What’s in a name? The Enduring Influence of the Eighteenth-Century Vampire Craze

With Halloween just round the corner, my thoughts turn to what to write for a spooky-season blog post. As someone whose major research interests reside in the cultural history of the supernatural, finding something to write about at this time of year is surprisingly difficult. I’ve already written about witches, hellmouths, magic, walking corpses and the like, so trying to find an appropriate subject is kind of vexing. As such I thought I’d go down the pedantic route: over the last few weeks I have read many blogs and news items talking about medieval English ‘vampires’. The medieval undead, is course, one of my main research interests, so the use of such a culturally-specific designation as vampire to describe the type of walking corpse mentioned in the works of William of Newburgh and Walter Map, et al. – where no such conceptual term exists – led to ponder how and why the word vampire became such a catch-all term in popular culture.  Just as ‘magic’ is often used as an umbrella term for a variety of practices including alchemy, divination, astrology, and so on, so vampire has equally been appropriated to designate all kinds of bloodthirsty and pestilential revenant.  As we’ll see, we have the inquisitive observers from the higher echelons of imperial, eighteenth-century administration to thank for the vampire’s inclusion in the common cultural lexicon.

Fig, 1 Wienerisches Diarium July 21 1725 – one of the first usages of ‘vampire’ in popular western media.

I’ve written previously on the so-called early modern ‘vampire epidemic’, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say that the unstable geo-political climate on the Ottoman-Habsburg border in the early eighteenth century – and the creation of a marcher territory centred on the Balkans –  provided a suitable framework for the increased interest in vampire narratives in the west. Although I tend to agree with Erik Butler, who argues that the rise in vampire activity can be read as a Serbian reaction to the two superpowers at their door – i.e.  a symbolic attempt social ‘control; of unwanted agents – the increased interests taken by the Austro-Hungarian authorities in the activities of their neighbours also played a part.

The miseries endured by the inhabitants of the Serbian village of Kisolova, who in 1725 were terrorised by a suspected vampire called Peter Plogojowitz, was the first such account to receive widespread international attention. Plogojowitz’s corpse was said to have killed up to nine-people before it was exhumed and subject to medical inspection by Imperial Austrian Provisor of Gradisk, Frombald. The body was found to be completely free of decay and ripe with fresh blood. With evidence of vampirism confirmed, the villagers pierced Plogojowitz’s heart with a stake and quickly burnt the body. Frombald’s field report was published in an Austrian newspaper, the Wienerisches Diarium, on 21st July 1725 (fig. 1), and sparked off huge public interest in the grisly and salacious events that were occurring on the cultural (and conceptually moral) margins of the western world.

Fig. 2: Johann Flückinger, Visum et Repertum (Nuremburg, 1732)

Audience appetites whetted, it was the epidemic instigated by the corpse of a Serbian soldier, Arnod Paole, that truly pushed the eastern European vampire beyond the pages of theology and into the public consciousness. Paole lived in the village of Medvegia Serbia. As documented by the military doctor Johann Flückinger in 1732 (fig. 2), Paole was compelled to walk after death after having previously been tormented by a vampire in the Turkish-occupied part of Serbia. Four people had already died in suspicious circumstances before Paole’s body was exhumed.  Found to display the tell-tale signs of vampirism (undecayed flesh; the presence of fresh blood; new growth of skin and nails) the corpse was staked through the heart and burned.  The bodies of the four people killed by Paole were subject to the same treatment.  The containment exercise didn’t go completely according to plan, however. Flückinger remarks that vampires continued to infest Medvegia for year to come, pressing and throttling their victims in their beds at night, causing them to fall sick and die.

