In this illustrated Zoom lecture, John Clark, formerly curator of the medieval collections at the Museum of London, investigates the story of the two ‘Green Children’ who suddenly appeared ‘as if out of the ground’ in the Suffolk village of Woolpit in the middle of the 12th century.
The story of the Green Children of Woolpit was reported as fact by two medieval historians. It has often been treated as a ‘Suffolk folktale’, and mined for information on medieval beliefs about the nature and appearance of ‘fairy-folk’ and the location of an ‘otherworld’. Medieval historians have not been concerned whether it really happened, but have seen it as a key to understanding the motives of the two chroniclers who recorded it. Other recent researchers have tried to find a core of historical truth – their explanations range from the down-to-earth to the extraterrestrial.
The tale has been popular ever since an English translation of Ralph of Coggeshall’s original Latin account was published by Thomas Keightley in his The Fairy Mythology in 1850. It has been retold many times, from collections of Suffolk folktales and stories for children to modernist poetry, from a village pantomime and school plays to psychedelic rock music. In the 1950s Benjamin Britten planned an opera on the subject, but never completed it. It has inspired modern novelists, who have reworked the story in settings ranging from Ukraine in the 17th century and northern England in the early 19th century, to modern Arizona.
Why is this story so endlessly fascinating? Were the children really strays from a subterranean otherworld where the sun never shone? Why were they green?
John Clark, for many years curator of the medieval collections at the Museum of London, has long been interested in byways of medieval history, and the ‘wondrous events’ that serious medieval chroniclers recorded. He has a forthcoming book on the subject of this lecture in preparation, which has the working title: The Green Children of Woolpit: Strangers in a Strange Land.
Your curator and host for this event will be the writer Edward Parnell, author of Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. Edward lives in Norfolk and has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. He is the recipient of an Escalator Award from the National Centre for Writing and a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Ghostland (William Collins, 2019), a work of narrative non-fiction, is a moving exploration of what has haunted our writers and artists – as well as the author’s own haunted past; it was shortlisted for the PEN Ackerley 2020 prize, an award given to a literary autobiography of excellence. Edward’s folklore-strewn first novel The Listeners (2014), won the Rethink New Novels Prize. For further info see: https://edwardparnell.com
Don’t worry if you miss the event on the night – the next day we will send you a recording that will be valid for two weeks.
[Image adapted from an illustration in Randolph Caldecott’s 1879 ‘Babes in the Wood’.]