Thursday 9 January 2014

Why not a Medieval Zombie Apocalypse?

This is something I was discussing with my wife on the way home last night.

 Zombies are proliferating in books and on screen to an almost painful extent. But apart from the lighthearted Evil Dead spinoff Army of Darkness  the undead tend to confine their uprisings from the 1970s onward into the near future.  Why haven't zombies ventured into the past? It seems like they are shuffling about everywhere else. Alternate history, for all the avenues it could explore, tends to rather unimaginatively revolve around the Nazis winning WW2, or an American Civil War dragging on into the 20th century, with occasional ventures into the Victorian era.

A medieval setting seems purpose-built for the zombie apocalypse. 90% of fantasy tends to mimic a medieval aesthetic, so setting undead weirdness in a medieval times seems a great "fit."

The Middle Ages already has its own "apocalypse" - the Black Death - which killed 30-60% of Europe's population - an estimated 75 to 200 million people - effectively dropping the overall population from 450 to 350 million by 1400. It took 150 years to recover from this devastating event.

Replace plague rats arriving from the Far East around 1346 with "zombie rats" or "patient zero" and voila - the alternate history almost writes itself.

Just after I wrote this article, I came across this.  It comes with a whopping 1.5 star recommendation. Obviously classic cinema, to be enjoyed alongside epic moviemaking events like Sharknado I'm on eBay in another window as I type this.

But how might the "medieval zombie apocalypse" play out?  Well, we have almost infinite variations of zombie, but we'll use the "transmitted by blood/bite" viral version to keep with the disease theme.  We'll also dismiss the fast, scary 28 Days Later style "ragers" (aka simply blood-crazed humans) in favour of the "proper" shambling undead kind.  Something most zombie movies fail to address is if the "zombie virus" can be transmitted by animals - we sometimes see undead animals in cages and labs but we don't see them running around during the actual apocalpyse. Amusing as it would be to see a Monty-Python-esque rabid rabbit (bubonic plague can be transmitted to cats, dogs and various rodents), I'm going to dismiss zombie animals as not sufficiently "canon."  I'm also going to ignore the fact zombies would freeze stiff in winter, rot into immobile piles of bones, or get eaten by wolves or wild dogs. I.e. these will be the usual, extremely durable, "official" movie zombies that crave brains and are best killed by destroying their brains.

Population & Spread of the Plague
The average villager seldom travelled further than the next town.  Some weren't even allowed to leave their village.  The infected aren't going to be spreading via plane or train.  So the plague wouldn't travel rapidly.  News of the plague would probably be carried on horseback by messengers, so even without Twitter and Youtube the locals would probably be aware of the menace before it arrived.

Even then, it might be not so menacing as you'd think.  Although crowded cities might be devastated, like in the Black Death, the relatively spare population means it would be harder to get a "proper" zombie horde going.  Remote villagers might simply get random zombies wandering by every now and then.  And even then, the average peasant probably wouldn't stand around with his mouth open while his mates got eaten.

Game of Thrones, whilst fantasy, is what I'd term "gritty" or "hard" fantasy. Therefore, you could almost count these "White Walkers." I believe next season may see them in battle.

Dealing with the Undead
Since the average peasant firmly believed the dead could return to life, there would be a lot less hand-wringing and a lot more decisive action.  Rapists, murderers etc were often buried with rocks in their mouths to prevent them "coming back." Witches were decapitated, dismembered or burnt.

The average peasant, undoubtedly capable with an axe, pitchfolk or billhook (a farming implement so effective it became a standard infantry weapon), many of whom were expert hunters and bowmen, accustomed to being called out for military service  by their local lord, would probably be far better equipped, and mentally prepared to deal with the undead that the average modern householder.

The zombie virus might be blamed on the devil or evil spirits, but the elimination and disposal of zombies would no doubt be energetic and thorough.  They wouldn't be rocking wide-eyed in the corner waiting to be eaten, stammering "but that was Aunt Martha" - they'd be grabbing the nearest pointy stick.

The civil authorities' response would also be pretty decisive.  The nobles killed 300,000 peasants in a revolt in Germany in the more "enlightened" 1500s, so I doubt any medieval nobles would hesitate to raze complete towns and villages suspected of being "infected." 

After mentioning the rabid killer bunny, I had to include the relevant clip. Prime the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch!  (If you don't know who or what Monty Python is, please stop reading this blog and never come back)

Knights vs Zombies
Although modern firearms are undoubtedly superior to bows, there would probably plenty of villagers versed in their use (i.e. peasants were supposed to do archery practice on the weekends) and ammunition is both easily manufactured and re-usable. The padded or leather armour used by the medieval footsoldiers would also offer fair protection against zombie bites. Polearms would offer great "reach" for zombie splattering.  In fact most medieval weapons, designed to stab, bludgeon or hack their way through armour, would make short work of a zombie skull or neck (and remember, zombies are notoriously squishy.)

