Archaeological finds prove that fear of the walking dead was very real to medieval minds

The abandoned medieval village of Wharram Percy, where fears of the walking dead were acted out. Historic England Archive

Zombies have long been an object of fascination: horror film director George Romero has championed the zombie film since Night of the Living Dead almost 50 years ago, and recent revivals have meant that talk of the “zombie apocalypse” is common even today.

But fears of the walking dead are not peculiar to modern society, as a recent archaeological discovery has shown: the mutilated and burned bones of at least 17 people were found buried in a pit outside the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, in Yorkshire, England. These mutilations were carried out on the bodies after their death, it is suggested, out of fear that the dead might rise and walk among the living.

A rib bone showing knife marks. Historic England

While Wharram Percy was excavated in the 1960s, these bones from the burial pit were only recently fully examined. Radiocarbon dating places the bones somewhere in the 11th-13th centuries, but they did not all die at the same time. Blade marks, mostly from knives rather than swords or axes, were left on the torso and head sometime during or shortly after death. The burning of the bones also would have occurred around the time of death, and some individuals may have been decapitated. The researchers argue that the two most likely interpretations of these burials are either cannibalism during a time of famine, or actions to protect against revenants.

Without suggesting one interpretation is more correct than the other, I would like to explore the latter suggestion further.

A skull showing evidence of having been burned. Historic England

There are mentions of revenants – literally the “returned”, essentially the walking dead – in English written sources from the 11th-13th centuries. The Wharram Percy burials are reminiscent of an account in Geoffrey of Burton’s 12th-century Miracles of St Modwenna: two men run away to the nearby village of Drakelow in Derbyshire and die soon after, only to rise from the grave the following night carrying their coffins on their backs, terrorising villagers who are mysteriously found dead in the morning. This continues night after night until most of the village has been killed. In desperation, the survivors dig up the corpses of the two men, tear out and burn their hearts, and cut off their heads and place them between their legs.

This story has been used to suggest that the practice of placing severed heads between the legs of Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British burials was protection against revenants. However many scholars have recently argued that this sort of decapitation is more likely evidence of judicial execution. Yet the presence of both decapitation and burned bones at Wharram Percy is intriguing: burning of specific body parts or the whole corpse seems to have been much more crucial to destroying 12th-century revenants than decapitation. Additionally, blade marks found on some ribs in the Wharram Percy pit could have been from an attempt to remove the heart for burning.

Accounts of revenants are uncommon before the Norman Conquest, but seem to suddenly appear in the late-11th and 12th centuries – around the time of the earliest Wharram Percy pit burials. Sheffield historian Charles West has argued that the story from the Miracles of St Modwenna may stem from social tensions due to changes of land ownership and lordship under Norman rule. The villagers who ran away, died, and rose from the dead had deserted the Abbot of Burton to take up with the new neighbouring Norman lord. As the Miracles of St Modwenna was written by a monk at Burton Abbey, a story where the exiles fared a terrible fate and the neighbouring village was forced to pray to the patron saint of Burton Abbey, St Modwenna, was an excellent way to demonstrate the power of the abbey and its saint.

Cambridge historian Carl Watkins has argued that the growth of revenant and ghost stories in the 12th and 13th centuries mirrored the growth of beliefs about penance and purgatory. For instance, in his Historia Rerum Anglicarum written between 1196 and 1198, William of Newburgh recorded the story of a man in Buckingham who died, but his corpse rose from the dead every night to wreak havoc, harass his brothers, and repeatedly attempt to climb back into bed with his wife. Locals wanted to exhume and burn his corpse but instead Bishop Hugh of Lincoln pinned a letter of absolution to the dead man’s chest, thereby easing the path of his soul through purgatory - and once again demonstrating the power of the church to protect its flock.

It’s easy to talk about how supernatural tales may reflect society’s fears, particularly since we all know that zombies don’t really exist (… right?). But if the Wharram Percy burials were indeed due to fear of the walking dead, this is evidence that in the Middle Ages these fears were very real. These individuals, local people, may have been dug up from the local cemetery by people who knew them in life, mutilated, burned, and reburied beyond the village area. We can only wonder what grievous social change or events could have occurred to lead them to act upon such fears of the walking dead. We may also wonder how many tales of revenants may have been true records of local events.

Wharram Percy, like Drakelow, was eventually abandoned. Perhaps the stigma of revenants was enough to haunt the village for centuries afterward.