With Halloween just round the corner, my thoughts turn to what to write for a spooky-season blog post. As someone whose major research interests reside in the cultural history of the supernatural, finding something to write about at this time of year is surprisingly difficult. I’ve already written about witches, hellmouths, magic, walking corpses and the like, so trying to find an appropriate subject is kind of vexing. As such I thought I’d go down the pedantic route: over the last few weeks I have read many blogs and news items talking about medieval English ‘vampires’. The medieval undead, is course, one of my main research interests, so the use of such a culturally-specific designation as vampire to describe the type of walking corpse mentioned in the works of William of Newburgh and Walter Map, et al. – where no such conceptual term exists – led to ponder how and why the word vampire became such a catch-all term in popular culture. Just as ‘magic’ is often used as an umbrella term for a variety of practices including alchemy, divination, astrology, and so on, so vampire has equally been appropriated to designate all kinds of bloodthirsty and pestilential revenant. As we’ll see, we have the inquisitive observers from the higher echelons of imperial, eighteenth-century administration to thank for the vampire’s inclusion in the common cultural lexicon.
I’ve written previously on the so-called early modern ‘vampire epidemic’, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but suffice it to say that the unstable geo-political climate on the Ottoman-Habsburg border in the early eighteenth century – and the creation of a marcher territory centred on the Balkans – provided a suitable framework for the increased interest in vampire narratives in the west. Although I tend to agree with Erik Butler, who argues that the rise in vampire activity can be read as a Serbian reaction to the two superpowers at their door – i.e. a symbolic attempt social ‘control; of unwanted agents – the increased interests taken by the Austro-Hungarian authorities in the activities of their neighbours also played a part.
The miseries endured by the inhabitants of the Serbian village of Kisolova, who in 1725 were terrorised by a suspected vampire called Peter Plogojowitz, was the first such account to receive widespread international attention. Plogojowitz’s corpse was said to have killed up to nine-people before it was exhumed and subject to medical inspection by Imperial Austrian Provisor of Gradisk, Frombald. The body was found to be completely free of decay and ripe with fresh blood. With evidence of vampirism confirmed, the villagers pierced Plogojowitz’s heart with a stake and quickly burnt the body. Frombald’s field report was published in an Austrian newspaper, the Wienerisches Diarium, on 21st July 1725 (fig. 1), and sparked off huge public interest in the grisly and salacious events that were occurring on the cultural (and conceptually moral) margins of the western world.
Audience appetites whetted, it was the epidemic instigated by the corpse of a Serbian soldier, Arnod Paole, that truly pushed the eastern European vampire beyond the pages of theology and into the public consciousness. Paole lived in the village of Medvegia Serbia. As documented by the military doctor Johann Flückinger in 1732 (fig. 2), Paole was compelled to walk after death after having previously been tormented by a vampire in the Turkish-occupied part of Serbia. Four people had already died in suspicious circumstances before Paole’s body was exhumed. Found to display the tell-tale signs of vampirism (undecayed flesh; the presence of fresh blood; new growth of skin and nails) the corpse was staked through the heart and burned. The bodies of the four people killed by Paole were subject to the same treatment. The containment exercise didn’t go completely according to plan, however. Flückinger remarks that vampires continued to infest Medvegia for year to come, pressing and throttling their victims in their beds at night, causing them to fall sick and die.
As I mentioned briefly above, the Frombald and Flückinger cases aren’t the first time that we find the vampyr or upir (i.e. a specifically central and eastern type of walking corpse) in western media. Pierre des Noyers, secretary to Marie Louise Gallyuonzaga, the French-born Queen of Poland (d.1667) mentions upir belief in one of his 1659 missives, and published an article on the subject in the French journal Mercure Galant in the 1690s. And this is not even to mention the various times the Greek vrykolakas came under the lens of western religious writers in this period. But it is only after Frombald and Flückinger’s publications we see a marked increase in the number of pamphlets and treatises attempting to analyse and explain the vampire phenomenon, spefically (fig. 3).
As the eighteenth-century progressed, vampire was a word that came to hold tremendous emotional and symbolic resonance. The famed French philosopher Voltiare even gets in on the action, writing in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) that in contrast to hungry corpses, England and France were terrorised by a different types of vampire.
These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces (PD, no. 463).
For Voltaire and others, the blood-sucking, night-roaming corpse is an entity that did not belong in the west. In some respects, Voltaire shares the same incredulity as our old friend William of Newburgh who, writing in the Historia rerum Anglicarum (c.1198), displays similar incredulity that such an entity as a walking corpse could exist. Just as vampires infected Polish and Serbian villages, so the term ‘vampire’ has come to infect all contemporary discussions of the walking dead, even in situations where the term is foreign to the cultural milieu in which the haunting takes place. Can the restless corpse of George Hodgeson (d.1715) from Dent Village, Yorkshire really be considered a ‘vampire’? (fig. 4). Can William of Newburgh’s mirabilia be described as ‘vampires’, even when he himself does not use the term? Is the cultural cache of the word ‘vampire’ too much to ignore, even in news reports on specifically English iterations of the restless corpse? I, of course, have my own opinions but it is ultimately up to the reader to decide the validity of using such coverall terms outside their original socio-cultural context.
Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988)
Erik Butler Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film: Cultural Transformations in Europe, 1732-1933 (Rochester, Camden House, 2010)
Stephen Gordon, ‘Emotional Practice and Bodily Performance in Early Modern Vampire Literature’, Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural 6 (2017), 93–124.
Koen Vermier, “Vampires as Creatures of the Imagination: Theories of Body, Soul, and Imagination in Early Modern Vampire Tracts (1659−1755)”, in Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period, ed. Yasmin Haskell (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 341−73