The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Medieval England Was Home to History’s First Zombie Madness

Science meets history meets the living dead.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
zombies crop
zombies crop

It turns out medieval peasants were just as worried about zombies as we are, and they never even saw season 7 of the Walking Dead.

A newly-published study reveals that villagers in medieval Yorkshire, England burned and chopped up the skeletons of their dearly departed. The archaeologists who penned the study say all evidence points toward a fear of the living dead.

Where else to learn about medieval zombies than in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports’ latest study, (and everyone’s favorite new beach read), “A multidisciplinary study of a burnt and mutilated assemblage of human remains from a deserted Mediaeval village in England.” What a title.

It turns out medieval peasants were just as worried about zombies as we are, and they never even saw season 7 of the Walking Dead.

A newly-published study reveals that villagers in medieval Yorkshire, England burned and chopped up the skeletons of their dearly departed. The archaeologists who penned the study say all evidence points toward a fear of the living dead.

Where else to learn about medieval zombies than in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports’ latest study, (and everyone’s favorite new beach read), “A multidisciplinary study of a burnt and mutilated assemblage of human remains from a deserted Mediaeval village in England.” What a title.

If the click-baity title wasn’t evidence enough, it’s a pretty macabre read, leavened with just the right touch of osteology, radiometric dating, and strontium isotope analyses. But the upshot is that some villagers in the 11th to 13th centuries who lived near modern-day Wharram Percy in northern Yorkshire were apparently scared of zombies. So they made sure the dead would stay dead with some extra handiwork, deliberately mutilating the bodies after death.

“The patterning in knife-marks appears more consistent with decapitation and dismemberment, as documented as means of dealing with cases of reanimated corpses,” concluded the study, conducted by Historic England and the University of Southampton. The authors analyzed 137 bone fragments from excavation sites in England dating back over 700 years to draw their conclusions.

There’s another equally macabre theory as to why the bones have strange cuts and mark-ups: Cannibalism. Some bones from the early British colony in Jamestown, Virginia show signs of just such a practice. But the authors of the study say it’s unlikely. The already-upbeat study then dives into a brief but grim history of cannibalism throughout history and how archaeologists identify cases of cannibalism. We’ll spare you the grisly details, but essentially the evidence “may count against a cannibalism scenario” because of the difference between how the villagers at the site treated animal bones, presumably meant for cooking and consuming, versus the human bones in question. (No worries in Wharram Percy about zombie livestock, apparently.)

“The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best,” said Simon Mays, a skeletal biologist at Historic England, the British government’s historical body.

“If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice,” he added.

“It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own,” Percy said, seemingly unaware of huge chunks of modern television and literature, or that the U.S. Defense Department has an actual plan to deal with zombie apocalypse.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.