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On set filming scene for upcoming documentary on superstitions.

Recently, I was asked to appear on a television series for Channel 4 (UK). The show investigates the history of superstitions, and I was asked to discuss the concept of ‘bier-right’, which held that the corpse of a recently murdered victim would bleed in the presence of its killer. The scene—which centered upon a synthetic corpse that was rigged to bleed on cue—included the presenter (Tony Robinson), a criminal pathologist (Stuart Hamilton), and myself. It was one of those surreal moments in a historian’s life when one’s random knowledge of the past actually seemed useful for completing the immediate task at hand. That task was to explain to a general audience where this idea originated, and why people believed in it.

The belief that a corpse would bleed in the presence of its murderer is Germanic in origin and dates as far back as the 6th century. A thousand years later—in the 16th century—it was so widely held that King James VI of Scotland wrote:

‘[F]or as in a secret murther, if the deade carcase be at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it wil gush out of bloud, as if the [blood] were crying to heauen for reuenge of the murtherer, God hauing appointed that secret super-naturall signe, for tryall of that secrete vnnaturall crime…’ [1]

Even Shakespeare supports this belief, as evidence in Act I, Scene II of Richard III. Here we find Lady Anne following the body of her dead husband, Henry VI, as he is carried to his final resting place. Suddenly, Gloucester (Henry’s murderer) enters the scene and stops the procession. Lady Anne cries:

Oh Gentlemen, see, see dead Henry’s wounds,
Open their congeal’d mouthes, and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lumpe of fowle Deformitie:
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood.
From cold and empty Veines where no blood dwels.
Thy Deeds inhumane and unnaturall,
Provokes this Deluge most unnaturall.
O God, which this blood madest, revenge his death!
O earth, which this blood drink’st revenge his death!
Either heaven with lightning strike the murderer dead,
Or earth, gape open wide and eat him quick,
As thou dost swallow up this good king’s blood
Which his hell-govern’d arm hath butchered! [2]

Shakespeare provides no further context for Henry’s spontaneous bleeding corpse for its significance would not be lost on a contemporary audience.

As ‘superstitious’ as this may seem to us today, this belief was given legal recognition in medieval and early modern courts. From the 9th century onwards, suspects could choose to undergo ‘trial-by-ordeal’, the idea being that God would protect the innocent from any harm. These trials could involve fire (walking across burning coals unharmed); water (retrieving a stone from a pot of boiling water unscathed); or even combat (fighting the accuser to see who emerges the victor). By far the strangest was ‘ordeal-by-bier’. This required a suspect to circle the corpse of the victim while calling out his or her name and lightly stroking the wounds. If, at any time, the corpse began to bleed, the suspect could be found guilty of the crime.

In 1688, Philip Standsfield was convicted of patricide partially on evidence that his father’s corpse began to bleed when he went to lift the body. At that moment, ‘Blood sprung out upon [his] Hand, at which wiping it upon his Coat and struck with terror and remorse, he cryed out, Lord have mercy upon me’! [3] During the early modern period, killing one’s father was tantamount to treason, and so the judges ordered a particularly gruesome death for poor Standsfield:

[T]he said Philip Standsfield is to be taken upon Wednesday next, being the 15th of February instant, to the Market-cross of Edinbrugh, and there, betwixt two and four o’clock in the afternoon, to be hanged on a gibbet till he be dead, and his tongue to be cut out and burnt upon a scaffold, and his right hand to be cut off and affixed to the east port of Haddingtoun, and his body to be carried to the Gallowlie betwixt Leith and Edinburgh, and there to be hanged up in chains; and ordains his name, fame, memory, and honours to be extinct, his arms to be driven forth and delete out of the books of arms … [4]

Unfortunately, this ‘superstition’ did not die with Philip Standsfield, although it was no longer used in criminal trials after 1688. In fact, it persisted well into the 19th century, where we find reference to it even in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

But, dear reader, I have already revealed too much, and so I will pause here. To find out more on bleeding corpses, please stay tuned for the forthcoming episode on superstitions for Channel 4 (date to be announced)!

1. King James VI of Scotland, Daemonologie in Forme of a Dialogue (1597).

2. William Shakespeare, Richard III (1591), Act 1, Scene II.

3. Anon., A True Relation of a Barbarous Bloody Murther, Committed by Philip Standsfield upon the Person of Sir James Standsfield his Father (n.d.), p. 7.

4. .  Ibid.