Fig. 3 Newfound interest in the vampire phenomenon: Johann C. Pohl, Dissertationem de hominibus (Leipzig, 1732), top left; Johann H. Zopf,  Dissertatio de Vampyris Serviensibus (Duisburg, 1733), top right; Johann C. Stock, Dissertatio physica de cadaveribus sanguisugis (Jena, 1732),bottom left; Augustine Calmet, Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges (Paris, 1746)

As I mentioned briefly above, the Frombald and Flückinger cases aren’t the first time that we find the vampyr or upir (i.e. a specifically central and eastern type of walking corpse) in western media. Pierre des Noyers, secretary to Marie Louise Gallyuonzaga, the French-born Queen of Poland (d.1667) mentions upir belief in one of his 1659 missives, and published an article on the subject in the French journal Mercure Galant in the 1690s. And this is not even to mention the various times the Greek vrykolakas came under the lens of western religious writers in this period.  But it is only after Frombald and Flückinger’s publications we see a marked increase in the number of pamphlets and treatises attempting to analyse and explain the vampire phenomenon, spefically (fig. 3).  

As the eighteenth-century progressed, vampire was a word that came to hold tremendous emotional and symbolic resonance.  The famed French philosopher Voltiare even gets in on the action, writing in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) that in contrast to hungry corpses, England and France were terrorised by a different types of vampire.

These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces (PD, no. 463).

For Voltaire and others, the blood-sucking, night-roaming corpse is an entity that did not belong in the west. In some respects, Voltaire shares the same incredulity as our old friend William of Newburgh who, writing in the Historia rerum Anglicarum (c.1198), displays similar incredulity that such an entity as a walking corpse could exist. Just as vampires infected Polish and Serbian villages, so the term ‘vampire’ has come to infect all contemporary discussions of the walking dead, even in situations where the term is foreign to the cultural milieu in which the haunting takes place. Can the restless corpse of George Hodgeson (d.1715) from Dent Village, Yorkshire really  be considered a ‘vampire’? (fig. 4). Can William of Newburgh’s mirabilia be described as ‘vampires’, even when he himself does not use the term? Is the cultural cache of the word ‘vampire’ too much to ignore, even in news reports on specifically English iterations of the restless corpse? I, of course, have my own opinions but it is ultimately up to the reader to decide the validity of using such coverall terms outside their original socio-cultural context.

Fig. 4 – the grave marker of the ‘vampire’ George Hodgeson (d.1715) from the Yorkshire village of Dent)

Works Cited

Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988)

Erik Butler Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film: Cultural Transformations in Europe, 1732-1933 (Rochester, Camden House, 2010)

Stephen Gordon, ‘Emotional Practice and Bodily Performance in Early Modern Vampire Literature’, Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 6 (2017), 93–124.

Koen Vermier, “Vampires as Creatures of the Imagination: Theories of Body, Soul, and Imagination in Early Modern Vampire Tracts (1659−1755)”, in Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period, ed. Yasmin Haskell (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 341−73

Sleep and the Herbal Tradition – a blog for the JRRI

Fig 1. Title Page, ‘A Boke of the Properties of Herbes’ (1548), Medical (pre-1701 collection) 318, John Rylands Library. Manchester

Alongside the publication of my book, in 2019-20 I spent a pleasant few months conducting research on a selection of the herbals and regimen books held in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, as part of the Rylands-sponsored ‘Sleeping Well in the Early Modern World’ project. Sleep, specifically the cultural construction of sleep paralysis, has formed the backbone of my research for years, so I was thrilled to explore what the Rylands archives had to offer in terms of the remedies employed to ensure a good night’s rest. Thomas Paynell’s glossed commentary of the Regimen sanitatis Salerni (1528), Gerard of Cremona’s translation of the Canon of Medicine, (1595) and John Gerard’s compendious Herbal (1597) were just some of the works I had the pleasure of consulting.

In May I wrote a blog post for the John Rylands Research Institute (JRRI) that summarised my time on this project, so I don’t really want to re-hash things here. For the JRRI blog I used the library’s copy of A Boke of the Propertes of Herbes (1548; fig. 1) as the main case study; an entryway into the fascinating realms of medieval sleep science. The Boke is an exceedingly rare edition of Banckes’ Herball (1525), famous for being the earliest extant herbal printed in England. It is not the most academic or comprehensive of herbals, but provides a fascinating insight into the relationship between the academic traditions of humoural medicine and folk beliefs surrounding the healthful properties of plants. You can read my thoughts on the soporific remedies contained in the Boke of the Propertes, and how they relate to the wider traditions of herbal lore and humoural theory, here: ‘thou shalt slepe well’: Provoking Sleep in the First English Printed Herbal.

