The Green Children of Woolpit
In the 12th century, a pair of mysterious children with green skin surprised English villagers.
The time was the mid 12th century; the place, Woolpit, England, a green farming and market community in eastern England. Reapers working in the fields came upon two small children wearing strange fabrics and speaking in an unknown tongue, but strangest of all was that their skin was green. They were taken in by a local noble who raised them, and though the brother soon died, the sister grew to adulthood and assimilated. But she was never able to tell them very much about where the two of them had come from. Even today they remain the subject of much speculation, with theories to explain them ranging from the mundane to the outrageous. They're known as the Green Children of Woolpit, and today we're going to point our skeptical eye straight at their famous story.
Woolpit (originally Wulpet) is named for its wolf pits, deep pits into which a livestock carcass was dropped as bait to trap wolves. It is from such a pit that the children are said to have emerged. Details, however, are virtually nonexistent. The entire story is known only from two original sources, two history books independently written in Latin, both right around the year 1200: Historia rerum Anglicarum by William of Newburgh, and Chronicon Aglicanum by Ralph of Coggeshall Abbey. Both historians dedicated only a few paragraphs to the story, but what's interesting is that both accounts are nearly identical, while the style of the two books is very different. William included lots of wild, fanciful tales like pirate stories and animated corpses, while Ralph wrote a much drier account of hard facts and events. Ralph gives his source for the story as Sir Richard de Calne, the knight who raised the children; while William says simply that he got it from "so many and such competent witnesses".
The story is brief enough to give it in its entirety. The children were found in the fields, green of color, wearing strange clothes, and speaking only gibberish. They were taken to the home of Sir Richard where they grew up, learned to speak English and to behave like anyone else. Around the time they were baptized, the brother fell ill and died — hardly an unusual fate for a child in those days. The sister eventually married, but was only able to give scant details to explain her origins or their green skin color. As children in their homeland, which they called St. Martin and said was Christian, they were tending their father's flock when they heard a sound like church bells. They followed it through a cavern, and when they emerged they found themselves surrounded by the Woolpit reapers.
Interestingly, the most detailed part of both accounts has to do with the children being given beanstalks to eat when they were first found. But they didn't know how to eat them; they tried to find edible beans in the stalks, cried when they couldn't find any, then when locals showed them how to open the pods to find the beans, they ate ravenously. Gradually over a period of time, they learned to eat other foods as well. Once this happened, their greenish skin color returned to normal.
There is a bit of a dating problem. Of the two original chroniclers, only William gave a specific date range, which was "during the reign of King Stephen", placing the event somewhere in the years 1135 to 1154. But Ralph, who says he heard the story firsthand from Sir Richard, didn't start writing his book until 1196, half a century later. How both of these authors could be so specific on the beanstalks detail, but missing each other by decades on the timing, is interesting. What can we draw from this? We don't know for sure, other than that neither version can be considered an absolute account of literal events. One or the other made substantial factual errors, or one or the other either fabricated their sources or were given false information to report.
If you read other accounts of this story, you'll get more details not found in the originals. All such details have been added by later authors, drawing either upon their own imaginations or upon those of their fellow authors for the new material. The first author to publish the story widely was Thomas Keightley in his 1850 book The Fairy Mythology, in which he accidentally misspelled William of Newburgh as William of Newbridge, and this error is repeated in many of the modern accounts. If you see that error, you're reading an author whose research consisted of little more than copying and pasting from Keightley.
Another tip that your particular version may be an unreliable one is the claim of a third contemporary source, an unspecified work by the historian Gervase of Tilbury. Gervase lived at the right time and was a known historian of the period. The existence of his reference to the green children was first claimed in 1958 by author Harold T. Wilkins in his book Strange Mysteries of Time and Space. Skeptical researcher Garth Haslam spent a long time trying to track down any such mention by Gervase — unsuccessfully — and finally concluded that Wilkins probably fabricated the source. Other authors who do minimal original research have parroted Gervase as an original source for the story, based solely on Wilkins' probably-false citation.
One author, John Macklin, even created his own new version of the entire story — lifting all the details point by point, but relocating it in the nonexistent Spanish town of Banjos and moving the date to 1887. Put a neat story out there, and it's guaranteed that some authors will run it through their own mill to give it their own touch.
