Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Medieval vampires - dead or alive...

Philip Burne Jones, 'The Vampire' (1897), sourced from Wikimedia CommonsDid people in the Middle Ages really believe in vampires? They certainly believed in ghosts, which they called revenants, from the Latin meaning ‘to return’. It was believed that the unquiet dead, particularly those who had died by violence or by reason of a grudge, would return to haunt the living and try to take revenge on them. These revenants might haunt a graveyard or a particular area, known to them in life, and terrorize the living.

They also believed that the dead could be commanded to rise again and spirits or demons compelled to do a wizard’s bidding, through the dark art of necromancy. A surprising number of priests were interested in these dubious practices as a means of gaining power or knowledge. Priests might also seek to exorcise spirits possessing people, by means of prayer or sacred herbs or charms.

Vampires, however, do not really make an appearance until the fourteenth century. Why then?

In 1348 the Black Death struck Europe. Thousands died and thousands of rotting corpses had to be buried, often in mass graves. Sights of these bodies was often grisly and bloody, and so the idea of the vampire, feeding on the blood of the living, came into force.

Recently a body in a medieval Italian mass grave on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo was found with a slab of rock slammed between its jaws – a crude anti-vampire measure. The dead woman was suspected by the grave-diggers of being a vampire, possibly because of gruesome sights around her decomposing body when they had re-opened the mass grave to bury more plague victims. So the frightened grave-diggers put a brick in her mouth to stop her chewing through her shroud and escaping the grave to infect others. A very grisly measure!

In my forthcoming medieval historical romance, The Snow Bride (due out Jan 2012), I don’t mention medieval vampires but I do deal with witchcraft and necromancers. My heroine, red-haired Elfrida, is a witch and wise-woman and through the ‘magic’ of love she helps my scarred hero Magnus. Both Elfrida and Magnus must battle against an evil necromancer – a medieval wizard who summoned spirits and demons – and, in a desperate race against time, recover Elfrida’s younger sister. In The Snow Bride I show medieval magic and beliefs, but not medieval vampires. Maybe in another story?

Happy Halloween!

Lindsay Townsend


Jenny Twist said...

Fascinating stuff! I have two other snippets. I came across the theory that vampire belief in Eastern Europe was strengthened during times of famine, perhaps to explain the disappearance of bodies which had actually been eaten by the starving. The other is that belief in vampirism was terribly embarrassing for the Catholic Church, as the sign of a vampire is the same as that of a saint - the flesh of the corpse remains uncorrupted!

Linda Banche said...

With all the talk about vampires, most people think Bram Stoker invented them. Not so.

I have a snippet to add, too. Some of the "signs" of the vampire, like a dead body engorged with blood, and long hair and nails, are actually part of the normal decomposition of corpses. But people didn't know that, and assumed the body had reanimated as a vampire and had drunk blood.

Savanna Kougar said...

Lindsay, THE SNOW BRIDE, sounds extra-fabulous.

I recently heard an interview with a practicing witch in Salemn -- he now uses the term warlock for himself -- however, he addressed many of the practices you talked about for Medieval times, and how to accomplish the magick.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Thanks for the snippets, Jenny and Linda,and the insight into the modern warlock, Savanna.

I do think all this is deeply fascinating, and, as a writer, wonderful to write about.

Stephanie Burkhart said...

Lindsay, very interesting. I'm curious if world cultures have vampire myths. I would be interesting to research.

Jenny - very interesting observation about vampires and saints.

Food for inspiration, ladies.