The following short story was inspired by an actual account as it is found in the Annals of Fulda. The original account describes strange events perpetrated by a maleficent entity who allegedly tormented the village of Bingen (modern-day Germany) for three years in the latter portion of the 9th Century. The authors of the annals present the story not only as a mere side note of the more significant history of the Carolingian Empire but also as a stark reminder of the dangers presented by the spiritual world.
It must be noted that the medieval period as a whole was an age of belief, meaning nearly everyone would have accepted that there is a God unquestioningly. Therefore this story at the time would have been readily taken as true and would have disturbed those who heard it. This story also happens to be one of the earliest accounts of a Christian exorcism, although the methods described are hardly reminiscent of what that practice has become today.
Was there a maleficent being causing trouble in a remote German village in the late 9th century? The answer is for the reader to decide.
by C.J. Adrien
I was eleven when He arrived in our village. No one knows where He came from nor why He came. There had been three generations of men since the great Charlemagne had brought Christ to our people. The priests told us the light of Christ would protect us from pagan evils, that we would be cleansed of idolatrous sin. But Christ was not there when He arrived. Christ did not protect us when He burned our houses and our fields.
My father was a farmer. His field was plotted between the edge of the village and the dark Bingen forest. Most houses were made of wood and straw, except for that of the priest who had begun to construct a stone church with money sent to him by the church in Ingelheim. Our town sat on the border with Lotharingie, a land that had changed hands so many times between bickering lords that there existed anarchy. Bands of marauders often emerged from the forests to attack the prosperous villages along the Rhine, including Ingelheim. We were fortunate. As a poor farming village, the bands often passed through without stirring up trouble. We did, however, live under constant threat, for we did not know if one of these groups of bandits might someday attack our village. Fortunately, the local lord pushed back against the raids and built a wooden watchtower on the edge of the Rhine and the forest. For a time at least, the attacks had subsided.
Within the community, my father held a prominent position on the village council which oversaw the laws governing farming. , and our family was prosperous as far as poor farmers were concerned. We did not go hungry often. I brought pride to my family too at the age of ten by enrolling in the local priest’s school to learn how to read and write. All children did not earn such a privilege, as pupils were hand-picked based on a brief aptitude test. This was good for my father because if I joined the church, I would not become a farmer, leaving my older brother Adalbert as the sole inheritor of our lands. Not until He arrived did our lives take a dark turn, when we were dragged unwillingly into the meddling of the next world.
Strange things began to happen on the eve of our first harvest of that year. Father remained awake much later in the night than usual to sharpen his tools by the central fire in our one-room house. I remember feeling safe and snug in my straw bed beside my brother along the far wall while the light dwindled. As my eyes closed and my mind wandered into the realm of sleep, we heard a loud knock at the door. It woke everyone. Father stood with a scythe in his hand, concerned who might have arrived at our door. Villagers seldom ventured outdoors at night. There were too many dangers, such as bandits and wolves. Living so close to the forest meant any number of things roamed our fields at night. Our minds wandered; our hearts raced.
“Who goes there?” father said.
He was answered by silence. Carefully, he pulled the latch that kept the door locked and opened a narrow gap, keeping his foot wedged against the bottom in case of trouble. In the darkness, he saw nothing. He closed the door and latched it. Relieved, he sat by the fire to continue sharpening his tools. He looked at me in the corner and saw the flicker of the flames reflect off of my eyes.
“It was nothing. A bird must have struck the wall. Go to sleep,” my father said.
I tried. I closed my eyes and prayed for my mind to wander into the world of sleep again, but the fear from the sound had invigorated me. My heart raced still. Beside me, my brother began to snore. I hated him for how quickly he fell asleep. His snoring had kept me awake many a night. The fire continued to dwindle as my father remained awake at its side. Suddenly, we heard another knock. Across the room against the opposite wall, my mother sat up in her bed, struggling to raise herself with her hands to prop up her swollen belly. She was with child and ready to give birth at any moment.
“What is it?” she asked my father.
