Tag Archives: Corpses

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a  working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.

With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…

Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.

I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland… Continue reading

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Things That D&D Got Right: The Party Cleric

AOdo_bayeux_tapestry_detailh, the party Cleric. In my gaming experience there are two kinds of people who play the party Cleric: the pragmatic player who looks around the table, sighs, and then says “I’ll play the party Cleric”, and players who know the GM likes to fill dungeons with undead.

I’ve already touched on one of the sources of the D&D cleric class in my article on Paladins and Magic Swords. This was Turpin, the Archbishop of Rheims, who Gary Gygax’s first gaming group referenced (possibly) erroneously when they described ‘the priest Turpin who went into battle wielding a mace to avoid shedding blood.’

The ‘using blunt weapons to avoid shedding blood’ issue is one of the big non-myths of D&D: everyone Continue reading

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From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead

Malleus_1669I freely admit that I’ve never read the Malleus Maleficarum all the way through, simply because it’s the one witch hunting book that really bothers me. Heinrich Kramer (I refuse to call him ‘Institoris’) was, in my opinion, just a vile human being. He wasn’t trying to do the best he could in a bad situation, he was a genuinely insane, hateful, awful human being.

But here’s a story worth telling: apparently he was a vampire hunter.

Heinrich Kramer
I don’t have to call Kramer a madman, or impugn his abilities, because the Bishop of Innsbruck already did during his own lifetime. In 1484 Kramer was conducting the trial of an Innsbruck woman when he began departing from legal procedure to question the accused about her sexual history. In some times and at some places this wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but the Bishop of Innsbruck appears to have believed in a crazy thing called ‘the rule of law’.

The defence called for the case to be halted after such a strange and creepy deviation, and the Archduke decided to abandon the prosecution altogether. The Bishop wrote two letters to Kramer’s host in the town, first saying, “tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.” Continue reading

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The Superstition and Politics behind medieval corpse dismemberment.

CannibalsWhy would you dismember a corpse? Nancy Caciola wrote a fantastic article for Past and Present (one of my favourite journals) in 1996 suggesting one of the most obvious reasons: to stop it wandering around.

Caciola’s article was one of my first introductions into the world of medieval Revenants: the very physical, shape-shifting dead who can climb out of their graves and tear you to pieces. In a world where we have demons climbing into the fleshy suit offered by the unprotected form of a corpse, we can see why Bonocampagno wrote of the German custom for boiling and dismemberment of corpses. In the 12th Century burning, boiling or dismemberment was a popular solution for corpses who wouldn’t stay in their graves.

It’s equally important to know that medieval theology had a strongly held belief that until a body had dissolved, the soul would be trapped within it. That’s why William of Newburgh writes in detail about the intactness of corpses, like the corpse of a lustful dead husband who crawls into bed with his terrified widow. It’s not a surprise that the body doesn’t find rest until it’s burned to ashes.

Pope Boniface VIII even released a Papal Bull in 1299 against the barbaric practise of French nobles who were having themselves dismembered and interred in several different sites. Surely, such things can only go to illustrate the terrible decadence of the French? Continue reading

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5 Strange Things About The Great Fire of London

1. It Rained Birds

Imagine this: you’ve got everything you own on a cart, burning hot winds are whipping at your clothing, blowing red hot cinders into your face.

Then it starts raining birds. Charred, living birds.

Birds were an important part of London life. They were an important source of food: and keeping a few chickens was a good source of food and possible income for a Londoner. Even a relatively poor family who could keep a small flock of geese or a roost of pigeons would have an advantage when it came to the important task of ‘making shift’, i.e. paying their bills and getting through life. Of all the birds in Restoration London (and modern London, although they’re less welcome now) pigeons were some of the most common.

Unfortunately, the Great Fire of London was a bad place to be a bird. When the fire took hold the heat was unbelievable: historians usually compare the heat to the same order of magnitude as the Dresden Firestorm during the Second World War. This had a terrible effect on the large numbers of feral, domesticated and semi-domesticated birds living in London at the time.

Samuel Pepys, a late 17th Century Diarist who was caught up in fighting the fire, writes: “…the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”

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