Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Cultural History of Revenants

’Three main problems are considered in the following pages: how the dead have been perceived in Western European traditions; what changes have occurred in these perceptions through the centuries; and why these perceptions have altered. We shall examine descriptions of apparitions – their form as well as their function – from classical times, from the Middle Ages and then from each succeeding century down to the present day.’

R. C. Finucane’s Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts (Junction Books, 1982) certainly came in handy when I was looking for an overview of the historical development of revenant beliefs from the Middle Ages and onwards. Actually, I don’t recall seeing any other study focusing on the development of the perceptions of the dead over such a long period, as the above quote from the introduction outlines. Unfortunately, Finucane’s book also has some serious shortcomings, the major of which is described in the lines that follow the above quote:

’In a probably vain attempt to impose some sort of order upon so vast a subject, from the sixteenth century onwards the survey is limited to England and English reports of apparitions, though examples will be drawn from Continental material (especially French) from time to time.’

Consequently the period that is of particular interest to the history of vampires is viewed only from an Anglocentric point of view, leaving only room for just a couple of non-English authors, including Augustin Calmet, in the chapter on the era of Enlightenment.

Furthermore, Finucane appears to be relatively unfamiliar with many of the perceptions about the dead that were common throughout Europe like e.g. sounds of mastication coming from graves, in fact he doesn’t attempt to trace their origins beyond standard literary texts like those of classical authors.

Originally published in 1982 and reprinted a number of times, it obviously does not contain any of the insights provided by later research on e.g. the medieval perceptions of the dead. Still, Finucane does outline a lot of the literature as seen from an English point of view, and consequently provides us with a ’first approximation’ to a cultural history of ghosts.

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