A fully armoured knight, on a bad-tempered warhorse would not doubt do even better at killing undead.  Against a huge horde, he'd eventually get dragged down and have his armour pulled off and juicy bits gnawed, but if he could keep from getting "bogged down" he could wreak considerable havoc. 

Shotguns (called "Boomsticks" in traditional texts, were a powerful zombie hunting weapon even in the Middle Ages.

Collapse of Systems
A key issue of the modern zombie apocalpyse is the loss of infastructure such as power, running water etc. It's probably a metaphor for... something. Basically, it's a big deal to us to lose all the things a medieval peasant never had anyway.  The average peasant wouldn't be have to travel to the big city and risk the undead hordes to scavenge for supplies - they farm and live off the land anyway. Not a lot would change, except maybe the tax collector from the local lord might not turn up that year.  Village life might get better!

Castles - maybe not as cool as they seem
Thick, high walls, sturdy doors, and moats - designed to deal with siege machines and ladders, would surely prove impenetrable for the average zombie.  However, although designed to withstand prolonged siege with plenty of supplies, zombies are besiegers who don't need supplies.  Letting zombies "build up" around a castle might be a problem, as once they reach critical mass the zombie horde could simply wait out the defenders. So castles would be a good base, but regular sorties would be needed to keep the local zombies manageable, especially if the castle was based near a large town.

The book "Stronghold" with Welsh zombies - was supposed to become a movie a year or so back. Sadly, nothing became of it.

Anyway, there seems to be a distinct lack of historical zombies out there on the net.  Although I could find these "Zindians" (zombie Indians) which I am absolutely going to buy, Medieval or not - I can't find any proper historic zombies.  Only poxy fantasy zombies (and magical animate skeletons which we all know are implausible, unscientific, and frankly ridiculous) with ridiculous gothic bling.

 These zombie Indians will spice up my French and Indian War games.

So if anyone finds good historic zombie miniatures out there (from any era pre-WW2), let me know.

Or send a copy of this post to the Perry twins, and tell them there are some medieval miniatures they missed in their Agincourt line.


  1. Check out the Pike and zombie page. I saw lots of folks, using the Mantic games Zombies and ghouls as a base for conversions of English civil war plastic mins.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I know of the "Pike & Shotte & Zombie" rules (probably should dl a copy sometime) but I can't find a specific website?


    3. Ugh I worded my question moronically. I was kinda saying two things

      A- I am aware of the Pike, Shot, Zombie Rules

      B- I cannot find the website showing conversions of ghouls etc as the guy who does the rules does not see to have a blog or website

  2. "Why not a Medieval Zombie Apocalypse? " Indeed, why not, specially with the historical 'precedent 'of the Black Death? 'Traditional' zombies came from Voodoo practices in Haiti, but the 'infectious' type is not so limited.

    While thinking in a more limited scope than your 'global apocalypse / Day of the Triffids' approach I like to toy with idea about zombies games set in the mid-18th C. (I was 'imprinted' with this period by Charles Grant's 'The War Game', the book that 'hooked' me to the hobby). Something along 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' set by the time of Barry Lyndon. Sea exchanges with Asia were intense then, so a ship -call her 'The Buxom Strumpet'- may well have brought back a family of Sumatran Rat Monkeys!

    I really love the memory of the bagpiper with highland bonnet in 'Army of Darkness'!

    1. " (I was 'imprinted' with this period by Charles Grant's 'The War Game', the book that 'hooked' me to the hobby). "

      I think I remember you from TMP. You could probably claim to be the world's foremost authority of esoteric wargaming for the period! If I ever decide to do a Weird Lace Wars ruleset I will know who to consult for "historic" versimilitude

      However now I've got something bothering me - is the
      Sumatran Rat Monkey from Sherlock Homes or the awful Peter Jackson film?

    2. Brain Dead (Dead alive in the Us) indeed. And if you are ready to accept *comical* zombies movies, it's a pure jewel.

  3. 'Realistic' (¿!?) zombies of the 'infected' type abide to the basic requirements of biology: vital organs must be still functioning (for a time), the brain is the most damaged one, no wide open wound (can't survive without circulating blood), no hanging guts or very large missing areas of skin (dehydration would mummify them)... so just as with movie walk-on actors it's a matter of make-up. I did a few tries in my time: digging around the eyeballs and opening some 'scars' with a pin or nail, 'damaging' the clothes but chiefly it was a matter of painting.
    Additionally (I used to dip my finished minis into light oak wood varnish to give them at the same time 'contrast' -as with the current 'army painter' dipping sets- and a protective varnish) before vanishing I dipped the minis in a fluid obtained by filtering through a cloth the mixture from crushing dry plums boiled in concentrated tea. Dark brown *very small* plant particles remained in the creases and folds, giving once dry -almost on a subliminal, 'impressionist' level- the minis a 'freshly unearthed' look.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head - the real horror of the zombie apocalypse isn't the shambling hordes of monsters, it's the loss if the infrastructure that the majority of us depend upon completely. I read an article once making the argument that the zombies in an apocalypse could be replaced with wandering hordes of poor, helpless people wandering around like a plague of locusts wiping out settlements and cleaning them out of anything edible or useful before moving on to the next one.

