Gautier de Coinci, Miracles de Nostre Dame

Image from Gautier de Coinci’s Miracles de Nostre Dame (BL NAF 24541, 52v), a child sold to the devil.

Last night, some friends threw a spooky holiday party, themed, as they once were, around ghost stories. Here’s my not fully successful story about a HAUNTED EXEMPLUM:

In Fredric Tubach’s Index Exemplorum, between Gestures, significance of and Ghost of woman above tomb, we find entry #2277, Ghost of dead child. Only two of Tubach’s 5400 entries begin with ghosts, only some .0037. To contextualize that for you: that’s the same percentage of people who were murdered in Baltimore in 2008; the same chance of a baby needing its own privately banked cord blood; the same, according to at least one facebook post, as an American baby being born with congenital HIV.

2 in 5400 is not a lot of ghosts.

Still, this one is relatively popular. Or it’s at least proliferative. The story, in Tubach’s summary — his spooky summary — goes like this: “The ghost of a dead child tries to tempt her mother to suicide until a lock of the dead child’s hair is burned.”

Tubach directs me to El libro des Exemplos, and, of course, Stith Thompson’s motif index, which lists the story three times, under entries for magic, the dead, and ogres, which strikes me as a really unpleasant way to describe a child, no matter how wicked it is. Maybe the child was just lonely?

The great Spanish golden book of exemplos, dating to the 15th century, isn’t available online anyway. But both the Motif Index of Mediaeval Spanish exempla and the Motif Index of Medieval Spanish Folk Narratives are, and both — SPOOKILY — direct me to slightly different sets of exempla, many edited in Fascist Spain, and none available online either.
It’s possible that the tale is eluding me.

The Spanish Folk Narratives collection, moreover, tells the story slightly differently, so it goes like this:

E446.2.1. Ghost laid by burning lock of hair. Devil appears disguised as woman’s dead son tells her to find holy relic (Virgin Mary’s golden hair) and to climb a very tall tree for special branches. Her confessor tells her to bum hair. Ghost disappears.

Well! That’s strange. Whose hair is she burning anyhow, and is it her son or the devil?

Let’s assume for now that the tale goes like this: the devil pretends to be the mother’s dead son, lonely or suffering in the afterlife. He can be satisfied if, and only if, his mother dies climbing a tree to retrieve the virgin mary’s hair, somehow left in the tree among some special hairy branches. You’ve probably seen the like if you’ve spent any time in Spain. The mother succeeds, sort of: she gets the hair, snaps off some branches, but still doesn’t manage to kill herself. Maybe, holding her breath, screwing up her face, she leaps out of the tree and is caught, mid plummet, on a branch, dangling helplessly, clutching a hank of demon hair, while he son floats near her, Salem’s Lot style, deriding his mother, and he did in life, for her ineptitude at suicide.

Along comes the priest, fetches a ladder, and rescues the unwilling mother. He has her burn the hair, but she still looks longingly at the tree for years, till death finally comes for her more naturally. She’s embarrassed and sad all at once, and would take the devil back, so long as he came in the form of her son, so long as he gave her something to do.

That’s how I think the story goes, anyway. I like to think the story changes every time a folklorist studies it, that it moves from manuscript to manuscript, changing its details slightly. The reason I can’t find it, then, isn’t because of bad internet archives; it’s because it doesn’t want to be found.


(note: this tale will last only so long as I don’t get my hands on this)

1. Like you need this. You were in high school too once, I bet.

Data entry errors of the damned.



Finally, the medieval vernacular translation of the Bible by ANTICHRIST that we’ve all been awaiting. With assistance, no surprise, from the Saracens.

From here. BnF fr. 6447. The Chronicles, History of the Bible, Lives of the Saints, and Sermons of…Maurice de Sully. Not Antichrist.

Cf. Bible Errata, particularly for the King James Version, eg, Psalm 14:1, “the fool hath said in his heart there is a God”

12 Days of Mordor: A Rendition


A couple days ago, Geoffrey Chaucer suggested we spice up song titles with an added “Mordor.” So let’s blame Chaucer, as we always do, for what my wife and I concocted after Saturday’s dinner, which was:

On the twelfth day of Mordor
My Precious gave to me:
Twelve balrogs burning
Eleven Uruk sieging
Ten stewards stewing
Nine Nazgûl sniffing
Eight legs of Shelob
Seven dwarves a-delving
Sméagol and Déagol
Five Istari
Four hobbit lads
Three Elf Lords
Two Palantír
and in darkness to bind them, one ring!

