Once upon a time, there was a folktale called The Green Children of Woolpit. It’s the story of two strange children mysteriously appearing in the wolf-pit of a small English village, spoke a different language, and were not used to sunlight. Even stranger: they refused to eat anything but raw beans and had green skin!
Where did they come from? Why are they green? Why are they speaking in an unknown language? Will they live happily ever after? To find answers to such questions, this 12th-century English folk tale deserves to be retold for the fact-checking generation.
This is a Re-telling of The Green Children of Woolpit
Once upon a time in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk in 12th Century England, during the reign of either King Stephen from 1135 to 1154 AD or King Henry II from 1154 to 1189 AD, the story of the green children of Woolpit were recorded in separate, but near similar chronicles of two scholars.
One was written by Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall and was included in the Chronicon Anglicanum (English Chronicle) manuscript, which he took over from 1187 until his last signed entry in 1224. In his version, the children were brother and sister, who was found by the villagers near the mouth of a wolf-pit. They were human in form, all except for the green colour of their skin. The children were later on brought to the house of a knight named Sir Richard de Calne, where they were offered shelter and food.
However, they wouldn’t touch anything served to them despite great hunger, except for raw beans. In fact, it was all that they ate for a very long time. The two, however, wouldn’t share a similar fate. The boy wasn’t able to adapt to their new life in Woolpit, fell into depression, refused to eat, and eventually died.
The girl on the other hand gradually grew used to eating different kinds of food. As a result, her skin lost its green tinge and she was able to blend into village society. After learning to speak English, she described where she was from as veiled in the perpetual dusk with almost no sunlight. She revealed that where she’s from everything is green, including the people like her and her brother.
When asked about how the two of them ended up in the wolf-pit, she said they were watching over their flocks when they heard the melodic sound of bells coming from inside a cavern. When they followed the sounds their senses were overwhelmed by the blinding light of the sun and the sudden change in temperature and when they came to they were in the wolf-pits. They were startled by the noise around them and tried going back where they came from but the entrance of the cavern wasn’t there anymore. The girl continued to stay with the knight that took them in, as Abbot Ralph affirms, noting in his records that he personally heard this from Sir Richard de Calne and his family. He also mentions that she received the rites of baptism, implying that her actions and beliefs now follow the moral standards of the times. But ironically, he also points out that she “was rather loose and wanton in her conduct.”
The second version was by English historian William of Newburgh, who was, at first — according to Thomas Keightley’s 1884 book, The Fairy Mythology — a sceptic. But, after he was “at length overcome by the weight of evidence” (although what evidence it was he doesn’t make any mention in his chronicles) wrote about the green children in Historia Rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs).
While William’s version shares a lot of similar details with Abbot Ralph’s — like the sudden appearance of the children, the boy getting sick and eventually dying, and the girl is telling the villagers where they were from — there are a few details that either wasn’t in the first version or entirely contradicts it.
In William’s records, the girl said they were from a twilight place called St. Martin’s Land, named after their patron saint. She describes the place as having many churches with its residents of the Christian faith. She says that St. Martin’s Land also doesn’t receive much sunlight, but from across the river, they can see a very bright country. And after crossing the river and cutting through the dense forest, they found themselves at Woolpit. In this version, the girl married Richard Barre, an ambassador of King Henry II, changed her name to Agnes Barre, and settled down in King’s Lynn at Norfolk.
However, some scholars refute this information, citing that the only Richard Barre in King Henry II’s court was a former archdeacon, who later on retired as a canon, which makes it highly unlikely that he ever married.
And in both versions, that’s how the story abruptly and anti-climatically ends.
We’re given no chance to ask “Why?” as we’re bombarded with one event after another, continuously demanding for our unquestioning acceptance of faeries, trolls, pigs that build houses, and in this case, mysterious green children. It’s this bare-bones nature of storytelling that makes folk tales too irresistible for our own imaginations to go into the meaning-making mode and try to fill in the gaps in the story. What’s kept and what’s added to the story as it’s passed through generations keep folktales in a perpetual state of transformation, giving it its literary longevity.
