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Medieval Revenant

Medieval revenant is a term used to describe an animated corpse that is believed to have been revived from death to haunt the living. The concept of the revenant is derived from Old French folklore and literature, and it has been a popular theme in European legends for centuries. Revenants are often associated with terrorizing the living, and they are believed to have the ability to spread pestilence through communities.

The idea of the medieval revenant has been resurrected in post-Icelandic Conversion sagas and in medieval ghost stories from northern England. These stories often feature dissolute men who emerge from their graves to harass their former mistresses or fight with knights. The spectre of Fawdon is an example of a medieval revenant in Scottish folklore. Revenants were akin to modern-day zombies, and they were often depicted as risen corpses that terrorized the living.

Historical Context

Early Medieval Beliefs

During the early medieval period, people believed in the existence of revenants – animated corpses that had returned to haunt the living. These beliefs were rooted in the fear of death and the afterlife, which were central concerns of medieval society. Revenants were thought to be the result of unfinished business or improper burial, and were believed to be capable of causing harm to the living.

Spread of Revenant Lore

As the medieval period progressed, the belief in revenants spread throughout Europe. Factual accounts of revenants seized the medieval imagination in the early eleventh century, and were recorded by serious historians and ecclesiastics as true. These accounts then began to appear in secular imaginative literature and art, growing progressively more elaborate and frightening throughout the Middle Ages.

The spread of revenant lore was also influenced by the rise of Christianity, which had its own beliefs about the undead. The Church taught that the dead should be buried in consecrated ground, and that the soul departed from the body at death. However, the belief in revenants persisted despite the Church’s teachings, and continued to be a source of fear and fascination for medieval people.

Defining Revenants


The word “revenant” is derived from the Old French word “revenant”, which means “the returning”. The related French verb “revenir” means “to come back”. In folklore, a revenant is an animated corpse that is believed to have been revived from death to haunt the living.


Medieval revenants were believed to be corpses that had returned from the dead, with the ability to move and interact with the living. They were often depicted as being in a state of decay, with a pale complexion and sunken eyes. They were also believed to have supernatural strength, and the ability to shape-shift into animals.

Differences from Ghosts and Vampires

Revenants are often confused with ghosts and vampires, but there are some key differences. Ghosts are believed to be the spirits of the dead, while revenants are believed to be the physical bodies of the dead that have been reanimated. Vampires, on the other hand, are believed to be undead creatures that feed on the blood of the living. Revenants were also believed to be more aggressive and violent than ghosts or vampires, and were often depicted as seeking revenge against those who wronged them in life.

Cultural Representations


Medieval literature is full of stories about revenants, ghosts, and other undead creatures. These stories often served to reinforce the Christian belief in an afterlife and the importance of proper burial practices. One famous example is the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which features a decapitated Green Knight who returns to life and challenges Sir Gawain to a game.

Another popular story is that of the revenant who returns to seek revenge on those who wronged them in life. This theme is seen in the story of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, as well as in the legend of the Wild Hunt, a group of supernatural hunters who ride through the night sky in pursuit of their prey.


Medieval art also frequently depicts revenants and other undead creatures. One example is the Danse Macabre, a popular motif in which Death leads people from all walks of life in a dance that ends in their demise. Another is the image of the Three Living and the Three Dead, which shows three wealthy young men encountering three decaying corpses who warn them of the inevitability of death.

In addition to these traditional themes, medieval art also often depicted religious figures as revenants. For example, the image of Christ rising from the dead is a common motif in Christian art.

Archaeological Evidence

Grave Findings

Archaeological evidence suggests that the fear of revenants was very real in medieval times. Several graves have been found with disarticulated human skeletal remains, showing evidence of perimortem tool marks, burning, and breakage. For example, a multidisciplinary study of a burnt and mutilated assemblage of human remains from a medieval settlement site in England showed signs of cannibalism and revenant corpses.

