2 Tales of Horror from Limburgish Folklore

The nights grow longer, the trees are slowly losing their leaves and the birds are losing their lust for singing songs of summer warmth. The Oak King makes way for the Holly King, for autumn has graced the Northern hemisphere.

More than a year ago I introduced you to my homeland of Limburg and its wealth of folklore which had yet to grace the English language. I figured it was high time to write a sequel to that article, and what stories better suit autumn than tales of horror? As before, these stories are taken from the works of the pastor H. Welters who collected a treasury of Limburgish folklore, all the way back in 1875-1876. The plot, pace and details of the original stories have been translated as faithfully by me as I could, with minor embellishment and elaboration here and there.

We will start with a tale from the Dutch Limburgish capital of Maastricht, followed by a tale from the south Limburgish town of Valkenburg. Grab yourself a mug of mulled wine, eggnog or even chocolate milk if you be so daring, and settle in for two tales of horror taken from Limburgish folklore.


The Iron Dame of Maastricht

On the North-Eastern side of the city, in the quarter of Saint Anthony, where the great and ever active factories of the gentlemen Regout and Stevens stood in all their imposing, industrial splendour, there was an oft-overlooked corner, formed in the dark of the ring wall surrounding Maastricht. In this corner stood a house, known in those days to the folk of Maastricht as the “Pavilion of the Iron Dame.” This house was itself once part of the commandery of the German order, but Maastricht is old and land is scarce. Nowadays you shall no longer find those buildings in the city. Where once stood the commandery, now flows the water of the basin and sluice of the long and wide canal which leads from Maastricht all the way to Den Bosch in Brabant.

This “Pavilion of the Iron Dame” had a peculiar architectural structure and design, for it leaned on the thick walls of Maastricht for support, and had no entryway into it aside from a small, narrow waterway connected to the canal. The entrance to this waterway was even smaller, even more narrow and warded off from the world by iron bars, its water was scantly wide enough for a small boat to pass through. Cold, dark and oft-overlooked, the pavilion and its uninviting entrance stood, awaiting those who would brave a visit. You see, it was said in those days in Maastricht, that from behind those iron bars, hidden away in the dark, one could hear the sound of a woman if they listened. Deep in the dark, you would hear a sigh filled with sorrow, but the folk of Maastricht knew well enough to not heed the call from beyond the walls and bars. Those who lived in Maastricht stayed far away from the pavilion of the Iron Dame, the building bore ill omens, and few to none were brave enough to delve into its depths.

The deep-seated fear borne for the Iron Dame by the folk of Maastricht was not without reason. Children growing up learned that in the time of the Germans and their lost commandery, the pavilion was used from time to time to commit the most secret and cruel executions of those who were convicted of heinous crimes. For in the pavilion, so far away from all things, the sounds of torture and the descent into death it bore were hidden from prying, caring ears.

Painting of Maastricht by A. Schaepkens

When the shadows of night had descended on the city, and silence encompassed the metal and stone of Maastricht, those who would listen closely could at times hear a sharp whistle emanating from in and around the pavilion and the waters of the canal. It was this whistling, known and avoided by the wiser folk of Maastricht, that led more than one fisherman, perhaps from abroad, perhaps from up north, unaware of the terror of the Iron Dame, to sail towards the pavilion. Lured by the whistling on the water, these nocturnal fishermen would near the small entryway, where wet stone and iron bars stood, and if they were wise to stay silent, they might see boats pass through the gates. And if their eyes were strong, they might see that most of those men were not there on their own accord, but were bound and gagged. These boats would disappear in the opening as the whistling went on and on, a soft echo on the walls.

After the boats had sailed a ways through dismal vaults filled with stale air trapped by time, they reached the core of the pavilion. There, in the lowest chambers, the Iron Dame was found. According to legend, the Dame’s body consisted of a statue, entirely made of iron, standing seven feet tall. The statue had no pedestal aside from the wide folds of metal shaped to appear as long, flowing clothing. Her eyes were cast down and her arms were crossed before her chest. Such piety, yet such horror.

Scarcely had the victim, with tied hands and feet, come in contact with the Iron Dame, before the cold metal would fill with life. Her crossed arms sprung apart, the folds of her cloth would spread like wings to betray the inside of the dame’s body. Sixty, razor-sharp blades lined her metal walls, each as large and pointed as a dagger. And when the sight of her wicked instruments had wreaked terror on those who were bound before her, the victim would be thrown into the Dame’s chasm. With the same lust for life with which the dame had opened herself, she closed herself with piercing power. They would scream inside her frame, as she gave them her last, loving embrace. The victim was torn to pieces by the blades, pressed by the power of iron into sliced flesh, which fell into the waters below the dame. The blood and mangled remains would flow out into the river Meuse as a dark tribute. The following day the folk of Maastricht would talk amongst themselves, for while they knew to stay far away from the Dame, they had heard her nightly whistling. They would say to one another: “Let us pray for the poor soul, who has succumbed to the embrace of the Iron Dame.”

