Medieval Vampirism: It’s Not Just for People Buried With Bricks in their Mouths Anymore

So, yeah, Unlocked Wordhoard has already mostly covered this one, but if you haven’t heard already, there’s this archaeologist* out there who claims to have discovered the skull of a lady vampire in a mass plague grave in Venice that dates to the end sixteenth century. Most of the sites that have picked up the story insist on calling this a “medieval vampire” for some reason. 1576, the date of the plague in which this “vampire” “died” is a bit late for “medieval,” especially in “Italy,” which by the 1570’s has been printing “Home of the Renaissance” on their license plates for over a “century.”***

How does the intrepid archaeologist know this skeleton belonged to a vampire? According to the article, it is a well-known folk belief that vampires can be stopped from rising from the dead by being buried with bricks in their mouths. Why Bram Stoker didn’t mention this is beyond me. But then again I’ve never heard of such a thing happening in a medieval story, either.

Now, you may be asking, “Were there medieval vampire stories?” Not really, but people sometimes point to Walter Map and William of Newburgh, twelfth-century English chroniclers who mention returned-to-life corpses that terrorize people when they’re looking for medieval vampires. Newburgh’s is the closest, I think, to qualifying. He writes of a man who, suspecting his wife of adultery, hides in the rafters to catch her. When he does catch her, he’s so shocked that he falls to the ground and hurts himself badly, but is convinced by his wife that he’ll be fine and doesn’t need to call the priest in to perform his last rights. The poor guy dies without having taken the Eucharist and, apparently, returns to prey upon the living because of it. When the townsfolk have had enough of him, they go to his grave for a little mob justice. William describes the event thus:

They grabbed a pretty dull spade and headed to the cemetery and began to dig. While they were digging, they worried they might need to dig deeper, but suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, they uncovered the corpse, swollen and enormously fat … the shroud it had been wrapped in nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, were angry, not afraid, and wounded the unmoving corpse, causing blood to flow out in such a stream that you might have thought the corpse was a leech filled with the blood of many people. They dragged it beyond the village and quickly made a funeral pyre. And one of them said that the diseased body would not burn unless its heart was torn out, so the other one tore open its side by repeatedly hitting it with the blunt shovel, and then, thrusting his hand in, pulled out the accursed heart.

I’ll admit, it reads a bit like the script to a grindhouse vampire flick, especially the continued insistence on the dullness of the shovel they’re using.**** Nevertheless, while William does suggest the dead cuckold somehow consumes the blood of the living, the thing that causes the townspeople to mob together and go digging for Draculas is not a sudden increase in the overall paleness of the town’s supply of hot chicks who happen to like hanging out in diaphanous robes near the open windows of large castles by night. Rather, William tells us that this proto-vampire has taken to beating up people that he catches out on the roads at night–not drinking their blood, just beating them black and blue.

As far as I’m concerned, it just ain’t a vampire story unless there’s a hot chick having her blood drained on camera (so to speak). For that sort of thing happening in a medieval context, we really don’t have to look any farther than the Quest del Saint Graal in the thirteenth-century Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian stories. In that romance, Perceval, Bors, Galahad, and Perceval’s sister come upon a castle inhabited by a woman suffering from leprosy. It is the custom of the castle that all maidens passing by must fill a (presumably quite large) silver dish with their blood and offer it to the lady of the castle so that she may be healed. Perceval’s sister, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, but which probably have something to do with an obscure point of Cistercian theology (don’t ask), acquiesces to the request and is drained until she dies. On the up side, her blood does heal the countess of the castle, and somehow this allows Perceval and company to achieve the grail… for some reason.

So, there you go. Somewhere between William of Newburgh’s revenants and the Grail story’s blood-draining countess lies the medieval vampire.

*I don’t trust the guy one bit. The picture he has on his website is of him holding a (presumably non-vampiric) skull all thoughtful-like, posed in front of a wall of skulls. Follow the link if you don’t believe me. That would be like me suiting up in chain mail** to have my blog profile picture taken.
**Actually, given the usual focus of the blog, I supposed it’d be more like me having my picture taken with a monkey or a man with a bagpipe coming out of his hind end. And since both of those sound like excellent ideas, I retract my skepticism. Now, where’s that camera?
***OK, OK, I’ll stop with the air quotes before I get accused of making a dated Dr. Evil reference.
****And this from the guy who accused Geoffrey of Monmouth of lying out of an inordinate fondness for lying.

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  • Amateur Vampirologist

    I agree with your conclusion that the corpse found wasn’t that of a vampire.

    Firstly, vampires are of Slavic origin (their very name comes from that language group). Also, they are essentially revivified corpses that drink the blood of the living. You can destroy them by staking them through the heart, decapitating them and cremating their remains. It’s a bit of overkill, but it seemed to do the trick.

    The Map and Newburgh cases you mentioned have often been associated with vampirism…but why? Sure, they tick the corpse-coming-back-to-life box, but they lack the vital blood-drinking element. As you noted in your blog.

    I suspect the corpse unearthed in Italy may have been a “shroudeater”. There was a belief, also recounted in the Malleus Malificarum, I believe (Luther also knew of such cases) in which certain members of the dead were thought to eat their shrouds, which through some process of sympathetic magic, were meant to cause the living to die. They were often held to be responsible for plagues (the woman’s corpse unearthed in Italy was found in a plague pit).

    The brick in her mouth, thus, would not have been to stop her chewing on necks…but to prevent her chewing on herself and/or her burial clothes.

    You can read more on shroudeaters here and more on the vampires of folklore/local legend here.

    If you’re interested in some books on the subject, you can’t go past Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (1989), Jan L. Perkowski’s The Darkling: A Treatise on Slavic Vampirism (1989) and David Keyworth’s Troublesome Corpses: Vampires & Revenants from Antiquity to the Present (2007).

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