Arise, Blog (also: I have a new book)

Well, it’s been a long time since I last posted here. A lot has happened since March 2019, after which life kind of got in the way. The biggest news was the publication of my first monograph, Supernatural Encounters: Demons and the Restless Dead in Medieval England, c.1050-1450, via the good people at Routledge (coincidentally available to buy, here).

It was nice to get these through the post

The book acts as a synthesis of my work to date, showcasing how medieval authors utilised tales of the walking dead for their own critical and literary circumstances.  Chapters to one to three explore how revenants were approached in twelfth-century Anglo-Latin texts; sources which have long been acknowledged as providing the most explicit references to the undead in medieval England. As I discuss with reference to William of Malmsesbury (ch.1), William of Newburgh (ch.2) and Walter Map (ch.3), revenants provided a versatile canvass onto which authors could insert all manner of socio-critical meanings. Want to criticise tensions (and distentions) in the contemporary political makeup? Use an equally monstrous body. Want to highlight the dangers of overstepping one’s social boundaries? The pestilential corpse was an appropriate metaphor to explore the theme of disorder run rampant.  Want – as Walter Map certainly did – to ironise the conventional use of such wonders? Why yes, use a creature that by its very nature is resistant to uniform categorisation.


Contents page

Chapters four and five move forward in time slightly and focus on how later medieval authors utilised the topos of the restless corpse, with a focus on sermons of John Mirk (ch. 4) and the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer (ch. 5). I argue that the parochial nature of Mirk’s sermons justifies the idea that the fear of the undead was just as prevalent in the fourteenth century as the twelfth, much as The Friar’s Tale’s reference to devils ‘aryse[ing] with dede bodyes’ suggests a belief commonplace to Chaucer’s own audience.  The final chapter (ch. 6) consolidates all these reading and explores how a specific aspect of the revenant encounter – the nightmare, or feeling of pressure on the chest – was conceptualised in different literary arenas.

It took about seven years to mould the base themes of my PhD into something suitable enough to put into the academic kiln, as it were. Bits have been lobbed off and bits have been added, but the shape more or less remains the same. This isn’t the last time I’ll be exploring the undead in my research – I have some really interesting projects and papers in the pipeline – but it’s nice to finally release something that, academic pricing systems notwithstanding, everybody can enjoy.

Event Horizon and Medieval Demonology

I am not ashamed to admit that I absolutely adore the film Event Horizon (1997, dir. Paul W. S. Anderson). The tale of a spaceship – the eponymous Event Horizon – reappearing seven years after going missing during its maiden voyage, now seemingly sentient and intent on tormenting and murdering the rescue party sent to look for survivors (of which, naturally, there are none), combines my two major passions other than medieval history: science fiction and future-horror. Over the course of the film it is determined that the ship’s experimental Gravity Drive, developed by Dr Weir (a dependable as always Sam Neill) did not, in fact, open up an artificial black hole to Proxima Centauri, but sent the crew headlong into a chaotic hell dimension. ‘Libera te tutemet ex inferis’ (save yourself from hell) are the words issued by the Event Horizon’s original captain, recorded on the salvaged flight log, as he holds out his gauged-out eyes towards the camera.


