The Bloodsucking Corpse of English Tradition.
by Daniel J. Wood
“A deadly thing,” they say, “has fastened on him;
“He has taken to his bed and will never get up again.” —Psalm 41:8,
Book of Common Prayer
Of all the monsters that haunted our traditional folklore, none has so fascinated the modern mind as the vampire. Man, demon, or some combination of both, the vampire stepped to center stage in our popular culture with the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, and his influence shows no sign of waning at the beginning of the 21st century. But as the image of the fictional vampire lives on, we gradually lose sight of the traditional vampire, the vampire of folklore and history, a creature more ancient and more terrible than a thousand Wallachian princes. This monster did not keep a polite distance before the kill like some aristocratic stranger; instead, he was a friend, a neighbor—even the husband who once shared your bed. He was a corpse who returned from the grave to kill.
All historical sources defined vampires as preternatural killers who drained victims of their life essence in order to perpetuate their own unnatural existence. If the vampire sucked blood to achieve this end, as many did, he normally bit his human or animal victims on the chest or thorax rather than the throat. Some throttled their victims, killing them quickly; others spread disease that decimated towns or villages over the space of weeks. Though the manner or method of destruction may have differed, the agent remained the same—a deceased human body reanimated by some devilish agency.
This diversity and unity of the malignant undead moved Dr. J. Scoffern, Professor of Chemistry and Forensic Medicine at the Aldersgate College of Medicine, to pen one of the classic definitions of the vampire. In 1870 he wrote:
“A vampire, then, is—well, what shall we say? Not a ghost, certainly; except we alter most of our existing notions of a ghost. The best definition I can give of a vampire is a living, mischievous, and murderous dead body. A living dead body! The words are wild, contradictory, incomprehensible; but so are vampires.”
Budding vampirologists will frequently encounter the assertion that the figure of the vampire only recently entered English supernaturalism. This statement would be true only if we search for the fictional image of the vampire as it emerged from Gothic literature, but the vampire of tradition lurked within Britannia’s dark corners since Anglo-Saxon times, and he attained celebrity status in the plumes of medieval chroniclers who inscribed his name upon 12th-century parchments as the cadaver sanguisugis—or “bloodsucking corpse.” As a revivified corpse, the vampire held no romantic or erotic fascination for the medieval mind; instead, they regarded these monstrous shells with disgust, and they feared that the miasma of their fetid breath would pollute the atmosphere and bring disease. The vampire was, in reality, walking death.
Blamed for Plague
William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum anglicarum, written in the late 12th century, remains the best source for English bloodsuckers and other revenants. As an historian, William wins high marks from scholars, who praise his impartial treatment of the conflict between King Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, immortalized in the Academy Award winner Beckett (1964) starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. William had us in mind when he decided to include instances of the undead in his history “as a warning to posterity.” He added that:
“It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or the destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb…did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony…”
One of William’s examples comes down to us from the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, at the mouth of the River Tweed, on the southeast coast of Scotland. There a wealthy but wicked man passed away—but not peaceably. He left his grave nightly and wandered the area, always pursued by barking and hateful dogs, even more implacable enemies of the vampire than garlic. Some of Berwick’s leading citizens feared more than just a physical encounter with this dreadful monster; they worried, as William of Newburgh tells us, that “the atmosphere, infected and corrupted by the constant whirlings through it of the pestiferous corpse, would engender disease and death to a great extent.” The city fathers consequently appointed a group of young men to exhume the abomination and cut it into pieces to be burnt. Tragically for Berwick, they acted too late, and plague still devastated the community.
Another case appearing in William of Newburgh involves a Yorkshire man who had run afoul of the authorities and had settled in the Castle of Anantis, the exact location of which is unknown today. Rather than make amends and improve his life, the man redoubled his efforts toward evil gain. He eventually married but soon after fatally injured himself while attempting to catch his wife in the act of adultery. Although he received a Christian burial, he died without repentance and in a state of serious sin.
