You Won’t Believe Why Medieval Peasants Chopped Up Their Dead

You Won’t Believe Why Medieval Peasants Chopped Up Their Dead

Wyatt Redd - November 19, 2017

When you hear the word “zombie,” you probably imagine armies of the dead rising from the grave to eat the brains of the living. That image has been burned into the popular imagination in recent years through movies and TV shows on the subject, but the idea is actually much older than that. In fact, for almost as long as people have been burying their deceased, they’ve dreaded the idea that they might return. Over the centuries, that has meant they needed to get creative if they wanted the dead to stay buried. And the means people have invented are as varied as people themselves.

Recently, researchers excavating the remains of a medieval English village made a grisly discovery. Hundreds of skeletons unearthed from the site showed evidence of being chopped up or smashed, almost as if they had been butchered. Of course, this sort of find is actually quite common in archaeology. It’s typically evidence of cannibalism occurring in a community during a famine. But the researchers were convinced that this grim scenario wasn’t the answer in this case. The cut marks on the bones weren’t consistent with cannibalism. Instead, the researchers had stumbled upon something far stranger.

You Won’t Believe Why Medieval Peasants Chopped Up Their Dead
A body buried with a stone shoved into the mouth to prevent it from biting people, The Sun.

The archaeologists working at the site believe that the marks on the bones actually indicated that the bodies were carefully dismembered before being buried. And they theorized that the explanation was that the villagers were trying to prevent the dead from rising from their graves. Even more surprisingly, radiocarbon dating of the remains showed that they had been interred over a period of several hundred years, revealing that the fear of the walking dead was prevalent in the region for centuries. It’s a fear that’s hard for the modern mind to comprehend, so just why were the villagers so afraid of the corpses?

Chalking the fear up to the threat of “zombies” is perhaps a bit inaccurate. The concept of walking corpses hungering for brains would have been unrecognizable to these villagers. The word itself actually comes from Haitian Creole and probably dates to around 500 years after the bodies found in England were buried. In Haitian folklore, the zombie is a corpse raised from the dead by voodoo and forced to serve a “bokor,” or sorcerer. But the idea that a zombie consumed human flesh wasn’t part of the original folklore.

You Won’t Believe Why Medieval Peasants Chopped Up Their Dead
A Haitian zombie, Wikimedia Commons.

The people of Medieval Period actually had a much different conception of the living dead. But all across the world, people did have a firm belief that it was possible for a corpse to walk again and haunt the living. The form that this idea took was different across different cultures, but they had a number of elements in common. All of the different stories of the living dead made it clear that they were a danger to the living. And all agreed they needed to be destroyed.

You Won’t Believe Why Medieval Peasants Chopped Up Their Dead
Medieval peasants, Wikimedia Commons.

For the people of medieval Europe, death was a constant companion. Disease, war, or famine could, and frequently did, put kings and peasants alike into an early grave. In fact, the average life expectancy for a child born in the UK during the 13th century was a mere 31 years. The constant presence of death was reflected in religion, art, and the popular imagination. And in an era before modern science, medieval peasants often struggled to understand why an otherwise healthy person might suddenly grow sick and die, almost as if the life was being drained out of them.

Even harder to understand was when deaths tended to occur within a single family. After all, the death of a single person can be a random tragedy, but the deaths of an entire family in quick succession seemed almost as if there was an unseen force at work. As they often did, medieval people attributed these kinds of sudden deaths to the supernatural. The explanation they often arrived at was that the bodies of those who had recently died rose from the grave and returned to their homes, draining the life of the family members they had left behind.

This dark creature that fed on the life of the living was known by many different names. In Slavic mythology, they were the “vampir.” To the Chinese, they were the “jiangshi.” And in English folklore, the creature was known as a “revenant,” or “one who returns.” There were a number of things that could turn a fresh corpse into a revenant. Anyone who was especially violent or evil in life could become a revenant, as could anyone who committed suicide. And anyone who was excommunicated by the Christian Church was likely to rise again.

Once out of the grave, the revenant would prowl through the night visiting the homes of relatives or people they knew in life. According to some stories, the revenant feeds on the blood of the living. In others, they simply spread disease through the house or drain the life from the occupants with dark magic. And according to King James I in a treatise he wrote on the various varieties of demons, revenants were possessed by evil spirits who would use the dead body to have sexual relations with women in order to birth unholy demon spawn. Unlike vampires, there was little one could do to repel revenants, so the best option was to stop them from leaving the grave.

You Won’t Believe Why Medieval Peasants Chopped Up Their Dead
James I of England, who wrote a text on Demonology and revenants, Wikimedia Commons.

You could prevent revenants from rising by identifying people who were likely to become revenants and dismembering their bodies before burial. The most important things to remove were the head and the heart. Once cut from the body, both had to be burned. But if you were too late to stop the body from rising again, then it had to be dug up and totally destroyed by dismemberment and fire, or, at the very least, blessed by a priest and re-buried. And while the whole idea seems strange to us, there was actually a reason that the belief in revenants was so common.

You Won’t Believe Why Medieval Peasants Chopped Up Their Dead
A medieval skeleton staked before burial to prevent it from returning, Wikimedia Commons.

The fact that the belief in corpses rising from the dead to drink the blood of the living is so widespread is actually a clue to where the idea comes from. It’s an indication that there was something universal behind all the different legends, and in fact, there was. All of the legends about the living dead are likely based on an observation of the process of decomposition. When someone dies, their body naturally begins to bloat. At the same time, their gums begin to recede away from the teeth and the skin shrinks away from the hair and nails.

Taken together, this can give the impression that the body is not actually dead. The swelling makes it look as though the body has been feeding. Blood can flow from the mouth when the body is moved past teeth that now resemble fangs due to the receding gums. And the way the skin shrinks can make it look like the hair and nails are longer, which is why you may have heard the – false- story that they continue to grow after you die. In a time before embalming, medieval peasants would see all these signs when they dug up a “revenant.”

It’s important to remember that stories of revenants grew out of a time when people understood little about disease. So, if someone died of a condition like tuberculosis, which is transmitted easily to others in a house, the people in the community wouldn’t understand why the other members of their family seemed to begin wasting away shortly after their death. To people who lived in a world where the existence of the supernatural was accepted as fact, it wouldn’t take much of a leap to believe that a corpse was rising from the ground and draining their blood.

And after digging up the body to see if it had actually been visiting relatives, the natural process of decomposition would seem to confirm their belief in the idea of the revenant. That explains why so many people were absolutely convinced that revenants were a real threat. And it wasn’t just peasants who shared that conviction. Some of the most scholarly people of the time like monks and priests actually documented cases where revenants had risen from the ground. Obviously, they didn’t see these events first hand, but they felt that revenants were so threatening that the accounts needed to be preserved.

You Won’t Believe Why Medieval Peasants Chopped Up Their Dead
A medieval depiction of the walking dead, Wikimedia Commons.

That explains why medieval people in England spent three hundred years cutting up their dead before burial. The idea that they could return and bring death to the community was considered a very real possibility. Today, people don’t find themselves lying awake at night and worrying about a knock at the door from a corpse. And perhaps they should count themselves lucky for that. After all, that was a stark reality to the people of medieval Europe. And it’s a reminder of the power that beliefs can have over a community. Especially, the ones that are the most horrifying.