I'm looking forward to a couple of events this week. On Thursday I'll be at Treadwell's bookshop talking about London's Strange World of Rats. I'll be going over my continuing exploration of the folklore about rats, and admitting to another room full of strangers that yes, I really am obsessed by the topic. Then on Saturday I'm at the London Fortean Society's London Ghost Conference, talking about ghosts in London's hospitals and theatres. A year after finishing my PhD I finally feel able to talk about ghosts again, and I'm looking forward to the company of some good speakers.
It was fitting then that I prepared by hearing an East Anglian man talking about both rats and ghosts last weekend. John, from the Cambridgeshire Fens, heard about my researches with interest, and chipped in with two stories of his own.
He had been told about rats by a friend who worked in a chicken farm. The rats would come into the pens to steal eggs. One rat would clasp an egg between all four legs, then roll over onto its back and be dragged out into the yard, where the rats could safely break the egg and eat it.
In this story you see the idea of rats as intelligent and cooperative animals. (Both John and the other listeners commented on how far this proved the intelligence of the animals). I've written about this kind of idea before, and there is a link in that piece to a Walter Potter tableau of rats stealing eggs. A writer on Potter's taxidermy described this familiar story as 'an evergreen topic of folklore in the countryside', so it was very nice to hear it directly in oral testimony.
John also filled in the background to my friend's house, which is reportedly 'the most haunted house' in Soham. Well, John explained, there used to be a monastery on the other side of the road. One of the monks had had an affair, and the girl had become pregnant. When her time was due the monks tied her legs together in the house to prevent her being able to give birth. She and the child had died, and it is their ghosts that haunt the property. John and the resident of the house both indicated which room was affected, and I was told that several residents had been unable to stay there.
Again, this is a hugely familiar motif that turns up in legends across the country. In many cases (although not apparently in this telling) the woman was a nun, thus doubly compounding the errors committed. The motif turns up frequently in connection with legends of secret tunnels allegedly connecting monasteries with convents. John's account had a particularly lurid ring, but it fitted perfectly with the legend. It would be interesting to hear how it fits with other local accounts, so I'm looking forward to accounts from a forthcoming ghost walk in the village.