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What a Bunch of Tools: Zombie Saints and Their Use Within Medieval Communities
By Ciera Baur
Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2014
Abstract: As though interwoven through the threads of our very being, humans have always obsessed over death, what lies beyond, and ways to escape its inevitable grasp. Possessed by this need to understand and conquer death, we have created stories and characters that serve as mediums through which we attempt to explain, and incorporate, death peacefully into our communities and daily lives. This thesis focuses on this phenomenon through the scope of the living dead saints of the Middle Ages, concentrating directly on instances of undead saints found in the most widely disseminated, read, and recounted collection of saints lives of the time, The Golden Legend.
Looking at these tales, this thesis will consider the original context for the word “zombi” (found in 18th century Haiti) and how these instances of the living dead relate to the undead saints of the Middle Ages, in that they both order the community and mediate between a fallen world and desired transcendence. By closely examining these tales of living dead saints and their relics, this thesis uncovers how the medieval community utilized the undead saint’s liminal status as a tool through which the community mitigated and alleviated the anxieties and problems of death, as well as offered hope for what lay beyond. Finally, this thesis considers major cultural responses and critiques of this veneration of living dead saints through the scope of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Prioress’ Tale, which serves as a cultural representation of dissent found against the usage of the undead saint in the Middle Ages.
“You keep adding many corpses newly dead to the corpse of long ago…. You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchers”– Julian the Apostate
The zombie takeover has already begun. Zombies are more prevalent in today’s society than ever before. Every household across America, and debatably across the world, has a connection to the essential living dead idea in some way shape or form; whether it be through television, movies, New York Times bestselling novels, or rambunctious zombie crawls going on down the street, there are few places one can hide in today’s world society that has not been touched by the ghoulish hands of the undead. The concept of the living dead, however, extends far past today’s 21st century interpretations. As this thesis discovers, prominent representations of the resurrected dead existed within the literature and cultural sphere of the Middle Ages. Frequently pointed out to me by those interested in my topic, Jesus himself was a living dead character of sorts. He is, after all, the most famed man to have risen from the grave—but he is not the only one. Frequently overlooked are the men and women who followed in the centuries after Jesus’ grandiose resurrection, who preached the teachings of Christianity, and in their immense holiness, rose from the grave, in some way, after their demise: saints.