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Building the bridge from hell.

Building the bridge from hell.

Although he may be the author of all evil, the Devil is one hell of a contractor, and across Medieval Europe his services were in high demand, particularly when it came to building bridges.  From roughly 1000-1600 A.D. architecturally sophisticated bridges attributed to diabolical craftsmanship began popping up all over Europe.  Numerous bridges have received the appellation Pont du Diable in France, Ponte del Diavalo in Italy, Puente del Diablo in Spain, Ponte do Diabo in Portugal, Devil’s Bridge in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, not to mention those in Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, all associated with remarkably similar legends of human bridge-builders who faced impossible deadlines, and a subsequent offer to come in under budget and on time by the Devil himself.  The Devil’s price is generally the same i.e. the soul of the first one to cross the magnificent new bridge he has constructed.  Surprisingly, given the Devil’s knowledge of contract law, he consistently gets cheated when some sort of animal gets driven across the bridge first.  As all my own attempts to build, well, anything, generally result in some sort of disfiguring injury and dangerous instability, the inclination to regard architectural feats as supernaturally inspired makes perfect sense.  Given that the Devil’s primary business interest is stealing souls and that there is presumably no shortage of lawyers in Hell, one would expect he’d be a little more careful with the fine print on the contracts, but this leads ultimately to the unavoidable conclusion that the Devil just really likes building bridges, and that the souls in payment are inconsequential.  Apparently pride in workmanship goeth before a fall.

Many historians have attributed the close association of the Devil and bridges that emerged in the Middle Ages with the fact that the Romans were architects par excellance, and accomplished marvels of construction that went unparalleled for hundreds of years after the fall of the empire.  Imagine it’s the Dark Ages and you’re still travelling roads that the Romans built.  And even the ruins of the Coliseum or aqueducts in Rome must have seemed paranormal, when you had trouble even keeping your local castle from crumbling in on itself and notions of public sanitation involved a bucket and the sidewalk in front of your hovel.  This is of course, a deeply unsatisfying explanation, since many of the Devil’s bridges in questions were fairly impressive building feats unto themselves, and most of them were built at least 500 years after the Roman Empire crumbled.  Obviously, there is something particularly unsettling about a bridge.  Why else would trolls live under them?  From the Headless Horseman and Sleepy Hollow Bridge to the Pope Lick Monster reputed to stalk beneath the Norfolk Southern Railway Trestle in Louisville, Kentucky, it seems that mankind can’t look at a bridge without thinking that something evil is lurking on, under, or around it.  Consider what a bridge is.  When you can get a psychoanalyst to put away his cocaine, he’ll tell you that the fundamental symbolism of a bridge in the human psyche is that of transition.  That is, movement through a transitional state of being (say, like the span between life and death), neither here nor there, rather suspended above an abyss of nothingness.  Okay, maybe they’d leave out the part about the “abyss of nothingness”.  In a way, a bridge is a mirror of human arrogance in regards to the natural world.  It takes a lot of gumption to see two unconnected points in the universe that would require some extra effort to navigate, and say, “well, that’s just unacceptable – I think we need to build something that hangs in midair, because I’ll be damned if I’ll walk anything except a straight line”.  Damned indeed.  Enter the Devil and his mad bridge-building talents, for as a Bulgarian proverb says, “You are permitted in time of great danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.”

Yorkshire’s Dibble Bridge (local folklore refers to it as “The Devil’s Bridge”) over the River Dibble, famous for being one of the shortest rivers in England (note that they nonetheless felt it necessary to build a bridge over it), is reputed to have been built by the Devil as a favor to a shoemaker.

