The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages

The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle AgesThe Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages
by Robert Bartlett
Princeton University Press, £9.95 (pb), ISBN 0 691 12604 6

It is thanks to a commission held in 1307 to examine the claim that Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford, had fulfilled the conditions necessary for sainthood, that the strange story of William Cragh has been preserved. Cragh was hanged at Swansea in 1290 but brought back to life by, it was claimed, the intervention of the deceased bishop. As alleged miracles go, this was a well-attested one because nine witnesses – including, bizarrely, Cragh himself – gave testimony to the commission ordered by the Pope to examine Thomas’s credentials. Several of these had also viewed Cragh’s body and were certain he was dead.
Bartlett is fortunate that the spectators formed a fairly representative cross-section of the social spectrum of the time, from aristocrat to labourer, as this enables him to delve into the social relationships between high and low, English and Welsh, monarch and subjects, church and state, and men and women. We are given a peek into how they viewed their world, as well as a description of the members of the commission and the notaries who signed the records.
The decision to focus on the witnesses to Cragh’s resurrection means that we do not hear about the other miracles that formed the evidence that secured sainthood for Thomas de Cantilupe. But we are told the fates of the various individuals whose later histories were recorded, though not surprisingly this tends to favour the aristocrats and church bureaucrats because their lives were documented.
We never get to the truth of Cragh’s survival, but his fascinating story is a way in to the people and the political landscape of the period. This is micro-history at its best, taking a small-scale event and using it as a lens to examine the wider society and its interactions. It is a readable account that makes a complex period accessible to the non-specialist. Bartlett’s analytical approach would surely be applauded by the divines who interrogated the witnesses to the remarkable execution and resurrection of William Cragh.

Tom Ruffles