Event Horizon

Film poster for Event Horizon, Copyright 1997, © Paramount Pictures


It transpires that the Event Horizon brought a slither of hell back with it. The crew of the aforementioned rescue ship, The Lewis and Clark, led by Captain Miller (an equally dependable Laurence Fishbourne), come to realise that the Event Horizon, now more than just a hulking metal edifice, is able to make manifest their worst traumas and fears. The breakdown of the boundary between the physical and metaphysical worlds, the unbidden manifestation of unreconciled desires and heartache, is a common conceit in horror-infused science fiction, as seen in Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1972, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky),  Michael Crichton’s Sphere (1998, dir. Barry Levinson) and the more recent TV adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novella, Nightflyers (2018).  With its pointedly gothic accruements – Paul W. S. Anderson notes that the design of the spaceship was modelled on Notre Dame Cathedral – the malign agency of the Event Horizon lends itself to be analysed via the lens of medieval demonology. That is to say, if the film’s narrative leads us to believe that the ship did indeed make an unexpected trip to ‘Hell’ on its maiden voyage, can the method of its provocations be explored through equally orthodox terms?


The Event Horizon is able to peer into the minds of the Lewis and Clark crew, tailoring its torments accordingly: Dr Weir is haunted by the manifestation of his suicidal wife; Peters (played by Kathleen Quinlan), the ship’s medieval technician, is taunted by the child she believes she abandoned. ‘It knows my fears, it knows my secrets; gets into your mind and shows you’ says Captain Miller, confronted the burning corpse of a former shipmate he was unable to save. In late medieval theology, demons were believed to possess the ability to torment their victims through the manipulation of their sense apparatus. The Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, for example, notes in his De Malo (c.1267–71) that evil spirits were often permitted by God to infiltrate (and manipulate) the internal mechanisms of the human body, subtly altering its humoural makeup in order to cause visions and sensory hallucinations. Of course, the feeling of terror is somewhat perspectival. What may have been horrifying to one person may not have had the same emotional impact on another. How, then, did demons determine the type of hallucinations (or other such sensory effects) to inflict upon their victims? To paraphrase Aquinas’s De Malo, it was through the careful and nuanced observation of human signs, activities and behaviours that demons could arrive at an accurate picture of a person’s psychological makeup. The expert observational skills of demonic entities belong to a tradition that extends back to the authority of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (615–30) and Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram (401-15). Orthodox belief taught that devils were unable to see into a person’s soul. Only God had that right. Despite this, the body (including the mind) gave up other clues that could be easily exploited. There were myriad ways in which an airy demon could deceive and ensnare the unwary.


“Hell is just a word, the reality is much worse”, says the now-possessed Dr Weir during his final confrontation with Captain Miller, just before the aft section of the Event Horizon is pulled into the re-opened black hole, returning once more to the realm of chaos. Although some scholars argue that the film does not actually confirm whether the Event Horizon displays sentience, it is apparent that the manifestation of Weir’s dead wife is the avatar through which the ship tempts and ultimately dooms Dr Weir, who, now spiritually enmeshed with his terrible creation, takes on the antagonist’s role in the film’s climax. If read alongside the works of Augustine, Aquinas et al, the ship displays all the qualities of a seething, contentious demon, especially in the medieval mode. It tests, it torments; it burrows into the anxieties of those it wishes to harm. Some, like Dr Weir, it consumes and takes over. Others, like the unfortunate Technician Peters, it tricks into accidentally killing themselves. Much like the activities of trickster devils recorded  in orthodox miracle collections, such as Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (c.1220), the ship wants to drag its ‘new crew’ body and soul into Hell. It may be a giant evil spaceship, but the Event Horizon certainly has a medieval way of doing things.


Works Cited:

Thomas Aquinas, The “De Malo” of Thomas Aquinas, ed. by Brian Davies; trans. by Richard Regan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Matt Hills, ‘An Events-Based Definition of Art Horror’, in Dark Thoughts: Philosophic Reflections on Cinematic Horror, ed. by Steven Jay Schneider and Daniel Shaw (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003), pp. 138–57.

Anna Powell, Deleuze and Horror Film (Ediburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005)

New Publication

Happy to announce the publication of my new article, ‘Necromancy for the Masses? A Printed Version of the Compendiun Magiae Innaturalis Nigrae’, in the journal Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft. 

As you may know from a previous blog post, I am fascinated by the magical folklore surrounding the thirteenth century philosopher Michael Scot, especially the belief that he was a seasoned necromancer. In this article I take a gander at a extremely rare printed version of the Pseudo-Scot Compendium magiae innaturalis nigrae, a brief necromantic handbook for the conjuring of the demon Almuchabzar (and others).

