In the Middle Ages, revenants were legendary animated corpses which rose from the grave to haunt the living. Many stories were documented by English historians in the Middle Ages, as exemplified by William of Newburgh who wrote in the 1190s "one would not easily believe that corpses come out of their graves and wander around, animated by I don't know what spirit, to terrorize or harm the living, unless there were many cases in our times, supported by ample testimony".
Medieval stories of revenants have common features. Those who return from the dead are wrongdoers in their lifetime, often described as wicked or vain or unbelievers. Often the revenants are associated with the spreading of disease among the living. The appropriate response is usually exhumation, followed by some form of decapitation, and burning or removal of the heart.
A passage in at least one story is sometimes interpreted as implying that sucking of blood has occurred.
- The corpse of one revenant is reported to have been found in the grave, swollen and "suffused with blood". When it was pierced, a stream of blood flew out of the wound. This part of the story is parallelled in many accounts of alleged vampires, and the phenomenon it depicts is, in fact, known to occur frequently as part of the natural process of corpse decomposition - see Finding "vampires" in graves for more details. Because of this revenants have sometimes been described as "vampires" by a number of authors of popular books about vampire legends, starting with Montague Summers.It should be clarified that the vampire legend originated in Eastern European folklore and became known to the Western public through reports coming from the East in the 18th century, and was introduced in Western fiction (with modifications) mostly in the late 18th century and early 19th century, starting with authors such as Robert Southey, Lord Byron and John William Polidori.
William of Newburgh
William of Newburgh (1136?-1198?) wrote of a number of cases "...as a warning to posterity." He says these stories were very common and that "were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome".
One story involves a man of "evil conduct", on the run from the law, who hides out in the province of York and makes the ill-fated choice to get married. Becoming jealous of his wife, he hides in the rafters of his bedroom and catches her in an act of infidelity with a local young man, but then accidentally falls to the floor mortally wounding himself, and dies a few days later. As Newburgh describes:
- 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.
A number of the townspeople were killed by the monster and so:
- Thereupon snatching up a spade of but indifferent sharpness of edge, and hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, 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 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 were 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....
In another story Newburgh tells of a woman whose husband recently died. The dead husband returns from the dead and comes to visit her at night in her bedchamber and he "...not only terrified her on awaking, but nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body." This goes on for three nights, and the revenant goes on to repeat these nighttime visits with other nearby family and neighbours and "...thus become a like serious nuisance", eventually extending his walks in the broad daylight around the village. Eventually the problem was solved by the bishop of Lincoln who wrote a letter of absolution, upon which the man's tomb was opened wherein it was seen his body was still there, the letter was placed on his chest, and the tomb re-interred and sealed.
Abbot of Burton
The English abbot of Burton tells the story of two runaway peasants from around 1090 who died suddenly of unknown causes and were buried, but:
- the very same day in which they were interred they appeared at evening, while the sun was still up, carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried. The whole following night they walked through the paths and fields of the village, now in the shape of men carrying wooden coffins on their shoulders, now in the likeness of bears or dogs or other animals. They spoke to the other peasants, banging on the walls of their houses and shouting "Move quickly, move! Get going! Come!"
The villagers became sick and started dying, but eventually the bodies of the revenants were exhumed, the heads cut off and their hearts removed, which put an end to the spread of the sickness.
The chronicler Walter Map, an Englishman writing in the 12th century, tells of a "wicked man" in Hereford who rose from the dead and wandered the streets of his village at night calling out the names of those who would die of sickness within three days. The response by bishop Gilbert Foliot was "Dig up the body and cut off the head with a spade, sprinkle it with holy water and re-inter it".
Revenents in popular culture are somewhat differ from zombies in movies like The Crow the revenant have some gliding abilities and adept fighting skills, and in addition they have the ability to regenerate from fatal wounds such as gun shots and stabbing their abilities would often cease after they got their retribution on the ones who wronged them. The famous movie series Firday The 13th featured the most renowned revenant Jason Voorhees that has a nasty habit of coming back to seek vengeance on any teenager that enters Crystal Lake in response that the teenage camp councelors didn't help him after he drowned after his death and his resurrection he has been endowed with supernatural capabilities which includes inhuman strength, able to survive underwater, and able to regenerate himself from every form of damage.
- Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 24.
- Book 5, Ch. 25, paragraph 7.
- Medieval Vampire Stories in England, pp. 2. Medievalists are, however, largely skeptical towards this interpretation. Medieval Vampire Stories in England, pp. 11–12.
- Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 24.
- Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 22.
- England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, pg. 613.
- De nugis curialium, Book 2, Ch. 27.
- Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225, Oxford, 2000, ISBN 0-19-925101-0
- Nancy Caciola, "Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture", Past and Present, No. 152. (Aug., 1996), pp. 3–45. (Available on JSTOR)
- Walter Map, De nugis curialium.
- William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), full text on-line.
- Jason Nolan, "Unearthing Medieval Vampire Stories in England: Fragments from De Nugis Curialium and Historia Rerum Anglicarum" (.rtf format), 2003, full text on-line.
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