songs continued strongly a decade after his death, and has certainly carried on doing so to this day.

  • Peter Kennedy was to claim that the rights to the Philip Donnellan recordings were signed by Sam Larner over to him in 1958.  There’s no evidence that Kennedy ever went to Winterton but he may well have met Sam in London.  Generally speaking, various relatives and others in the village felt that Sam signed away rights to the songs he sang far too easily, to others who may have wished to make financial gain out of them.

By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the fishing industry in the Winterton area of Norfolk was in serious decline and the formerly close-knit community was becoming increasingly less so.  The song sessions also declined as a consequence, as the way of life which fostered them all but disappeared. Ronnie Haylett certainly had very vivid memories of the nights in the pub and could recall parts of songs, but never became a singer himself: ‘Sam, he said to me one day – my father’s name is Jack – “Boy Jack”, he said, – (it was commonplace in the area for somebody to be referred to by their father’s name, together with the word ‘boy.’)  “why don’t you go up and sing like your grandfather?  Your grandfather Larpin.  Your grandfather larnt me a lot of these songs what I sing.”  I say, “I can’t sing, old chap.”  “You can.  You’ve just gotta stand up and get goin’.  Why don’t you come up and sing, boy?”  Of the two village pubs where the fishermen would congregate for such entertainment, The Three Mariners closed in 1955; it reopened for a short while as The Wishing Well but then became a private residence.  The Fisherman’s Return does continue as a public house but sadly is no longer host to such nights of song and step dance of which Ronnie Haylett said, “They were lovely times down the pub when I was a youngster.”

THE END

Reference Sources :
http://www.samfest.co.uk/why.html
https://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/s_larner.htm
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Larner
https://eatmt.wordpress.com/sam-larner/
http://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/news/folk-fans-gather-to-remember-sam-larner-1-4257514
http://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/news/winterton-s-famous-folk-singing-fisherman-to-be-honoured-with-festival-1-4074003
https://wintertononsea.co.uk/village/sam-larner.htm

See also Rig-a-Jig-Jig: Chris Holderness – 19.03.13: A Norfolk Music History Project).

Feature Heading Photo: http://www.tournorfolk.co.uk/winterton.html

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Christmas Ghost Stories!

By Keith Lee Morris,

 

​As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it’s the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.

Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as “The Year Without a Summer” – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron’s child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world’s first vampire novel).

There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori’s novel.

Mary Shelly (Frankenstein)Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: “It was on a dreary night of November…” When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story’s opening to “December 11th, 17–.” Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with “stiff gales” and “floating sheets of ice”, and ends with Frankenstein’s monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter’s tale.

The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins.” But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre’s popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a “vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails”. The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” mentions “scary ghost stories” right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.

Christmas Carol (A.Rackham)

One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story’s seasonal ubiquity. It’s not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life’s story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.

Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James’s own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” If the last words of that sentence don’t cause your hair to stand on end, you’re probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories

The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story’s macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader’s bones.

Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it’s undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.

The Raven
The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death’s frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven”, the tale of a lover’s death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him “nevermore”: “Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem “Christabel”, ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe’s eerie tales: “The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?” The list goes on.

Silent Snow, Secret Snow

One of my favourite winter tales is the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and “unnatural” behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken’s protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: “The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

The Shining

And we’re all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King’s original novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world’s most celebrated case of “cabin fever”.

The Dead

Even a story that isn’t intended to be scary, such as James Joyce’s “The Dead”, from 1914’s Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character’s wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead”. So apt is Joyce’s tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter’s Tale season, with Joyce’s words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it’s becoming something of a tradition.

How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring, published in 1936: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…”

The Snow Child

Winter’s ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey’s 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: “Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched.” The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey’s novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature’s most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey’s retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.

In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.

That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party’s final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary’s half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley’s first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley’s son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.

But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter’s night!

THE END

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