William of Newburgh’s Chronicles on Vampires in the Middle Ages
During the 1100s, a man named William of Newburgh (or Newbury; also known as William Parvus) composed one of the most cherished accounts of England’s history. Written in five chronicles or books, Historia rerum Anglicarum or History of English Affairs documents the history of 11th and 12th century England and is highly valued by historians as one of the most accurate and critical recollections of the time of William the Conqueror to Richard the Lionheart (1066 -1198). The work was never completed, however, as it is believed that Newburgh died before finalizing his life’s work.
As far as we vampire lovers are concerned, Newburgh’s History of English Affairs is considered just as invaluable, as it documents some of the earliest vampire phenomenon of the isles. Interestingly enough, although historians credit Newburgh as being a remarkably careful historian, they also claim that his reliance on the spoken folklores of the time creates vagueness and inaccuracy. Perhaps this is because belief in the undead returning to life was a common belief during the 12th century, and Newburgh did not diminish these beliefs in any fashion. In fact, Newburgh relishes accounts of the living dead and includes several in his chronicles.
Along those lines, Newburgh’s History of English Affairs documents several stories of revenants, or “visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living.” Although they are often deemed vampires, the revenants of which Newburgh cites are not recorded as feasting on the blood of their victims. They do, however, share a few similarities with vampires, which probably fueled the famed title.
Newburgh’s first report happened in Buckinghamshire, where a man returned from the grave and assaulted his wife for several nights. Finally, she appealed to her family members only to have the corpse return to terrorize both her family and her neighbors. Only an absolution written by the local clergyman and placed on the corpse could bind the body to the grave.
In another report, the body of a deceased clergyman stole from his grave to plague the abbey and a woman in the town he once served. The woman asked a monk to help her who in turn vowed to stand guard over the grave at night. When the corpse again crept from the earth, the monk slashed at it with an axe until it returned to the grave. The next day, a group of monks dug up the corpse, found it ‘sleeping’ in a pool of its own blood from the wounds inflicted from the axe. They proceeded to burn the corpse to ashes in order to keep it from coming back.
Several other accounts are also given where the undead were only stopped, or killed, by burning the corpse to ashes. It is a common belief that vampires are extremely difficult to kill, and one well-known method is that of burning them to ashes during the day when they are ‘sleeping.’ Vampires are also nocturnal, avoiding sunlight, and using the night to cloak their devious behavior. With these characteristics in mind it isn’t difficult to see why Newburgh’s chronicled revenants were considered to be vampires.
All in all, I’d like to believe that these creatures were in fact vampires, but ultimately they lacked the distinguishing characteristic of feeding on human or animal blood for sustenance. But perhaps those who were drained of their blood by these recorded revenants disappeared before anyone had time to blame the undead on their unfortunate disappearance. Or maybe the undead weren’t given long enough to get hungry. It could have happened. Just saying.