Medieval zombies: how the walking dead haunted the Middle Ages

Until the Enlightenment, even the most learned agreed that the dead could rise from their graves. Darren Oldridge, the author of a book on seemingly ‘strange’ ideas from the past, explores the origins of the belief

This article was first published in the January 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine

Demons punishing the damned in a 15th-century painting. It was believed they cou
Demons punishing the damned in a 15th-century painting. It was believed they could reanimate the dead. (Granger Collection)

 

The corpse would not be still. It thrashed and groaned when the executioner tried to subdue it, and foam spilled from its mouth. The dead man was eventually dumped in a grave and covered with earth; but he still made “such a rumbling and tumbling in it, that the very earth was raised, and the mules were so heaved up that they could hardly keep them down”.

George Sinclair told this story in 1684. Seven years later, he became professor of mathematics at Glasgow University. He did not present his tale as an instance of peasant superstition, nor misdiagnosed death. He believed the corpse had returned to life. He noted that the account came “from a very creditable person, who being a scholar there at that time, was an eye and ear witness, who is yet alive”. Sinclair’s acceptance of such events placed him in the mainstream of European thinking. He shared his belief in the existence of “revenants”, or revitalised cadavers, with James VI and I, King of Scotland, England and Ireland as well as the esteemed Cambridge philosopher, Henry More. More wrote in 1655 that he could not “so much as imagine” how anyone could doubt the existence of these creatures, so convincing were the reports about them. 


Belief in Christ’s resurrection (as in Gaudenzio’s 1530–46 painting) paved the way for belief in revenants. (Art Archive)
 

Earlier authors provided numerous accounts of the wakeful dead. Around 1170, William of Newburgh described how a roaming corpse tormented the residents of Melrose Abbey. A priest stabbed the creature and drove it back to its tomb. The German monk Caesarius of Heisterbach recorded similar tales in the 13th century. One concerned a knight who “appeared to many” after death: “He was often struck with a sword but could not be wounded, giving off the sound of a soft bed being struck”. The Bishop of Trèves eventually exorcised the creature. In the late Middle Ages, the revival of corpses was often linked to witchcraft; and Renaissance demonologists such as Martín del Rio noted that Satan could revive the dead to consort with earthly followers. 

Why did educated people believe these things? The simple answer is that they had no strong reason not to. The origins of particular “eye witness” accounts will always remain obscure, but once they were in circulation, and ascribed to suitably reliable sources, nothing in the stories themselves was incredible. It was not that scientists like George Sinclair regarded tales of revenants as unremarkable: indeed, they reported them precisely because they were striking instances of the supernatural. Nonetheless, such events were consistent with the knowledge of the world shared by virtually all educated westerners in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Three broad assumptions lent credibility to the returning dead. First of all, the idea of physical resurrection was central to Christianity. The gospels described Jesus’s resurrection of Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus, and Christ himself rose from the tomb. More generally, all Christians would leave their graves at the Last Judgment. As artists like Giotto and Signorelli made plain, this would be a physical experience: the awakening dead would uncoil their bodies and stretch their limbs, and the torments of the damned would be excruciatingly real. Bodily resurrection was an established fact. It was natural, therefore, for pre-modern scholars to take the phenomenon seriously.


Today, the idea of the risen dead belongs in horror films like 'White Zombie' (1932),  but 300  years  ago, it was  widely believed. (Rex Features)
 

Secondly, most medieval and Renaissance people assumed that the ties between this life and the next were not severed completely at death. Spirits could return to complete business left unfinished on earth. The dead sometimes returned physically to remind sinners of what awaited them in hell. In a frightful episode from 12th-century France, the body of a dead student appeared at his friend’s bedside to show him the pains he could expect if he continued his debauched life. The visitor flicked three drops of sulphurous pus into his friend’s face, “so that they pierced his skin and flesh like cauterising fire and made a hole the size of a walnut”. He changed his ways.

When Protestants abolished the doctrine of purgatory in the 16th century, they challenged traditional ideas about the traffic between living and dead. This meant sightings of ghosts were often dismissed as hoaxes or illusions in regions affected by the Reformation, though Catholic authorities were generally more sympathetic. Stories of revenants remained plausible, however, because of the third general assumption that lent credibility to the phenomenon: the existence of demons.

As well as describing the miracles of God, the New Testament provided copious evidence of the power and intentions of Satan. The gospels recorded his ability to enter human bodies and the soulless flesh of animals. For medieval and Renaissance scholars, this facility offered a simple explanation for reports of reanimated corpses: demons possessed and moved them like puppets, without truly rejoining the spirit to the body. Such “fake resurrections” also confirmed the Devil’s desire to ape the miracles of God. It was one consequence of this belief that learned descriptions of revenants stressed the lifelessness of their bodies, which were little more than playthings for the unclean spirits within. Their flesh remained pale, rank and cold, noted Martín del Rio in 1600. Others recorded how revenants collapsed into dust once demons departed. In 1751, the Benedictine Abbot Augustine Calmet described the false resurrection of a young boy: “the demon that had animated him quitted him with a great noise; the youth fell backwards, and his body – which was fetid and stank unsupportably – was dragged with a hook… and buried in a field without any ceremony”.

Between lives: van der Weyden’s 15th- century painting of damned souls. (Granger Collection)
 

The involvement of demons explains why Renaissance thinkers associated the revival of the dead with witchcraft. As disembodied spirits, demons needed fake bodies to make physical contact with humans. Following St Augustine, most writers assumed that they normally crafted these bodies from air: possessed corpses provided a gruesome alternative. As “they are foul and unclean spirits”, Nicholas Rémy suggested in 1595, they “find their favourite habitation… in stinking corpses”. A few years later, Henri Boguet confirmed that Satan has “sometimes borrowed the body of a man who has been hanged, and this he does chiefly when he wishes to associate with a witch”.

Since revenants demonstrated the activity of demons, they supported the wider belief in an “invisible world” of spirits. When natural science began to challenge this belief in the late 17th century, those who wished to preserve traditional religion used tales of the returning dead to prove the existence of this other realm. This was George Sinclair’s purpose in 1684. In the words of Henry More, belief in revenants was “an antidote to atheism”. This rearguard action was ultimately unsuccessful. Enlightenment scientists banished the invisible world of demons to the realm of “superstition”. It is one measure of their achievement that revived corpses now belong exclusively to fiction: they are simply incredible in the “real world”. But for orthodox Christians from the Middle Ages to the 1700s, it was equally absurd to believe that the dead could never stir. 

 

Dr Darren Oldridge, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Worcester, has published extensively on early modern religion and witchcraft. His latest book is Strange Histories (Routledge, 2005)

Books: The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe edited by Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall (Cambridge University Press 2000); Medieval Ghost Stories edited by Andrew Joynes (Boydell Press 2001); Strange Histories by Darren Oldridge (Routledge 2004); Ghosts in the Middle Ages by Jean-Claude Schmitt (University of Chicago Press 1998)

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