As many of you may be aware, my main area of interest lies in the cultural history of the walking corpse. I’m especially fascinated by medieval accounts of the marauding, troublesome dead. I’ve written previously on how William of Newburgh employed revenant stories to criticise the conduct of William FitzOsbert, instigator of the London rebellion of 1196, and the hated Chancellor of England, William Longchamp. Newburgh’s contemporary, Walter Map, includes stories of walking corpses in his satire on court life, the De Nugis Curialium (c.1182). Much like his wry putdowns of Bernard of Clairvoux and the Cistercian Order, Map takes a more ironic, humorous approach to the phenomenon.
One story concerns the hardships faced by a knight named William Laudun, who petitioned Gilbert Foliot (then Bishop of Hereford and, incidentally, one of Map’s closest confidants) for help in quelling a corpse that had been making a nuisance of itself in his village. Foliot advised that the corpse’s neck be cut and the entire body sprinkled with holy water (an orthodox method of containment, all things considered). Ironically – and somewhat humorously, given Map’s close relationship to Foliot – the Bishop’s advice failed and the corpse contained to wreak havoc. Only after Laudun had chased the corpse back to its grave and cleaved its head in two, from the crown to the base of the neck, did the hauntings finally cease.
This story purports to have taken place in Wales, most likely in Marcher territory. It is possible that Map is playing up and satirising the contemporary belief that Wales, situated on the very edge of ‘civilisation’, was a place filled with prodigies, marvels and monsters. The story may also have been intended as a gentle riposte to spiritual authority of his close friend, Foliot. After many years of studying Walter Map and the De Nugis Curialium I have learnt not to take anything he says at face value. And yet, this is not to suggest that Wales in general (and Herefordshire in particular) did not possess a rich and long-lasting folklore on the malign activities of walking corpses. Consider the following extract from the antiquarian John Aubrey (1626-1697), whose interests in the history, folklore, and the material culture of the British Isles yielded priceless information about the survival of ‘Gentilisme’ in the activities of the Welsh.
“In the County of Hereford [there] was an Old Custom at Funeralls, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sinnes of the party deceased. One of them I remember (he was a long, lean, lamentable, poor raskal) lived in a Cottage on Rosse-high-way. The manner was that when the Corps was brought-out of the house and layd on the Biere; a Loafe of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sinne-eater over the corps, as also a Mazar-bowle [of Maple] full of beer, which he was to drinke up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof, he took upon himself all the Sinnes of the Defunct, and freed him [or her] from Walking after they were dead.”
Portrait of the Antiquarian and folklorist, John Aubrey (source: wikicommons)
Sin-eating is an age-old custom, identified as being practiced in Wales and the borderlands as late as the nineteenth century. Whilst admittedly the evidence is oblique, it is telling that Aubrey makes mention of the belief that dying in a state of sin meant the corpse walked after death. He is very particular on that point. But to what extent can we trust the accuracy of Aubrey’s account? If the veracity of his folkloric writings can be measured against the meticulousness of his antiquarian work, such as the mapping of the Avebury henge monument, then the answer is ‘quite a lot’. Unresolved sin was one of the main factors that caused the dead to rise. In placed where the habitual belief in restless corpses still held sway, the sin-eater had an extremely important task to perform.
Although often ignored in favour of more historically-identifiable entities such as the witch, airy demon, and disembodied ghost, there is much left to discover about the fear of the embodied ghost in early modern Britain. A closer look at the work of antiquarian writers such as John Aubrey may yield fruitful results.
John Aubrey, ‘Remaines of Gentilisme’, in John Aubrey: Three Prose Works, ed. John Buchanan-Brown (Fontwell: Centaur Press, 1972), p. 179
Stephen Gordon, ‘Monstrous Words, Monstrous Bodies: Irony and the Walking Dead in Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium’, English Studies 96 (2015), 379−402
E. Sidney Hartland, ‘The Sin-Eater’, Folklore 3 (1892), 145-157