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Vampires, Vikings, and Virgins: Bizarre Burials in the Middle Ages

Happy Halloween-een All!

Let’s get spooky, shall we? What with aspects of Halloween (and related celebrations) being tied to the dead (see our last blog post), we figured that is exactly what we would dig into (see what I did there?). Your treat today is a look at bizarre burials.

Throughout the middle ages there have been a number of funerary practices. From ship burials, cairns, cremations, in the church yard, under the church floor, to the elaborate effigy-topped tombs, and more, there were a lot of customs across medieval Europe over time. But, some burials were just plain odd.

The first group of burials we’ll look into are collectively referred to as “vampire burials” or “anti-vampire burials”. Now, to be clear, historians are not entirely certain that imagined vampirism was the impetus behind such burials, but there is clearly some fear of the dead returning that seems to have played a role in these odd burial practices.

In 5th-century Rome, a 10-yr-old child who suffered and likely died from malaria, was buried with a stone in its mouth. Another burial, of a 3-year-old girl, was found with stones on top of the hands and feet. At this time, malaria was responsible for the deaths of many Italian children. But, these are the only two burials at La Necropoli dei Bambini to be buried with stones. So, why were these children singled out? It remains a mystery.

More famously, 14 anti-vampire burials were found in a cemetery in Kaldus, Poland dating to around the 11th century. They exhibit a number of “anti-vampire” mythos options in the style of their burials such as decapitation, being buried face down, and the classic, weighted down with stones technique. Another anti-vampire group dated to the 17th century was found in Drawsko, Poland. A late medieval burial in Sozopol, Bulgaria was of a man who was pinned through with a rod.

A late medieval anti-vampire burial in Poland.

A subset of anti-vampire burials are of a type sometimes termed “live burials”. It actually is not clear that these women were alive when buried, but they each share commonalities. An Anglo-Saxon woman buried in Sewerby in Yorkshire, England was discovered face down, arms and legs akimbo, with a large stone on her back and another across her shoulders. Similarly, a woman buried in Plovdiv, Bulgaria sometime around the 13th or 14th century was buried face down, this time with her hands bound behind her.

Sewerby Burial – image from strangehistory.net

Our next four graves, may fall into the anti-vampire category as well. They were discovered in the Yamal peninsula area of Siberia. At first glance they may not seem odd, but the fetal position three of the four were found in was very unusual for the time and place. All of them showed signs of extreme illness, injury, and malnutrition. One of the burials, a woman, had her grave robbed out at some point leaving behind only 1 bone. The one man turned out to have been burned postmortem before being buried. One woman likely died in childbirth. But, all of them were buried with fairly nice objects, adding to the mystery of why they should be buried in ways differing from the usual practices of the time and place.

Let’s step away from vampires and take a peek at some weird Viking stuff. Norse who were Vikings were buried typically in elaborate ways meant as sendoffs to the afterlife. It was not uncommon for a person to be buried with things like horses, a chariot, dogs, as well as food, weapons, and household goods. But, one out of the ordinary Viking burial in Derbyshire, England contained 4 children, aged 8 to 18, buried tightly together with a sheep jaw at their feet. Based on the injuries it appears they were killed immediately before inhumation. While there are a spattering of contemporary accounts of human sacrifice as part of Viking burial, this is the only evidence that upholds those accounts.

Hundreds of bog bodies have been discovered across Europe. With so many one may be fooled into thinking that we understood why they exist. But, nope. Less than 50 of the bodies are intact and they range drastically in their timeframe and place for deposit so there is not likely to be one unifying reason. (Also check out our blog post on Bog Butter! )These really exist before our time frame having primarily occurred during the Iron Age, but who can pass up a bog body, really? Bogs have the benefit of being just downright creepy places which adds to the shiver factor here. Most of the bodies clearly met a violent end, some being subjected to many types of murder before being deposited (throat slit then hung, for example….I think he’s dead, Jim.) Were they sacrifices? Were they criminals? Murder victims? In a few cases hair sampling revealed that women travelled just before ending up in the bogs. Mysteries abound with the bodies and there is likely no one answer. 

Back to the Middle Ages we go, to a cathedral of bones. At the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne in a room called the Golden Chamber, the walls are covered with thousands and thousands of bones. A myth is told about 11,000 virgins travelling with Ursula, a Romano-British princess in the early Middle Ages, who were then killed by Huns in Cologne. While a bizarre and thrilling tale, it seems that the bones may actually be from a disturbed mass grave of plague victims.

