China has a long history of tolerance towards homosexuality, beginning from the first references to same-sex relationships in the records of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th centuries BC) and ending (after a rather shaky period from 1740 onwards) with the persecution of homosexuals during the Cultural Revolution. That’s over three thousand years of a society that occasionally celebrated same-sex love, occasionally denigrated it, but more often than not, just let people get on with it.

In typical elliptic style—because direct talk of sexual matters was considered unbelievably vulgar—Chinese literature referenced homosexual acts by means of phrases such as ‘cut sleeve’, ‘bitten peach’, or by name-dropping gay historical figures. The most famous stories are of Mi Zi Xia and his royal lover, Duke Ling of Wei, who shared a peach (yutao, ‘leftover peach’); and Emperor Ai, who cut off his sleeve to avoid disturbing his sleeping lover Dong Xian, which created a court trend whereby everyone went around cutting their sleeves (duanxiu, ‘breaking the sleeve’).

Qu Yuan, an admired poet of the Warring States period (340-278 BC), wrote poems to his lover, the King of Chu. Historical documents such as Sima Qian’s Memoirs of the Historian and the exhaustive dynastic records of the Han dynasty list scores of male favourites of the ruling monarchs. Throughout the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-23 AD), ten of the thirteen emperors took male lovers in addition to the necessary wives and concubines. Sima Qian wrote that the male favourites were often admired more for their skills in war, administration, or cultural pursuits than for their beauty.


My favourite of the Western Han emperors, Han WuDi (‘the Martial Emperor’)—or Liu Che, to give him his real name—was one of these ‘bisexual’ emperors. Liu Che liked to keep things within family units, too—his male lovers included an uncle and nephew, plus the famous musician Li Yan Nian and Yan Nian’s sister, Lady Li. My novella Fall of a State (available now from Dreamspinner Press) is a somewhat fluffy version of the relationship between Liu Che and his musician. Li Yan Nian is credited with writing the ‘Northern Beauty’ song (a version of which appears in the film House of Flying Daggers when Zhang ZiYi performs for Takeshi Kaneshiro), which—due to the Chinese language having no gender for its nouns and pronouns—means the Beauty could refer equally to a man or a woman. In my story, it does both.

During the period of disunion (265-589), in which six separate dynasties ruled and overlapped, the historians of the Liu Song dynasty record that homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality:

“All the gentlemen and officials esteemed it. All men in the realm followed this fashion to the extent that husbands and wives were estranged. Resentful unmarried women became jealous.”

Efforts were made during the Tang dynasty (618-907) to restore more of a ‘traditional’ moral order. Somewhat ironically, the first Crown Prince of the dynasty, Li Chen Qian, was gay. He was later removed from succession, though not for that reason.

By the time of the Song dynasty (960-1279), an increase in urbanisation and the introduction of paper money caused a growth in prostitution. A law was passed against male prostitution, but it seemed not to have been enforced with any rigour. The merchant classes, suddenly given a voice in the historical and literary records, had money to spend and lusts to fulfil. With their respectable wives raising families at home, the merchants went out partying with pretty young sing-song boys.

[Rest of the post cut because of explicit historical erotic images - NSFW!] (more…)

“I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex prevented the latter.”

In case anyone missed this, The Sunday Times had an interesting article on the reason EM Forster didn’t (or rather, couldn’t) write anything after the publication of A Passage To India in 1924 – because he connected his creative output to the repression of his sexuality, and once he’d lost his virginity, at the age of 38, to ‘a wounded soldier on an Egyptian beach’, the creative urge was no longer quite so urgent.

Read the article in full here.

I particularly liked his diary entry that says:

“Now I am 85 how annoyed I am with society for wasting my time by making homosexuality criminal. The subterfuges and the self-consciousnesses that might have been avoided.”

Indeed.

Last week I read a discussion on a mailing list in which an author asked for opinions on mpreg. It’s not a genre I pay much attention to, not since a scarring experience several years ago with a LOTR fanfic involving Legolas and Aragorn, but the recent discussion reminded me of what could possibly be the very first recorded mention of mpreg in literary history.

As with most non-fandom examples, the context is science fiction… of a sort. The author is Lucian of Samosata (c.125-180), a noted satirist who wrote dozens of rude and witty works, many of which served as a somewhat caustic commentary on the religious, political, and social mores of the provinces of the Roman Empire. In particular he poked fun at the beliefs of the Greeks, especially in his romance (in the oldest sense of the word!) A True Story—a spoof travelogue that’s regarded as the earliest known sci-fi text.

