Repentant soul or walking corpse? Debatable apparitions in Medieval England

Repentant soul or walking corpse? Debatable apparitions in Medieval England

Repentant soul or walking corpse? Debatable apparitions in Medieval England

By Jacqueline Simpson

Folklore, Volume 114, Number 3 (2003)

Abstract: 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.

Extract: 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 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. 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.” Several folklorists in later times reported a belief that those who are likely to “walk” should be buried face down, so that they will only dig their way deeper into the ground if they try to move. In 1916, English soldiers who were seen burying a German face down gave the same explanation. These interpretations are not, of course, mutually exclusive; in some circumstances both intentions might be appropriate. Such burials show that a belief in physical revenants and traditional ways of counter-acting them was indigenous to Britain long before the Viking settlement, and persisted several centuries after the Conversion.

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