The Revenant: Essentialist Gender Norms in Medieval English Histories—By Candace Reilly

Pestilent rotting bodies roaming amidst the living in the dead of night, tearing into flesh and destroying all elements of life, seem like a preposterous horror story that we often belittle as fiction. Conversely, in England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the notion of the awakened dead was commonplace, and remnants of this belief in revenants, the malign undead, are visible in histories, literature, and archaeological evidence. During this period, which was abounding with theological changes concerning death and the afterlife, revenants were a powerful force because they signified more than just ambulatory carcasses: They benefitted the didactic message of a life after the physical death and, in addition to this moralistic purpose, revenants were also presented as formidable and corporeal beings. However, there is a dichotomy of representation between the male and female undead. I propose that the liminal space in which the undead interact with the living is masculine-centric, specifically exhibiting a continuation of the contemporary societal identity’s boundaries of masculinity and femininity, albeit exaggerated in displays of passivity, and active aggression.[1]

The undead are disturbing hybrids.[2] They are dead and alive, corporeal and incorporeal, benign and malign, human and monstrous, and transgressors of the boundaries of the otherworld.[3] The evil undead, especially, are forces outside of human control and have the ability to harm. They do so by spreading pestilence, physically abusing and calling out the names of villagers, and presenting their deadly visage, which brought about death within a few days to their victims, which is documented in the texts of William of Newburgh and Walter Map.

In order to understand the gender roles of the undead, we can turn to the texts, a close reading of which shows a strict dichotomy of presentation between the male and female revenant. I chose textual material in a geographical and chronological context focusing on the works of chroniclers and hagiographers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in England. The accounts of William of Newburgh (c.1198) from his Historia rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), and Walter Map (c.1180s) from his De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles), are the primary texts of this study.[4] They will also be compared with William of Malmesbury’s account (c.1125), from his Gesta Regum Anglorum (The History of the English Kings), of the witch of Berkeley.[5] Additionally, there is one fifteenth century Middle English poem that is worth noting, “A Disputacion Betwyx the Body and Wormes” (A Disputation between the Body and the Worms), because it is one of the few representations in England of a female corpse possessing full consciousness of mind as a singular entity. I have deliberately excluded a close examination of texts that reveal the undead as demonically possessed, for those do not reveal the nature of the undead, but rather the acts of demons.

An examination of revenants’ gender dichotomy in England is new to scholarship, though I have based my research on larger framework studies concerning gender, sexuality, the body, and histories of the supernatural. My intention is not to dismiss important pioneering scholarship concerning medieval gender roles; rather, it is to bring attention to the essentialist attributes exhibited by the undead in the High Middle Ages. In studying the gendered identities of the revenant, I hope to point out the patterns and implied social attitudes exuded in the liminal realm of the undead. An examination of bodies inhabiting Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven will not be a theme, rather used as a conceptual boundary comparison. This new approach to undead studies substantiates the English undead for the medieval audience, and is a further cultural and social excavation of the consequences of sin and death.

I am particularly beholden to the pioneering work by Caroline Walker Bynum, Danielle Westerhof, Michael Camille, and Elizabeth Robertson, who studied the importance of the medieval body and the attributes of the cadaver.[6] I should, moreover, note Lana M. Oswald’s important observations on the gender identities of monsters in medieval English literature, which draw on postmodern theories of gender while interrogating the medieval notion of the body of the monstrous.[7] I follow Oswald in studying strictly the medieval perception of the gendered monstrous body in an essentialist vision of identity, and what it means to be “male and/or female, masculine and/or feminine”.[8] Oswald writes, “many postmodern feminist writers rightly resist such essentialism, insisting that we cannot be reduced to our bodies, medieval notions of the body as represented in the literature regarding monsters are indeed rather essentialist.”[9] Oswald’s methodology and application of normative gender roles applying to the medieval monster is imperative to this research as I follow the medieval categorical outline which she uses, of the active and passive partner. That to be masculine was to be in an active role, and to be feminine was to be passive, regardless of the gender of the partner.[10] These norms prescribe the behavior of the English revenants.

Regarding studies of the undead, while much scholarship has been undertaken with concern to the Icelandic walking dead, the “draugr”, especially works of Claude Lecouteux, Hilda R. Ellis Davidson, and N.K. Chadwick, an academic debate regarding the High and Late Medieval English revenants surprisingly has not been greatly ventured.[11] In the past twenty years, the walking dead’s appearances in English literary and historiographical sources have been addressed by Nancy Caciola, Jacqueline Simpson, Carl Watkins, John Blair, Kenneth Rooney, and Stephen Gordon.[12] Caciola has recently stated,

the systematic importance of the dead within medieval culture has been either overlooked or underemphasized by medieval scholars. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that the majority of medieval people who believe that they had had direct experience of the supernatural realm, did so in intimate confrontation with dead human beings, rather than through encounter with a transcendent Deity.[13]

Despite the developments of recent scholarship concerning the medieval undead, these studies have not fully addressed the gender identities held by these awakened corporeal bodies.

