* forewarning: this is a long read – if you just want the ghost stories stop when you reach the map*
‘It would not be easy to believe that 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.’
So writes William of Newburgh, the late twelfth-century chronicler halfway through recording a collection of four such cases in his Historia rerum anglicarum (Book 5.xxii-xxvi), which can be found in translation on Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook. That there is an abundance of such stories of restless revenants is intriguing news to me and not something I was aware of until I started thing a little more on a peculiar account recorded in Geoffrey of Burton’s Vita S. Moduenne Uirginis (The Life [and Miracles] of St Modwenna the Virgin); which have been published in an edited and translated edition for Oxford Medieval Texts by Robert Bartlett.
This miracula (miracle), or perhaps better still mirabilia (marvel), is something which is unique within the hagiographical texts I’ve read so far. Yet, on following up on the theme by dipping into Jean-Claude Schmitt’s Ghosts in the Middle Ages, I discovered that there were similar accounts of not just unhappy, but downright unruly dead, circulating at this time. More than that, Schmitt highlights that William of Newburgh explicitly refers to two of his ghosts as ‘sanguisuga’. A quick search on William Whitaker’s Words (such a brilliant online referncing tool!) later and the discovery that ‘sanguisuga’ translates as ‘leech’. Schmitt takes this a step further, implying that this means ‘vampire’ – which I suppose is sort of a human (or pseudo-human) form of a leech. This itself is interesting and could easily lead me down a completely different train of thought into pondering the development of the vampire into the image we have of them today, which occurred thanks to a shift of image due to Romanticism and their presence in popular culture. The latter of these is something which my colleague Dr Dan Renshaw is interested, especially in the ways in which vampires, such as Dracula, can be seen to reflect contemporary fears of ‘the other’ and ‘the outsider’.
Anyway, I digress, what I found particularly interesting about William of Newburgh’s accounts is that there were a number of ways in which his four accounts were similar to the curious case in St Modwenna’ s posthumous miracles. If you’re interested in reading those you can find them here: William of Newburgh, Historia rerum anglicarum, 5.xxii-xxiv.
Now, this account from Modwenna’s miracula is quite a long so below I’m paraphrasing Bartlett’s translation in places, but the story goes something like this:
There were two villagers living in Stapenhill under the jurisdiction of the abbot of Burton who ran away to the neighbouring village called Drakelow, wrongfully leaving their lords, the monks, and wishing to live under the authority of count Roger the Poitevin. . . .
The abbot ordered that the two’s crops be taken to his own barn, but the villagers then falsely accused the abbot of wrongdoing. This led to a dispute between Count Roger and Burton Abbey at a place called Blackpool.  . . .
The very next day, at the third hour, the two runaway peasants who were the cause of this evil were sitting down to eat, when they were both suddenly struck down dead. Next morning they were placed in wooden coffins and buried in the churchyard at Stapenhill, the village from whence they had fled. What followed was amazing and truly remarkable. That very same day on which they were interred they appeared at evening, while the sun was still up, at Drakelow, carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried. The whole following night they walked through the paths and fields of the village, now in the shape of men carrying wooden coffins on their shoulders, now in the likeness of bears or dogs or other animals. They spoke to the other peasants, banging on the walls of their houses and shouting, “Move, quickly, move! Get going! Come!” When these astonishing events had taken place every evening and every night for some time, such a disease afflicted the village that all the peasants fell into desperate straits and within a few days all except three… perished by sudden death in a remarkable way. . . .
Men were living in terror of the phantom dead men who carried their wooden coffins on their shoulders every evening and night… and they received permission from the bishop to go to their graves and dig them up. They found them intact, but the linen cloths over their faces were stained with blood. They cut off the men’s heads and placed them in the graves between their legs, tore out the hearts from their corpses, and covered the bodies again with earth. They brought the hearts to a place called Dodecrossefora/Dodefreseford and there burnt them from morning until evening. When they had at last been burned up, they cracked with a great sound and everyone saw an evil spirit in the form of a crow fly from the flame. Soon after this was done both the disease and the phantoms ceased. The two peasants sick in their beds recovered their health as soon as they saw the smoke rising from the fire where the hearts were burned. They got up, gathered together their sons and wives and all their possessions, and, giving thanks to God and to the holy virgin [Modwenna] that they had escaped, they departed to the next village, which was called [Church] Gresley, and settled there. Drakelow was thus abandoned and for a long time after no one dared to live there, fearing the vengeance of the Lord that had struck there and wondering at the prodigies that God omnipotent had worked through the holy virgin.
