When the Vikings invaded the northeastern coast of Britain in 793, they raided the monastery at Lindisfarne. The monks fled – and they carried with them the remains of Saint Cuthbert.
His coffin not only contained a corpse but also material relics, the Saint Cuthbert Gospel among them. The book so well preserved in his coffin has been recognized as a marvel among medieval manuscripts, along with the Lindisfarne Gospels, which the monks also saved from destruction by the Danes. Much like these extraordinary books, the embroidery that survived alongside Saint Cuthbert’s body is remarkable for its rarity.
Cuthbert of Lindisfarne was born in 634 and spent his life as a monk, bishop, and hermit in the Kingdom of Northumbria. When he died in 687, he was buried at Lindisfarne. As the Venerable Bede recounts the story, Saint Cuthbert’s coffin was opened again 11 years later with the intention of removing his bones to a reliquary, but his body was found to be perfectly preserved.
Under the duress of Danish attack, it was more than 100 years before the monks laid Saint Cuthbert to rest in Durham, where they settled in 995. Several artifacts accompanied Saint Cuthbert as he traveled posthumously around the English countryside, and the book and embroidery are very special for their survival.
The Saint Cuthbert Gospel was discovered when the coffin was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104, and like the body of its patron, the book remained incredibly well preserved. Dated to the early 8th century, it is the earliest European book to retain an original, intact binding. The covers are made from goatskin that has been dyed red and decorated; the tooled leather is stretched over wooden boards, most likely birch. It is a pocket-sized book measuring 5.4 by 3.6 inches, and the manuscript contains the Gospel of Saint John.
The British Library’s description of the binding beautifully correlates the book’s cover with its content. On its front cover, “the central motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice reflects Christian imagery from the eastern Mediterranean. The plant on the cover of the Gospel has a central leaf or bud and four fruits, echoing the text, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’, from St. John’s Gospel 15:5.” On the back cover appears “rectangular borders containing a geometric, step-pattern double-armed cross, recalling John’s central role in the Crucifixion narrative.”
The other relics were discovered much later when Saint Cuthbert’s tomb was opened in 1827. In addition to the saint’s body, Canon James Raine found a pectoral cross, a portable altar, an ivory comb, and a set of embroidered vestments. The vestments, or religious robes, date between 909 and 916 and are the earliest pieces of embroidery that survive from the medieval period in England.
Only a few pieces of Anglo-Saxon embroidery survive at all, and these pieces are unique among the extant examples in that they feature full-length human figures. The vestments include a stole decorated with figures of Old Testament prophets and Apostles, as well as a maniple, a girdle, and bracelets. They are made from Byzantine silk with silk and gold thread decoration. According to inscriptions on the fabric, the vestments were commissioned by Queen Aelfflaed for the Bishop of Winchester and produced between 909 and 916. Her stepson, King Athelstan, who ruled England from 927 to 939, placed them in Saint Cuthbert’s tomb when he visited the shrine in 934.
The style of embroidery called Opus Anglicanum, or English Work, was used on clothing, hangings, and other textiles, often created with silk and gold or silver-gilt threads stitched on linen or velvet backgrounds. Between the late 12th and mid-14th centuries, these luxury goods were in great demand across Europe. Often they were procured as diplomatic gifts, and they were very expensive. They were produced for both secular and ecclesiastical use, but most of the surviving examples were designed for liturgical use like those found alongside Saint Cuthbert.
Although English embroidery was renowned for its beauty during the medieval period, the majority has been lost to neglect or destroyed for the extraction of precious metals or stones, such as pearls and other jewels mentioned in inventory descriptions. Fragments, however, can be found in museums, and one of the most substantial collections of Opus Anglicanum can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The vestments recovered from Saint Cuthbert’s tomb can be seen on display at Durham Cathedral, where visitors can view the entire Treasures of Saint Cuthbert collection. The oak coffin made to cradle the saint’s body when he was found incorrupt in 698 also resides among the relics, its own fragmented body a reminder of what arduous travels medieval artifacts endure to remain with us in our own time.
