As a rule, in my former career as a ghost-hunter, I did not “do” demons, believing persons thus afflicted were better left to the trained experts, both ecclesiastical and psychiatric. But the other day, leafing through a book of medieval exempla, I ran across a couple of stories of helpful demons. I’m sure they’ll appear in a later post, but they reminded me of one of my favorite episodes from Froissart’s Chronicles. The obliging familiar spirit (never really identified as a demon) in this translation (Thomas Johnes, 1805) is named as “Orthon” (shades of Adamski’s blond Venusian!), but in the original French, he is Horton or Orton.
THE COUNT DE FOIX IS RAPIDLY, AND IN A SECRET MANNER, INFORMED OF WHAT HAD HAPPENED AT ALJUBAROTA. FROISSART, IN CONSEQUENCE OF THIS, RELATES A STORY WHICH HAD BEEN TOLD HIM OF A FAMILIAR SPIRIT, CALLED ORTHON, WHO SERVED THE LORD DE CORASSE IN THE LIKE MANNER.
A fact I am about to relate will astonish my readers, if they consider and pay attention to it. It was told me in the hotel of the count de Foix at Orthes, and by the same person who had informed me of the battle of Aljubarota, and the event of that day. I will therefore narrate it; for, ever since the squire related it to me, I have much thought on it, and shall do so as long as I live. It is a fact, as the squire assured me, that the count de Foix was informed, the day after the battle of Aljubarota, of every thing that, had there happened, the same as I have related it, which surprised me exceedingly how this could possibly have been.
The whole days of Sunday, Monday, and the following Tuesday he was in his castle of Orthes, and made such poor and melancholy meals that not one word could be drawn from him; nor would he, during that time, quit his chamber, nor speak to knight or squire, however nearly they were related by blood, unless he had sent for him; and it .also happened, that he even sent for some, to whom he never opened his lips during these three days. On the Tuesday, in the evening, he called his brother Arnold William, and laid to him in a low voice,—’”Our people have had a desperate battle, which has vexed me very much, for it has happened to them just as I had foretold at their departure.”
Arnold William, who was a wise man and a prudent knight, well acquainted with the temper of his brother, was silent. The count, anxious to cheer up his courage, for he had too long nurtured in his breast this sad news, added, “By God, Sir Arnold, it is just as I have told you; and very soon we shall have news of it, Never has the country of Bearn suffered so severely for these hundred years past, as it has now at this battle in Portugal.”
Many knights and squires who were present, and heard the words of the count, were afraid to speak, but commented within themselves on them.
Within ten days, the truth was known from those who had been in the battle, and they first told the count, and all who wished to hear them, every thing relative to their disputes with the Castillians and the event of the battle at Aljubarota. This renewed the grief of the count, and of those persons belonging to the country who had lost brothers, relations, children, or friends. “Holy Mary!” said I to the squire, “how was it possible for the count to know, or even to guess at it, on the morrow after it had happened?”
“By my faith,” replied he, “ he knew it well enough, as it appeared afterwards.”
“Is he a wizard then,” said I, “or has he messengers who ride on the winds? for he must have some secret art.”
Upon this the squire began to laugh, and said, “In truth, he must have known it by means of necromancy. We indeed are ignorant in this country how he manages, but we have our suspicions.”
Upon this, I said to the squire, “Now do have the goodness to tell me what your suspicions are, and I shall be very much obliged to you. If it be necessary to keep it secret, I will be silent, and never open my mouth on the subject as long as I live or remain in this country.”
“I must entreat that of you,’”replied the squire, “for I would not have it known that I had told it to you; for we only speak of it secretly when among our friends.”
Upon this, he drew me aside to a corner of the vault of the chapel of Orthes, and thus began his tale:
“About twenty years ago, there lived a baron in this country, called Raymond, lord of Corasse. You must understand that Corasse is a town seven leagues distant from Orthes. This lord of Corasse had a suit at Avignon before the pope, for the tithes of his church, against a priest of Catalonia: this priest was very learned who claimed these tithes, which were worth a hundred florins a year. He proved his right so clearly that pope Urban V in full consistory, gave a definitive judgment in favour of the priest, condemning the knight to costs of suit. The priest obtained a copy of this sentence, and hastened to Bearn, where shewing it, and his bulls from the pope, he obtained possession of the tithes.