As with the prodigy of Berwick, angry dogs chased the Anantis Vampire as he rose up from the dust of his grave and set out on his midnight rambles. In William’s words, “he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until sunrise… But those precautions were of no avail; for the atmosphere poisoned by the vagaries of this foul carcass, filled every house with disease and death by its pestiferous breath.”
The town stood as a silent shell of itself, as it was soon racked with plague and depopulated by the flight of its residents. Class boundaries prevented the locals from dealing with the baleful pest as they would have with one of their own and, consequently, the parish priest convened a council of “wise and religious men” on Palm Sunday to discuss how to proceed against the fiend.
Two young men who had lost their father to the monster were not prepared to wait for the action of their betters. While the local elite talked, they decided to act according to the tried and true method. They made their way to the cemetery and unearthed the creature from a surprisingly shallow grave, where they found it bloated and entangled in its own torn and bloody grave clothes. In a rage, one of the brothers struck the bloated corpse with a dull spade, and such an enormous quantity of blood flowed from the wound that the brothers concluded that the bloodsucker had battened itself on the blood of many: ex quo tantus continuo sanguis effluxit ut intelligeretur sanguisuga fuisse multorum. The brothers dragged the vampire to beyond the village limits, removed the heart, which they chopped into pieces, and burned the lot on a bonfire. They then notified the Palm Sunday gathering of what they had done. William of Newburgh recorded no punishment meted out to the brothers for their ghastly deeds. Perhaps the reason for clemency rests in the efficaciousness of their actions for, as William concluded, “the pestilence which was rife among the people ceased, as if the air, which had been corrupted by the contagious motions of the dreadful corpse, were already purified by the fire which had consumed it.”
Guest Who Returned
In his De nugis curialium, Walter Map (c. 1140–c. 1209) described another roaming corpse from the same period. William Laudun, a soldier of proven worth, appealed to the Bishop of Hereford for aid in dealing with the corpse of a former house guest, who nightly returned to his old lodging and called out the name of an occupant. The person so named sickened and died within three days.
Since the deceased had been noted as an atheist, the Bishop concluded that the devil, by some unknown agency, had given the corpse the ability to move about, and that the solicitous soldier should exhume the body and “cut through its neck.” The Bishop then instructed Laudun to sprinkle holy water in the wound and throughout the grave.
Laudun followed the Bishop’s advice and reburied the corpse—but to no avail. The wandering spirit continued to torment his former roommates until William finally heard his own name called out three times. Not prepared to give up the ghost so easily, the soldier snatched his sword and chased the living dead thing back to its grave and cut off its head. Thereafter, its afflictions ceased.
Undead Peasants Destroy Town
In The Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna (Oxford University Press, 2002), Robert Bartlett published a similar tale of the malignant dead previously hidden for 900 years in the monastery archives at Burton-on-Trent. Events surrounding the Drakelow Vampires unfolded in 1090, in the wake of the Norman Conquest. When Geoffrey, Abbot of Burton (1114–1150), wrote his version some 30 years later, he framed it as a conflict between a Norman lord and an Anglo-Saxon saint. From our vantage point we do not know whether Geoffrey refashioned actual events in an effort to accentuate the power of his patroness or whether the narrative amounts to nothing more than a medieval fantasy. At the least, though, the Drakelow Vampires demonstrate the continuing connection between disease and the walking dead in the medieval mind.
The innocent decision of two peasants to seek a better life in the proverbial greener pasture triggered a power struggle between the powerhouses of the Middle Ages—the Church and the nobility—that would only end after the wrathful intervention of St. Modwenna. The peasants left the monastery lands of Stapenhill and crossed the Derbyshire border to settle in the village of Drakelow, in lands owned by the Norman Sir Roger. Miffed at having lost two valuable economic assets, the monks of Burton Abbey requested that Sir Roger have them returned. Sir Roger refused—and rather impolitely at that. The monks turned to St. Modwenna for justice, and, shortly after, the enterprising peasants fell dead while enjoying lunch with their new neighbors. The monks got their way after all, and the peasants were returned to Stapenhill—for burial. But Modwenna’s saintly vengeance did not stop there.
