In 2017, while I was writing up my masters thesis news broke of an unusual Roman British skeleton from Stanwick, Northamptonshire. Buried face down, the corpse’s tongue had been cut out and replaced with a flat stone. These type of burials are known widely as deviant and/or non-normative burials. News broke at the same time I was playing Dragon Age Inquisition, a game set in a world where the undead come back to cause trouble at every corner. Death in video games is more of a hurdle (regeneration or starting a level again is the only real death our protagonist will face) than something to fear and more so in a game like Dragon Age, where narrative decisions mean characters can come back through apparitions or necromancy, such as the Haunted in Act III of Dragon Age II or the character of Cole in Dragon Age: Inquisition or most gruesomely Leandra Amell’s grisly demise in All That Remains.
In Dragon Age, there are a number of faceless enemies that the protagonist faces, the most encountered are the reanimated corpses, a key enemy in A Village Under Siege, or the terrifying arcane horrors (dead mages possessed by a pride demon). However, one of the most formidable opponents you face are the revenants. In English folklore, a revenant is a person who has returned, supposedly from the dead. Borrowed from French, revenant was originally formed from the present participle of the verb revenir (“to return”). It literally means “one coming back,” either from another place or from the dead. The Romano British skeleton seemed to have suffer a mutilation that may have been a basic attempt to stop the corpse feeding on the living. Given the bacteria found in the skeleton’s bones, there could also have been a contagious epidemic at work, for which the deceased had been blamed, leading to the stone being placed in its mouth as punishment.
Although it may seem silly to us, there was a genuine belief in what we would deem today to be ‘superstitious’ or ‘occult’ in the ancient world. There was a very real fear of the dead rising from the dead and it can be seen in the archaeological record across medieval Europe. A site at Wharram Percy, a deserted medieval village in Yorkshire, England unearthed skeletal evidence of a probable medieval belief in revenancy. Historical accounts from Britain and Ireland tell of fear of revenants in general, while some accounts from Scotland and Ireland (and one from England) also hint at revenant blood-sucking – a fear linked more specifically to vampiric aspects of the revenant tradition. The scientific analysis has revealed that the individuals’ skeletal remains had been deliberately mutilated, decapitated and burned shortly after death. Medieval folk believed that corpses could only reanimate and become revenants in the short period between death and decomposition. Skeletons could not become revenants. Only fully fleshed intact corpses could do so.
Revenants were said to be stronger and bigger than they were when alive. This reflects how they appear in Dragon Age, being spirits of desire or pride that possess a warrior’s remains, and thus they appear as a heavily armored undead knight. They rise from the ground causing panic in the party and most are boss-level characters at least in Origins. The archaeological record reflects fear of undead warriors coming back from the dead, a warrior was someone to fear in life, but apparently even more so in death. Excavations near the Yorkshire town of Pocklington have discovered two revenant Iron Age burials.
The excavation revealed that one burial of a younger man who was speared repeatedly in the grave. The other was a senior man buried in a chariot with two horses. Both burials date to the 3rd century B.C. It has been argued that the manner of post mortem treatment was used to use of the control death of a powerful figure (e.g. witch, king) or someone suspected revenant, meaning social reputation of the person was valid in death as it was in life. Further afield in Sweden, a high-ranking warrior buried in grave 18 in Bjär, Gotland, with weapons, riding equipment and horse or dog, has been regarded as a potential threat to society after his death, as it could be assumed because of thy symbolic fixation of his corpse by stones and blades. The body was fund close to a water body. Fear of revenants and their disposal in watery places may also help to explain the bog burials uncovered by archaeologists in northern Europe, these bodies were discovered pinned into peat bogs with thorns and stakes.
So how did revenants become a genuine belief? Were they nothing more than stories passed down from one generation to the other around the table to entertain, scare or teach a valuable lesson through storytelling? Although their origins may have started in the Iron Age, they became much more well known by English historians in the Middle Ages. There was a revenant caused trouble in Buckinghamshire as told by William of Newburgh in the 12th century. After trying to sleep with his still-living wife, pestering his still-living brothers, and then bothering some livestock, the locals decided the revenant had to go. Their quest for knowledge ended up going all the way to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop’s advisors flat out told him that a common way to get rid of a pesky revenant was to cremate it. This was not an acceptable answer. In the end, the locals were told to open the revenant’s grave, put a scroll of absolution on the body’s chest, and rebury the body. (The bishop supplied the scroll by the way.) The Christian way worked and the revenant stayed dead.
A famous example of a warrior revenant is in the martyrdom of Oswald, it is Oswald himself, the hero and warrior, who is mutilated by the Mercian pagans. Oswald was King of Northumbria from 634 until his death in 642, and is venerated as a saint with a particular cult in the Middle Ages. Oswald brought the two Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira once again under a single ruler, and promoted the spread of Christianity in Northumbria. After eight years of rule, in which he was the most powerful ruler in Britain, Oswald was killed in the Battle of Maserfield while fighting the forces of Penda of Mercia. John Damon (2001, 403-05) is concerned with the fact that Oswald was decapitated post-mortem, and the ‘trophification’ of the severed limbs in both cases. This could be from a fear of rising from the grave much like his messiah Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, contemporary Old English records have little to say on the matter of prone burial, and everything we know of them is from the archaeological record.
Medieval communities in England believed that the only way the dead could walk is if a demon entered the body, props it up on its feet and then makes it take a few steps. This ideology was spread by Thomas of Cantimpre, a Flemish medieval writer and theologian, in his manual for preachers, Bonum universalede apibu. Thomas’s language emphasizes the demon’s manipulation of the body as an object: “[The Devil] moved [the body] at first in the coffin. . . suddenly the Devil roseup with the corpse”. Similar to the revenants of Dragon Age, demons in Medieval Europe were believed to seek out cemeteries in order to rob graves of their occupants. Thomas’s interpretation of revenants as demonically possessed means they are corrupted only corporeally. In Dragon Age, where warrior bodies are rife for demons, there are two forms of revenants, one takes the form of a corpse and the other a demon, which reflect the uncertainty of what they truly were and what medieval people feared, was it a fear of death or the fear of the devil? The creativity of Bioware to reflect the mental attitudes of medieval cultures to a wider audience allows video games to be a serious medium to convey archaeological and socio-historical ideas or theories. While it may be naive to think this way, as Dragon Age has demonstrated video games can become an effective approach for understanding the more nuanced religious and supernatural beliefs of our ancestors, even if we have to level up to do so.
- Caciola, N., 1996. Wraiths, revenants and ritual in medieval culture. Past & Present, (152), pp.3-45.
- Damon, John Edward. “Desecto capite perfido: bodily fragmentation and reciprocal violence in Anglo-Saxon England.” Exemplaria 13, no. 2 (2001): 399-432.
- Mattison, A., 2016. The Execution and Burial of Criminals in Early Medieval England, c. 850-1150: an examination of changes in judicial punishment across the Norman Conquest(Doctoral dissertation, University of Sheffield).
- Toplak, M., 2018. Deconstructing the deviant burials: Kopparsvik and the rite of prone burials in Viking Age Scandinavia. Met