Vampire Burials and Social Order in Postmedieval Poland

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

Funerary practices and mortuary treatments are often indicators of the ideas and beliefs surrounding the community and, more importantly, the role of the deceased within that community (Rakita & Buikstra 2005).

Furthermore, such practices and treatments can elucidate information related to how the dead continue to be agents in the lives of their still-living family, friends and community members.

Non-normative or deviant burials in the archaeological record are one such practice that is a representation of the bizarre or unusual, as they differ from the normalized burial traditions of a culture (Asp ̈ock 2008; Reynolds 2009).

Typically, these burials are rare, and while the term “deviant” generally has a negative connotation, this is not necessarily accurate. Any burial that differs from what is considered typical or “normal” for a particular culture can be classified as deviant. While some deviant burials do, indeed, suggest the internment of social deviants (Reynolds 2009), other such burials can include those treated differently for both positive and negative reasons (Asp ̈ock 2009).

It is important to note that what constitutes a deviant burial is entirely dependent upon the culture from which it originates; in other words what is considered “normal” and “deviant” will vary from culture to culture (Asp ̈ock 2009; Pader 1982). Asp¨ock (2009, 89) suggests that there are “[t]wo ‘types of different treatment [that] can be distinguished’: those treated differently based on sex/age or social role, and those treated differently who ‘[…] lost’ their right [to normative burial] because of some circumstance of their life or death” (2009, 86).

More specifically, Reynolds (2009) suggests eight causal factors that result in deviant burials: battle, judicial execution, superstition, suicide, homicide, massacre, plague and sacrifice (Reynolds 2009, 38), and that more than one factor can account for any given non-normative burial.

Based on this understanding it can be argued that non-normative burials are driven by two factors: 1) the mode of death and 2) the translation of that death into specific mortuary treatments that are heavily influenced by those burying the deceased (Reynolds 2009). It is based on these two factors that the identification and interpretation of deviant burials can be quite difficult, requiring a comparison of these atypical characteristics to those considered “normal” within a population (Asp ̈ock 2008; 2009).

Further, this comparison is not always clearly defined, as any given culture is likely to have multiple ways of treating the dead (Weiss-Krejci 2013); in other words, there are multiple “normal” burial styles that may obscure the means by which to identify those considered non-normative. Asp¨ock (2009) argues that, in addition to this expected mortuary variability, post-depositional practices and modifications must be taken into account as well and their influence on the archaeological presentation of non-normative burials.

As the mechanisms that drive the creation of deviant burials continue to evolve culturally and temporally, so too does the study of this unique process. While a social systems approach (see Binford 1972; O’Shea 1984; Saxe 1970; Shay 1985) to non-normative burials contributes to an understanding of the larger social scheme surrounding the burial process, mortuary individualism and agency (see Asp ̈ock 2008; Tsaliki 2008) is the focus of this article.

It is with this consideration that we investigate the social agency of “vampires” (or the “undead”) in terms of three broad functions: social order, an explanation for the unknown and economic sacrifice.

The Drawsko site is a cemetery located in the small, rural community of Drawsko in northwestern Poland. The settlement is located along the Noteć River and has been continuously occupied since the medieval period (Wyrwa 2004; 2005).

Initially excavated in 1929, systematic excavations of the seventeenth- to eighteenth-century cemetery did not begin until 2008 (Wyrwa 2004; 2005).

A variety of artefacts have been recovered during excavations that aid in the dating of this cemetery, specifically coins. Approximately 333 well-preserved human skeletal remains have been recovered with excavations on-going as part of a mortuary archaeology field school sanctioned by the Slavia Foundation, Poland.

The cemetery is located outside of the village settlement and, to date, no remnants of a church have been found in association (Wyrwa 2005). The cemetery is composed of individual interments, often in wooden coffins, the remains of which (coffin nails, portions of wood, etc.) have been recovered in approximately 40 percent of the burials.

Individuals, for the most part, are buried supine and in an extended position. In general, the graves are placed in an east-west orientation; however, some burials deviate from this Christian alignment (e.g. southwest-northeast, southeast-northwest), which may be a reflection of the seasonal position of the sun and its use for burial positioning (Williams 2008).

