One winter, in the dark days of King Richard II, a tailor was riding home on the road from Gilling to Ampleforth. It was dank, wet and gloomy; he couldn’t wait to get home and sit in front of a blazing fire.
Then, out of nowhere, the tailor is knocked off his horse by a raven, who then transforms into a hideous dog, his mouth writhing with its own innards. The dog issues the tailor with a warning: he must go to a priest and ask for absolution and return to the road, or else there will be consequences…
First recorded in the early fifteenth century by an unknown monk, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings was transcribed from the Latin by the great medievalist M.R. James in 1922. Building on that tradition, now bestselling historian Dan Jones retells this medieval ghost story in crisp and creepy prose.
The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings, a medieval ghost story that has been retold in a lively fashion by historian Dan Jones, made for an interesting, albeit curious, addition to my Spooky Season reading this year.
First recorded by a monk at Byland Abbey in the early fifteenth century, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings tells the story of Snowball, a tailor from Ampleforth. One winter’s night, Snowball is riding home from a job in nearby Gilling when he is confronted by a hideous spectre in the shape of a dog.
The ‘dog’, it transpires, is a recently deceased member of the community who, owing to the sins he committed in life, was buried without absolution and is cursed to wander the road until he can find it. Tasking Snowball with seeking absolution from a priest on his behalf, the dog warns the petrified tailor that two other wretched spirits haunt the road – and that failure to return to absolve them may have terrible consequences.
Although transcribed by that great teller of ghostly tales, M. R. James, The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings is a uniquely medieval tale. Whilst there is something very Jamesian in the sense of menace conjured by the lonely road – and in the horrifying appearance of the spectres that appear to poor Snowball – the story is preoccupied by the religious concerns of the early 1400s, and by the very real fear of confronting death without having received absolution for one’s sins.
The story is also wonderfully localised – often naming specific geographic locations across North Yorkshire – and there is a real sense of the community of people that lived and told this tale. There are also some oddly comic moments – such as the intrusion by a nosy but affluent neighbour – and a real sense of time and place, with the story greatly embellished by dialogue and description despite its relative simplicity. Dan Jones’s translation has added a few more details – he has given Snowball’s horse a name, for example – but retains the spirit of the original, as well as of James’s transcription.
The tale itself is very slender – much of the book is taken up with Dan Jones’s lively introduction to Byland Abbey and its curious collection of ghost stories, and with M R James’s own Latin transcription, taken from the original MS (which is now held in the British Library). Whilst James’s transcription is likely to be of interest only to Latin scholars, his notes make for very interesting reading, demonstrating James’s solid scholarship and providing useful glosses to some of the more uniquely medieval aspects of the tale which, I felt, were not wholly explained by Jones in his introduction.
As a scholar of medievalism in my day job, I am reasonably well-versed in the literature and culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries so found much to enjoy in The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings. Although more entertaining than exemplary, they reminded me in spirit of some of the medieval mystery plays I’ve read, and of the curious (and often amusing) asides that can occasionally be found in some chronicles.
For the general reader, there were one or two elements that might have benefitted from more explanation, such as the fact that ‘king’ here doesn’t necessarily mean ‘monarch’ but is instead likely to be one of the three ‘dead’: deceased members of the community pictured on the rood screen in the village church, who were often depicted as ‘kings’ in this period. James’s footnotes and glosses to his Latin transcription make this clear but I’m not sure how many readers – especially those not versed in Latin – would discover them, so it would have been helpful to have some additional religious and social context included in the introduction.
The history of the Byland Abbey ghost stories is, for anyone interested in medieval literature, absolutely fascinating and a good annotated edition of all twelve tales would, I feel, be a welcome addition to scholarship on the period. For now, there is an excellent (and free) online resource from the Byland Abbey Ghost Stories Project which contains both Latin and English transcriptions of all twelve tales, along with short introductions to the project and the manuscript – highly recommended reading if you enjoy this little tale!
For the general reader of ghost stories, Dan Jones’s retelling offers an accessible introduction to a uniquely medieval style of ghost story. Although I read this as an eBook, I imagine the smart hardback will make for a lovely gift over the Halloween and Christmas periods – the perfect story to curl up and escape with with for an hour or two by a roaring fire after family festivities are done.
The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings by Dan Jones is published by Head of Zeus and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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