The high medieval period was an age of discovery, which gave rise to new ideas and belief systems. Many new folk tales and myths were created as people strove to make sense of their brave new world, particularly in rural areas where such things were more heavily integrated into everyday life. One particularly memorable example of this is the vampire.
An ethereal being existing to prey upon the living, often a tragic romantic character, the vampire is something with which we are all spine-tinglingly familiar. How then, did this myth of Count Dracula and his ilk arise and spread throughout Europe? An unlikely source may be able to explain this: the plague and illness.
Burgeoned on and carried by trading ships across Western Asia and Southern Europe, the Black Death, or the bubonic plague, spread far and wide across the known world. Many thought that these were the end of days and that the apocalypse had arrived on earth. The pestilence wiped out almost a quarter of the European populace, and in such a heavily religious society it is clear as to why apocalyptic reasoning was used.
sores often appeared to resemble bite marks and scratches
Due to the more primitive nature of medieval science, inhabitants of communities in this era were unaware of how a pathogen spreads and is transmitted from one host to another. In a medieval household, especially given the cramped and unsanitary living conditions, disease would pass through family members in quick succession. Quite often, an infected person would die and within days the family member assigned to caring for them would also be struck down with the plague. Lost and afraid, people turned to the supernatural for answers.
After a member of the family died, those nearest to them would bear the same welts and sores as the deceased, and became delirious and mad with infection. These sores often appeared to resemble bite marks and scratches, generally congregating around the neck and upper body. Connecting the dots, the village folk declared that the newly-infected where being attacked and bitten by their deceased loved one, perhaps as a means of vengeance for not saving their lives. Coupled with the strange, crazed ‘visions’ of dark shapes and figures brought on by the plague as it took hold of the infected, they quickly ascertained that the deceased should be dug up and dealt with, to put a stop to the haunting once and for all.
What they saw upon digging up the corpse helped fuel vampire mythology. After exhuming the cadaver, they discovered that the lips and mouths were covered with fresh blood, clearly indicating a biting attack. Moreover the bellies of the corpses were swollen, as if freshly gorged on the blood of the victims. Surely then, the dead plague victim had returned to attack their nearest and dearest from beyond the grave? The logic was so strong that the corpse would then be beheaded and its body and head buried at other ends of the town from one another, for safety.
it is easier to blame the dead than the living
The vampire myth spread throughout popular culture, surviving as a common fear for several centuries and spreading west to the Americas hundreds of years later. Today, nearly everyone has heard of Count Dracula and Transylvania, or seen a horror film featuring a creeping vampire. The bat that sucks the blood of its prey is named after them too, the Vampire Bat. The hooded shrouds worn by corpses in medieval England helped the vampire myth become so haunting; a dark figure covered by robes and cloths, mysterious and hidden.
So what is the science behind this medieval belief? Researchers have shown that when a body, animal or human, is decomposing, gasses released can cause the organs and intestines to swell and bloat posthumously. This causes the whole appearance of the torso, most prominent in the abdomen, to protrude and expand. After a few days of this, the swollen belly effect that the people of the village discovered becomes present and gives the impression of a full stomach, which the medieval people interpreted as indicating a full stomach of drained blood.
In addition, the bubonic plague has the effect of causing bleeding in the mouth and throat around the time of death. This is what caused the bloody mouth effect witnessed once the corpse was dug up. The time it took someone to become infected with the plague and display severe symptoms also coincided with the amount of time it took for the decomposing body to display the ‘vampire’ symptoms, further ratifying the medieval beliefs and logic used. For many, without modern scientific methods, the supernatural was the most logical explanation available.
It is apparent that in an age of new discoveries and new experiences, medieval people looked to what they understood in order to get a grasp on what they did not. Isolated in rural communities and far from the plague doctors and medical practitioners, these vampire beliefs became fully implanted into the medieval mind. After all, it is easier to blame the dead than the living. By rationalising the plague into a supernatural occurrence, they could envision a more tangible and controllable threat rather than the then unexplainable black death. In seeking to make sense of this new horror that had enveloped their world, the mythology of the vampire flourished from its epicentre in rural England and spread rapidly, lasting even to this day in popular culture.