Who and what is the Medieval Notary?

Jolanta N. Komornicka
Jolanta N. Komornicka

Former university professor of medieval history, with a passion for medieval crime and writing.

Starting in the 13th century, but really taking off in the 14th, medieval courts began keeping much better written records concerning crimes, trials, and petitions for pardon (lettres de remission). In this blog, I retell those cases (here called Stories) and offer the comments of a medieval historian on anything I find interesting. I find a lot about medieval criminals and medieval crime interesting. Click to read more of what this is all about!

I also illustrate the cases, making some of them into full comics. I make no claim to artistry, just enjoyment. I find that drawing out the Stories makes me have to really think about the cases, what these medieval criminals were up to, and what their world was like. It’s a very different approach to tackling history than I ever experienced in all my years in academia.

All the stories presented here are true, which is to say they involve real people. They come from real historical records that I’ve translated from either the Latin or Old French or Middle English. Whether the events unfolded as the records say is another matter, and one on which I often speculate in my commentary.

To stay up-to-date with the blog, follow me on Twitter @medievalnotary for blog updates and medieval musings.

The Latest

Of Heretics and Ghosts: II

What kinds of stories do ghosts tell, anyway?

Part II: Ghost Story leaves France behind for Iceland and some haymaking.

We leave Arnuad and Arnaud behind for a moment to turn to the world of 11th-ish century Iceland and the medieval ghost story of Thorgunna and Thurida. Normally I’d recap what happened in the previous post before continuing on, but this digression is entirely separate from the main story. So, enjoy Part I, but you don’t need it to understand what follows: except for the blue ghost elephant who’s narrating this particular ghost story. This story comes from the Icelandic Eyrbyggja Saga.

We begin at sea, off the shores of Iceland. A boat awaits the wind to carry them farther on their journey from Dublin to Dogvertharness. On board, one woman is thoroughly done with sailing.

A ship at sea off the shores of Iceland.
Ghost: One day, a ship came to harbor at Snowfall Ness, on its way from Dublin.
Sailor 1: The shores of Snowfall Ness!
Sailor 2: Just a good breeze is all we need...
Thorgunna: *thinking* I hate seafaring...
Sailor 3: *thinking* I miss the Hebrides already.
Sailor 4: ...To get us to Dogvertharness.

On shore, some soldiers gossip about the passengers now that the boat has docked in the harbor.

Soldiers on shore talking about the boat come to harbor.
Ghost: A local woman named Thurida heart that the passenger Thorgunna traveled with the finest treasure.
Soldier 1: One of the women has an exquisite wardrobe.
Soldier 2: Wonder how she came by it.

Thurida, quite interested in the latest fashions, goes on board to meet this Thorgunna.

Thurida goes on board the ship to meet Thorgunna.
Thurida: Is it true? You have the latest fashions?
Thurida: *thinking* Please say you'll sell. Please say you'll say.
Thorgunna: Yes. But I'm not parting with any of it.

Thorgunna, an older woman and quite tall, is very protective of her possessions.

Ghost: Nevertheless, Thorgunna let Thurida see what she had.
Thurida: *looking at clothes and thinking* This is supposed to be exquisite? Still...a new dress is a new dress..Not like we get much fashion out here.
Thurida: You sure you won't sell?
Thorgunna: Absolutely not.
Thurida: *thinking* Dammit.
Thorgunna: *thinking* On no...they're preparing to set sail. I'm so sick of this boat.
Thurida: Oh. Umm... Why don't you come stay with me? Enjoy some Icelandic hospitality?
Thorgunna: Okay.

Thorgunna accepts Thurida’s offer of hospitality and sets herself up in the guest room in the village of Froda.

Thorgunna comes to stay with Thurida. She sets up her guest room.
Ghost: Thurida was amazed at the gorgeous bed-clothes Thorgunna pulled from her trunk. Sheets of the finest linen, coverlets of silk, tapestries, and curtains. Thurida had never seen their like.
Thurida: What lovely bedding! And so much of it... I don't suppose you migh-
Thorgunna: I will not like like a pig in the rushes for you, madam!
Ghost: Thurida did not take that well. But Thorgunna had soon settled into life in Froda, even if only Thurida's son Kiartan liked her.
Thorgunna seen at the loom, going to church, and raking hay.
Ghost: One day, Thurida's husband Thorodd said:
Thorodd: It's a fine day! Time for some haymaking!
Ghost: When a sudden storm came, Thorgunna alone left her hay spread upon the ground.
Villager: So...that wasn't rain. It was blood.
Thurida: on no!
Thorgunna: Thurida, it is worse than you know. It is an omen. An evil omen, for you and your house and all in it. Now, I must go change.

I do wonder why it took so long for them to recognize it is as blood. But maybe that’s just me.

Thorgunna went to change and lay down in bed. She did not emerge again that day.

Thorodd: Thorgunna, you've not risen from bed for over a day.
Thorgunna: I am dying. I would dictate my will.
Thorodd: ...
Thorgunna: Listen well. Failure to follow my instructions will result in grave consequences. This affair has so begun, that it will not pass off smoothly, unless strong measures are taken dealing with it.
Thorgunna: I would be buried at Skalholt, for soon it shall be a sacred spot and there are priests there who will say prayers for my soul. My red gown may go to Thurida. That way she will consent to all the rest I require. My gold ring will go to the church. But my bedding - all of it - shall be burned. I ask this not because I grudge the use of these handsome articles to any, but because I foresee that the possession of them would be the cause of innumerable quarrels and heart-burnings.
Ghost: She died a few days later.

Skálholt would, in 1056, become one of two episcopal sees in Iceland.

After her death, Thorodd dutifully carried out the dictates of Thorgunna’s will.

Thorodd is preparing to burn Thorgunna's bedclothes.
Thurida: What are you doing?! You can't burn such beautiful sheets!
Thorodd: But... It was her final request.
Thurida and Thorodd argue.
Thurida: Nonsense! Thorgunna only desired this to be done because she was full of envy lest others should enjoy these incomparable treasures!
Thorodd: But... She threatened all kinds of misfortunes unless I did exactly what she said!
Thurida: Piffle. What misfortunes can a bunch of sheets and coverlets possibly cause?
Arnaud and Ghost, walking along and talking.
Ghost: They argued for a long while. At last, they came upon a compromise: Thorodd would burn the pillows and sheets, but Thurida would keep the beautiful hangings and becovers.
Arnaud: I thought this was supposed to be a ghost story.
Ghost: The living are so impatient. I'm getting there.

And I am getting there too. As you can tell, this ghost story is a long one. Next time, what happens when Thorgunna’s will is ignored.

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