Strange Burials Reveal Fear of Vampires in Medieval Poland. Or Do They?

As more 'anti-vampire' burials begin to pile up in Europe, scholars suggest a new perspective to explain 'alternative' burial rites

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This one's not going to get up. Medieval burial in Staroypin Prywatby, Rypin commune, Poland
This one's not going to get up. Medieval burial in Staroypin Prywatby, Rypin commune, Poland Credit: Jadwiga Lewandowska

In the heart of Poland, about 160 km from the capital city of Warsaw is a small village called Starorypin Prywatny. Today, the village, aka Stary Rypin, has a population of about 90 people. However, during the Middle Ages, it was an important settlement and administrative center in the Kuyavian – Pomeranian voivodeship.
But as the cemeteries of this town reveal, some of this bustling town’s residents seem to have been perceived not as mere misfits or eccentrics, but actually, possibly, vampires, foul bloodsuckers of the night. Or were they? Were they really?

'Vampire burials' in medieval Poland at Staroypin Prywatby, Rypin communeCredit: Jadwiga Lewandowska

The Mogilno Falsification

The first historical mention of the Rypin area is in the Mogilno Falsification from 1065, describing the purchase of land in that part of the Kingdom of Poland by the Benedictine Abbey of Mogilno.
While the date of the Mogilno text is debatable and it may actually date to the 12th century, archaeological data from Rypin supports the existence of a settlement during the 11th century.

Not all unusual burials in medieval Poland need be of "vampires" : In Staroypin Prywatby cemetery, Rypin Commune, Kuyavian Pomeranian VoivodeshipCredit: Jadwiga Lewandowska

Excavation carried out by the Museum of the Dobrzyń Land in Rypin, headed by Dr. Jadwiga Lewandowska, revealed a sequence starting in the 11th century when a fortress was built atop a hill, and a settlement to the east, with a cemetery southwest of the stronghold. The stronghold consisted of two wooden defensive structures that burned down in the mid-12th century and were abandoned.

Later, during the mid-13th century, a medieval Motte-and-bailey-type castle, of which only the foundations survive, arose where the stronghold once stood. Residential and industrial areas were erected around the castle, where the oldest brick factory in Poland was found. The castle too proved short-lived and ceased to exist in the mid-14th century.

Yet as we learn from historical sources, during its late Medieval existence, at least from 1326 if not before, Rypin had become a major urban center in the Dobrzyń region. The Order of the Holy Sepulcher arrived, and a church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles Peter and Paul was founded.

Today the town’s importance and its relics are long gone, and excavation of the cemetery of Starorypin Prywatny suggests that during the settlement’s glory days, the residents may have gone to some trouble to make sure the less gloried of their dead would stay gone.

As the archaeologists started excavating the Late Medieval cemetery in 2008, they found the skeleton of a man, aged between 40 to 50, who had been buried according to Christian rites at the very edge of the cemetery.

Burial of a tall man with bad teeth on the fringes of townCredit: Yadwiga Lewandowska

Burial by the cemetery wall, or in one of its corners, was considered as a sort of postmortem punishment during the Middle Ages. Subsequent anthropological analysis of the deceased conducted by Tomasz Kozłowski revealed that the man had been tall, between 180-185 centimeters (over six feet), and suffered from numerous pathologies and potentially disconcerting developmental anomalies. Some of them had to have been perceptible during his lifetime, such as crowding and distortion of his front teeth.

While pathologies would not necessarily have been unusual in that time and place, Lewandowska suspects that people with visible, unsightly anomalies would have been considered misfits, potentially imbued with evil.

Further excavation in 2009 and then in 2014 unearthed more peculiar burials. One man who died at the age of 20 to 25 (and who was rather short, 160 centimeters in height) didn’t evince signs of pathologies, but like the previous chap, he was buried at the fringe of the cemetery, with no grave goods. Above all, his body was placed in a peculiar position: face down. His arms strongly bent at the elbows, indicating that they may have been tied.
This positioning was no accident, Lewandowska says: the community deliberately buried him in that position and, based on previous research in Poland and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, interring a body face-down indicated that the deceased had been a misfit – and was suspected of being able to rise after death, and not in a good way.

In other words, burying a corpse face down was perceived as aimed at practical and/or symbolic keeping of a person in the grave.

Burial of a man, face down - so he won't rise again?Credit: Jadwiga Lewandowska

Locked in the grave

Were people buried in “alternative” fashion really suspected of potential vampirism? Well, the locals evidently had an active fear of vampires centuries before Bram Stoker popularized the myth in “Dracula”. An account called Casus de Strigis describes an event in 1674 in Lesser Poland. A man rose from the grave, becoming a revenant, and terrorized the local community by drinking their blood. In order to fight this vile creature, the local priest told the villagers to reopen the grave and turn the cadaver face down. That did not do the trick, and the revenant continued to prey on the living. So the people opened the grave once again and cut the man’s head off.