Emily McLemore, Ph.D. Department of English University of Notre Dame
Earlier this month, the corpse of a woman with a protruding front tooth and a sickle positioned across her throat was discovered in a 17th-century cemetery near the village of Pien in south-eastern Poland. The sickle was meant to keep the body contained: should the deceased woman have attempted to rise from her grave, the blade would have promptly beheaded her. Coupled with the woman’s prominent incisor, the placement of the sickle suggests that those who tended to her burial may have feared she was a vampire.
Professor Dariusz Poliński from Nicholas Copernicus University observed, “The sickle was not laid flat but placed on the neck in such a way that if the deceased had tried to get up most likely the head would have been cut off or injured.” Photo courtesy of Miroslaw Blicharski and Alexsander Poznan.
The woman was found with the remains of a silk head dressing, which indicates she was someone of high social status, as such a garment would have been an expensive commodity. Of course, this woman would be neither the first aristocrat nor the first woman to be suspected of vampirism.
In addition to the positioning of the sickle and her prominent incisor, a padlock was secured around the big toe of the woman’s left foot, which may be meant to symbolize “the closing of a stage and the impossibility of returning,” according to Poliński. Photo courtesy of Miroslaw Blicharski and Alexsander Poznan.
Elizabeth Báthory was a Hungarian noblewoman and history’s most prolific female serial killer, who tortured and murdered as many as 650 girls and women between 1590 and 1610. Her association with vampirism manifests in the folklore that describes the countess’s ritual of bathing in her virgin victims’ blood to retain her youthful beauty. Neither the number of victims nor her bathing activities are confirmed. Nevertheless, a servant girl testified that she saw the figure recorded in one of Báthory’s private books, and another witness stated that he had seen the countess covered in blood. Colloquially, she became known as the Bloody Countess and, more contemporarily, Lady Dracula.
A copy of the only known portrait of Elizabeth Báthory, depicting the countess at age 25. The original painting from 1585 has been lost.
Vlad Dracul, the late medieval ruler more commonly known as Vlad the Impaler, derived his namesake from his preferred method of murdering his enemies: impalement, a particularly gruesome form of death where a wood or metal pole is inserted through the body either front to back, such as a stake might be driven through a vampire’s chest, or vertically through the rectum or vagina. The prince purportedly enjoyed dining amongst his dying victims and dipping his bread into their blood.
Portrait of Vlad Dracul by an unknown artist, circa 1560. This painting, like the one of Elizabeth Báthory above, may be a copy.
As Dracul’s surname, which incidentally means dragon, and Transylvanian origins indicate, the intermittent ruler whose brutality spiraled into legend subsequently became a source of inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula character. Another source, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, not only preceded Dracula but also, conversely, rendered its vampire antagonist female. Moreover, the novella, set in Austria in the late 1800s, positions Carmilla as a clever seductress whose victims are predominantly male. Although Stoker’s iconic novel all but synonymized the vampire with maleness, Le Fanu’s character reflects the traditional association of vampiric tendencies with femaleness that preceded and pervaded the medieval period.
Depiction of Carmilla and her companion, Laura, whom the novella positions as both a friend and a romantic interest. The illustration, by D. H. Friston, accompanied Carmilla when it was first published as a serial in the literary magazine The Dark Blue between 1871 and 1872.
While sensational news specifically citing vampires did not appear in Britain or Europe until the 1700s, the veil of vampirism shrouded the female body during the medieval period and for centuries prior in many parts of the world. In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, the Assyrians feared a demon goddess known as Lamashtu, a name meaning “she who erases,” who was said to steal infants and suck their blood. Lilith, first wife of Adam turned primordial demon, has a similar reputation. Some stories describe her as a creature who steals babies under the cover of darkness, but she also has sex with men in their dreams and spawns demon offspring with their seed. Lilith’s legacy as a sexually wanton demon of the night seems fitting, as she was the woman who first cohabitated with man but refused subservience. More specifically, Lilith questioned why she should lie beneath her husband during sex, and her resistance reinscribed her as monstrous. She became a succubus, a demon in female form who, essentially, sucks the life from men.