In his prologue, Lucian informs his readers that they’re about to read a bunch of fibs. He’s read so many stories purporting to tell the truth when they blatantly tell lies that he’s decided to have a go at writing his own completely fictional worlds:

I did not find much fault with [several named Classical authors, including Homer] for their lying, as I saw that this was already a common practice even among men who profess philosophy. I did wonder, though, that they thought they could write untruths and not get caught at it. Therefore, as I myself, thanks to my vanity, was eager to hand something down to posterity, that I might not be the only one excluded from the privileges of poetic licence, and as I had nothing true to tell, not having had any adventures of significance, I took to lying. But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar.

Thus warned of the falsehoods awaiting them, the readers plunge into a crazy adventure in which Lucian and his heroic companions sail through the Pillars of Hercules and are blown off-course. Their ship is carried into the air by a giant waterspout and they land on the Moon, where they get involved in a war between the Moonites and their arch-enemies, the people inhabiting the Sun, over the rights to colonise the Morning Star.

Like any good travel writer, Lucian spends some time observing the inhabitants of the Moon and Sun. He writes about soldiers who fly on three-headed vultures, a bird made of grass with lettuce leaves for wings, archers mounted on gigantic fleas, infantrymen armed with mushroom shields and asparagus spears, and dog-faced men who fight from the back of winged acorns. During the war, Lucian is taken captive by the Sun armies but is later released, to the delight of the King of the Moon:

He wanted me to stay with him and join the colony, promising to give me his own son in marriage—for there are no women in their country.

Lucian goes on to describe gay marriage and mpreg amongst the Moonites:

First of all, they are not born of woman but of man; their marriages are of male and male, and they do not even know the word ‘woman’ at all. Up to the age of twenty-five they all act as females, and thereafter as husbands. Pregnancy occurs not in the womb but in the calf of the leg, for after conception the calf grows fat. After a time they cut it open and bring out a lifeless body, which they lay with its mouth open facing the wind, and thus it comes to life.

This section of A True Story is an artful commentary on Greek modes of life, specifically the tall tales of armchair historians such as Herodotus (known as the ‘Father of Lies’ for the inclusion of various mythological creatures and races in his history of the Persian Wars), and homosexuality within a given set of social constraints—age, in this case, which suggests that Lucian is modelling his Moonite society on the particular ‘state sanctioned’ form of homosexuality practiced in classical Athens, flourishing some 500 years before Lucian wrote his story.

It also takes a swipe at religion and mythology, pointing to the peculiar nascence of some of the gods (the Moonites being born from the calf seems to be a reference to Dionysos, who was born from Zeus’ thigh), and it also dismisses the philosophy of wind-fertilisation, an ancient belief first recorded in the Iliad that was considered ‘probable’ by no less an authority than Aristotle, who believed the wind could influence the gender of an unborn child.

The young Moonites are born dead; their life comes only from the wind, which, according to popular beliefs right across the ancient world, teems with the souls of those already passed into the afterlife. This neatly attacks both the philosophical element and the homosexual, suggesting that a male-male union is sterile and needs outside support in order to generate future lives, while dismissing as a fantasy the whole concept of wind-fertilisation.

Like all writers, Lucian had a point or two to make with his works. While those who write mpreg today in a sci-fi or fannish context may do so from an interest in gender equality, Lucian was more concerned with raising a laugh amongst his audience, albeit with a sly didactic twist:

Men interested in athletics and in the care of their bodies think not only of condition and exercise but also of relaxation in season; in fact, they consider this the principal part of training. In like manner students, I think, after much reading of serious works, may profitably relax their minds and put them in better trim for future labour. It would be appropriate recreation for them if they were to take up the sort of reading that, instead of affording just pure amusement based on wit and humour, also boasts a little food for thought.

***
Read Lucian’s A True Story in all its mad glory here. The m/m Moonites can be found at Book I.22 of the text.

As one of the hundreds of thousands whose travel plans were scuppered by Icelandic volcano ash, I thought I’d make this post before making the most of what was left of my holiday (curse you, unpronounceable Icelandic volcano!).


Etna erupting in 2001

Long before the recorded eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull, Krakatoa, Etna, Vesuvius, and sundry other volcanoes that have caused chaos, destruction, and provided fertile soil for really good wine, there was the mother of all historic eruptions on the Cycladic island of Thera (Santorini).


