Time slips may feel like a product of science fiction. But they bear similarities with folklore. A person journeys to a strange place, sees odd things, and is not always believed upon their return. Sounds a lot like the tale of Thomas the Rhymer and his trip to Fairyland.
Time slips also have things in common with ghost stories and urban legends. So we’re going to examine the whole kit and caboodle in this post. Now, when you say “time slips”, most people think of the Versailles Time Slip, aka the Moberly-Jourdain Incident. So we’ll start there.
But we certainly won’t stay there…
Come with me and let’s explore the folklore of time slips!
The Versailles Time Slip
Let’s journey back to 10 August 1901. Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain visited the Palace of Versailles and its gardens. Moberly was president of Oxford’s St Hugh’s College, while Jourdain was her assistant.
According to the story, the palace didn’t impress either Moberly or Jourdain. I’ll be completely blunt; it didn’t impress me either. The palace of Herrenchiemsee, built by Ludwig II in Bavaria as a copy of Versailles, is far nicer. But I digress.
The women decided to head off to see the two Trianon Palaces in the gardens. The stretch of gardens between the main gardens and the smaller palaces is a bit of a jumble. I’d imagine the signage was less helpful in 1901, too.
The Grand Trianon was closed for the day so the two women decided to visit the Petit Trianon instead. This gorgeous little building was Marie Antoinette’s private palace and in a lot of ways, it’s much nicer than the main building.
While searching for the Petit Trianon, they passed a small cottage and a farmhouse. It’s at this point that it all starts to get a bit weird. According to the book they wrote in 1911, the women saw a range of men in different period costumes in the gardens. A man in a sombrero showed them the way to the palace and Moberly spotted an elegant woman sketching the Petit Trianon. Jourdain didn’t see her but Moberly claims she later recognised the woman when she saw a particular portrait of Marie Antoinette (below).
The women revisited Versailles many times over the years, but things they remembered from the gardens had disappeared. Even worse, instead of the quiet gardens and the weird atmosphere, they kept having to contend with tourists on each visit.
Over the years, many people have tried to discredit their story, particularly due to their claim of having seen Marie Antoinette. Moberly continued to have paranormal experiences throughout her life. Jourdain died in mysterious circumstances in 1924. Bear in mind these were professional, academic women; Jourdain was a vicar’s daughter.
The Society for Psychical Research reviewed their book, An Adventure (1911). Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick thought they’d simply misinterpreted ordinary events. In The Ghosts of the Trianon (1988), Michael Coleman analysed different editions of the book. He noticed that later editions contained descriptions that grew more fantastical after they’d conducted research into the palace and the time period.
Philippe Jullian explained that the French poet Robert de Montesquiou held elaborate parties at Versailles. His guests often wore period costume. Jullian claimed that Moberly and Jourdain had encountered one such party. So they had met Marie Antoinette that day…just not the Marie Antoinette!
Other people think they’d been hallucinating, or simply misremembered things.
It was 32°C in the shade when I visited Versailles in July 2014. I can well believe that too much sun could make you see odd things. Add the charged atmosphere of a French palace into the mix and you could see all sorts of stuff. (I sincerely hope the man I saw wearing what looked like tinfoil was a living statue and not my imagination).
Yet in 1903, someone found an old map of the Trianon gardens. It showed the bridge the women had talked about – a bridge that didn’t exist in 1901, and that wasn’t featured on any other map they could have seen.
Ghosts or Time Slips?
Let’s say something strange did happen that August afternoon in 1901. Did the women see ghosts from a bygone age? Or did they experience a time slip and briefly visit an earlier time?
Ghosts and time slips differ in one fundamental way. In ghost stories, the spirits cut across time, appearing in all periods following their death. You could consider them the supreme time travellers.
Time slips let the living experience another period. No one knows if those affected actually travel to another time. Perhaps the space-time continuum simply has a hiccup and we briefly glimpse earlier versions of the space we occupy.
Time travel as a concept was not unheard of in 1901. In A Christmas Carol (1843), Scrooge goes forwards and backwards in time. The Time Machine (1895) depicted people using machines to travel through time. I have no idea if Moberly or Jourdain were fans of Dickens or Wells. But could either of them have been subconsciously influenced by such popular tales?
Other Tales of Time Slips
The Moberly-Jourdain Incident is perhaps the most famous of the time slip tales. Yet other incidents have given people pause.
During the LA premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Circus in 1928, a woman passes who appears to be speaking into a mobile phone. Various experts believe the device to be an early hearing aid, though no one has definitively disproven the urban legend.
Or how about the time-travelling hipster? A photo from 1941 appears to show a man in present-day clothing. His appearance has been debunked, since his printed T-shirt is, in fact, a sports sweater. His ‘modern’ sunglasses actually resemble those from the 1920s.
Two married couples drove through France in October 1979. Rather than driving through the night, they stopped at an old-fashioned inn. According to the couples, it didn’t have telephones, lifts, or even glazed windows. The husbands apparently took photos of their wives outside. A fortnight later, the couples couldn’t find the inn again on the way home. The photos taken in the hotel were missing from the roll of negatives.
In 1957, three naval cadets on a map-reading exercise appeared to stumble across a deserted medieval village in Suffolk. The Smithsonian has an excellent article on the case.
In 1973, a chap apparently bought 36 envelopes for a shilling from a shop in Great Yarmouth. Crucially, the assistant dressed in Edwardian clothing. Three weeks later, he popped in again. A different woman worked there and the whole shop was a modern affair. The manufacturers stopped making the envelopes he bought fifteen years earlier.
All of these examples have either been debunked or could have plausible explanations. But they do prove a fascination with retrocognition, the rare ability to know things about the past that couldn’t otherwise be known. (The opposite of precognition, which deals exclusively with the future)
A Personal Story of Time Slips
Back in 1997, I went to Derbyshire on holiday with my family. We stayed in a small rental cottage, named Diamond Cottage. One day, I sat writing at the table in the entrance hall. My mother walked through and looked at me. What she saw made her pause.
As she tells it, I still sat writing, only my long, straight dark hair had become ringlets. My Independence Day t-shirt had become a black dress with a wide white collar. A few moments later, I went back to ‘normal’ (or what passes for normal where I’m concerned). What’s especially weird is that she continued talking to me throughout!
My mother is not prone to flights of fancy so did she experience a time slip to an earlier version of the cottage? Or – even weirder – did she find a time slip that showed an earlier version of me?
Perhaps reincarnation explains time slips. Those involved cross through space they’ve occupied before and their past memory briefly intrudes upon current time.
Have you ever experienced such a time slip? Let me know in the comments below.
And if you enjoyed this post, sign up to get these articles in your inbox every week. I’ll even send you two short stories inspired by changeling folklore.
Want more folklore in your inbox?
Add your email below and get these posts right in your inbox.
You'll also get 2 free creepy tales inspired by the folklore of changelings!