“If you shut up truth, and bury it underground, it will but grow” – Emile Zola
A staple of Forteana is the story of the Green Children of Woolpit, documented by near contemporary accounts of William of Newburgh’s 1189 A.D. Historia rerum Anglicarum and Ralph of Coggeshall’s 1220 A.D. Chronicum Anglicanum. The abridged version is that two children with green skin mysteriously appeared in 12th Century East Anglia, speaking an unfamiliar language, and clearly confused about how they had gotten there. Folklorists see them as a reference to faeries or remnant nature spirits. Historians think they are the remnants of malnourished and persecuted Flemish immigrants. Ufologists tend think of them as a 12th Century example of a close encounter with extraterrestrials. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s William of Newburgh’s version.
In East Anglia there is a village, distant, as it is said, four or five miles from the noble monastery of the blessed king and martyr, Edmund; near this place are seen some very ancient cavities, called “Wolfpittes,” that is, in English, “Pits for wolves,” and which give their name to the adjacent village. During harvest, while the reapers were employed in gathering in the produce of the fields, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange color, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations. While wandering through the fields in astonishment, they were seized by the reapers, and conducted to the village, and many persons coming to see so novel a sight, they were kept some days without food. But, when they were nearly exhausted with hunger, and yet could relish no species of support which was offered to them, it happened, that some beans were brought in from the field, which they immediately seized with avidity, and examined the stalk for the pulse, but not finding it in the hollow of the stalk, they wept bitterly. Upon this, one of the bystanders, taking the beans from the pods, offered them to the children, who seized them directly, and ate them with pleasure. By this food they were supported for many months, until they learnt the use of bread. At length, by degrees, they changed their original color, through the natural effect of our food, and became like ourselves, and also learnt our language. It seemed fitting to certain, discreet persons that they should receive the sacrament of baptism, which was administered accordingly. The boy, who appeared to be the younger, surviving his baptism but a little time, died prematurely; his sister, however, continued in good health, and differed not in the least from the women of our own country. Afterwards, as it is reported, she was married at Lynne, and was living a few years since, at least, so they say. Moreover, after they had acquired our language, on being asked who and whence they were, they are said to have replied, “We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.” Being further asked where that land was, and how they came thence hither, they answered, “We are ignorant of both those circumstances; we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.” Being questioned whether in that land they believed in Christ, or whether the sun arose, they replied that the country was Christian, and possessed churches; but said they, “The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sun-rise, or follows the sunset. Moreover, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.” These, and many other matters, too numerous to particularize, they are said to have recounted to curious inquirers. Let everyone say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous (William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 1, Ch. 27).
Now, I’ve seen numerous accounts of the Green Children of Woolpit, with just as many interpretations. As neurotics are frequently wont to do, I’ve nonetheless gotten myself hung up on one particular detail that consistently appears in each version of the tale – the name of their homeland. Once the youth learned to speak proper Middle English, they insisted they hailed from the twilit underground nation of Saint Martin’s Land. I like etymological clues. They make me happy, and having the name of a saint or two to examine might give us some insights into what the heck resulted in two green children being unceremoniously transported to East Anglia. Luckily, there are a mere four saints named Martin that appear in the historical record prior to the 12th Century: Martin of Tours (c. 316 – 397 AD), Martin of Braga (c. 520 – 580 AD), the canonized Pope Martin I (died 655), and Martin of Arades (died 726). You figure, they don’t name a whole subterranean kingdom after just anybody. “Bob Smith’s Land” just doesn’t have the requisite degree of majesty and mystery. Now, whether you believe there were two anomalistic green children loitering about Woolpit in the 12th Century, it does beg the question of whether opting to go with “Saint Martin’s Land” has any symbolic or existential significance to the whole matter.