To read the article at Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft, please use this link



William of Malmesbury and the Witch of Berkeley

Ask any medievalist to name a famous witch and odds are that the Witch of Berkeley will figure high in someone’s list. First appearing as a digression in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum (c.1123), the story of how the witch’s corpse was ripped from its tomb by a mob of angry demons and taken to Hell on the back of a wild, demonic horse certainly resonated with readers. From preachers’ manuals warning of the perils of dying unshriven, to its later-life working as a folk ballad by the Poet Laurate, Robert Southey (c.1798), the Witch of Berkeley enjoyed a long literary lifespan.  To whet the appetite for my forthcoming journal article on the topic (*cough* shameless plug *cough*), I thought it would be a good idea to provide a quick overview of William of Malmesbury’s rationale for writing the exemplum in the first place. Although stories of supernatural encounters were no doubt intended to entertain the reader – something that is true even today – the exact literary function of the Witch of Berkeley within the Gesta regum has been often overlooked by medieval historians. As I mentioned in my article on William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum, ‘wonders’ were often inserted into the wider historical narrative to obliquely comment upon contentious political events. What, then, irked William of Malmesbury?

FIGURE 1 Nuremberg

Witch of Berkeley woodcut, in Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, for Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister, 1493)

The narrative provides some key clues in this regard. William begins by noting that the mulier in question was a lifelong practitioner of augury (that is, divination through the observation of birds). Having learning through her art  that one of her sons had died in a domestic accident and that she herself had not long to live, she called her remaining children – a monk and a nun – to her bedside. Knowing that damnation was near, she gave instructions for her corpse to be sewn into deer skin and placed in a stone sarcophagus within the local church. The lid was to be fastened with iron and lead and the coffin itself to be bound with three heavy iron chains. Fifty masses were to be said day and night over her body and then, on the fourth day, it was to be removed from the sarcophagus and placed in the ground. These instructions were mostly followed to the letter. However, on the third night, a large and terrifying demon burst through the main entrance of the church, shattering the door to pieces. Striding up to the coffin, the demon cut the chain as if it were not even there, kicked off the lid, and dragged the woman out by the hand. A monstrous stallion stood waiting by the door with iron hooks protruding all the way down its back. The ‘poor wretch’ was set upon the barbs, after which she and the horse vanished along with the rest of the demonic horde. It was said that her cries for help could be heard for up to four miles away

A chilling story, certainly, but what does it all mean? The motif of forced expulsion from holy ground is, I believe, the symbolic weapon that links the Witch of Berkeley to its historical and manuscript context. William was a canny writer, and it is no coincidence that he inserts his witchcraft story (along with myriad other wonder stories) just after 1051. This was a precarious time in English history, when civil war almost erupted between Edward the Confessor and the ambitious noblemen, Godwin of Wessex (father of Harold Godwinson). The depth of Godwin and Edward’s enmity is too great to go into much detail here, but it suffices to say that Godwin was exiled from England as a result of his growing unease about Norman influence in the English court. As an outlaw Godwin took to committing piracy along the English coast and almost engaged Edward in battle. But the political winds are ever-changing. Soon enough Godwin was allowed to return to England, with the Norman contingent, led by Robert of Jumièges, archbishop of Canterbury, being expelled in his stead.

So, we can see quite clearly that the expulsion of disruptive bodies – be it from hallowed ground or the nation state – tied the Witch of Berkeley to the wider historical narrative. William of Malmesbury was no fool, and he leaves it up to the reader to decide who exactly was being criticised. Was it Godwin, for conspiring against the divinely-wrought authority of the king, or Robert of Jumièges, a portent for what was to come in 1066? The Gesta regum doesn’t pull any punches in its denunciations of the contemporary political climate, at one point likening the relationship between Normandy and England to that of a pair of conjoined twins: one twin, dead and rotten (Normandy), yet sustained by the life-force of the other (English taxes). And yet this is not to say that William was completely anti-Noman. He was too sophisticated a historian for such a one-sided viewpoint. The breakdown of the natural order of things seems to have been his primary concern. The Witch of Berkeley was expertly constructed to pass ironic judgement on all kinds of transgression.


