Hedwig—and Angry Vampires?

Piotr Stachiewicz (Polish, a cycle of illustrations portraying the life and legends of Jadwiga, “King” of Poland.) This scene depicts a drowned man she brought back to life by draping her cloak over his wet corpse.

Jadwiga, also known as Hedwig (without an “angry inch!”), was the first female monarch of the Kingdom of Poland, reigning from October 16, 1384 until her death (July 1399). Jadwiga was crowned “king,” reflecting the Polish lords’ opposition to her intended future husband, William; she married someone else instead but remained “king” herself.

Her marriage made the union of Poland and Lithuania possible, establishing a large state in eastern Central Europe. She established new hospitals, schools and churches, and restored older ones that had fallen into ruin. Jadwiga promoted the use of Polish rather than Latin in church services, especially the singing of hymns in Polish. She ordered that the Bible be translated into Polish. Jadwiga bought houses along a central street of Kraków in order to establish the university there. In accordance with Jadwiga’s last will, the university was partially financed through the sale of her jewels. Her charity led many to consider her a saint. She is said to have brought the dead to life on at least one occasion (see illustration above).

Poland has always been a source of fascinating tales and legends. Vampire stories were more common in Poland than in Transylvania (Romania). Vampire graves in Poland are recognised by the positioning of the body in the tomb: those thought to be vampires were buried face down, in the fetal position, with their heads cut off and placed between their legs, with wooden or metal pegs and studs piercing their bodies, or in a grave held down by rocks. Many such graves have been discovered in different parts of Poland. Underneath Kraków’s main square researchers discovered female skeletons laid in the fetal position, and in another town the body of a woman was found with her hand cut off and placed in her mouth.

William the Conqueror Arrives in England

The Bayeux Tapestry is a masterpiece of embroidery that depicts William the Conqueror’s invasion and conquest of England; it was made around 1077.

William the Conqueror came from what is now France and invaded England; he arrived in England in September and on October 14, 1066, William established himself as the first Norman king when the last English king was slain.

The Normans brought a vast collection of folklore and stories with them, including stories of the Dames Blanches. These “White Ladies” were a type of Fae known in Normandy who lurk in narrow places such as ravines, fords, and on bridges, and try to attract the attention of male travelers. They may require one to join in their dance or assist them in order to pass. If assisted, she “makes him many courtesies, and then vanishes.” One such Dame was known as La Dame d’Apringy who appeared in a ravine at the Rue Quentin at Bayeux in Normandy, where one must dance with her a few rounds to pass. Those who refused were thrown into the thistles and briars, while those who danced were not harmed. Another Dame was known on a narrow bridge in the district of Falaise. She only allowed people to pass if they went on their knees to her. Anyone who refused was tormented by the lutins (hobgoblins), cats, owls, and other creatures who helped her.

Another character from Norman folklore was Melusine, a female spirit of fresh water in a sacred spring or river. She is usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down (much like a mermaid). She is also sometimes illustrated with wings, two tails, or both.

Robin Hood, hiding in Sherwood Forest to rob from the rich and give to the poor, was a later Anglo-Saxon figure of resistance to the Norman invaders. Robin led the resistance to King John, the great-grandson of William the Conquerer. Robin, dressed in green with his band of merry men and Maid Marian, were long thought to be versions of Fae that defend the land and native people from oppression by foreign overlords but the stories about him were probably based on an actual person.

St. Francis and the Wolf

Renunciation of Worldly Goods, The Bishop of Assisi Dresses St Francis. Scenes from the Life of St Francis (Scene south wall). 1452 Fresco in the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

As a young man, Francis of Assisi gave away cloth and other goods from his merchant father’s supplies. His father sued his son in court, trying to impress on him that his behavior was unacceptable. But Francis took of all his clothes in court and laid them at his father’s feet, renouncing everything that he had from his father so as to avoid future accusations that he was giving to the poor out of someone else’s resources. The bishop of Assisi, who was the judge in the court, gave Francis something to wear and Francis stepped out into the world as a beggar. He changed Western Europe forever.

Although almost everyone knows the story of St. Francis preaching to the birds, not many people know any other stories that are told about St. Francis. One legend that is among my favorites tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.” Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and so he went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at Francis’ feet.

“Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil,” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you … But brother wolf, I would like to make peace between you and the people.” Then Francis led the wolf into the town, and surrounded by startled citizens made a pact between them and the wolf. Because the wolf had “done evil out of hunger, the townsfolk were to feed the wolf regularly. In return, the wolf would no longer prey upon them or their flocks. In this manner Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again. Finally, to show the townspeople that they would not be harmed, Francis blessed the wolf.”

According to tradition, Gubbio gave the wolf an honorable burial and later built the Church of Saint Francis of the Peace at the site. During renovations in 1872, the skeleton of a large wolf, apparently several centuries old, was found under a slab near the church wall and then reburied inside.

Because of St. Francis association with the wolf of Gubbio and the birds he preached to, many churches bless animals on the Sunday nearest to St. Francis’ feast day (October 4).