He said nothing as he approached the door, unlatched it, and looked outside. There was no moon that night, so he peered into the utter darkness. I saw him kneel to the ground and reach his hand outside. As he pulled in his hand, he examined a smooth river rock, which was out of place in our village. The Rhine River was an hour’s walk away along the main road, and the stone could not have landed at our door on its own. Terrified, my father slammed the door shut and latched it. He sat beside the fire, gripped his scythe and knife, and stared at the door. An eerie silence enveloped us. Even the crickets had ceased their chirping.
Another knock rang out, and we all jumped. Father stood to his feet, visibly stressed and anticipating the worst. I sat in my bed along with my brother, and we held each other in fear. Mother waddled her way to the fire and pulled from it a hot iron. Both my parents stood before the door, ready to confront whoever it was who was throwing rocks at our house. Finally, my father’s patience waned. He dashed to a corner of the house to dig through a pile of items from which he drew a long wooden shaft with a tightly wrapped cloth on the end of it. It was the torch he had bought from the priest a few weeks past, which he was saving for precisely this kind of situation.
“All of you stay here,” he said.
He lit his torch and ventured into the village. We listened. At first, there was nothing, but then we heard shouting. I recognized the voice. Our neighbor Gunther had also left his house. A third voice echoed out. Another neighbor came out from his home and then another. After a brief time, it seemed the whole village had left their homes in the middle of the night.
“Which one of you is throwing rocks at my house?” yelled one man.
“My house too,” said Father.
“And mine!” another growled.
They bickered, blaming one another for the violent disturbance on the eve of harvest. Some shouted far-fetched conspiracies about trying to steal their grain, while others accused unruly children of tormenting upstanding villagers. Even the priest joined in the fray. He had only entered the shouting match to broker peace, not yell about a disturbance.
“I found these river rocks at my door!” Father shouted.
“So did I!” another man said.
I looked out the door myself to see the commotion. My father stood at the center of a crowd, the only man with a torch. He would be angry in the morning for allowing such an expensive commodity to burn down for what increasingly seemed to be a false alarm, but his torch allowed the villagers to meet at least and discuss what had happened. They continued to blame one another for the disturbance, emotions running high and fear running rampant.
“It was your children, Theudman,” Gunther said, accusing my father. “A thirteen and a ten-year-old—they are the only boys in the village capable of this kind of mischief!”
“My children were at home with me,” Father said. “They are not to blame.”
“Then who?” asked another man.
“There is nothing to fear,” said the priest. “These disturbances must be related. Perhaps it was a flock of birds carrying stones for their nests.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing!” a villager said at the suggestion.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Father caught a glimpse of a shadow running from the village into the fields. “There!” he said. The villagers all turned in the specter’s direction. “Get him!” They all dashed toward the church with Father at the front of them carrying his torch. They chased the shadow to the edge of the village where it disappeared.
“I saw him!” Gunther said.
“So did I,” said another villager.
“We all saw him running for the forest,” said another.
“Bandits?” Gunther asked out of breath.
“I doubt it,” Father said. “Young men from Ingelheim I would guess, trying to get a rise out of us.”
“Little bastards!” Gunther said.
“I will travel to Ingelheim tomorrow and report this incident. I will get to the bottom of this,” the priest said. “For now, I suggest we return to our houses. The harvest begins tomorrow; you all need your strength.”
A few days after the first incident, the priest was still away in Ingelheim investigating the disturbance. I fell asleep early, exhausted after a hard day in the fields. In the dead of night, as I slept, I jolted awake with a sudden terror. Coals still burned in our fire from a log my father had left, leaving the room in a dim red glow. I saw a figure standing over the fire, thinking at first it was my father, except this figure stood too tall and wore a long black cloak which obscured his face. As I stared, the shadow turned to face me, and a chill ran down my spine. My heart pounded in my chest. I could not see a face—only blackness. Our bed began to shake as He stared at me, causing me to freeze with fear. Suddenly, He turned again and exited the house through the front door, stirring up the embers of the fire which swirled toward our thatched roof. Spurred by the draft, the embers set fire to the ceiling.
