I am really surprised that I can't find a question that has already answered this. I am working on a book about essentially what might have happened had a zombie plague broken out in England in about 1060 AD, right before William the Conqueror began to cause waves.

To be specific: These are sort of medium-speed zombies, walking about as fast as a human in decent health walks. They require brain damage to kill- a head by itself would still be alive. Infection is spread by bites/scratches/wounds. The disease infects only humans. After being infected, the infected person shows symptoms (fever, extreme, almost constant vomiting, nausea) after a few hours, and generally turns after 36-48 hours. They don't need to feed to stay alive. They are faster at night, but only slightly. The zombies do not like water- being fully immersed in it would eventually kill them, in a matter of days to weeks.

How would this affect overall civilization in England?

My thoughts so far are, that the zombies would destroy isolated villages, but towns would be unlikely to fall unless an infected person made it inside, and possible not even then. Guards would be very vigilant.

Religious societies might well set up sort of a "citizen's hospital" to quarantine visitors for a while upon entrance to the city. There is a fairly large precedent for religious generosity even to "untouchables" of society. The entire religious aspect is fascinating, and a large part of why I'm investigating a book about this scenario. The zombies would likely be seen as a curse from God.

Because killing these "accursed" would be seen as a holy thing to do, I could well see large numbers of knights venturing forth to slay them.

Advantages of armour when fighting zombies indicates they would actually do fairly well against zombies. In thinking about it, zombies are probably very easy for an army to slay- hand to hand combat against an unarmed foe whilst wearing armor. The tricky bit is that if one of your comrades got infected, you might well wake up to find the army's camp overrun.

Another intriguing effect would likely be that anyone who suffered from a fever/vomiting would be killed on the spot for fear they had been turned. A siege of zombies would be really interesting.

  • $\begingroup$ @DoubleDouble, thanks for the clarification questions. I've edited it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 21:21
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    $\begingroup$ How much do you intend to allow the civilization to adapt before it is no longer considered a typical midieval European civilization. Given substantial stresses, cultures can change rapidly, and your readers may not recognize the new civilization after the shifts. Also: can animals be infected? They change the nature of the game dramatically. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 22:43
  • $\begingroup$ Can they swim? There were about 50 inhabited islands in modern day UK even as far back as medieval times... $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented Jul 23, 2015 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ The zombie infestation that started around 700 AD was the actual cause of the dark ages. Due to limited historical records of the period, this was not recognized until discovered by archaeologists in an Irish dig as reported in this article. news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/… $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:20
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    $\begingroup$ Zombies burn, so does wood, therefore zombies weigh the same as a block of wood. All they need to do is weigh all people who come in to see if they weigh the same as a block of wood to make sure they're not zombies. $\endgroup$
    – Theik
    Commented Jul 24, 2015 at 7:52

7 Answers 7


It's rather unlikely.

The basic issue is that there are very few people in medieval England. You've got 1.5 million people, mostly rural, so very spread out. Even if everyone in the country gets turned that makes for only 20 zombies per square mile. So realistically you won't get zombie hordes, you'd get the odd individual zombie wandering into places. Which is easily dealt with once people know what to look for.

To spread, the average zombie encounter needs to have the "zombie infecting someone and so increasing the number of zombies" be of a greater likelihood than "the zombie is destroyed without infecting someone (or the infected are killed without turning)". That just doesn't seem likely.

That's ignoring the increased proportion of people who are handy with a farm implement, and a superstitious populace that is therefore more mentally prepared to clobber a 'demonically possessed' neighbour.

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    $\begingroup$ Totally agree: medieval scenarios for a Zombie Apocalypse are way less scary than modern day. One exception is London town itself. It was not a really huge metropolis at the time, but there would be some risk if zombie infection began to spread across some of the poorer areas of the city. Of course, the rest of the kingdom would be fine, especially since zombies would be totally ineffective against medieval fortifications. $\endgroup$
    – JBiggs
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 20:08

A similar question was asked about the Roman Legions vs the zombies, but in this case, the pre conquest Britons would actually do a bit better in the fight, but would still be overwhelmed in the end.

The standard huscarl in Harold's army would be clad in mail, protected by a conical "nasal" helmet and a kite shaped great shield, and fighting with a large Danish war axe as a primary weapon. The huscarls were elite troops with high levels of cohesion and motivation, fighting behind "shield walls", so the zombies would have a hard time getting at them. As well, the axes would deal killing blows to unarmoured zombies quite easily.