Commentary

If one looks at the history of Limburg, they will see a history of incredible political division and constant foreign occupation. Limburg has been ruled by all, from the Dutch, to the Belgians, to the French, the Spanish, the Austrians and many powers who have long ceased to be. In fact, for the longest time Maastricht was not even united, instead it was divided by two independent rulers and at times even more. From 1204 to 1794, the city of Maastricht was split between the Prince-Bishopric of Liège and the Duchy of Brabant, the latter of which was subsumed by the Netherlands who took Maastricht and the surrounding regions as generality lands, which were domestic exploitation regions. During and after Napoleon, more history worthy of note happened than can be summarized in this brief background, but suffice it to say that somehow, through some great oddity of history, the province of Limburg managed to become a part of both the Dutch and German political entities at the same time for a handful of decades.

All of this is to say, that for a storied city like Maastricht, a lost German commandery built over by a canal and its waterways is entirely within the realm of feasability. In a city dating back to Roman times, there will be stories to be found around every corner, places where events long forgotten occurred, and places which once were prominent that have now disappeared. So too, the legend of the Iron Dame has faded from folk memory. The real-world torture device the Iron Dame was inspired by has become a mere curiosity of the past, no longer near enough to our collective thought to fill us with fear over the memories borne by German soldiers torturing supposed wrongdoers in the hidden depths of the commandery. And yet, who is to say the Iron Dame does not still slumber in the waterways, awaiting her next prey? A tale that is rarely told, is not necessarily a tale that does not occur after all. If you find yourself in Maastricht, listen closely when night has set and see if you can hear the sharp whistling of the Iron Dame. If you do, be sure to stay inside, as far from the waters as you can bring yourself.


Reginald of Valkenburg

On a hill overlooking the city of Valkenburg, stand the ruins of an old castle, and in this old castle you may hear two voices from beyond the grave shouting to the heavens and the winds: “Murderer, murderer, murderer!” And as the haunted sound reverberates in the night sky, two blue flames dart through the skies from north to west and south and whichever direction the sound may go. By the time of pastor Welters, the voices had shouted for six hundred years, and the lights had followed the disembodied shouts for just as long.

Valkenburg Castle Ruins | Image by Raymsfotosite, via Wikimedia Commons

Six hundred years before Welters, which is nearly seven hundred and fifty years before today, the castle which is now ruined still stood in all its original glory. In the castle, two brothers of the noble house of Valkenburg lived, named Waleram and Reginald. Both brothers adored the lady Alix, daughter of the count of Kleef, but to Reginald’s dismay, Waleram would win the maiden’s heart. Waleram received Alix’s hand in marriage and soon the wedding was held.

In the period between Alix’s decision to marry Waleram and the day of their wedding, Reginald had grown blinded by jealousy. This jealousy embittered his heart so that it festered into hatred for Waleram as well as Alix, which in turn birthed an irrepressible desire for vengeance.

When Waleram and Alix’ greatest day in life had concluded, they went as a couple to the bridal chamber. It is in that room where Reginald had been waiting, hidden in a corner. The couple entered the room, Alix sat on the bed, when from behind Waleram she saw Reginald with a dagger held high, stab his own brother in his throat. As blood poured out, Reginald threw his brother aside and with a leap, plunged his blade into Alix’s chest. Despite his bleeding throat, Waleram still stood, clutching the wound on his neck to halt the bleeding, while his dazed mind tried to stay in the realm of the living. He turned his eyes to Reginald and seeing what his brother had done to his love, he took the hand that stopped his bleeding and smacked it in Reginald’s face with all the power his body could muster. Reginald was knocked back by the blow, onto the bed where Alix lay dying. He took the dagger from Alix’s bleeding chest and used it to cut off a strand of her long hair, before getting off the bed and fleeing into the night.

The following day was a day of great sorrow and mourning at the castle of Valkenburg, for all folk around bore love for the kind-hearted Waleram and Alix, who was as beautiful as she was good. It was not a matter of debate that Reginald had been the murderer. Everywhere in the land people sought the kinslayer, but he was nowhere to be found.

Back in those medieval days, a pious hermit lived in the lush forests around Valkenburg, who was sat in prayer before an altar in a small chapel by his isolated home, day in and day out. Rarely did the hermit have visitors disturb his near ceaseless spiritual labour, except for that one night, when at the hour of the wolf someone knocked on his door, demanding by the heavens he’d be let in. The hermit rose from his prayer, opened the door and recognized Reginald, who fell before the hermit’s feet with tears streaming from his eyes. Reginald told the hermit everything he had done, how he slayed his own brother and his brother’s wife in cold blood, and how despite washing his face as hard as he could with water, his brother’s bloody handprint could not be washed away. The proof of Reginald’s deed was stuck on his skin.

When the man of God had listened to all Reginald wished to say, he said: “Stay the night with me, I shall pray to God. By his grace, may he tell me what you should do to find forgiveness for the heinous sin you have committed.”

