Revenants Revisited

23 May 2016 | Charles West

This blog’s about the links between a medieval ghost story and the Norman Conquest – two topics that might seem far apart, but whose connections tell us quite a lot about society in the Middle Ages. The ghost story goes something like this.

Read a full translation of the original Latin text

"Around 1090, two villagers from Stapenhill in Staffordshire, living on lands owned by the rich abbey of Burtofn, fled to the neighbouring village of Drakelow, which was owned by a prominent Norman aristocrat called Roger. Roger helped them out by plundering the abbot’s lands, but desisted after his knights were (miraculously) beaten in battle by the abbot of Burton’s forces. Meanwhile, the two troublesome villagers mysteriously died. They were immediately buried at Stapenhill. But…

"…The very same evening of their burial, they reappeared at Drakelow, carrying their coffins on their backs. The pair proceeded to haunt the village over the next few weeks, until hardly anyone was left living there. Eventually their corpses were disinterred and ceremonially mutilated, which put an end to the nightly visitations, but Drakelow itself was nevertheless abandoned as a settlement."

So much for the ghost story. As it happens, we have a very good idea of the life in Stapenhill the two villagers had run away from, because the abbey of Burton produced an estate survey listing the onerous dues of the peasants there around the 1130s. The dozen or so residents that this survey names must have heard of, and some might even have remembered, the peculiar events of a generation earlier. What’s more, the estate survey was organised by the very same person who wrote the ghost story for us: Abbot Geoffrey of Burton.

What has all this got to do with the Norman Conquest? At first sight, not much. The Normans did not introduce the kinds of obligations that the Stapenhill peasants were fleeing (weekly labour for their lords, dues in kind, etc), though they might perhaps have helped intensify them. Nor did they introduce ideas about ghosts or revenants. Both these things were present in England before 1066 as well as after it.

However, the plot thickens if we look at the history of the villages concerned. Domesday Book tells us that before the Conquest, the village of Drakelow had been owned by an Englishman named Alric. Most of Stapenhill was owned by the abbey of Burton, but another Englishman, Godric, had owned a parcel of land there as well. He was probably a client of Burton Abbey, since his lands intersected with the monastery’s elsewhere too. After the Conquest, however, a Norman named Nigel de Stafford ‘inherited’ the lands of both Godric and Alric. And it seems that these consolidated rights passed onto Roger, who was a real mover and shaker in early Anglo-Norman England.

That means that, as a direct consequence of 1066, a new and powerful aristocrat had arrived in the locality, whose property rights overlapped with those of the monastery’s at Stapenhill, and who also owned outright another estate just next to it, Drakelow. This is probably why the villagers fled from Stapenhill to Drakelow. Either the peasants were taking advantage of the situation to negotiate a better deal with a patron who might have relished the excuse to take on the monastery; or they were innocently caught in the cross-fire as Roger and the abbey squared off.

Ghost stories and revenants can often be connected with social tensions of some kind or other: In this specific case, they are associated with the confrontation between two powerful landowners, as an indirect result of the slaughter of Hastings a generation earlier. This doesn’t entirely explain the revenants, but it does at least give them a context. That makes the story a good illustration of how political events at the “top”, such as the Norman Conquest, might trickle down with unexpected implications for the “bottom”. Medieval society was more inter-connected than it can sometimes appear.

But there’s another Norman Conquest dimension to the tale. Why did our author, Abbot Geoffrey of Burton, record it in the first place? Because he claimed it illustrated the power of the monastery’s patron saint, Modwenna. Abbot Geoffrey was very interested in Modwenna. He wrote an account of her life, and included recent miracles such as this one which he attributed to the saint’s wrath.

It’s striking that earlier monks of Burton hadn’t written much about Modwenna before. In fact, by the twelfth century, Modwenna was a pretty mysterious figure, about whom very little was known even in Burton. Maybe information about her had been lost in the changes of personnel that followed the Conquest, as the monastery was “Normanised”. More likely, though, Saint Modwenna had always been shadowy, but this was more of a problem for Norman incomers at Burton than it had been for their English predecessors, for whom the relics had just always been there and therefore didn’t require any explaining.

So, just as the weird events that Abbot Geoffrey documented were linked to the tenurial reshuffle indirectly caused by the Conquest, so his eagerness to record them (and thus our knowledge of them) might reflect an attempt to plug a “cultural gap” that had opened up as a consequence of the Norman Conquest.

This isn’t the only evidence in the story for a cultural gap, though. As it happens, the name Drakelow actually means “Dragon’s Mound”: an extremely sinister place name. This would have been obvious to the Old-English speaking peasants, and we may imagine that their own interpretation of events at the Dragon’s Mound might have been different from the abbot’s. Did Abbot Geoffrey not mention this etymology because, as a French-speaker, he didn’t understand it – or did he simply prefer to put a different spin on what had happened? Further research might help to elucidate this and other puzzles.


This blog owed its origins to a paper given at conference organised by Alyx Mattison and James Chetwood in Sheffield in May 2016. Thanks to both Alyx and James, and to Matt Innes for advice. Published 23 May 2016, updated 20 October 2019.

The entire Life and miracles of Modwenna is translated and edited by Robert Bartlett, Geoffrey of Burton: Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (Oxford, 2002). See a page of the medieval manuscript

For an example of research on the social context of “strange happenings” in the Middle Ages, see C. West, ‘Visions in a Ninth-Century Village: an Early Medieval Microhistory’, History Workshop Journal 81 (2016), open access.