Medieval Magic and Marvels: Cloud Ships

A fisherman's anchor
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Of course there is another sea above the one we know of – didn’t you realise! One credulous medieval writer certainly seemed to think so.

I came across this extract from Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia in C. G. Coulton’s Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation, which is a great repository of all things medieval – from the mundane to the most fantastical of medieval marvels.

Gervase of Tilbury was an Imperial official in the 12th and 13th centuries, and wrote a number of works including the Otia Imperialia, which is a miscellany of various wonders – many of them seemingly very fanciful. I love this one about villagers coming across an anchor in a churchyard one foggy day and then a sailor comes down from the misty heavens to free the anchor. As if this isn’t evidence enough of ships sailing above us in the clouds, Gervase then backs this up with another story of a man sailing far overseas losing a knife overboard, and it then landing on his wife’s kitchen table far below.

Coulton notes that “A heavy stone tomb of the kind here described, dating from the late 14th or early 15th century, may still be seen in front of the porch of St Nicholas at Lynn. Iron door- bands in the rough form of an anchor are very common on early church doors :e.g. Sempringham.”

Here’s the full extract from Gervase of Tilbury:

There are some who say that the earth, as a centre in the midst of a circumference, is equally distant from all these extremities, and is surrounded and shut in by sea, even as it is written of the third Day of Creation, “God gathered together the waters that were under the heaven into one place, and dry land appeared.” In our own times there befel a marvellous, but well-known event to prove how the upper sea lieth above us. On a certain holyday in Great Britain, after High Mass, the folk were thronging forth from the parish church, on a morning so misty that it made a sort of twilight amid the gross and watery vapours. Here, on a stone tomb within the precincts of the churchyard, they found an anchor fixed, with its cable stretched tight and hanging down from the air. The people stood in amazement; and, while they were disputing among themselves of this matter, at length, they saw the rope move as though men had been labouring to weigh the anchor. When therefore, for all this straining at the rope, the anchor yet clung to the tomb, they heard through the foggy air as though it had been the cries of sailors labouring with all their might to raise an anchor from the deep. Soon, when they found their labour to be in vain, they sent down one of their fellows, who, as skilfully as any shipman of our own, appeared hanging to the rope and descending with alternate interchange of hands. When, however, he had torn the anchor from the tomb, he was caught by those that stood around, in whose arms he gave up the ghost, stifled by the breath of our gross air as a shipwrecked mariner is stifled in the sea. Moreover his fellows above, judging him to be wrecked, after an hour’s delay, cut the cable, left their anchor, and sailed away. In memory of which event the iron bands of the doors of that church were forged, by a cunning counsel, from that anchor; which bands are still there for all men to see. Here again is a still more marvellous testimony. In the county of Gloucester is a town named Bristol, wealthy and full of prosperous citizens; from this port men sail for Ireland. It befel upon a time that a native of Bristol sailed to Ireland, leaving his wife and children at home. Then, after a long sea-voyage, as he sailed on a far-off ocean, he chanced to sit banqueting with the mariners about the hour of tierce; and, after eating, as he washed his knife over the ship’s side, it slipped suddenly from his hands. At that same hour, at Bristol, the knife fell in through the roof-window of that same citizen (which men in the English tongue call dormer) and stuck in the table that was set before his wife. The woman, marvelling at so strange a thing, was dumbfounded; and, laying aside this well-known knife, she learned long afterwards, on her husband’s return, that his misfortune had befallen on the very day whereon she had found it. Who, then, will now doubt, after the publication of this testimony, that a sea lieth over this earth of ours, whether in the air or above the air?

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