Source Exercise 3: The Medieval Universe

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Abbey church apse

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The world, the heavens, the natural world and spirits

One of the most important challenges facing the historian is to get into the mindset of people in the past who saw and understood the world in very different ways from us. All too often it is easy for us to look rather patronisingly at the beliefs and practices of earlier ages and to judge them by our own standards, instead of trying to understand them according to the standards and beliefs of the time. The medieval period has suffered particularly badly from this heavily present-centred view of the past. 

Medieval people had a very acute sense of the close relationship between the different spheres of existence: the world, the heavens, the natural world and the world of spirits. This came through particularly clearly in the way they responded to unusual phenomena. This extract describes an event that happened at Orford in Suffolk in the reign of King Henry II (1154-1189). Read the extract and then try to answer the questions that follow using only the internal evidence of the source.

In the time of King Henry II, when Bartholomew de Glanvill was castellan of the castle of Orford, it happened that some fishermen who were fishing in the sea caught a wild man in their nets. At this, the castellan of Orford was lost in wonder. The wild man was completely naked and all his limbs were formed like those of a man. He was hairy and his beard was long and pointed. Around the chest he was very rough and shaggy. The castellan placed him under guard, day and night, and would not allow him to return to the sea. He eagerly ate anything that was brought to him. He devoured fish raw rather than cooked, squeezing the raw fishes in his hands until all of the moisture was removed and then eating them. He did not wish to talk, or rather did not have the power to talk, even when suspended by his feet and tortured. On being led into the church, he showed no sign of belief or of reverence and he did not genuflect or bow his head when he saw anything holy. He always sought out his bed at sunset and always lay there until sunrise.

Bartholomew was appointed constable of Orford in 1167

[Eventually] it happened that they led the wild man back to the harbour. They placed three lines of very strong nets all around him and then allowed him back into the sea. But quickly he sought the open water and dived under the nets, emerging on the other side out of the depths of the sea as spectators on the sea shore looked on. Often he dived down and after a short time re-emerged again, as if he were mocking the onlookers because he had evaded their nets. After he had played for a while in the sea, and after all hope of recovering him was lost, he came back to the shore again of his own accord, and remained with them for two months. But after a short time, because of the negligence of those who were guarding him, the wild man secretly fled back to the sea and was never seen again.
Whether this was some sort of mortal man, or whether it was an evil spirit inside the body of a drowned man or whether it was some fish in human form, it is not easy to tell….


A) Try to work out an answer, however tentative, to each of the following:

  • From what sort of work might this passage have been extracted?
  • What sort of person might have written it?
  • Who and what might it have been written for?
  • Is there any evidence that the writer was directly connected with the events described? If so, how might that affect the way we read this account?
When you have worked out some thoughts on these, go to the next page to find out more about this extract.