The Case for Medieval ‘Zombies’: Walking Corpses in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum
Ask anyone in the street to name a zombie film and a good percentage will probably mention something by George Romero. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) can be taken as ur-texts where the modern conception of the walking corpse is concerned. From the ‘rage’-infected hordes of Twenty-Eight Days Later (2002) to the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the post-apocalyptic nihilism of The Walking Dead (2010–), recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the production of ‘zombie’ movies and TV shows. It is an exciting time to be a horror fan. And yet, contrary to popular opinion, walking corpses are not an invention of popular horror gurus, nor did they emerge – as is sometimes assumed – in the Balkans during the infamous ‘vampire epidemics’ of the eighteenth century. The fear of the undead can be traced back to the medieval period and beyond.
William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum (c.1198), a chronicle of English history from the Norman conquest to the end of the twelfth century, represents one of the most detailed English sources on the medieval belief in the walking dead. William’s accounts of undead activity (of which there are four in total), can be found towards the end of book five, and are said to have taken place in the spring of 1196. William himself seems somewhat dubious as to the truth of these stories, but he vows to retell them as a ‘warning to posterity’.
Readers familiar with the eighteenth-century vampire stories will know the gist of what is to follow: story one details the case of a widow from Buckinghamshire who, whilst sleeping one night, was attacked by the corpse of her dead husband, who ‘nearly crushing her by the insupportable weight of his body’. Soon after, he began harassing his own brothers and started to make mischief across town, scaring livestock, and generally acting as a nuisance to all he encountered. Fed up, the townsfolk petitioned their local archdeacon, Stephen (William’s source for the story), who in turn sent a letter to Hugh, Archbishop of Lincoln, asking what should be done. After much thought, Hugh decided the best course of action would be to place a scroll of absolution in the revenant’s grave. The townsfolk eagerly followed the archbishop’s instructions and, so doing, the corpse walked no more.
Happy endings all round. The corpse stopped being a nuisance and the townsfolk could get back on with their lives. This, however, is probably the most benign of William’s narratives. Story two described how a corpse – ‘moved by the power of Satan’ – walked each night through the streets of Berwick, followed by a pack of wild dogs and emitting a terrible stench. Fearing an outbreak of disease, the town elders ordered that the corpse be dug up, dismembered and burnt. Story three concludes in a similar fashion, with the revenant – the corpse of a worldly priest from Melrose in Scotland – being exhumed and cremated.
Disease and infection are a central feature of medieval revenant stories. It’s not the speed of the ‘zombie’ that gets you, but the pestilence it leaves in its wake. The fourth and final exempla from William’s Historia is a case in point. Taking place in ‘Anant’, which some scholars believe to be Alnwick in Northumberland, the story begins in a semi-comedic fashion: a ‘certain man of evil conduct’ fell from his bedroom rafters after catching his wife in flagrante delicto and died without receiving absolution. Although he was given a full Christian burial, each night he rose from the grave and wandered through the streets and courtyards, beating up anyone who was unfortunate enough to cross his path. As an added consequence of his wanderings, a deadly disease engulfed the town. One night, two brothers decided to exhume the corpse and destroy it once and for all. In a grotesque turn of events they found the corpse bloody and swollen. In a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Shaun of the Dead, they hit it with their spades in anger, causing it leak a large quantity of blood. Finally, they removed the heart and burnt the body on a hastily constructed pyre. Following this, the corrupted air freshened and the pestilence soon dissipated
William of Newburgh was not the only twelfth-century writer who gives details about restless corpses. Geoffrey of Burton’s Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna (c.1140s) includes a graphic tale about two revenants that caused havoc in the village of Drakelow, near Burton-upon-Trent. Walking through the street and banging on doors, they ‘called out’ to their friend and neighbours to join them in death. The court satirist and raconteur Walter Map includes three similar tales in his De Nugis Curialium (c.1182). Here, Map records the destruction caused by the corpse of an irreligious Welshmen in a Herefordshire village, the almost farcical attempts by the residents of Worcester to chase an errant corpse back to its grave and, finally, how the corpse of a Northumberland landowner was permitted by God to rise and seek absolution.
These tales are just an appetiser. From England to Serbia, the belief in walking corpses can be detected in many sources, from histories and sermon stories to travelogues and works of literature. I would like to end with the sage words of William of Newburgh. Despite his apparent scepticism, he nonetheless admitted that were he to write down all he had heard about walking corpses, ‘the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome’. Beware, then, the medieval undead.
Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna, ed. and trans. Robert Bartlett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002).
Walter Map, De nugis curialium, ed. and trans. M.R. James; revised by C.N.L. Brooke and R.A.B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983)
William of Newburgh, ‘Histora rerum Anglicarum’, in Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England, vol. IV, pt. 2 (London: Seeley, 1861). Online edition, ed. Scott McLetchie, 2009, available from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/williamofnewburgh-intro.asp