Sources Cited:

Stephen Gordon, ‘From Malmesbury to Southey: The Witch of Berkeley in Context’, coming soon!

William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum: History of the English Kings, vol. 1 ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors; completed by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Clarendon: Oxford, 1998)

Publications Galore

Once again, life has kinda gotten in the way of doing any blog updates in recent months. Hopefully things will get a little less hectic in the near future, but in the meantime I thought I’d take the opportunity to share links to a couple of my recent publications.

My article  ‘The Three Living and the Three Dead in the Horae of Galiot de Genouillac (Rylands Latin MS 38)’    appears in the latest issue of Source: Notes in the History of Art, where I take a concise (but hopefully compelling!) look this really wonderful version of the Three Dead artistic motif. As you can see below, it is certainly is one of the unheralded treasures of the John Rylands Library. I also delve into other interesting things regarding the horae (among other things, the identity of one of the illuminators) so please click on the above link to find out more.


Figure 4

Copyright: University of Manchester

Earlier this year I was also pleased to see the publication of my chapter  ‘Dealing with the Undead in the Later Middle Ages’  in Thea Tomaini’s wonderful edited volume Dealing with the Dead: Mortality and Community in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Brill 2018).



Artfully composed photos courtesy of yours truly

In my chapter I explore the archaeological evidence of the fear of the walking dead in the later Middle Ages, and the difficulties involved in using written texts to find meaning in unusual burial practices. This has been a long time brewing, but with the recent media interest in the unusual skeletal remains from Wharram Percy it has certainly come at a very opportune time. If interdisciplinary investigations into revenants tickle your fancy, please click the link above to find out more.

Until the next post…

Brief Update: Revenants and Alchemical Monsters

Fig. 1. Strange Alchemical Images


Well, it’s been a while since I’ve made any updates. Real life has the habit of getting in the way. Just to keep the engine turning over, I thought I’d provide a couple of links to blog posts I put together for the nascent Pulp Impact public engagement website (of which I am a contributing editor).






The first essay is basically a brief overview of my one true academic love, medieval revenants, while the second looks at the alchemical figure of the Rebis (or ‘double thing’). Enjoy!

From Beatus to Buffy: A Few Notes on the Mouth of Hell

It’s been twenty years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first hit the airwaves. As a child, I thought the fact that Sunnydale High School was located atop a ‘hellmouth’ – a portal to the demonic realms – was merely a cool dramatic conceit, another example of Joss Whedon’s genius. As I got older, went to university, and developed my interest in medieval history, I was intrigued to discover that the concept of a ‘Mouth of Hell’ was a central feature of Christian iconography.  For centuries it was a popular motif in sculpture, manuscript illumination, and drama.  What, then, are the origins of the hellmouth, and why does its symbolism resonate so strongly even today.

Fig. 1 Hours of Catherine of ClevesFig. 1. A stereotypical Hellmouth, Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Morgan M.945 (c.1440), fol. 107r  (source: wikicommons)

It’s assumed that the idea of an all-consuming Hellmouth derived, in part,  from ancient Mesopotamian creation myths, which, through many transformations, found their way into Judo-Christian thought as the mighty sea-beast Leviathan. Job 41 was the Biblical precedent through which the concrete association between Leviathan and Hell was made.  Verses 19-21 are particularly evocative:

Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth

Biblical exegesis often involved the creation of typologies. That is, it was believed that events in the Old Testament prefigured and anticipated those found in the New.  Thus, the swallowing of Jonah by the whale – only to be disgorged after three days – was said to correspond with apocryphal tale of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell and the liberation of the Patriarchs from the shackles of the Devil (fig. 2). It was the reference to the ‘hooking of Leviathan’ in Job 41: 1-2 that made the connections between Leviathan/Hellmouth, the whale that swallowed Jonah, and the Harrowing of Hell explicit. In sum, to be swallowed was to be damned. The motif of the infernal, consuming mouth was the perfect image through which to weave all these disparate theological motifs together.

