Do you remember Ralph of Coggeshall? Chances are that you don’t, but he plays an important role in fringe history because his Chronicon Anglicanum recorded the story of the so-called Green Children of Woolpit, the famous tale of a mysterious pair of green children who appeared in medieval Suffolk, acted strangely, and then disposed of themselves infamously (the boy by dying, and the girl by becoming sexually promiscuous). Ralph’s account was translated and published by Thomas Keightley in 1850, and his account was rewritten as the story of the Green Children of Banjos and spread among twentieth century fringe historians like Brad Steiger and Charles Berlitz. I am not interested in this story today but in the one that immediately follows it in Ralph’s Chronicon, composed sometime before 1227. I will quote the passage from folio 89b in full, in my own translation from the Latin:
On Giant Teeth
This passage is fascinating for several reasons, but I want to start with the most ridiculous. The first two sentences of this passage are well-known to fringe historians and gigantologists, but the remainder, with only the rarest of exceptions, is not. This is because in eight hundred years we can count on one hand the number of fringe historians who have ever bothered to read the original. Instead, the fame of the first two sentences rests on the chance work of more accessible authors. William Camden published those sentences in Latin his Britannia of 1586, which was translated into English several years later, and John Weever quoted the lines from the English edition of Camden in his frequently reprinted Ancient Funeral Monuments (1631). Almost all fringe historians’ accounts derive from the early English translation of Camden, either directly or via Weever.
I am astounded that in eight hundred years virtually no one thought to check the original. I mean, come on—it has flaming giant footprints!
Anyway, it’s also interesting that Camden exists right on the edge of the scientific revolution, and his analysis of Ralph’s account sits on the cusp between credulity and doubt. For clarity, I will modernize the early spelling: “Neither do I deny but there have been men that for their huge bodies and firm strength were wondrous to behold […] Yet may we very well think that which Suetonius hath written, namely that the huge limbs of monstrous sea-creatures elsewhere, and in this kingdom also, were commonly said and taken to have been Giants’ bones.” (He is referring to the passage in the biography of Augustus written by Seutonius which notes that the Roman emperor displayed the bones of sea creatures as those of monsters.) Yes, Camden was one of the first writers of the modern era to believe that fossil animal bones were responsible for the discovery of “giants.”
His opinion was quite influential. John Speed’s Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World of 1627, while wrongly ascribing the discovery to the reign of Richard II instead of Richard I, went further than Camden and suggested that the teeth were probably those of an elephant. Speed was friends with Camden and started his geographical works under Camden’s encouragement. It is certainly how he came to learn of Ralph. But it’s not where he got the idea that the teeth belonged to an elephant.
Here is where things get a bit odd, or rather, interesting. Camden’s Britannia was a geography of the British Isles, and the poet Michael Drayton sought to make it more interesting by rendering the geography of Britain into an epic poem. The result was the Poly-Obion, which does not concern us directly. However, the philological exposition called the “Illustrations” by the antiquarian John Selden which accompanied the Poly-Obion upon its publication in 1612 is of interest, for Selden uses the occasion of a reference to mighty men of old in “Song I” to offer a disquisition on the subject of the Nephilim, which I placed in my Fragments on Giants. The most relevant section applies to his opinion on English giants’ teeth, such as those seen by Ralph:
…the eye’s judgment in such like hath been, and is, subject to much imposture; mistaking bones of huge beasts for human. Claudius brought over his elephants hither, and perhaps Julius Caesar some, (for I have read that he terribly affrighted the Britons with sight of one at Cowaystakes) and so may you be deceived.
Selden, as we can see, correctly guessed that “giant” teeth and bones were the remains of elephants—as Ralph’s teeth probably were—but because he lacked a concept of extinction could only ascribe elephants to the works of the Romans.
Speed, for his part, almost certainly used Selden in explicating Camden’s opinion on Ralph, thus applying Selden’s opinion on elephants to Camden’s views on Ralph’s teeth. But he wasn’t the only one. Weever quoted Selden’s passage immediately following his quotation from Camden in the Ancient Monuments, and this prompted later writers to mix the two up. Thus, Joseph Yelloly Watson, writing in his 1877 book of Essex sketches The Tendring Hundred in the Olden Time, did not want to admit to borrowing his knowledge of Camden from Weever and mistakenly attributes the sentence on Claudius to Camden.
And after all that, the remainder of the passage from Ralph—the giant rib and huge skull and the flaming footprints—disappeared into the vaults of history, forgotten, aside from very rare mentions in scholarly accounts.
But there was an exception: Harold T. Wilkins, our old friend, found and translated the lines for his 1958 book Strange Mysteries of Time and Space. Sadly, few fringe writers borrowed the lines from Wilkins, and none, so far as I can find, ever recognized that the flaming footprints, the giant teeth, and the Green Children were all in the same folio of the same medieval work.
10/24/2016 11:56:31 am
The Nephilim was specifically a metaphor for the enemies of the Israelites.
