Medieval pandemics spawned fears of the undead, burials reveal
An analysis of graves shows a spike in people buried face-down as plagues ravaged German-speaking Europe. What were the living trying to achieve?
In 2014, Swiss anthropologist Amelie Alterauge was just a few days into her new job at Bern University’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland when she was called to investigate an odd burial in a centuries-old cemetery that was being excavated ahead of a construction project. Of some 340 burials in the cemetery, one stood out: a middle-aged man, interred face-down in a neglected corner of the churchyard. “I had never seen such a burial in real life before,” says Alterauge.
Excavators found an iron knife and purse full of coins in the crook of his arm, positioned as though they had once been concealed under his clothes. The coins helped archaeologists date the body to between 1630 and 1650, around the time a series of plagues swept through that region of Switzerland. “It was like the family or the undertaker didn’t want to search the body,” Alterauge says. “Maybe he was already badly decomposed when he was buried—or maybe he had an infectious disease and nobody wanted to get too close.”
The discovery set Alterauge off on a search for more examples of face-down, or prone, burials in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. Though extremely rare, such burials have been documented elsewhere—particularly in Slavic areas of Eastern Europe. They are often compared to other practices, such as mutilation or weighing bodies down with stones, that were believed to thwart vampires and the undead by preventing them from escaping their graves. But Alterauge says no one had looked systematically at the phenomenon of prone burials in medieval German-speaking areas that now constitute modern Switzerland, Germany, and Austria.
Now, in a new study published in the journal PLOS One, Alterauge’s research team reveals their analysis of nearly 100 prone burials over the course of 900 years that have been documented by archaeologists in German-speaking Europe. The data suggest a major shift in burial practices that the researchers link to deaths from plagues and a belief among survivors that victims might come back to haunt the living.
During the early and high Middle Ages in Europe (ca 950 to 1300), the few bodies that were buried face-down in regional graveyards were often placed at the center of church cemeteries, or even inside the holy structures. Some of them were buried with jewelry, fine clothes and writing implements, suggesting that high-ranking nobles and priests may have chosen to be buried that way as a display of humility before God. One historical example is Pepin the Short, Charlemagne’s father, who reportedly asked to be buried face-down in front of a cathedral in 768 as penance for his father’s sins.
Archaeologists begin to see an increase in face-down burials in Europe by the early 1300s, however, including some on the outskirts of consecrated Christian burial grounds. This shift coincided with devastating plagues that swept across Europe beginning in 1347, killing millions across the continent.
“Something changes,” says Alterauge, who is also a doctoral student at the University of Heidelberg.
As diseases killed people faster than communities could cope, the sight and sound of decomposing bodies became a familiar, unsettling presence. Corpses would bloat and shift, and gas-filled intestines of the dead made disturbing, unexpected noises. Flesh decayed and desiccated in inexplicable ways, making hair and nails seem to grow as the flesh around them shriveled.
Decaying “bodies move, they make smacking sounds. It might seem as if they’re eating themselves and their burial shrouds,” Alterauge says.
As medieval Europeans tried to explain what they were seeing and hearing, they might have seized on ideas about the undead already circulating in Slavic communities of Eastern Europe: “We don’t have [the concept of] vampires in Germany,” Alterauge says, “but there’s this idea of corpses which move around” that is imported into western Europe from Slavic areas to the east not long after the first plague outbreaks take place in the mid-1300s.
A logic behind the undead
Before the 1300s, medieval stories in German-speaking Europe described helpful ghosts returning to warn or help their loved ones. But in an age of epidemics they took on a different shape: revenants, or the walking dead.
“This shift to evil spirits takes place around 1300 or 1400,” says Matthias Toplak, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who was not involved with the study.
Turning to medieval folklore for clues, Alterauge and her co-authors found tales of nachzehrer, loosely translated as corpse devourers: restless, hungry corpses that consumed themselves and their burial shrouds, and drained the life force from their surviving relatives in the process.
“Historical sources say nachzehrer resulted from unusual or unexpected death,” Alterauge says. “There was a theory someone became a nachzehrer if he was the first of the community to die during an epidemic.”
In pandemic-era Europe, the legend had a compelling logic: As the victim’s close relatives began developing symptoms and collapsing within days of the funeral, it must have seemed as if they were being cursed from the grave.
“The background of all these supernatural beliefs must be the sudden deaths of several individuals from one society,” says Toplak. “It makes sense that people blamed supernatural spirits and took measures to prevent the dead from returning.”
Equally feared at the time were wiedergänger, or “those who walk again”—corpses capable of emerging from the grave to stalk their communities. “When you did something wrong, couldn’t finish your business in life because of an unexpected death, or have to atone or avenge something you might become a wiedergänger,” Alterauge explains.
The new study reveals an increase in the number of bodies placed face-down on the edges of Christian cemeteries between the 14th and 17th centuries. The researchers argue that, in this part of Europe at least, burying people face-down was the preferred way to prevent malevolent corpses from returning to do harm.
Other archaeologists say there could be other explanations. In a world ravaged by deadly pandemics, burying the community’s first victim face-down might have been symbolic, a desperate attempt to ward off further calamity.
“If someone got really sick, it must have seemed like a punishment from God,” says Petar Parvanov, an archaeologist at Central European University in Budapest who was not involved in the study. “Prone burials were a way to point out something to the people at the funeral—somehow the society allowed too much sin, so they want to show penance.”
The next step, says archaeologist Sandra Lösch, co-author of the paper and head of the department of physical anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Bern University, would be to look at the face-down burials to find if there are clearer links with disease outbreaks. By analyzing the ancient DNA of individuals in prone burials, for example, it might be possible to sequence specific plague microbes, while isotopic analysis of victims’ bones and teeth “might show traces of a diet or geographic origin different from the rest of the population,” offering another explanation for their out-of-the-ordinary burials.
Because local excavation records are often unpublished, Alterauge hopes more evidence will emerge in the years to come as archaeologists re-examine old evidence or look at unusual medieval burials with a fresh perspective. “I definitely think there are more examples out there,” she says.