Popularity and Relevance of the Revenant
The aforementioned Latin chronicles and hagiographic accounts, rather than archaeological evidence, are the basis of this research because they demonstrate a clearer belief in these supernatural monsters. Before proceeding further, consideration of the popularity of the revenant is imperative to this study as it exemplifies the commonness of this male-centric, active space between the living and the dead. The revenant reports of William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum (History of English Affairs), Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium (Courtier’s Trifles), and William Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum (The History of the English Kings) were all composed within one hundred years of each other and depict the male undead in dark and vengeful ways. William of Newburgh’s chronicle exists in nine manuscripts; however, during his life his text was not diffused and more than likely not read except by the canons in his Augustinian priory in Newburgh. Two of the extant manuscripts are from the early thirteenth century: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 262 and London, British Library, MS Stowe 62, which have corrections in William of Newburgh’s own hand. Walter Map, a secular clerk, included a multitude of marvels and prodigies in his De Nugis Curialoum (Courtier’s Trifles), and just like William of Newburgh, no evidence exists of circulation of his texts during his time.[14] Walter Map’s chronicle only exists in a single manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 851 (3041). These accounts all express similar attitudes, anxieties, and fears related to people returning to life in a monstrous fashion, and the frequency of these tales evoke that these malign revenants were believed to walk the earth; they at least represent a pattern of religious, cultural and societal interest in the acts of the undead.[15] On separate accounts throughout this century the undead were included in historical, religious, or hagiographic documents, and likewise the popularity of the exempla being expressed at sermons additionally conveys the frequency of the undead records.

The twelfth century, especially, experienced a great popularity of supernatural stories in various textual modes such as chronicles, vision-accounts, and sermons, which most likely began as tales from oral transmission.[16] These texts followed a typical format of either three types of miracle/miraculous stories; miracula, mirabilia, or exempla. For the purpose of this study, I focus primarily on mirabilia which are tales of wonder not related to divine saintly power, that contain stories of the malevolent male undead which appear to the living in a corporeal form. However, it is necessary to briefly study the increasing obsession of stories of the undead in different textual media at this time to further comprehend the normality of the undead in this genre, before strictly analyzing these mirabilia accounts concerning revenants and their gendered representations. The Cistercian and Mendicant orders both included apparitions of the ordinary dead into their sermons and collections of miracles.[17] In these exempla, the undead, which appear either as phantoms, visions, or as corporeal beings, were primarily spoken of in regard to preparing for death, anxieties about dying and the afterlife, and as a reminder to people that they will die.[18] The purpose of exempla, concerning the dead returning from Purgatory, was to preach to the audiences about everyone’s individual moment of judgment at their time of death, and of the necessity that all Christians must die well, and to create a familiarity with the dead and death.[19]

Theological Associations with the Undead: Their Place in Society
During the twelfth century, there were theological changes occurring regarding the altered perceptions of the undead, afterlife, and sanctity of the body. The addition of Purgatory as a new celestial landscape facilitated a greater belief in the undead in a religious framework. In reading these sources within the context of Purgatory, it reveals that these accounts were possibly a response to these religious changes and folk beliefs. The majority of these chroniclers were members of the Church and spent a great deal of their lives in monasteries and abbeys surrounded by canons and other religious figures, who were often the intended audience of these accounts.[20] William of Newburgh was an Augustinian canon, William of Malmesbury was a monk at Malmesbury Abbey, and Walter Map was a canon of the Lincoln chapter from 1183-5; therefore, they were all aware of the religious principles regarding proper methods of burying the body, and the trepidations of the dead rising before the Last Judgment. All of these chroniclers’ accounts, in addition to the tale by the cleric Walter Map, are in a similar vein with the Church’s response to the walking dead, as seen in the texts when the witnesses of the undead report the attacks to the nearest institutional figures within the Church. Church officials are consulted in each of William of Newburgh’s accounts in regards to methods of destroying the undead, and this religious attention is especially prevalent in the first account of the revenant in the county of Buckingham. This certain undead creature was a threat to his town and family, rather than a terrifying malign monster as seen in the other three accounts William of Newburgh presents. The people of the town after witnessing the haunting of the dead man go to the archdeacon of the province, Stephen. William of Newburgh documents:

Whereupon he immediately intimated in writing the whole circumstances of the case to the venerable bishop of Lincoln, who was then resident in London, whose opinion and judgment on so unwonted a matter he was very properly of opinion should be waited for: but the bishop, being amazed at his account, held a searching investigation with his companions; and there were some who said that such things had often befallen in England, and cited frequent examples to show that tranquility could not be restored to the people until the body of this most wretched man were dug up and burnt. This proceeding, however, appeared indecent and improper in the last degree to the reverend bishop, who shortly after addressed a letter of absolution, written with his own hand, to the archdeacon, in order that it might be demonstrated by inspection in what state the body of that man really was; and he commanded his tomb to be opened, and the letter having been laid upon his breast, to be again closed.[21]

St. Hugh of Avalon, the archbishop of Lincoln, despite being advised that the corpse must be physically destroyed, is adamant that the undead carcass not be harmed because such practice was sacrilegious. Rather, he suggests dealing with the issue with a scroll of absolution. Stephen Gordon has suggested that St. Hugh of Avalon’s view on death differed from that of others because of his Carthusian background, which is evident in his dedication to Church reform concerning the salvation of the soul and care for the dead.[22] According to Jacques Le Goff, the concept of Purgatory was theologically widely accepted by the end of the twelfth century, which would account for the archbishop’s understanding of the walking dead as people returning from this liminal zone.[23]

