This is one of the most powerful images in the Christian faith, but there is little understanding of just how significant it has been through the ages to Europeans. A story that sprang from the Middle East struck, in its particular details, a chord with traditional peasant beliefs. As a result, however unintentionally, the story sounded utterly convincing to a European peasant, who would have been left in no doubt that this man did, in fact, die, and was truly brought back to life on Easter Day, rather than merely revived after a dreadful ordeal.
To appreciate just how convincing the story was, it is necessary to reflect on the biblical images of Christ's Passion. There is the "sacred head ... scornfully surrounded with thorns", the nails through the hands and the feet, and the "sacred body pierced" from which "blood and water both proceed" that are highlighted in Anglican hymns for Passion tide. Thus, when we survey the Cross, we see precisely what the biblical accounts offered by the Apostles would lead one to expect. There is the crown of thorns mockingly placed on Christ's head, the nails through his hands and feet, the final gaping wound where the soldier stabbed at his side with a spear.
The thorns, the gash in the side and the nails in the feet would all, in European culture, have carried an extra significance given the popular beliefs and practices surrounding death and burial which were widespread in earlier times.
The key to unlocking the additional meaning of these symbols is the belief widely held historically that the dead were capable of returning from the spirit world to claim the lives of those still living in this world. To prevent the dead returning, many cultures symbolically tied together the feet of the deceased. It was also common, particularly when plague was ravaging a community, to disinter corpses so as to "kill" them properly, and thus end their nefarious preying on the living population.
What people often found upon opening the grave helps explain a number of burial customs. Corpses that had been buried for several months sometimes looked very much alive when the coffin was opened. The top layer of skin might have slipped to reveal "new" and, therefore pink flesh underneath. The corpse might be bloated from the gases produced during slow decomposition of the body, and thus look surprisingly healthy, whilst the bacterial action involved could make the body feel warm and the blood in the veins liquid. And these forces, the warmth, and the pressure of gas sometimes forced blood out of the body's natural exit points, including the mouth.
It is to the conjunction of these physical characteristics of decomposition and the belief in the "living dead" that the cultural historian Paul Barber ascribes the folkloric belief in vampires throughout continental Europe. And he suggests that many burial practices were clearly intended to pre- empt the possibility of the dead returning to this world. In particular, Barber notes how attempts were made to prevent the bloating of the corpse, whether by slitting open the gut before burial or by the inclusion of sharp objects such as thorns inside the coffin, so as to puncture the corpse once swelling began.
Taken in this context, it is easy to understand how the figure of Christ on the Cross, with feet nailed together, the side slit open and the head topped with thorns, took on fresh meaning in traditional societies. The episode came to symbolise ultimate death, from which no return could be possible. The impact of this image upon those who lived in the midst of beliefs relating to death, outlined above, can be imagined. The often poor and illiterate peasant was confronted in the Crucifixion with a recognisable symbol of final, irreversible, human death. All of this was made only more powerful by the image of tomorrow, Easter Sunday - the miracle of the Resurrection.
The writer is senior lecturer in British History at the University of HertfordshireReuse content