Geographically speaking, we can eliminate lots of actual locations named Saint Martin as candidates, since none of them really fit the bill, from the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, to St. Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal, not to mention the numerous villages, cities, and regions throughout Canada, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom and Channel Islands, and the United States. Many of these received their appellations well after the 12th Century, and the others are unlikely to be mistaken as preternatural underground realms populated by green people. One of the more popular analyses is cogent, if especially boring, suggesting that “Saint Martin’s Land” is a reference to the Woolpit-adjacent village of Fornham St. Martin, once occupied by an influx of Flemish weavers and merchants who were terribly persecuted and massacred during the reign of Henry II (around 1173). The Flemish, of course, are not commonly known to be green to the best of my knowledge, despite the homophonic correspondence of “Flemish” with “phlemish”. If you want to rule out any possibility of weirdness a priori, the chain of logic that follows from the existence of Fornham St. Martin in the vicinity (which doesn’t actually appear on maps by its full modern name until the 17th Century) seems painfully obvious. If you’re Rube Goldberg, that is. Here we go. Flemish people lived in a village about a mile north of Woolpit. Said Flemish folks were massacred. Presumably a few orphaned children here or there might have escaped. There also happen to be tin mines in the area. Feral Flemish children may have found shelter in tin mines, re-emerging later into the sunlight, speaking Flemish, suffering from chlorosis (a malnutrition induced anemia that gives a green tint to the skin), and generally perplexed at the current state of affairs. It’s a good thing 12th Century East Anglians were a charitable lot, taking the children into the community and caring for them. Most places would probably start stoking the fires or assembling the torch wielding mob. Curiously, nobody inquired too deeply into the specifics of Saint Martin’s Land from whence the children claimed to hail. What can you say, life as an 12th Century English peasant didn’t leave a lot of time for Fortean musings what with the hard labor, short life expectancies, poor hygiene, and avoidance of a sound beating at the hands of the local warlord.
Unsurprisingly, as a devout anomalist and drinker, not much about this story bothers me except the specificity of the children naming their place of origin as Saint Martin’s Land. After a few cocktails, I’m really into detail, man. So, let’s take a look at our candidates.
Martin of Tours (c. 316 – 397 AD) is the heavy-hitter among our saints. Born in Savaria, Hungary and raised in Pavia, Italy as the son of Senior Tribune in the Imperial Horse Guard. Against his parents’ wishes, Martin converted to Christianity. Emperor Constantine had made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire a few years before Martin was born, but it was still a minority faith. Nonetheless, as the son of a veteran officer, Martin was required to serve in a cavalry unit for a twenty-five year period of enlistment, which he appears to have mostly served in Gaul. Unfortunately, Martin found the soldier’s life incompatible with his Christianity, reportedly somewhat put off by all the wanton violence and bloodshed. So great was his aversion that he reportedly declined to fight in a battle in the Gallic provinces at Borbetomagus. As a Roman soldier, one usually does not have this option. Consequently, he was charged with cowardice and jailed, but to prove he wasn’t yellow, he unwisely volunteered to go unarmed to the front of the troops. His superiors were happy to take him up on the offer, but the invading barbarians brokered a peace, and the battle never happened. He lived as a monk in Tours, France for a while, later retiring to Isola d’Albenga, an island near Corsica, as a hermit. Presumably, if he was a self-respecting hermit, this involved a cave, but this fact is not reported. Martin was pretty well liked in Tours, and they tricked him into returning on false pretenses, declaring him Bishop of Tours when he arrived. For a while he amused himself by destroying all the pagan temples he could get his hands on and finally took up residence in a monastery at Marmoutier, across the Loire River from Tours.
The kind of life the monasteries afforded does not seem to have been excessively rigorous. Marmoutier was situated about two miles outside the city of Tours, in a quiet and retired spot, shut in on one side by a high cliff, and on the other by the river Loire. Here S. Martin built himself a hut with the branches of the trees. Some of the monks followed his example; others dug out caves for themselves in the rock. In these they spent most of their time in quiet meditation, assembling at the set time to partake of their common meal or to attend the appointed services. No manual labour was enjoined, except the copying of books, and even this light work was confined to the juniors. Their austerities consisted in wearing skins or other rough clothing, in abstaining from washing, and in limiting themselves to one meal a day (Scullard, 1891, p112-113).
