The Green Children of Woolpit
In twelfth-century England in the little East Anglian town we now call Woolpit, two very strange visitors arrived. It was harvest time and the reapers were in the fields with their scythes cutting the barley. They were surprised to see two children emerge from one of the ancient cavities, called wolf pits. There was a girl, maybe around ten-years-old, and a slightly younger boy.
The two children seemed dazed and disoriented as they stumbled through the field. The workers were astonished at the sight of two odd youngsters. They looked like normal children – except that their skin was tinged green. Their clothes were strange and made of a fabric that no one had ever seen before. And they spoke a peculiar language that no one had ever heard.
They were taken to Sir Richard, the local squire, in hopes that he would know where they had come from and what to do with them. Everyone was bewildered and a bit afraid of these green children. The feeling was mutual. The youngsters were frightened by all those white-skinned people babbling away at them in meaningless sounds. They began to cry. Sir Richard decided they must be hungry and offered them food, but they refused everything.
They Only Eat Beans
They were taken outside while the adults discussed their fate. But when they saw the gardener cutting beans in the garden, they went wild with delight. They grabbed the stalks and tore them open, but when they found no beans, they began to cry. Someone opened a pod and showed them the beans and they immediately gobbled them up. For months, they would eat only beans.
They stayed on with Sir Richard, but the boy was sickly and died not long after. The girl flourished, however, and she learned to eat normal British food and lost her green color. Little by little she learned to speak “ye olde English.”
People were anxious to hear her tale. Where had she come from and how did she end up in East Anglia? She said she and her brother had come from a land called St. Martin. There, everyone had green tinged skin. It was a land with no sun but they had a light similar to the twilight in England. She said from their shores they could see a land with light, but they were separated from it by a broad river.
It seems that one day, when she and her brother were out tending their flock of sheep, they saw a cave. When they peeked inside, they heard bells tinkling. They wanted to see what they were, so they ventured into the cave. As they followed the bells, they went further and further into the cave. Finally, they saw light and stepped out the other end of the cave into a blinding sunlight. They couldn’t see anything and fell into one of the old wolf pits. They slept there until they were awakened by the noise of the harvesters in the field.
They were afraid and climbed out of the pit to look for the cave, but they couldn’t find it. That’s when the harvesters found them and took them to Sir Richard.
As the girl grew up and was no longer green, she looked like the other local lasses. She worked for Sir Richard and was said to be “rather loose and wanton in her conduct.” She eventually married, but it’s unknown whether she had any green children of her own.
Is this a true story? Well, there does seem to be some basis of truth to it. This story was related by two medieval writers: William of Newburgh (approx. 1136-1198) who sites “trustworthy” sources, and Ralph of Coggeshall (died after 1227) who lists Sir Richard de Cain (the squire with whom the children lived) as a source.
Alien, Folklore, or Flemish?
There are several theories about where these green children might have come from: Some claim that the story is just a bit of folklore and the green children were no more real that Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel. Others see them as alien visitors from another planet.
However, there is another theory based on the history of the area: In the town of Fornham St. Martin (also in East Anglia) there was a large settlement of Flemish weavers. In 1173 the area around this town was the site of a major battle and many of the Flemish immigrants were killed. Perhaps the children’s parents died at that time and they fled and got lost in the woods. After wandering for days, they ended up in Woolpit. Their color could be explained by a dietary deficiency disease called chlorosis, also known as green sickness.
The story of the green children of Woolpit has been told and retold for centuries, and we’ll probably never solve the mystery of who they were or where they came from.
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My new book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France, is out now and available on Amazon. I will be presenting it at our local Meet the Authors program in Nice on June 3. If you are in the area, please come by.
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