There aren’t many 900-year-old stories that still captivate listeners. But one has stuck around for at least that long. Of course, when the said story involves children with green skin roaming the English countryside, it’s a bit easier to understand the tale’s longevity.
There are three historical accounts from the 12th century detailing the appearance of these strange children, most notably William of Newburgh’s. His History of English Affairs, written in Latin, gives us some of the earliest known stories of vampires and zombies returned from the dead. The three historical accounts vary slightly, but only in their details.
During the reign of King Stephen, two children, apparently brother and sister, appeared mysteriously in the English village of Woolpit. Woolpit gets its name from wolf pits dug in the Middle Ages to protect the town from wild beasts. One autumn, during the harvest, villagers found the two strange children climbing out from one of those pits.
They wore unusual clothing and spoke a language no one understood. But the oddest thing about them was their green skin. The children were the color of leaves. They seemed confused by foods offered to them, eating only raw beans for many months.
Stunned, the villagers of Woolpit nevertheless took in the young strangers. They even went so far as to baptize the children. The boy, who appeared to be younger than his sister, grew ill and died shortly after being baptized. But the girl survived, and after a time she started eating other food and lost her green color. She also learned how to speak English, so the villagers could finally learn her story.
She said she and her brother came from a place called St. Martin’s Land where everything was green. She said they had been herding their father’s cattle when they followed the cows into a cave and became lost. They followed the sounds of bells and emerged in our world.
One of the historians who recorded the green children's story says the girl was given the name Agnes and went to work as a servant in the household of one of the villagers, Richard de Caine. She reportedly gained a reputation for being “very wanton and impudent,” but eventually settled down and married.
Explanations for the origins and meanings of this story vary widely. Some later historians insist it is pure fairytale. But many say it probably has its roots in a true event.
This was a period of civil strife throughout Europe. The children may have been orphaned or even kidnapped. There were many Flemish-speaking immigrants fleeing persecution and coming to England at the time. That may be the strange language the children spoke. And some diseases caused by malnutrition, like anemia, can turn the skin green. That might explain why the boy died and why his sister lost her green color after eating a larger variety of food.
Whatever the origin of this story, it is likely that its endurance comes from the fact that it is about lost, vulnerable children who are also mysterious, otherworldly, and just a little frightening. The conflicting emotions of protectiveness and fear they invoke may be why this weird story still has the power to fascinate after 900 years.
Featured painting by Konstantin Makovsky (edited) via Wikimedia Commons