At the break of dawn, the hermit sat Reginald down and told him: “You will walk north until there is no more land beneath your feet. Once there by the water, you will receive a sign.”

Reginald said Amen, asked the hermit for his blessing and burned the lock of hair he had taken from Alix in the hermit’s godslamp, a sacred oil lamp used for religious rites. Having rid himself of all material remnants of those in whose name he would do penance, Reginald left the hermit’s house and began his pilgrimage to the north.

While he walked, two entities appeared, two spirits, a white one on his right side and a black one on his left. These spirits whispered in Reginald’s ears. The black spirit told Reginald about all of the good times the lordling had in his noble life, how easy his life had been, how much joy there was left in the world to discover, how much Reginald would miss out on, how much he had thrown away, how small of a step it would be to forsake his quest for penance. On the other side sat the white spirit, who admonished him for his crimes, who told him the depth of the horror he had committed against his own flesh and blood and against the one he supposedly loved. At other times during the journey, the white spirit would tell Reginald about his eternal soul and the promise of heaven, a place so, so far away for one such as Reginald.

Days became weeks and weeks became months as Reginald weathered the continuous back and forth between the black and the white spirits, while his feet were filled with blisters, grown atop the craters of previous blisters, and his muscles grew sore, feeling so numb they might as well have fallen from his bones. One of the spirits told him all he had lost, the other told him all he had done, and neither brought him comfort. Then, one day, Reginald felt water touch his feet. As the salt burned into his wounds, he looked up from his dead man’s march to see an endless body of water stretch out before him. At that moment, a small boat came to shore. The man who steered it waved Reginald on board and said: “We were waiting for you.”

Reginald entered the boat, and the two spirits followed. The ferryman brought the three to a ship. The moment Reginald climbed on board, the man had vanished. He looked around to see his new location, only to see two chairs and a table. Before Reginald could think to do anything, the white spirit and the black spirit sat down on both ends of the table. The black spirit pulled out a pair of dice and began to roll. Then when the black spirit was done rolling, the white spirit took the dice and without saying a word began to roll them as well.

And so it went, back and forth, an eternal silence marked only by the rolling of dice as the black spirit and the white spirit rolled and rolled and rolled for the soul of Reginald in a game which would not end. It was said in the days of pastor Welters that the ship Reginald and the spirits are on was still sailing the North Sea and would at times be encountered by skippers. If they did encounter the ship, there would find no sailors or captains on board, only Reginald, two silent spirits, black and white, and the centuries-old sound of rolling dice.

Commentary

I have looked around to see whether or not Waleram, Reginald and Alix were real, historical figures, and I found that there indeed was a “Walram” of Valkenburg, who ruled over Valkenburg and its surrounding areas from 1268 to 1302. This Walram of Valkenburg, nicknamed “de Rosse,” which can be translated to “the Red” had a brother in law called Reinoud, who ruled the count of Gelre and with whom he fought together in the Limburgish succession wars. Walram also had a son called Reinoud who would rule Valkenburg after Reinoud’s older brother Dirk the third passed away. This Reinoud of Valkenburg was killed in battle, defending his fiefdom in Monschau against the Brabanders in 1333. Whether Walram or his son Reinoud were the inspirations for the tale of Reginald, or perhaps another figure who I overlooked was the inspiration, is a question I believe would be better answered by a historian, but if your interest is piqued  you may wish to read up on this turbulent part of Limburgish history.

As for my own thoughts, I wonder if the ship Reginald sailed away on is still out there. Perhaps it is a comfort to hear that the blue souls of Waleram and Alix, who screamed “murderer, murderer, murderer!” for six centuries, seem to have stilled since the days of pastor Welters. Perhaps it means that their souls have found rest, and perhaps the game for Reginald’s soul has finally ended.


To Conclude

There are many more tales in Limburg such as those above. Tales of ghosts, deals with the devil and encounters with a world of magic. For example there’s the tale of Heldewé in Sittard, a wealthy man who one night came home to find his daughter butchered, bathing in her own blood in their family home. He passed away soon after with a broken heart, which has not mended in the afterlife. To this day he is said to rush through the night towards his old house, bursting from the clouds on a horseless wagon, to find his murdered daughter each and every time. If one finds themselves in Sittard between 12 and 1 at night, make sure you’re not standing underneath the building “Den Tempel”, for Heldewé might crush you with his carriage as he once more relives the worst night of his life. Whether the story is based on a true horror, or merely serves to explain the strong winds in the narrow pathway beneath “Den Tempel” I cannot tell.

As with the previous article, I again have to end this article by saying that there are so, so many more tales left in Limburg to be told, which few people, even here, have heard. In two articles, I still have not touched the Buckriders, those bandits who flew through the skies on bucks, nor King Zwentibold, nor Saint Servaes, nor Jan van Weert and all the other legendary figures which can be found here. Alas, this article would have to be a book to do justice to the depth of folklore to be found, but I hope this second glimpse into a collection of tales which haven’t been shared in English before was an enjoyable one.

Feel free to ask me anything in the comment section, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

 

Roel Karstenberg
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