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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