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.
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.
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…