Additionally, many graves impose onto one another with individual burials overlapping. The somewhat arbitrary organization of the cemetery, as well as some ill-fitting coffins has led some to suggest that this may be an epidemic cemetery, as outbreaks of cholera were known to occur during its use (Wyrwa 2004).

However, the large number of remains recovered to date makes it less likely that a small community would have such a large epidemic cemetery. It is more likely that victims of cholera or other epidemics were included in this cemetery, but do not constitute its majority. It is unclear, nonetheless, why there appears to be no church or other settlement structures in association with the cemetery, which is the norm for the period and Christian custom (Blair 2006; Koperkiewicz 2010).

The post-medieval period of the sixteenth- to eighteenth-centuries in Poland was marked by several significant socio-political changes, which had long-lasting effects for the country. Beginning in ad 1569, Poland and neighbouring Lithuania formed the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) (Davies 1982).

During the following century, there were civil and foreign wars affecting the Commonwealth. In addition to warfare, broad devastation and epidemics created a catastrophic effect (Davies 1982). At the close of the sixteenth-century, the Catholic Reform was strengthening (Kloczowski 2000).

One of the principal ways in which these changes were occurring was through the actions of the bishops, who were focused on the reorganization of their dioceses, the increase of their system of control and inspection, and the improvement of the clergy through better education and more discipline (Kloczowski 2000, 112).

One of the most important aspects of this overhaul was the training of the clergy, which was done through Jesuit colleges and, eventually, through seminaries established in each diocese (Kloczowski 2000).

This increase in oversight and training ensured that parish priests, even in more remote rural areas, were following Catholic doctrine and were enforcing it in their parishes. As Kloczowski (2000, 112) states, “[a] zealous and responsible parish priest was to reach every single inhabitant of his parish”.

This was achieved through the priestly duty of keeping parish records on births, baptisms, marriages and deaths; their involvement in these momentous events made certain that the community members were well acquainted with the local priest and, therefore, the rules of the Church. Moreover, research on parish clergy in Poland demonstrated that priests typically resided in their parishes, which “[…] guaranteed their continuous functioning […]” (Kloczowski 2000, 109).

Collectively, this suggests that while the Reformation was happening on a vast scale, the impacts were felt locally through the administration of parish priests.

This Reformation was in large part a response to the lack of power the Church had in the Commonwealth during the previous centuries.

Discussed by Portal (1969), in certain regions of Poland, especially western Pomerania, paganism continued well after Poland was Christianized approximately in the tenth-century, although this continuation of pagan features such as ancestor worship and the belief in vampirism is debated (Urbańczyk 2004). Some suggest that early medieval Christianity was syncretist and incorporated pagan traditions (Urbańczyk 1997).

Whether those acquired pagan traditions remained part of Christianity or not is unclear. Roman Catholicism was the largest single religion, but it was by no means the only one, comprising only half of the Commonwealth’s population (Davies 1982; Portal 1969).

Whether those acquired pagan traditions remained part of Christianity or not is unclear. Roman Catholicism was the largest single religion, but it was by no means the only one, comprising only half of the Commonwealth’s population (Davies 1982; Portal 1969).

Political shifts accompanied and supported the Catholic Reform during the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries, most notably through specific acts of the Sejm (i.e. parliament), which prohibited the renunciation of Catholicism with a penalty of exile and disallowed non-Catholics from achieving certain positions within the government and society (Kloczowski 2000).

This was in striking contrast to the Warsaw Confederation document of ad 1573, which provided religious tolerance and the beginning of religious freedom within the Commonwealth (Kloczowski 2000; Stone 2001; Zamojski 1987).

Another outcome of the Reformation involved various religious rites, including baptisms and funerals, which began to take on greater religious emphasis, becoming major spectacles within a community (Kloczowski 2000).

Arguably it is the result of this tumultuous Reformation period that pagan beliefs about the undead were able to persist into a predominantly Christian social order, and temper the various mortuary treatments that began to emerge during this time Slavic region. In fact, the inclusion of pagan customs alongside Christian funeral rites was generally accepted by the Church as long as the Christian rituals were maintained (Garas 2010).

It was based on this integration of these pagan traditions into Christian doctrine that distinct mortuary customs tempered by a belief in evil spirits were able to persist into the post-medieval periods.

Most notable, were the burial traditions surrounding the pagan fears of vampirism and the reanimation of the dead (Tsaliki 2001; 2008).

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