Smoke quickly filled the room, alerting my parents to the fire. They jumped from their bed, grasped my brother and me, and rushed the family out of the house. The fire consumed the structure, lighting up the village as though it were the day. Other villagers left their homes to watch the fire, and some sprang to action to fetch water in buckets from the community well to protect the other houses. Gunther stood at my father’s side as they watched it burn.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “It rained today. The thatch should have been wet. How could it burn so?”
Father said nothing. He merely watched in grief. My brother and I stood by our mother in tears over watching all our worldly possessions vanish in flames. I kept what I saw to myself, fearful of what the adults might say. Perhaps it was a dream, and maybe the fire was just a coincidence. That did not stop the other villagers from whispering with suspicion. Everything happened for a reason. God controlled everything. This misfortune, we heard in their whispers, was our own doing.
“Come,” said Gunther as the flames subsided. “Stay in my house tonight.”
The following day we took to the fields. Our house may have burned to the ground, but the harvest was far more critical—our food was more important. During the day, while our family toiled in our field, a mob of villagers assembled on the edge of our plot. They marched across our field shouting and screaming, their anger apparent and directed at my father. Gunther led the charge.
“Theudman!” he said. My father stood tall to face him. He was a great deal taller than our neighbor. “Theudman, you are cursed!”
“Explain yourself,” Father said.
“My house burned to the ground today. Fortunately, no one was home. But it is the second house in less than a day to burn—and with a wet roof!”
We all wondered why there had been a smoke column rising from the village. “I am as much at a loss as you,” Father said.
“We have convened a council, Theudman. We have decided to banish you and your family from the village,” Gunther said.
“On what grounds?” Father asked angrily.
“God has sent a clear message. There is a sickness in this village—a sinner in hiding. He is punishing us for those sins,” Gunther said.
“I have no sin, no more than any other man here!” Father said.
“We have made our decision. If you return to the village, we shall be forced to execute you. It is God’s will.”
The mob left as quickly as they had arrived. We stood together as a family and watched them disappear in their fury. A feeling of helplessness overcame us for we had committed no crime, yet we had been banished to our field with no roof over our heads. Worse, we would sleep on the edge of the forest that night, exposed to the elements, not least the wolves. Despite our misfortune, we worked the field for the rest of the day in silence. To protect our yield, we gathered our wheat in batches near the edge of the forest. Father built a fire, and with the little we had, we made a small camp under a large oak tree for protection. We were lucky. The weather was fair and did not appear to be worsening. But the cold would prove difficult. My mother and my brother and I huddled together for warmth while Father stood to watch over us.
“In the morning, I will speak with our priest. He should be back by now. I will tell him of our innocence.
In the dead of night, Father began to drift to sleep. As he hunched over and fell toward the ground, the smell of smoke reached his nostrils. The smell jolted him awake. He looked toward our batches of wheat and saw a shadowy figure standing in the flickering firelight. The grain caught fire, the flames spurred by a northerly breeze. Father jumped to his feet and attempted to put out the fire, but it had taken hold. The commotion he made woke the rest of the family. Visibly terrified, he urged us to hide in the woods. His hands trembled feverishly.
“What is it?” Mother asked.
“I saw something,” he said. “I cannot explain it.”
Sleepy-eyed and dazed from being awakened so suddenly, I said, “you mean the Shadow?”
My father’s eyes opened wide, the fire reflecting off of his irises. He knelt at my side. “You have seen it?” he asked.
I froze in fear. I do not know if I feared Him or my father more at this moment, but I nodded. Father stood again and looked to my mother with grave concern. They stared together at the fire, which had gained an entirely new meaning after what Father had witnessed. As they looked on helplessly, my brother abruptly fell to the ground. He shook wildly and foamed at the mouth. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. Father dropped to his knees and held him, fear again taking hold of the family. This was not unusual for my brother; he had had episodes before. Father simply made sure he did not swallow his tongue.
At that moment, I thought Gunther was right; we were cursed as a family.
