The Medieval Undead - Episode 4 of the Medieval Warfare Podcast

Did the Middle Ages have its own version of The Walking Dead? We talk with Scott G. Bruce, professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of The Penguin Book of the Undead, about some strange medieval tales, including a horde of dead soldiers roaming the countryside around Normandy.

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Transcript of this episode:

Peter Konieczny:Scott, thanks for joining me here today. I guess I wanted to talk about the dead with you and how the medieval Christian world kind of had a view of the dead. What was that like? How did that kind of change during the period?

Scott G. Bruce: Well, the medieval Christians had a very different view of the dead than we tend to in our modern society. We tend unfortunately in many ways to sequester people who are dying and to, unless you’re a very strong proponent of a certain faith, we don’t tend to carry on relationships with the dead except in personal memory. But in the medieval period there was incredible continuity between communities of the living and communities of the dead. People were not easily forgotten. Those relationships were continued and important to keep up. In fact, the dead were quick to remind you when you didn’t keep them up. So really in the medieval period what we’re looking at is incredible continuity. Death doesn’t sever relationships in the way that we think of the severing of relationships now when someone dies. Memories were kept alive often generation after generation and the dead continued to play a role for the living, especially an intercessory role.

Peter: You’ve worked on this, called the Penguin Book of the Undead, which looks at kind of ghosts and specters and things like that which are very different in the medieval world compared to what kind of see in our modern world.

Scott: Absolutely, yes. The word “undead” troubled me from the very beginning because it’s a marketing ploy on the part of Penguin Classics. They were very open about this, and I explained to them that this is going to have resonances for modern readers that are not really resonant in the text. The word “undead” to us today, it brings to mind people that are dead bodies or the spirits of dead people that are brought back, usually against their will for some kind of malevolent purpose. This was certainly not the case in the Middle Ages. As I say in the book, the word “undead” is not a medieval category. They had a wide range of Latin and vernacular terms used to describe the dead and the returning dead. Everything from ombre, shadow, spiritus, to words like biathanatos, a Greek lone word that means living dead, but was often applied to suicides and not to ghosts. So there is a big difference there. The modern catch-all “undead” really doesn’t do justice to the wide variety of terms used in medieval Latin to talk about them. But the so-called undead in the Middle Ages were typically not malevolent. They were typically communicative and helpful, and if they did seem to be bad or dangerous it was usually with a particular purpose, because obligations to them hadn’t been fulfilled. Once those obligations were fulfilled then usually they were laid to rest.

Peter: We tend to in our modern kind of shows of the undead, they either have no humanity, like The Walking Dead where they’re just mindless zombies, or they’re kind of forces of just pure evil like a vampire or something like that. We look at a medieval ghost, they’re often a chatty person.

Scott: That’s right. They have a purpose. This is not to say modern undead don’t have their purpose either. I think that we use the undead these days as a kind of locus for anxieties about science run amok or about disease. I think 20 or 30 years ago shambling masses of unthinking people were wonderful metaphors for communism and other things that Americans were worried about. But medieval people didn’t have these anxieties. They had their own set of anxieties. They were anxious about their fate of their soul in the other world, and sometimes stories about the undead served to speak to those anxieties, both by warning people what could happen but also showing them a way to correct themselves and showing them that even beyond the grave humans could intercede on behalf of dead souls to help get them to the place they need to get, obviously heaven.

Peter: Some of the sources that you talk about deal with undead of military matters. That’s in your article in our Medieval Warfare. You kind of talk about a few of those stories. The one that I find most fascinating is one by Orderic Vitalis. He’s a 12th century Anglo-Norman chronicler. Could you just tell us about what he wrote about?

Scott: Sure, absolutely. I should preface it by saying that the very earliest references that we have to ghosts and unquiet spirits in the Western tradition, going all the way back to Homer, single out dead soldiers as being particularly subject to restlessness and therefore to hauntings. It’s usually because of the cases in which soldiers die. They die young, they die violently, and they tend to lie unburied. All of those things serve to agitate the soul and often cause a haunting. Now, the story of Orderic Vitalis is a very complicated one. It’s the story of a priest named Walchelin who happens to be in a rural part of his diocese where he’s serving to the needs of one of his sick parishioners, and he’s wandering home through the woods at night when he encounters a massive hoard of what seemed to be people but what are clearly not living people. There are men and women of all different stations. There are priests and abbots and there are women, lay-women especially but then there are also these soldiers, so many soldiers in this entourage. What he has encountered is a hoard of dead souls that instead of being sent directly to hell for their sins, they’re set on this kind of mad course of endless wandering. Some of them are being tormented by demons. Others are just being tormented by the fact – and this is especially true for the soldiers – they’re being tormented by the very armor and weapons that they’re carrying, which are burning hot or give off a terrible stench. It’s very clear in his conversation with them that this is to punish them for being warriors, for being rapacious, for being cruel, and for taking part in warfare. The difficulty in understanding the text about Walchelin is that it seems to be a purgatorial text. It seems to be a text that suggests that these people are suffering and intercession will set them free. In fact, one of the characters that Walchelin meets at the very end of the story is his own brother, who states that indeed Walchelin’s prayers, because he’s a priest, are helping him and will eventually set him free. But Walchelin meets other characters, too, other knights who he’s not interested in helping. One in particular who is suffering tremendously because he was given a mill by someone who owed him money, and he never returned the mill to its rightful heirs, and he’s suffering from the sin of usury for collecting interest on this loan. He carries around in his mouth something that feels like a burning millstone. He pleads with Walchelin to say, get a message to my wife, get a message to my sons and return this thing so I will be freed. And Walchelin says, I want nothing to do with you. So it’s not a straightforward story of priestly intercession will free you from the punishments that are caused by your sin, in this case the punishment of the endless march, but there’s an element to this where he’s only interested in helping his own brother, and then only after some convincing. So it’s a fascinating moment in the history of the doctrine of Purgatory and the way it’s being expressed, but what we’re also seeing here is I think a very, very vivid retelling of a local tale that was not as concerned with those doctrinal nuances as it was with telling a good story. Because that very night, that very soldier who Walchelin denied intercession for, gets very angry and grabs Walchelin by the neck with his burning hand and one of the things it said at the end of the story is Walchelin later - he lived another fifteen or twenty years, but liked to show off the scars that were created by this. So it has all the makings of a really, really good tall tale.

Peter: It’s something that you kind of imagine he said many times and Orderic was there one day and he recorded it.

Scott: It’s absolutely fantastic. But again, it’s not a neat and tidy story.

Peter: None of the stories you have are very neat and tidy. There’s no prototype.

Scott: No, these are all new stories. Again, I’ve caught many of them in their first tellings or very early on in their first tellings, so they’ve not been reduced to kind of programmatic statements of doctrine, and that’s what makes them so much fun to read I think, too.

Peter:  I really enjoyed your book. What other kind of work are you doing on this topic or just in general with the Middle Ages?

Scott: So I am now shackled to Penguin. I’m working on a new book for Penguin Classics and another anthology of primary source material that we’re calling the Penguin Book of Hell: 3,000 Years of Torment. It’s going to look at representations of the punitive afterlife starting in the most ancient period, really probably with the Greeks, but going all the way up to modern America. So one of the subtitles we proposed was “From Gehenna to Guantanamo.” But there will be a very large medieval component obviously to that work.

Peter:  Great. Well thank you so much, and keep enjoying the conference.

Our thanks for the transcription from Kabro Co.

The Medieval Warfare Podcast is hosted by the History Network

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