The Green Children of Woolpit: Anemic Medieval Migrants or Otherworld Abductees?
Who were the Green Children of Woolpit and where did they come from? Speculation has ranged from the story being merely fanciful folklore to extra-terrestrials and everything in between. Over 800 years later, the mystery remains.
During one summer harvest in the middle of the 12th century, during the reign of King Stephen (reigned 1135-1154), villagers from Woolpit in Suffolk, England, discovered a boy and a girl wandering the fields looking lost and bewildered. And they were far from ordinary. Their skin was entirely green, they spoke a language no one had ever heard before, and they wore strangely colored clothing of an unknown material.
The villagers took them to the house Sir Richard de Calne, a local knight who lived at Wykes, 6 miles north of Woolpit. For days the children refused to eat, believing bread and other food they were offered to be “inedible”. At length, someone brought in beans, freshly picked and still in their pods. The children, near starvation, grew excited and examined the stalks, thinking the beans would be inside them. When they didn’t find any, they began to weep. Bystanders then opened the pods and offered them the beans inside. These, the children gladly ate and would eat nothing else for some time after.
It is said that over time they grew accustomed to “normal” food and their skin color gradually faded to a normal hue. The boy ended up dying, but the girl carried on and learned to speak English. She ended up serving in Richard de Calne’s household and later married a man at Lynn; one of the sources even speaks to her character, stating that “she remained wanton and impudent”.
When she was able to communicate how she and the boy had come to Woolpit, her answers only raised more questions.
She said that she and the boy, her brother, came from a land of perpetual twilight, where everything and everyone, were green. She called it St. Martin’s Land since, according to her, the saint was revered there and Christianity was practiced. She also said that they could see a luminous land not far from their own, but separated from them by a broad river.
One day, as they were tending their father’s flocks, they heard a noise, like a bell. They followed it, entranced, into a cavern. They wandered through the caves for some time, eventually emerging close to where the villagers found them – near the “Wolf-Pits”; old ditches from which the town derived its name.
The two were struck by the brightness of the sun and the warmth of the air. They grew afraid when they heard the villagers coming but could no longer find the entrance to the cave from whence they’d come.
The story itself comes from what are generally considered two reliable primary sources. The first is from the Historia Rerum Anglicarum (“The History of English Affairs”), a history of England from 1066 to 1198 and written by William of Newburgh (c.1136 – 1198), an Augustinian Canon at Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire. William makes it clear that despite the story being widely circulated, he was skeptical at first. It was only after he was overcome by the testimony of so many reliable witnesses that he was compelled to believe it.
The second source comes from a manuscript known as the Chronicon Anglicanum, another history of England from 1066, but written by several 12th Century authors. The section dealing with the Green Children was written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died c. 1226), the abbot of a small Cistercian abbey at Coggeshall in North Essex, 26 miles south of Woolpit.
While each account contains minor variations, the whole of the story is the same. What’s more, both mention the testimony of witnesses. Ralph even tells us that his information regarding the girl serving in Sir Richard de Calne’s household and that she remained “wanton and impudent” into adulthood, came directly from Sir Richard and members of his household. This tells us that the story was not one that was merely invented as a fable or folktale, but that something, at least resembling it, actually occurred.
Pages from the Chronicon Anglicanum (The English Chronicle), a history of England from 1066 to 1226 by several authors. The section dealing with the Green Children was written by Ralph of Coggeshall (died c. 1226). Ralph claimed to have gotten information straight from Sir Richard de Calne and his household.
ANEMIC CHILDREN OF FLEMISH MIGRANTS?
The most commonly accepted explanation is that they were children of Flemish migrants who had settled in or around the nearby town of Fornham St. Martin, a center of the local cloth making industry. According to the theory, this would explain their strange language (Flemish) and unrecognizable clothing, as well as their reference to St. Martin’s Land. The broad river the girl mentioned would be the River Lark and their parents victims of persecution either after Henry II ordered Flemings expelled from England in 1154 or after Flemish mercenaries participated in a rebellion against Henry in 1173. And their strange coloration? A form of anemia called chlorosis caused by malnutrition, which is said to sometimes give the sufferer’s skin a green tint.