Purgatory is a useful framework for the belief in the pestilent and feared body of the revenant. The Church did not yet officially define Purgatory as a place until the Second Council of Lyons in 1274, in which the Church openly debated the doctrinal implications of Purgatory. However, the noun purgatorium appeared in the 1170s, and versions of Purgatory were circulating throughout Christian culture as early as the beginning of the Middle Ages.[24] Once Purgatory was established, and even earlier in the twelfth century, there was a greater acceptance of the undead, both benign and malign, in the dogma. Purgatory came to be understood as the temporary torturous prison in which the undead were incarcerated, yet by an unknown volition they were allowed to leave and haunt or terrorize the living.[25] As the moment of death was an individual experience, that individuality continued into Purgatory by means of torture fitting the crime.[26] The only distinction made between groups of people is by class, so that the wealthy had a greater chance to be detained and tortured longer than the poor. However, the fires and suffering of Purgatory were based on the act of sin committed in life and matched with the specific torture in death, for example a glutton being eaten by toads and adders.[27]

The revenant stories strengthened the idea of another realm of life after death, which quelled anxiety about the existence of the afterlife, and also enhanced the value of prayers and suffrages for the deceased.[28] Amidst this acceptance of the dead and dying through theological means, there were also fears attached to the undead, although there is a strict distinction to how males and females were depicted as post-mortem ambulatory carcasses, which is highly dependent on the way in which they died.[29]

The Good and Bad Deaths
Generally, the undead, both benign and malign in nature, were people who returned to the  realm of the living because they died under bad circumstances. Either they did not prepare for their death, i.e. confess their sins and request prayers to be said for them post-mortem, or they committed sins in their lifetime that required absolution. Their appearance varies from tale to tale, though they usually have a human form, appear to be the same age as the day they died, and have similar features as they did at the time of their death.[30] Following death, the good undead are repentant sinners that are sent by God to ask for prayers to reduce their suffering in Purgatory or hell.[31] These undead were a didactic tool used by the Church to save souls.[32] Their request for aid and their appearance in the earthly world provided a moral guide to the living to not follow the examples set by the deceased. The good dead then return to Purgatory after receiving their absolution or prayers, usually leaving of their own volition. In addition, they warn the living of the importance of absolution at the moment of death, confession, and extreme unction.[33]

Contrary to the lives of the ‘good undead’, the malign undead were most often wretched, villainous, and filled with wickedness and sin. In the chronicles, vision-accounts, and compendiums of mirabilia, these malign undead humans, usually male, who return from the grave go by a multitude of names. Usually, before the undead person dies they are referred to as a ‘wretched man’ or a ‘certain evil man’.[34] This identification is a precursor to the malevolent undead monster that they will become. Once these evil men are buried, they then rise from the grave, and are referred to as ‘prodigies’, ‘monsters’, ‘deadly monsters’, ‘revenants’, ‘sanguisuga’ [blood-suckers], the ‘evil undead’, ‘the dead’, and ‘demons’.[35] These terms given by the chroniclers and clerics identify these supernatural beings as malevolent and terrifying. For example, in William of Newburgh’s third account, before death the revenant was known as the ‘Hundeprest’ since he had led a wicked life and did not follow the sacred duties of his order because of his obsession with hunting.[36] The ‘Hundeprest’s life of sin destined him for revenancy, and following his resurrection, he then terrorizes his former mistress in her bedchamber and spreads pestilence to the nearby village. In addition to warnings against living a bad life, it was also warned that dying persons must confess all of their sins before their final slumber. It was believed that one was more likely to become a revenant when he or she died a ‘bad death’, which is apparent in William of Newburgh’s fourth revenant account concerning the certain ‘man of evil conduct’ from York.[37] The man believes that his wife is fornicating with a young man, so he tells his wife that he is going on a journey, yet he hides above the beams in her chamber.

Thereupon beholding his wife in the act of fornication with a young man of the neighborhood, and in his indignation forgetful of his purpose, he fell, and was dashed heavily to the ground, near where they were lying…Being much shaken by the fall, and his whole body stupefied, he was attacked with a disease, insomuch that the man whom I have mentioned as having related these facts to me visiting him in the pious discharge of his duties, admonished him to make confession of his sins, and receive the Christian Eucharist in proper form: but as he was occupied in thinking about what had happened to him, and what his wife had said, put off the wholesome advice until the morrow – that morrow which in this world he was fated never to behold! – for the next night, destitute of Christian grace, and a prey to his well-earned misfortunes, he shared the deep slumber of death.[38]

The man dies before making confession, and despite the proper Christian burial, he becomes a revenant and one of William of Newburgh’s most terrifying cases. People in the town were terrified of coming in contact with the revenant so they were sure to be inside between sundown and sunup. They were frightened to be “beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster. But those precautions were of no avail: the atmosphere, poisoned by the vagaries of this foul carcass, filled every house with disease and death by its pestiferous breath.”[39] This male revenant after spying on his wife and watching her act of fornication with the neighbor became a revenant of extreme brute force. He actively attacks the town and kills expressing aggression and intense monstrosity, which one could interpret as a primal expression of masculinity.

These examples express two of the common ways people were believed to become revenants: suffering a bad life or a bad death. Paul Barber suggests that there were four factors which brought about revenancy: predisposition, such as sinful people with monstrous characteristics; predestination, such as illegitimate offspring; events that happen to people or things they have done; and nonevents, such as things that are left undone like a proper burial.[40] Concerning the malevolent revenants and all the factors that bring about their resurrection, they are not simply the dead who have returned, like the benign undead; rather, they are monsters that have come from the grave: hybrids of man and beast. Having assessed the sexuality and gender of monsters, Oswald suggests that they do not fully adhere to the gendered margins of humanity.[41] She argues that “the bodies of medieval monsters exceed the boundaries of humanity, and in strengthening these boundaries they expand what it means to be human, but also what it means to be male and/or female.”[42] Oswald’s research does not touch upon the English revenant; rather, she discusses other monsters exhibiting greater hybridity. In taking her theory on the classification of monsters with an essentialist methodology, I seek to apply that same theory with the most human monster, the revenant. I suggest that out of all the medieval “monsters” the revenant represents the most overt exemplification of what it means to be masculine and feminine in the medieval eye, since it is the human form reborn.

