By Jason Nolan
Introduction: I first came across Walter Map and William of Newburgh by way of a chance encounter with The Vampire Encyclopedia a few years ago. Looking for information on vampires in England, I found mention of two 12th century English writers, Walter Map and William of Newburgh, who recorded vampire stories in Latin. I had thought that the appearance of vampires in the literature of England to be an early 19th century phenomenon, with John Polidori’s work “The Vampyre” (1819) usually cited as the first work of vampire fiction in British literature.
While reading, I noted Walter Map’s text identified as De Nagis Curialium, and that the word Nagis did not sound like Latin. After a bit of research, I decided that Nagis was probably a typographical error for Nugis, meaning jests or trifles in Latin. I was curious about what Map and Newburgh wrote, and who they were, and now about how accurate the information might be. As it turned out, much of what has been recorded about these texts over the last seventy years is rife with problems.
So, what are these two texts? The first is Walter Map’s De nugis curialium, or Courtiers’ Trifles, and the other is William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum, or The history of English Affairs. De Nugis, written sometime before 1190 and Newburgh’s Historia, completed around 1198, both contain stories that are vampiric in nature. Though there are some issues as to how well they conform to modern definitions of what constitutes a vampire story, they represent the earliest known examples of vampire stories in England.
William of Newburgh, also known as William Petit or Parvus, was born in 1135/1136, was educated at and lived as a canon in the Abbey of Austin Canons of Newburgh in Yorkshire, joining sometime shortly after 1145, and dying there sometime after 1199. His major work, Historia Rerum Anglicarum covers a period from the Norman Conquest in 1066 up to 1198. The latter date is often cited as the date when the text was completed. The work survives in five manuscripts, with only minor variations between them that do not change the general sense of the text. Scholars note that the manuscript was published in 1567, and again in 1610, 1719 and 1856. Newburgh’s work differs from some of the more famous medieval historians such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales, being cited for his “acute and sensible” observations and “clean and sober” style.