Britain’s Medieval Vampires – Review

Last night I caught up with ‘Britain’s Medieval Vampires’ on Channel 4. The programme looked at a number of ‘deviant’ burials which had occurred in the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain and related them to a 12th-century text, the ‘Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna‘. ‘Deviant’ burials were described as burials in which the body had been manipulated in a way that was apparently to prevent or stop the corpse from returning from the dead. (I should point out here that I am not as well versed in deviant burials as my PhD colleague in OGOM, Matt Beresfordan archaeologist who has worked on a number of deviant burials). In the stories of St. Modwenna, there are accounts of local people returning from the dead in order to plague the living. When those accused of returning were dug up they were discovered to be ruddy in hue, have distended bellies and blood leaking from their mouths onto their shrouds. These bodies were then beheaded and had their hearts removed. Though deviant burials have often been related to people who died violent or aggressive deaths and thus may be bodies that have been buried away from holy ground, ‘Britain’s Medieval Vampires’ considered cases in which this was not the case. Rather the programme attempted to humanise the people who were disinterred and the people who were undertaking such acts. In some cases the pinning of the body, breaking of the legs or removal of the head was done as a preventative measure rather than following an accusation of a vampire attack. Whilst the documentary explained that deviant burials were rare in the British Isles and that they died out after the Medieval period, the viewer was also taken to Bulgaria, Italy and Romania.

In Bulgaria, we were shown another set of Medieval burials that included bodies that had been pinned with stakes and had their legs broken. And, in Venice, we were told about a woman who died during a period of plague who had had a piece of stone inserted into her mouth. This practice was associated with the idea of shroud eaters – a type of undead persons who chewed at their death shrouds. There was also an interview with the gentleman who was key to the disinterment of Petre Toma, a Romanian man who was accused of being a vampire after death. This case received a relative large amount of coverage in the media because it was so recent and seemed to confirm the idea that Romania was the home of vampires. Despite some unnecessarily spooky music and hype (it was a Halloween special after all), the interview was interesting and not patronising. In fact throughout, this documentary was relatively respectful and non sensationalist given the content matter. Though there was a delightful interlude into the effects of decomposition in the human body as a way of explaining the blood leaking from the mouths of the suspected revenants. (I was excited to find out that the human body is much like that of a pig. Could this explain why human flesh is often described as being porcine to the taste buds – mind boggles).

In keeping with international account of deviant burials and ‘vampire slayings’, it was also good to see that attention was drawn by Dacre Stoker to Bram Stoker’s notes from a 1896 New York World newspaper cutting that covered the exhumation of a number of bodies in New England who were considered to be vampires. The idea that Stoker solely relied on Romanian folklore for his novel has become self-perpetuating. This ignores the other meticulous research that he did for the novel. Perhaps his interest in the New England case inspired the inclusion of Quincey Morris, the American with a curious amount of knowledge about vampire bats and hunting wolves.

There were a few moments in the programme that caused me some perturbation. Though the programme in general managed not to ‘avoid surrendering to the cliché (often utilised in vampire fiction) that it is as ‘ancient’ as the human race itself’ (Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire, London: Routledge, 2002, p. 24), there were a few moments where the narrative made sweeping statements. The etymology of the word ‘vampire’ was simply presented as generally Eastern European. This is problematic as it does not acknowledge how words are absorbed, adapted and appropriated. Though ‘vampire’ might be the correct translation when discussing the undead and deviant burials in different countries today, it is worth remembering the cultural weight that comes with it. Within Britain, the word vampire comes with a specific set of cultural beliefs and ideas many of which are linked with the misappropriation of Romanian folklore. To continually re-assert the power of the word ‘vampire’ by using it repeatedly rather than using ‘undead’, ‘restless dead’ or ‘revenant’ can simply affirm this connection. Yet this did not  undermine the documentary’s interesting exploration of the different international cases as expressions of shared fear of death and the undead rather than a vampiric conspiracy enveloping the whole world.

Equally, though I agreed with the idea that times of plague would have created great consternation amongst communities that may have lead to a fear of the dead returning, I was frustrated by the brief attempt to explain vampirism as a mistaken diagnosis. Both tuberculosis and porphyria were presented as diseases that made people believe in vampires. Aside from porphyria also being regularly described as the ‘werewolf disease’, I suspect that given its rarity, it is unlikely that it was the root cause of a belief that the dead were returning. Many of the aspects of the disease seem to link to a more modern conceptualisation of the vampire than one presented in the programme.

However, the programme did not try to link all the cases of deviant burial practices across nations, and I suspect that this section was trying to give a clearer insight into what caused period moments of ‘vampire panic’. My only other comment about this section was that when trying to contextualise the historic fear of plagues and the concurrent hysteria within contemporary concerns, this was illustrated with images from the most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Though it was a laudable attempt to help the viewer connect with past, due to the problematic representation of the Ebola outbreak in the media and its geographical removal, I felt that this just further ‘othered’ folkloric beliefs and practices. It would have been more sensitive and uncomfortable to illustrate how similar we are to our ancestors with coverage from the panic over HIV/AIDS, Mad Cow disease, SARS, Avian flu, Swine flu, smallpox as biological terrorism, and/or foot-and-mouth disease – to name just a few of the recent Western plague panics that have occurred in my life time.

Generally, though, I felt that the documentary was sensitive to the fact that we should not be demeaning towards early practices surrounding death. By linking the fear of death and undeath to the promise of eternal life, the final section of the programme made an interesting link to why the vampire has become a creature to which to aspire in recent popular culture. Indeed, in exploring the celebrity-like status of vampires, I think some very interesting points were raised regarding how the vampire can still be an uncanny reflection of the contemporary desire to achieve immortality – whether through vampirism or the cult of celebrity. No matter how much modern vampires may shine, or sparkle, under the spotlight of popular culture, their glossy packaging only distracts from the uncomfortable realisation that what they offer may not truly satisfy: immortality always comes with a price. The final words of the programme echoed Nina Auerbach in Our Vampires, Ourselves (1995) by promising the return of the vampire, always evolving and ready to feed from our abject fears.

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