The local fyrd (levies or militia would be the closest term) would have much less protection and cohesion, and would probably be the source of all your zombie infection problems. A member of the fyrd could be easily scratched or bitten, and go back to the village after the battle to dispatch the zombies. Mayhem results a few days later, and the fyrd of the next village is called up to repel the zombie horde, with similar results.

What would be horrifying to the villagers and even the elite huscarls was the seemingly random nature of zombie infestations. They didn't have a germ theory of disease, so being struck by the zombie plague would seem to be sheer magic or the act of a vengeful God displeased with the local people. There would be some inkling that people with the disease should be kept out, but a carrier not showing any symptoms would probably be let through the blockade, and of course the villages and towns needed access to food and fuel (trees, in this case) so there will be lots of traffic. Of course authority was fairly weak and localized, so a guard could be bribed or subverted to let someone pass, negating the effect of the quarantine blockade.

Unless someone was willing to carry out drastic measures (as in burn down the village where a suspected zombie may be), the disease will spread quickly. Even worse, drastic measures like this will only slow, not stop the disease. A zombie shambling around in the forest could pop out at any random time and start the cycle all over again, and the disease will grow and spread in a geometric progression.

William will never bother to cross the channel to claim the "Accursed Isle", devoid of human population but lethal to any living human who were to go there for the next 100 years (perhaps more if the Zombie virus can stay alive in spore form ready to infect newcomers to the shores of England).

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    $\begingroup$ You assume that there would be some sort of battles between mobs of zombies and fyrds. Where would these mobs come from? Remember the population density is extremely low by modern standards. A much more likely scenario is a single or maybe 2 or 3 zombies being spotted at random intervals and dealt with by local militia who are quite skilled with hand weapons (even a cudgel would be great against a zombie). Spears could easily keep them at bay. Even sling stones could take the head off a rotted zombie. Peasants were very tough and independent. I see no problem for England really. $\endgroup$
    – JBiggs
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 20:15

It only takes one person to make it inside a city to spread the disease easily. The success of quarantine will require that they realize how long it takes until the vomiting starts, and take extreme measures, but it is possible.

I think the success of your knights' expeditions would greatly depend on just how many people get turned before everyone realizes the circumstances they are in. Your people still require food and goods, which was coming from those ioslated villages.

If not a lot of people are turned - a standing army could conceivably battle and keep control of land used for food production, and protect anybody moving goods from one place to another. Yes, they would have to take those hard decisions to kill their friend who was only scratched and is now sick.

However, a huge mass of undead - no matter how slow or unarmed, could overwhelm anybody with any weapon or armor. It could potentially be the same as being under siege with an enemy that will never get tired of sieging, and who only grows stronger the longer the siege lasts as slowly the zombies catch those outside of the city walls.

The overall answer to "How likely would a zombie apocalypse be to wipe out civilization in medieval England?": It depends - mostly on how quick they are to react and how many zombies there are when the number stops going up as fast.


Epidemiological studies have shown that to successfully combat the typically-described zombie outbreak, it is necessary to eliminate zombies and the infected humans rapidly, otherwise the end result will be a world where zombies have replaced humanity.

In medieval times, human life was somewhat less valued, and in the initial stages of an outbreak, people would be more likely to avoid someone obviously sick than to try and help - and get bitten, thus reducing the bite rate. The zombie removal rate could be considered to be a little higher too, especially as the outbreak continued, as it could be made a religious duty to kill the zombified and infected.

Additionally, the full plate armour that knights wore would make them far more resistant to being bitten and infected, thus reducing the bite rate against said individuals, who would also be better at zombie removal.

All in all, without actually simulating the outbreak as the authors of the paper I cited did, I can guess that there is a fairly even chance that either the zombies or humans will win, probably depending on the speed with which the authorities act to control the outbreak. In either case, there is quite likely to be a lot of corpses, and if the humans win, the clean-up isn't likely to be pretty.

The epidemiological study shows that cities are dangerous places to be, that it's far safer to remain out in the countryside. That is the case in modern times, and will be just as valid in medieval times.