The following day, Father returned to the village despite the warning from the mob. He walked bravely through the scattering of farmhouses and made directly for the church. Luckily the priest had returned as he had hoped. To the side of the rough stone structure stood a wooden house where the priest lived as he awaited the completion of his church. Father approached him as he left his home, causing the priest to stand back in surprise.
“Ah, Theudman. To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asked.
“I am innocent of the sin you accuse me of,” Father said.
The priest smiled uncomfortably, as though he were afraid. “Of course. But how do you propose to demonstrate your innocence? The village has ample proof of your guilt.”
“You are the priest; you tell me,” Father said.
The priest pondered the request a moment. He fixed his robe and looked to Father’s left and right for other villagers. “Have you heard of the ordeal of hot iron?” he asked. Father nodded. “Seems a shame to burn your hands during the harvest, but should God intervene on your behalf, it would prove your innocence.”
Father agreed to the trial. By midday, the village had assembled in front of the blacksmith’s workshop to watch my father undergo the ordeal. Our family was allowed in the town for this occasion, but we prepared for a quick escape in the event he failed. Before the crowd, my father presented himself in nothing but a loincloth. His skin had been cleansed with holy water, and his hair had been combed. He walked silently through a booing crowd, but they were forbidden from throwing stones at him during the ordeal. One woman threw her rock anyway and was promptly removed. At the blacksmith’s workshop, an open-air repurposed stable with a flat wooden roof, my father held his hands forward to accept the ordeal. The blacksmith waited for the priest to address the crowd.
“People of Bingen! Before you stands the accused whose recent woes are evidence of conflict with God. He has accepted the ordeal of a hot iron to prove to you his innocence. Allow me to explain how the ordeal works. The iron will burn his hands. I shall examine the wounds in three days, and if they have not festered, he shall be declared innocent.” The priest turned to Father. “You must hold the iron until I say you may drop it.”
The priest gave the nod to the blacksmith who pulled a glowing red iron from the coals with his clamps and carefully hovered it over Father’s hands. Slowly, he lowered the metal. As it neared Father’s bare skin, we heard a sizzle followed by a putrid smoke as it burned his flesh. To my surprise, he did not scream. He held the iron steadily; his jaw clenched from the pain. I could see his chest expanding and collapsing as he breathed to ease the agony. My brother buried his head in our mother’s bosom, unable to watch the ordeal. It felt as though an eternity had passed, filled with a hard sizzling sound. Finally, the priest allowed my father to release the iron. He dropped it to the floor and held his hands in the air. They curled with pain. The priest immediately wrapped the wounds and walked my father back to his own house. The crowd moaned with disappointment because they had thought they would stone him, but the priest deprived them of such a chance. I remember thinking how awful it was that these people whom we had known as our neighbors could be so ready to murder my father for something he did not do. They needed someone to blame.
Our family and the priest returned to the priest’s house. Once arrived, my father soaked his hands in a wooden bowl full of cold water. The priest sat at his side, concerned over his fate. Nothing could have prepared him for the revelation that my father was about to give him. He fixed his robes, sat up in his creaky chair, and leaned his elbow on the table.
“If your hands fester or do not heal, I cannot help you,” he said sternly.
“They will heal. I have faith,” Father said.
“You are confident; that is good,” the priest said.
“I have seen what plagues us,” Father said. The priest appeared surprised. “I have seen him, this shadowy figure. My youngest son Childeric has also seen him.”
The priest rubbed the back of his neck. His eyes wandered in thought. “Describe him for me,” he said.
“A black cloak, a sturdy build. I saw no face,” Father said.
“And your son? He saw a face?”
“Childeric?” Father asked looking at me.
I shook my head. “No, no face.”
“I must meditate over this,” the priest said. “Please, rest.”