10/24/2016 12:23:35 pm
This complete passage that you cite puts the allegations of Ralph of Coggeshall about green children in different light. He can be understood as a collector of all marvelous tales, decreasing the credibility of any incident that is taken from his work. Is this not a good explanation for why the longer passage that he wrote is rarely quoted?
10/24/2016 12:38:05 pm
Yes. A section before the Green Children is about a merman.
10/24/2016 01:00:07 pm
Mermen? how interesting. I wonder how popular stories of mermen were compared to tales of giants in Christian Europe. The Bible, especially in its more esoteric parts, discusses giants, but Mermen are not in that book. They are in portions of esoteric Buddhism dealing with the Perfection of Wisdom (called nagas).
10/24/2016 03:46:24 pm
10/24/2016 06:25:23 pm
>>> The Bible, especially in its more esoteric parts, discusses giants<<<
10/24/2016 06:27:20 pm
>>>Perfection of Wisdom (called nagas)<<<
10/24/2016 08:54:00 pm
"[Mermen] are in portions of esoteric Buddhism dealing with the Perfection of Wisdom (called nagas)."
10/24/2016 09:37:14 pm
V: Whence is your source for land-dwelling Nagas? Some Nagas are said to have guarded the World-Honoured Buddha upon the land, but that is different from their living always upon land. There is a strong Buddhist tradition about sea Nagas: see, e.g., the wikipedia article about Prajñāpāramitā ("the Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom" in Mahāyāna Buddhism), which says "Prajñāpāramitā terma teachings are held by some Tibetan Buddhists to have been conferred upon Nāgārjuna by the Nāgarāja "King of the Nāgas", who had been guarding them at the bottom of the sea." So if the King of Nagas dwell beneath the sea, then other Nagas also may.
10/24/2016 09:40:11 pm
V: Also, I will admit that I am imperfect. My whole life is in a wheelchair, and I am half deaf, and can type with only one finger. Scholarship is my pleasure, and being insulted is my great terror.
10/25/2016 02:30:43 am
Adhering to some religious philosophy is no different to following a Judge Dredd comic. All this technical stuff about some religious concepts just don't add up to anything substantial or tangible. It only makes people feel better, but nothing more than that.
10/25/2016 02:46:03 am
The above discussion between A Buddhist and V has nothing in common with scepticism. The discussion belongs to a religious forum.
10/26/2016 07:37:09 pm
A Buddhist, everything I have read about naga has them being guardians of freshwater sources at the most, not deep sea ocean dwellers. I will admit that my understanding of them has been primarily formed via Japanese Buddhism, wherein they tend to dwell in swampy areas--which are still land, not ocean. And they are always, always, ALWAYS described as being half-SNAKE, serpent, or dragon.
10/27/2016 08:19:42 am
V: I have read your new words, and confirmed them to be true. I am not a scholar of these topics, but I like reading and learning about such scholarship. The stridence of your initial criticism was very harsh, though. I made no claim to possess the Perfection of Wisdom (and am physically imperfect).
10/24/2016 03:18:08 pm
"Eadulphnesse" ("Aedulvesnasa" in Domesday Book; "Edulfesnesse" when granted by King Athelstan to St. Paul's Cathedral) is now simply called "The Naze", and is an excellent site for finding fossils and ancient bones:
10/24/2016 04:46:16 pm
"And there was also seen by people known to us, in Gwalia, a young man of immense stature, whose height was fifteen cubits, and great was the length and thickness of his fingers, but he was deprived of his strength by some chance during his adolescence."
10/24/2016 05:39:30 pm
I have to apologize for the error! The number is FIVE cubits (7.5 feet), not fifteen, and he it certainly does sound like gigantism. I'll get the number fixed.
10/25/2016 11:46:56 pm
As an observation, the comment regarding 'the young man of great stature' who was 'deprived of his strength' during his adolescence, suggests a form of gigantism. These individuals whose stature is extreme, suffer greatly from their growth and often have died young. One wonders at a conflation of circumstance that supported the notion of giants in this case.
10/26/2016 09:50:08 am
It looks to me like someone should call Adriene Mayor.
3/17/2017 01:54:37 am
I find this all quite fascinating ! I will have to do some reading. Ralph de Coggeshall is my Great Grandfather. My direct Coggeshall line goes all the way to my 2nd Great Grandmother Charlotte Coggeshall Anthony. My 10th GGF John Coggeshall was a founder and first President of the colony of Rhode Island.
8/21/2020 11:18:04 am
Regarding the Green Children of Woolpit, I wrote a short article about them years ago that, in retrospect, merely shows my own confusion over the sources and the subsequent literary descent. Deep into my Classical Languages studies I had read at least the main source in the Rolls series. When I turned my interest to English history and antiquarian literature I couldn't reconcile the varying accounts and interpretations. Antiquarians such as Camden, Aubrey, Keightley, etc. seemed to veer off in opposite directions as to whether the children popped out of the center of the earth or dropped from heaven. When I began collecting UFO literature I found the Proto-Ancient Astronaut community seemed curiously happy with either explanation or both at once.
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