The Green Children of Woolpit: Anemic Viking Orphans from Mars?

It’s a well-known story among the people who like these kinds of stories. First appearing in medieval chronicles by Ralph of Coggeshill and William of Newburgh, it’s since been adapted into novels, children’s books, into at least one play, at least one (children’s) opera, and, at least once, had its story reset in the perhaps non-existent Spanish town of Banjos,[1]I’m presuming the town is probably spelled Baños now, and the j of Banjos is not a hard j, like the instrument, but an aspirated j, like Juan. If the town is Baños — think of Bath in … Continue reading which itself inspired a song, “Green Children,” by the 10,000 Maniacs.[2]“The men of science, the men of fame
The men of letters tried to explain
Was it parallel worlds or a twist of time
To make her think she’d fallen, fallen from the sky?”
Through the two medieval accounts differ significantly, even in their titles — for example, Ralph’s Chronicon Anglicanum calls the story “De quodam puero et puella de terra emergentibus,” about a certain boy and girl who came forth from the earth,[3]For an antiquated English translation of the Ralph, see Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology, 281-83. while William’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum calls it “”De viridibus pueris,” about the green children[4]For an English translation of the William, see here. — there’s enough in common to say that they’re talking about the same thing.

Once (or, per William, in King Stephen’s reign, that is, between 1135 and 1154), near the village of Woolpit, about 11 kilometers east of Bury St Edmunds, two children, a boy and a girl, turned up: their language, incomprehensible, and their skin, greenish.[5]“viridi colore tingebatur.” They’re brought as curiosities to the household of a local knight. For a while, they refuse to eat anything but beans. In Ralph, the boy wastes away, whereas the girl learns to eat bread and other foods, gradually loses her greenish tint, and eventually regains[6]‘recuperavit’ her ruddy hue. She’s baptized — born again, regenerata, as Ralph says — and stays on in the knight’s household as a servant, albeit an unruly, lascivious one; in William, the boy survives just long enough to be baptized, while the girl eventually marries a man from Lynn, a nearby town. The girl, or both children, learn English and tell the story of the land they came from and how they came to ours. Ralph has them say that everyone and everything there is green, that the land is bathed in twilight, and that they had followed their livestock into a cave. In the cave, they hear the delightful sound of bells, which they follow until they emerge from another entrance, finding themselves now miserably in our terrifyingly sunshiny and multihued world. William has them likewise pasturing livestock, but without the cave; instead, they just hear bells, and find themselves, suddenly, in our world. William has them attest to their Christianity, to their reverence for Saint Martin, which is also the name of their homeland, and to their looking out from their twilight world to a “certain luminous country” on the other side of a river.

Explanations, more or less naturalistic, and more or less scholarly, have been frequent.[7]For what follows, I am largely indebted to the best treatment of the Green Children tradition, John Anderson’s “Small, Vulnerable ETs: The Green Children of Woolpit,” Science … Continue reading We have historical contextualizations, where the children, and Ralph’s other wonders about strange bodies, are evidence of his worries about heretical damages to the body the Christian church;[8]Elizabeth Freeman, “Wonders, Prodigies and Marvels: Unusual Bodies and the Fear of Heresy in Ralph of Coggeshall’s Chronicon Anglicanum,” Journal of Medieval History 26.2 (2000): … Continue reading or where the children represent the suppressed Breton peoples of Britain, a kind of return of the internally colonized repressed;[9]Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. U of Minnesota Press, 2015. I have wondered at this interpretation, as it hints at a notion of “green” pre-Norman indigeneity, … Continue reading or where they are orphans who survived a xenophobic massacre of Flemish immigrants to the region,[10]Paul Harris, “The Green Children of Woolpit: a 12th-century mystery and its possible solution,” Fortean Studies 4 (1998): 81–95. and whose strange color is evidence of malnutrition. Or maybe they’re suffering from “secondary anemia,” “hypochronic anaemia,”[11]Derek Brewer, “The Colour Green”, in Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, eds, A Companion to the Gawain Poet (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 181-90., or “chlorosis.”[12]Harris Glyn Maxwell, once poetry editor of The New Republic, suggests they might have  been survivors from the “wreck of a Viking ship” or “Gypsies…with a yellowish cast to their skin,” which, good lord, no.[13]Dinitia Smith, “Foundlings Wrapped in a Green Mystery,” New York Times Mar 18 (2002), E3, review of Glyn Maxwell’s play Wolfpit. Perhaps they’re from the Antipodes, or another planet, a proposition offered as early as 1621, in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and then, as a changling legend, in Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone, written around 7 years after Burton’s book.[14]John Anderson treats this in detail, as he does the other science fiction hypotheses. More recent versions of such explanations have them coming through tunnels from another planet, or teleported from their underground homes on Mars, or from a human colony on a distant planet, locked in a synchronous orbit, hence the twilight, and hence the strange luminousness we find in William’s account. Connecting the children to “fairy” or the so-called “otherworld” works with less strain. Not from the Greenness though: fairies and greenness aren’t connected until long after the Middle Ages.[15]Derek Brewer, who is, however, wrong in simply saying that the Woolpit story has nothing to do with fairy. Richard Firth Green’s Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval … Continue reading But the tunnel, the twilight, the little people, and the vegetarian diet: all these are aspects of a fairy story the twelfth-century Journey through Wales by Gerald of Wales[16]Gerald is here, but Penguin has an English translation. It is the story of Elidyr of Stackpole., although by contrast the fairy otherworld in the Middle English Sir Orfeo, a retelling of the Orpheus legend, glows “as bright as doth at none the sonne.”