Three days passed without incident during which time our family lived at the priest’s house. Father surmised that the Shadow had stayed clear for the priest had erected sacred totems to protect the building. On the morning of the third day, the priest examined Father’s wounds. They had not festered and had even begun to heal. Amazed, the priest declared that God had exercised a divine intervention, clearing my father of guilt. His proclamation offered relief to our family, as well as the priest. The priest sent me door to door to call for an assembly of the villagers at once. Most were not home but were toiling in the fields. I ran and ran to spread the word, often finding the villagers surprised to hear that my father had been healed. Sometime later most of the villagers had assembled before the priest’s house to await his judgment.
“People of Bingen,” he said gleefully. “I declare this man innocent of sin. God has shown his mercy!”
“Why then all the ills in our village?” Gunther asked. “Why do we suffer so if not for this man’s sin?”
A gloom came over the priest. “I believe there are darker forces at work here—forces from beyond that have, for some reason, crossed over into our world.” His statement caused a panicked murmur among the villagers. He continued. “I will travel to Mainz to solicit the help of our bishop. I believe he may have the tools to combat this evil.”
The harvest ended, and our house was nearly rebuilt when the priest returned with a procession of clerics behind him. One among them, the bishop I surmised, rode an ass into the village. He wore a preposterously tall hat and a white gown which was soiled at the bottom. With his congregation of robed priests, they toured the town, splashing holy water on houses and swaying a smoking thurible. They eventually made their way to the fields below the forest and examined the surrounding land. A mob of villagers followed them, curious to see what they might find. Since the harvest had ended, farmers had more time on their hands to spare.
The procession returned to the village to hold a meeting. Everyone attended this meeting because it was not every day we had the opportunity to see a bishop. They began interrogating witnesses. The first was my father. As he described what he had seen in the fields, I felt a rush of terror at the realization that I would be next. I had seen the shadow too. As I had anticipated, my father called me forward before the entire village. I panicked.
“It is all right, boy. You are safe among us,” the bishop said. I remained silent. “Your father tells us you have seen this ‘shadow.’ Would you tell us where and describe what you saw?”
I drew in a deep breath. “I saw Him,” I said.
“Continue,” said the bishop.
“A black cloak—He had no face. He looked at me, and there was only darkness,” I said. I began to cry. “He set fire to our house and ran out the door!”
“Did it walk or glide?” a priest interjected.
“He glided, I think.”
The priests erupted in nervous chatter behind the bishop. Their faces told me that what I had said troubled them deeply. They avoided eye contact with me when they could, keeping to themselves behind their master. The bishop rubbed his cleanly shaven chin in thought. He said nothing at first, but anxiety among the villagers began to spiral out of control. His first duty was to maintain order.
“There is an evil presence here,” he said. “But none which we are not equipped to handle. Remain in your houses tonight. No matter what you hear, I beg you to remain in your houses.”
The village dispersed to return to their chores. Few hours remained in the day, creating a sense of urgency among the townsfolk. Father gathered our family, and we returned to our house where mother put a pot of water over a fire. She threw in a mixture of vegetables, some grain, and a few pinches of herbs to help the taste of the potage. We ate potage most nights, except when Father returned from trade in Ingelheim where he bought cuts of meat to bring home for us. Peasants like us rarely ate meat. It was too risky to hunt in the forest, and it was also illegal. Gunther had owned a cow once, and when it died he sold some of the meat, but it was tough and lean. Father said the beast had died of hunger.
By nightfall, no villagers roamed outside their houses. Our new home, which still needed some work on the outside wall, was built with a new addition we did not have before—a window. From there I could see the center of the village, but just barely. It was a tiny aperture, mostly meant to allow in light during the day. I stood on my tiptoes atop a wooden stool to reach the window. My mother objected at first, but my father, also spurred by curiosity, joined me. We watched as the priests gathered in the dark with candles and torches, all wearing red robes this time rather than the brown habits they had worn earlier in the day. Two of them carried a chest from which they drew various religious tokens, including a wooden cross, a silver scepter, and a large, leather-bound book.
The bishop held the book open before him and began to read from it. I did not know Latin then so I cannot recite what I heard. The words at first were repetitive. The bishop read the same sentence several times before moving on to the next one. Several other priests walked along the houses swinging smoking thuribles. Everything appeared to follow a well-prescribed sequence which unfolded uneventfully. That is, of course, until He began to feel threatened.
