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."
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.
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.
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.