Yesterday I mentioned that Richard Stothers’s article on Roman-era UFO sightings led me to Samuel Rosenberg’s skeptical appraisal of ancient astronaut claims in the 1968 Condon Report, the University of Colorado investigation of UFOs conducted at the behest of the U.S. Air Force. Within the nearly 10,000-word-long chapter is a fascinating account of how ufologists’s horrible scholarship led to their uncritical acceptance of a fake medieval text and the wholesale creation of supporting details to back up their claims for it. It’s a great case study in the intellectual bankruptcy of those who would rewrite history on the flimsiest of lies.
Where better to start than with our good friend Jacques Vallée, the éminence grise of ancient astronautics. In his 1965 book Anatomy of a Phenomenon, Vallée reports on a medieval ufological event: “The observation made in 1290 at Byland Abbey, Yorkshire, of a large silvery disk flying slowly is a classical one and can be found in a number of books.” He offered no further detail, nor did he cite the claim with a note, though if I had to guess, I’d say he got the story secondhand from H. T. Wilkins’s Flying Saucers on the Attack (1954), the book cited in the sentence before and after this one. In a later work, Vallée would cite the story to George Adamski’s Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953).
It was in that book that Rosenberg discovered the origin of the story, an allegation from a letter published in the Times of London on February 9, 1953 that a manuscript had recently been uncovered at Ampleforth Abbey, allegedly dating to 1290 CE. The text, so the letter said, ran as follows in Latin with a translation provided by a certain A. X. Chumley:
oves a Wilfred suseptos die festo sanctissorum Simon is atque Judae asseverunt. Cum autum Henricus abbas gratias redditurus erat, frater guidam Joannes referebat. Tum vero omnes eccuccurerunt et ecce res grandis, circumcircularis argentea disco quodom haud dissimils, lente e super eos volans atque maciman terrorem exitans. Quo tempore Henricus abbas adultavisse (qua) de causa impius de...
Adamski, and his coauthor Leslie Desmond, accepted this text at face value and concluded that a flying saucer had buzzed the abbey, giving the scheming abbot an excuse to persecute Wilfred for sexual immorality!
However, already at this early date there were questions about the story. Ampleforth Abbey was not nearly old enough to have such a manuscript, for example; its monastery was built between 1890 and 1897, and the order of monks claims to have been founded only during the Reformation. It is therefore of little surprise that the next iteration of the story moved the events from Ampleforth Abbey to the more picturesque and age-appropriate ruins of Byland Abbey, a Cistercian abbey from the Middle Ages left for ruin when Henry VIII closed the monasteries. We see this version of the story occur in Paul Thomas’s Flying Saucers through the Ages (1965), where Thomas (a pen name for the French musician Paul Misraki) relocates the story to Byland. However, Gavin Gibbons, the British translator of the book into English, noted that there “are grave doubts on the genuineness of this. Two Oxford undergraduates admitted to me in 1956 that they forged this document for a joke—but there is nothing to prove that they really did so!” Confirmation only occurred when Rosenberg, wondering why ufologists were so deeply uninterested in proving the story legitimate, telegraphed England and asked a friend to investigate on British shores. The return cable was conclusive: “AMPLEFORTH DOCUMENT A HOAX PERPETRATED BY TWO SIXTH FORM BOYS IN LETTER TO TIMES (LONDON).”
Nevertheless, the “sighting” was reported in at least six books prior to 1968. According to Rosenberg, the most outrageous misuse of the hoax came in Let’s Face the Facts about Flying Saucers (1967), where the brief account of 1953 somehow expanded into a complete domestic drama, complete with dialogue!
Brother John’s Medieval Saucer
Sadly, Rosenberg’s debunking of the hoax did not meet with universal recognition. While the Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena (2013) and the Time-Life UFO Phenomenon (1997) books reported the correct information from Rosenberg’s account, the Byland “sighting” continued to show up uncritically in various UFO and mystery-mongering books, and still does so today, largely from lower-tier writers who copy uncritically from midcentury sources. On July 7, 1998, in perhaps the only appropriate publication of the story in its history, Michael Todd included it as “evidence” of UFOs in a Weekly World News tabloid story called “Monks Saw UFOs 800 Years Ago!”
However, given the sheer number of sources that provide the correct information, this is one “ancient text” hoax whose spurious nature seems to have made headway with major authors. It seems that even the credulous Jacques Vallée actually learned something from the Condon Report, well sort of. He and Chris Aubeck included the Byland Abbey “sighting” in Wonders in the Sky (2009), but the authors recognized the story as a hoax and actually reported correctly that two schoolboys had confessed to the prank. Rosenberg’s criticism of Vallée for having used the story uncritically in 1965 went unmentioned, but Aubeck contacted Ampleforth Abbey’s archivist in 2002 to investigate the story. He told Aubeck that one of the pranksters had died young, but the other was then a retired academic. He told Aubeck that the surviving prankster wanted to be left alone. “I think he finds it rather tiresome. Consider to what extent you wish to dwell—or rather be pursued about—the japes of your youth!”
But would he have been so pursued if not for the credulity of ufologists, whose slipshod scholarship turned a schoolboy prank into a decades-long episode in the history of ancient astronautics?
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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