Modern sensibilities and science tell us that there is no such thing as vampires (especially not sparkly ones!). But to people of the Middle and early Modern Ages, vampires were a real fear. The belief in vampires likely evolved because people of the time didn’t understand the natural process of decomposition, including corpse bloating and fluid purging. To protect themselves from the undead, communities adopted specific burial practices:
- Four skeletons were recovered this past July in Poland during a road construction project. Each set of remains was found with the head buried between the legs. Since the bodies were buried without personal effects, dating of the remains is proving difficult, but, with further testing, scientists hope to confirm their estimate of a fifteenth or sixteenth century burial. During that period, suspected vampires would be ritually executed by decapitation, or they would be hung until decomposition naturally rotted the neck tissues and the weight of the body pulled it from the head. The belief was that a vampire would not be able to rise if it couldn’t locate its own head.
- In Bulgaria, a number of skeletons have been discovered with an iron rod through the heart and their teeth removed. This ritual provided two-fold protection: The iron rod pinned the dead into the grave, preventing them from rising. But in case they did manage to escape, removal of the teeth ensured that the undead would not be able to feast on flesh of the living.
- The Black Plague killed over 50,000 residents of Venice in the year 1576, including the medieval artist Titian. Four hundred and thirty-three years later, Italian researcher Matteo Borrini and his team were excavating a mass grave from the epidemic when they discovered a peculiar victim—a dead woman with a brick wedged between her teeth. Dr. Borrini hypothesized that the practice of opening up mass graves to add more victims, thereby exposing the decomposing bodies, led people to believe that vampires were spreading the plague by chewing on their death shrouds. Bricks were placed in the mouths of these ‘Shroud Eaters’ to stop them from spreading disease.
What appears as odd customs to modern people were reinforced to those early believers as the ‘vampires’ never rose from the grave. And looking at it from a modern perspective, it’s clear where some of the customs around current vampire traditions arose. So the next time you see a vampire movie, remember that some of those mythical aspects date back centuries to a time when society was looking for simple answers to explain complex biology.