The Male Malign Undead: Beastly Aggressors
In William of Newburgh’s fourth account, of the revenant near York, he describes encounters between the revenant and the living as intense episodes and details the earthly nature of the revenant’s body. After the monster persistently disturbs this village, spreading a malignant plague throughout the air, two brothers take up arms and swear to avenge their father’s death by the revenant’s pestilence. Regarding the two brothers who sought and killed the revenant, William states,

Thereupon snatching up a spade of but indifferent sharpness of edge, and hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons.[43]

William of Newburgh accounts not only for the bloated belly of the revenant and the suffusion of blood, full from draining its victims, but also for the torn napkin, possibly the result of the creature having gnawed at it. The entire process of the brothers removing layers of earth with blunt spades, “before much of the earth had been removed”, speaks to William of Newburgh’s acknowledgment of the monster moving in its grave, and resting closer and closer to the earth’s surface. These are all remnants of a physical connection and power of the revenant, which highlight the real and terrifying nature of the creature rather than a spiritual monster that never comes in contact with the living. This carnal relationship is seen when the brothers toss away their fear of the carcass to give the creature its second death and banish the plague from their village, despite the more common desire to avoid touching a corpse. This incident speaks to the carnal fear attached to the male revenant and his great power to devour and attack his enemies. Often with male revenancy the body of the undead beast is described as corporeal and the chronicler mentions the ways in which he attacks or physically harms his victims. This corporeality is understood with tales of the female undead but it is not touched upon with nearly the same amount of attention.

In William of Newburgh’s second account of the walking undead, the incident outlines a man who has returned from the grave and immediately attempts to lie with his wife.

On the following night, however, having entered the bed where his wife was reposing, he not only terrified her on awaking, but nearly crushed her by the insupportable weight of his body. The next night, also, he afflicted the astonished woman in the same manner, who, frightened at the danger, as the struggle of the third night drew near, took care to remain awake herself, and surround herself with watchful companions. Still he came; but being repulsed by the shouts of the watchers, and seeing that he was prevented from doing mischief, he departed.[44]

The male revenant, in addition to being a figure of carnal strength and feared by the majority, inhabits the same consciousness he held while living, meaning he often remembers people who have wronged him and his place in society. The male undead is a monstrous continuation of the life of the living man, while in comparison we will see that the female undead are documented as passive shells of the women they once were. This certain revenant of William of Newburgh’s, in particular, chose to make it his priority, as an undead, to visit his wife and lie with her in her bedchamber. On the first night of the attempted act she refuses his presence, but he continues to force himself upon her and almost kills her. The act is attempted once again the second night, despite him learning of his wife’s rejection and seeing that he almost killed her. On the third night, the wife aids herself, and her dead husband departs and never returns to his old home. The revenant roams the streets until he returns to his tomb one night after causing a nuisance among the town and terrifying the villagers. A note of absolution is placed upon his breast and he ceases his haunting. The actions of the revenant demonstrate that he learns while he is undead, that the male undead carries over knowledge from his life as a human and is able to access it as a revenant. After seeing his wife protected, he ends his attempt to bed her and continues on to bother others. With that logic, in knowing he was refused by his wife the first night and almost shattering her, it can be assumed that he understood his intended action of raping his wife.[45] This attack on living women is not an atypical trope for the male malign revenant, as we see in William of Newburgh’s account of the “Hundeprest”.

As mentioned above, the “Hundeprest” led a life full of wickedness and did not respect or adhere to the ways of the Church. Following his death, he rose from the grave and haunted the monastery in which he had lived, especially lurking around his mistress’s bedchamber. This chronicle does not mention any action of rape, nor bodily attack against the mistress, though it does reference that for many nights he intentionally frightened and disturbed her. Two out of the four chapters of William of Newburgh’s chronicles concerning the undead focus on the revenant attacking a specific female. I suggest this references an aggressive male dominance over the living females. The revenant, obtaining supernatural abilities upon the death of the living human body, does have a carnal power over the living, but the distinction in the chronicles of the male attacks on females is specific. This is possibly a display of the cultural construction of women as the secondary sex.[46] Seeing as male was the primary gender role among the living, and the male revenant was a creature of bellicosity, destruction, and death, this image is not an improbable one. I propose that in these examined cases from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the violent and lustful actions exhibited by the male revenants demonstrate an inert primal characteristic that is present during life. I theorize that men who were typically authoritative during their life, upon revenancy continue the very same primal role albeit enhanced as an extremely masculine monster. When a human returns from the grave and disturbs the normal path to the afterlife, one would assume that the characteristics attributed to the undead would befit both male and female revenants. However, it appears that the dualistic gender norms are the primary boundary for the afterlife of the male and female revenants.

