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Medieval zombies and vampires

My latest research has had me scouring through medieval religious tales, searching for narratives concerning ghosts and resurrection. Most of the tales I’ve found tell of dead who return to life, granted a second chance to confess and do penance so they may escape hell. But I’ve stumbled across several stories that bear remarkable similarities to modern tales of zombies and vampires. William of Newburgh, a twelfth-century English historian, documents a number of these narratives. One story ends with two men digging up the grave of a corpse who’s been terrorizing the town:

Thereupon snatching up a spade of but indifferent sharpness of edge, and hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. 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. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart.

William tells several other stories of corpses rising and attacking the living. Perhaps a future research project?

The Fordham Medieval Sourcebook has a translation of some of these tales.

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The website of folklorist and medievalist Steve Stanzak

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I am a graduate student in folklore and medieval studies at Indiana University. I work generally with medieval religious folk culture. My current research is on medieval saints' legends and vernacular models of sanctity.

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