(For Part 2, “Duncan Lunan and the ‘Green Children’ of Woolpit,” click here.)
“The power of the story [of the green children] comes in the end from our pity for these ultimate strangers in a strange land, these small, vulnerable ETs.”
The quote is in medieval historian and archaeologist John Clark’s wonderful article “‘Small, Vulnerable ETs’–The Green Children of Woolpit” (2006). Clark adds that to explain the green children’s origin would be to destroy that power. Which of course we don’t want to do.
Yet how can there be a mystery without an itch for its solution? “Every person can say what he wishes,” wrote the critical-minded 12th-century historian William of Newburgh about the children, “and can rationalise these events as best he can; but I am not ashamed to have described this unnatural and remarkable event.” Nor should we be ashamed of trying to “rationalize” it–to find a framework in which it can be made intelligible.
After all, that’s what Purkiss and Clark do in using the 20th-century jargon “ETs” for beings, human or otherwise, of the 12th-century.
There are a couple of minor puzzles we need to tackle in our process of “rationalizing,” before we broach the really big ones:
First, just when were the children supposed to have put in their appearance? William of Newburgh dates the episode vaguely to “Stephen’s reign,” that is, the dreadful period in the middle of the 12th century when “England suffered fourteen years of death and taxes in a civil war marked by the most horrible cruelties” (Will Durant) while the usurper King Stephen and his cousin Matilda slugged it out over the throne. Our only other source for the story, Ralph of Coggeshall, gives no date at all, and the context in which the narrative appears in his Chronicon Anglicanum–a string of undated wonder tales inserted into Ralph’s account of the preparations for the Fourth Crusade in 1199–is no help in this regard.
Duncan Lunan says that, “by implication,” Ralph dates the incident to the reign, not of Stephen, but of his successor Henry II (1155-1189). Lunan favors this dating and claims to have argued in support of it. If I understand him correctly, he seems to think that the green girl, whom Ralph calls “greatly wanton and lascivious,” had an illegitimate child by King Henry.
As to Lunan’s evidence for all of this, your guess is as good as mine. He may have an argument, but it’s buried somewhere in the bewildering clutter of details with which his book Children From the Sky is stuffed. I can’t even figure out his grounds for thinking that Ralph puts the green children in Henry’s reign rather than Stephen’s.
The second minor mystery is bound up with the first. Who was Richard de Calne?
He figures prominently in Ralph’s version of the story. The children, says Ralph, were “taken to the home, at Wikes, of the lord Richard de Calne, a sort of knight.” (That was where they were offered food, which they refused to touch until somebody showed up with beans.) A short time later the boy died, while “the girl enjoying a full recovery, and becom[ing] accustomed to all kinds of food, put off that completely leek-green colour, and gradually regained sanguine condition of the whole body. Being later reborn by immersion of holy baptism, and remaining for many years on the staff of the aforesaid knight (as we frequently heard from the same knight and his family) she showed herself greatly wanton and lascivious …”
You see why de Calne is so important. He was a first-hand witness to the events, and Ralph claims to have been in “frequent” contact with him and his family. What do we know about him?
Not much, it seems. Lunan has a lot to say about de Calne and his family, but most of it is just confusing and difficult to connect with any sources. If we’re to trust Lunan’s archival research–which I’m not sure I do–de Calne appears sporadically as a landholder and witness to legal procedures between 1130 and 1160, a period which covers the entire reign of King Stephen. John Clark says that we know that de Calne “existed, that he was indeed lord of the manor of Wykes at the time that, we are told, the Green Children made their appearance, and that he died in or before 1188.” (He doesn’t say how we know all this.)
We don’t know when Ralph was born. We do know that in 1227 he was still alive, and that he probably wrote his Chronicon Anglicanum sometime around 1220. Assume that he died in 1230 after living the Biblical 70 years; he would have been born in 1160. Let’s imagine de Calne was born around 1110 (to be an adult in 1130), and died in 1185 at the ripe old age of 75. Ralph would then have been 25 years old at the time of de Calne’s death; he would have written his story of the green children 35 years afterward.
That gives memory a lot of time to become distorted, to shade from first-hand testimony into family tradition. How much of what de Calne and his family told Ralph was about the coming of the green children, and how much was gossip about the naughty behavior of a certain lady who had spent “many years” in their employ? I won’t deny that lady’s existence–but how secure is her identification with the mysterious “green girl” who emerged from the earth well before Ralph was born?
As for William, whose dates (1136-1198) overlap more nearly with de Calne’s, he doesn’t mention de Calne or any other named person in connection with the incident. He claims that his initial skepticism about the green children was overwhelmed by “the weighty testimony of so many reliable people,” but he doesn’t say who they were. Were they were first-hand witnesses? Or were like the people who transmit urban legends nowadays–sincere and “reliable,” and perfectly certain that the events they describe actually took place, but always on the authority of somebody else? (Who, when questioned, turns out to be equally certain and equally dependent on someone else’s authority.)
William knows a rumor that the green girl married a certain man at Lynn–no mention of her “lascivious” ways–but he doesn’t seem to know who the man was. He knows that she “was said to be still living a few years ago.” But does he know anyone who claims to have actually known her, or who can say whether she’s still alive? It doesn’t sound like it.
“This story is strangely convincing,” says John Clark; and indeed it is. UFOlogist Jerome Clark, writing about the green children in his book Unexplained!, quotes folklore scholar Katharine Briggs: “This is one of those curiously convincing and realistic fairy anecdotes which are occasionally to be found in the medieval chronicles.”
“Strangely convincing” … “curiously convincing.” Yet the more I think about it, the more I’m led to believe that the story’s conviction lies not in its genuine factuality, but is something in the texture of the narrative that sets off a buzzer in our minds–as it did for the once-doubting William–that says: THIS IS REAL. That overrides, as it did for William, the rational awareness that it can’t be real.
The green children didn’t exist. We don’t have to seek their origins in a human colony on a “terraformed” planet somewhere in the Galaxy (Lunan), or as malnourished Flemish orphans lost in the flint mines by Thetford Forest (Paul Harris). Their reality is UFO reality: something from within.
They’re ETs–Diane Purkiss had that exactly right. “Small, vulnerable”–to whom could those words better apply than the shattered UFOnauts at Roswell? From a land without sun–like the dim alien worlds often described by UFO abductees. (More on this in a later post.) “Their entire bodies were green”–a detail resistant to any naturalistic explanation, but putting them in the category of the stereotypic saucer pilots of the 20th and 21st centuries.
As well as other mythical beings, of whom we’ll need eventually to speak.
But first–back to the UFOs and their “little green men.” In next week’s post.
by David Halperin
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