Painting of Lilith produced by John Collier in 1887, which conveys her association with the devil and her sexual proclivity through the intimacy she shares with the snake that embraces her naked body.
In the late Middle Ages, the fear of women’s vampiric nature was embodied by the figure of the succubus and implied throughout the wildly popular treatise De secretis mulierum, or On the Secrets of Women. The misogynistic, pseudo-medical textposited women as polluted physiologically and prone to witchcraft; in turn, it laid the foundation for the 15th-century inquisitorial treatise Malleus maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches. Witches were also believed to imbibe in blood, particularly when feasting on the bodies of infants.
Unlike depictions of the incubus, who adopts a male form and engages in sex with willing women, the succubus stalks unconsenting men, often in their sleep. As medieval historian Dyan Elliott explains, “Often a succubus is introduced into a tale so that the holy man can resist it.”[i] Involuntary nocturnal ejaculation served as evidence that a man had been preyed upon by a succubus whilst asleep. As the victim of a rapacious female entity who had extracted semen from his body without permission, the man was absolved of any sin stemming from sexual emission.
In her book Fallen Bodies, Dyan Elliott identifies the life of Saint Anthony as a quintessential depiction of a man who resists the succubus. Painting titled The Torment of Saint Anthony by Michaelango, circa 1487-88, depicts a demon with breasts and a perineal orifice that also functions as the mouth of a second face.
Semen was understood during the medieval period as a substance that was not only life-engendering through its role in conception but also life-sustaining in relation to the maintenance of men’s health. In short, the preservation of semen was vital to the preservation of the male body. Sex, therefore, posed a danger to men, who could become “dried out” if they engaged in sexual activity too frequently. Women, however, were believed to draw strength from the male body during sex by absorbing its heat, as described in the Secrets.[ii] Sapped of both his semen and his own bodily heat, the man was physically drained by intercourse, and the woman ingested his life force.
The Secrets heightens the vampiric qualities of the female body when it identifies a sign of conception as the feeling of the penis being “sucked into the closure of the vagina,”[iii] emphasizing how the woman’s sexual anatomy acts upon the male body to extract its fluids and does so, seemingly, of its own accord. One of the commentaries that frequently circulated with the text exacerbates this somewhat unsettling sentiment by ascribing desire directly to the female body when the writer states, “The womb sucks in the penis, for it is attracting the sperm because of the great desire it has.”[iv] This is not the only instance where the Secrets suggests that female bodies behave so deliberately. Another commentator explains how “it often happens that a woman conceives if she is in a bath where a man has ejaculated because the vulva strongly attracts the sperm,”[v] whereby the language alludes to the agency possessed by the female body that appears inherently poised to entice and consume the essence of its male counterpart if only for the purposes of reproduction.
Moreover, the Secrets infers that the vagina itself might bite the man during intercourse when the text warns its readers that women sometimes place iron inside their vaginas with the malicious intention of harming their sexual partner, who then “suffer[s] a large wound and serious infection of the penis.”[vi] The phrase vagina dentata was not coined until psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud connected it with his concept of castration anxiety circa 1900, but the idea of the “toothed vagina” effectively manifests much earlier in a medieval treatise that likens women to succubi who thirst for mortal men and threaten them with their monstrous appetite.
Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein and produced by Joyce Pierpoline, Teethis a 2007 comedy-horror film that draws upon the concept of the vagina dentata. The film was positively received by critics when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and provides a sharp commentary on consent and sexual violence, despite its poor performance at the box office.
Although women’s relationship with the postmedieval vampire can only be implied in a document that predates the term, women’s correlation with monstrosity could not be clearer. The commentator takes pains to note at an odd point in the text that, “according to Aristotle in the 16th book On Animals, woman is a failed male, that is, the matter that forms a human being will not result in a girl except when nature is impeded in her actions,” so “[i]f a female results, this is because of certain factors hindering the disposition of matter, and thus is has been said that woman is not human, but a monster in nature.”[vii]
As for the female remains recently unearthed in Poland, the skeleton has been relocated to a university for further study. While this woman was not the first to be found buried in a way that suggests her contemporaries feared she might rise from the dead, the placement of the sickle across her throat was unique. She was also spared from mutilation intended to prevent a vampire’s resurrection, which has been observed at other sites. Perhaps those who orchestrated her burial were being politely precautious. After all, if stories had instilled in them that a woman naturally desires to feed on men while she lives, how terrifying that hunger might be once her body was released from restraint by her death.
