The Black Death Vampires

The Black Death is undoubtedly one of the greatest natural disasters that has ever been recorded by the annals of history. It swept through Europe from the end of the 1340s and continued to reappear periodically until the end of the 18th century. Many questions continue to surround the Black Death, but an archaeological discovery on an island outside Venice adds a new dimension to how we view the Black Death today.

Lazzaretto Nuovo

Lazzaretto NuovoThe Lazzaretto Nuovo (pictured) is an island in the Venetian Lagoon just north of Venice. The island served as a lazaret (quarantine hospital) for plague victims, a function that is believed to have begun in 1468 and lasted until the 18th century. It is the younger of two lazarets that served Venice. The other was Lazzaretto Vecchio, which was established in 1403 and is the oldest plague lazaret in the world.

Following its service as a lazaret, Lazzaretto Nuovo served for a time as a military barracks before becoming a hotbed of archaeological activity.  During the Black Death, those who fell ill were sent to these lazarets where they faced a slim chance of recovery. The sick were tended to by the few who survived. Surviving the Black Death effectively inoculated one against falling ill again.

Those who did not survive were buried in mass graves, a grisly site uncovered in the past few years. Thousands of dead were buried on this tiny island.

Vampires

Stories of vampires are common and include such famous interpretations as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the recent Twilight craze by Stephenie Meyer. Images of vampires do not usually come to mind when discussing the Black Death. However, vampires were often associated with the Black Death throughout Europe. In Northern and Central Europe, vampires were thought to be bringers of plague. On the other hand, in Southern Europe, it was believed that the Black Death itself attracted vampires.

Vampires were one of many scapegoats of the Black Death. After death, the natural decaying process of the body causes certain physiological changes that were witnessed on a large scale during the time of the Black Death. For instance, hair and fingernails give the appearance of continued growth as skin tissue recedes. This was mistaken as a sign that the person was still living. Bacteria in the mouth would eat through the shrouds placed over the heads of the dead causing their teeth to become quite conspicuous. Blood would seep from the mouth during the bloating process. Adding these elements together was a recipe for vampire lore to spread.

Discovery

SkullOne particular skeletal remain at Lazzaretto Nuovo is more eye-catching than perhaps any other skeletal remain at the site. This particular skeleton was uncovered with a brick shoved in its mouth. The brick did not end up there accidentally; it was placed there because this woman was believed to be a vampire. This technique of “killing” a vampire had been described in literature, but there had been no evidence to support it until this discovery. The skull dates to 1576 during an outbreak of the Black Death in Venice. The skull belonged to a woman between the ages of 61 and 71. It was believed that a vampire would eat its way out of a grave, thus a brick was placed in the vampire’s mouth to prevent it from reemerging.

Tales of vampires existed in Europe before the Black Death, but the overwhelming scale of the Black Death seems to have heightened belief in vampires. Vampires were supposed to be the result of improper burial and death without the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Mass burials that resulted from the Black Death were common throughout Europe. Those who became ill were likely to not receive this last sacrament because it was simply not possible for clergy to reach every dying person, especially considering that the Black Death hit clergymen particularly hard.

So, it was during the time of the Black Death that many of our modern notions relating to vampires developed and the “Vampire of Venice” lends historical credence to what had been thought to be just a convention of literature from the time.

Sarah Jane Bodell

See also Black Death – lesser known facts