The Political Use of Walking Corpses in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum

‘Such things often happened in England’


This was the matter-of fact answer given to Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln (d.1200), upon hearing that a walking corpse was causing a nuisance in an unnamed Buckinghamshire village. Unwilling to follow the advice of his advisors to burn the corpse, Hugh instead ordered that a scroll of absolution be placed on the dead man’s chest. Apparently this did the trick, for the revenant immediatly stopped terrorising his neighbours and loved ones.

Along with three similar stories, this episode is recorded in book five of William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum (c.1198). According to William, restless corpses were also encountered in Berwick, Melrose and ‘Anant’ (which scholars have taken to be Alnwick in Northumberland). Not all of those who encountered the undead followed Hugh’s example in absolving the deceased of whatever sins compelled him or her to walk. The residents of Berwick, concerned that their own walking corpse was infecting the town with corrupted, noxious air, decided that cremation was the only viable option, as ‘shown by frequent examples in similar cases.’ Religious houses were not immune to being pestered by the undead. Monks from the Cistercian Abbey of Melrose decided to burn the body of a priest who, in life, devoting more time to hunting and whoring than to the spiritual wellbeing of his flock. Having been buried in Melrose’s graveyard, he became much more of a nuisance in death, rising from his tomb each night to attack his former concubine and harass the inmates of the monastery.


Melrose Abbey, the site of a revenant encounter in 1196 (source: Wikicommons)

As a canon of the Augustinian Priory of Newburgh (N. Yorkshire) and somewhat of a religious conservative, William is coolly equivocal as to why such entities started to appear at this time. He says he can find no reference to them in Classical literature. And yet, his oblique references to such events ‘often happening in England’ and that ‘frequent examples [occurred] in similar cases’ suggest that revenants were causing much more trouble for local communities than the scant historical references indicate.  Even so, it is telling that William refers to each revenant as a ‘prodigy’ – that is, an entity whose appearance perhaps signified something else, something rotten, in the body-politic.

What, then, do these undead corpses signify? All four exempla were said to have occurred in the spring of 1196, a time of much social and economic strife in the English realm. As I discussed in a recent article for the Journal of Medieval History, William seems to be critiquing the activities of ‘social revenants’, that is to say, people whose political actions also caused the spread of disorder and death. It is perhaps no-coincidence that all four exempla follow William’s account of the treasonous activities of William FitzOsbert, a Londoner who tried to enact a rebellion and was put to death for his crimes.


FitzOsbert was hanged at Tyburn gallows, London, in the spring of 1196, where he quickly began to be seen as a martyr (pictured, the gallows at it looked c.1680; source: Wikicommons)

Pointedly, the revenant narratives precede an account of a famine that overtook England and, a few chapters later, a digression on the death of the hated Chancellor of England, William Longchamp (d.1197). The Historia Rerum Anglicarum does not pull any punches in its description of Longchamp:

“England rejoiced at his death, for the fear of him had lain like an incubus upon her; for when he might have done much with the king, and being a man of vast spirit, could not have been forgetful of his former expulsion from England, it was evident that he would frequently plot evil against the land which had vomited him forth as some pestilential humor.”

The language of disease (‘corruption’, ‘infection’, ‘pestilence’) permeates the descriptions of the revenant encounters and is used to frame the malign activities of FitzOsbert and Longchamp. Wonders are some of the more weapons in an historians’ arsenal.  What better way to criticise the conduct of social malcontents than through the transgressive actions of a violent, pestilential corpse? Although he didn’t know exactly why the dead started to rise, William of Newburgh certainly knew how to put them to use.



English translations taken from Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England, vol. 4, part 2 (London: Seeley, 1861). Online edition, ed. Scott McLetchie, 2009, available from

Stephen Gordon, ‘Social Monsters and the Walking Dead in William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum’, Journal of Medieval History 41 (2015), 446−465

Walter Map: A Medieval Humourist

At the start of each academic semester I always ask my first-year students to reflect on their own conception of the Middle Ages.  ‘Barbarous’, ‘disease-ridden’ and ‘superstitious’ are some of the more common descriptors used. Of course, the idea is to pick apart these stereotypes and show that the medieval world was not just a place of Monty Python-esque peasants wallowing in mud, but also a time of social and literary innovation. The possession of a sense of humour is one of the categories that is often overlooked when discussing the less pejorative aspects of medieval culture.  Walter Map’s De Nugis Curialium (‘Courtiers’ Trifles’, c.1182) is representative of the kind of caustic satire that found great favour in the literary circles of the High Middle Ages.