All of these events happen within close proximity to Burton Abbey, and Abbot Geoffrey is thus able to provide a detailed record of these events in Modwenna’s miracula, despite this occurring roughly half a century before the work is compiled. Presumably this account was recorded in some other format within the records of the monastic community, but was also within living memory of some of Burton’s monks as well as some of the local lay populous. If you did want to read the full account (Bartlett’s translation) you can do here: Geoffrey of Burton, Vita S. Moduenne Uirginis.47.
There are elements of this account from Modwenna’s miracula appear familiar with other tales of ghosts and ghouls. The way the bodies are dealt with – decapitation and burning of the hearts – is somewhat reminiscent of what we might expect to hear of in exorcising the undead. This is not, however, just a trope in later , Gothic, literature, but can be seen in the way in which the revenants in William of Newburgh’s chronicled tales are also dealt with. Moreover, there is an element in this of mirroring earlier, Anglo-Saxon, deviant burial practices, particularly in terms of placing decapitated skulls between the legs of the deviant – although in these cases beheading is the form of execution rather than a post-mortem exercise.
Interestingly, despite the blood-stained shrouds (‘pannis tamen lineis super ora deformissime cruentatis’), there is no implication that the two revenants were in anyway acting like vampires. No mention is made of them physically attacking or biting the men of Drakelow – and side note, there is a potential discrepancy in the account between whether it’s all of the village or just the men who are being targeted (note the two remaining villagers recovering and leaving with their families). Bloody linens aside, these two figures act much the same as other contemporary revenants, and also as might be expected from demons in terms of the shape-shifting. The latter connection being clearly emphasised through the flight of the crow from the burning hearts.All of this makes for a really good story, but in pulling this post together I was curious about why these accounts seemingly crop up in the mid to late twelfth century. C.S. Watkins has argued, these stories are indicative of the transitory period in theological understanding and the development of the concept of purgatory. The idea of a restless undead that need to be put to peace can be seen more clearly in William of Newburgh’s 5.xxii, compiled around fifty years after Modwenna’s miracula. In the account, the revenant is put to rest not when his earthly body is disturbed but when a letter written by the bishop of Lincoln absolving the dead man’s sins is placed on the chest of his corpse. In this account the dead soul needs earthly assistance to find its rest, suggests Watkins, rather than being meddlesome for the sake of it, this is a soul seeking aid. What further impacted upon contemporary concerns of the dead was the lack of guidance available for what happened to the soul between the death of the individual and the general resurrection at the end of time. There was concern among the learned of the period that, while they were not certain why revenants might wander the earth, it could be that it wasn’t just a spirit re-entering its own body but that the body could become the plaything of demons. It is in the light of the latter that Watkins sees Geoffrey of Burton’s account, and the notable presence of a ‘malignum spiritum’ (evil spirit) flying from the burning hearts in the form of a crow is taken as evidence of this.
In many ways Watkins reading of this account makes a lot of sense. In the Burton story there is no suggestion that spiritual absolution would save the two runaway peasants. It is the physical, ritualistic countermeasures of digging up the bodies, decapitating them and particularly the destruction of their hearts which are key here. The burning of the hearts being emphasised for its importance through the stress put on the fact that this is the moment the two remaining villagers regain their health. Yet, this account is not without elements of forgiveness and confession. Count Roger, when the pestilence begins to hit Drakelow, realises his sin in going against Burton Abbey and asks the abbot for forgiveness. In the process Roger also promises to pay back the abbey twice what they lost in the dispute. Having repented, Roger leaves for his other lands apparently free of any further harm (alright for some!). His reeve, Drogo, who oversees the repayments to the abbey also seeks pardon, when his duty is done, before leaving the area. However, that this account is recorded within Modwenna’s miracula, and that there is an implication that these events befall the inhabitants of Drakelow for their role in taking in the runaway peasants, adds a suggestion of divine punishment to the story which, personally, I think somewhat muddies the water and makes is more problematic in terms of where responsibility lies for the events. After all, it shouldn’t be forgotten that saints, in defending their interests and those of their communities, could be (justly) ruthless; and, the monks of Burton Abbey did request celestial assistance in dealing with this unneighbourly dispute.
I’m not saying there’s not an element of the demonic at play here, the crow alone is indicative of that. However, this is not a clear-cut case, and this is what makes this curious. While these two peasants bring a localised pestilence to the village and, while the burning of their hearts release an evil spirit, their actions also act as a form of divine punishment on those who wrongly attacked the monks of Burton and their possessions. Indeed, in finishing the account, this punitive element is stressed by Geoffrey and can be seen to act not only as a warning to those who might go against Burton Abbey (and thus St Modwenna and God), but also as an explanation for Drakelow’s temporary abandonment.
