Fifteen Hundred Years of the Undead

When was it that you heard your first ghost story? I can’t seem to remember mine. Even when I was in the kindergarten, tales of these translucent white figures that could pass through walls, possess living adults and children and haunted decrepit mansions were everywhere – on the television, in print, most unforgettably, on the lips of my little friends.

Although the spooky narratives that we are familiar with today developed only during the late nineteenth century, humankind has always been obsessed with the special species of beings that strangely hang suspended between life and death. They have visited and frightened us in various forms, for various purposes. They have come to wreak revenge, to warn of impending disasters, they have annoyed us for the sake of malicious pleasure. In all of this, they have given us an assurance that there is an existence beyond the tomb.

The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters edited by Scott G. Bruce (2016, Penguin Classics)

In the recently released (and very deliciously packaged!) Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters, Professor Scott G. Bruce of the University of Colorado Boulder (, @xuthalofthedusk) – an historian of religion and culture in the early and central Middle Ages (ca. 400-1200 CE) – has collected accounts of ghostly visitations from a wide range of sources, including Greco-Roman texts, the Hebrew scriptures, Scandinavian myths and Shakespearean plays. The compendium “teems with roving hordes of dead warriors, corpses trailed by packs of barking dogs, moaning phantoms haunting deserted ruins, evil spirits emerging from burning carcasses in the form of crows, and zombies with pestilential breath”. Edited by a most capable anthologist (why, Professor Bruce worked his way through college as a grave digger), this is a full-blown macabre menagerie that cannot be missed.

I cannot seem to find a proper portrait of Aelfric of Eynsham so here is a scene from an illustrated manuscript (“Tower of Babel”) from the British Library on which he is supposed to have worked. Interestingly, he is on Twitter too by the handle of @Aelfricus (though the account is inactive now!) He is described as “monk, mass-priest, bestselling author, loather of the sinful, wannabe-saint”.

The book begins with the big question – where and how did the word “undead” emerge? The word undead, explains the editor:

first appeared in the tenth century, when a Christian preacher Aelfric of Eynsham (c.955-c. 1010) employed its Old English ancestor – the adjective undeadlic – to describe the immortality, the undyingness, of God. The term has undergone an ironic reversal in modern English, where it now denotes dead people who have been reanimated by a supernatural force. This change reflects the intense interest in tales of the living dead that have become ubiquitous in modern societies.

The portrayal of spirits in the West was greatly influenced by the Catholic doctrine of “Purgatory” [formulated at the Councils of Florence (1431–49) and Trent (1545–63)] – intermediate state between physical death and paradise in which those who die in God’s grace and friendship but are still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation. They undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven (see point 1030 in the Catechism). The ghost of Hamlet’s father is a famous example of a soul caught in purgatory. Within the broad span of Western literature, though, the ambivalent relationship between the living and returning dead goes back to ancient times. During the Trojan War and the height of Roman power, writes the author, spirits of the recently deceased often came back pleading for proper burial. Professional necromancers animated corpses, forcing them to divulge important information.

Read an excerpt from a letter that the Roman provincial governor Pliny the Younger (c. 61-113) wrote to his friend Lucius Licinius Sura, contemplating the existence of ghosts:

Now consider whether the following story, which I tell you just as it was told to me, is not just as remarkable and even more terrifying. In Athens there was a large and spacious mansion with the bad reputation of being dangerous to its occupants.


“In Athens there was a large and spacious mansion with the bad reputation of being dangerous to its occupants…” [Painting is Reconstruction of the Acropolis and Areus Pagus in Athens (1846) by Leo von Klenze, Wikipedia]


In the dead of night the clanking of iron and, if you listened carefully, the rattle of chains could be heard, some way off at first, and then close at hand. Then there appeared the specter of an old man, emaciated and filthy, with a long flowing beard and hair on end, wearing fetters on his legs and shaking the chains on his wrists. The wretched occupants would spend fearful nights awake in terror; lack of sleep led to illness and then death as their dread increased, for even during the day, when the apparition had vanished, the memory of it was in their mind’s eye, so that their terror remained after the cause of it had gone. The house was therefore deserted, condemned to stand empty and wholly abandoned to the specter; but it was advertised as being for rent or for sale in case someone was found who knew nothing of its evil reputation.

To learn more about this fascinating anthology, listen to the podcast “Historical Ghost Stories with Scott Bruce” on the program “Spooky Southcoast” in which Scott G. Bruce discusses his research.


Image Credit:

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