The highway between Pateley Bridge and Grassington crosses, in the parish of Burnsall, the deep dell in which runs the small river Dibb, or Dibble, by a bridge known in legend as the Devil’s Bridge. It might reasonably be supposed that Deep-dell Bridge, or Dibble Bridge, was the correct and desirable designation, but legend and local tradition will by no means have it so, and account for the less pleasant name in the following manner. In the days when Fountain’s Abbey was in its prime, a shoemaker and small tenant of part of the Abbey lands, named Ralph Calvert, resided at Thorp-sub-Montem, and journeyed twice a year along this road to pay his rent to the Abbot, dispose of the fruits of his six months’ handiwork, and return the shoes entrusted to him on his previous visit for repair, and bring back with him, on his return, a bag well filled with others that needed his attention. The night before setting out, on one of these occasions, he had a fearful dream, in which he struggled with the devil, who, in this wild, rocky ravine, amid unpleasant surroundings, endeavoured to thrust Ralph into a bag, similar to the one in which he carried his stock-in-trade. This he and his wife feared boded no good. In the morning, however, he started on his journey, and duly reached the abbey, assisted at the service, did his business with the abbot and brethren, and then started, with his well-filled bag, on his return homewards. When he arrived near home, in the deep ravine, where on previous occasions he had found but a small brook which he could easily ford, he now found a mountain torrent, through which he only with difficulty and some danger made his way. Having accomplished the passage, he sat down to rest and to dry his wetted garments. As he sat and contemplated the place, he could not but recall how exactly it corresponded with the spot seen in his dream, and at which the author of evil had tried to bag him. Dwelling on this brought anything but pleasant thoughts, and to drive them away, and to divert his mind, he struck up a familiar song, in which the name of the enemy finds frequent mention, and the refrain of which was: ‘Sing luck-a-down, heigh down, Ho, down derry’. He was unaware of any presence but his own; but, to his alarm, another voice than his added a further line: ‘Tol lol derol, darel dol, dolde derry.’ Ralph thought of his dream. Then he fancied he saw the shadow of a man on the road; then from a projecting corner of a rock he heard a voice reading over a list of delinquents in the neighbourhood, with whom he must remonstrate—Ralph’s own name among the rest. Not to be caught eavesdropping Ralph feigned sleep; but after a time was aroused by the stranger, and a long conversation ensued, the upshot of which was, after they had entered into a compact of friendship, that Satan informed the shoemaker who he was, and inquired of the alarmed man if there was anything that he could do for him. Ralph looked at the swollen torrent, and thought of the danger he had lately incurred in crossing it, and of his future journeys that way to the abbey ; and then he said, ‘I have heard that you are an able architect; I should wish you to build a bridge across this stream; I know you can do it.’ ‘Yes,’ replied his visitant, ‘I can and will do it. At the fourth day from this time, come to this spot and you will be astonished, and you can bring the whole country-side with you, if you like.’ At nightfall Ralph reached his home at Thorpe, and related his adventure to his wife, and added, ‘In spite of all that is said against him, the Evil One is an honest gentleman, and I have made him promise to build a bridge at the Gill Ford on the road to Pateley. If he fulfils his promise, St. Crispin bless him.’ The news of Ralph’s adventure and of the promise soon spread among the neighbours, and he had no small amount of village chaff and ridicule to meet before the eventful Saturday—the fourth day—arrived. At last it came. Accompanied by thirty or forty of the villagers, Ralph made his way to the dell, where, on arrival, picture their astonishment at the sight! Lo, a beautiful and substantial bridge spanned the abyss! Surveyor and mason, and priest pronounced it to be perfect (Parkinson, 1888, p121-124).

Curiously, there is no indication that the Devil requested any compensation for constructing what contemporary experts agreed to be an outstanding bridge, rather turned out to be an “honest gentleman” just lending a hand to a travelling companion.  They just tossed some holy water on the bridge and got on with business of getting from here to there.  Similar bridges constructed in Cardiganshire, Wales, Frankfort, Germany, and St. Gothard, Switzerland were built to the same exacting standards, but the price was the soul of the first to cross (and sometimes the vulnerability of all who later cross to having their souls stolen), but generally involve making some poor animal the sacrificial victim.

The devil’s activity in bridge-building is a myth more ancient than the medieval devil of our acquaintance. The building story of the Devil’s Bridge in Cardiganshire runs briefly thus: An old woman who had lost her cow spied it on the other side of the ravine, and was in great trouble about it, not knowing how to get over where the animal was. The devil, taking advantage of her distress, offered to throw a bridge over the ravine, so that she might cross and get her cow; but he stipulated that the first living creature to cross the bridge should be his. The old woman agreed; the bridge was built; and the devil waited to see her cross. She drew a crust of bread from her pocket, threw it over, and her little black dog flew after it. ‘The dog’s yours, sir,’ said the dame; and Satan was discomfited. In the story told of the old bridge over the Main at Frankfort, a bridge-contractor and his troubles are substituted for the old woman and her cow; instead of a black dog a live rooster appears, driven in front of him by the contractor. The Welsh Satan seems to have received his discomfiture good-naturedly enough; in the German tale he tears the fowl to pieces in his rage. In Switzerland, every reader knows the story told of the devil’s bridge in the St. Gothard pass. A new bridge has taken the place, for public use, of the old bridge on the road to Andermatt, and to the dangers of the crumbling masonry are added superstitious terrors concerning the devil’s power to catch any one crossing after dark (Sikes, 1880, p206).

The notion that some sort of sacrifice must be made to preserve the integrity of a bridge certainly predates the medieval explosion of demonic bridge building.  Architecture takes a solid knowledge of math and physics, which many of us still regard as spooky disciplines, and such alterations of the physical landscape seem akin to a power beyond the reach of mere mortals, hence the historical association of monumental building (including bridges) with esotericism e.g. the Masons are a prime example of the idea that building is an occult art.  Folktales, folksongs, and nursery rhymes (Some scholars like Lady Alice Bertha Gomme say that “London Bridge is Falling Down” actually references the need for human sacrifice to ensure the bridge stayed up) suggesting an ancient tradition of human or animal sacrifice meant to assure the integrity and durability of bridges abound in Europe.