The Female Undead: Dancing, Abduction, Rape
In comparison to the plethora of examples of the male undead, there are only a handful of mentions of female revenancy, and they are polar opposites of their male counterparts. The female undead are not volatile, and are placed in submissive roles to living males. There is one account of a woman who feared revenancy so much that she took it upon herself to save her family from her undead form; something not seen in the male undead accounts. In William of Malmesbury’s account of the witch of Berkeley, a declared witch is involved in the dark arts of soothsaying and divination, which allow her to foresee her own demise. Knowing that her body will either be subject to  a demon’s attempted possession or will rise without her will, she makes her children promise to ensure that her corpse will stay buried and not be tormented post-mortem to prevent her body from inflicting harm and to guarantee the safety of her children. She orders, “Sew up my corpse in the skin of a stag; lay it on its back in a stone coffin; fasten down the lid with lead and iron; on this lay a stone, bound round with three iron chains of enormous weight.”[47] In comparison to William of Newburgh’s tale concerning the ‘wretched man’ who refused penance while ill which led to his revenancy, we see here that the witch of Berkeley has gone to extreme measures to make certain her family and her body will be protected following her death. This compassion is not seen in the tales in which the male revenants rise from the grave, and is a strict distinction to the female undead.

Nancy Caciola has recently noted that female revenants are an exceptional group within the patterns of the undead because they are non-aggressive.[48] She states, in analyzing specific tales found in the British Isles and northern regions of the Continent, that the female undead do not prey on the living; rather, they become part of “a new community of fairies (or elves) dancing together in fairy rings. There also is a gendered dimension to this differentiation: the dancing dead were usually (though not always) female”.[49] This group of the female dancing dead is akin to fairies described in Celtic lore.[50] In keeping with my geographical focus on the British Isles, I focus on two tales recorded by Walter Map in his De nugis curialium, both incidents reflect the female undead being abducted and forced to reproduce.

In Map’s incident concerning the sons of a dead woman, a husband buries his dead wife and soon comes upon her dancing in a ring with other dancing undead.

A certain knight buried his wife, who was dead without a shadow of doubt, but won her back again by snatching her from a band of dancers; and he was afterwards presented by her with children and grandchildren. Their descendants survive to this day – indeed, a great many people claim to be part of their lineage – and all of them are called ‘sons of the dead woman’…[51]

The logic of the incident is never questioned, nor the act of abduction. Yet, in this account a revenant is situated among the living and there is nothing to be feared. Is it perhaps because it was known that female revenants were not volatile monsters like their male counterparts? Or was the female gender distinction of a hybrid human monster enough for males, both alive and dead, to have no fear? Here it is presented that a living man has approached a dancing hoard of fleshy female undead.[52] He has snatched his wife from the group, unknowing if it was against her will, and brought her back to his home to be once again his wife, exemplifying subordination of the female figure. She then produces sons, which confirms that the female undead are able to still produce children. Instead of possessing a supernatural volatile attribute like the male revenant, the female revenant is able, after death, to produce living children, which is a supernatural feature unto itself. This action of fecundity is only able to occur because of the interaction with the living male, however the act of gestation and birth is a gendered norm of what it means to be female. The second of Map’s tales of a female revenant continues with the same trope of abduction, fecundity, and rape; however, it also distinguishes the revenant as a more sensual being.

In this incident a nobleman “snatched the most beautiful of a group of women [the dead] dancing at night,” then forced her to wed and produce a son.[53] The rape of the most beautiful undead once again depicts the passivity of this gender in the afterlife. The male undead, forceful and aggressive creatures had power over the living and required a carnal interaction to end their second life. The female undead are not discussed as attacking, defending themselves against the living, nor suffering a second death. Rather they are presented, in a forceful way, with a chance to wed and produce offspring among the living again, and be submissive to the male living. Additionally, it is worth noting that the female revenants seem to have no memory of their former lives or have a purpose for their revenant life. They are in a way a shell of their former selves moved about by the male figure who invades their liminal zone. Caciola has associated these undead as fairy dancers and suggested that the female revenant is as such because of the living females’ “tenuous connections with violence: women did not lead the kinds of lives, nor die the kinds of death, associated with the evil undead.”[54] This connotation with the actions of life, and the manner of death resulting in the act and severity of revenancy was discussed previously. However, the essentialist medieval societal roles assigned to the genders during life had been carried over to the land of the dead, exemplifying the basis of what it means to be feminine and masculine.

This leads me to my final source regarding the female undead: a fifteenth century poem entitled “A Disputacion Betwyx the Body and Wormes” (A Disputation Between the Body and the Worms). This poem is part of a collective trope of soul-body debates, which is seen in literature from the Anglo-Saxon period through the Late Middle Ages. The typical format of the poem represents the soul in a strong debate with the body, discussing the soul’s action of leaving the physical form and journey to the afterlife. This poem is an atypical example because the soul has not yet departed the body, and it speaks clearly as a female. The conversational debate in this poem is between the joined entity of the soul and body with an anthropomorphic worm, which is where the active and passive roles begin to take form.