It is plausible, if not proven, that similar beliefs were also common during the early Middle Ages in Poland, affecting the burial practices of individuals perceived to be of a vile nature.
Women were not exempt from these odd rituals. One woman aged 50 to 60 years old was buried with a cylindrical padlock by her her shin. These types of padlocks are often found within settlements of the 11th to the 14th centuries, but their discovery in graves is rare, and only a handful of other examples are found within Christian burials of the early and late Middle Ages.

Iron padlock found next to the shin boneCredit: Jadwiga Lewandowska

Note that Jewish burials were apparently an exception regarding padlocks. In the cemetery of Dobrzyń on the Vistula River, which functioned from the 16th century to War World II, researchers uncovered 143 Jewish graves. The deceased were placed in wooden coffins with padlocks at their side. However, there was no Jewish community in Stary Rypin back then, or at least there is no information about them living there. Also, the burial ground in question was a Christian cemetery.
Lewandowska suspects that in the case of Stary Rypin, this padlock might have symbolized an attempt to prevent the woman from returning from the dead.

Another woman, aged 20 to 35 years at death, was found headless. It is hard to tell if she was deliberately decapitated or lost her skull due to post-depositional events. Grave robbery or accidental unearthing by the locals, resulting in local stories of children playing with the skulls and bones of the dead dug up at the site, are pretty common.
As research at the site continued from 2018 to 2020, yet more hints at “anti-vampire” practices were found within a newly unearthed Middle Ages necropolis southwest of the citadel. Among the graves, where the dead were lavishly furnished with temple rings and beads, jewelry knives, and flints, the archaeologists identified two burials of a deviant nature.

One was a man whose body wasn’t aligned with the others in this part of the necropolis. The second contained the body of a woman with a boulder that had evidently been deliberately placed on her belly, as indicated by stratigraphic analysis. Could it be that someone wanted to prevent this woman from leaving her tomb or achieving salvation?

Vampire burials in ancient Poland Fig. 6 Staroypin prywatby, rypin commune, kuyavian pomeranian voivodeship, site 66Credit: Jadwiga Lewandowska

The curse of hairiness

Polish archaeologists have known of deviant burials from the early Middle Ages for a century, but they tended not to document let alone discuss them. It would only be in the 1950s that discussion of them began and only in the 1970s that the suggestion of “anti-vampire” measures arose.
Since then, there has been a tendency among academics and especially the press to treat them as burials of people believed to be supernatural bloodsuckers of the night, but it bears stressing: no such thing has been proven. The whole issue bears more stringent, systematic analysis and interpretation, the researchers urge,

New studies, including historical, anthropological, osteological examinations of the bones from early and late medieval cemeteries, and excavations of execution sites from the late Middle Ages in Poland and other areas in central Europe, indicate that there were many reasons for which a person might be perceived as unworthy of a proper Christian burial, and attempts would be made to keep the deceased in the grave.

Staroypin Prywatby, Rypin Commune, Kuyavian Pomeranian Voivodeship shown on the map of Poland Credit: Jadwiga Lewandowska

For instance, Lewandowska explains, historical and ethnographic sources teach that the bodies of people who committed suicide or were executed would be treated differently, often dragged, quartered and burned, or tossed carelessly in the grave, without proper positioning. The bodies might be indifferently burined on their faces in a shallow grave-pit, and not in sanctified ground. Their lives and deaths were considered to disrupt the earthly and divine order, and certain so-called practices were required to restore the earthly balance.
In fact, the list of reasons why people might be deemed deserving of such treatment in Middle Ages Europe is practically endless, Lewandowska explains. People who died a tragic death. People thought to be sly, stingy, and cruel, or who betrayed their spouse, could find themselves accused of being “vampires” or some other vile creature. People who were not baptized, thieves, debtors, sleepwalkers, and those who did not settle matters before their death, were condemned; people with birthmarks or physical peculiarities, including disability or birth defects, and the hirsute were all considered dangerous to society, and sometimes would fall victims to prejudice.

Late medieval documents and works by Polish folklorists imply the belief in the living dead – in some form – persisted among certain Polish circles until the 19th and even 20th centuries. So while it is possible that some “anti-vampire” burials indeed expressed fear of the undead, there are alternative explanations as well

“Atypical burials are a fascinating phenomenon, testifying to a complex religiosity, consistent with church and folk dogmas,” Lewandowska sums up. “However, it is unnecessary to associate burials displaying deviant characteristics with vampires. Perhaps the reasons for the exclusion should be found in Christian eschatological beliefs, full of fear for salvation and penitential gestures.”

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