In Medieval times defensive structures were very common, and while not everyone had a stone castle there were Motte and Baileys that people could go into when someone was attacking. They had a bailey (farm bit) a motte (a hill) and a keep which was the wooden castle on top of a motte.The whole thing had a palisade fence around it and a moat around that so if it wasn't airborne communities of lords and peasants could continue to survive in these fenced-off areas. Unfortunately Motte and Baileys only took off in England after William the Conquerer came to power and had a castle building-spree. So if you hold onto those zombies for another twenty years, society has a better chance of surviving. Besides the Mottes and Baileys, I think people would manage the zombies fine. After the vikings, slow, weaponless people probably wouldn't be that scary. http://www.hinckleypastpresent.org/images/hinckleycastle01.jpg In the case that England does collapse CYMRU AM BYTH! Cymru Gruffydd ap Llywelyn!!


Finding The Dominant Problem

Don't underestimate the zombies.

In most situations, the key to predicting the consequences is to identify the one or two dominant impacts that a situation will have on a population and to ignore all third and higher order effects.

Lots of the problems that other answers to this question have solved are basically third and higher order effects, however.

The single greatest threat posed by a medieval zombie apocolypse is the threat that they would pose to farmers doing their work and to crops in the fields, as explained at greater length below, something that other answers haven't given much thought to addressing.

Less Critical, Later Order Problems

Keeping zombies at bay in fortified walled cities, castles, monasteries, towns and even enclosed country manors, and fortified caves might not be much of a problem.

Solutions like moats would be popular (and for backstory, Copper Age and Bronze Age Iberia was full of walled enclosures that often, perhaps even usually featured moats, so perhaps zombies were a particular problem in Portugal and Spain for some reason).

England has abundant supplies of water that would make it unnecessary to be vulnerable around fresh water supplies.

And, defeating zombies militarily in planned engagements with armored soldiers and calavry might work, against an ill armed, not terribly fast moving, ill coordinated foe, however deadly they might be if their infection is passed on.

But, feeding everyone during the zombie apocylopse would be a much more daunting task.

Feeding The People

Most People In The Middle Ages Were Poor Rural Farmers

In the Middle Ages, the vast majority of the population (70%-90%ish) was engaged in farming as serfs on feudal estates and herding on unenclosed pastures. And, it is not practical to have a very large share of workers in a field wearing armor or carrying weapons in addition to farming tools while working the fields. Probably only something like 1% to 5% of the population could be spared as anti-zombie soldiers.

Also, only a small minority of people could afford to use horses for transportation, so most serfs and free peasants would have to live pretty close to the fields that they work, greatly limiting the number of people who can live in fortified urban centers. Recall that feudalism was necessary in the first place because kings lacked the logistic capacity to rule their kingdoms directly, rather than through intermediary noblemen who lived cheek by jowl with their subjects. High population densities were simply not economically or technologically viable for the most part.

In short, there are real limits to the viability of fortress/quarantine solution.

Keeping Watch

Given that zombies aren't particularly fast, probably the best strategy for farm workers would be to put some older children who are still relatively small and not too useful in hard labor in tree tops or artificial lookouts to keep their eyes on the lookout for zombies, and have them signal if they saw any coming, so that everyone could jog to the nearest farm house or purpose built rural zombie shelter before the zombies arrived and from there ring a loud bell or drum to summon assistance from the local lord's soldiers. The strongest farm workers would form a rear guard with their tools as improvised weapons, as the children scrambled from their lookouts and fled for safety at a higher speed than some of the older farm workers, to join the less fit farm workers fleeing while the rear guard covers them.

Ley lines historically were probably established deliberately by prehistoric Britons as a series of watchtowers connected by line of sight to provide an early warning system and this too could be integrated into the zombie alternative history.

How Can Crops Be Kept Safe?

There is also the problem that crops in the fields are vulnerable to trampling by zombie hordes, even if the zombies aren't doing so intentionally and have no use for the crops themselves. Farming requires sustained peace and order for many months at a time, because the growing crops can't be moved until harvest time two or three times a year, leaving months at a time when they are vulnerable not just to weather and animals but to destruction as wandering zombie hordes trample them.

It is all good and well to hide in a castle or rural zombie shelter or fortified farm house or manor for a few hours or couple of days while the zombies in the neighborhood move along. But, if you hide in your fortified place of safety while your crops are ruined, the zombies will have killed you as sure as if they had actually eaten your brains. Only starving to death takes longer and involves more sustained suffering as you watch children and older people die first, and those in between struggle to hold on with food shortages that make them vulnerable to diseases and zombie attacks.

Yet, it would be far too expensive to grow any crops but a few high value ones (such as herbs and spices and maybe some berries or orchards or vineyards) or that don't need light and can be grown in cellars (such as mushrooms) within fortifications.

