In my collection of vintage books going back three hundred years is a leather-bound volume containing editions of The Saturday Magazine from the year 1840 – and one story carries a warning to anti-vaxxers.
You may think that the movement against vaccination is a relatively modern phenomenon. But it seems that ill-founded suspicion of immunisation has existed for a long time. In this 1840 book of mine, it details how vaccination was introduced to the British province of Ceylon (now the independent country of Sri Lanka) in 1802.
This was about forty years after British doctors first realised that the best way to immunise somebody against the terrible disease of smallpox was to infect them with something called cowpox. This discovery resulting from observing that milkmaids who were exposed to cowpox didn’t seem to develop smallpox. And in 18th century England, smallpox was a massive killer – leaving those who contracted it covered in disfiguring fluid-filled pustules.
A doctor called Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in 1798 and just four years later, it was brought to Ceylon. This large island colony off the southern coast of India had been ravaged for centuries by smallpox. So much so, that according to The Saturday Magazine, the natives would flee their villages and homes to get away from it.
Yet within five years, thanks to the arrival of the vaccination, smallpox was all but eradicated. Something that anti-vaxxers should note. A disease that nobody thought could ever be defeated was made a thing of the past within a few short years.
But then the people of Ceylon became complacent. After about 1819, they stopped vaccinating their children thinking the disease was a thing of the past. But it then it struck back – even worse than before. As the magazine describes in very 19th century Victorian language!
“This, however, was a fatal calm for parents had neglected to use for their offspring that means of protection which had secured themselves from the ravages of this frightful disorder, and in July 1819, the smallpox returned with redoubled violence. As security had begotten apathy, so now, danger and death frightened the poor Ceylonese into using the easy alternative, vaccination.“
So please note anti-vaxxers that when the Ceylonese stopped vaccinating, smallpox returned. Much as we’re now seeing measles making an unwelcome comeback. The Saturday Magazine warned those who had not vaccinated to get on with it.
“We give these simple facts of history without one word of comment, believing that they must tend to ally the fears of those who have already sheltered their home, under this great discovery, and hoping that they will excite the fears of those who, from whatever cause, still neglect to use the proper means of safety to themselves and others, means by which can do no harm…”
In his own lifetime, Jenner was regarded as a hero. What on earth would he make of anti-vaxxers today in developed countries who refuse to protect their children and put them at risk of diseases we thought had been conquered?
Medieval England saw many strange incidents. Unexplained visitations that creeped out villagers who knew nothing about science or reason. One such incident was the sudden arrival of two children with green skin at the village of Wulpet. Who and what were they? The mystery is one well worth revisiting.
The strange green children of Wulpet
This is one of those stories that confirms the view of folk in the Middle Ages being…well…not the sharpest pencils in the box. It’s a strange tale. We must go back to the stormy reign of King Stephen, a Norman king who sat precariously on his throne fighting an insurgency from a rival claimant to his crown – the Empress Matilda. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims these were miserable times for England when God himself had turned his face away from the country.
It’s in troubled periods like this that odd events seem to happen – mysterious occurrences with no rational explanation. Maybe a product of mass hysteria – people driven out of their wits by daily strife. And what happened in the village of Wulpit in Suffolk was, frankly, out of the ordinary. It was recorded by one William of Newburgh in 1150. He adopts a cynical tone but says so many witnesses claimed what they saw was true that he feels compelled to repeat it.
Green children emerge from the “wolf pits” – known as Wulpet
Four or five miles from Bury St Edmunds – the shrine to a Saxon king shot through with arrows – was Wulpit….named after “ancient cavities” called Wolfpittes or ‘pits for wolves’. While the reapers were in the fields working, two children emerged from these holes in the ground. A boy and a girl. Nothing untoward about that – except for their appearance. William of Newburgh explains:
“…a boy and girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations…”
Their skin was completely green! Well, the reapers were startled and grabbed the kids taking them to Wulpit. The villagers gawped at them for ages, trying to feed them but the children would not take what they were offered – until somebody offered them beans from their pods. And they gobbled them down.
Their green skin of the children of Wulpet fades!
Over time, they were taught to eat bread and learned English and then something unexpected happened – their green colour started to fade. With this development, it was decided to baptise the boy and girl. This proved fatal with the boy who subsequently died. The girl survived and “differed not in the least from the women of our own country”. She even got married.
All of which begs the question – who were these children? This was their own explanation recorded by William of Newburgh:
‘…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’.
Wulpet green children: from the ‘land of St Martin’
They claimed to be from the ‘land of St Martin’ – a place where this saint was hugely venerated. Did they believe in Christ in their homeland? Yes. Did the sun rise like it did in Wulpit? No.
‘The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or, follows the sunset.’
So they lived in a permanently dark realm though, bizarrely, they could see in the distance a ‘certain luminous country’. But they couldn’t get to it because there was a great river in between.
There are a large number of theories as to what or who these children were – ranging from aliens to fairies to Flemish refugees, etc, etc. It’s not atypical of other stories in the Middle Ages detailing strange visitations to isolated villages.
One such story I like is of the villagers in a church who heard a great thump in the graveyard and found a massive anchor had dropped from the sky…and up above was a floating ship…and down the anchor chain came a sailor. In one version of this story he was grabbed by the villagers and ‘drowned’, exploding like a being made of water.
Exorcism has a long history in human society. The casting out of evil spirits. Rituals to remove demons that were destroying crops or bringing illness into communities. Even Jesus is reported to have done some exorcism in the bible.
Only recently I was reading of the terribly sad story of three children sacrificed by the Inca around the year 1500 to please their Gods. The community was worried about their harvest. So two girls and one boy were imprisoned in a cave and starved. We only know about this because their mummified bodies survived.
There is a reviving belief in exorcism in the US and Europe. The casting out of devils is coming back into vogue. It’s something our ancestors would have understood. Evil spirits were all around them waiting to make them sick, mad or even kill them.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Violent demons were expelled angels
Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven. They rebelled against God and were cast out. They became ugly and hideous.
But they did not lose their power. Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell. And forever, they are trying to escape from hell. Beneath the earth these demons are trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels are trying to guide you to God.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How demons entered your body
It was once believed that demons could enter your body as a vapour through any opening. That might be your open mouth for example. Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud. She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.
People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf.
Bad case of food poisoning? Maybe. Very probably. But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How to get rid of a pesky demon?
So how to get rid of a demon? How to treat a ‘demoniac’? Well, an exorcism of course.
In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism. Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed. She could not cross herself. She behaved strangely. Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking.
So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie The Exorcist, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of unpleasant and profane words.
As there was no sign of improvement – the treatment became more intense. A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession!
The next step was to cram the bones of a dead saint in to Sarah’s mouth! And she was touched over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet. And the rite of baptism and other prayers were chanted over her. After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Some people rather liked demons
Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells. A crime punishable by death. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer.
She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness. For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.
The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave.
This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up! The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.
Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her. So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.
Aaaah…but fairies you say. They’re nice spirits aren’t they? Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages. The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney. To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.
Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs. They were only invisible when they wanted to be.
Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head.
Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.
Demon changelings – when evil spirits replaced family members
If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place. A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling.
A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child. They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.
So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then?
Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby.
Unfortunately, babies did die. And as late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his own wife to be a fairy changeling.
So, as you can see, exorcism has a long and violent history – which I rather hope will not return!