Were the burghers of medieval Yorkshire so terrified of zombies that they would resort to desecrating their own dead? That seems to be the most likely explanation for the discovery in Wharram Percy, one of many abandoned medieval villages in Yorkshire, of bodies dating from the 11th to 14th centuries C.E., showing evidence of extensive mutilation.
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Wharram Percy was a small farming town, consisting in the medieval period of just two facing rows of dwellings. The archaeologists found 137 bones, "representing the substantially incomplete remains of a minimum of ten individuals," they note drily. The bodies were of both sexes and ranged in age from two years to over 50.
After death, the bodies were decapitated, dismembered and burned. The question is why.
Belief in, and fear of, the walking dead, was very real in the Middle Ages. Images abound from the Middle Ages of living people being pursued by skeletons. It is true that there is no consensus about what those images represented, but that said, stories of the undead abounded.
Orderic Vitalis, a 12th century Benedictine monk, wrote in Book 8 of his “Ecclesiastical History” about a priest named Walchelin, who, in 1091 C.E., was returning from visiting a sick parishioner when he was confronted with what seemed to be an army of the dead. “Now I do indeed see the shades of the dead with my own eyes,” Walchelin thought, according to Orderic.
Soon after, in the late 12th century C.E. a Yorkshire monk and historian named William of Newburgh wrote about a walking corpse in Berwick. The corpse only rested when locals dug the body up and dismembered it. For all that, according to his own biographers, he took great pride in relying on accurate sources, William was renowned for his descriptions of "revenants", namely the living dead of various sorts, including vampires.
"It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living," William wrote – if not for the "abundant testimony".
He for one thought it a "modern" phenomenon because the ancient writings are very extensive but do not mention walking undead, and if there had been any, they would have, William thought.
But are the corpse mutilations of Wharram Percy evidence of an attempt in practice to stop the dead from rising? Or could it have meant something else to the abusers?
Strange burials for strangers
When discussing reasons for corpse mutilation in history, prevention of a zombie outbreak is not usually the first theory.
However, in the case of Wharram Percy, the theory gains credence because one seemingly more likely alternative was ruled out.
Prof. Alistair Pike of the University of Southampton and one of the leaders of the project, first theorized that the bodies may have been mistreated because they did not belong to the local area. Strangers might have been subject to abuse, including after death.
However, isotopic analysis on the teeth of the corpses showed they did grow up locally. The isotopes in the teeth matched the local geology, says Pike. This means that the individuals who were mutilated upon death grew up close to where they were buried, likely in the village of Wharram Percy itself.
While this is not proof positive of the theory that the corpses were mutilated to prevent them from rising from the dead, it does rule out the theory that these people were mutilated because they were strangers.
What about cannibalism?
From ancient to modern times, cannibalism has been practiced to ward off famine. Modern tales include the Siege of Leningrad and the Donner Party.
Between the years of 1066 C.E. and 1300 C.E., at least ten large-scale famines were recorded in England (Kershaw 1973). And the evidence of burning could suggest cooking fires. However, finding reliable accounts of cannibalism due to famine from the Middle Ages has proven difficult.
But, could dismemberment for cooking be what the evidence from Wharram Percy shows?
Most of the knife marks on the bones from Wharram Percy are in the head and neck areas, showing evidence of decapitation. No such marks were found at large joints and areas of muscle attachments, as would likely be the case if the bodies had been butchered for food.
Also, close examination of the bones ruled out the theory that perhaps the dead had been selected for "non-normative burial" because of unusual skeletal conditions.
“The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them from walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best,” concludes Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist with Historic England.
This interpretation is based on the surviving accounts of what were usually churchmen, who used them as anecdotes to make a point. It is therefore difficult to determine if the people of the time truly believed in zombies, but as they were illiterate while the churchmen could read, they may well have.