1135~1154: The Green Children of Woolpit

 The Green Children[Larger Version Here]

Legends in England tell that sometime during the reign of King Stephan [ca. 1135-1154 CE] two strange children were found near the village of Woolpit, England. Workers were harvesting their fields when they heard frightened cries; investigating, they discovered two children, a boy and a girl, terrified and huddled near one of the many wolf-pits the village was named for. The children were screaming in an unknown language, and their clothes were made of a strange looking, unknown material... odder still, both children had green skin. 

        The two green children were taken to the home of a man named Richard de Calne, where the local populace attempted to take care of them... but the children refused to eat or drink anything that was offered, until someone brought in some fresh bean stalks. The children eagerly grabbed these and opened the stalks; but when they saw these empty, they started to cry. When shown that the beans were in the pods instead, the children quickly ate their fill and ate nothing else for some time after. 

        Soon after the green children were found, the boy sickened and died; but the girl became healthy and hearty, eventually losing the green hue to her skin. When she learned the local language, what she told of her origins only deepened the mystery. She said that she and her brother had come from a land with no sun called St. Martin’s Land; the people there, all green, lived in a perpetual twilight. When she was asked how she had come to be found outside the pit, she could only say that she and her brother had heard bells, become entranced... and then the two of them were in the pit and could see the light from the mouth of it. Though the girl lived long after her discovery, eventually marrying a local man, she was never able to give any further help in solving the mystery of her and her brother’s origins, nor of their odd arrival in Woolpit1

        Many theories have been put forth regarding the matter: that the children were fairies, aliens from space, came from a parallel dimension, from an underground world, had been held captive and brainwashed as part of an elaborate hoax, or were simply from a slightly distant village with a different dialect of English and a disease that causes green skin. Imaginative though some of these theories are, all have one problem… none of them agree on the basic details of the original Green Children story -- such as how the children arrived in Woolpit, for example -- and the theories tend to rely heavily on the very same details. So what is needed is the most correct version of the story, minus the changes added over time.

The Paper Chase

        Even though the story of the Green Children of Woolpit can be found in a large number of books today with just a little effort, the actual number of sources used for the original story can be quickly narrowed down to just a handful of earlier texts... to be precise, three. Most modern versions of the story are derived from Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology, published in 1850, which gets the story from the two earliest sources existent. These earliest two sources are from around the year 1200, written around sixty years after the time the green children are said to have been found; they are Historia Rerum Anglicarum by William of Newburgh [ca 1136-1198 CE], and Chronicon Aglicanum by Ralph of Coggeshall Abbey [?-ca 1227 CE].

        Keightley’s version of the story is largely a translation of Ralph of Coggeshall’s account of the green children which also mentions some details from William of Newburgh’s account... so it is a mix of the earlier two accounts. This version is the most often used because it is both easier to find than the earlier sources, and it is more accessible than the earlier latin accounts; and the fact that most modern authors use Keightley’s version of the story is noteworthy because it contains a mistake... Keightley refers to William of Newburgh as William of Newbridge, an error that is repeated in almost all newer accounts.

        I have found translations of the two earliest works, making it possible to compare the two stories together and reach some useful conclusions regarding the original story of the Green Children of Woolpit.

Historia Rerum Anglicarum

        William of Newburgh’s account of the green children in Historia Rerum Anglicarum, has been translated by two authors: Thomas Keightley gives a brief reference to William’s work in The Fairy Mythology (1850), and Joseph Stevenson presents a full translation of William’s account in Church Historians of England (1856).

        It is William’s account of the Green Children of Woolpit that places the event as happening within the reign of King Stephen; and since there was only one King Stephen, this narrows the occurrence to happening sometime within this monarch’s nineteen year reign between 1135 and 1154 CE.

        Though William of Newburgh was likely alive at the time the event is said to have occurred, he didn’t write the Historia Rerum Anglicarum until 1196, at least forty years after the green children were said to be found. It’s clear from William’s account that he was by no means an eyewitness, nor did he ever see any physical evidence of the event -- the green girl, if she existed, had apparently already passed away before William looked into the matter -- so William had only the stories of multiple people as proof anything happened. This was enough evidence to convince William, however, as he explains: “...at length I was so overwhelmed by the weight of so many and such competent witnesses, that I have been compelled to believe.”

        William tells us the children were seen to emerge from one of the wolf-pits by reapers working the harvest, and they were caught shortly afterwards. He states that, over several months, both children lost the green hue to their skin and learned the local language, and that both children were baptized shortly before the boy died.