The island of Thera today

Located at the south-east of the Hellenic arc (a less volatile version of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’) that starts at Kameino Vouno on the Peloponnese, Thera was, until the first part of the Mediterranean Late Bronze Age (beginning c.1600 BCE), an island of roughly circular shape. During the Late Cycladic I (c.1600-1500 BCE) period, Thera had a thriving population with strong cultural and trade links to the Minoan civilisation on Crete, which lies 70-odd miles to the south.

The exact date of the eruption is still contested (see below), but the magnitude of the event is fairly certain. Following a series of earthquakes over a two-year period, the volcano erupted, sending a rain of pumice up to five metres thick to cover the island. This initial explosion was followed by a plume of ash around 30km high when the side of the volcano exploded outwards as seawater mixed with the magma. Rocks were hurled out of the volcano and acted as ‘bombs’, destroying buildings. Surges of ash, pumice, and stone blocks were expelled laterally over the weeks following the first eruption, causing the volcano to collapse in upon itself to leave the distinctive half moon-shaped island we see today.

The eruption triggered a tsunami of an estimated 35-150m height that smashed into northern Crete, variously affecting several of the palace sites. Ash and pumice from the eruption have been found across the Aegean region and into south-western parts of Turkey. Prevailing winds blew the ash cloud to the south-east, though the heaviest ash-fall on land is to be found slightly to the north/north-east of Thera. A large wodge of tephra dating from the eruption has been found outside the Straits of Kythera (the area between the southern Peloponnese and westernmost Crete), dumped there by the currents running through the central Aegean.

On the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the Theran eruption is estimated at a 6-7 (on a scale up to 8). It threw out four times the amount of rock and ash as Krakatoa’s eruption in 1883. In comparison, Eyjafjallajökull’s recent eruption registered at a piffling 4.


The volcanic island Nea Kameni in the Theran caldera erupting in 1950

Specifying the exact date of anything during the Mediterranean Bronze Age is troublesome to say the least, relying in the main on the relative chronology of the Minoan, Helladic (mainland Greece), Cycladic, Cypriot, and Caananite civilisations, all of which overlap to varying degrees (e.g. most of the Late Minoan II-IIIa covers the same chronological phase as Late Cycladic III).

Based on relative chronology, archaeologists suggested a date for the Theran eruption of LMIa/LCI/LHI —around 1500 BCE. This was contested by scientific study of tree-ring dating and radiocarbon analysis. As evidenced by samples taken from North America and across Europe, normal tree growth was stunted in around 1628 BCE due to climactic change, a result of the colder temperatures that usually follow a major volcanic eruption. Carbon dating on wood, seed, and bone samples from the Aegean, including an olive tree buried beneath the lava flow on Thera, point to a date between 1627-1600 BCE with a 95% probability of accuracy.

However, as with almost everything in the field of archaeology, this is not certain and opens up a whole new can of worms as the scientific date contradicts archaeological findings that place several Egyptian artefacts discovered on Thera to a later period. Egyptian chronology is reckoned as being generally sound, though arguments have been made for its dates to be reassigned. If the radiocarbon dating is correct, the chronology for the Mediterranean Bronze Age would need to be reassessed.


The town of Oia, perched high on the caldera cliffs

The Theran eruption obliterated the Bronze Age settlements on the island, including the ‘town’ of Akrotiri, seemingly the centre of Minoan influence within the southern Cyclades. Most inhabitants of Akrotiri (and presumably the rest of the islanders) had fled following a massive earthquake that partially demolished the settlement. There is evidence that some people returned to Akrotiri as squatters (no real effort was made to rebuild the damaged properties), but by the time of the eruption, the majority of the inhabitants had left the island.

The layers of ash and pumice that covered Thera effectively killed off every living thing, turning the island into a barren wasteland. Thera remained uninhabited for almost 300 years.

Across the sea in Crete, the effect of the eruption is another hotly debated point. Originally, prehistorians believed that ash-fall blighted the eastern half of Crete, causing crop failure and starting a migration of the population. However, the actual ash-fall on Crete has since been found to be insignificant. Another theory is that the tsunami was the cause of the destruction of the Minoan sites and palaces on the northern (especially the north-eastern) coast of Crete, many of which suffered extensive fire damage. Stone walls at some sites were moved by the force of the tsunami, but it’s unlikely that the wave caused the wholesale destruction found across Crete—instead, it’s probable that the damage was due to the massive earthquake preceding the eruption.