“The lord de Corasse, being doubtful of the priest and of his designs, went to him and said, ‘Master Peter, or Master Martin, (according as he was called) do you think I will lose my inheritance through the papers you have brought hither? I do not believe you will be bold enough to collect any thing belonging to me; for if you do, your life shall pay for it. Go elsewhere and seek for benefices, for you shall not have any thing from my estates; and, once for all, I forbid you to take any tithes.’ The clerk was fearful of the knight, as he knew him to be a cruel man, and dared not persevere, but resolved to return to Avignon, which he did, Before he set out, he came again to the lord de Corasse, and said to him, ‘By force, and not by justice, you deprive me of the rights of my church, for which, in conscience, you behave exceedingly ill. I am not so powerful in this country as you are; but know, that as soon as I possibly can, I will send you a champion that you will be more afraid of than you have hitherto been of me.’
“The lord de Corasse, not alarmed at his menaces, replied, ‘Go, in God’s name; do what thou canst: I fear thee neither dead nor alive; and for thy speeches I will not lose my property.’
The clerk then departed; and went I know not whether to Catalonia. or to Avignon, but did not forget what he had told the lord de Corasse on leaving him; for, about three months after, when the knight least thought of it, and was sleeping in his bed with his lady, in his castle of Corasse, there came invisible messengers, who made such a noise, knocking about every thing they met with in the castle, as if they were determined to destroy all within it; and they gave such loud raps at the door of the chamber of the knight, that the lady was exceedingly frightened. The knight heard it all, but did not say a word, as he would not have it appear that he was alarmed, for he was a man of sufficient courage for any adventure. These noises and tumults continued, in different parts of the castle, for a considerable time, and then ceased. On the morrow, all the servants of the household assembled, and went to their lord, and said, ‘My lord, did you not hear what we all heard this night?’ The lord de Corasse dissembled, and replied, ‘What is it you have heard?’ They then related to him all the noises and rioting they had heard, and that the plates in the kitchen had been broken. He began to laugh, and said ‘It was nothing: that they had dreamed it, or that it had been the wind.’ ‘In the name of God,’ added the lady, ‘I well heard it.’
“On the following night, the noises and rioting were renewed, but much louder than before; and there were such blows struck against the door and windows of the chamber of the knight, that it seemed they would break them down.
“The knight could no longer desist from leaping out of his bed, and calling out, ‘Who is it that at this hour thus knocks at my chamber door?’ He was instantly answered, ‘It is I.’ ‘And who sends thee hither?’ asked the knight. ‘The clerk of Catalonia, whom thou hast much wronged; for thou hast deprived him of the rights of his benefice: I will, therefore, never leave thee quiet, until thou hast rendered him a just account, with which he shall be contented.’ ‘What art thou called,’ said the knight, ‘who art so good a messenger?’ ‘My name is Orthon.’
“’Orthon,’ said the knight, ‘serving a clerk will not be of much advantage to thee; for, if thou believest him, he will give thee great trouble: I beg thou wilt therefore leave him and serve me, and I shall think myself obliged to thee.’ Orthon was ready with his answer, for he had taken a liking to the knight, and said, ‘Do you wish it?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the knight; ‘but no harm must be done to any one within these walls.’ ‘Oh no,’ answered Orthon: ‘I have no power to do ill to any one, only to awaken thee and disturb thy rest, or that of other persons.’ ‘Do what I tell thee,’ added the knight, ‘we shall well agree; and leave this wicked priest, for he is a worthless fellow, and serve me.’ ‘Well,’ replied Orthon, ‘since thou wilt have it so, I consent.’
