Revenants: Stories of The Shunned

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Someone’s found a vampire.

Or rather, they have found documents telling us precisely where the vampire is buried. According to the Telegraph, the vampire was found back  in 1959 in the Nottinghamshire minster town of Southwell, when archaeologists were digging up the minster and the churchyard in search of the remains of a Roman Villa. And the documents have only just come to light once again.

The unusual burial – dating back to between 500-700AD –  was found by archaeologist Charles Daniels. And the reason I refer to it as a vampire is because there are metal spikes through its shoulders, heart and legs.

That was how people dealt with those they feared, back then. Dead wasn’t enough, because everyone knew that if they weren’t dead enough, they might just wake up and begin a spell or revenance: return.

So someone dangerous must be despatched to the afterlife with a certain finality.

Thus, a small number of strange burials have been found from those early times. Archaeologists call them ‘deviant burials’. Not strictly limited to vampires, they also encompassed the generally dangerous human being. Someone different.

The strange tales that emerge from early England outstrip the traditional fairy tales for colour.

About three hundred years after this particular vampire was laid to rest with shuddering finality, it is thought an old Roman folk-tale was re-worked to cause a stir. And at the centre of the story was a woman of English descent. Deviant, she was: but for a time she fooled and ruled the world

A young woman of experience, born in Metz of English extraction, arrived in Athens, some time in the 11th century. And due to some lover’s whim, she arrived dressed in men’s clothing.

She was rather brilliant. And with her disguise she had found the means to use her abilities, for a man might progress well with skills such as hers. Her name was Joan. She studied under professors in Athens, mastering every discipline she tried, equalling and surpassing all around her. She rose through the ranks, perceived by all as an unparalleled man of letters.

Until, one day, Pope Leo IV died.

And eyes were cast around for a successor, and whom should they alight on but Joan.

She took the job. She was Pope John VIII. And for a while everything seemed to be going well.Except than Joan had a weakness for men, and after a year and a half, she found herself with child.

A slender soul, she hid it well. But horseback rides towards the end of a term are nor recommended.

If you are a deviant, you might as well go out in style. Joan was processing from St Peter’s to the Lateran in suitable pomp when the waters broke and there and then, the pope gave birth to a child.

Can you imagine? The tattle? It would have kept gossips the world over happy for the rest of their lives.

In a wicked aside the legend hints at a ritual to which subsequent popes were subjected. They had to sit on a ‘dung chair’ – one with a hole in it – while a Cardinal reached up to check he had testicles. If they were present the cardinal would solemnly intone: “Duos habet et bene pendentes“: “He has two, and they dangle nicely.”

Some say Joan died naturally; some say she was dragged for a mile behind that fine papal horse and then stoned. There are many variations. But the street on which the pope gave birth, it is said, was renamed after that debacle.

It used to be called Via Sacra: Sacred Way.

And they renamed it: Shunned Street.

There are many ways to make sure the dead stay in their place. Sometimes a stake through the heart is the only way. But with a woman: the weight of post-mortem disgrace can be enough.


48 thoughts on “Revenants: Stories of The Shunned

  1. Fantastic tale. “….bene pendentes” takes me back to school where Fr.Bamber S,J, my Latin teacher, when frustrated with a pupils failure to grasp a principle of grammar would say “Boy, go the the Chapel and let your balls hang”. I just thought he was a little on the gay side, but there he was checking if we were Papal material.

    1. It is typical of the strange tales that circulated at the time, Tom, of revenants and other fabrications which were believed to be completely rational. Their pictures sometimes show their understanding even better than their texts.

  2. What an interesting story. And despite the political discourse that still exists about ‘women’s issues,’ I’m decidedly happy for my place in time. I wouldn’t have fared well back in Joan’s day!

  3. Surprising that “God” wouldn’t have alerted the papistry to check Joan’s credentials for the job. 😆

    Of course, maybe “God” doesn’t think that testicles are required in the first place.

  4. Oh man, a deviant burial, how cool would that be? Archaeologists would find me and be all impressed. Instead, though, they’ll probably just find me buried with a polite certificate of participation . . .

  5. Is the text 11th Century ? I think Roman times Latin was all capital letters with no spaces between words and no punctuation and word order did not matter. I wonder at what point Latin evolved into the form indicated by the text.

    1. That is a fascinating question to which I have recently, by arguing about botanical names, found part of the answer. Forms of Latin changed with time as well as with types of usage, so that there are several categories. Latin scholars use the classic type, the church evolved other forms, and botanical, ornithological and anthropological uses even differ from one another. Word order doesn’t change meaning, but it does change emphasis.

  6. Another gap in my knowledge! Never heard of this legend.
    Maybe with the switch away from Latin, the necessary appendages would come to be known, in papal circles, as ‘test tackles’.

  7. What a story! I did not know of Pope Joan…but oh my goodness! I am fascinated and of course, horrified as well. Another new piece of historical knowledge learned courtesy of you, Kate! D

  8. I wonder if there are more Vampires in Southern Africa? To quote Private Thomas in Zulu ” And the soil… there’s no moisture in it. Nothing to hold a man in his grave.” The belief in witchcraft and the supernatural is very strong amongst those who live and work on the farms. And I can confirm that the soil is light and sandy. Even for ‘Europeanised’ children of African descent the baring of my one ‘Vampire’ tooth is enough to instill wariness and a hint of fear! They’re very careful not to upset Uncle Vlad.. I mean Martin 😉

    Another fascinating historical piece Kate – there’s a slight parallel with our own Elizabeth I who I understand was very well read and perhaps ruled for so long because of the respect she gained as a result.

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