Another such author is Scottish alien visitation theorist Duncan Lunan, who is among the more prominent claimants that the Green Children of Woolpit were visitors from another world. He makes a number of extraordinary claims about their arrival, including that it "was one of a series of events at linked sites and seems to have been anticipated by the authorities of the time" and that there were "some strange things happening in the sky at the same time." His hypothesis is founded upon his belief that during the 12th century, "there might have been mass abductions from Earth, by extraterrestrials, for experimental purposes, with the knowledge if not the agreement of the authorities". Lunan considered it an assailable fact that the children must have been extraterrestrial, based upon William's account of the hearsay of the sister telling, in later years, how St. Martin is dark all the time, but with a "luminous country" visible in the distance across a "considerable river".
But lest we dismiss Lunan's version as entirely conjectural, it's a good time to mention another early work that likely influenced him. It's the book The Man in the Moone: or a Discourse of a Voyage Hither written by the Church of England bishop Francis Godwin under the pseudonym Domingo Gonsales, and widely considered to be one of the very first works of speculative science fiction. Probably written in the 1620s and published posthumously in 1638, it is considered an important landmark in the history of English language fiction. It's the first person account of Godwin's narrator, Gonsales, who travels to the Moon where he lives for some months with a race of Utopian Christians called the Lunars. The Lunars have a habit of sending their people to Earth, and Gonsales notes that the Green Children of Woolpit — by name — turn out to have been two such people. Godwin even threw in the detail that the Lunars called their deity Martinus — an obvious reference to the green children's assertion that they came from a Christian land called St. Martin. In a 2006 issue of the academic journal Science Fiction Studies, writer John Clark found that Godwin's piece was only the tip of the iceberg of how much English language science fiction has been informed by the humble little story of the Green Children of Woolpit. In this context, Duncan Lunan's claim would make a lot more sense and be consistent with the history of the tale — so long as it was confined to the realm of fiction.
However, let us not tarry on the story's later influence upon authors of both fiction and nonfiction, and instead get to the item that you tuned in for: What was the original grain of truth from which this legend grew?
There is — as I'm sure you can imagine — a "leading theory" to explain the story of the green children in purely prosaic terms. It was detailed most notably by Paul Harris in a 1998 article for Fortean Studies magazine. Noting that the region had plenty of Flemish immigrants, some of whom lived in the town of Fornham St. Martin about a 12 or 15 kilometer walk from Woolpit, it's entirely plausible that these were simply runaways or had gotten lost, and had grown up speaking only Flemish — a language that could easily be unknown to the Woolpit reapers. The fact that both William and Ralph gave St. Martin as the children's origin, and that a town named that was very close by, it seems there's very little here that's mysterious. And, of course, they need not even have been Flemish; they could have been the children of any foreigner, either living in the region, or just passing through.
Except, of course, for that significant detail of the green skin. Harris went through perhaps a few too many gymnastics trying to find explanations for every little detail of the story — for example, trying to match the wolf pits from which the children are said to have emerged with the tunnels of flint mines located some 50 kilometers away. But the green skin is the central oddity of the story, as the story wouldn't exist without it; and it does demand at least some plausible explanation. Harris's theory was that the children may have hidden in the forest long enough to develop malnutrition significant enough to produce chlorosis, an old name for hypochromic anemia. This is a reduction of hemoglobin in red blood cells, giving the patient a pallid appearance. There are both hereditary and acquired forms of hypochromic anemia, and patients today do present with skin colors of which the most serious can have a notable greenish tinge. So it's not implausible that two children in the 12th century could have had this, and might be quite the curiosity to neighboring villagers who had never heard of such a thing before. Whether this could be acquired simply by hiding in the forest until malnutrition sets in is more problematic, as you'd likely starve to death or suffer some other symptoms long before you'd get this specific condition, which we don't find in other people who nearly starve. But as noted, there are plenty of other ways to get it, and as it's a real thing today, it shouldn't be too surprising that it was a real thing then.
And so we leave the Green Children of Woolpit pretty much as we found them. Elements of the story are probably true, and as some of the most significant are not extraordinary — i.e., the proximity of a place called St. Martin, and that the striking presentation of an unfamiliar medical condition could well trigger a story that lasts for centuries — I'm going to call this one perfectly plausible in all its essential details; though with no need to travel to the Moon to find them.
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