“Orthon took such an affection to the lord de Corasse that he came often to see him in the nighttime; and, when he found him sleeping, he pulled his pillow from under his head, or made great noises at the door or windows, so that, when the knight was awakened, he said, ‘Orthon, let me sleep.’ ‘I will not,’ replied he, ‘until I have told thee some news.’ The knight’s lady was so much frightened, the hairs of her head stood on end, and she hid herself under the bed-clothes. ‘Well,’ said the knight, ‘and what news hast thou brought me?’ Orthon replied, ‘I am come from England, Hungary, or some other place, which I left yesterday, and such and such things have happened.’ Thus did the lord de Corasse know by means of Orthon all things that were passing in different parts of the world; and this connection continued for five years; but he could not keep it to himself, and discovered it to the count de Foix, in the manner I will tell you. The first year, the lord de Corasse came to the count de Foix at Orthes, or elsewhere, and told him; ‘My lord, such an event has happened in England, in Scotland, Germany, or some other country’ and the count de Foix, who found all this intelligence prove true, marvelled greatly how he could have acquired such early intimation, and entreated him so earnestly, that the lord de Corasse told him the means by which he had acquired his intelligence, and the manner of its communication. When the count de Foix heard this, he was much pleased, and said, ‘Lord de Corasse, nourish the love of your intelligencer: I wish I had such a messenger: he costs you nothing, and you are truly informed of every thing that passes in the world.’ ‘My lord’’ replied the knight, ‘I will do so.’ The lord de Corasse was served by Orthon for a long time. I am ignorant if Orthon had more than one master; but two or three times every week he visited the knight, and told him all the news of the countries he had frequented, which he wrote immediately to the count de Foix, who was much delighted therewith, as there is not a lord in the world more eager after news from foreign parts than he is. Once, when the lord de Corasse was in conversation on this subject with the count de Foix, the count said, ‘Lord de Corafle, have you never yet seen your messenger?’ ‘No, by my faith, never; nor have I ever pressed him on this matter.’ ‘I wonder at that,’ replied the count; ‘for had he been so much attached to me, I should have begged of him to have shewn himself in his own proper form; and I entreat you will do so, that you may tell how he is made, and what he is like. You have said that he speaks Gascon as well as you or I do.’ ‘By my faith,’ said the lord de Corasse, ‘he converses just as well and as properly; and, since you request it, I will do all I can to see him.’
“It fell out, when the lord de Corasse, as usual was in bed with his lady (who was now accustomed to hear Orthon without being frightened), Orthon arrived, and shook the pillow of the knight, who was asleep. On waking, he asked who was there: Orthon replied, ‘It is I.’ ‘And where dost thou come from?’ ‘I come from Prague in Bohemia.’ ‘How far is it hence?’ ‘Sixty days journey,’ replied Orthon. ‘And hast thou returned thence in so short a time?’ ‘Yes, as may God help me. I travel as fast as the wind, or faster.’ ‘What, hast thou got wings?’ ‘Oh no.’ ‘How then canst thou fly so fast?’ ‘That is no business of yours.’ ‘No!’ said the knight. ‘I should like exceedingly to see what form thou hast, and how thou art made.’ ‘That does not concern you to know,’ replied Orthon, ‘be satisfied that you hear me, and that I bring you intelligence you may depend on.’ ‘’By God,’ said the lord de Corasse, ‘I should love thee better, if I had seen thee.’ ‘Well,’ replied Orthon, ‘since you have such a desire, the first thing you shall see to-morrow morning, in quitting your bed, shall be myself.’ ‘ I am satisfied,’ said the knight, ‘you may now depart: I give thee thy liberty for this night.’
‘When morning came, the knight arose, but his lady was so much frightened she pretended to be sick, and said she would not leave her bed the whole day. The lord de Corasse willed it otherwise. ‘Sir,’ said she, ‘if I do get up, I shall see Orthon, and, if it please God, I would neither see nor meet him.’ ‘Well,’ replied the knight, ‘I am determined to see him.’ And, leaping out of his bed, he seated himself on the bed-stead, thinking he should see Orthon in his own shape,but he saw nothing that could induce him to say he had seen him. When the ensuing night arrived, and the lord de Corasse was in bed, Orthan came and began to talk in his usual manner. ‘Go,’ said the knight, ‘thou art a liar: thou oughtest to. have shewn thyself to me this morning, and hast not done so.’ ‘No!’ replied Orthon, ‘but I have.’ ‘I say no.’ ‘And did you see nothing at all when you leaped out of bed?’ The lord de Corasse was silent, and, having considered awhile said, ‘Yes: when sitting on my bed-stead thinking of thee, I saw two straws which were turning and playing together on the floor.’ ‘That was myself,’ replied Orthon, ‘for I had taken that form.’ The lord de Corasse said, ‘That will not satisfy me: I beg of thee to assume some other shape, so that I may see thee and know thee.’ Orthon answered, ‘You ask so much that you will ruin me and force me away from you, for your requests are too great.’ ‘You shall not quit me,’ said the lord de Corasse: ‘if I had once seen thee, I should not again wish it.’ ‘Well,’ replied Orthon, ‘you shall see me to-morrow, if you pay attention to the first thing you observe when you leave your chamber.’ ‘I am contented,’ said the knight, ‘now go thy ways, for I want to sleep.’ Orthon departed.
