Veni, vidi, vampire?

An English ‘vampire’, from ‘Medieval Towns’ by Schofield and Vince, 2003 edition

The always-fascinating Magia Posthuma blog has posted a really nice update on that ‘vampire of Venice’ story from 2009. It puts the original claims in perspective and provides much-needed insight into the academic side of the ensuing controversy that most of us haven’t been privy to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my biggest gripe with the idea that this ID6 skeleton was an Italian ‘Nachzehrer’ (or ‘shroudeater’) remains valid – because there ARE no Italian Nachzehrer! It’s a Germanic phenomenon. The fact that there’s no Italian analogue means that, at the least, the (now contested) conclusions found in ‘Forensic Approach to an Archaeological Casework of “Vampire” Skeletal Remains in Venice’ (paywalled) and in the media versions that most people read should have been presented in a more tentative manner.

However, it did get me thinking about analogues to the practice of placing a stone or brick in the deceased’s mouth however, as this is more widespread than the shroud/self-devouring version of the ‘vampire’ (and strictly, I should use the more general word ‘revenant’ there).

The stone/brick-in-mouth (or under chin) apotropaic does appear outside the bounds of (modern) Germany. Folklorist Jan Perkowski refers to the practice amongst the Kashubs of Poland (who did actually cary the Nachzehrer belief with them also), and Paul Barber cites Stora’s ‘Burial Customs of the Skolt Lapps’ as describing a similar practice amongst the Laplanders.

Then there’re the skeletons of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, one of which was found with a stone inserted between the jaws of its disembodied head. The skull was also placed between the feet, which is something that Perkowksi and Barber also refer to in the Germanic and Slavic worlds.

Finally, there is a lesser-known British connection. A helpful source at the Museum of London referred me a while ago to two instances. First are 11th/12th century burials at St Nicholas Shambles church in the City of London, where small stones were found in the mouths of four inhumations. These were interpreted as a substitute for the ‘ferryman’s’ coin, aka ‘soul-scot’ in the Anglo-Saxon world. More were found at St Botolph’s church in Billingsgate, my MoL source reports that several 15th-17th century burials also had stones in their mouths, a few being ‘the size of cannon balls.’

Two more were found at Fillingham in Lincolnshire, and another at Raunds Furnells in Northamptonshire. Note however that stones, big and small, are a feature of medieval graves in England, and seem to have served more than one purpose. Unlike burials elsewhere, we lack any real historical or folkloric evidence to back up the idea that these placements were aimed at keeping the dead…dead, but given the stones found in the two eye-sockets of one of the two Fillingham bodies (and bearing in mind the analogue practice observed even today of coins over eyelids), deliberate placement at least seems highly likely (more discussion here, including the connection with heavy stones perhaps used to weigh down the dead).

This doesn’t really aid the ‘Vampire of Venice’ claim any, as we still lack even support in an Italian context for the stone-in-mouth burial practice. But together with the rebuttal by the authors, it does perhaps increase our confidence that this was a deliberate effort by somebody, and by analogy, may indeed have been to prevent the return of a revenant of some kind. If so however, the shroud-eating hypothesis remains dubious, and the relevance of the term ‘vampire’ is, I suppose, a matter of definition. It certainly attracts a lot more press than ‘revenant’.

Of Venetian Vampires

Magia Posthuma has posted an update on the so-called ‘Vampire of Venice’ that hit the news a couple of years back (see my comments here) and as the author says, has created its own piece of vampire lore based upon little more than speculation. Since then I’ve both seen the National Geographic documentary and read the accompanying book (reviewed here and here), both entitled ‘Vampire Forensics’.

The ‘documentary’ is predictably lightweight, and the book contains relatively little to do with the actual find of a partial skeleton with ‘brick’ in its mouth. However, it does address some of the questions I’d had, though my scepticism remains high. I had wondered whether the ‘brick’ (actually a stone so far as I can tell, though nowhere is this clarified) could have arrived between the skull’s jaws naturally – this does not seem to have been the case, as there were no other stones in the immediate area. I had mused on the idea of plague pits being reopened; apparently there are records of this one having been. I had wondered why a 60+ woman would have been singled out as a revenant (let alone a vampire). The hypothesis seems to be that as she had a displaced clavicle, she must have been tightly wrapped in her shroud, leaving scope for a ‘shroudeater’ scenario along the lines Matteo Borrini has suggested – a tight shroud sinking into the open mouth as she decomposed, leading those opening the pit to think her a ‘nachzehrer‘. The big problem with this, as Magia Posthuma points out, is that there is no known tradition of shroud-munching revenants in Italy (or indeed outside the German states, so far as I know), making Borrini’s speculation interesting but premature. There is also the small point that a nachzehrer is not a vampire. Oh, and too much is also made of the rosary found with the body. This is just as likely to be a personal possession of the deceased. The hypothesis must fit the evidence, not the other way around.

I still await any academic publication of this find, and any other evidence to suggest an Italian belief in the nachzehrer, with interest.