Zombies: they’re supposed to be fictional, right? Only found in (reasonably) modern works of fiction and definitely not found wandering around in medieval times. Wrong.
Zombies, or the Walking Dead, were just as major a part of the medieval psyche and folklore as they are today. I found one account recently when reading a medieval biography about St Oswald. St Oswald (d. 992) was a bishop of Worcester in the tenth century and, because of his miraculous powers, he was pronounced as a saint after he died. Byrhtferth, a monk of Ramsey Abbey, wrote the Life of St Oswald a few years later and included a rather random story about a zombie named Foldbriht.
Before he died, Foldbriht had been the abbot of Pershore Abbey, and when he fell sick with a terrible illness he called for his friends, abbots Germanus and Ælfheah. He made his confession to them, and passed away. His body was placed in the middle of the house and this was when things got interesting…
“…Prayers were being said continuously by the monks who were standing and sitting there; these monks, inspecting the body, noticed little by little that the heart of the man of God began to beat and suddenly to shake off the cross [lying on his breast], and the man himself got up swiftly in a rage, throwing off the pall and sitting up. And the monks, seeing these things, turned to flight, fleeing this way and that, running through passageways and inaccessible places, thinking that he was following them…”
Not having seen 28 Days Later, or Shaun of the Dead, or really any informative zombie films, the monks did not immediately run for the closest sword to chop off the re-animated Foldbriht’s head. Instead, one of them went to Germanus and told him about that Foldbriht was alive again.
Germanus seems to have been the Rick Grimes of the group because, rather than approaching the re-animated corpse on his own, he went and got Ælfheah, ‘trusting in their solidarity in case Foldbriht should suddenly attack them.’ But, Ælfheah was a bit of a wimp and refused to enter the room, so Germanus went in first.
Thankfully for them, Foldbriht was the least aggressive zombie in the history of zombies. He chatted to them for a while about how he saw Jesus and St Benedict, lived for another half a day, and then actually died.
Although this is a relatively early example, there was a general fear of death (and the dead) throughout the Middle Ages. In the later medieval period, there was a legend of The Three Dead (zombies!).
Copyright of the British Library:
The legend, derived from a thirteenth-century French poem ‘Le dit des trois morts et trois vifs’, tells of three princes who were out hunting and stumbled across three fully-animated corpses (zombies). The princes were horrified and repulsed by the dead, who were of varying states of decay. The corpses on the otherhand, were not violent, but admonishing. They told the princes to fix their ways and live goodly lives, for soon they would be dead like them: ‘as you are, we once were; as we are, so shall you be’. Interestingly, this legend was most common in England and France, where the faces and bodies of corpses were concealed prior to and during burial, perhaps suggesting that those societies had a great fear of dead bodies.
For the whole Foldbriht story see: Michael Lapidge, Byrhtferth of Ramsey: Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwin (Oxford, 2009)