Fairies, Folklore and Forteana
SIMON YOUNG FILES A NEW REPORT FROM THE INTERFACE OF STRANGE PHENOMENA AND FOLK BELIEF
YORKSHIRE’S WALKING DEAD
Zombies were apparently relatively common in mediaeval Yorkshire. Our best source for these northern revenants is a series of supernatural tales written up in the very early 1400s by a monk from Byland Abbey in the old East Riding. I’ll give one example. Our hero, an unnamed monastic tenant from Newburgh, “was talking with the master of the ploughmen and was walking with him in the field. And suddenly the master fled in great terror…” You’ve guessed it: the master ploughman had spotted an incoming zombie. The zombie (who had once been a monk and was perhaps still wearing his robes) attacked the tenant and “foully tore his garments”. It could be a scene out of The Walking Dead!
What I find most striking about this tales and others like it is the sheer physicality of the Yorkshire zombies. In one case at Kilburn two men set on a zombie at the church stile and one of them held it down until the priest could be fetched. In an even more extraordinary case from near Ampleforth, a man carried a zombie woman to the house of her still living brother. The brother had doubted rumours that she ‘walked’: imagine his face when he answered the door that night...
Were these really ‘zombies’, though? Unlike the zombies of modern dystopian fiction, they had agendas: they did not just zig-zag from place to place groaning. One Byland zombie strolled across the moor to blind his quondam mistress; while another (I find this unbearably poignant) hung around outside windows and doors hoping to be noticed by his old neighbours. The Byland zombies could also speak: there seems, in the area, to have been the curious idea that their tongues were mute and that their voice came echoing out of their guts. There are hints in other sources that these beings also had some vampire traits: a couple were found to have imbibed blood when their graves were dug up; some were blamed for spreading diseases.
And what happened to the English zombie, particularly common in the north, but found, too, in isolated groups further south? They don’t seem to have survived the Reformation: at least, I have found very few examples of physical ghosts in the modern period from Britain (and those I have found are mostly suspect). Our repertoire of forteana changes from generation to generation: constantly throwing out new shoots in its glorious diablery, as other shoots wither up and blacken. Don’t weep, then, for the zombies of yesteryear. Ask rather what fortean commonplaces of today will be utterly bizarre to 22nd century anomalists.
IN A CASE NEAR AMPLEFORTH, A MAN CARRIED A ZOMBIE WOMAN TO THE HOUSE OF HER STILL LIVING BROTHER