This modern term usefully differentiates the reanimated corpse emerging physically from its tomb from the ghost (a spiritual entity). The former is mentioned by several medieval writers (Simpson, 2003); William of Malmesbury says that the Devil causes bodies of the evil dead to walk (Gesta Regum, ii, chapter 4). William of Newburgh tells of three cases, at Alnwick and Berwick-on-Tweed and in Buckinghamshire (see vampires). Walter Map describes one in Hereford which called people by night, so that they sickened and died; it was laid by decapitation (De Nugis Curialium, ii, chapter 27).
Some intriguing local stories about revenants were jotted down in Latin by a monk of Byland Abbey (Yorkshire) around 1400, as undoubted facts (James, 1922); one concerns a certain Robert of Killiburne, who used to come out of his grave at night and roam about, terrifying the townsfolk and their dogs, until some youths caught him in the churchyard and held him there till the priest arrived to hear his confession and absolve him.
Post-medieval English folklore prefers ghosts to wandering corpses, but the older belief is implied when the bodies of suicides, criminals, and witches are said to be staked or buried face down, to prevent them ‘walking’ in the case of suicides, staked burial in the roadway was required by law until 1823. In County Durham, it was thought that unless this was done, the Devil would enter the corpse and reanimate it (Brockie, 1886: 151–2).
See also BURIAL, IRREGULAR.