So, what does this all mean and what point am I getting to here? Well, first off, if you’re still reading this thank you and well done, I’m impressed you’ve not given up on my ramblings yet. But, the answer is I don’t have an answer. When I started pulling this piece together for a Halloween inspired blog I hadn’t expected that I would do more than present a slightly odd miracle story and a small commentary on the oddness of this. However, through researching this in the last few weeks I’ve come to realise that there is much more to this, not only to the thoughts at this time on death, purgatory etc., but also within this account itself. The result is that I don’t find myself with any greater clarity about this account, but that’s ok with me because this curious account has me made me all the more curious and there’s nothing wrong with that.
If, however, you have any thoughts or comments on this topic I’d love to hear them so do leave a message below.
Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna, ed. and trans. R. Bartlett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).
‘Danse Macabre’ (‘The Dance of the Dead)’ by Michael Wolgemut, 1493 (Woodcut) via Wikimedia (last accessed 26th October 2017).
Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely, from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth, trans. J. Fairweather (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005)
A skeleton playing the lute from Pierre Michault, La Dance aux aveigles, France, 1466 (BnF, Français 1654, fol. 171r) via Discarding Images.
‘William of Newburgh: Book Five’, Medieval Sourcebook (last accessed 24th Oct. 2017).
William of Newburgh, Historia rerum anglicarum in Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, ed. R. Howlett, vol. 2 (London: Longman & Co., 1885), pp. 415-500.
Alvarez, S., ‘The Afterlife of the Dead: Reform in Attitude towards Medieval Burials, Corpses and Bones’, 7th July 2015, Medievalists.net (last accessed 24th Oct. 2017).
Bartlett, R., The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
— Why can the Dead do Such Great Things? Saints and Worshippers from the Martyrs to the Reformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013)
Joynes, A., Medieval Ghost Stories, (Oxford: The Boydell Press, 2006).
Lysons, D., and S. Lysons, ‘Parishes: Glossop – Gresley’, in Magna Britannia: Volume 5, Derbyshire (London, 1817), pp. 165-172 via British History Online (last accessed 24th Oct. 2017).
Purkiss, D., Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000).
Schmitt, J-C., Ghosts in the Middle Ages: Living with the Dead in Medieval Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).
‘Stapenhill: Economic history’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 9, Burton-Upon-Trent, ed. N.J. Tringham (London, 2003), pp. 213-214 via British History Online (last accessed 24th Oct. 2017).
Watkins, C.S., History and the Supernatural in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
 William of Newburgh, Historia rerum anglicarum.5.xxii-xxiv via ‘William of Newburgh: Book Five’, Medieval Sourcebook (last accessed 24th Oct. 2017); the Latin for William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum anglicarum has also been published. The volume used here is: William of Newburgh, Historia rerum anglicarum in Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, ed. R. Howlett, vol. 2 (London: Longman & Co., 1885), pp. 415-500, pp. 474-82.
 Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna, ed. and trans. R. Bartlett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).
 Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages: Living with the Dead in Medieval Society (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998).
 Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages, p. 82. William of Newburgh, Historia rerum anglicarum.5.xxiv, ed. Howlett, p. 482.
 On Romanticism’s impact on the image of the vampire see Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories (London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000), p. 321.
 Roger the Poitevin (d. before 1140) was the younger son of Roger de Montgomery, first Earl of Shrewsbury (d. 1094). In 1102, Roger the Poitevin was exiled along with his brothers in 1102 following an ineffective rebellion against Henry I led by his eldest brother Robert de Bellême, Earl of Shrewsbury and Count of Ponthieu.
 This Blackpool is located about half a mile south-west of Burton Abbey in the direction of Drakelow.
 This place is now untraceable, yet it must have been relatively close to Stapenhill and Drakelow. Stapenhill and Drakelow are themselves only approx. 1.7 miles in distance.
 Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna.47, pp.192-9.
 Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna.47, pp.198-9.
 Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna.47, pp.198-9.
 C.S. Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 172-80.
 William of Newburgh, Historia rerum anglicarum.5.xxii.
 Watkins, History and the Supernatural, p. 185.
 Watkins, History and the Supernatural, p. 173.
 Watkins, History and the Supernatural, p. 87, pp. 182-3.
 Watkins, History and the Supernatural, p. 183.
 For more on Drakelow see: ‘Stapenhill: Economic history’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 9, Burton-Upon-Trent, ed. Nigel J Tringham (London, 2003), pp. 213-214 via British History Online (last accessed 24th Oct. 2017); and Daniel Lysons and Samuel Lysons, ‘Parishes: Glossop – Gresley’, in Magna Britannia: Volume 5, Derbyshire (London, 1817), pp. 165-172 via British History Online (last accessed 24th Oct. 2017).