The Walking Dead in Medieval England: Literary and Archaeological Perspectives
By Stephen R. Gordon
PhD Dissertation, University of Manchester, 2013
Abstract: The aim of this study is to analyse the popular perception of the walking dead – ‘revenants’ – in medieval England, using both written and archaeological sources. The opening chapter defines the methodology for conducting an interdisciplinary investigation into literary and material ‘texts’.
Chapter two investigates the strategies used by the Church to prescribe the rules for a ‘good’ death performance. This will include a brief overview of the evolution of the Western funerary rite from the Roman period to the fifteenth century.
The third chapter examines the specific codicological placement of the revenant narratives in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum (c.1198), and explores the theological, political and cultural contexts which prompted their transcription and circulation. This examination of the ‘social logic’ of the walking dead will include a critical analysis of the ‘Buckingham Ghost’ narrative.
Motifs of pestilence and the spreading of social/physical disorder, so evident in the William’s Historia, are investigated in chapter four. The percipients’ negotiation of religious doctrine, humoural theory, and the traditions of ‘folk’ medicine will be used to explicate why some revenants were considered contagious. The relationship between the somatic experience of the revenant attack and the ‘nightmare’ is also given consideration in this chapter.
The final section of this study involves an exploration of the material strategies used to allay the walking dead. I contend that it is indeed possible to draw intertextual analogies between the written sources and unusual/deviant burial practices. The way in which medico-magical knowledge (discussed in chapter four) was utilised to protect the living from the pestilential dead is given special consideration. The aim of chapter five, then, is to analyse the evidence for the fear of the errant corpse in mortuary and landscape contexts. In short, I argue that smaller (unwritten) traditions could be improvised within the prevailing habitus of the local community to form idiosyncratic patterns, or ‘rhetorics’, of apotropaic response.
Top Image: Detail of an historiated initial with a woman with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead.