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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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