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1196 (ca.): Vampire of Anantis

One of the earliest collections of English history was written in the 12th Century by William of Newburgh [ca. 1136-1198], and it covers the known history of England from around 1066 to just before William's death in 1198. The history was compiled from older history texts that William felt were reliable, and from verbal accounts of knowledgeable people in relation to more recent historic topics.

Rerum Anglicarum
Title page of Historia Rerum Anglicarum [Larger version here]

Overall, William tried to give as accurate an accounting of the events he covered as he could... which is why the few places he choose to go off the topic of history in his texts are so intriguing. For example, in William's fifth volume of his Historia Rerum Anglicarum, he took time out to note the somewhat unusual matter of dead people rising from their graves at the time of his writing the text!

        He didn't know how or why these matters were happening, but he had heard enough reports from channels and people he trusted that, for him, established it was in fact happening. William was intrigued not only by the reports, but also from the lack of such reports in the historic documents he had been consulting... so he concluded this was a new problem, not a repeating one. William gives details of four separate events, one of the which follows; and the other three are linked at the bottom as 'See Also.'

The Vampire of Anantis

        This account had been told to William by an "aged monk" who lived near Anantis Castle, where the events took place presumably in the then-recent past. As William heard it, "a certain man of evil conduct" was forced to flee from the province of York; he settled in Anantis Castle, where the lord of the place had given him refuge. Not too surprisingly, said man immediately "labored hard to increase rather than correct his own evil propensities."

        The larger problems started when this man married. Hearing rumors that his wife was unfaithful, he faked leaving for a multi-day trip and instead snuck back home and hid on a beam above the bedroom where he had a full view. Sure enough, he saw his wife take a local man to bed; and, in his anger, he lost his grip and fell very heavily to the floor near the bed, knocking himself senseless. The local man fled when he saw what was up, but the evil man's wife, taking advantage of her husband's confused state, gently helped him up and acted as if nothing at all had happened. Her husband had harsh words for her, but the fall had injured him sorely enough that he was confined to bed and was soon visited by the aged monk -- who would later relate these events to William -- who urged the evil man to confess his sins and take the Christian Eucharist for his own sake. But the evil man was still distracted by what he'd seen his wife doing and what she claimed had happened, and put off the monk's advice to the next day... which was an unfortunate decision, as the evil man died that night.

        The evil man was given a Christian burial... but it didn't help. From the day he was buried on, the evil man rose from his grave each night and, followed by a pack of dogs "with horrible barkings," wandered through the courts and around the houses of the town. Soon no one would travel out at night for fear of being "beaten black and blue" by this undead monster; villagers locked up their houses and hid.

        The evil man's walking corpse, however, soon started to exude a poisonous vapor that "filled every house with disease and death by its pestiferous breath." Many people died; many others left town entirely to escape the problem, settling in other parts of the country. The aged monk called a large number of wise and religious men from all over to participate with the Palm Sunday services, and to then discuss possible ways to fix the problem. While all of these people were having said discussion over a meal, two young brothers of the town who had lost their father to the illness caused by the evil man's corpse decided to risk their lives and go dig up the corpse to burn it while the rest of the town and the guests were all occupied. They set off to the cemetery with a shovel.

        They began to dig, expecting the job to take some time... but the corpse was much closer to the surface than it had originally been placed. The evil man's body was "swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood"; the 'napkin' or cloth wrap it had been buried in was near torn to shreds. They "inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass," which disgorged an abnormally huge amount of blood. They dragged the body out of the village and built a funeral pyre. But, before throwing the corpse into the flames, they broke open the side of the rib-cage with repeated blows from the shovel, then yanked out the body's heart; then both the body and the now separate heart were thrown to the flames.

        Only after all this was done, were the gathered people at the church told of the young men's actions. They group hurried out to the pyre to be witnesses to the hoped for destruction of the monster... and, once the body had been destroyed, the deaths by sickness ended. William ends this account saying; "These facts having been thus expounded, let us return to the regular thread of history."

        For those of you interested in such matters -- and here you are, so I suppose you might be -- this is the earliest known account of the sort of undead being that would much later be labeled a "vampire" (around 1737, actually). Note that the related deaths in the community were believed to be caused by the smell of the rotting corpse; this idea popped up in another of the four accounts by William, and matches up to an old belief that diseases could be caused by "bad air," a.k.a. poisonous air. This set of beliefs is what eventually led to Europeans being sure to bury the dead at least six feet under the ground, to trap possible bad air coming from the corpses. So while the undead person might beat someone up (or try to sleep with them... watch out for that!), actual deaths related were caused by illnesses that came from the body itself simply not being buried.

        This all means that early vampire reports are also related to beliefs about creatures I call "Plague Bearers," which are personifications of illnesses... except in these cases, the personification is a person known to the community they endanger, rather than an unknown stranger from a distant place.

The Dating and Location of the Event

        Though a direct date is not given by William of Newburgh for any of these strange events, he does say they were 'recent' to the time of his writing... and many historians believe this section of the histories was written around 1196, as this is when other events William discusses in this part of his history took place.

        The location given by William, 'Anantis', is not a place name anywhere in the United Kingdom, nor does it appear to have ever been. William was born in Yorkshire and died at the Newburgh Priory, which is also located in Yorkshire... so he often heard tales local to that area. Since William heard the story from an 'aged monk' who lived near Anantis Castle, it implies the castle was not a terrible distance from Yorkshire; just far enough away for the evil man to escape his past. While many guesses have been forwarded as to the identity of the castle, only one sounds like a possibility... and then there's another, that's likely flat-out wrong, but more on that in a moment!

        The most sensible suggestion I've found for Anantis' actual identity was proposed by Joseph Stephenson in his 1856 translation of William's work to English, who felt William was probably referring to the town of Annan, in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, about 133 miles away from the town of York, England. This town had a castle at the time that was owned by the family of Bruce, a family that had ties back to Yorkshire. Given the evil man's history with Yorkshire, and the castles ties back to it, there would be good odds of William having a chance to hear stories about any weirdness at said castle. The Annan Castle, however, is not a castle anymore; due to a change in the course of a nearby river, it had been abandoned... and today, its location is marked only by a hilly mound covered with trees.

The Alnwick Vampire

        Of course, I did mention that one other location had been guessed at, didn't I? The improbably named Montague Summers [1880-1948] was an English author and clergyman well-known for his knowledge on 17th century dramatic poems and tales... and, later in life, he became well-know for his scholarly work on the topics of witches, werewolves, and vampires.

        In 1929 Summers published his book The Vampire in Europe, his second book on the topic of vampires; but this is the volume in which he presented William of Newburgh's account of the evil man of Anantis. Summers is, as far as I know, the first person to identify William's tale as being an early vampire account... but Summers is also responsible for a fairly big change to the story as well, because he identified the castle involved as not "Anantis Castle," as William named it, but as "Alnwick Castle."

        Alnwick Castle is located in Northumberland, about 116 miles away from the town of York, and it did exist at the time William was writing about the evil man from Yorkshire... and there is no proof that William had Alnwick in mind when he wrote his account. It's hard to know now if Summers translated William's account himself or worked from Stephenson's well known translation that I mentioned above... but in both cases, Summers is the first person to claim the castle was called Alnwick, so he's to blame for all accounts that came after claiming there was a vampire at Alnwick Castle.

        The only guess I can make on why this happened is that Summers, also stymied by the odd name "Anantis," instead looked around for the closest castle to Yorkshire that started with a letter 'A,' and Alnwick was top of the list. To this day there are books and websites claiming Alnwick castle was home to a vampire... but there's no actual proof it ever was.