Regardless of the physical destruction that may or may not have been wreaked by the volcano, the psychological effect must have been far more devastating. Minoan power was waning during the Late Bronze Age, and as the Minoans were a major sea power at that time, it’s likely that many of their ships, naval and mercantile, were destroyed in the aftermath of the eruption. It’s believed that the Theran eruption provided the impetus for the newly emerging Mycenaean civilisation to expand southwards. Certainly by LMII (1450-1400 BCE), the Mycenaeans had conquered the Minoans and held control of Crete.

Of course, one can’t talk about Thera without mentioning Atlantis. For millennia, people have discussed whether or not this island kingdom, mentioned by Plato in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias (written in 360 BC), actually existed. Some of Plato’s successors believed Atlantis was a real place; others thought it was allegorical. The same debate continues today, with many people believing that Atlantis is/was Thera or Crete.

Atlantis is described as an island ‘larger than Libya and Asia’ (Asia being what is today Turkey) amongst other islands, surrounded by an ocean and ruled by a confederation of kings—a description that (apart from the size!) matches the Minoan civilisation. According to Critias, his account of Atlantis originated with the sixth century BC lawgiver Solon, who visited Egypt and heard the tale from a priest. The empire of Atlantis, Critias says, flourished 9000 years ago (i.e. 9600 BCE) before coming to a messy end:

But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, blocked up by the mud which the island created as it settled down.

It is entirely possible that the Theran eruption and the destruction of the Minoan civilisation was preserved as a folk memory and passed down through the centuries until Plato recorded it in this form as the myth of Atlantis.

One of the stories I’m working on at the moment is set in the Tang Dynasty, arguably the cultural high point of China’s history and a time when paper money began to be used for large transactions rather than the cumbersome strings of cash (also known as coppers) that most people used as currency. One of my characters, a sword-smith in the southern provinces, is mistrustful of the newfangled paper money offered to him by a noble from the capital Chang’an and prefers the reality of copper cash. For his sake, I’ve dug through my collection of Chinese coins to present a brief overview of the development of hard currency in China.

The first types of currency in use in China during the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1100 BC) were cowry shells and farming implements. Towards the end of the dynasty, symbolic tokens made of bronze, copper, or iron in the shape of spades, hoes, and knives were used in transactions.


Here’s a (modern fake) example of a round foot spade coin (the more usual form has a square foot) of the type found in the city of Lin in Shanxi during the Warring States period (475-221 BC). Lin was inhabited by non-Han (mainland Chinese are mostly Han, though about 20% of the population are from ethnic minorities or mixed ethnicities) people and traded with the tribes of what is now Inner Mongolia. The city was razed to the ground by the Qin army.

Under the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huangdi, 221-210 BC), the Qin state annexed its fractious neighbours. Though Shi Huangdi is a controversial figure at the best of times (he is vilified for the Burning of the Books and the mass execution of Confucian scholars who disagreed with his beliefs), there’s no denying his incredible achievements: He ordered the construction of the Great Wall, built 4700 miles of roads linking the provinces, standardised weights and measures, imposed a single currency, and perhaps most importantly, imposed a single script, which is still in use today.

It was during Shi Huangdi’s reign that the round copper coin was introduced as standard. Round to symbolise Heaven with a square hole in the centre to symbolise Earth, the hole also enabled several cash to be strung together to create higher denominations. A string of 1000 cash was the equivalent of one tael (liang) of silver or 24 zhu (or 2400 grains of millet!). The most common coin was the half-tael (ban liang), which circulated until it was replaced by the wu zhu in 118 BC.

The wu zhu (wu means ‘five’) is the most common coin in ancient China, cast continuously from 118 BC-617 AD. Its design didn’t change at all during that time, and so it’s very difficult to date wu zhu coins with any degree of accuracy.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) introduced paper money and promissory notes as well as ‘food tickets’ for the military. Soldiers could buy bills worth a certain amount of grain in their home towns, then exchange the food ticket for the equivalent value of grain when they reached their provincial posts. Merchants could buy ‘flying cash’—certificates issued by the government for specific amounts that could then be redeemed for the same value in hard currency at any provincial treasury in the empire.

