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A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living. The word "revenant" is derived from the Latin word, reveniens, "returning" (see also the related French verb "revenir", meaning "to come back").
Vivid stories of revenants arose in Western Europe (especially Great Britain, and were later carried by Anglo-Norman invaders to Ireland) during the High Middle Ages. Though later legend and folklore depicts revenants as returning for a specific purpose (e.g., revenge against the deceased's killer), in most Medieval accounts they return to harass their surviving families and neighbours. Revenants share a number of characteristics with folkloric vampires.
Many stories were documented by English historians in the Middle Ages. William of Newburgh wrote in the 1190s, "It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony". Stories of revenants were very personal, always about a specific individual who had recently died (unlike the anonymous zombie depicted in modern popular culture), and had a number of common features. But like zombies, revenants were undead and typically malevolent creatures.
Medieval stories of revenants have common features. Those who return from the dead are wrongdoers in their lifetime, often described as wicked, 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.
Comparison to other folkloristic and mythological undead
Several stories imply that sucking of blood has occurred. 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. Medievalists are, however, largely skeptical towards this interpretation, possibly because vampire legends are believed to have originated in Eastern European folklore and became known to the Western public only later through reports coming from the East in the 18th century. Vampires do not appear in Western fiction until the late 18th century and early 19th century, starting with authors such as Robert Southey, Lord Byron and John William Polidori, when belief in the corporeal undead had ceased in Western Europe, but was still strong in the Balkans, and when they did, they did so with modifications that reduced the similarities between vampire and revenant, making them readily distinguishable to a Western reader. In other words, in a time when the belief in revenants had been strong in Western Europe, the difference between the revenant and the folkloristic vampire might have been marginal, but by the time the vampire became known to a broader audience, it had received literary modifications that increased its difference from the now-discredited revenant folklore.
However, anthropologists and folklorists tend to blur distinctions between the various forms of "walking dead", for which counterparts exist in the myths and legends of nearly every civilization dating back to earliest history.
Similarities are also obvious with the aptrgangr (literally 'again-walker', meaning one who walks after death) of Norse mythology, although the aptrgangr, or draugr, is usually far more powerful, possessing magical abilities and most notably is not confined to a deathlike sleep during the day - although it does usually stay in its burial mound during the daylight hours - and will resist intruders, which renders the destruction of its body a dangerous affair to be undertaken by individual heroes. Consequently, stories involving the aptrgangr often involve direct confrontations with the creature, in which it often reveals to be immune to conventional weapons. Such elements are absent from the revenant lore, where the body is engaged in its inert state in daylight, and rendered harmless.
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 fled from York and made the ill-fated choice to get married. Becoming jealous of his wife, he hid in the rafters of his bedroom and caught her in an act of infidelity with a local young man, but then accidentally fell to the floor mortally wounding himself, and died 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 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 nocturnal 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, a Welshman 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".
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- England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, see Chapter 11, Section 6 "Death and the Dead".
- Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 24.
- Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 24, paragraph 7.
- 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 paralleled 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.
- Medieval Vampire Stories in England, pp. 2.
- Medieval Vampire Stories in England, pp. 11-12.
- Historia rerum Anglicarum, Book 5, Ch. 22.
- England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, pg. 613.
- De nugis curialium, Book 2, Ch. 27.
- Bartlett, Robert (2000). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-925101-0.
- Caciola, Nancy (1996). "Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture". Past & Present 152: 3–45. doi:10.1093/past/152.1.3. JSTOR 651055.
- Walter Map, De nugis curialium.
- William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), full text on-line.