        Also according to William’s account, both children were questioned about their origins; despite the fact that he never met the children, William’s account contains quotes of what the children said when questioned. Wiliam’s account is the only source for several of the details that are often mentioned in the legend. It’s the only source that gives a name for the children’s original home: according to Keightley, the children called their original home ‘St Martin’s Land’, and according to Stevenson’s translation, William states that the children said: “We are inhabitants of the land of St Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”

        William’s account is also the only source that credits the children with saying that all the people in their original home were Christians and that they had churches, and that they could see a bright country across a very large river from their original home.

        On the subject of just exactly how the children traveled from St. Martin to Woolpit, William quotes the children as saying: “...we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”

        William’s account is also the only source that claims the green girl married, but there is disagreement about who and where. According to Keightley, William says she married a man from Lenna; according to Stevenson, William says she married a man at Lynne. William ends his account of the Green Children of Woolpit by asserting that there were many more strange details that the children told, but that they were “too many to particularize.” Unfortunate.

Chronicon Anglicanum

        The Chronicon Anglicanum is a historic chronicle of important and interesting events that occurred at or near the abbey of Coggeshall from the time of it’s establishment in the early part of the 12th century (the earliest event that I know was noted in the chronicle is dated 1113 CE). This chronicle was reprinted in 1857 as part of a preservation of ancient scrolls and manuscripts of England, and this reprint, in turn, was reprinted in 1965; it is from a copy of this last reprint that I’ve located a Latin original of the account2.

        The part of the chronicles reprinted was authored by Ralph (Radulphi) of Coggeshall Abbey, and the bit in particular that we’re interested in was written sometime in the year 1200 CE. Ralph’s account of the green children is presented in a section of the book featuring many fantastic stories that the author had heard and chose to write down; in fact, the green children story is sandwiched between a story about a merman and a report about some giant teeth that were discovered. If this is considered with the fact that Ralph wrote his account a minimum of 46 years after the green children were supposed to have been found, it seems a safe bet that Ralph was not an eyewitness to the events and is therefore merely noting an interesting story he has heard.

        Ralph’s account of the Green Children of Woolpit is the only source that claims the children were taken to the home of Sir Richard de Calne, a knight, at Wikes... perhaps this is because, as Ralph states, he had frequently heard this story from de Calne himself. In this version, it is at de Calne’s home that it was discovered that the children would eat the raw beans. Also, Ralph’s account claims that after the death of her brother the girl then worked for de Calne’s family as a servant for several years, during which time she was “rather loose and wanton in her conduct.”

        In Ralph’s account, the girl lost her green hue, learned the local language, and was baptized only after the boy had died; and so it was only the girl who was questioned about the origins of herself and her brother. As to the question of how the children traveled to Woolpit from their original home, Ralph says: “...as they were following their flocks, they came to a certain cavern, on entering which they heard a delightful sound of bells; ravished by whose sweetness, they went for a long time wandering on through the cavern, until they came to its mouth.” Upon exiting the cave, the children were overwhelmed by both the excessive sunlight and the temperature of the air; when found, they tried to find the cavern they came out of but were caught before they could.

        And thus ends Ralph of Coggeshall’s account of the Green Children of Woolpit.

Some Brief Conclusions...

        The differences between William of Newburgh’s account of the green children and Ralph of Coggeshall’s account is probably due to the differences in how each author originally heard the story. William appears to have investigated the story around forty years after it happened and talked to many people who recounted the event to him, so his version is likely a smoothed-out compilation of many short versions of the story. Certainly, he did not state that he talked to any eyewitnesses; so it’s quite possible that none of the people he talked to were.

        Meanwhile, Ralph appears to have heard the story repeatedly from just one man who claimed to be not only an eyewitness, but a vitally involved character. This sounds suspiciously like said ‘eyewitness’ -- Richard de Calne -- may have been bragging to Ralph, and should make us suspicious of his claim of direct involvement in a locally famous tale. The simple fact that de Calne’s name is not mentioned in William’s account, despite the fact William interviewed numerous people, may be a strong indication that de Calne was not originally involved in either the event or the legend.

        Although both accounts agree on the general structure of the story, they disagree on the details; so they cannot be used either to confirm one another, or to prove the event happened. Still, each has clues that narrow down the where and when of the event, so further digging may still be able to give a more definitive answer in the future. Of course, it would help if there were a third ancient account, but...

Gervase of Tilbury's Account?

        I have run across a small number of authors who have claimed that a third ancient account of the green children exists, written by Gervase of Tilbury, a well-known author of historical texts. Since Gervase lived from around 1152 to 1220 CE, an account from him would be as valuable as Ralph of Coggeshall’s or William of Newburgh’s; unfortunately, I haven’t found any real indication that Gervase actually wrote such an account.