While attractive, however, this hypothesis does not hold up well under scrutiny.
While there was a significant Flemish settlement in Pembrokeshire, in south Wales, there is no evidence of any Flemish settlement(s) in the Woolpit region at this time. Even if there were a Flemish family or two, the English wouldn’t have seen them as something so drastically different to warrant their reaction to the Green Children.
Likewise, Fornham St. Martin did not become a hub for the cloth making industry until the 14th century. It’s true there was growing trade between Flanders and England. Flemings were renowned for their superior weaving and dying skills and the English for wool. There would have most certainly been some Flemish merchants at the annual trading fairs in the area. But with that being the case, the people of Woolpit and Sir Richard de Calne, at the very least, would have surely recognized the children’s language for what it was. Likewise, the River Lark would have been far too narrow to match the description given by the girl. The date of the 1173 rebellion also places the timeframe outside of the reign of King Stephen; thus contradicting William’s chronology.
It is also highly unlikely they were the children of mercenaries either. Mercenaries do not typically bring their children with them on campaign. In this case, the few who managed to survive the battle either tried to flee but were taken prisoner, were beaten to death by local peasants, or died in some other way. Whatever the case, if they were Flemish, their language would have been identifiable.
Chlorosis was also most likely not the culprit for the children’s green skin color. The green tint that it produces in the skin is both very slight and not the defining characteristic of the malady. It is more pale than green. Ralph of Coggeshall goes so far as to describe the hue of their skin as prassinum colorem (“leek-green”) at one point. The deep green of leeks is a far cry from the slight greenish pallor that sometimes accompanies chlorosis. It is also noteworthy that as a type of anemia (Hypochromatic anemia), the condition would have been caused by an iron deficiency. Since the children were only willing to eat beans for some time, it is hard to see how they would have been anemic since beans are packed with iron.
This explanation also doesn’t adequately explain the twilight conditions and green quality of their “homeland” or why they saw the food they were offered as “inedible”.
BACK FROM THE OTHERWORLD?
Could they have come from the Faerie realm or Otherworld? The description of their homeland certainly implies another “world”. The presence of a river with a bright land on the farther shore recalls the Celtic idea of the Otherworld separated from our own by a great river. The bright land itself bears a hint of the notion that the Faerie world is somewhere in between earth, heaven, and hell. The subterranean passage allegedly taken by the children finds strong parallels in Celtic routes to the Otherworld as well.
Similarly, in myth, legend, and folklore, green is considered the color most favored by the Fae. While faeries are more often described as wearing green, there are references to some being green.
That the children would only eat raw beans may also be an inversion of the idea that visitors to the Otherworld mustn’t eat its food, lest they be trapped there forever. The children’s inability to even recognize normal human food as edible or to think beans were to be found in beanstalks (and not the pods), certainly suggests their point of reference was far removed from ours.
Yet there is no doubt that they were physically human since their “normal” color returned after regularly consuming a regular human diet. This isn’t incompatible with an Otherworldly explanation, however, since Fae stealing human children and leaving a changeling in their place is common in Faerie lore. Ralph of Coggeshall’s description of the girl in adulthood as being “wanton and impudent”, only further hints she possessed a (Faery?) wildness that never left. Could the children have therefore been Fae abductees who found their way back to human society?
Toward the end of William’s account (in his version, the boy dies only after he and the girl tell the story) he tells us, “These, and many other matters, too numerous to particularize, they [the children] are said to have recounted to curious inquirers.” It’s a shame he didn’t record more of these “other matters”. Would they give us the answers to this solve this centuries-old enigma? Or would they only make the tale of the Green Children of Woolpit even more mysterious?
Woolpit Today from www.britainexpress.com/counties/suffolk/woolpit.htm
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