Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Green Children of Woolpit.

In the Chronicum Anglicanum of Ralph of Coggeshall and the Historia rerum Anglicarum of William of Newburgh, we find a record of a fascinating marvel which was said to have occurred in the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, at some point in the twelfth century. Woolpit was named from the Old English wulf-pytt, which were deep trenches which had been excavated to trap wolves. It is said that one year during the harvest, two mysterious children emerged from one of these ditches. Their skin was light green in hue, and their clothes were also an unusual colour, fashioned from a material the local reapers didn’t recognise.

As the language the children spoke was also unfamiliar, they were brought to the home of a local landowner named Sir Richard de Calne. Here, the children remained distraught, and refused to eat any of the food that was presented to them for a few days. Finally, the villagers brought them fresh beans with the green stalks still attached, and the children were happy to eat these.

It seems that of the two, the girl, who was the eldest, was far better equipped to survive away from whatever home the children had wandered from. The boy, on the other hand, became depressed, wasted away, and died. The girl prospered. She was baptised, adopted the name ‘Agnes’, gradually lost her anomalous green skin tone, and eventually married. She had adapted to the ways of the human world, though perhaps not fully, as Ralph of Coggeshall noted that she was “rather loose and wanton in her conduct.”

When later queried regarding how she and the boy had arrived in Woolpit, she told the following story. She and the boy (who was her brother) came from a place of perpetual twilight which she called the “Land of Saint Martin.” There everybody was green like the children had been. Like the Underworld of antique Greek myth, the Land of Saint Martin was bordered by an expansive river, across whose banks could be seen a mysterious luminous country. One day, ‘Agnes’ and her brother were tending their father’s flock in the fields. The children followed the animals into a cavern, where they heard the sound of bells chiming. Following the sound, the children went deeper and deeper into the cave, until they finally arrived at a bright exit, whereupon they stepped out into the blinding sunlight of Woolpit in the height of the harvest.

There has been little agreement as to whether the story is a pure folk tale, or a garbled account of some real historical event. There are indeed elements of the story that would suggest both. The idea of caves or caverns as points of entry into the Otherworld is an extremely common motif in folk-tales and the antique mythologies of various nations; similarly, the Children refusing to eat until they are presented with the green-stalked beans is strongly suggestive of the internal logic of correspondence common to many folk-tales. However, it is extremely rare for visitors from the Otherworld to actually stay in ours; the Green Children of Woolpit is perhaps the only ever instance of this. To those who would take the perilous but very pleasing expedient of taking the tale largely at face value, several exotic explanations present themselves. The Children may have been refugees from some subterranean country akin the imaginary cavern worlds which were popular in the scientific romances of the 18th century, and are avowed a reality by some occultists to this day. To a modern reader, the Children might suggest stranded extra-terrestrials of some kind, and this interpretation of the tale goes back much further than you would imagine. In the Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton opined that the Children might have “fallen from Heaven”, an idea which found its way into Francis Goodwin’s fancy The Man in the Moone (1638), a work sometimes regarded as the very earliest example of science fiction.

Whatever its ultimate origin, the endlessly suggestive beauty, simplicity, and perfection of the tale cannot be denied. A village sign in Woolpit today depicts the children in silhouette; local folk singer and author Bob Roberts wrote in his 1978 A Slice of Suffolk: "I was told there are still people in Woolpit who are 'descended from the green children', but nobody would tell me who they were!" Perhaps the visitors from beyond the ditch are with us still.

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