Happy Samhain, listeners! For our Halloween special, we’ll be showing you how to adapt four spooky medieval tales of the undead into quest adventures for your next TTRPG! Whether you’re looking for a political drama, a new character idea, or a hack'n'slash against a zombie hoard, this episode has something for you!
These tales are taken from a variety of sources, each one presumed to be a work of “history.” While these record are more tale than truth, each one is supposedly recorded from a firsthand account.
The first comes from John Audelay’s Poems and Carols.
During a boar hunt, three kings were among the host. They then got lost in the woods as a mist fell upon them and it fell dark. The three kings were greatly frightened, and the first one wanted to take cover and rest until the darkness passed.
Then, as they went forward, they came upon a meadow that was bright and full of flowers. Then three figures came forth from a bush ahead of them - limbs skinny and frail, with their innards pouring from their stomachs and without lips.
The three kings all stop --
The first king recognized the three men -- either as the dead or specifically one of the dead men. He says they cannot go forward and must stop. The next king declares they must charge forward and investigate or attack. The final king holds his head in his hands and declares they flee.
The three dead kings stand before them and declare that they are the “earthly fathers” of the three living kings - whether this means they are the kings’ literal fathers or simply ancestors is unclear. The first dead king declares that these kings have sinned against them -- they have not honored the dead kings, and neither do they rule justly.
The second dead king declares that though the three kings look fair and have wealth now, they too shall become like the three dead kings if they do not repent, honor Christ, and cast aside their fleshly desires.
The final king declares that he was once a great king but one who lived in sin, and now he is cursed with the two others to wander around the countryside as a corpse, with no one to honor him. He warns the three living kings that this will be their fate as well should they fail to repent from their greedy, sinful ways.
The three ghosts then depart and fade into the sun, and the three kings sigh in relief and ride back to their kingdoms, ruling justly and never again oppressing their peoples. In the ends of their days, they founded a monastery and on the wall painted this encounter.
The next of our zombie stories comes from the 13th century German Dialogue on Miracles, written by Caesarius of Heisterbach. It's quite short.
A certain man had a sweet voice, and when a church man showed up he heard this voice and declared that it was so sweet it was not of man but a devil. He adjured the devil to come out of the man, which it did, and when this happened, the body of the man collapsed and became putrid.
The following is an excerpt from The Gothic Wars by Procopius, a 6th-century Byzantine historian.
In the Island of Brittia, there was a large wall, and the land on either side of the wall is very different. To the east of the wall there is a salubrious air, and much fruits, and abundant corn and springs. And on the west side, there are only wild serpents and no one can survive more than 30 minutes over the wall.
The following tale comes from this place. The souls of men who die come to this place, and it is said that along the coast that borders Brittia there are fishing villages. At night, in a stupor, a voice calls them to go to shore, and there they see skiffs made ready for them. The men row these boats easily even though they are laden with passengers, but see no one. After only one hour, they come to Brittia, and hear a voice from the island calling those who have died and their positions of honor. Yet these men still see no one, and return home. Each night different men are called to make this journey.
Our final two tales are accounts written in William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum.
William writes a warning that the dead are coming back now more than ever, especially because there have been more accounts of the dead walking lately and the ancients didn’t write about it that often. He records the following account:
There was a corrupt chaplain who was so addicted to hunting that he was known as the “dog-priest.” After his death, he came back and wandered around the bedchamber of his mistress. The mistress became upset over this matter, and told the friar of the monastery and begged him to help her. The friar gathered a few brothers of the monastery and had them all stand watch in the cemetery for the moment that this dead man rose up in the night.
Three of the brothers grew tired of waiting and went indoors to warm up. As soon as this happened, the dog-priest rose himself and sought to terrify the friar. The friar struck the draugr with his axe and charged him back into his tomb. The other brothers, hearing this, helped the brother return the corpse to its tomb and when morning came, they carefully dug the creature up and burned it to keep it from returning.
Another event happened in Anantis, told directly to William from an old monk.