Furthermore, scientists have analyzed 137 disarticulated human bones, representing at least 10 individuals, including around three adult females and at least two children. These findings were discovered by Historic England and the University of Southampton, who believe that the corpses were burnt and mutilated by villagers who believed that it was necessary to protect themselves from the walking dead.

Protective Measures

To protect themselves from the revenants, medieval people took several measures. For instance, they would mutilate the corpse, burn it, or bury it face down. Archaeologists have found several graves with disarticulated human skeletal remains, showing evidence of perimortem tool marks, burning, and breakage.

In addition to these measures, medieval people also used holy water, garlic, and other religious artifacts to protect themselves from the revenants. These measures were taken seriously, and people believed that they were necessary to protect themselves and their loved ones from the walking dead.

Revenants in Folklore

English Accounts

In English folklore, revenants are often described as corpses that have come back to life to haunt the living. These undead creatures are said to be motivated by revenge and a restless spirit that feels its work in the land of the living has been left unfinished. They are also believed to be capable of spreading pestilence and disease. According to legend, the only way to stop a revenant is to decapitate it.

Scandinavian Tales

In Scandinavian folklore, revenants are known as draugr. These undead creatures are said to be the spirits of dead warriors who have returned from the grave to protect their treasure. They are often depicted as being incredibly strong and capable of shapeshifting. According to legend, the only way to stop a draugr is to destroy its body.

Eastern European Myths

In Eastern European folklore, revenants are known as vampires. These undead creatures are said to be the spirits of the dead who have returned to feed on the blood of the living. They are often depicted as being incredibly strong and capable of shapeshifting. According to legend, the only way to stop a vampire is to drive a stake through its heart.

Overall, the folklore surrounding revenants varies greatly depending on the region and the culture. However, one thing remains consistent: these undead creatures are feared and respected by all who encounter them.

Religious Interpretations

Christian Perspectives

In Christian theology, revenants were believed to be souls that had not yet found eternal rest. The Church taught that these souls were either in purgatory, a place of temporary punishment, or had been denied entry into heaven due to their sins. The living were encouraged to pray for these souls and offer up penances to help them find peace.

Some medieval Christians believed that revenants were a sign of God’s judgment. They saw these spirits as a warning to the living to repent and turn away from sin. Others believed that revenants were evil spirits sent by the devil to torment the living. The Church condemned these beliefs as superstition and warned against engaging in any form of necromancy or communication with the dead.

Pagan Traditions

In pagan traditions, revenants were often seen as benevolent spirits that could offer guidance and protection to the living. These spirits were believed to have a close connection to the natural world and were often associated with specific animals or elements.

Some pagans believed that revenants could be summoned through ritual practices such as divination or trance work. These practices were often seen as a way to communicate with the spirit world and gain insight into the mysteries of life and death.

Overall, the interpretation of revenants varied greatly depending on one’s religious beliefs and cultural background. While some saw these spirits as a source of comfort and guidance, others viewed them with fear and suspicion.

Modern Depictions

Film and Television

In recent years, the motif of the revenant has become increasingly popular in modern media. Films such as “The Revenant” (2015) and “Pet Sematary” (2019) have brought the concept of the undead back to the forefront of popular culture. In television, shows like “The Walking Dead” (2010-present) have also capitalized on the popularity of the revenant.

Video Games

The popularity of the revenant has also spread to the world of video games. In games like “Resident Evil” (1996-present) and “Left 4 Dead” (2008), players must battle hordes of undead enemies to survive. The revenant has also made appearances in games outside of the horror genre, such as “Dark Souls” (2011) and “Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla” (2020).

Literature Revivals

The popularity of the revenant has also led to a resurgence of interest in medieval literature. Modern authors have taken inspiration from medieval tales of the undead, creating works such as “The Walking Dead” comic book series (2003-present) and the “Game of Thrones” book series (1996-2011). These works have brought the concept of the revenant to a new generation of readers.

Overall, the popularity of the revenant in modern media shows that the concept of the undead remains as relevant today as it was in medieval times.