A few friends of the deceased peasants had made the trip to Stapenhill for the funeral, and, while walking back to Drakelow, they saw, in the rays of the setting sun, their just-interred friends carrying their coffins on their shoulders.
Villagers witnessed these nocturnal rambles for several weeks; then the corpses entered the village proper, banging on doors and walls, shouting at the terrified occupants. Just as we saw earlier, the act of the dead calling out led to the plague, and the pestilence soon left Drakelow decimated.
With only a few men remaining, the villagers finally took action in the traditional manner: they marched on Stapenhill and exhumed the bodies, which they found to be intact. Blood stained their burial napkins crimson. The unfortunate bodies of the dead peasants had their heads cut off and placed between their legs, and the villagers removed their hearts prior to reburial. They erected a bonfire at a river crossing, and they tossed the hearts of the walking dead upon the flames. As the fire consumed these seats of infection, the villagers heard a great “crack” and saw an evil spirit in the guise of a monstrous black bird fly away.
Geoffrey gives us an epilogue, and we are told that, although the plague at Drakelow finally ended, the remaining population picked up and relocated en masse to Castle Gresley. For his part, Sir Roger formally apologized to St. Modwenna for causing her grief.
Bloodsuckers in the Bible
The 12th-century chroniclers and churchmen we have just read drew not only on experience and anecdote to form their vampire beliefs; they also took inspiration from sacred scripture, which whispers about the existence of a variety of monstrous beings, including vampires. Our medieval authors used the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, and they most likely borrowed their word for vampire (sanguisuga) from Proverbs 30. There we encounter the Hebrew Alukah, a bloodsucking demon usually translated as some form of leech.
In his 1597 work, Daemonologie, King James I explained that, in times past, demonologists gave malignant spirits a variety of names according to their actions; that is, their names reflected what they did. A vampire drinking blood from the throat might be given one name while one that sucked from the chest another.
To King James himself, the various monstrous beings seen by people were merely separate manifestations emanating from a single source: the demonic realm. He wrote that, “doubtlessly they are in effect, but all one kind of spirit, who for abusing the more of mankind, takes on these sundry shapes, and uses diverse forms of outward actions, as if some were of nature better than other.” [Language modernized by author].
King James carefully explained that the devil did not have the power to resurrect anyone once dead, but that he could put his own “spirite in a dead bodie.” It logically followed, then, that the dead returning to life in bodily form were not actually the persons themselves, but only their shells. King James argued that the demonic can possess both the bodies of the faithful dead as well as the wicked, even if this concept sounded distasteful to the reader.
Our familiar term “vampire” only began creeping into the English language in the 18th century, after the much-publicized Arnold Paole case. Before the 1730s, a variety of local words were used to denote revenant bloodsuckers.
The early 18th century witnessed an explosion of vampire-related research and debunking all across Europe. As Western European powers assumed greater control of territory in East-Central Europe, they were confronted by paranormal phenomena that had gone dormant in the West. Wealthy and educated Polish noblemen told fantastic tales in the salons of Paris as they fled their homeland following the partitions of Poland. “Can these things be?” asked a shocked and wide-eyed public.
In Enlightenment France, minds like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire weighed in on the issue, and Dom Augustin Calmet authored one of the true classics of the field in 1746, The Phantom World (Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des demons et des esprits). By the end of the 18th century the rationalism of the Enlightenment won out, and superstition was relegated to the so-called Dark Ages.
Daniel J. Wood is a summa cum laude graduate in European history and has published articles on religion, history, archaeology, and werewolves. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Into the Realms of Vampirism.