We took a look at this dark gem a month ago. On November 21st, we get to sit down with Scott G Bruce in person and talk about the undead. Here’s your intro….
Eric Larkin – You are a medieval scholar, and you seem to specialize in monasticism. How did you end up being the guy to write The Penguin Book of the Undead?
Scott G Bruce – There is a strong connection between monks and the undead in medieval Europe. It may seem strange, but monks were very interested in telling ghost stories. They specialized in praying for the souls of the dead who were suffering in purgatory for their sins, so stories about ghosts served a very specific purpose for them. These stories promoted the efficacy of their prayers in releasing sinful souls from suffering by marshalling the souls themselves as witnesses.
EL – Your book reaches back to antiquity and carries us up to Elizabethan times. Would you say that the stories and accounts in here were responsible for birthing our modern ideas of horror?
SGB – Pre-modern ghost stories undoubtedly laid the foundation for the ways that we have imagined the returning dead in western culture. For example, around the year 100 CE a Roman author named Pliny described a haunting in Athens in which the apparition appeared very similar to the ghost of Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But the purpose of these stories was usually to teach us about the fate of the dead or to demonstrate God’s power through wondrous happenings beyond our comprehension, so in this sense they are very different from modern horror stories.
EL – Books have not always been as readily available as they are in very recent times. A lot of the content of your book comes from official & scholarly sources – which were often the only books of their day, and simply not available to average folk. Would your average person have known these tales? How would these stories have been transmitted at a ground roots level?
SGB – By the end of the Middle Ages, many of these stories reached a much wider audience through sermons delivered by monks or parish priests to everyday people like you and me. Oral history also played an important role in the dissemination of stories about the undead. In the case of the Byland Abbey ghost stories (written in Yorkshire, England, around 1400 CE), we can see this in action. These were local stories about apparitions told by lay people to a monk, who then wrote them down.
EL – I’m personally most interested in how the explanation for “the undead” (to mean spirits, ghosts, etc.) seems to change over the centuries. When Catholicism was the dominant ideology, the undead were visiting from Purgatory. Where Protestantism became dominant (and Purgatory was not a thing), the undead were either angels or demons. Now, many folks would say they were hallucinations or simply “unexplained”. It seems like, the phenomenon persists, but the understanding of it changes. Am I getting that right or oversimplifying it?
SGB – You are absolutely correct, but I will add one further nuance: the doctrine of purgatory developed slowly over the course of the Middle Ages and did not become an official doctrine of the church until the thirteenth century. Accounts of the return of the dead predate this doctrine and Christianity in general. So there is a third element here: before Christianity, the dead returned for a number of reasons: sometimes they came up from Erebus (the pagan realm of the dead) through a necromantic summons; sometimes they haunted the place of their death because of improper burial. The point here is that the tradition of communication between the living and the dead had a very long, very consistent history that survived the massive shift from pagan Rome to Christian Europe. The Protestant Reformation was a pivotal break from this tradition.
EL – You were a gravedigger, working your way through college. I’ve heard of scholar-athletes, but never a scholar-gravedigger. Please explain. Anything weird ever happen, like a midnight exhumation, anything spooky, any grisly accidents involving a casket and a backhoe?
SGB – Oh, yes, there are plenty of stories. Coffins, embalmed bodies, skulls: you see it all when you are digging in a crowded century-old graveyard. Stay tuned for “Confessions of a Teenage Gravedigger,” a coming-of-age memoir set in a Jewish cemetery held fast in the grips of a Canadian winter!
Join us Monday, Nov 21 for Scott Bruce’s presentation on the undead.