Followers of Saint Martin definitely seemed to have a penchant for caves. He has come to be recognized as the patron saint of beggars, wool-weavers, tailors, soldiers, and oddly, geese (a story is told that he hid in a barn when told he had been designated Bishop of Tours, but loud geese gave away his hiding place). This dovetails a little too conveniently with the Flemish hypothesis, since Fornham Saint Martin was reputed to be thick with Flemish weavers before the English put the hurt on them. Saint Martin’s Day is still a big holiday in Flanders. We might insist that this chain of logic points at refugee Flemish children from Fornham Saint Martin, if it weren’t for the fact that they were so insistent that the sun never rose on their homeland and that they were leading rather normal lives among their countrymen until such time as they were preternaturally transported to Woolpit, not to mention their peculiar eating habits. And no matter how isolated your average medieval village was, Fornham Saint Martin was not exactly some distant land, being just up the road from Woolpit. Neither was Dutch (Flemish) a completely alien language, described by linguists as being one of the most closely related languages to English. Sometimes the logic required to believe a natural explanation is as convoluted as that needed to believe a preternatural one. Choose your facts wisely or you might sound like a nut either way.
Our next prospect, Martin of Braga (520-580 A.D.), like Martin of Tours was born in Hungary (at the time a Roman province called Pannonia), and became a monk when he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. After wandering a bit, he wound up in the then fairly remote region of Hispania Gallaecia (modern Galicia, Spain and Northern Portugal), where he was consecrated as Bishop of Braga and spent his time writing moral treatises and converting the rural pagans (largely the Visigothic Suevi), focusing on persuasion over coerced conversion. He was both a classically educated and mellow dude, and wound up sainted for his troubles. Clearly, no good deed goes unpunished. Frankly, if I were looking for a cool saint to name a secret kingdom after, a good-natured fellow like Martin of Braga would rank high on my list, but not a lot else about his biography associates him with green children in East Anglia. Not much but the history of the Suevi, whom he is credited with converting to Christianity. Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 A.D.) refers to non-Germanic tribe called the Aestii on the eastern shore of the “Suevic Sea” (our Baltic Sea), who were oddly similar to the Roman perception of the indigenous British (presumably they might have been Celtic).
So now we turn back; and on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea we find the tribes of the East-men dwelling along the coast; in their religion and in their fashions they are Suabians [Suevians], but their language is more like the British. They worship the mother of the gods and, as a religious symbol, they carry images of wild boars. The symbol serves instead of arms and every kind of assistance, and gives the devotee of the goddess a sense of safety even in the midst of foes. Iron is scarce among them, and the use of the war-club is common. They cultivate grain, and also fruit trees, with more patience than is usually exhibited by the indolent Germans; and, besides this, they even search the sea, for they alone among mankind gather amber, or “glesum” as they call it, in the shallows and along the shore. And yet, like true barbarians, they have never asked nor ever found out what is its nature or how it is produced. Long it lay unheeded with the other flotsam and jetsam of the waves until the day when our luxury made it famous. They make no use of it themselves; they pick it up rough; the shapeless lump finds its way to us, and they marvel at the price they get for it (Tacitus, Germania, Chapter XLIV).
Until about 400 A.D., the Suevi stayed east of the Rhine plying the Baltic amber trade, but as Roman control slipped, they swept into Gaul and Gallaecia. Interestingly, as the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, the first two autonomous kingdoms to emerge were Suevic Gallaecia and Britannia. Is this proof that a splinter group of Suevian immigrants settled in an underground kingdom, turned green, and later deposited two odd children in Woolpit? Of course not, but it does demonstrate that one can construct logical chains that result in a natural explanation for a phenomena that was clearly documented as a prodigy, which superficially sound reasonable, but rely on so many dependencies that the necessary set of coincidences involved are frankly, paranormal. Piece together enough accepted historical fragments and you can write a dissertation. Step outside and your sanity is in question. But as Edgar Allen Poe said, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity”, thus I do not feel terribly constrained by such conventions. Spiders! Excuse that. Just a minor side effect.