Speaking of Saints, this brings us to relics. Relics were big business in the Middle Ages. From pendants and vials purporting to hold milk from the Virgin Mary to splinters said to be from the True Cross. But, more commonly they were bones, skin, and fingernails (and other bits like foreskin and tongue) of Christ and the saints. These were (and still are) housed in elaborate reliquaries. Sometimes, like with St. Francesca Romana, a whole person was displayed. There are 6 “incorrupt” bodies at the Vatican (bodies which ostensibly do not decompose, although most have decomposed at this point)

Skull of St Valentine

And, now we leave you with what may be the most bizarre and baffling burial of the Middle Ages. So mysterious. So strange. The Guernsey Porpoise. You read that right. Sometime during the 15th century, for some reason some person cut up a porpoise and buried it on Guernsey island. Okay, it might not be wholly mysterious. The popular thought is that it was buried in a casing of brine to be prepared for eating and then for some reason was never retrieved. Like when you warm something up in the microwave then forget about until the next day. I mean…I assume other people do that?

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

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All Hallow’s Eve (and then some)

Halloween is upon us!

Now, you could do what everyone else is doing and go the zombie, vampire, scary movies, and candy route, or you could add a little medieval-European flavour to your celebration.

Just your basic American Halloween.

First, a brief-ish history lesson.

It is commonly said that Halloween has its roots in Celtic tradition. But, saying this is a bit hinky. One, there was no monolithic Celtic culture. Two, what we do know is almost solely through a Roman lens. Basically, there isn’t really contemporary documentation to support any of the claims. It’s more a case of guesswork.

That being said, it does seem that the changing from summer into fall was at least noted by the Western European cultures that the Romans encountered. But, we’re going to jump ahead to our timeline and dig in with what we DO know. By the time the Romans opt to give up the ghost (as it were) on continuing to hold their Westward empire, marking the beginning of fall in much of Europe was a Roman affair laid over Celtic, Gaulish, Germanic, and British traditions. Like they do.

The Romans had a festival, Feralia, held in late October during which the dead were remembered. They also had a holiday on November 1st to celebrate the Roman goddess of fruit and trees, Pomona. Her symbol is the apple, not coincidentally.

She seems a right peach!

Bede, writing in the 8th century, refers to October as “winter moon” (Ƿinterfylleþ) and to November as the “blood month”, the latter perhaps relating to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of herd culling ahead of winter. By Bede’s time Europe is fairly well Christianised, but pastoral ways were still prevalent. Whatever blend of pre-Roman celebrations rolled into the Roman celebrations remained was not a big enough deal for historians to be recording at this time.

Later medieval historians make reference to bonfires and celebrations like Samhain and Calan Gaeaf. But, these celebrations do not necessarily match up to the romanticised visions we have constructed since the Victorian era (when the jack-o-lantern first gets a mention…in fact, most modern American Halloween aesthetic was birthed in the Victorian age).

But back to the Middle Ages. In the 8th century, Pope Gregory III moved a holiday established by his predecessor, Pope Boniface IV, from May 13th to November 1st. That holiday celebrated saints and martyrs and was called All Saints’ Day. The following day, meant for EVERYONE’S souls, was known as All Souls’ Day.

There’a a lot of them.

The English gave the holiday the name All Hallows. The night before, then, was All Hallows Eve which became the word Halloween. So, Halloween is Oct 31st, All Saints’ or All Hallows is November 1st, and All Souls Day is November 2nd (when the release of souls from purgatory to heaven is celebrated).

On All Saints’ Day people dressed up as angels, devils, and saints and paraded through towns and large bonfires were erected. Professional actors known as mummers would dress up in elaborate costumes and put on plays, typically of mortality sort (because everyone needs beast-headed creatures telling them how to be better humans.).

Mummers – basically the Big Bird and Snuffleupagus of the Middle Ages.

On All Souls’ Day, inspired by the Roman tradition of Lemuria (the sending away of the dead), people prayed to help guide the soul’s of their recently departed to heaven. This was sometimes accompanied by food.

These are still celebrated across Europe in various ways, whether La Toussaint, or Día de Todos los Santos, or Halloween, or Halottak Napja. Soul cakes, allerseelenbreze, and other related breads find their history in the Middle Ages. Wheat seems to play a big role, probably because of recent harvests. Across Europe celebrations on November 1st and 2nd incorporate visits to cemeteries, flowers (chrysanthemums are big, for example), offerings, and feasts featuring fruits and nuts. All these elements likely have their roots in the Middle Ages or further back.

