Medieval ‘Zombie Threat’ And What Villagers Did About It

Although the threat of a zombie invasion may seem the stuff of horror films, comic books, and The Walking Dead, apparently, villagers in north Yorkshire, England, took drastic steps to ensure the undead did not rise again to wreak havoc on the lives of the living. According to archaeologists, these zombie neutralizing steps included burning, dismembering, and decapitating corpses. The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science on Monday.

Zombies or old-fashioned cannibalism?

The bones the researchers studied came from a grave site first excavated in the 1960s. Broken and intentionally hacked to bits, the archaeologists originally believed the remains belonged to early Romano-British settlers whose graves were moved at a later date. However, when they performed an isotope analysis of the teeth, they discovered the bones came from villagers who lived around Wharram Percy in north Yorkshire, a medieval village that was deserted by the early 16th century.

A group of people dressed like a horde of zombies in Venice, Italy for carnival.
Medieval villagers are known to have feared the undead. [Image by Luca Bruno/AP Images]

One of the most well-preserved medieval villages, Wharram Percy was once a prosperous village with two large manor houses. The ruins of the village church and a few cottages still remain. The original 1960s excavation site was also located in this area.

Before they moved on to zombies, the archaeologists had to first rule out cannibalism, a widespread practice in times of famine. To do so, they examined the markings and cuts on the bones, which had obviously been made intentionally. However, the bones did not have any of the characteristic cut mark clusters around major muscles, which would suggest gruesome butchery for a pot of human stew.

Zombies or the threat of unwelcome outsiders?

Another theory the researchers had to disprove was that the bones belonged to unwelcome outsiders, who the medieval villagers proceeded to massacre, tossing their hacked remains into a mass grave. However, Alistair Pike, archaeological sciences professor at Southampton, stated the isotopes in the teeth ruled this theory out. Although outsiders may well have been considered threatening, the strontium isotopes in the teeth found at the site suggest the bones belonged to people who grew up near Wharram Percy, if not in the village itself.

Fear of zombie invasion fits medieval folklore

Man dressed as a zombie with a chain around his neck in Greece.
Medieval villagers believed evil people would rise again. [Image by Yorgos Karahalis/AP Images]

Researchers also stated that mutilating the bodies after death fits with medieval folklore around fears of the undead rising again to attack and threaten the living by spreading disease and being up to other violent zombie mischief. They also believed zombies might particularly target those individuals who they held a grudge against while still alive.

To prevent the imminent threat of a zombie invasion, medieval texts suggest digging up, decapitating and burning the corpse. Breaking a few bones may also help prevent the undead from clawing their way out of the grave and into the homes of medieval villagers quaking in their beds.

How the medieval villagers dealt with their potential “zombies”

The archaeologists studied the bones of around 10 people, including at least five men, two women, and three very young children. The age range of the deceased is believed to be between two and 50-years-old.

To prevent the corpses from unleashing the horror of a zombie invasion, the researchers believe the villagers chopped off their heads shortly after death and then burned the bodies while the bones were still soft. This fits the remedies offered in medieval sources for preventing a rising of the undead, particularly those who may have been evil or cursed while alive or who are likely still angry at the living.

Simon Mays, skeletal biologist at Historic England, said the evidence that medieval villagers in Wharram Percy mutilated the corpses to stave off the perceived zombie threat seems to fit better than any other theory.

About the fear of zombies in the Middle Ages, Mays went on to say this demonstrates the “dark side of medieval beliefs.” It also shows us how different medieval perception was to our own.

[Featured Image by Francisco Seco/AP Images]