So, the saints keep marching in. Our third draft pick has papal credentials. Pope Martin I (590-650 A.D.) was from an aristocratic Umbrian family and served as a papal ambassador to Constantinople (not Istanbul). By the time Martin was raised to the throne of Saint Peter, Byzantine influence over papal elections was pretty solid. Essentially, the Byzantine emperor had to give his approval to the next pope. This sometimes resulted in a considerable delay. One elected Pope, Severinus, waited twenty months, and died two months after he finally received approval. Martin wasn’t about to wait around and thus had himself immediately consecrated without getting the Imperial nod. Bad times ensued. Byzantine Emperor Constans II was not pleased, and ordered that Martin be abducted from Rome and presented before him in Constantinople. He was tried and sentenced to death, but the patriarch of Constantinople (basically the most powerful figure in Christendom at the time) pled on his behalf and got him exiled to the Crimea, where he died not long after. He is considered the last pope to suffer martyrdom (apparently his time in Constantinople involved a lot of starvation, torture, and dysentery). Being the last martyred Pope gets you some street cred as a mythical figure. Personally, I lean away from Pope Martin, as he has little association with either caves or green children, but once you get your pope on, everybody knows your name, so we can’t absolutely rule him out.
Finally, we have the Benedictine monk Martin of Arades from the 8th Century, who’s only real claim to fame (apart from the whole saintly reputation) is that he was the confessor for Charles Martel, de facto ruler of the Frankish Kingdom from 718-741 A.D. and grandfather of Charlemagne, which in and of itself is not too shabby a resume. Now there are certainly a gaggle of additional Saint Martins, but they all post-date the arrival of the Green Children of Woolpit. We are of certainly also making the bold presumption that the Saint Martin referenced by the children, who professed that Christianity was the religion of their home, is a Saint Martin we would recognize. I don’t like to rule out parallel dimensions and alternate histories, mostly for the simple reason that the dating prospects might be better over there.
The tale of the Green Children of Woolpit is an excellent example of how we often strive to offer natural explanations for strange phenomena that involve the bland acceptance of an enormous number of highly speculative propositions, yet couched in the appropriate disciplinary argot and spoken with the requisite amount of self-assurance, assume an ill-deserved mantle of sobriety. It’s the same sort of puffed-up, smug self-satisfaction that declares that swamp gas explains UFO sightings, vomiting vultures explain rains of meat, and when some alert fellow points out how the explanation is as equally ludicrous as the possibility that something strange actually happened, there is an inevitable reversion to the claim that “it did not happen, because it could not happen”, thus any tenuous chain of logic that at least adheres to the current precepts of a respectable discipline is preferable to a recognition that the world may be an odd place.
The idea of the unexplained inspires fear. This fear motivates us to strive, to discover, to explore, and to elucidate, but when faced with phenomena that cannot be quickly subsumed by our current paradigm; we sink from the sunny climes of our conscious contemplation into the morass of our subconscious fears. As Sigmund Freud said, “The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises.” And while perhaps we should not strain the bounds of logic to assuage our fears and deny the existence of alternate realities, I do recommend that if you decide to go in search of Saint Martin’s Land, you should pack a lunch. I hear their cuisine is mostly beans.
Scullard, H. H. 1903-1983. Martin of Tours: Apostle of Gaul , 1891.
Tacitus, Cornelius. Tacitus, the Agricola and Germania. London: Methuen & Co., 1894.
William, of Newburgh, 1136-1201. Historia Rerum Anglicarum Willelmi Parvi: Ordinis Sancti Augustini Canonici Regularis In Cœnobio Beatæ Mariæ De Newburgh. Londini: Sumptibus Societatis, 1856.