        The claim that Gervase gave an account of the Green Children of Woolpit was first put forward by Harold T. Wilkins in his book Strange Mysteries of Time and Space, published in 1958, and it is from his book that all other authors repeat this claim. But the quotes that are presented by Wilkins’ in his book from the so-called Gervase account not only add nothing new to the story, they are also clearly a simple blending of the details previously recounted in both Ralph of Coggeshall’s and William of Newburgh’s accounts. For example, Wilkins’ gives a quotation from the green girl that he claims is from Gervase’s account, but it is nothing more than an unskillful paraphrasing of Stevenson’s translation of William’s same quote from the green girl5.

        There are other suspicious similarities between Wilkins’ “Gervase account” and those of Ralph and William. Wilkins says that Gervase’s account states that the girl married a man at Lynn, and Wilkins then quotes, “where she was said to be living, a few years since.” When compared to William of Newburgh’s account: “...she was married at Lynne, and was living a few years since, at least, so they say...”, it becomes clear that Wilkins is giving a simple paraphrase of William’s line as a supposed quote from Gervase. Wilkins’ alledged account from Gervase of Tilbury offers only one detail different from both Ralph’s and William’s accounts of the green children; it claims the beans were given to the children while they were still sitting in one of the wolf-pits.

        So Harold Wilkins is the only actual source I’ve found for a claim that Gervase of Tilbury wrote anything about the green children, and the evidence leans heavily towards the conclusion that Wilkins created the alleged account himself. Though he implies that the story may have come from Gervase’s famous historic text, the ‘Otia Imperialia’, Wilkins never clearly states this as a fact; and I have found no other indication that the green children story is in said text. For this reason, and the others already mentioned, I will need to see more evidence before I’ll believe that a third ancient source for the story exists.

A Critical Look at the Theories

Sign of Woolpit, EnglandVillage sign for Woolpit [Larger version here]

        In light of what William’s and Ralph’s account of the Green Children of Woolpit tell us of the original event, the various theories previously mentioned about who the green children were are interesting... mainly because of the scant amount of information that was ever recorded regarding the incident. The most commonly repeated theories are very closely related: that the children were fairies, aliens, or visitors from different dimensions or from underground, all hold as their main idea that the children were not human and that their arrival was clearly supernormal, ideas clearly implied by both William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall, though the theories about the children as aliens are usually based on a mistaken impression that they were found wearing metallic or spacesuit-style clothes, which is a newer detail that has been added to the legend [follow the 'See Also' link below].

        A different view is that the children were from a distant town and had a dietary disease that colored their skin green. The theory goes like this: the children got lost in flint mines near the village of Fordham St. Martin, came out of mine shafts near Woolpit, and wandered around until they were found in the fields near the village. They spoke a local dialect of English that was immediately unintelligible to the villagers of Woolpit, but similar enough for the children to quickly learn the Woolpit dialect (Fordham St. Martin is about six miles away from Woolpit). Their skin was green because of a dietary deficiency -- possibly ‘green chlorosis’ -- and they quickly regained a normal hue when given a better diet.

        Overall, it’s a good theory for those who want to believe both that the event occurred and that it was not a supernormal occurrence... but I must take issue with one point that supports it. The idea that the green girl’s skin changed to a normal hue due to her diet is an unsupported conjecture. While both William and Ralph’s accounts of the green children clearly state the authors’ beliefs that it was her diet that changed her skin color, this may not be the case. Perhaps other factors caused the change, but because it was believed their diet was responsible, it’s their diet that was reported. So while the theory is a good fit for the details as we have them, we can’t be sure the details as we have them are the whole story.

        If the opinions of the original chroniclers, William and Ralph, were to be guessed at, the events described very much fit ideas regarding fairies that were common in England at the time. Fairies were supernatural creatures considered to be essentially human in appearance, and to live in their own world that was somehow separate from but close to our own world. The two worlds often met in unexpected times and ways, thus encounters with fairies were both unpredictable and dangerous… dangerous mostly because interaction with fairies could trap a human in the fairy’s world, forever lost to ours. In this light, the green children could be comparably thought of as being fairy children that got trapped in the human world. The fairy world’s appearance and society were believed to roughly correspond with the world familiar to humans, but also thought to have strange and surprising differences… and so the description given of the children’s home, St. Martin, would also match up with then-current expectations of the fairy world.

        In the end, what we have is a mix of evidence that both supports and undermines the possibility of the event. In its favor is that William of Newburgh gathered stories from many locals of Woolpit who may have been alive when the incident happened (depending on local average lifespan). Against it is the resemblance of the story’s structure and details to the fairy mythology that was common knowledge in Woolpit at the time. So we are left with a basic question: is the story of the Green Children of Woolpit a true event that has had the trappings of fairylore attached to it, or is it a fictional story that a large number of people in Woolpit believed and passed on to whoever asked? An answer to this question may never be found.

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