“On the morrow, about the hour of eight, the knight had risen and was dressed: on leaving his apartment, he went to a window, which looked into the court of the castle. Casting his eyes about, the first thing he observed was an immensely large sow; but she was so poor, she seemed only skin and, bone, with long hanging ears all spotted, and a sharp-pointed lean snout. The lord de Corasse was disgusted at such a sight, and, calling to his servants, said, ‘Let the dogs loose quickly, for I will have that sow killed and devoured.’ The servants hastened to open the kennel, and to set the hounds on the sow, who uttered a loud cry and looked up at the lord de Corasse, leaning on the balcony of his window, and was never seen afterwards; for she vanished, and no one ever knew what became of her.
“The knight returned quite pensive to his chamber for he then recollected what Orthon had told him, and said, ‘I believe I have seen my messenger Orthon, and repent having set my hounds on him, for perhaps I may never see him more! He frequently told me, that if I ever angered him, I would lose him.’ He kept his word, for never did he return to the hotel de Corasse, and the knight died the following year. Thus have I related to you the history of Orthon, and how for a time he supplied the lord de Coraffe with intelligence.” “’That is true,’ said I to the squire; ‘but with what intent have you told it? Does the count de Foix make use of such a messenger?’ ‘In good truth, that is the real opinion of several of the inhabitants of Bearn; for there is nothing done in this country or elsewhere but what he instantly knows, when he sets his heart on it, even when it is the least suspected. Thus it was respecting the intelligence he told us of our good knights and squires, who had fallen in Portugal. The reputation and belief of his possessing this knowledge is of great service to him, for there would not be lost a gold or silver spoon, or any thing of less value, in this country, without his instantly knowing of it.’
“I then took my leave of the squire, and joined other company, with whom I chatted and amused myself. However, I kept in my memory every particular of the tale he had told me, as is now apparent.”
While Froissart is sometimes noted more for his colorful tale-telling than his reliability, something that struck me about this account are the parallels to two other famous talking spirit cases: The Tennessee Bell Witch legend (c. 1817) and the “Gef the Talking Mongoose” case of 1931 and beyond.
The Bell Witch also started with knockings and crashes. It escalated to a disembodied voice that told news from other locations and gossiped about the neighbors. It is alleged to have killed John Bell, the patriarch of the Bell family, but never actually appeared, unless we count a “strange animal” John Bell is said to have seen just before the manifestations began.
The story of “Gef” began in 1931 at Doarlish Cashen on the Isle of Man, the home of the Irving family. It started with tapping noises which got louder by the night. Then something began making noises that sounded like it was imitating human speech; eventually it spoke clearly. Like Orthon, Gef traveled far and wide and knew all the news from other places. At times Gef was also a helpful entity and, like Orthon, he was reluctant to be seen, although he was allegedly sighted several times. He also threatened to leave if he wasn’t treated properly. Gef’s parallel to Orthon is stronger than that of the Bell Witch.
Nandor Fodor, who wrote about the case in Haunted People: The Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries, later wondered if Gef was a manifestation of the personality of James Irving, the intellectually and financially frustrated man of the house. Others have suggested that James Irving or daughter Voirrey was a ventriloquist. And, of course, the whole thing has been denounced because it must be a fraud.
Even if all three stories are hoaxes or folk-legends, they contain very similar elements: the racketing noises of the poltergeist, a supernatural entity that relates news from locations either far-away or inaccessible to the witnesses, and one that manifests primarily as a disembodied voice.
I look for patterns in stories of this kind—I expect some would say it is the equivalent of seeing faces in clouds. Fashions in ghost stories change over time, but for some perverse reason, I have frequently rejoiced to see that the “rules” of poltergeist behavior have not changed in centuries. It is a minor pleasure to find three stories, so far separated both geographically and in time, containing such similar motifs.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.