The first printed paper money was issued from Sichuan in 1024 during the Northern Song Dynasty. Rapid economic expansion brought a heavy demand for coins—in 1073, six million strings of 1000 cash were cast—and paper money went some way towards relaxing the burden of the mints. Most of my coins date from the Northern and Southern Song dynasties (960-1279), due not only to the large amount of cash in circulation but also because the vast majority of my collection was bought in and around the city of Hangzhou, the former capital of the Southern Song.

At this time, coins often didn’t have anything minted on the reverse. On the obverse is a standard formula of four characters in Seal script, Grass script, orthodox script, or a combination of two or three scripts (it’s impossible to date a coin purely on the basis of the script employed). The characters on coins are read top, bottom, right, left. The first two characters are the name of the emperor (usually his reign name rather than his temple name, which enables more specific dating), and the other two characters indicate that the coin is currency (the final character is always bao, which means ‘treasure’).

For example, the coin shown above dates from the time of the Northern Song emperor Zhenzong (998-1022) during the years when Zhenzong’s reign title was Tian Xi (1017-1021). The characters are written in orthodox script: Tian Xi Tong Bao. This is an iron coin, which helps us determine where it was cast. There were around seven mints in China at this time, and the three mints that cast iron coins were all located in Sichuan.

Here’s a coin from the time of Emperor Shenzong (1068-1085), minted in the first part of his reign (1068-1077). The characters are written in Seal script: Shen Zong Yuan Bao.

This is a coin from the reign of the same emperor, but from a slightly later date when his reign title was Yuan Feng (1078-1085). Again the characters are written in Seal script: Yuan Feng Tong Bao.

This is an interesting coin from the Chong Ning regnal period (1102-1106) of Emperor Huizong (1101-1125). The characters are in orthodox script: Chong Ning Zhong Bao. This is actually a 12th century counterfeit made in bronze rather than iron—it’s probably a provincial copy rather than government issue.

Unfortunately I have no Yuan or Ming dynasty coins, which mostly follow the same pattern established by previous dynasties, sometimes including the symbol of the provincial mint on the reverse of the coins. However, I do have a decent amount from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), whose emperors came from Manchuria. Qing coins are the most straightforward of all Chinese coinage, as most of the emperors used only one reign title on the coins—and the reign titles are the names Westerners are most familiar with, e.g. Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong, etc. On the reverse of all Qing coins we find the mint marks in Manchurian script and later in both Manchu and Chinese:

Obverse: Qian Long Tong Bao (Emperor Qianlong, 1736-1795). Reverse: Boo Yuan (Beijing mint, Board of Public Works).

Obverse: Wen Zhong Tong Bao (Emperor Xianfeng during the reign title of Wenzhong, 1850-1861). Reverse: Boo Fu (Fuzhou mint in Fukien province).

Obverse: Wen Zhong Tong Bao (same emperor/reign title as above). Reverse: Er Shi Boo Fu (20 cash, Fuzhou mint). The Manchu script is echoed by Chinese characters.

Charms

Emperors and mints also issued charms for religious or propagandising reasons. Most of the charms in my collection date from the Qing Dynasty, such as this one issued by Emperor Daoguang (1821-1850).

Although it says Dao Guang Tong Bao on the obverse, this is a charm minted for internal use within the imperial palace rather than general circulation. As such, it’s a piece of propaganda rather than currency, as on the reverse we see the characters Tian Xia Tai Ping (‘An empire at peace’). Daoguang was a weak, indecisive ruler whose son Xianfeng had to deal with the Taiping rebellion, which makes the phrase on this coin rather ironic.

Other charms have religious motifs such as these two examples featuring the animals from the Chinese zodiac and the eight trigrams.

Charms like these could be worn or hung on strings inside or outside the house as protection against evil influences and bad qi.

In the spirit (no pun intended) of the spooky dark nights drawing in here in the UK, I decided to do a post about William of Newburgh’s medieval stories about English vampires. Now these aren’t your usual bloodsucking beasties with fangs, capes, and a dodgy Transylvanian accent – in fact, they’re revenants, close kin to the Balkan and Greek vrykolakas, created from sin and used in a didactic manner by the historian who recorded these tales.

William of Newburgh (1136-1198) was an Augustinian canon at Newburgh Priory in Yorkshire. His work Historia rerum Anglicarum (otherwise known as the Chronicles) was written in the latter years of William’s life and is a philosophical history of England from 1066 until 1198. Modelling himself on the Venerable Bede and pouring scorn on chroniclers like Geoffrey of Monmouth (“he lies in almost everything,” William rants in his preface), William nevertheless includes several accounts of men rising from the grave and wreaking havoc amongst the living.