If you’re on fb, be sure to read the comments and join in the snarking (I know, I know: Palantíri). The great Chris Clarke was predictably brilliant (see also this). Improvements are encouraged!

credit goes mostly to my wife, Alison Kinney, but I’ll happily claim any errors.

Oh Lord, Bless This, Thy Hand Grenade

Matthew Gabriele offered an excellent suggestion in my post below: to learn more about horses being cursed, learn whether or not horses were blessed. After a quick search I discovered, first, that I need to get myself to a library if I want to answer the question, and second, I discovered the original of the holy hand grenade. You there, yes you, you with the 20-sided die, you may be doubtful, but you will now know that I am right.

Have a look here and tell me if I’m not right. Some of the relevant portions of the image, taken from page 290 of an 18th-century volume, The Rituale Basileense juxta Romanum Pauli V et Urbani VIII include this blessing:

Benedictio Sclopetorum, & Bombardarum, fiat ex supradicta benedictione armorum mutatis mutandis, & aspergantur aqua benedicta. Benedictio Pulveris tormentarii, seu jaculatorii; item Globorum plumbeorum, vel ferreorum, conjunctim vel divisim.

In my typically hit or miss Latin, this means:

Bless the rifle and cannonball, and let the above blessing of the arms [be done] with all the appropriate changes, and let them be sprinkled with holy water. Let the gunpowder [?] be blessed, and the projectiles: namely, the bullets, whether of lead or iron, whether collectively or individually.

Thank you. Isn’t there a Medieval Academy Prize for meritorious [I spelled that right I hope] service to Geekdom?

A Public Service Message from 12th-Century England

Try to keep your celebrations in line tomorrow night or the ghost of Bartholomew of Exeter might rise up to punish you. He warns:

De Balationibus. Si quis balationes ante ecclesias sanctorum fecerit, seu qui faciem suam transmutauerit in habitu mulierbri, et mulier in habitu uiri, emendatione pollicita tribus annis peniteat

Amateur Theatrics.* Whoever does amateur theatrics in front of churches–either a man cross-dressing as a woman or a woman cross-dressing as a man–should do penance for 3 years.

I can only assume that Bartholomew meant “until the next election season.” So, ladies, men, if you’re tempted to dress up as McCain and Palin to put on a show tomorrow night, or even if you just want to bust out in some Shakespearean comedy, find an appropriate venue. Keep it from the houses of the holy.


(from here, but can find the same thing here in an injunction against people who make “balationes” and change their form)

* Okay, I tried. What’s your best shot at “ballatio”? I don’t think “dance” is sufficient. By the way, the OED etymology takes me to this hilarious conclusion: [a. OF. baler. (since 16th c. baller) to dance (= Pr. balar, It. ballare, Sp., Pg. bailar): late L. (Isidore) ballare to dance. Some think the L. formed from Gr. to dance, some f. balla BALL n.1, on the alleged ground that, in the Middle Ages, tennis was accompanied with dancing and song]

An End of the Semester Little Self-Aggrandizement Corner

I just dismissed my last Barnard course, let them fill out evaluations, and had the penultimate sit here in my Barnard office. And I just discovered that one of my students had kept a record called “Quotable Karl (& Less Quotable Karl),” which she deposited in my mailbox. Here are the quotes:

On Switzerland: “You can see it in Goldfinger“*

On college-level spelling courses: “Oh, you mean without beer.”

On the discursive construct of cannibalism** in Heart of Darkness: “Like you’re on a ship that’s being piloted by a burrito.”

On pedagogy: “I’m just saying words.”

On student discussion: “Gold stars for everyone!”

On his sentence: “No, that’s stupid.”

On contributing to society: “It’s probably better — for the world — if I don’t talk more.”

On himself: “I’m full of deepness.”

On domestic violence and Hurston: “I believe the word is ‘blow,’ not ‘girly slap.'”***

Notes by the object of study:
* Frankenstein discussion.
** I love it when my students–my Freshmen!–start talking like this.
*** In correcting a student’s misapprehension of Janie’s violence in hitting Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God

I should also say that my students have parodied me to my face. They’re especially fond of my use of the word “fantastic” as an all-purpose modifier for books I like. This happen to anyone else?