William of Newburgh was born in 1136 in the Yorkshire town of Bridlington but as a youth moved to the Augustinian Priory at Newburgh where he lived for the rest of his life. From an early age, his superiors in the priory realized he had great scholarly talents and urged him to make use of them. His life’s work was culminated in his Historia Rerum Anglicarum, a chronicle of English history from 1066 until the year of his death, 1098.
His chronicle has been praised since it was written and is still readable today. It was particularly valued for the details of The Anarchy under Stephen of England and its glimpses into 12th century life.
William was one of the earliest writers to discuss vampires, though this was not a word he used or probably knew. He called them by the Latin term ‘sanguisua’ which meant blood suckers; more specifically – leeches.
He was not a vampirologist in the modern sense – he did not chronicle the vampires and other paranormal events for the purpose of sharing the knowledge of them. As a man of his time and his religious life, he used them as a way of showing people the evils that could befall them if they led a life of sin.
Whilst he did accept the existence of revenants and vampires, he was also aware people would be skeptical about the stories. He even made reference to people ‘not easily believing’ that corpses, rose from their graves and walked around the streets without the ‘ample testimony’ which supported the stories.
In his work, he documented a revenant in the county of Buckinghamshire that rose from its grave and harassed first its widow, then its brother. He soon began walking through the day as well until the towns people turned to the archdeacon for help. He in turn spoke to the Bishop of Lincoln, who had no personal experience of such a case. However, he recommended the archdeacon have the man disinterred to see what condition the body was in. When this was done, the corpse was found to have no signs of decomposition and looked as though it had just been buried. A charter of absolution was placed on the revenant’s breast which stopped it from rising as the ghoul was never seen around the town again.
William also documented a similar case in Berwick, in Northumberland, where the man who rose from his grave became such a nuisance that ten of the local men dug up his body, cut it from limb to limb and burned it to ashes. Interestingly, this was also a case where the fear of disease was mentioned, showing a realization amongst people that a dead body could carry some type of pestilence.
While not a vampirologist in a modern sense, William of Newburgh was a man who studied the undead in different forms and seemed to have a modern sense of the skepticism some people would show. This shows a very modern mind set in a time when people believed anything that came through religious sources such as the church and the Devil was blamed for most of the things that went wrong in their life.