Throw your own modern Allhallowsmas!

So, back to the beginning of the blog. If you want to snag some throwback flavour and host something different and culturally rich this Halloween, take a page from medieval European history. Celebrate from the evening of October 31st through the evening of November 2nd. Dress up like angels, saints, and devils or go more Roman and chose nature related guises like dryads or Pomona. Or be inspired by the mummers. Make a trip to the cemetery to commemorate your lost loved ones or to generally respect the dead. Bring chrysanthemums and light candles and dedicate them to the dead. Host a feast featuring meat, fruit (especially apples and pomegranates), nuts, and seasonal bread like soul cakes. Make it about remembering those who are no longer with us. Bring in some modern flare with songs like “Health to the Company”, “The Parting Glass”, and “A’Soalin’”.

Soul Cakes

Whatever your choices, just be safe and have a hallowed evening! Oh, and remember what the mummers taught about being better human beings and don’t desecrate anything or engage in cultural appropriation!

How the Queens of Sass set an Allhallowsmas table!

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Med(ieval) Gala

Clearly, the fashions of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were different from today, but sometimes the fashions were just different…full stop.

Welcome to the annual Med(ieval) Gala! As always the dazzling style makers are set to walk the red carpet. Let’s see who’s shaking up the fashion world today!

If you thought the high-low look was passe, think again! This fresh take features scallops and a bold belt of twisted fabric. Reminiscent of Hailee Steinfeld in 2014, this looks blends classic and fun…but with a built-in seat cushion.

These fine gentlemen in their fancy hats have clearly taken a page from Billy Porter’s playbook. If it isn’t one step past fabulous, why did you even bother? It’s a look that combines the pageantry of the joust field with Easter Sunday.

Speaking of fabulous and hats…SOMEONE clearly liked the aesthetic of Aquaman.

There is A LOT going on here. This dress is elegance with a side of Didn’t-Come-To-Play. Ermine lined from top to bottom and what are these laces even lacing? Gold embroidery and a hennin that won’t stop.

Speaking of extra extra, this dashing dandy hasn’t met a trend he didn’t like. Stripes? YES! Circles? YES! Fringe? YES YES! And the hat just caps it all off. See what I did there?

We were unable to get an image of these bad boys in actions, but dude is going to ROCK these peacock feather butterfly wings! Let’s just say that again…peacock feather….butterfly wings.

This dashing German fella is really working it. From the chaperon to his boots everything goes together perfectly…especially his purse! There are matching purses and then there’s statement pieces like this matching purse.

We love the whimsical outfits that grace the pink carpet! And this is no exception. An homage to the infamous scene where  Hogwart’s letters whisk around the Dursley’s living room, this is a work of art as much as it is an outfit. Curious as to how they plan to sit down…

Literally stellar! This cosmic creation is a show stopper. It’s like Lady Gaga all over again – sublime and peculiar!

There’s one every year, I suppose. Someone who thinks edgy equals relevant. But, in this case we love it. Snakes as nipple rings is rather evocative of Frida Kahlo and we’re always on board with that!

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Field to Fashion

Clothing in the post-industrial age is cheap and disposable. If we grow tired of something or outgrow it, it is easy enough to get something else, usually the same day we make the decision to get new clothes. This is a loooong way from clothing in the Middle Ages. Cloth was precious. For most folks living in Medieval Europe, a couple sets of underclothes, one work outfit, and one nice outfit existed in their wardrobes. The undyed underclothes were washed more often than overclothes to preserve the nicer outer garments. There were various ways to prevent damage from clothes, like removable or tie-back sleeves.

Why were people so precious about their clothing? Well let’s take a walk through the process of wool (since it was the most common fabric type) – before mechanised looms, before sewing machines – “sheep to shawl” (as recreators say) – a field-to fashion-guide.

 

Shepherd: the person who raises the sheep, or herds them if you want to be pedantic about the word.

Shearing: – in many cases shepherds hired skilled workers who travelled around shearing sheep during shearing season (there’s a tongue-twister in there somewhere). 

Sorting: – fleeces get grouped into grades, worsted (long top hairs) and woollen (short underhairs) as well as sometimes by type of sheep or if it is good for warp or weft. A process apparently so boring no one bothered to capture an image of it, so here’s a battle sheep:

 

Washing: – the wool gets a bath in soap and water. Depending on if this is happening at home or for market it might be a quick bath, or super scrub. Quick washes leave much of the lanolin intact, which the super scrub option tends to strip it all out.