[i] Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies, University of Pennsylvania Press (1999), 53.
[ii] Helen Rodnite Lemay, Women’s Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ De Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries, State University of New York Press (1992), 127.
The concept of a Global Middle Ages has shifted the paradigm of medieval studies over the past two decades.  It’s impelled scholars to look beyond their particular region or language of expertise to explore the interconnectivity of the world circa 500 to 1500 C.E. New research and publications are examining how commercial, intellectual, artistic, and cultural exchange brought different areas of the globe into contact. New graduate programs and undergraduate courses are training students to dialogue across disciplines, combining the humanities with computer science and bioarcheology. This approach promises to transform medieval studies for the twenty-first century.
Transformation is needed if we want secondary-school students – our future undergraduates – to continue learning about this period. Many state curricula have dropped the requirement to study anything premodern, implying that history began in 1500.
Happily for us, talking about the Global Middle Ages sparks young peoples’ curiosity. They are intrigued by historical narratives that overturn popular notions of the Dark Ages and lift up the cultural achievements of places other than Western Europe.
I speak from experience. This spring I taught an introductory medieval studies course at John Adams High School in South Bend, IN, through a partnership between Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute and the South Bend School Corp. The MI approached John Adams because it is an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. The IB is a global educational program that aims to form “internationally minded young people” ready to meet the challenges of world citizenship in the twenty-first century. The IB history curriculum is designed to “develop intercultural understanding” though the comparative study of more than one region. The ultimate goal is to “increase students’ understanding of themselves and of contemporary society by encouraging reflection on the past.”
Teaching the Global Middle Ages can meet these IB learning objectives by introducing high schoolers to the pluralistic cultures of the deep past. By reading travel narratives students learn that medieval merchants, envoys and missionaries needed to develop intercultural understanding in order to survive. After a guest lecture on trade, travel and migration by MI Mellon Fellow Mohamad Ballan, the John Adams students read excerpts from the tenth-century Travels of ibn Fadlan and the thirteenth-century Journey of William of Rubruck. These texts helpfully debunk the myth that all cross-religious encounters in the Middle Ages erupted in violence.
At the same time, medieval travel narratives describe the terror that humans feel when interacting with those who do not speak the same language or who subscribe to alternate belief systems. Students reading these texts come to see the difficulty of acquiring cultural competence – a task that remains difficult today. That knowledge can foster humility, a virtue needed in globally minded citizens.
The John Adams course succeeded in helping students perceive the medieval globe as a place of cultural and religious diversity. One wrote in a final reflection:
One aspect of the Middle Ages that I was clueless about at the beginning of the semester is the significance of Islam in the medieval world, and the effect that Muslims had on architecture, technology, language, and philosophy in the Middle Ages.
Another reported gaining an “understanding of how every country and culture was connected and in relation to one another. It would be unfair to continue believing that the Middle Ages were this dark and clueless when it came to things that they had to use in their everyday lives.” Looking ahead to next year, I’m excited to help students explore this interconnectivity in greater depth and breadth.
The MI hopes our school partnership will serve as inspiration for other medieval studies programs wanting to do public humanities and engagement work. Collaborating with an IB school proved fortuitous. Both parties share the goal of enabling students to understand our world today by reflecting critically on the deep past.
Annie Killian, Ph.D. Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow Medieval Institute University of Notre Dame
 On coining the term and conceptualizing “The Global Middle Ages,” see Geraldine Heng, “The Global Middle Ages: An Introduction,” Elements in the Global Middle Ages, November 2021. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009161176.
 On Rubruck’s disorienting experience at a Mongol court, see Shirin Azizeh Khanmohamadi, “Worldly Unease in Late Medieval Travel Reports,” in Cosmopolitanism and the Middle Ages, ed. John M. Ganim and Shayne Legassie (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 105-20.