The demise of the walking dead : the rise of purgatory and the end of revenancy
By Elif Boyacıoğlu
Master’s Thesis, Bilkent University, 2007
Abstract: Folklore and popular belief strongly affect human behavior in any age, showing how people think, what they fear and how they react. The belief in the existence of the walking dead, that is, revenants, is no exception. Here, the possible reasons for the prevalence of the belief in the walking dead, as well as its comfortable existence within human culture are examined. The existence of the belief in these very corporal monsters, persevering at least into the thirteenth century in north-western Europe, cannot be disputed. However, subsequently, it diminished and then virtually disappeared. What force could be effective and widespread enough to remove this perception of the very physical threat of the dead bodily walking again among the living? Here, it is argued that it was the effects of the emergence of Purgatory that lead to the extinction of the revenant. Using various texts mainly from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, this study aims to capture this process of change within the folkloric beliefs of the people, to follow the procession of revenants into oblivion.
Introduction: Imagine a time when people actually believed in the existence of revenants, that is, the walking dead; there are records of people having heard them, seen them and partaken in countermeasures against these monsters, or at least those who recorded the stories fully believed the people who said that they had. The threat of the walking dead was very much present in the mind of these people: “Belief in corpses coming back to life is well attested for parts of medieval Europe, most notably Iceland, but also England, the Low Countries, northern France and parts of Germany,” though the belief was by no means limited to these areas.
It is important to emphasize that for the people of the time these accounts represented an actual belief; “all these stories, without exception, were told as being absolutely and historically true.” The question here is not whether revenants actually walked in Europe in the early and high Middle Ages; it is the fact that people believed them to have done so and acted accordingly, leaving behind evidence of the belief, some physical, but most explicitly written. The current study will focus mainly, but not exclusively, on the British side of the story. This is more a matter of convenience than anything else, the majority of sources available to me having come from this area. It should not be taken for granted that belief in revenants was most active there. The thesis will also primarily concern the period from the twelfth century to the end of the fourteenth. This again, in one sense, is partly a matter of sources, but I shall also argue that it is a period of profound significance for the belief in revenants.