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How to Kill a Medieval Zombie

By Danièle Cybulskie

I’ve often said that people in the Middle Ages shared the same hopes and fears that we do. Believe it or not, that includes the walking dead. Although medieval Europeans would not have recognized the term “zombie”, they did tell tales of corpses rising from the grave to terrorize the living. So, the inevitable question is: how did you kill a medieval zombie?

Detail of an historiated initial with a woman with a skull for a face admiring herself in a hand mirror, at the beginning of the Office of the Dead. British Library MS Yates Thompson 7 f. 174

Medieval Christians believed that the souls of the dearly departed were to enter heaven, hell, or purgatory, but there were always grey areas in which the unexplained happened. As a result, these tales were extra-fascinating: how could these people have missed their exits on the heavenly highway? One compiler of this type of horror story was the twelfth-century writer William of Newburgh, who included them in his History of English Affairs. William’s zombies, though buried with Christian ceremony, came alive at night to torment their former loved ones. There is no mention of their eating brains, but in one case, a reanimated corpse frightened and “nearly crushed [his wife] under the immense weight of his body”, and several were pestilential. Clearly, no one wants to wake up being smothered by a corpse or dying of plague, so zombies needed to be stopped by any means necessary.

Naturally, invoking the power of faith was an option for the devout, and that is exactly what did the trick in the case of the smothering husband zombie. The wife and brothers of the deceased appealed to their archdeacon, who brought the case to the bishop of Lincoln. The bishop thought it would be unnatural and undignified to investigate or disturb the corpse without ceremony, so he wrote a letter to the archdeacon absolving him of any sin in inspecting the body. “Once the tomb was opened,” William says, “the corpse was found exactly as it had been laid there”, presumably intact and undisturbed despite its frequent rampages in the community. The archdeacon placed the bishop’s letter on the chest of the deceased, and resealed the tomb. The holy letter did the trick.

Writing a letter was a risky maneuver that showed the bishop’s faith in divine power, and he chose to do so over and above the advice of his companions. They told the bishop,

such prodigies have happened in England quite often and explained with many examples of previous incidents that the people would find no peace unless the body of this most wretched man was dug up and burned.

While the squeamish bishop in this story refused, in three of William’s other stories, villagers took the matter into their own hands and burned the zombies to ash.

In Berwick, Scotland, the villagers were literally plagued by a “scoundrel” of a man, who returned from the dead and wandered around “followed by a pack of loudly barking dogs”, although William does not say if the dogs were sounding an alarm or were complicit in the haunting. “If a solution was not found quickly,” the villagers believed, “the very air would become infected and corrupted by the repeated wandering of this foul corpse, causing disease and the deaths of many people”. Something had to be done. William says,

they enlisted ten young men, renowned for their boldness, to dig up the abominable corpse. Once they had chopped it limb from limb, they set it alight and made it food for the fire. When this was done, the affliction ceased.

Well, sort of, anyway. William goes on to say that the resulting disease killed loads of people, but at least there wasn’t a zombie in the neighbourhood anymore. Interestingly, it was the zombie, himself, who told the villagers how to kill him:

For this monster, while it was being animated – as it is said – by Satan, it is said to have told certain people who it encountered by chance that they would not have any peace so long as he was unburned.

Apparently, this zombie lacked for his own brains.

The second story involves a sinful priest – with the “notorious nickname Hundeprest, that is, ‘Houndpriest’” because of his inordinate love of hunting – who returned to torment his former mistress. The mistress enlisted the help of a badass monk who, while on zombie-patrol, “buried a battle-ax he was wielding deep into [the zombie’s] body” and then followed it back to its tomb, dug it up, and burned it. Talk about getting medieval.

Finally, the last zombie story in this collection features a man who, while spying on his adulterous wife from the rafters of the bedroom, fell and soon died unshriven. This undead husband also wandered followed by a pack of dogs and spread pestilence until two brothers who had lost their father to the disease had had enough and vowed revenge. The brothers dug up the corpse, who they found to be “filled with the blood of many people, like a leech”. They pulled out its heart and dismembered the body, burning it to a crisp, as witnessed by the local priest. This time, William says, the burning stopped the disease in its tracks. Actually, William says it in this absolutely wonderful sentence:

When that infernal monster was thus completely destroyed, the pestilence that had prowled among the people ceased, as though the air, which had been corrupted by his loathsome activity, was cleansed by the fire that had consumed that wretched cadaver.

He then adds, casually, “Now that I have explained these events, let us return to the course of history”.

You can find these amazing stories of the undead along with a whole bunch of other creepy medieval stories in Scott G. Bruce’s great new compilation The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters. Who knows? You may even find some more great medieval tips for surviving the zombie apocalypse.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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