“Some people believe that when you die, you cross the River of Death and have to pay the ferryman. People don’t seem to worry about that these days. Perhaps there’s a bridge now” ― Terry Pratchett
You don’t want the dead hanging around. They’re liable to get unruly. The safest bet is to put some distance between the living and recently deceased. The solution that occurred to the Austrasian subjects of the Merovingian Franks (6th-8th Century A.D.), inhabiting the northeastern corner of Frankish territory centered on the Middle Rhine and roughly corresponding to modern Luxembourg, was to ferry them across the English Channel to Brittia (believed by most scholars to correspond to the island of Great Britain). This standardized relocation of revenants had the twofold benefit of keeping Austrasia’s undead population at a manageable level, as well as garnering a Frankish tax exemption.
The Classical World was well aware of the existence of the British Isles from about the 4th Century B.C. onwards, with Carthaginians, Phoenicians, and Greeks trading for Cornish tin and everybody generally understanding that there were a few land masses hanging about off the coast of Gaul. It’s just that nobody really seemed to care. Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 B.C., but that was more of an afterthought to the Gallic Wars and because he thought the Britons might be aiding the Gallic tribes across the Channel. He knocked a few heads, accepted some tribute, installed a friendly local king, and then headed back to mainland Europe where the real action was. Vague interest was expressed by subsequent emperors, and Claudius actually sent over four legions in 43 A.D. to assert some Roman authority, but Britain remained a pretty remote Roman province. They built Hadrian’s Wall sometime in the 2nd Century A.D. after they gave up subduing what would later be Scotland, and although a certain distinctive Roman-British culture emerged from the whole episode, post-Invasion Roman historians generally only mention Provincia Britannia in passing. By 410 A.D., the Romans, under attack by barbarians pretty much everywhere, had abandoned the British Isles completely. As the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, the Merovingians inherited Gaul, and the Dark Ages descended in earnest, stories began to emerge about Austrasian traditions of dumping the souls of the dead on the now oddly mysterious isle on the opposite side of the Channel, mostly from Procopius of Caesarea (500-560 A.D.), a Greek historian in the court of Justinian I (527-565 A.D), Emperor of the ongoing concern that was the Eastern Roman Empire.
One hundred and fifty years after the reign of Honorius, the gravest historian of the times describes the wonders of a remote isle, whose eastern and western parts are divided by an antique wall, the boundary of life and death, or, more properly, of truth and fiction. The east is a fair country, inhabited by a civilized people: the air is healthy, the waters are pure and plentiful, and the earth yields her regular and fruitful increase. In the west, beyond the wall, the air is infectious and mortal; the ground is covered with serpents; and this dreary solitude is the region of departed spirits, who are transported from the opposite shores in substantial boats, and by ‘Some families of fishermen, the subjects of the Franks, are excused from tribute, in consideration of the mysterious office which is performed by these Charons of the ocean. Each in his turn is summoned, at the hour of midnight, to hear the voices, and even the names, of the ghosts: he is sensible of their weight, and he feels himself impelled by an unknown, but irresistible power. After this dream of fancy, we read with astonishment, that the name of this island is Brittia; that it lies in the ocean, against the mouth of the Rhine, and less than thirty miles from the continent; that it is possessed by three nations, the Frisians, the Angles, and the Britons; and that some Angles had appeared at Constantinople, in the train of the French ambassadors (Gibbon, 1880, p361).
The relative accuracy with which Procopius describes Brittia, identifying the known inhabitants squabbling over the remains of sub-Roman Britain, Hadrian’s Wall, and some rather specific geographical landmarks, has convinced most scholars that there is little doubt he is referring to the 6th Century British Isles. The Austrasians imagined it was a great idea to use Brittia as a dumping ground for disembodied spirits, a job taken so seriously that their Frankish overlords, no doubt cognizant of the troublesome nature of the dearly departed, not only wholeheartedly endorsed, but offered tax breaks for, shocking in light of the fact that one of perks of being a Medieval king is squeezing every last penny out of your subjects. There was some argument about where the actual debarkation point for souls was, and later tradition moved it westward to the Pointe De Raz (westernmost extent of the Brittany coast), which is quite some distance from what was considered Austrasia.
The western coast of Brittany, with its sheer granite cliffs starting out of an ever-boiling sea, but with its strange inland waveless lakes of the Morbihan and the Gulf of Etel, and with its desolate wind-swept wolds, strewn with prehistoric monuments of the dead, more numerous than anywhere else, has been esteemed the gathering-place of souls seeking to be shipped either to the Isles of the Blessed, or to Britia, that is none other than Great Britain. No place could have been selected more suitable for the purpose than the Pointe de Raz. Near it is the Bay of Souls. The rising and falling ground is barren. Here is the Tarn of Cleden, about which the skeletons of drowned men congregate and run after a stranger, imploring him to give them a winding-sheet and a grave. Procopius, who died shortly after 543, tells us how that hence the souls of the departed are shipped across to the Island Brittia. Near the coast are some islands inhabited by fishermen, tradesmen, and ferrymen. These often cross over to Britain on trading affairs intent. Although they are under the Frank crown, they pay no taxes, and none are required of them. The reason is that it is their office to ferry over the souls of the dead to the places appointed for their residence. Those whose obligation it is in the ensuing night to discharge this duty go to bed as soon as darkness sets in and snatch as much sleep as they can. About midnight a tap is heard at the door, and they are called in a low voice. Immediately they rise and run down to the coast, without well knowing what mysterious cause of attraction draws them thither. Here they find their boats apparently empty, yet actually so laden that the water is up to the bulwarks, hardly a finger’s breadth above the surface. In less than an hour they bring their boats across to Great Britain, whereas ordinarily a ship with stout and continuous rowing would not reach it in a day and a half. As soon as they have reached the British shore, the souls leave the ships, and these at once rise in the sea, as though wholly without lading. The boatmen return home without having seen any one either when going or when discharging their freight. But, as they testify, they can hear a voice on the shore calling out the names of those who are to disembark with those of their parents, their followers, and their character. When women’s souls are on board, then the names of their husbands are given (Baring-Gould, 1928, p156-158).
The wisdom of this practice is obvious. It makes your ghosts somebody else’s problem, but in particular if it is done without malice it avoids potential future hauntings. Tell the souls you are sending them across the water to “the Blessed Isle” for eternal repose, and few of the undead will make much of a fuss about it. Sadly, one hopes for better weather in the afterlife than can be expected from England.
Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. A Book of Folk-lore. London: Collins’ clear-type press, 1928.
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The History of the Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire: With Notes by H.H. Milman. New ed. and complete index. Phil.: Porter, 1880.