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The Pestilence, Lynchings and Desecration of Corpses

The Pestilence, Lynchings and Desecration of Corpses
© Photograph by Chad Michael Ward

Passage of time has marked indelible wounds on the body and spirit of mankind. As famine, war, pestilence have recurred with perfect and devastating precision, human society has responded often heroically to overcome these challenges. Yet, in the course of the wars, not infrequently during epidemics, the response of humans to unknown dangers often reverts to ancestral fears, which were nourished by ignorance and hunger, taking the upper hand over reason.

During the Middle Ages, epidemics that plagued Europe often gave birth to hysterical searches for a culprit; inducing violent and irrational behaviours against a minority or a single subject of the afflicted. Science could not give answers because the microbiological revolution had not yet opened up the horizons of the invisible, and the more arcane irrationality was an easy refuge. These irrational fires were flamed by religious extremism — in particular, processions, novenas, collective prayers such as Te Deum were very dangerous events, because they, inducing concentrations of people in physical restricted areas (cathedrals, shrines), further favoured the transmission of infection. The widespread deaths in a community upset economic and political stability, leading to riots that were frequently associated with lynchings.

Sooner or later the secular arm intervened, lawsuits against individuals or groups of people were organized and in the course of the investigations torture was often used to induce confessions from the suspected, with the justice process almost always ending with the burning of the convicted. Groups of religious minorities were often targeted for spreading the Plague, particularly Jews and Gypsies. Beggars, wanderers, those with skeletal deformity, the mentally-ill, or those with epilepsy were also at risk to enter the vortex of suspicion. When the hysterical hunt for spreaders occurred, as it happened in Milan in 1630 at the time of the infamous column, all the individuals, even temporarily, were suspected to disseminate the infection and became easy targets for mob anger.

Some commercial activities by Jews in the Middle Ages, which may include buying and selling of belongings of deceased, further raised suspicious of their involvement in the spread of the plague. Merchants who reaped benefits through the transactions of goods that had belonged to the dead individuals were probably subjected to hate and resentment by the poorest classes. In several European countries, Jews were often forbidden from owning property, so their activities were concentrated in the financial sector. Although financial propensity was useful in economic terms, it did not promote good relations with Christians who considered their activities as usury. In addition, it has to be considered that since several centuries the Jews have been accused of the historical guilt of Christ’s crucifixion, and in the Church — as it is known — many people fomented the marginalization of the Jewish community, therefore, it is clear that in certain historical periods pogroms were invoked by the people and by the establishment. When the impact of the epidemic became deeper and deeper, individuals of the poorer social classes, who could not get out of the city to take refuge in isolated places, began to be victims of a blind hysterical exasperation. In the darkest periods, when cities were closed to external contacts and the burning of personal effects of the plague victims developed and filled the streets and neighbourhoods with smoke, everyone was suspected. The attention was drawn by subjects walking after the dark in unfrequented places or leaving a bag full of used clothes in front of a church or even just by foreign or an unknown person sitting in an inn. These situations triggered doubts and fears. The crowd in these situations could either lynch the suspect individual, or threaten this subject by means of riots and acts of vandalism. This latter situation usually occurred if there was a suspicion that the guilty parties were members of the established local powers. A prevailing opinion in the lower classes was that there was a cruel desire to reduce the number of subjects belonging to the working class, which could be realized by either massacre or the spread of an epidemic.

From the point of view of the external features, tuberculosis, when an effective therapy was not yet available, was characterized by an emaciated appearance, by a pale and gaunt face, by sunken eyes, with the sclera showing a reddish colour, especially in the daytime, and by the progressive slimming of the body, while the mental attitude was characterized by apathy and by a persistent depression. In these chronically-ill subjects, repeated episodes of haemoptysis occurred with coughing; they spitted mucus and saliva mixed with blood. Because of these characteristic symptoms, tuberculosis was also called consumption and affected people who often presented insomnia because of the frequent nocturnal coughing spells. In addition, they showed intense sweating with fever and not rarely haemoptysis with the expulsion also of necrotic tissue of pulmonary origin, which was mixed with clots, from the mouth.