Fig. 2 Harrowing of HellFig. 2. Harrowing of Hell, alabaster relief (c.15th century) Honolulu Museum of Art (source: wiki commons)
Fig 3 WinchesterFig. 3. Hellmouth, Last Judgement, Winchester Psalter (c.1150s), fol. 39r (source: wikicommons)

The Hellmouth was often employed as a general symbol of damnation. The famous full-page illumination contained in the Winchester Psalter (1150) is a case in point (fig. 3). Here, an archangel locks the gates of Hell in the aftermath of the Last Judgement. The multitude of eyes, snouts, mouths and maws is suggestive of chaos, sinfulness and monstrosity – a complete inverse of Divine order.

Fig. 4. Beatus detailFig. 4. Hellmouth (detail), Beatus Apocalypse (c.12 century), Rylands Latin MS 8, fol. 197r (source: John Rylands Library)

A significant number of Hellmouths contain leonine features.  Figure four, taken from the Rylands MS 8 Beatus Apocalypse (c.1200) depicts a giant, yawning mouth with a clearly noticeable mane. Illuminators taken with the lion-motif were most likely working form scriptural precedents. Psalms 22: 21 (“Rescue me from the mouth of the lion”) and Psalm 10: 19 (“He lies in wait like a lion in cover; he lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net”) appear to be the most likely sources.

As well as acting as a symbol for the gateway to Hell, the motif of unnatural consumption was further highlighted through the depiction of Satan himself feasting on the damned. One of the most famous examples can be discerned in the thirteenth-century Last Judgement mosaic found in the Florentine Baptistery (fig. 5). Showing a vivid and appropriately chaotic vision of Hell, the image of Satan can be read as a pointed inversion of Christ Panocrator (Christ Enthroned), while the three heads are likely to represent an infernal parody of the Holy Trinity. The attention of the viewer is directed to the sinner being consumed in Satan’s maw.  Likewise, Giotto’s Last Judgement scene in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (c.1305), depicts a hairy, corpulent Satan simultaneously gorging on and defecating the damned.

Fig. 5 BaptisteryFig. 5. Last Judgement, Florentine Baptistery (c.13th century) (source: Wikicommons)
Fig. 6 GiottoFig. 6. Last Judgement (detail), Scrovegni Chapel, Padua (c.1305) (source: Wikicommons)

As the centuries progressed, the ubiquity of the Hellmouth image led to its use in more popular and commercial contexts. By the early modern period elaborate hellmouths were being used as props in Mystery Plays.  As noted by Gary D. Schmidt, surviving documentation from the Drapers Guild, Coventry (1562), reveals a payment for ‘kepyng of fyer at hell mouthe’, suggesting that pyrotechnics were being employed to simulate an appropriately hellish environment.  Bellows and braziers were likely used to create the illusion of a fiery, smoky, and actively monstrous doorway to damnation – the very image of Leviathan as described in Job 41:19-21.

This talk of special effects and stagecraft brings us, appropriately enough, back to Buffy. The series ends with the reformed vampire Spike destroying Sunnydale’s hellmouth with the  the help of a magical amulet.  It is a spectacular ending, one that would have surely impressed the directors of the Last Judgement mystery plays.


