That the vampire epidemics caused great concern within European society in the Early Modern period, there is no doubt. As Rousseau (Masson, 1914) noted “for some time now the public news has been concerned with nothing but vampires… yet show me a single man of sense in Europe who believes [in them]”.
Whether vampires were real or not was not the main issue, clearly something was going on, it was how best to explain this that so occupied the scientific community.
The French philosopher Jean-Baptiste de Boyer (1738) argued that it was not blood that covered the alleged vampires, but rather nitrous particles in the soil that were being heated by the sun and then mixing with the bodily fluids leaking from the corpse. Furthermore, during the natural decomposition process of a dead body, “the body swells… discoloured natural fluids and liquefied tissues are made frothy by gas and some exude from the natural orifices, forced out by the increasing pressure in the body cavities” (Evans, 1963).
It is more likely that the suspected vampires were themselves victims of a disease or plague, and indeed pneumonic plague would cause the sufferer to cough up blood from the lungs. This illness could be passed on to family members, who in turn could pass it on to fellow villagers. In this manner, the suspected vampire is the cause of the deaths, but not through the consumption of their blood.
The horrid stench of the vampire-corpse also suggests disease, as “foul smells were commonly associated with disease, also as a cause… [therefore people believed] bad smells must be a cause of disease and death. Typically, by way of combating such smells, people introduced good-smelling (or strong-smelling) substances” (Barber, 1988, 8).
This was why Frombold was so surprised to find there was no horrid smell associated with the corpse of Plogojowitz. Furthermore, Tournefort’s account reported how incense was burned during the autopsy to combat the horrid stench.
Barber (1988) has suggested that human logic would come into affect in these cases, particularly when little or no medical knowledge is known, so that an exhumed corpse discovered gorged and bloated and with blood around the mouth is believed to have consumed quantities of blood.
That their family members are seen to be suffering, weakening and dying then creates the illusion that they are in fact, the (unwilling) donors of the consumed blood.
The fact that some family members claimed to have seen the deceased could simply be due to grief, or hallucinations brought on by illness, or indeed a combination of the two. Further suggestions for the cause of vampirism include rabies, porphyria (where sufferers have a sensitivity to sunlight) and anaemia.
Unlike our pale-skinned modern versions, the vampires of the Early Modern period were commonly described as being “florid, or of a healthy color [sic], or dark, and this may be attributed to his habit of drinking blood” (Barber, 1988, 41).
Almost all contemporary accounts depict them as being gorged and bloated, as if full of blood consumed from their victims.
In the present, we can go a long way to understand the vampire epidemics of this period by adopting a medical stance, but for the people at the time, the horror was very real indeed.
As Frayling and Wokler (1982, 118) have pointed out “we must have oricolourly been frugivores… but civilisation has made us carnivores with an appetite for conquest and blood in addition to food”.
What the vampire being does is encapsulate that appetite, albeit metaphorically rather than literally.