As Halloween has just passed, I thought it only fitting that I would do a themed blog post. At some point during my undergrad, I remember reading an article that spoke about graves found buried with things in their mouths that were believed to be graves of suspected vampires. So I thought I would dig up a few articles and briefly revisit this idea to relay to you!
Vampires have captured the popular imagination in recent decades, and after the booming success of Twilight you can be hard pressed to find a YA book or tv show that doesn’t feature the monsters, often now with the idea of “good” vampires (who usually fall in love with an unassuming high school girl…). But ideas of vampires have been around for almost one thousand years, if not earlier. Often, graves identified with objects suggesting a burial to stop vampires tend to occur in Eastern Europe, although there are numerous examples in the west as well. It can sometimes be unclear whether the individuals buried as vampire suspects were believed to be cursed with vampirism before their deaths, or that the objects at burial were taken as a precaution to stop the corpse rising again as a vampire coming to seek their revenge.
Medieval ideas on vampires differed somewhat from Twilight’s portrayal…
Often, skeletons are found with pieces of iron as it was believed that vampires could not touch iron – by driving iron nails into the body, or placing an iron object across the corpse (or even placing iron bars on the tomb) it was hoped that this would prevent the vampire from getting out of their grave when they awoke. In the Czech town of Čelákovice, there is an 11th century graveyard which contains 14 skeletons thought to have been considered vampires. They either had their heads cut off, their hands and legs tied, metal spikes driven through their bodies, or rocks placed on top of their bodies. Most were young adults – both male and female – and seem to have died around the same time as each other. Did they die of some epidemic, and precautions were taken in the belief that the deaths were supernatural? Or was there some kind of vampiric equivalent to the Salem witch hysteria in this small medieval town which resulted in these people being killed?
One of the Čelákovice skeletons, with arms tied, and head and hands severed
It was common, as well as using iron, to place heavy weights (usually stones) on top of bodies, as again it was believed that this was a way to prevent vampires rising from their graves. Stones could also be placed in the corpse’s mouth, as it was believed that vampires could tear their way through funeral shrouds with their teeth. In fact, what is potentially the earliest grave of a suspected vampire comes from 4,000 years ago, again in the Czech Republic. The grave was situated away from other graves in the burial site, and the victim, a male, was weighed down with two big stones on his chest and head. As this is so similar to medieval examples of anti-vampire weapons, it has been widely considered particularly by the media to be the earliest example of the legend of vampires. However, as with many things we can never be sure, and many are hesitant to place such a label on such an early burial.
A skeleton from Poland with an iron sickle placed across its throat
Some medieval Icelandic sagas feature draugr, which have been translated in the past as ghosts, but reassessment of the material more recently has led to the creatures being described as closer to vampires than ghosts. These draugr were aggressive, with their main objective being to attack the living, drive them insane, and then infect them with vampirism to make their victims join their ranks. The idea of vampiric creatures certainly has not been confined to Eastern Europe, even if this translation to real belief in these creatures may have been more prevalent there.
Possible vampires also occur in early medieval English writings. For example, William of Newburgh, writing c. 1198, talks about walking corpses which match Eastern European folk ideas about vampires. His ‘revenants’ are corpses bloated by gases and blood-like fluid, and are frequently associated with outbreaks of plague. These vampiric graves that William describes being exhumed were found filled with blood and gore. To prevent the vampires from walking again, their hearts were ripped out and the bodies burnt. William rectifies his recounting of an ancient folk belief with his Christian values by claiming that it was Satan who had reanimated the corpses. Even after William’s time, folk tradition dictated that evil dead should be buried face down or pinned with a stake to prevent them from walking – this could include criminals who could be thought to want to return to haunt the living.
An 8th century skeleton from Ireland with a stone in its mouth
Similar ideas about vampires being the work of the devil still occur in the next century; Thomas of Cantimpré, a Dominican monk writing in the mid-thirteenth century, recounts this tale in his manual for preachers:
“In the town of Nivelles I saw a virgin worthy of God … She rose in the early morning to go to church, observing the stipulated hours [for prayer]. It happened one time that the dead body of a certain deceased man was brought to the church in the evening without her knowing about it. Getting up in the middle of the night, the virgin went to church and found the dead man, but she was hardly afraid, or just a little, so she sat down and began her prayers. When the Devil saw this he looked upon her with malice (invidet), and entering the dead body he moved it at first in the coffin. The virgin therefore crossed herself and bravely shouted to the Devil, “Lie down! Lie down, you wretch, for you have no power against me!” Suddenly the Devil rose up with the corpse and said, “Truly, now I will have power against you, and I will revenge myself for the frequent injuries I have suffered at your hands!” When she saw this, she was thoroughly terrified in her heart, so with both hands she seized a staff topped with a cross, and bringing it down on the head of the dead man she knocked him to the ground. Through such faithful daring she put the demon to flight”
[quoted in Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture,” Past & Present 152 (1996): 13.]
It is unclear whether the corpse was knocked to the ground due to the power of God (as later legends going into modern superstition often stipulate how religious symbols can drive away vampires) or simply due to the weight of the hefty staff!
For us as modern viewers, these accounts and ideas about medieval vampires certainly seem, at least to me, to be closer to our modern descriptions of zombies, rather than vampires. The danger always lies with corpses that are already dead and buried, with the object being to prevent the corpse from rising from the dead to haunt or endanger the living – this is certainly very different to our modern conception of a creature that was transformed from a living to an undead creature through what is essentially a method of poisoning, to live forever sucking blood from its victims and cowering from the burning sunlight whilst possessing supernatural powers including incredible strength, speed, invulnerability. However, hopefully this small spotlight has given an interesting insight into the fears and superstitions of medieval people. Some of the stories were intended to just be stories, something to be read and enjoyed as a fiction or a parable. But as with the early modern witch hunts, sometimes these stories could translate into real palpable fear in medieval communities, which we can try and unpick today when studying the vampires’ graves.
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Selected Further Reading:
Jakobsson, Ármann. “Vampires and Watchmen: Categorizing the Mediaeval Icelandic Undead.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 110, No. 3 (2011): 281-300.
Simpson, Jacqueline. “Repentant Soul or Walking Corpse? Debatable Apparitions in Medieval England.” Folklore 114, No. 3 (2003): 389-402.