All these attempts to explain the Green children strike me as attempts to explain away the Green children. For the most part, they worry about the Greenness of the children while forgetting that they are children, and no wonder, because who cares about a story about lost and frightened children who just want to go home, who except the children themselves, and their no doubt disconsolate parents. Maybe they really are anemic Viking orphans from Mars. But if so, they’re still scared. Conflating the Ralph and William accounts may be to blame for the habitual absence of sympathy in the critical tradition. While William speaks of the children’s astonishment when they arrive in our world, and how they “wept bitterly” when they thought they’d been denied their precious beans, he is mainly interested only in the children as wonders, and he takes pains to let us know, at the start and end of the tale, that he’s not sure it’s believable. He wants us to know that he’s no dupe. But Ralph, less worried about his reputation, has the children weeping inconsolably[17]‘inconsolabiliter flebant’ when they are taken to the knight to be exhibited as freaks; they cry, as in William, at the apparent lack of beans; then the boy dies of illness, or perhaps of sorrow: the Latin is notably ambiguous;[18]‘quasi languore depressus’ and they are terrified when they arrive in our world, because of the excessive light and unaccustomed weather, and, they remain terrified as they try vainly to rediscover the cave entrance that would lead them home. They keep at it “donec ab eis comprehenderentur,” until they are captured. And that sad, helpless note is where Ralph ends his story.

Right before the story of the Green Children of Woolpit, Ralph also tells a story of a merman, captured by fishermen, and tortured for weeks before he escapes back into the ocean. Perhaps because of the name of the town — Woolpit comes from Wolfpit — I am reminded too of a fourteenth-century child of Hesse, whose story appears in the fourteenth-century Chronicle of St Peter of Erfurt, who was captured and raised by wolves, and then recaptured and forced to live among humans, walking upright, who longed again to be back with the wolves.[19]I talk about this story at length in Chapter 2 of How Not to Make a Human. A version of this story appears in the seventeenth-century Hessische Chronica, where the boy actually starves “because he could not tolerate [human] food”[20]“Im Jahre 1341 ist ein wildes Kind von ungefähr 7 oder wie andere schrieben 12 Jahren unter Wölfen gefunden, von Jägern gefangen und zum Lehnsherr gebracht worden. Es habe zuweilen auf allen … Continue reading. I can’t resist turning this story into a story about something else any more than any other critic can. But whereas they just want to diagnose the children, and be done with them, or take them as evidence of some fairy, cultic, or conquered element from Old Britain, or as a sign that we were once visited by space aliens, I’m inclined, even in Biden’s America, to want to stay with the children, lost among people whose language they don’t speak, separated from their family, wanting to be home or at least with people and customs they know, weeping and helpless, with the best on offer for them the option to assimilate or die.

 

References

1 I’m presuming the town is probably spelled Baños now, and the j of Banjos is not a hard j, like the instrument, but an aspirated j, like Juan. If the town is Baños — think of Bath in England as an analog — it could be any number of places.
2 “The men of science, the men of fame
The men of letters tried to explain
Was it parallel worlds or a twist of time
To make her think she’d fallen, fallen from the sky?”
3 For an antiquated English translation of the Ralph, see Thomas Keightley, The Fairy Mythology, 281-83.
4 For an English translation of the William, see here.
5 “viridi colore tingebatur.”
6 ‘recuperavit’
7 For what follows, I am largely indebted to the best treatment of the Green Children tradition, John Anderson’s “Small, Vulnerable ETs: The Green Children of Woolpit,” Science Fiction Studies 33.2 (2006): 209-229.
8 Elizabeth Freeman, “Wonders, Prodigies and Marvels: Unusual Bodies and the Fear of Heresy in Ralph of Coggeshall’s Chronicon Anglicanum,” Journal of Medieval History 26.2 (2000): 127-143.
9 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman. U of Minnesota Press, 2015. I have wondered at this interpretation, as it hints at a notion of “green” pre-Norman indigeneity, which tracks with a certain folkloric English attitude towards their pre-Roman cultures, but on further reflection, I don’t think such romantic neopagan folklore can be ascribed to twelfth- and thirteenth-century writers.
10 Paul Harris, “The Green Children of Woolpit: a 12th-century mystery and its possible solution,” Fortean Studies 4 (1998): 81–95.
11 Derek Brewer, “The Colour Green”, in Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, eds, A Companion to the Gawain Poet (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 181-90.
12 Harris
13 Dinitia Smith, “Foundlings Wrapped in a Green Mystery,” New York Times Mar 18 (2002), E3, review of Glyn Maxwell’s play Wolfpit.
14 John Anderson treats this in detail, as he does the other science fiction hypotheses.
15 Derek Brewer, who is, however, wrong in simply saying that the Woolpit story has nothing to do with fairy. Richard Firth Green’s Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church, 4, concurs about fairy color.
16 Gerald is here, but Penguin has an English translation. It is the story of Elidyr of Stackpole.
17 ‘inconsolabiliter flebant’
18 ‘quasi languore depressus’
19 I talk about this story at length in Chapter 2 of How Not to Make a Human.
20 “Im Jahre 1341 ist ein wildes Kind von ungefähr 7 oder wie andere schrieben 12 Jahren unter Wölfen gefunden, von Jägern gefangen und zum Lehnsherr gebracht worden. Es habe zuweilen auf allen Vieren gelaufen und habe übernatürliche Sprünge machen können. Als man es auf dem Schloss zähmen wollte, floh es beim Anblick der Menschen unter die Bänke. Kurze Zeit später starb es, weil es die Speisen nicht vertrug. ” From Wilhelm Dilich and Johan Carl Unckel, Hessische Chronica, Frankfurt, 1608, page 187
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