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’.

Vampire of Venice

duckulaCount Duckula receives the terrible news about his Italian cousin

Another more traditionally blog-sized post this time – a longer ramble is pending! This time though, I’m looking at sensational evidence of medieval European vampires! Or so the media are saying. See also the video here – and note right off the bat that the the “stake in the heart” is a popular myth, is not only wrong, but hugely ironic, since the stake is well documented as being one of the few features of the folklore that has survived into the fiction also.

I have no beef with the basic thesis, but as ever, the media spin is misleading. Firstly, the theory that vampire folklore comes from near-universal misunderstanding of the process of decomposition is NOT new. In fact, there’s a whole book on it, written by Paul Barber in the 90s. I heartily (ha) recommend it in fact. It outlines a great deal of evidence for both “profane” burial of potential vampires, and exhumation and “killing” of suspected ones. This brings me to my second problem – Barber’s best evidence ties historical descriptions with archaeological evidence. His historical evidence on its own is also compelling. But he only mentions archaeological anomalies – strange items in graves as tentative support for a broader application of his theory – not to say that these were definitely also vampires (or other undead corpse-related creatures). Whereas these guys are using one find to claim exactly that. In fact there are all sorts of reasons for things like decapitation, sickles on the chest, stones in the mouth etc – some may be intended to stop vampires from rising, but many others have no such proven link and may just demonstrate of contempt for the deceased – no superstition necessary. For example,  a burial in Greece where a wife’s head was removed and placed in the lap of her husband seems unlikely to be related to vampires and more so to moral trangression – adultery perhaps (if not wanton descretation – always an option). A large object jammed into the mouth might reflect punishment for gossiping or badmouthing – not everyone in a mass grave at a time of plague will have died of said disease – such crises make individual burial difficult to achieve whatever one’s cause of death (save those with the highest social status).Then there’s outright criminal punishment – from Roman executions to medieval hanging, drawing and quartering, to the anatomist’s table in the modern-era. It’s all about denying socially accepted burial rites to someone who has done something wrong. Though it might overlap, “vampire” prevention and cure is about fear of the dead rather than punishment of the living. Which does this case represent? Again, far from clear. Yet another possibility, very relevant in this case, is some sort of prophylactic against the disease itself – sure, this woman was the only one in her mass plague pit grave to be so dealt with – yet lots of individuals in this Anglo-Saxon cemetery had stones in their mouths. A whole pit of vampires? Unlikely. Disease victims? More plausible. Or once again, were they punished criminals, or morally deficient in some way? We can’t really know. Nor can we with this Venice “Vampire”.

In addition, the “vampire” as we know it – blood-sucking corpse – is just one phenomenon blamed historically for everything from failing crops and plague, to “new” hair and fingernails, bloating, blood around the mouth etc (in corpses). Depending upon location and period (and the whims of the superstitious idiots performing the desecration) the affected corpse could have been that of a potential ghost, witch, werewolf, succubus, or whatever. This is actually part of Barber’s thesis – that most of these folkloric beings have a common origin in the decomposing corpse. On the one hand therefore, this strengthens the idea that the brick in the mouth might relate to this fear of the dead, but on the other, it makes a nonsense of claiming a “vampire” specifically, unless this really was a prevalent scapegoat belief in that time, in that place (more evidence, please!). There could even have been some other superstition or religious belief involved, not to do with the dead returning – for example as a vessel for the departing soul (as with stones in corpses’ mouths in Guatemala). The vampire idea is more likely than this latter by virtue of the time and space issue – but my point is that there are any number of other explanations for which the evidence is lost.

There’s also some contradictory info here. The anthropologist himself (see the video above, though this may be a translation issue) appears to claim (though this may be a translation issue) that the woman was killed by the brick (implying that this was done whilst alive), whereas one academic is quoted as saying;

“Maybe a priest or a gravedigger put the brick in her mouth, which is what was normally done in such cases”

Much more plausible, although I’ve yet to find any historical evidence for either claim. If we’re talking prophylactic – done whilst dead, or upon exhumation later on, it’s plausible, don’t get me wrong, but if you’re going to sound as certain as these guys, you need corroboration. Otherwise every anomalous burial feature can be attributed to whichever pet paranormal being is your bag.

So for these reasons, and although the basic idea here is sound – it’s impossible to say that the people who did this thought the woman was, or might become, a “vampire”. It’s just as likely that she was someone on the margins of society who had her corpse desecrated. There is overlap here, since suicides were often staked a la the eastern European vampire – but where there is a superstitious component to these acts, it’s to keep the spirit or ghost in place, not to prevent bloodsucking corpses. On the plus side, at least this story helps popularise Barber’s definitive (in my opinion) explanation for the original vampire (and other “revenant”) folklore, at a time when most still conflate the folklore (the “real” beliefs) with the later fiction of Carmilla, Dracula etc. I just wish the press releases given to the media could be couched in less definitive terms, because this kind of faux certainty undermines public confidence in the humanities, just as the constant “x thing gives you cancer/protects you from cancer” nonsense undermines science.