The further you go back into the past, the harder it is to find the records of ordinary people, especially any of their actual words. Which makes this document dating from 1206 in Essex quite extraordinary.
Even more so, it is the account of a man in a 2 day coma who goes travelling in the underworld, through purgatory, and even manages to see his father – twisted and emaciated with pain, who tells him of his sins and that when Thurkill returns he must say masses to end his father’s torment and allow him to pass into heaven.
Thurkill is a peasant working in the fields when a man who he discovered to be St Julian tells him he will take him on a journey the following night. But his body stays behind, in what we recognise to be a comatose state, and later gave a clear account of his journey to purgatory and heaven. He sees souls being weighed, and he witnesses confessions, as well as a Saturday night theatre where demons watch the torments of the damned. He also meets and is guided by a number of famous and little known saints.
The account is too incredible for us to make much sense of , so far away are we in time and culture. what does strike me as being extraordinary is how rich is the detail, and that a peasant was taken so seriously. In fact so seriously that later accounts omited him entirely. Some scholars suggest he described details that no local could have known, suggesting he had been to the continent, perhaps to do the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella.
Whatever the truth, we shall never know, but this is an important, rare account of a peasant, and of his world view from over 800 years ago. As with any account from the past, its value lies not just in what is written, but in wondering how many other accounts might have once existed, and how fortunate we are to have at least this one, in all its fine details, is an important link to the world we have long lost, when the living and dead were much closer than today.