The popular culture image of the undead is well defined, with shuffling and monstrous zombies featuring in the likes of The Walking Dead and the Resident Evil franchise. At the same time, vampires charm their way through classics such as Dracula. These images mainly derive from the iconic work of film director George R. Romeo and the age of Hammer Horror. In folklore, meanwhile, many would assume that the walking dead are limited to tales from voodoo, Europe having its own undead in the form of vampires that are separate from zombies. However, this is not the case, with stories of animated cadavers plaguing medieval Britain. They are neither zombies nor vampires, they are the revenants.
William of Newburgh, also known as William Parvus, was a church canon and historian in 12th century Yorkshire. William’s Magnum Opus was the Historia de rebus anglicis, the History of English Affairs. The book was a telling of Britain’s history between the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and 1198, the year of Williams death. The book is a primary source of information on the period known as The Anarchy, a time between 1135 and 1153 when civil war led to the widespread breakdown of law, order and society across the country.
The book is also noted for telling detailed accounts of the undead.
These so-called revenants were animated corpses that have been revived from death to haunt the living. The name is derived from the Old French for “returning”. The term is frequently used by many folklorists to refer to all matters of the undead, including vampires and ghosts. Others, meanwhile, make a distinction between the vampire tales of Eastern Europe and the revenants of the West. Frequently, these revenants had been disliked in life and often murdered. Once returned to life, they seek out those who murdered them or generally cause havoc for the living.
The widespread belief that the soul had the potential to be revived from death was normal in 12th century Britain and William recanted several examples in his book.
The most prominent example of a revenant given in the book tells the tale of a man from York, local to William. This man, a sinner, had fled from the justice of the city and got married. His suspicions were quickly raised that his new wife was unfaithful and, hiding in the rafters, he took to spying on her. In his rage, the man fell to his death below and died a few days later. The man was laid to rest in the churchyard but soon enough rose from the grave.
“A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night-time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster.”
William of Newburgh
The cadaver’s appearance about town became more and more frequent, with people being killed and an angry mob soon descended on the church, spades in hand. They dug up the corpse and found it “swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces.”
The condition of the corpse and accusation of blood-drinking, of course, bring the vampire legends to mind.
“The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart was torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. This being torn piecemeal, and the body now consigned to the flames…”
William of Newburgh
As with the legends of vampires, the revenants were used to explain disease that had befallen local communities. William recants that a foul smell always followed one of the undead and that plague would be likely to soon follow. Equally, as with vampires, the only way to put an end to the revenant was by destroying the heart or decapitation, followed by fire.
Another story told by William featured a widow who was visited by her dead husband. The story was told to him by “an esteemed Archdeacon of that diocese”. The dead man was not noted to be a sinner but was rotten and seemingly restless, still craving the embrace of his wife. As dead weight, he nearly crushed her as he leapt on her form. For three nights she suffered this visitation before the zombie began to walk further afield, beginning to terrify the town. The people wished to behead and burn the creature as prescribed, but the Bishop of Lincoln found this barbaric and unchristian and instead wrote a letter of absolution. It was placed inside the dead man’s tomb, bringing the incident to an end.
In 2017, scientists from Historic England and the University of Southampton undertook a study in the long-deserted Yorkshire village of Wharram Percy, William of Newburgh’s neck of the woods. Analysing bones found at the site, the team found clear evidence of dismemberment, decapitation and burning not long after death. The study found that hammers or stones were used for crushing the limbs to ensure they did not walk, with knives utilised in the dismemberment. The researchers studied a total of 137 disarticulated bones from at least 10 different individuals, with those mutilated in this way crossing all genders and ages. The youngest remains were judged to come from a 2-year-old. The villagers of the time seemed determined to stop the dead rising, with whatever local crisis sparked the panic likely not ending with the first case of dismemberment.
Speaking on the efforts at Wharram Percy, Historic England’s human-skeletal biologist, Dr Simon Mays said that the research “shows how archaeology can provide crucial details that the historical record can’t.”