Elizabeth Robertson has analyzed the associations of women and probed the question of the gender of the soul/body in this particular poem.[55] She has specifically brought attention to the relationship between the female talking corpse and the worm, which I believe exemplifies a recurrent pattern of depiction of the passive, subordinate undead female throughout English culture in the Middle Ages. To begin, the undead body is gendered as female and the poem is focused on her bodiliness in relation to decomposition, which Robertson points to being a natural association as women were already always associated with the body.[56] This association has often been paired with the attribution of the vanity of human wishes and themes of the rotting feminine beauty.[57] Decomposition of the revenant is a common trope in the histories and literature as it is a usual distinguishing feature between someone alive and a corpse; therefore, it is a typical place to start when describing a revenant. The decomposition of the dead distinguishes a masculine or feminine element. This undead female, throughout the poem, remarks on her attire, her decomposition, and her thoughts on the afterlife. The truly striking elements are the inclusions of the courtly gendered vocabulary, which focuses on the female corpse’s plight, and is woven with language of rape.[58] The worm, which has accompanied the corpse throughout most of the poem, begins by threatening the corpse with intimidations of stripping her of her fleshly clothes, and the corpse objects to the aggressive actions. “Uncortes ȝe be unto me, / thus hevely to threte me and manace / And thus me lefe bot bare bones to see” [Discourteous you are unto me thus grievously to threaten and menace me and thus to leave me nothing but bare bones to see] (72-74)[59]After different attempts by the worm, the corpse submits to the rape-like assault and proclaims, “Do ȝour will with me” [Have your way with me] (138-139).[60] The female has submitted to the worm. Throughout the poem the accompanying images of the corpse’s interaction with the worm represent not only the changing decomposing form of the corpse, but also the nature of the body of the worm. As the worm approaches its apprehension of the female undead’s body it gradually swells until it finally ‘rapes’ the body. Robertson has suggested that the worm is phallic in nature and is the masculine figure of the rape-like imagery throughout the poem.[61] The undead female once again took upon the submissive role to the male figure, albeit in this poem the male being represented as a swollen worm ready to penetrate the female flesh. As previously mentioned, the female undead despite their predisposition to honing a supernatural power, as the male undead, were always recorded in chronicles as being submissive figures assaulted by living men. That passive, submissive nature is prevalent in this poem, but it is also paired with the characterization of the sexual and erotic. Earlier when the female undead were abducted from their dancing and subjected to become wives and produce children, they were presented as fecund, sensual beings. That slight sensuality is extremely heightened in this poem once the female undead has submitted to her rapist’s actions.

The corpse, once fully subjected to the worm’s actions, becomes the aggressor of sexual advances as she wills further erotic engagement. “Lat us be frendes at this sodayn brayed, / Neghbours, and luf as before we gan do; / Let us kys and dwell to-gedyr evermore” [Let us be friends and neighbors at this unexpected moment and love as we before were wont to do, let us kiss and dwell together forever more] (193-195).[62] In kissing the worm, the undead female has not only succumbed to her abductee’s will but has taken part in the erotic engagement she once objected to. This representation of the female undead not only expresses the severe passive nature of the female in the afterlife, but also furthers the previous depiction of the gender as sexual bodies to be used by males. It could be suggested that even centuries later than the tales of Walter Map, this poem is an echo that shows the continuation of the female gender succumbing to the masculine-centric place of this liminal afterlife.

Gendering in the Afterlife: What was in life shall be in death
In these British histories and within literature, the creature of the revenant, as we have seen, has ample opportunities to be violent and seek revenge upon the living. In William of Newburgh’s tales, the revenant men, decomposing corporeal beings, have returned to seek vengeance or to force themselves on their wives/mistresses. This act of force and abduction on living women exemplifies the forceful nature of the male revenant, in addition to the choice of action of this specifically male creature. When the tales discuss the female revenant, that same strength and vigor is not present, or not used, as they are seen as submissive creatures that are abducted by their husbands/onlookers, raped, and then forced to produce children.

Further, that even in the pure essence of the supernatural afterlife, women were still represented or forced in the submissive role I believe shows that the essentialist societal gender norms of the living had carried through to the liminal zone inhabited by the undead, though the undead express a much more primal attribution. This enhanced primal character is due to their identity being both human and monstrous, as monsters were often regarded as essentialist-gendered representations that expressed what it means to be truly masculine or feminine.[63] In continuing with the cultural and common gender roles of the passive female and the active, aggressive male the chroniclers, hagiographers, and literalists were adhering to a cultural, societal persistence that embodied the cultural anxieties regarding the potential of real human bodies through the representation of the undead.

This study has not sought a totalizing, homogenous social analysis of the gendered bodies following death in all the Afterlives. Rather this is a commencing engagement of the histories, literature, and art highlighting patterns exhibited in the realm where the undead and living collide. This opens to a wider investigation on the gender roles of revenants, as well as other humanoid monsters. There is a need to investigate the mirroring aspects of the living and the dead as seen with the tale of The Three Kings / The Three Living and Three Dead. Perhaps the specifically gendered roles of the undead are a productive recognition in which the audience identifies not merely with the rotting corpse but with his or her future; the mirror of mortality [memento mori]. The dead in these literatures imitate the gestured actions of their living counterparts, however they may correspondingly reflect an internalization of those still with beating hearts.

Candace Reilly, University of York

Candace Reilly is enrolled in the University of York, History of Art PhD program. Her intended dissertation titled, “The Destructive Power of Images: A Medical and Scientific Study of Macabre Imagery”, examines the optical connection between viewer and object, and the scientific relationship to what subjects were purposefully not being made into art. She works full time as an antiquarian bookseller and is an Adjunct Instructor in the History of Art at Raritan Valley Community College.


[1] These, of course, are not the only options represented in medieval histories or literatures, however they are the predominant social categories of the medieval notion of the gendered identity of the body. Lana M. Oswald, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature (Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2010), p. 10.

[2] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 6.

