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Blood, Disease and the Early Modern Vampire Reports

Blood, Disease and the Early Modern Vampire Reports
© Photograph by Jamie Mahon

The vampire image created by Abraham Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’ (1897) of the aristocratic Count is one that is instantly recognisable throughout Europe. The whole trope of subsequent horror films, books, comic books, toys and Halloween costumes has done nothing but reinforce this image. The vampire today is suave and debonair, wears his cape black and his teeth long, and has a penchant for young virgins. When not consuming their blood, he can be found fluttering around a graveyard at night in the form of a bat. This imagery, though, is itself a palimpsest of key components of Gothic literature, born out of the weird visions of Horatio Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John William Polidori and Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu.

These authors were in turn influenced by Classical depictions of vampire-type beings, creatures such as the Lamia, half-woman, half-snake, who would ensnare unwary young men and consume their blood. Scholars such as Devendra P. Varma (1968) have highlighted the fact that almost every culture has its vampire-being, and often this can be traced back hundreds if not thousands of years. Devendra P. Varma cites the Indian goddess Kali Ma, whose followers would offer up human blood, while Montague Summers (1928) reminds us of Odysseus in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, who gave Ram’s blood to the spirits of the underworld in order to bring about their revivification.

However, it was the Age of Reason and Enlightenment that provided the real stimulus for the birth of the Western vampire, as this period saw a spate of vampire epidemics occur within Eastern Europe. The Treaty of Passarowitz, signed on July 21st, 1718 by the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy, brought to an end four years of conflict, the result of which saw parts of Wallachia (modern-day Romania) and Serbia given over to Austria. Soldiers were stationed there until 1739 (when the Ottomans reclaimed parts of this region), a period in which they bore witness to the curious practice of exhuming the bodies of people suspected of vampirism. These bodies would then be staked through the heart and have their heads removed, an act that allegedly ended their malevolent visits.

Further reports are documented from Prussia on three separate occasions between 1710 and 1750, from Hungary between 1725-30, Silistria (1755) and again in Wallachia in 1756. These reports then filtered through into Western society and began to feature within the publications of the period — The London Journal of March 1732, for example, ran a story on the alleged vampire case of Arnold Paole, a Medvegian peasant who had returned from the dead to haunt his village.

These reports caused such a stir within society that on the November st, 1765 the French, the journal Gazette des gazettes issued a challenge to the scientific community to prove the phenomenon one way or the other.

Even the French philosopher François-Marie Arouet had something to say on the issue, as a year earlier, in 1764, he asked: “What is it in our eighteenth-century that vampires exist? 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.”

It would not be long before London did indeed begin to see vampires of its own, as the emergence of the Gothic novel and the poetry of the Romantics heavily drew on the being.

The earliest documented account of vampirism in the Early Modern period is that of Jure Grando Alilović from Kringa in Istria (Croatia). The account is included in Johann Weikard Valvasor’s work ‘The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola’ (1689). It depicts how Jure Grando Alilović died in 1672, but that after his death he returned from the dead to plague his villagers for sixteen years, many of who died after the visitation. The prefect at Kringa, one Miho Radetic, had the corpse exhumed and it was found to be in a preserved and “grinning” state, which led the exhumers to flee. A second visit to the grave saw them cut off Jure Grando Alilović’s head, after which the village was plagued no longer. Although the oldest account, it is duly lacking in further details relating to the state of the corpse, but the return of the deceased, the further deaths and the method of decapitation all conform to other vampire accounts, which suggests we need not treat this case any differently.

Much more information can be taken from the account by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort of his visit to Mykonos in 1701, where he bore first-hand the autopsy of a suspected vampire. Contained with his ‘A Voyage into the Levant’ (1717) the account details how the vampire in question had been haunting his native town and knocking over furniture and putting out lights, much to the annoyance of the locals. There is no suggestion he was drinking blood or bringing about death but was rather making a nuisance of himself. This has parallels with Romanian accounts of the period. His corpse was exhumed and an autopsy performed by the butcher of the town, quite old and very maladroit, who began by opening the belly rather than the chest. He rummaged about for a long time in the entrails, without finding what he sought, and finally, someone informed him that it was necessary to cut into the diaphragm. The heart was torn out to the admiration of all the bystanders.

Unfortunately, this did not stop the haunting, and it was further necessary for the townsfolk to burn the corpse. Tournefort, it appears, did not know what to be most shocked at — the allegation of the returning dead, the bodged “butchery job” or the superstitions of the local populace, but his account is markedly similar to others that were occurring throughout Eastern Europe at this time. An account published in 1790, for example, detailed how “somewhere about the year 1730, an alarm began in Hungary, of some houses being haunted, by persons deceased, who sucked the blood of some of the family, during their sleep […] the persons sucked became weak and emaciated, the corpse of the Vampire, on the contrary, was found, even after long internment, fresh, florid, and full of blood; sometimes to such a degree, as to pour out blood from the nose, mouth and ears”.

Moreover, from the Serbian village of Kisilova comes the account of Peter Plogojowitz, attested to by Imperial Provisor Frombold. Peter Plogojowitz died in 1725, and within a week of his death, a further nine people also died, of varying ages but all after a twenty-four-hour illness. Each person, before death, had claimed that Peter Plogojowitz had visited them in the night, sat on their body and attempted to strangle them. This is a similar description to the act carried out by the demonic Incubus/Succubus beings from earlier, Medieval texts such as the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (Hammer of Witches), and forms the basis for the Night-Mare, depicted in the Early Modern period by the painter Henry Fuseli.

The villagers believed Peter Plogojowitz was a vampire. Upon exhuming the body, Frombold reports how there was not the “slightest odour that is otherwise characteristic of the dead, and the body, except for the nose, which was somewhat fallen away, was completely fresh. The hair and beard — even the nails, of which the old ones had fallen away — had grown on him; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new fresh one had emerged under it. The face, hands, and feet, and the whole body were so constituted, that they could not have been more complete in his lifetime. Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him.”

A further example is that of the aforementioned Arnold Paole, who died after falling from a hay wagon in 1727 at the Serbian village of Medvegia. Before his death, Arnold Paole had confessed that he had been visited by a vampire so, as a preventive method, he had smeared himself with its blood. Rather than protect him, this act ensured Arnold Paole became a vampire himself after death, and sure enough his fellow villagers began to be plagued by him. Supposedly, four people died due to Arnold Paole’s visitations, so his corpse was dug up and found to be “complete and undecayed, and that fresh blood had flowed from his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; that the shirt, the covering, and the coffin were completely bloody”. The villagers proceeded to drive a stake through his heart, whereby his corpse gave “an audible groan and bled copiously”.

Just like the example from Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s account, this did not stop the vampire plague, and further people died, so Arnold Paole’s four victims were given similar treatment. Again, this brought no respite, and so the villagers decided Arnold Paole must have attacked the village cows and drunk their blood, thus tainting the meat, of which some of the villagers had consumed. In total, seventeen people died.

Due to the scale of the epidemic, an Austrian army surgeon, Johann Flückinger, was sent to investigate, and his report mentions how several of the deceased were found to have blood in the stomach and lungs. This appears to indicate some form of illness or disease, rather than any vampiric attacks, and is supported by a letter from Johann Friedrich Glaser (who’s son, a doctor based in Vienna, was sent to investigate a month before the Flückinger Commission) stated that “the dead attack the sleeping at night and exhaust them of blood, so that all die on the third day”, again an indication of some medical explanation.

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