This 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.
Ah, 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.’
If you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)
Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.
However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.
Why 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.
History wasn’t always as safe as it was meant to be. Whereas now to find scary history you have to come here to The Spooky Isles, in 12th century Britain waiting to jump out and convince you that there were horrible monsters lurking behind every corner.
Respected historians like Geoffrey of Monmouthshire collected tales that claimed Britain was named after a Roman called Brutus who came here and did a WWE/BFG crossover by getting his friend Corineas to wrestle all the giants to death (except two, who stayed alive and fought for him, and who are believed to be buried somewhere under London… although this is more likely to be a confused urban myth than real folklore, the confused memories of effigies used in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.)
Other historians, like William of Newburgh were frostier and kept to the facts – ordinary things like stories of dancing corpses, and an abusive husband who comes back from the grave to crawl back into bed with his wife.
William of Newburgh, a 12th Century monk, wrote that although it was hard to believe that zombies existed, they were an essential warning. He told a story about a dead guy in Buckingham who crawled out of his grave and tried to go back to bed with his wife. When friends and neighbors intervened to stop the corpse, it went mad and started biting chunks out of people.
And that’s not an isolated story. Walter Map, a Welsh Courtier from the 12th Century wrote a book about the people and places in the world around him, and he also commented on how England sure had a lot of zombies.
He talked about a local knight called William Laudun who came to his lord asking the strangest advice:
“Lord, I take refuge with you seeking advice. A certain evil Welshman quite recently died irreligiously in my village, and immediately after four nights he took to walking back to the village each night, and will not stop calling out by name each of his neighbours. As soon as they are called, they take ill, and writhing three days they die, so that already very few are left.” — De Nigus Curialium
How does the brave knight eventually solve the problem? Yeah, decapitation followed by fire.
And those aren’t the only zombie tales. Caesarius of Heisterbach, a Cistercian monk, wrote about a nursemaid who was looking after her master’s children in his book Dialogus Miraculorum. She saw the animated corpse of a pallid woman with tattered clothing wander out of the cemetery. The creature stared over the fence, moaned, then wandered into the neighbors’ house for a while before going back to her grave and peacefully de-animating. Continue reading “The Walking Dead, Medieval Edition”