As the bishop read a particularly tricky passage aloud, a rock flew out from the darkness and struck him on the shoulder. He paused. The other monks looked at him to see why he had ceased reading. With a more nervous, quickened cadence, the bishop began to read again. Not two sentences later, a rock struck him in the chin. Blood dripped onto the pages of his book. Shocked, he turned around and dashed for the chest. One priest took the text from the bishop and continued to read aloud while another priest handed him a wooden cross. He made a cross with a trembling left hand and then turned toward the darkness from which the rocks had flown. To our surprise, it appeared as though he had turned toward us.
Father pulled me from my perch and sat me in front of the smoldering fire. Mother remained terrified in her bed with her wool blanket pulled over her raised knees and gripped between her fingers. We listened as the bishop walked paces away from our house, followed eerily by the Latin recitation from his book. From the other side, another sound began. This sound was petrifying, like no animal we had ever heard. Whatever it was produced a low, rumbling growl. It grew louder as the clerics drew closer. Louder and louder, the noise soon filled our ears and filled our hearts with terror. My mother began to weep.
We heard the bishop yell in Latin, possibly to ward Him off. Instead, it seemed to have made matters worse. Loud scratches against the wall jumped from place to place. Our home was under attack. Growling and scratching, He was determined to frighten the priests. The bishop yelled more, and we heard a struggle followed by a scream. Terrified, my brother could take no more. He panicked. With blinding speed, he dashed for the door to escape and managed to sneak through before Father could stop him. He ran for the courtyard where the priests had assembled. As he joined them, his sickness seized him, causing him to fall to the ground, shake, and foam at the mouth. The priests immediately took notice.
“Stop!” yelled the bishop who ran from the other side of the house. “The beast has taken this child!”
Father ran out. “No!” he cried. “My son is sick but not possessed!”
Before he could reach my brother, the bishop lifted his wooden cross and drove its bottom end like a stake into my brother’s heart. Father screamed in horror. I stood at our door, too petrified to move. He had tricked the priests. They had fallen into His hand. My brother’s shaking stopped, and the foam on his lips faded. What happened next was burned into my memory, for He had finally been given a chance to take control.
The body that had once belonged to my brother arose, the wooden cross still protruding from his chest. He did not walk as a person would, but instead danced in the air as would a puppet under its master’s strings. The priests surrounded him. Father stood back believing his eyes to have betrayed him. Remembering that I had followed him out, he turned back, ran to me, and carried me back into our house and slammed the door shut. He took an old cross and placed it at the entrance and huddled with my mother and me in their bed. Outside our house, it sounded as though the priests were fighting an enraged bear. One of them continued to recite from the book as others screamed in pain. The forces of good and evil clashed that night. We did not leave our house again.
In the morning, Father had packed all our belongings into a few small satchels. He had carried our tools out to our cart and commandeered the bishop’s ass to pull it. Before leaving the house, he asked that my mother and I not look toward the center of the village. He asked that we wear sacks on our heads so we would not be tempted. Slowly, he led us from our house toward the cart. Through the loosely woven fibers I could see shapes, but no detail. I tried to look toward where my brother had fallen but to no avail. All I could see was dirt upon the ground. I made a last attempt to see what had happened by patting down the sack on my face. I wish I had not done so. On the ground I could see the curled body of a priest, his skin discolored in shades of blue and purple. Father pushed me along.
Our family walked from the village along the main road toward Ingelheim. We left the town, never to return. That year we relocated to Ingelheim where my father took a job as a laborer for the local lord. Deprived of our land, we were destitute, but I was recruited into the church to be groomed as a priest for which my parents were well compensated. I learned to read and write, not in the least so that I might one day recount this tale. I have never returned to the village, but I heard from travelers that He continued to plague the town for three years after that. One day He merely left, presumably to find a new village to torment. I have always wondered, whose community will be next?
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