Sunday, 20 January 2008

What's in a name?

I suppose I haven't given it much thought, probably because I'm just used to the word, but I recently noticed that in a modern standard dictionary you probably can't find the word revenant. Of course, I have chosen to use that word because it was the word used by Calmet, and because it's also used in the English translation of Calmet. Furthermore, it's meaning is much more precise than the words otherwise used in English like ghost and apparition: It is a dead person who has come back to the living, usually to haunt and molest them.

However, I also notice that the English Wikipedia uses the word in a narrow sense, mainly referring to medieval revenants from Britain and quoting William of Newburgh and Walter Map. Darren Oldridge on the other hand uses the word in reference to revenants from a larger area and a much longer period of time:

'The idea that the spirits of the dead could return to the living was common in medieval and Renaissance culture. Physical resurrections like the "unnatural marvel" at Melrose Abbey were less frequent, but reports of wandering corpses - or "revenants" - appeared occasionally in the British Isles, France and Germany in the pre-industrial age, and were widespread in central Europe as recently as the 1920s. (---) The physical return of the dead continued to be reported and discussed seriously by European churchmen in the later Middle Ages, and it featured in learned texts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.' (Strange Histories, p. 57)

In my native tongue, Danish, we have words like genganger and genfærd, which both have a meaning similar to revenant, i.e. someone who "walks again" or "has returned to walk the earth". Consequently, I find that when writing in English revenant is a fitting word for the whole spectrum of dead people who are claimed to return to haunt the living.

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