    This theory accounts for both the time period preference and for the recent rise in popularity of the genre...

    1. So the medieval zombie apocalpypse would merely be the medieval zombie "annoyance"...

      I suspected there might be a "metaphor" used to explain the rise in popularity in zombie movies. Myself, I'd settle for "zombies are cool"


  5. I actually am creating a fantasy and medieval version of the game biosyndrome (zombie table top war game). Its free to download if you want to check it out. The fantasy rules are not quite finished though the beta versions are in v1.7. basically knights, samurai, pirates vs zombie hordes, vampires and werewolves.

    1. Looks interesting. You only need cyborgs/robots, cowboys and perhaps winged monkeys to complete the "collection of cool things"!

  6. I'm inclined to agree that the main fear of the Zombie Apocalypse isn't so much the Zombies themselves, but rather the loss of infrastructure. There was Medieval infrastructure, but no one who doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about the medieval world is likely to know any details, or in many cases even be aware they exist.

    Of course it should be kept in mind just how densely populated Medieval cities where. In 1300 London had about 80,000 people according to Wikipedia, and if you look at a map of it at the time the entire map only shows 12 sqr km (,_1300.svg), and the city itself is only a small part of that.

    In comparison Australian Electorates are about 90,000 people, and the Electorate of Sydney (probably one of the smallest in the country) is 42 sqr km (

    Plus medieval cities are a lot more flammable then ours, so it's possible that a zombie outbreak in a city would result in large parts of it being burnt to the ground (perhaps deliberately).

  7. But, if one wants to remain 'realistic' (purely a matter of personal taste, of course; but because of my background when it comes to biology I tend to be as annoying as a napoleonic button counting anorak), is not the scale of the 'apocalypse' / general crumbling of infrastructure à la Wyndham / Matheson? It's a plague, but not a highly contagious one. Not transmitted by air / breath like anthrax, flu or tuberculosis, not transmitted by fleas like black plague, not transmitted by skin contact like smallpox: it's a kind of rabies, transmitted only by biting. There always be surviving witnesses to spread the information, and people know about rabies. And the carriers are slow moving, clumsy and if one wants (again!) to remain realistic are very short lived: rabies kills rather fast, and here in addition most of the carriers have unattended ghastly wounds -the 'aggressor' not only bites but tends to tear large beats of flesh. And the carriers are not specially difficult to kill. Having lost any feeling of fear and pain and any self-preservation reflexes they *look* almost un-killable when they keep crawling to you on their stumps after you cut off their limbs à la Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but actually a blunderbuss / shotgun discharge is as definitively efficient as on you and me.
    So it's im prejudiced ho highly unlikely that the zombie plague could spread like the Black Death or the 1918 Spanish flu. In Ancient / Medieval times -down to early 19th C. maybe- it could almost annihilate a town (a harbor, probably) but would not spread much?

    My own 'Sci-Fi' interpretation of 'zombification' is a variant of rabies where the saliva of the bitter causes a temporary apparent death (almost imperceptible breathing and heart beating) by anaphylactic shock: the nervous system, mostly the brain, is irreversibly damaged by anoxia. The duration of the apparent death / anoxia varies with the strain, hence from an outburst (= setting: novel, comics, movie) to another brain damage varies, the victims vary from extremely slow moving, slumbering stupid automatons to quasi-efficient predators able to run, sometimes even to swim, with sometimes enough remaining automatisms to open a door, even use an elevator...

    1. For the sake of my premise, I assume standard "movie zombies"

      ----> I'm also going to ignore the fact zombies would freeze stiff in winter, rot into immobile piles of bones, or get eaten by wolves or wild dogs. I.e. these will be the usual, extremely durable, "official" movie zombies <---- (aka the usual reanimated corpses)

      The reason a zombie apocalypse would NEVER be possible is probably ammunition for another post, but nowhere near as fun a topic...

    2. Okay... Why would you assume that zombies, otherwise dead bodies walking around, would succumb to things that would stop living people. I mean, they're already dead; why would they freeze or rot? Why would wolves and wild dogs come near them? I think the standard movie zombies are something of a kludge to explain how something that hasn't been stopped by death could be otherwise stopped.

    3. Why would you assume they wouldn't?

    4. They would freeze because anything that gets cold freezes, if their joints freeze, they become immobile. Basically just a statue of frozen solid zombie.

  8. Dude I read your post with great interest and I think what you tell is pretty accurate.
    thanks !

  9. I love the idea of a Medieval zombie plague, or perhaps a high fantasy zombie plague, caused by necromancers of some description.