Medieval Villagers Mutilated Corpses to Prevent the Dead From Rising


An obsession with the return of the undead isn't just a modern, pop-culture phenomenon, according to new archaeological research out of England. Matjaz Slanic/Getty Images
An obsession with the return of the undead isn't just a modern, pop-culture phenomenon, according to new archaeological research out of England. Matjaz Slanic/Getty Images

Most people prefer not to socialize with corpses. Admit it: There's just something about dead people that makes you feel like maybe you guys shouldn't be hanging out. But though it's highly unlikely that proximity to a dead human body will give you a disease or contaminate the air you're breathing, that didn't stop medieval villagers in England from taking precautionary measures against their neighbors' cadavers, just in case.

In fact, during the period spanning the  11th and 13th centuries C.E., the good people of the quaint little medieval burgh of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire were so wary of corpses they went as far as to chop up and burn the bodies of some of their dead. Because you just never know — they might zombie themselves right out of the grave, and mosey back into town, spreading disease and beating people up and stuff.

According to a new article in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports, human remains from at least 10 people of both sexes, ranging in age from around 2 to 50, were found buried together in a pit near, but not in, the Wharram Percy churchyard. The recovered bones showing signs of breakage, knife marks and burning. The researchers considered reasons that would have led these villagers to treat their dead in this way — maybe these were the remains of suspicious strangers, executed felons, the victims of a battlefield massacre or even evidence of cannibalism in a time of famine. However, none of these theories quite fit what they found in the pit. But some medieval writings suggest the residents of villages like Wharram Percy would have believed in the potential of revenant, or reanimated, corpses that they believed usually belonged to people who were particularly unpleasant during life, or who died very suddenly. The bodies of these people were said to be either exhumed and dismembered, or given these special rites before they were buried.

The knife marks on external surfaces of two rib bone fragments do not indicate typical butchery methods.
The knife marks on external surfaces of two rib bone fragments do not indicate typical butchery methods.
Historical England

"The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best," said Dr. Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist for Historic England, in a press release.

So how did the team studying the remains narrow down the possibilities? According to the researchers, if the bodies had received this sort of treatment on the battlefield, there would have been chop marks from swords on the bones (which there weren't). Furthermore, felons were generally buried at the site of their execution (not the case here). Cannibals would have cut the bodies up at sites of major muscle attachments (nope), and if these people were just particularly unlucky outsiders, they probably would have grown up someplace else, right?

"Strontium isotopes in teeth reflect the geology on which an individual was living as their teeth formed in childhood," said Dr. Alistair Pike, an archaeology professor at the University of Southampton, in the press release. "A match between the isotopes in the teeth and the geology around Wharram Percy suggests they grew up in an area close to where they were buried, possibly in the village. This was surprising to us, as we first wondered if the unusual treatment of the bodies might relate to their being from further afield, rather than local."

So, these townspeople probably just chopped up the bodies of the people they didn't care for, or whose manner of death freaked them out, to prevent them from coming back and hassling them later.

"If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice. It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own," said Mays.

An aerial view of the excavation site at the Wharram Percy medieval village.
An aerial view of the excavation site at the Wharram Percy medieval village.
Historic England


More to Explore