[3] Robert Bartlett, ed. and trans., Geoffrey of Burton: Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 38-43, 110-115, 190; R.C. Love, Three Eleventh-Century Anglo-Latin Saints’ Lives (Oxford: OMT, 1996), pp. 70-73. Cases of the evil undead have appeared in two saints’ accounts, in this region and period of this study. In Geoffrey of Burton’s vita of St. Modwenna, the abbot writes about two undead men at the town of Stapenhill. Additionally, he recorded two cases in which St. Modwenna brought dead animals back to life: De inuencione pecorum et de porco necato et uiuificatio (The finding of the flocks and the pig that was killed and brought back to life) and De uitulo occiso et restaurato et de uasculo repleto ceruisia atque mirabiliter excrescente (The calf that was killed and restored to life and the miraculous increase of the beer in a little vessel). In the eleventh century account in the vita of St. Kenelm of Winchcombe the wicked sister by the name of Cwoenthryth continuously resisted all attempts to stay in her grave. There seems to be a connection, at least in these accounts, of the undead and saints, which parallels the comparison of the antithesis relationship between revenants and holy figures.

[4] Joseph Stevenson ed., trans., The Church Historians of England, vol.4, part ii (London: Seeley’s, 1861), Book 5, chapters 22-24.; C.N.L. Brooke, D.E. Greenway, and M. Winterbottom, eds., Walter Map De Nugis Curialium: Courtier’s Trifles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) Second Distribution, Chapter 27; Robert Bartlett, ed. Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna, ch. 47.

[5] Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2001), pp. 77-85; T. Arnold, ed. Memorials of St. Edmund’s Abbey, 1, RS 96a (London, 1890), p. 32. In addition to these accounts, there are other English undead tales discussed in scholarship such as the account of the Suffolk sheriff who broke into St. Edmund’s sanctuary (c.1000), and then his body was animated post-mortem and sewn into a calf-skin and then dumped into a pool.

[6] Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1992); Danielle Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008); Michael Camille, “The Image and the Self: Unwriting Late Medieval Bodies”, Framing Medieval Bodies, eds. Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994); Elizabeth Robertston, “Kissing the Worm”, in From Beasts to Souls: Gender and Embodiment in Medieval Europe, ed. E. Jane Burns and Peggy McCracken (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).

[7] Oswald, Gender and Sexuality. Also regard the following studies: Theresa Tinkle, Gender and Power in Medieval Exegeis (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2010). Liz Herbert McAvoy, Medieval Anchoritisms: Gender, Space and the Solitary Life (Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2011), Kim M. Phillips, Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England 1270-1540 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), Mathilde van Dijk and Renee Nip, eds. Saints, Scholars, and Politicians: Gender as a Tool in Medieval Studies (Belgium: Brepolis, 2005).

[8] Ibid., p. 10.

[9] Ibid., p. 10.

[10] Ibid., p. 10. See Karl Guthke’s The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature, Chapter 2.

[11] Claude Lecouteux, The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, trans. Jon E. Graham (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2009); Hilda R. Ellis Davidson, “The Restless Dead: Icelandic Ghost Stories”, in The Folklore of Ghosts, eds. Hilda R. Ellis Davidson and W.M.S Russell (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1981); N.K. Chadwick, “Norse Ghosts: A Study in the Draugr and the Haugbui”. Folklore 57, no. 2 (1946): 50-65.

[12] Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants, and Ritual in Medieval Culture” Past and Present, no. 152 (Aug., 1996): 4-45; Nancy Caciola, Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016); Jacqueline Simpson, “Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England” Folklore 114, no.3 (Dec. 2003): 389-402; C.S. Watkins, History and Supernatural in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); John Blair, “The Dangerous Dead in Early Medieval England”, in Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, eds. Stephen Baxter, Catherine E. Karkov, Janet L. Nelson, David Pelteret (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009). Stephen Gordon, “Disease, Sin, and the Walking Dead in Medieval England, c.1100-1350: A Note on the Documentary and Archaeological Evidence”, Medicine, Healing and Performance, ed. by S. Gordon et al (Oxford: Oxbow, 2014), 55-70. For more recent scholarship, Matthew J. Snyder’s dissertation entitled Otherworldly Bodies Reading the Revenant in Middle English Literature sheds a light on the revenant in four English textual bodies of the fourteenth century with a comparison on the contemporary social issues. For an overview of revenant histories in medieval England see Sean Martin, “The Walking Dead: Supernatural Encounters in Mediaeval England”, Book of Scientific Works of the Conference of Belief Narrative Network of ISFNR (October 2014). Kenneth Rooney, Mortality and Imagination: The Life of the Dead in Medieval English Literature. (Turnhout: Brepolis, 2011)

[13] Nancy Caciola, “Revenants, Resurrection, and Burnt Sacrifice”, Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 3, no. 2 (2014), p. 314.

[14] Brooke, et al. eds., Walter Map De Nugis Curialium, xxi.

[15] Hans Peter Broedel, “Gratuitous Examples and the Grateful Dead: Appropriations and Negotiation of Traditional Narratives in Medieval Exemplary Ghost Stories”, in Translatio or the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Modes and Messages, ed. Laura H. Hollengreen (Belgium: Brepols Publishers, 2008).

[16] Lisa M. Ruch, “Digression or Discourse? William of Newburgh’s Ghost Stories as Urban Legends,” The Medieval Chronicle VIII (October 1, 2013): 261-262, 267.

[17] Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 127, 134. These apparitions are mentioned in the Exordium magnum by Conrad of Eberbach, the Liber miraculorum by Herbert of Clairvaux, and the Liber miraculorum of the monastery of Himmerod.

[18] Ibid., p. 134.

[19] Ibid., p. 125.

[20] Ibid., p. 134.

[21] Stevenson ed., trans., The Church Historians of England, vol. 4, Book 5, Chapter 22.

[22] Gordon, “Disease, Sin and the Walking Dead in Medieval England,”: p. 61.