Further Reading

Hughes, Robert, Heaven and Hell in Western Art (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968)

Schmidt, Gary D., The Iconography of the Mouth of Hell (London: SUP, 1995)

Sheingorn, Pamela, ‘Who Can Open the Doors of His Face?’ The Iconography of Hell Mouth’, in The Iconography of Hell, ed. by Clifford Davidson and Thomas H. Seiler (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), 1-19

Boasting and Gloves: Some Thoughts on Hondscio, Grendel’s Forgotten Victim

Beowulf Detail


I’ve taught Beowulf to undergraduates for a number of years now, covering a wide range of topics, from the ‘hellish’ nature of the natural environment and the social role of gift-giving, to the question of what actually defines a ‘monster’ in the Anglo-Saxon mindset. The social function of boasting has also generated lively and interesting discussions in the past.  On this latter point, one character whose name never fails to raise a smile amongst students is mentioned only once in the poem, in Beowulf’s colourful retelling of his fight with Grendel during his audience with Hygelac (ll.2076-2080). From Seamus Heaney’s translation, the passage is as follows:


There deadly violence came down on Handsio

and he fell as fate ordained, the first to perish,

rigged out for the combat. A comrade from our ranks

had come to grief in Grendel’s maw:

he ate up the entire body


Who, then, is Hondscio, this most unlucky of Geatish warriors? In the parlance of Star Trek, he’s a redshirt to Beowulf’s Captain Kirk. As a victim of Grendel’s wrath, he meets his demise in ll. 740-744a:


He [Grendel] grabbed and mauled a man on the bench,

bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood

and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body

utterly lifeless, eaten up

hand and foot. Venturing closer

his talon was raised to attack Beowulf.


Our omnipresent narrator does not give Hondscio’s name, nor dwell on his untimely death. He’s merely an obstacle between Grendel and his intended target, Beowulf. Compare this to the immediate naming of Aeschre, Hrothgar’s advisor, who is abducted by Grendel’s Mother in a revenge attack against Heorot, and whose severed head is found near the grendelkin’s lair (l.1421). Hrothgar shows more sorrow for Aeschere  (ll. 1328-30) than Beowulf does for his yet unnamed comrade.


For those of you familiar with Old English, Hondscio is not the subtlest of puns. It reflects the famed Anglo-Saxon love of riddles and wordplay. Hondscio is a compound word, comprising hond (hand) and scio (shoe) – literally ‘handshoe’, or ‘glove’. Tell a bunch of students that a mighty Geatish warrior was named Glove and mirth usually follows.  But why ‘glove’? As noted by such scholars as James L. Rosier and Seth Lerer, the Beowulf poet is making a playful connection between Hondscio, a man consumed by Grendel, and the monster’s own ‘pouch’ or glove (OE glof, l. 2085), in which he intended to ensnare (or consume) Beowulf. As with Hondscio’s name, this is the only reference to the pouch in the entire poem.  The imagery of grasping hands, empty hands, and covered (or swallowed) hands interweaves throughout Beowulf’s boastful speech. As Seth Lerer eloquently puts it: ‘what is it that looks like a hand but swallows like a mouth? Answer: a glove.’ That Grendel swallows a Glove is suitably ironic and may have been worth a laugh or two around the mead hall.


There may be another reason why we have a victim named Handscio, and this is to do with the context in which he is mentioned. Boasting was an integral part of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Much as Anglo-Saxon poetry involved the formation of compound words and the use of appositions to build upon linguistic and poetic themes, so the act of boasting – elaborating upon one’s achievements – can be read along similar lines. Beowulf, of course, takes Unferth’s riposte about his failed swimming contest with Breca (l.516) and turns it into a boast about an epic battle with sea creatures at the bottom of the ocean (ll.530-606). He does the same in his audience before Hygelac, adding impressive new details about his battle with Grendel, including a reference to Hondscio and a detailed description of his adversary’s glof. In some respects, the act of ‘boasting’ is also like wearing a glove: the facts (the hand), are given a brash new covering.


We can understand now why Hondscio was not named in the original onslaught. There he was only a helping hand, an unlucky first victim. As related to Hygelac, he becomes Hondscio, an adornment, the very epitome of a hero’s boast.


Sources Cited


Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. by Seamus Heaney; ed. by Daniel Donoghue (London: Norton, 2002

Seth Lerer, ‘Grendel’s Glove’, ELH 61 (1994), 721-751

James L. Rosier, ‘The Uses of Association: Hands and Feasts in Beowulf’,  PMLA 78 (1963), 8-14