vampires


vampires
   In East European folklore, a vampire is a a bloated, blood-filled corpse which leaves its tomb, bringing disease and death. It is often assumed that the concept was unknown in England until imported (in glamorized form) by 19th-century novelists. However, *William of Newburgh in the late 12th century recorded several contemporary accounts of active corpses, one of which corresponds perfectly to the folkloric vampire's appearance and behaviour (Historia Rerum Anglicarum, book V, chapter 24).
   It appeared at Alnwick (Northumberland) in 1196, emerging nightly from its grave to roam the streets, corrupting the air with 'pestiferous breath', so that plague broke out and many died. When two bold men decided to 'dig up this baneful pest and burn it with fire', they found the corpse much closer to the surface than they had expected; it had swollen to a horrifying size, its face was 'turgid and suffused with blood', and its shroud in tatters. They gave it a sharp blow with a spade; from the wound gushed 'such a stream of blood that it might have been taken for a leech (sanguis-uga) filled with the blood of many people' (trans. Stevenson, 1856/1996: 660-1). So they tore the heart out, dragged the body away, and burned it; this put an end to the plague.
   William gives three further accounts of aggressive *undead (chapters 22-4), all recent and vouched for by eyewitnesses. In Buckinghamshire, a dead man returned to his widow's bed, almost crushing her with his weight, and then terrorized kinsmen and neighbours; the body was found uncorrupted, and a written pardon was laid on its breast, though some had advised burning it. At Berwick-on-Tweed, a 'pestiferous corpse' roamed the city, 'pursued by a pack of dogs with loud barkings'; it was cut to pieces by ten brave young men, and burnt. At Melrose (Scotland) a monk who was attacked by a corpse struck it with an axe and chased it back to its grave; next day it was dug up to be burnt, and observers noted its 'huge wound, and a great quantity of gore which had flowed from it in the sepulchre'.
   Though blood is only mentioned in two of these tales, all have features regularly associated with vampires in Europe - the link with plague, and the need to destroy the uncor-rupted bodies. In later folklore, a tradition persisted that suicides, criminals, or witches should be staked 'to stop them walking'.
   Full translations of the texts are in Joseph Stevenson, The History of William of Newburgh (1856; reprint 1996), 656-61; and Montague Summers, The Vampire in Europe (1929; reprint 1996), 80-8. The latter renders sanguisuga (literally 'blood-sucker') as 'vampire', not 'leech'; though tempting, this is too bold. For European vampire lore, see Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality (1988).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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