So, St. Martin’s Land, as Paul Harris speculated in the Fortean in 1998, could be Fornham St. Martin, a town north of Bury St. Edmunds. The cavern in Abbot Ralph’s story could’ve been any of the entrance to the flint mines in the area, and the bells they heard could’ve been from the sound of Neolithic flints inside the mines.
The children could’ve been Flemish immigrants, who fled from Fornham St. Martin to Woolpit through the mines and across Thetford Forest to escape persecution from King Henry II. Which also explains why they spoke in a different language. The sun in William’s story could’ve been blocked by the tall trees in Thetford Forest. And the wide river separating St. Martin’s Land and Woolpit could’ve been the Lark river. Or it could be as Robert Burton hypothesized in his book The Anatomy of Melancholy, that the children “fell from Heaven,” set forth in motion the theory that they’re extraterrestrials. This was picked up by astronomer Duncan Lunan in 1996, whose theory was that the children accidentally teleported to Earth from another planet. Which, following all Sci-Fi tropes, would also explain the green colour of their skin. Of course, it could also be that they were affected by hypochromic anemia. Originally known as chlorosis, it’s a condition where the red blood cells are not only smaller but paler than normal.
It’s often caused by poor diet, and lack of nutrition, resulting in the reduced delivery of healthy red blood cells to tissues is what gives the skin a green hue. Chlorosis is a very likely explanation why they had green skin, considering that the girl lost her skin’s green tinge as soon as she started eating other types of food aside from raw beans. But as fun, as it is to find tangible pieces of evidence to prove that the folk tale of the green children of Woolpit is real, the real fun is deciphering the symbolism used in the story. In literature, green is commonly used to describe two sides of the same coin. It can be used to describe sickness, as in when we say sickly green. But we can also use it to represent health and vitality, as in when we say fresh greens.
In Celtic mythology, green is associated with the Green Man, a decorative architectural motif used in pagan temples and later on also in medieval churches, who represents the cycle of life. Shakespeare used green to symbolize young love, as in the green pastorals of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Or jealousy, as in the green-eyed monster in Othello. Green is also the colour of permission, as in to get the green light. As in it’s okay to believe in folk tales. It also means go, as in go ahead.
- The Green Children of Woolpit: the 12th-century legend of visitors from another world, http://www.ancient-origins.net/unexplained-phenomena/green-children-woolpit-12th-century-legend-visitors-another-world-002347
- THE GREEN CHILDREN OF WOOLPIT – INVESTIGATING A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY, https://eclectariumshuker.blogspot.com/2012/11/the-green-children-of-woolpit.html
- The Green Children of Woolpit, http://brian-haughton.com/ancient-mysteries-articles/green-children-of-woolpit/
- 1135~1154: The Green Children of Woolpit, http://anomalyinfo.com/Stories/11351154-green-children-woolpit
- The Mysterious Green Children…, http://www.paranoiamagazine.com/2016/11/mysterious-green-children/
- The Irresistible Psychology of Fairy Tales, https://newrepublic.com/article/126582/irresistible-psychology-fairy-tales
- The challenge of retelling Grimms’ fairy tales, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/21/grimms-fairy-tales-philip-pullman
- Jung and the Fairy Tale, Or Nosce Te Ipsum, http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/kardaun-jung_and_the_fairy_tale_or_nosce_te_ipsu
- Once Upon a Time: The lure of the fairy tale, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/23/once-upon-a-time-3
- Into the Woods, 5: Wild Folklore, http://windling.typepad.com/blog/2013/05/wild-folklore.html
- HISTORY OF THE GREEN MAN, http://www.greenmanenigma.com/history.html
- Representations of the Color Green in Shakespeare by Matsuda Misako, http://www.seijo.ac.jp/pdf/falit/225/225-3.pdf
- “How green!”: The Meanings of Green in Early Modern England and in The Tempest, https://erea.revues.org/4465