Beating: – the wool is flogged with willow sticks because it’s a dirty, dirty, fluffy cloud of fibers . This removes any bits of grit that washing missed.

Dye-in-the-wool: – sometimes the wool is quick dyed at this stage, providing a base colour for later. Often no mordant, the chemical used to make the dye hold fast, is used. Here’s some damp, dyed  roving ready to be combed:

Greasing: – if all that lanolin was stripped out during washing then some oil was added back to the wool, often something like butter or olive oil.

 

Combing/Carding: – this is the bit you get to do whenever you go to living history places when they give you two dog combs and you brush the wool back and forth between the two. But, some medieval tools for doing this were KILLER. Combing was used for the longer worsted wool and carding for the shorter woollen. This was to straighten and fluffify the fibers. Before iron was common and even after because it was effective but cheap, people used teasels (we’ll come back to them in a minute).

 

Spinning: this is when you turn all those fibers into thread through the magical process of twisting! Spinning wheels start showing up in Europe around 1300 CE (arriving by way of the Middle East from the Far East). Before that there was a variety of ways to spin and women did this often – sort of a very early fidget spinner. There’s basically distaffs…

…and drop spindles (of which there are many types).  Estimates say that there were on average 7 spinners needed for every 1 weaver. Men were spinners, women were spinsters, even if they were married. Just the job title, folks. 

 

 

Weaving: basically that toy we all played with that was a plastic square with knobs over which we stretched what seemed to be slices of plantyhose. Standing looms were a thing for a long time, then they became horizontal, then they got more and more automated, but the principle is all the same. You have the warp which are the long, tension-providing threads and the warp which passes perpendicular to the weft with an under-over motion.

   Fulling: also called walking (or waulking) or tucking, is basically washing, but for fabric. This gets oils and dirt out and prepares the fabric for taking dye. Once a garment was made it would be walked periodically to clean it of the daily grit and grime it accumulated. It also thickened the fabric (hence, the term “fulling”). Walking and tucking come from the motion used. Instead of soap and water, at this point a clay called fuller’s earth mixed with water was used.

While out of our time period, not much changed between the middle ages and 18th-century Scotland, so here is a clip from Outlander showing women waulking: https://youtu.be/wgT3Fo5BLTs

Shearing 2:  the de-fuzzing! The sequel to shearing includes 100% less wiggly farm animals. This was a method of removing all those little fuzzy bits of fiber which escaped the weave (the bad type of fuzzy that we DO NOT want). Battle sheep again…

Napping: it’s been a helluva lot of work up until now and I think we could all use I lie-down. Actually, this process used tools called teasels which were dragged across the fabric to raise the nap (the good type of fuzzy that we DO want). Teasels are also the dried heads of dispascus plants, aka thistles. These heads were placed in wooden frames and that’s what made a teasel.

And back to those teasels…this is a teasel, filled with teasels. And, now, don’t you want to casually drop ‘teasel’ into some random conversation? Just me then.

Dyeing:  this is pretty self explanatory really, except instead of heading to your local craft store you went into nature and squeezed the life out of it then made a soup of it’s leached soul and and a mordant, like alum, then bathed fabric in this blood of nature (sometimes literally – look up cochineal).

Pressing: this is basically, ironing. All sorts of cool tools to flatten fabric have existed for awhile, but irons first started appearing in the 1300s. At this point you have workable or sellable fabric! This is a glass linen smoother, for linen, but you get the idea:

Draper: mostly fabric was then purchased by fabric merchants, or drapers, who would travel the wool circuit. Then, as today, that circuit was the hotbed of fashion and people from all the fashion-oriented cities went to the big markets to look for the best options; places like Milan, Paris, Barcelona, Antwerp…and Winchester. Wool was BIG BUSINESS. There were so many laws, and levies, rules, and regulations regarding the industry. And every country had their prime wool that they were trying to dominate the market with.

Cutting/Tailoring: now, the clothing has to get made. Tailors might buy fabrics which their customers could pick from, or customers might bring in their own fabrics.

As you can see fabric was labour intensive. It’s processing and creation spanned gender and class. But the time it reached the consumer, it was a pricey commodity. Men and women tended to know at least how to do basic repairs to a garment and garments tended to be altered to fit changes in body size and shape and handed down to younger siblings, children, vassals, etc. If they were beyond wearing then it might be stripped for parts to be used in making embroidered purses. “Waste not, want not” was the name of the game when it came to fabrics.

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