The Kickstarter campaign for Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition is well underway, and I’m proud to be associated with it. It achieved funding in less than 16 hours and, as I write, is on the way to unlocking its second stretch goal: the Nightwalkers Companion, by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams.
This is a supplement I really want to see come to fruition. Wiggy’s a great designer with a huge catalogue of top-notch, atmospheric settings and supplements, and he loves the horror genre – check out Triple Ace Games’ website for his recent work.
But does a horror supplement covering vampires and werewolves belong in the Chivalry & Sorcery line-up? Absolutely! Medieval folklore – and theology – is replete with examples of such creatures.
To use a line from Game of Thrones, the night is dark and full of terrors.
Let’s have a look at some of the medieval beliefs, and how they fitted into the medieval Christian worldview, for even the strictest historical game, which eschews the supernatural, must acknowledge that though these creatures did not exist medieval people thought they did, and made them part of their beliefs and behaviour.
I don’t know if Wiggy will follow medieval beliefs in his companion. The night may be dark and full of terrors, but Wiggy is creative and full of awesome ideas. If he goes his own way, I guarantee it will be a way that enhances your games – and mine.
Werewolves and Shapeshifters
About three years before the coming of Lord John into Ireland, it happened that a priest, journeying from Ulster towards Meath, spent the night in a wood on the borders of Meath. He was staying up beside a fire which he had prepared for himself under the leafy branches of a tree, and had for company only a little boy, when a wolf came up to them and immediately broke into these words: ‘Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!’
Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Classics)
The term ‘werewolf’ derives from the Old English term for ‘man’ (wer) and wolf (wulf). There are many medieval legends of werewolves and other shapeshifters – from Norse berserks who became wolves by wearing a wolf-skin to the Norman garrulf, the Breton bisclavret (the subject of Marie de France’s Lai Bisclavret (PDF link), and the villagers of Ossory described by Gerald of Wales. Gervase of Tilbury matter of factly stated, “In England, we have often seen men transformed into wolves with the changing of the moon.”
Gervase stated that wounds inflicted on one of a werewolf’s forms would carry over to the other when it changed, thus providing a means to detect the creature.
There were several ways a person could change into a wolf, beyond the changing of the moon. The bisclavret, according to Marie, must spend three days a week in wolf form; before the change he hides his clothes, and is unable to change back if they are stolen. Other stories have people doffing their clothes and donning a wolf-skin, as with the berserks.
“We are natives of Ossory. From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape. They put off the form of man completely and put on the form of wolf. When the seven years are up, and if they have survived, two others take their place in the same way, and the first pair return to their former country and nature.”
Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland (Penguin Classics)
The natives of Ossory were unusual in that their change was mandated by a divine curse.
So how does a werewolf fit into the Christian worldview? Theologians of the day discussed the matter, focussing on one particular question: slaying a human was sinful, but slaying a wolf was not. Was slaying a man-wolf a sin?
They decided the answer depended on the reason why the person changed into a wolf.
If the transformation was the result of magic, then slaying the man-wolf was sinful. If the change was divine, it was acceptable.
The reason for this was that they believed magic could not change the essence of something, only its appearance. The creature might appear as a wolf, but its essence remained human, and so slaying it was a sin. But God could change the essence of a creature or thing, so a man divinely changed into a wolf became truly a wolf, and slaying it was lawful.
Nor are werewolves the only shapeshifters of the medieval period. The influential philosopher Boethius, writing c. 1120-1140, stated that eating certain kinds of food might change men into asses, swine or other animals; and Lai Yonec, also written by Marie de France, features a knight who transforms into a hawk – presumably, in this version, Michelle Pfeiffer turns into a stag.
In two of William of Newburgh’s stories the hauntings are accompanied or followed by the spread of disease, and in one of them the revenant actually sucks blood in the traditional vampiric way: ‘they wounded the lifeless corpse and immediately so much blood flowed from it that they realized it had sucked many people’s blood.’
Robert Bartlett, England under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225 (New Oxford History of England)
The word ‘vampire’ doesn’t appear in English until the 18th century (and wasn’t popularised until the 19th century by writers such as John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker).
Nevertheless, tales of bloodsuckers go back at least as far as we have written records. They occur in myths and legends from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, and in folk tales through the Middle Ages.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula is often considered to originate with the 15th-century Romanian national hero Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, known as Dracula (son of the Dragon. The historical Dracula belongs to what Chivalry & Sorcery considers the Waning Feudal period, and his vampiric legend belongs later.
Since the medieval English had no particular word for vampires, Bartlett uses the word ‘revenant’ to describe the walking dead of medieval legends – and as noted in the quote above, in one case the revenant did suck blood.
Similar to the Eastern European legends of vampires, revenants of English lore might arise through having lived a bad, un-Christian life.
Revenants in English lore were usually dispatched by exhuming their corpses, and either decapitating them, removing the heart or burning the remains – or any combination of those remedies. Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, laid one to final rest by having its grave opened and a letter of absolution placed on its chest.
Medieval revenants were no cultivated, pale noblemen in cloaks and opera hats, nor Louisiana gentlemen in lace cuffs and frock coats. They arose from their graves at night, clad in their funeral shroud, to prowl the land and terrorise the living. Disease walked with them.
The 2009 discovery by archaeologists of a 16th-century ‘vampire burial’ in Venice was widely reported. The body in question was an elderly woman whose corpse had, after death, had a brick forced between its teeth. Several more ‘vampire burials’ have been discovered, including a 10-year-old boy in Umbria, near Rome, in the 5th century AD, and a man in Northamptonshire, England, dating from the 3rd or 4th century AD.
William of Newburgh, attempting to make sense of the stories, ascribed the corpses’ rising to the work of Satan, but the disease they spread to the contaminated air they created.