No escape…Detail of a miniature of ‘Death Chopping Down a Tree’ - British Library, Royal 15 D V f. 36. Jehan Froissart. Chroniques. Netherlands, last quarter of the 15th century.

Medieval Villagers Were Ready to Mutilate Potential Zombies

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For the first time, researchers have found evidence in a belief in the walking dead in medieval England, where they analyzed bones and skeletons that were decapitated, burned, and otherwise mutilated after death.

Researchers from the University of Southampton and Historic England analyzed the bones from a Yorkshire village dating to the 11th -13th centuries. The village, Wharram Percy in Yorkshire, has been abandoned for a long time, says a report on the research in the Independent.

This piece of skull that was smashed and burned was excavated from the deserted Yorkshire village of Wharram Percy.

This p iece of skull that was smashed and burned was excavated from the deserted Yorkshire village of Wharram Percy. ( Historic England/PA Wire )

The scientists, led by human skeletal biologist Simon Mays, published their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science . The Independent says the evidence from the bones “strongly suggests” a belief among the villagers that their deceased peers would rise from the dead.

The evidence apparent in the bones backs up historical documentary evidence of such beliefs and practices. The Independent says “it is known” that medieval people believed corpses could rise up only when the flesh was still on the bones—after death and before decomposition. They didn’t believe skeletons had such powers.

The article states villagers broke dead bodies’ limbs, perhaps with hammers or stones, and they cut off heads to remove any chance of thought or sight. After all this, they burned the corpses to destroy the flesh and keep them in the grave.

The outlines of the village of Wharram Percy are still visible.

The outlines of the village of Wharram Percy are still visible. (Historic England/PA Wire )

The scientists examined 137 bones separated from skeletons. They came from at least 10 people; including two children about 2 and 4 years old. There was also a teen of 15 to 17, two men, and three women.

Very few revenant stories were set down in writing through medieval history. The Independent says it follows that these represent a tiny percentage of the total number of such activities in medieval England. This new report does a lot to shed light on the subject.

It’s interesting to note that in the sparse historical accounts all revenant stories were about men—but these findings indicate in real life they were of both genders and all ages. This jibes with findings from northern European folk tales.

In Scotland and other northern countries, stories suggest a dire fear of children who were killed or died from abuse. This study shows such beliefs may have been held in medieval England too.

An artist’s depiction of the Wharram Percy village, where the mutilated, burnt bones were found

An artist’s depiction of the Wharram Percy village, where the mutilated, burnt bones were found ( Historic England/PA Wire )

Fear of the dead, or undead as the case may be, probably has roots in ancient or even prehistoric times. Medieval people thought dead people who had been evil in life could rise up and vengefully attack the living or spread disease. At the time, life could be short and brutal, and it appears the people of Wharram Percy took steps to see that undead uprisings didn’t happen in their village.

A Yorkshire preacher of the 12th century, William of Newburgh, wrote of an evil man who escaped justice and fled York. He died and rose up. A pack of barking dogs pursued him as he wandered through town. The townspeople stayed inside with their doors locked. They came out eventually, determined to mutilate and burn his body. They dug up his grave, and as the Independent reports of his writings:

“[They] … laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons”.

The analysis of the chemical makeup of the recently studied corpses’ teeth showed the mutilated people were locals, not outsiders. The scientists also ruled out cannibalism at the site, according to an article in the New Scientist.

Top image: No escape…Detail of a miniature of ‘Death Chopping Down a Tree’ - British Library, Royal 15 D V f. 36. Jehan Froissart. Chroniques. Netherlands, last quarter of the 15th century. Source: The Public Domain Review

By Mark Miller

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