Patients with tuberculosis infection were affected by insomnia and they got up out of bed in the hope of improving their dyspnea and of reducing the cough by which they were bothered; therefore, in this desperate condition, they showed themselves to their family and neighbours with the clotted blood at the corners of the mouth. In the late sixteenth-century, the appearance of tuberculosis patients found fertile ground in superstitions of central Europe: The cause of this evil was the presence beings who returned the night to feed on the blood of the living people, they were the revenants or vampires1. In the Western tradition, the vampire was a sinister ghost, who was able to remove the vital energy to the living persons, sucking their blood.

In her ponderous ‘Encyclopedia of Fairies’ (Pantheon Books, 1976), Katharine Mary Briggs, an English scholar2, confirms that tuberculosis was associated with vampirism in the past centuries, especially in certain parts of Europe, where this disease was particularly widespread, but later also in some eastern states of the United States of America.

But not only tuberculosis was associated with vampirism. In the period between the fourteenth- and eighteenth-century, Europe was stricken with plague epidemics that cut down the population, reducing the European population to a one-third. Superstition supported the idea that there was a particular form of vampires who, through their bite, spread the plague. In particular, vampire-women, called Nachzeher, were able to transmit the disease. This name was adopted- ed for the first time in Poland in the fourteenth-century, and its meaning is clear: it would indicate that these beings would be devourers of the night or chewers of the shroud.

According to this superstition, the Nachzehers, after being placed in the tomb, began to chew their shroud. Furthermore, when they succeeded to remove their shroud, they began to feed on the blood of the dead bodies of other plague-stricken people, who were buried in mass graves. After this phase that could be defined reconstructive, these beings would have acquired the opportunity to get out of the tomb and, according to superstition, they would have gone outside at dusk. According to the superstition about the vampires — who continued to feed on blood and who were free from any control — it was believed that individuals, who had been hit by vampirism and who practised it, in turn, would have contributed to the further expansion of the epidemic. In addition, in Central Europe, the legend of Schmatzende Tode (the dead who chews) had widely spread and the presence of these beings was reported with relative frequency in the sixteenth century, especially in eastern Germany, Prussia, Poland and Bohemia.

Not only the people of lower classes were the victims of these beliefs, there are evidence that, in the eighteenth-century, these superstitions had made inroads in certain educated environments typically characterized by an enlightened and rational vision of science. It should be underlined that already in 1679, the Protestant theologian Philippus Rohr presented a paper at the Leipzig University, entitled ‘Dissertatio Historico-Philosophica de Masticatione Mortuorum’ where the theory about the existence of Nachzehers received theological support. According to the thesis of this German scholar, following the uncovering of a tomb, which was suspected to host a vampire, whether the corpse (still intact) presented a swollen belly, it had to be concluded that the deceased person was a blood drinker. In addition, if the shroud was found to have been chewed and eaten at the height of the mouth, there would have been the evidence that the tomb housed a vampire.

1.
The tradition of the belief that refers to the presence of evil beings, who are devoted to vampirism, is very old, there is evidence in the culture of the Babylonians and of the Assyrians, the vampires are also mentioned in the Bible and in the Qur’an. The Bible reports about a hell woman, Lilith, perhaps she was the first to whom the practice of vampirism may be ascribed. Lilith was, in the biblical view, the consort of Lucifer and, characteristically, not only fed on the blood but also on the semen. In addition, the Turkish tribes and Eastern Europe have a rich tradition of beliefs that go back to the culture of vampirism and to the practice of double burial.
2.
Katharine Mary Briggs (1898-1980) was one of the greatest scholars on the meaning of the fairy-tale tradition, and she is regarded as the most famous author in the context of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic folklore.



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