[23] Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1984), p. 157.

[24] Watkins, “Sin, Penance and Purgatory in the Anglo-Norman Realm”, 4; Watkins, History and the Supernatural, p. 200.

[25] Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, p. 82.

[26] C.S. Watkins, The Undiscovered Country: Journeys Among the Dead (London: Random House, 2013), p. 17.

[27] C.S. Watkins, The Undiscovered Country, p. 17. If there is a distinction of punishment by gender in Purgatory it would be only segregated by crimes distinguished generally by males or females. For further study into Medieval Purgatory see Takami Matsuda’s Death and Purgatory in Medieval Didactic Literature. Further study should be made regarding gendered bodies in Purgatory, however this study does not seek to excavate the social relationship of the dead in a Medieval Otherworld such as Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, rather to just focus on the interactions among the living.

[28] Nancy Caciola, “Revenants, Resurrection, and Burnt Sacrifice”, pp. 311-338. “It is striking that stories of ghosts and revenants, for example, while not quite orthodox, never were declared heretical either. They occupied a capacious middle ground of toleration without endorsement, an unsually ambiguous emplacement for such a significant area of thought.” (314)

[29] The male revenant’s tale often comes with a prologue on how the man came to his death. It is very rare to see that same attention given to the tale of the female undead. Often the reader is brought into the middle of the story in which we come upon the female undead and do not know her as a live human.

[30] Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages, pp. 195-196.

[31] Axel Ruth, “Representing Wonder in Medieval Miracle Narratives”, MLN 126, no. 4 (Sept. 2001), pp. S89-S114.

[32] Aline G. Hornaday, “Visitors from Another Space” in Meeting the Foreign in the Middle Ages, ed. Albrecht Classen (New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 71.

[33] Finucane, Appearances of the Dead, p. 60.

[34] Brooke, et al. eds., Walter Map De Nugis Curialium, ii.27, pp. 202-204.

[35] C.S. Watkins, The Undiscovered Country, p. 36; Westerhof, Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England, p. 25; Bartlet, ed. Geoffrey of Burton, pp. 191-199; C.N.L. Brooke, et al. eds., Walter Map De Nugis Curialium, p. 205.

[36] Stevenson ed., trans., The Church Historians of England, Book 5, Chapter 24.

[37] Ibid., p. 660.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p. 29; Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants, and Ritual in Medieval Culture”, p. 21; Watkins, History and the Supernatural, p. 189. Others contested that revenants returned from death by the operation of Satan, however this is a minority view, and it is understood that revenants can return of their own volition and corpses can also be possessed by the devil or demons, which gives the appearance of the undead. The chroniclers reflected these religious anxieties, for example William of Newburgh would not declare, until the last tale, how the revenants returned from the grave. The volition of the revenants was ambiguous and William of Newburgh said, “he did not know by what spirit (nescio quo spiritu) the dead walked and he carefully distanced himself from those interpreting the prematurely risen dead as being demonic. William noted that corpses were reanimated ‘by the operation, it is believed, of Satan (operatione, ut creditur, Sathanea)’ but his own belief remained veiled. Only in his final story did he clearly indicate that a revenant was the possessed corpse of a damned man.”

[41] Oswald, Monsters, Gender…, p. 10.

[42] Ibid., 10.

[43] Stevenson ed., trans., The Church Historians of England, Book 5, chapter 24

[44] Ibid., Book 5, chapter 22.

[45] Rape was termed as generalized violence against the body of a woman in the twelfth century common-law, whether the woman was a virgin or not. In 1218-29 with the composition of ‘Bracton’s’ treatise the question was discussed in greater frequency whether the woman was a virgin before the rape. In regards to this revenant account, the wife was certainly viewed as being attacked by her husband, but it is uncertain to say whether or not the courts would view the attack as a rape. Phillips, Medieval Maidens, p. 147.

[46] Phillips, Medieval Maidens, p. 12.

[47] Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories, p. 79.

[48] Nancy Caciola, Afterlives, pp. 244-253. Caciola is one of few scholars who have touched upon the topic of the gendering of the undead.

[49] Ibid., p. 245.

[50] Ibid., p. 245.

[51] Andrew Joynes, Medieval Ghost Stories, p.93. Joynes’ translation from Walter Map’s Second distribution, chapter 13.

[52] The Dance of Death / The Danse Macabre is in a similar vein to the female dancing undead hoard of women in this tale. However, they should not be grouped together as the same genre of undead depictions. James Clark has defined the Dance of Death as such, “A literary or artistic representation of a procession or a dance, in which both the living and the dead take part. The dead may be portrayed by a number of figures, or by a single individual personifying Death. The living members are arranged in some kind of order of precedence, such as pope, Cardinal […]. The dance invariably expresses some allegorical, moral or satirical idea. James Clark, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Publications, 1950), p. 1.

[53] Nancy Caciola, Afterlives, pp. 244-245.

[54] Ibid., p. 246.

[55] Robertston, “Kissing the Worm”, pp. 121-154.

[56] Ibid., p. 127.

[57] Rosemary Woolf, The English Lyrics in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), pp. 316-18.

[58] Robertston, “Kissing the Worm”, p. 141-142.

[59] Ibid., p. 142. The translations supplied are from Robertson. She had transcribed the following passages from the manuscript, British Library Additional 37049. I have used her expansions of abbreviations as well.

[60] Ibid., p. 142.

[61] Ibid., p. 146.

[62] Ibid., p. 143.

[63] Oswald, p. 10.