The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

For occasional articles, snippets and announcements by the Resident Historians. (Andrew Clarke and GH) These articles are presented in date order, but if you explore the back-catalogue, you may find much of interest. Historical information doesn't really go out of date! Any member of the F&DLHS may add an entry or make a comment to an existing entry once they have got their userID and password from the Webmaster.

If you'd like to publish any interesting material about the history of East Anglia on the site, then please send an email to the Resident Historians at Andrew.Clarke@Foxearth.org.uk and we'll add it.

Family Historians have their own area on the site, so look there if your main interest is in tracing your family history.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The undead

You will know already, I'm sure, that it was only recently that excommunicants and suicides were allowed to be buried in churchyards. The reason, though, may not be entirely obvious.


In mediaeval times, they seemed to have some difficulty in keeping the corpses of people who had had a 'bad death' from walking. In a previous blog, we mentioned local press-cuttings that showed that, even at the beginning of the ninetweenth century, suicides were buried in the road with a stake through their heart, or 'Sepultum in Via'. There was a widely-held belief that, were they not to do so, they would be troubled by the walking of the 'undead' or 'revenant'. William of Newburgh, writing in the 1190s, exclaimed "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". He goes on to describe such a beast that attacked Melrose Abbey. He then goes on to describe a zombie wandering around Berwick and causing such a foul smell that 'the air around the town would become infected by the corpse and to lead to general sickness and death'. In another story Newburgh tells of husband who returns from the dead and comes to visit his widow 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 neighbors and "..thus become a like serious nuisance", eventually extending his walks in the broad daylight around the village. Eventually the man's tomb was opened wherein it was seen his body was still there, and a letter of absolution from the bishop was placed on his chest, and the tomb re-interred and sealed. William of Malmsbury describes a revenant in Wales in 1150 which who rose from the dead and wandered the streets of his village at night calling out the names of whose would die of sickness within three days. He caused such a nuisance that he had to be chased back into its grave by a mob and beheaded. Thomas of Cantimpre relates a fourteenth century incident in the town of Nivelles where a corpse, within a coffin that is awaiting burial, sits up and is felled by a cross wielded by a pious virgin

Revenants were sometimes difficult to stop. In Breslau in 1591, a troublesome revenant, or walking corpse, was such a nuisance that he was disinterred and reburied under the gallows. This did not work so they dug up the corpse, and cut off its head, arms and legs. Then they took out its heart. They then burned the whole lot and threw the ashes in the river. This put an end to the public nuisance.

Now we are medically more astute, we can recognise that, in point of fact, a lot of the contemporary descriptions of revenants suggest that someone had 'jumped the gun' in assuming that a patient had died. It must have seemed somewhat unkind that someone reviving from a catatonic state should be chaed by a mob wielding axes and beheaded. Instead of speculating how the devil had worked the trick of causing a corpse to walk, they should, perhaps have questioned their own medical skills in pronouncing them dead in the first place.

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