Blood, Disease and the Vampire in the Early Modern Period

Matthew Beresford
Matthew Beresford

The earliest documented account of vampirism in the Early Modern period is that of Jure Grando 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 Grando 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 Grando’s head, after which the village was plagued no longer (Krajnović et al., 2008).

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 Jospeh 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” (taken from Barber, 1988, 22).

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”. (Ferriar, 1790, 86)

And from the Serbian village of Kisilova comes the account of Peter Plogojowitz, attested to by Imperial Provisor Frombold. 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 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 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” (quoted in Barber, 1988, 6).

A further example is that of the aforementioned Arnold Paole, who died after falling from a haywagon in 1727 at the Serbian village of Medvegia.

Before his death, 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 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 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” (quoted from Barber, 1988, 16). 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 Tournefort’s account, this did not stop the vampire plague, and further people died, so Paole’s four victims were given similar treatment. Again, this brought no respite, and so the villagers decided 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” (Beresford, 2009, 108), again an indication of some medical explanation.

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.

Many people, however, still chose to believe that vampires were in fact, real. In his work ‘Of Popular Illusions, and Particularly Medical Demonology’ (1790, 91), John Ferriar discusses the example from Tournefort and concludes from this account that the causes of vampirism are not obvious, but it is his opinion they are linked to “demonic operations”. Moreover, Montague Summers, who studied the vampire being extensively in the 1920s, was heavily biased in these studies due to his staunch belief that the being certainly existed.

Unlike our pale-skinned modern versions, the vampires of the Early Modern period were commonly described as being “florid, or of a healthy colour [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 originally 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.

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