Dr Simon Mays, Historic England
While William of Newburgh collected the macabre tales of Britain’s north, Walter Map collated similar stories in the south around his native Herefordshire. Map, a writer, had studied at the University of Paris and was a courtier to King Henry II, possibly attending the Third Council of the Lateran and staying with Henry I of Champagne.
His only surviving work is De Nugis Curialium (Trifles of Courtiers) is a collection of his anecdotes on various people and places, offering some insight into the custom of the time. In the book, Map tells a tale of a sinner in Hereford who rose from the dead to terrify his former friends and neighbours. This awakening was ended by a bishop ordering the body to decapitated with a spade and re-interred.
Like many of these tales, Map’s story serves as a type of fable, warning of the dangers of sin and not following the ways of God, the solution to the problem being the intervention of the church. In this manner, the Abbot of Burton had tales of his own.
The Abbot recanted how two peasants had run away from their liege lord in 1090, dying suddenly of unknown causes. They rose from the dead that very same day and carried their coffins with them around the village. Despite being dead, these walking corpses still retained the power of speech and warned the locals to leave immediately. All those who did not heed the warning were stricken by plague and quickly died themselves. Once more, the bodies were exhumed, and the heart destroyed, being beheaded before they were put back in the ground.
The transmission of disease was poorly understood throughout medieval Europe, with many associating the pungent smells of death with the spread of plague. Note William of Newburgh’s explicit mention of the smell that a revenant gave off. Many believed that breathing foul air would pass the disease onto them. When disease broke out, villagers would often seek out graveyards, considering them to be the source of whatever ailed the population. When dug up, these corpses would often be purple in colour, bloated and gaseous, all natural processes of decomposition. The extended stomachs were seen as evidence that the dead had been feasting on the living. It proved that their prior hypothesis had been correct. William notes in his account that the digging party found the corpse “before much of the earth had been removed”, taking it as further proof that the dead had moved in the grave. Yet, shallow graves were a frequent hallmark of plague deaths, the locals having no time to bury bodies properly given the number of victims likely needing a burial.
Writing in 1751, the French monk Antoine Augustin Calmet compared accounts of the revenants to Eastern European vampires as well as sources in the ancient Greek and Egyptian texts, noting the commonality of reports from Denmark, Poland and England. Yet these tales do not stop there, with similar legends in Dominica, Trinidad, Guadeloupe, Finland and dozens of other countries. Indeed, like with so much of British folklore, the origin may be Norse, with the draugr or” again-walker” being a reanimated corpse found in a burial mound.
Horrifically, one explanation that has been offered for the prevalence of undead myths is the medical condition Cataplexy. The disease is suffered by around 70% of those with narcolepsy. It consists of the loosening of the facial muscles and, in extreme cases, complete muscle paralysis of the body. The sufferer loses full control of their body, being unable to move or communicate in any way while remaining completely conscious. Mistaken for death, these individuals faced the potential of being declared dead and buried alive, often in the shallow graves mentioned.
Waking in supreme panic, the victim would either die trying to claw their way out, leaving fingermarks and smashed coffins or actually make it out of the grave, rising again before being swiftly beheaded and burned.
Arising as a way to attempt to understand the spread of disease, revenants were occasionally utilised to tell moralistic warnings as to the result of sin, the myths echoing almost identical tales from across Europe. Such is the commonality of the themes, it seems likely that these ideas and concepts originate much earlier with some of the same sources, possibly stemming from the Norse legends. Aside from disease, the tales of the undead served as a way for medieval minds to process the public exhibition of decomposition. The horrific spectacle of a decomposing body stood contrary to the concept of paradise ever after, the smells and rotting flesh seemingly more at home with a soul in hell. Hence, why sinners were always more prone to walk. Though it should be noted that British revenants were usually not indicated to be exceedingly wicked. While many might place them in the same category of vampires or zombies, Britain’s revenants have an identity and history all of their own, all be it, one just as terrifying.
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