Le Vampire by R de Moraine, 1864

In Buckingham (Chronicles V.22), a man died and was buried but later returned from the grave and got into bed with his wife. This continued for three nights, until the wife stayed up late with her friends in order to drive away the revenant, who then went wandering around harassing anyone it could find. Interestingly, William states that the revenant walked about in daylight, yet only appeared visible to one or two people even if a group was aware of its presence – thus making the revenant seem to fit with modern ideas of a ghost.

The desperate villagers appealed to the church to put an end to the random perambulations of the revenant, and the matter came to the attention of the Bishop of Lincoln. His Grace asked his learned colleagues for advice, and was told that the corpse should be exhumed and burned. The bishop found this idea “indecent and improper”, and instead wrote a letter of absolution. The villagers opened the dead man’s coffin and placed the letter upon the corpse, and the revenant wandered no more.

This, the first of William’s revenant tales, is perhaps the most striking because the dead man has no reason to rise from the grave. As we shall see, revenants usually return to deal with unfinished business, or because they were thoroughly unpleasant types during their lifetime. The Buckinghamshire revenant seems to be more like a confused spirit, unaware that he’s died and trying to continue with his daily life. The letter of absolution also underlines the fact that the dead man was harmless – as the Bishop of Lincoln was told, evil revenants were exhumed, hacked to pieces, and burned.

William follows this tale with another three examples of similar events. A rich man in Berwick (V.23), described as “a great rogue”, returned from the grave and strode about accompanied by a pack of barking dogs. The townsfolk hired ten young men to dig up the corpse, chop it to bits, and throw it on the fire.

Melrose Abbey

In Melrose (V.24.2), a chaplain who was rather too secular in his living came back as a revenant, haunting the monastery walls and terrifying the noblewoman to whom he’d been a confessor. The lady appealed for help, and a group of men sat in the graveyard and waited for the shambling monster. Midnight came and went, and three of the men decided it was too cold to hang around any longer. As soon as the last man was left alone, the revenant awoke. But the man attacked it with an axe, driving the creature away. Later, the chaplain’s corpse was exhumed and a gaping wound was discovered in the body. With the chaplain’s evil proved beyond all doubt, the corpse was burned and the ashes scattered.

Finally, a man of “evil conduct” from York (V.24.4) fled the city to a place called Anantis (either Annan in Dumfries & Galloway, or possibly Alnwick), where he continued his nefarious doings. He married a local woman and soon became convinced she was having an affair. Pretending to go away for a few days, he hid amongst the roof-beams of his bedroom and spied on his wife, and sure enough caught her in bed with a neighbour. The shock was so great he fell from the roof and became ill. His wife told him he was mistaken in what he’d seen, and when a priest urged the man to confess and receive the Eucharist, the wife convinced her husband not to do so. The man died that very night and became a revenant, bringing with it a pestilence. The locals dug up the corpse and tore it to pieces, ripping out its heart before setting fire to the remains.

In these three tales, the revenant is a sinner during life, and his sin follows him even beyond the grave. Since each of the men had escaped punishment for their wickedness while they lived, becoming a revenant was the ultimate penalty. These men were effectively denied a Christian burial, and more than that, they were denied their human form when their corpses were exhumed, divided, and burned. A revenant was cast out of the Church and therefore out of society, and without a body and a grave, these evildoers would be permanently locked out of Heaven on the Day of Judgement – and in the twelfth century, this was a terrifying thought.

What’s also interesting is the geographic bias shown in the stories. The revenant from Buckingham is non-threatening and settles into its grave after Church intervention. Surely it’s no coincidence that the three troublesome and evil revenants are all to be found within the Scottish Borders – Berwick, Melrose, and Alnwick. William was fully aware of Henry II’s skirmishes against the Scots in 1174 (II.32-34), when the English won a decisive victory at Alnwick, of all places.

The didactic theme of William of Newburgh’s revenant stories is clear enough. As William himself remarks (V.24.1), such events are “not easy to believe” due to their “amazing and horrible” nature, but he adds that if he were to record all such examples of these stories, “the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome”, and so he contents himself with these few tales “as a warning to posterity.”

While the lack of revenants wandering down your local high street today is no doubt due to the rise in popularity of cremation, in places such as the Greek islands where it’s customary to inter the dead, the belief in revenants rising at dusk to stalk through the night still persists…

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