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The Rising Of The Revenant: Medieval Zombies As Ostension

The Rising Of The Revenant: Medieval Zombies As Ostension


During the mid-to-latter years of the 12th century respected chroniclers working in cathedrals and monasteries across England began writing, in all seriousness, about corpses rising from their graves to wander through the streets of towns spreading pestilence and death in their wake. Similar accounts popped up as late as 1370 AD in continental Europe. To the modern reader, these accounts sound uncomfortably similar to the tales of zombie plagues familiar to all who read about it in novels or seeing it on television and at the movies. So, what was happening 850 years ago? Did parts of England actually have a real problem with the walking dead? Was it a form of ‘moral panic’ or mass hysteria? Or was it even what modern folklorists would call ‘ostension’ or an urban legend?

William of Newburgh (Public Domain)

William of Newburgh (Public Domain)

William Of Newburgh

The most prolific and detailed author of these accounts was the Augustinian canon and chronicler William Parvus (1135?-1198), a man better known to history as William of Newburgh, after Newburgh Priory in North Yorkshire, where he lived and worked. He said: “ It would not be easy to believe the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony”. He went on the say: “ were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome,” and added, in a reference to another incident, that Bishop Hugh of Lincoln had been warned “ such things often happened in England…” In other words William of Newburgh was of the opinion these reports of the undead were not just reliable and accurate but also widespread – a plague of zombies in fact.

Anne Boleyn in the Tower by Edouard Cibot (1799–1877) (Public Domain)

Anne Boleyn in the Tower by Edouard Cibot (1799–1877) (Public Domain)

A Variety Of Undead

Who or what were these undead creatures? The term used almost universally by the English chroniclers of that era was ‘revenant’ but what is a revenant? Setting the term into some context, to people living in the Middle Ages, the supernatural threats they believed they faced included, firstly, demons, imps and devils – all agents of the Christian church’s arch-enemy Satan


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Charles Christian is a UK-based journalist, author, and radio show host who writes and talks about folklore and the occult. He blogs at, his Weird Tales Radio Show is at, and he is on Twitter at @ChristianUncut

Top Image:  Cemetery ( S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay)

By  Charles Christian



Jakubczak's picture

I read reviews that BLACK DEATH plague sufferers were considered zombies because of their body deformities.

Hi All,

I Remember watching the horror classic The Wolfman and then the updated story of The Wolfman when it came to the big screen they were just movies but, after reading this article I'm not so sure anymore.

I think the people in 1370 knew what was going on in their backyard than we did.

Speaking of the unnatural World one may wonder what exactly was going on with Earth itself.

1370, is a big leap from 1312-1320 with the Mini Ice Age, followed by The 100 Year War; an of course the Black Death in 1347, wiping out hundreds and hundreds of people then lastly the Dead rising from the graves in 1370, then returning to their burial places too? Could there be an answer why this occurred in Astronomy?

If it's through the logic of Medical Science then it's possible these people climbing out of their graves were merely waking up from Coma's. Probably brought on by the Black Death didn't The Plague last from 1347-1360?

Now that I said that the Idea doesn't really add up with me because it seems people are emerging from their graves in mass numbers; based on William of Newburgh writing of what was happening seemingly at the same time.

The circumstances taking place would appear as the work of the archenemy Satan; Spiritual beliefs were fairly high in that era, but if that's the case it's rather a bold move on his part to announce himself in that manner of course it'll explain The Book of Tobit to me.

Are it could be a simple answer to these terrifying moments in Time know one really knows why this going on at this Time in History.

I'm going too have to read up on this a subject a little more.

Wait does anyone know if the Brothers Grimm wrote about this point in history within their numerous stories?

Until next time Everyone, Goodbye!


Charles Christian is an English barrister and Reuters correspondent turned writer, editor, podcaster, award-winning tech journalist and sometime werewolf hunter now a chronicler of weird tales in weird times. As well as being a regular contributor to Ancient Origins Premium,... Read More

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