If the English people are going to survive, they need better solutions than high strong walls that are expensive to contain large areas with in order to protect their crops.

Swamp Buffers For Fields

One attractive solution to protect more everyday crops would be to drain the interior of bogs and moors and swamps, while using undrained perimeter areas as wet buffer zones to protect the crops from wandering zombies. Alternately, rivers and streams could be intentionally diverted to flood perimeter zones around farmers' fields, a bit like Asian farmers flood rice patties, to create new buffers and wetlands (with the downside of providing a home to insects and other vermin who also pose a public health threat). Maybe access could even be via a short flat boat trip or a plank walkway that could be pulled up if zombies were sighted.

Big Cats To Protect Fields

Another way to keep fields safe would be to encourage top predator species (felines would be preferred because they don't eat grain themselves) to patrol your territory, at least if they could prey on and/or eat zombies. Lions and tigers could come to be known as protectors of the land, rather than merely as threats to livestock, and might learn to prefer to hassle zombies who would generally be unarmed, not as fast as them and relatively stupid, to trying to make uninfected humans their prey. This could also provide evolutionary insights into why zombies move faster at night when large felines are more active, than during the day.


If you could find a sustainable way to grow food free of significant zombie interference, life could go on, but I'd suspect that you'd see rapid population collapse primarily due to impaired horticultural production, rather than direct losses to zombie infection and attacks, in places where a quick solution to keeping zombies out of the fields could not be devised fast enough.

This population bust would impair high culture and would strengthen the hand of serfs vis-a-vis their feudal masters, because there wouldn't be enough serfs to tend all of the land. Serfs would gain more freedom and rights during the zombie era in England. A zombie outbreak might cause democracy to emerge earlier than it would have otherwise.

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    $\begingroup$ You are DRAMATICALLY over estimating the trouble peasant serfs would have against zombies. There would be no massive mobs of zombies, because the total population density is so low, only a few scattered groups. Peasants would pick up their farming tools, obliterate a few zombies, and go back to their fields, complaining about the BS they had to put up with. These people would kill off wolves going after their sheep and would use farm implements against Viking raiders. Zombies would be no match for them. $\endgroup$
    – JBiggs
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 20:19

How likely? Not very likely. To start, people were probably more used to death and killing back in 1060. People now are (no offense intended toward anyone) squeamish babies in comparison. The average medieval peasant probably hasmore combat effectiveness than a modern western citizen.

Technology of the time gave you two options: Riding an expensive, hard to maintain horse or walking. Old Roman roads were decaying and had been for a while with little to no maintenaince. Since you specified that these zombies be undead I have to assume that they rot. If not at the same speed as a regular corpse at least at some decent rate. Their speed might be impaired in 20 weeks or so assuming a severely slowed rate of decomposition. This is surely enough time for an uninfected lord or knight to ride horseback to the neares town and alert them. The will rebuff him at first, but as more and more towns slowly collapse to infection, a religious crusade will begin against the undead. I would love to see a zombie horde of say, 10,000 beat an army of well informed English knights and longbowmen.

In Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Guide he depicts a similar situation. The armies of England would dig deep trenches around their camps and let the hordes fill them.

Not very likely as you pointed out. I would bet my money that some superstitious nut cases would begin spreading word that the Jews did it. There would be even more. Going to graveyards would be prohibited because noone would know it is a virus; avoid the dead and you wont join their ranks. Lords might see the chaos directly after the threat as a chance to decentralize the country even more, perhaps even declare independence. When someone died (regardless of what killed him) it would be mandatory to cut off his head and burn it/cut it up/throw it into a river. If whatever disease causes the zombies can survive long enough in water this might become a serious threat of infection to major cities like London.

A holiday might be created to "to celebrate Gods' victory over the undead infidels." People would be even more restricted which could result in more peasant uprisings as their only fibers of freedom are removed.

Now that we know what some of the societal implications might be, lets explore how to make the apocalypse happen.

As pointed out in oher answers, there needs to be a large number of zombies exponentiqlly spreading the infection. You could outlandishly have aliens infect large numbers of people in major cities and towns (Why only England, though?) or you could more realistically make it some sort of previously undiscovered waterborne neural parasite. I like te latter more.

I have more to say but not enough time. I will update the answer later.

  • $\begingroup$ it appears you never updated your answer here. Would you like to? $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 2:07

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