Gervase of Tilbury


Gervase of Tilbury
(c.1150-c.1220)
   Born at Tilbury in Essex, he was a lawyer and cleric who lived most of his life abroad in the service of various rulers and prelates, notably the Emperor Otto IV, for whom he wrote, probably about 1211, a compendium of history, geography, and natural history which he called Otia Imperialia ('Imperial Relaxations'). One section is devoted to 'The Marvels of Each Province' of England, 'marvels' (mirabilia) being defined as natural phenomena that cannot be explained, as opposed to miracles due to God's intervention. They include items which would now be classed as legend or superstition.
   Gervase is thus an important source for medieval English folklore. He gives a Gloucestershire variant of the tale of the stolen fairy goblet (cf. *Willy Howe); he describes little working goblins in patched clothes, who are generally helpful but also lead travellers astray - clearly akin to *Puck and *pixies; he tells of a swineherd who entered the Peak cavern and reached a pleasant Otherworld where harvesting was in progress, though in the human world it was winter. He has heard of Arthur's Knights as a ghostly *Wild Hunt, and of a demonic hound with fiery jaws appearing during a thunderstorm in a forest near Pen-rith. He believed that two remarkable events had occurred within his lifetime which proved that 'the sea is higher than the land', indeed that it is 'above our habitation . . . either in or on the air' (a medieval theory based on the reference in Genesis 1 to 'waters above the firmament'). The first took place outside a Gloucestershire church one foggy Sunday, when people coming out of Mass saw an anchor caught on a tombstone, with its rope stretching up into the sky; a sailor came swarming down it and tried to free the anchor, but seemed to choke in human air and soon died as if by drowning. The church kept the anchor for all to see. The second event concerned a merchant sailing from Bristol to Ireland who accidentally dropped his knife into the sea; it fell straight through the skylight of his own house, back in Bristol, landing on the table in front of his wife.
   ■ C. C. Oman, Folk-Lore 55 (1944), 2-15.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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