The Romans themselves looked upon bridge-building as a sacred function, and would no doubt use this part of their work to the fullest extent, in order to impress the barbarism opposed to them. The extent of this impression may probably be contained in the old and widely spread nursery rhyme of “London Bridge is Broken Down,” an examination of which has led Mrs. Gomme to conclude that it contains reference to an ancient belief that the building of the bridge was accompanied by human sacrifice. This conclusion is confirmed by the preservation in Wales of a bridge-sacrifice tradition. It relates to the “Devil’s Bridge” near Beddgelert. Many of the ignorant people of the neighbourhood believe that this structure was formed by supernatural agency. The devil proposed to the neighbouring inhabitants that he would build them a bridge across the pass, on condition that he should have the first who went over it for his trouble. The bargain was made, and the bridge appeared in its place, but the people cheated the devil by dragging a dog to the spot and whipping him over the bridge.” This is a distinct trace of a substituted animal sacrifice for an original human sacrifice. But this is a practice which sends us back to the most primitive times (Gomme, 1908, p26).

Another common variant, exemplified by the story of the Sachsenhauser Bridge in Frankfort, Germany involves an unfortunate human bridge-builder who agrees to an impossible construction deadline, and finds himself despairing.  This of course may have more to say about the unreasonable expectations of politicians who promise infrastructural improvements on inhuman schedules.  Lucky for most of these mortal contractors, Hell’s Department of Public Works is always on call, and can raise up that bridge lickety-split.  Again, our means for cheating the Devil out of his requested payment is so obvious, that we have to assume the Devil is really all about building stuff.  I mean, how many times can Satan make the same contractual error and not get wise to the fact that nobody intends to sacrifice their soul for a nice bridge?

The builder of the Sachsenhauser Bridge at Frankfort had engaged to get it completed by a certain day; but when two days off from that stipulated he found a couple of arches were still short of being finished, and in his despair called on the devil to assist him. The Evil One undertook to accomplish the work if given the first to traverse the bridge. He was disappointed by the builder driving a cock over. In his fury the devil broke two holes in the bridge that have never since been filled up. In commemoration of the incident, a gilt cock on an iron rod stands on the spot, upon the bridge (Baring-Gould, 1928, p231).

Again, in an Austrian version, we see the same trick used to get an awesome bridge built, and then cheat the Devil out of his due.  At least most folks have traditionally had the good grace to credit the Devil with his architectural accomplishments, naming bridges thusly erected after him.  Maybe the Devil just appreciates the publicity.

In the valley of Montafon, the bridge of the village broke down, or rather the swollen torrent carried it away; and as the parish was anxious to restore it as soon as possible, the villagers of course being unable to pass to and from Schruns, on the other side of the river, for all their daily wants, they applied to the village carpenter, and offered him a large sum of money if he would rebuild the bridge in three days’ time. This puzzled the poor fellow beyond description; he had a large family and now his fortune would be made at once; but he saw the impossibility of finishing the work in so short a time, and therefore he begged one day for reflection. Then he set to work to study all day, up to midnight, to find out how he could manage to do the work within the specified time; and as he could find out nothing, he thumped the table with his fist, and called out, “To the devil with it! I can find out nothing.” In his anger and annoyance he was on the point of going to bed, when all at once a little man wearing a green hat entered the room, and asked, “Carpenter, wherefore so sad?” and then the carpenter told him all his troubles. The little fellow replied, “It is very easy to help you. I will build your bridge, and in three days it shall be finished, but only on the condition that the first soul out of your house who passes over the bridge shall be mine.” On hearing this, the carpenter, who then knew with whom he had to do, shuddered with horror, though the large sum of money enticed him, and he thought to himself, “After all, I will cheat the devil,” and so he agreed to the contract (Gunther, 1874, p180).

You’re unlikely to ever see the Devil listed on Angie’s List, probably because his prices (involving immortal souls) are a little too high for a standard kitchen remodel.  He goes in for the big projects like bridges, highways (Route 66, one supposes), and other kinds of monumental buildings meant to endure for generations.  A brief perusal of the folklore motifs gives us an indication of the stuff the Devil bids on including dams, mills, walls, palaces, churches (no doubt he gets a good chuckle out of this), roads, ditches, and islands.  Jesus may have started as a carpenter, but he went into management.  The Devil maintains a whole public works effort.  I’ve begun to suspect that there is an insidious plan with a long view in play.  Perhaps one day, the Devil plans to bring the entire worldwide system of small claims courts to a grinding halt by simultaneously suing all those who cheated him for his bridge building services and compounding the damages across 1000 years.  Then again, maybe he just really digs bridges.

Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. A Book of Folk-lore. London: Collins’ clear-type press, 1928.
Gomme, George Laurence, 1853-1916. Folklore as an Historical Science. London: Methuen, 1908.
Günther, Marie Alker, comtesse. Tales and Legends of the Tyrol. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874.
Parkinson, Thomas. Yorkshire Legends and Traditions. London: E. Stock, 1888.
Sikes, Wirt, 1836-1883. British Goblins: Welsh Folk Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. Boston: J.R. Osgood, 1880.