An evil man became a baron there, and married an equally wicked wife. This man soon heard rumor that his wife was cheating on him, and made pretense to go away traveling. With the help of a maidservant in on the secret, however, he came into his room and hid on a crossbeam in the rafters.
Then, beholding his wife with a young man in the act of fornication and so overcome with anger, he fell from the rafter and dashed his head on the ground. The young man fled, while his wife gently rose her husband up. She gaslights him into thinking nothing had happened but that he was ill instead. The wound was so dire, however, that the baron was unable to take Eucharist before he died that night.
Because of his evil nature and un-Christian burial, the baron came back from the dead to haunt the town, trying get revenge on his adulterous wife. The townsfolk were so afraid that they did not go out at night for fear of being beaten by this draugr. The town soon became infected with the disease of this man, so that many suffered and died.
The monk of the town, unhappy with this matter, summoned a council of other learned Christian men to town that Palm Sunday to settle the matter. While these men were banqueting, two brothers in the town who lost their father to the disease, decided to take matters into their own hands by digging up the body and burning it.
The brothers took a dull spade and dug the body up, and found it swollen with blood. The brothers stuck the body and it seeped blood. They dragged the body beyond the village and built a pyre. One brother decided to ensure the body would burn by removing the corpse’s heart. The brother stuffed his hand in the body and tore its heart out, whereupon they burned the body. The two brothers then charged into the monastery and declared the problem had been solved, and the town returned to normal.
No matter what kind of undead you encounter this year (whether in game or in real life), we hope that you’ve found a successful way to deal with them in these adventures. Happy Halloween!
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Searching for our sources? Read John Audelay' Poems & Carols here, Caesaris' Dialogue on Miracles here, William of Newburgh's History here, and check out our Library for more! More references for interested scholars:
Audelay, John. Poems and Carols (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 302), edited by Susanna Greer Fein. TEAMS Middle English Texts, Medieval Institute Publications, 2009.
Audelay, John. The Poems of John Audelay, edited by Ella Keats Whiting. Early English Text Society, Oxford University Press, 1931.
Caesarius of Heisterbach. The Dialogue On Miracles. Translated by H. von E. Scott and C. C. Swinton Bland, vol. 2. Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1929.
The Chronicle of Lanercost. Translated by Herbert Maxwell. James MacLehose and Sons, 1913.
Fein, Susanna Greer. The Middle English Alliterative Tradition of the Allegorical “Chanson D’aventure”: A Critical Edition of “De Tribus Regibus Mortuis,” “Somer Soneday,” “The Foure Leues of the Trewlufe,” and “Death and Liffe”. 1985. Harvard University, PhD Dissertation.
Grant, A. J. “Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories.” The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 363-79.
Jennings, Margaret. “Tutivillus: The Literary Career of the Recording Demon.” Studies in Philology, vol. 74, no. 5, 1977, pp. 1–95.
Map, Walter. De Nugis Curialium (Courtiers’ Trifles). Translated by Frederick Tupper and Marbury Bladen Ogle. Macmillan, 1924.
McIntosh, Angus. “Some Notes on the Text of the Middle English Poem ‘De Tribus Regibus Mortuis.’” The Review of English Studies, vol. 28, no. 112, 1977, pp. 385–92. DOI: 10.1093/res/XXVIII.112.385.
Procopius. Translated by H.B. Dewing, vol. 5, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1962.
Saxo Grammaticus, The Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus. Translated by Oliver Elton, vol. 2. Norrœna Society, 1905.
Stanley, Eric. “The Alliterative ‘Three Dead Kings’ in John Audelay’s MS Douce 302.” My Wyl and My Wrytyng : Essays on John the Blind Audelay, edited by Susanna Greer Fein, Medieval Institute Publications, 2009, pp. 249-93.
William of Malmesbury. The History of the Kings of England and the Modern History of William of Malmesbury. Translated by John Sharpe. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1815.
William of Newburgh. “The History of William of Newburgh.” The Church Historians of England, edited and translated by Joseph Stevenson, vol. 4. Seeleys, 1856.
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