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Medieval English Ghost or Vampire? December 8, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

An English ghost story from the mid late twelfth century which we owe to the very great kindness of the Count. The story begins with a Chaucer-like sexual adventure. This romp (and fall) seems to have no connection to the haunting other than to have helped the man of evil conduct into his coffin.  What is interesting is that unlike most medieval superstitious tales – that are at third or fourth hand – this is a second-hand account.

Another event, also, not unlike this, but more pernicious in its effects, happened at the castle which is called Anantis, as I have heard from an aged monk who lived in honour and authority in those parts, and who related this event as having occurred in his own presence. A certain man of evil conduct flying, through fear of his enemies or the law, out of the province of York, to the lord of the before-named castle, took up his abode there, and having cast upon a service befitting his humour, laboured hard to increase rather than correct his own evil propensities. He married a wife, to his own ruin indeed, as it afterwards appeared; for, hearing certain rumours respecting her, he was vexed with the spirit of Jealousy. Anxious to ascertain the truth of these reports, he pretended to be going on a journey from which he would not return for some days; but coming back in the evening, he was privily introduced into his bedroom by a maid-servant, who was in the secret, and lay hidden on a beam overhanging, his wife’s chamber, that he might prove with his own eyes if anything were done to the dishonour of his marriage-bed. Thereupon beholding his wife in the act of fornication with a young man of the neighbourhood, and in his indignation forgetful of his purpose, he fell, and was dashed heavily to the ground, near where they were lying. The adulterer himself leaped up and escaped; but the wife, cunningly dissembling the fact, busied herself in gently raising her fallen husband from the earth. As soon as he had partially recovered, he upbraided her with her adultery, and threatened punishment; but she answering, ‘Explain yourself, my lord,’ said she, ‘you are speaking unbecomingly which must be imputed not to you, but to the sickness with which you are troubled.’ Being much shaken by the fall, and his whole body stupefied, he was attacked with a disease, insomuch that the man whom I have mentioned as having related these facts to me visiting him in the pious discharge of his duties, admonished him to make confession of his sins, and receive the Christian Eucharist in proper form: but as he was occupied in thinking about what had happened to him, and what his wife had said, put off the wholesome advice until the morrow – that morrow which in this world he was fated never to behold! – for the next night, destitute of Christian grace, and a prey to his well-earned misfortunes, he shared the deep slumber of death.

Next comes the haunting. The Count made the point that this (and some other medieval stories he flagged up – another post, another day) have a vampire like quality. At first Beach didn’t take this seriously but consider the Count’s words: ‘Since [the subject of these accounts] didn’t actually bite anybody, strictly speaking they weren’t vampires, but in all other respects they were absolutely identical to the classic Transylvanian variety…including being vectors of disease, specifically targeting the people they cared for most in life [this comment related to the other accounts but what are the chances that the night walker came after his faithless wife?], and being reanimated corpses rather than spirits, meaning that they could be laid to rest if their earthly remains were dug up and cremated.’

A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night-time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, 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 the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster. 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. Already did the town, which but a short time ago was populous, appear almost deserted; while those of its inhabitants who had escaped destruction migrated to other parts of the country, lest they too should die. The man from whose mouth I heard these things, sorrowing over this desolation of his parish, applied himself to summon a meeting of wise and religious men on that sacred day which is called Palm Sunday, in order that they might impart healthful counsel in so great a dilemma, and refresh the spirits of the miserable remnant of the people with consolation, however imperfect. Having delivered a discourse to the inhabitants, after the solemn ceremonies of the holy day had been properly performed, he invited his clerical guests, together with the other persons of honour who were present, to his table. While they were thus banqueting, two young men (brothers), who had lost their father by this plague, mutually encouraging one another, said, ‘This monster has already destroyed our father, and will speedily destroy us also, unless we take steps to prevent it. Let us, therefore, do some bold action which will at once ensure our own safety and revenge our father’s death. There is no one to hinder us; for in the priest’s house a feast is in progress, and the whole town is as silent as if deserted. Let us dig up this baneful pest, and burn it with fire.’ Thereupon snatching up a spade of but indifferent sharpness of edge, and hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig; and whilst they were thinking that they would have to dig to a greater depth, they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces.

Beach started by wondering whether all this was based on a man coming back from the dead: i.e. a wrongful case of death diagnosis. But the description of the swollen body sounds like decomposition. Perhaps you could argue that the body was the centre of infection and that by destroying it the town was cleansed: night walker had come back (ill?) from a journey. But is there any European illness capable of doing this?

The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. This being torn piecemeal, and the body now consigned to the flames, it was announced to the guests what was going on, who, running thither, enabled themselves to testify henceforth to the circumstances. When that infernal hell-hound had thus been destroyed, 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.

Beach began by suggesting that the sexual shenanigans that led to night-walker’s death had nothing to do with his post-mortem status. Perhaps though there is the idea that he died ‘badly’ or in bad conscience or with unfinished business? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com  Also if anyone can find out where Anantis is or pass on the Latin Beach would be most grateful. The Latin doesn’t appear to be in the MGH.

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31 Dec 2012: Leslie writes in: The wandering, non blood drinking vampire reminds me of the Greek version of a vampire called a vrykolakis. Vrykolakis (Vrykolaki?) are reanimated corpses that wander through towns stealing life forces. They are usually described as a walking bloated corpse. Apparently a vrykolakis’s gaze was all that was needed to kill its victims. I guess it’s another way to describe the plague. The count died ‘badly’ because he died with unconfessed sin. The priest alludes to this here: “…but as he was occupied in thinking about what had happened to him, and what his wife had said, put off the wholesome advice until the morrow – that morrow which in this world he was fated never to behold! – for the next night, destitute of Christian grace, and a prey to his well-earned misfortunes, he shared the deep slumber of death.” Presumably, everything would have been fine had he received last rites. Thanks Leslie!!