Academic journal article Folklore

Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England [1]

Academic journal article Folklore

Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England [1]

Article excerpt


This paper examines two sets of medieval English narratives describing encounters with ghosts, those by William of Newburgh and those in a manuscript from Byland Abbey. Both combine theological elements with non-religious features, some of which can be linked to pre-Christian practices and others to later folklore. But neither the theology nor the folklore is uniform. Furthermore, it is not possible to assign theological attitudes solely to the clergy and/or an educated elite, and "folkloric" ideas solely to an underclass. These texts display an ongoing medieval debate in which neither clerics nor the laity spoke with a single voice.


Scholars interested in the cultural evolution of ideas about ghosts have pointed out that certain stories from medieval Yorkshire do not fit comfortably into the standard patterns of the period (Finucane 1982, 60; Schmitt 1998, 82-3 and 142-7). They are found in the writings of two authors attached to monasteries only a few miles apart, in Ryedale, but separated by some two hundred years. The first group forms chapters 22-4 in Book V of the Historia Rerum Anglicarum written c.1198 by William, a canon in the Augustinian priory of Newburgh (Stevenson 1856 [1996], 656-61); the second group was added anonymously to a manuscript belonging to the Cistercian abbey at Byland by someone, presumably a monk, whose handwriting dates him to c.1400 (James 1922). [2]

Their strangeness consists in the way they combine incongruous elements: Christian doctrines about sin, death, and the afterlife on the one hand, and on the other some macabre or grotesque beliefs which appear incompatible with theology. In William's accounts, the problem at issue is the nature of physical revenants: are they animated by demons, and should they be laid by bodily or spiritual means? At Byland two hundred years later, the basic assumption is that revenants are repentant sinners undergoing Purgatorial punishments from which they can be released, but there are also motifs about shape-changing which have no religious significance, and point forward to the folklore of later centuries. So do these narratives reveal an opposition between elite clerical theology and the less orthodox beliefs of the laity? Or is there interaction and compromise between the various viewpoints and practices described? The validity of the concept of medieval "popular religion" is currently being debated; [3] we have here some relevant material for analysis.

The Tradition of Physical Revenants

The most immediately striking feature of both sets of tales is that all William's revenants and many of those at Byland are not ghosts in the usual sense of that word but "walking dead," corpses that have literally emerged from their graves. It has been pointed out more than once (most recently in Schmitt [1998] and Murray [1999]) that their closest documentary parallels in medieval Europe are to be found in Icelandic sagas describing draugar, walking corpses which attack humans and livestock, and have to be wrestled with, decapitated, and burnt; it is then argued that since William of Newburgh and the Byland monk were both Yorkshiremen, their beliefs on this point might not be native English ones, but imported traditions, surviving among the descendants of Scandinavian settlers in what was once the Danelaw.

However, archaeology tells a different tale. A good many Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon burials have been found where corpses were decapitated (the head often being placed between the feet), or laid face down, crushed under boulders, bound, or dismembered; recent discoveries at Sutton Hoo show that some bodies, possibly those of executed criminals, were still being subjected to this treatment as late as the eleventh century, that is, in a fully Christian society (Merrifield 1987, 71-6; Wilson 1992, 77-86; Carver 1998, 137-44; Reynolds 1998). Two interpretations are possible: that it was a symbolic way of dishonouring the corpse, or that it was a ritual to prevent the dead from "walking. …

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