A clerk in the court of Henry II (d.1189), Map was well known in his lifetime for being a raconteur who possessed with a wonderfully sardonic wit. His Courtiers’ Trifles – a haphazard selection of stories, anecdotes and personal asides written whilst in the king’s employ – contains numerous examples of Map’s witty, sometimes brutal putdowns. Most of these were reserved for his most hated of adversaries, the Cistercian Order.



Flaxley Abbey (pictured) encroached onto the lands of the church of Westbury-on-Severn, which had previously been held by Map (source: wikicommons)


Map was not alone in showing his disdain for the Order. An anonymous poem entitled De Grisis Monachis notes that the spread of the Cistercians can be likened to the spread of animal waste (shuta). However, the source of Map’s enmity seems to have been entirely personal. His contemporary Gerald of Wales (d.1223) – who, incidentally, had his own problems with the Order – notes that Flaxley Abbey, located near the Forest of Dene, encroached onto lands that once belonged to Map. From then on, Map needed no excuse to vent his anger against the white monks, reserving an especial ire for the most famous of contemporary Cistercians, Bernard of Clairvoux (d.1153). Consider Map’s remark upon hearing that Bernard failed to miraculously resurrect a boy who had recently died:

‘”Then he was the most unlucky of monks” said I: “I have heard before now of a monk throwing himself upon a boy, but always, when the monk got up, the boy promptly got up too”. The abbot got very red, and a lot of people left the room to have a good laugh’



Walter Map was not one of Bernard of Clairvoux’s biggest fans (source: Wikicommons)


Map seems to take particular glee in recounting Bernard’s failed miracles. On one occasion, it was said a madman chased the abbot through the streets of Montpellier, pelting him with stones, after a failed attempt at exorcism. Sarcasm can also be read in Map’s anecdote concerning a failed attempt to raise a certain ‘Walter, Count of Nevers’, from the dead: ‘[Bernard] cried with a loud voice: “Walter come forth”, but Walter, not hearing the voice of Jesus, had not the ears of Lazarus, and did not come’. Even in his later years Map did not ease up on his attacks. Writing at the turn of the thirteenth century, the subprior of the monastery of St. Frideswide in Oxford notes that ‘in youth and in old age Walter Map says derisory things in verse and prose about the spread of the white monks’.

Walter Map’s insults display an extremely sophisticated – some might say ‘modern’ – comic sensibility. They are suffused with sarcasm and irony. Taken as a whole, the Courtiers’ Trifles is fascinating insight into the mind of a man who was increasingly exasperated by life both inside and outside the court. It is well worth a read.



David N. Bell, ‘De Grisis Monachis: A Goliardic Invective against the Cistercians in London, B. L., Cotton Vespasian A.XIX’, in Studia Monastica 41 (1999), 243−259

Stephen Gordon, ‘Parody, Sarcasm and Invective in the Nugae of Walter Map’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116 (2017), 82–107

Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, ed. and trans.  by M. R. James; revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983).

Dee, Demons and Necromancy

A Magician by Edward Kelly (cropped).jpg

John Dee and Edward Kelley conjure the dead (Sibley 1806) Copyright: Wikicommons


Welcome to my new blog, everybody! To begin I thought it best just to provide a few links to articles I’ve written for other blogs, based on the research I conducted for the Magic, Witches and Devils in the Early Modern World exhibition held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.


Here’s a little something on John Dee’s marginalia I wrote for the Inner Lives website


The exhibition also included a number of copies of the Shahnama (the Persian ‘Book of Kings’). See my overview of the Shahnama’s witch and demon stories for the Manchester Medieval Society blog


On the John Rylands Special Collections Blog you can read my explanation for the curious image of the ‘sweeping’ woman found in the library’s copy of the Concordantiae Caritatis typological handbook.


In recent months I’ve become increasingly interesting in early modern necromancy. Chetham’s Library contains a fascinating copy of the Pseudo-Roger Bacon Tractatus di Necromantia, which I wrote about for the Chetham’s Blog