Saturday, 21 July 2007

Keyworth and the Uniqueness of the Vampire

Now I have obtained and read a paper by G. David Keyworth, who was mentioned in one of my recent posts. It seems that Keyworth wrote a thesis on 'the socio-religious beliefs and nature of the contemporary vampire subculture' before completing a PhD thesis on 'the unnatural history of troublesome corpses and vampires in Europefrom the medieval period to the twentieth century'. The paper I refer to, Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead-corpse? published in Folklore 117 (December 2006), p. 241-260, is obviously based on his work for the latter thesis.

Augustin Calmet in his Dissertation on revenants and vampires claimed that “in no history do we read anything similar, so common, or so decided, as what is related to us of the vampires of Poland, Hungary, and Moravia.” ("Mais en nulle Histoire on ne lit rien d'aussi commun ni aussi marqué que ce qu'on nous raconte des Vampires de Pologne, de Hongrie & de Moravie." II, vii). In his paper Keyworth aims to “test the validity of Calmet’s notion that eighteenth-century vampires were a unique type of revenant.” Consequently, Keyworth compares and contrasts the vampires of the 18th century with tales and cases of revenants and other 'troublesome corpses' from the 12th century and onwards.

Some of his examples will be well known, e.g. those from William of Newburgh and Henry More, whereas others are more obscure. The older sources are mainly from England, Iceland and parts of northern Europe, and Keyworth seems to be fascinated by the old Norse draugrs. He refers to various writings on the Greek vrykolakas (e.g. Allatius and Tournefourt) before coming to the oupire and vampire of the 18th century, which are described via quotes from Harleian Miscellany, Mercure Argent, the Lettres Juives, and the reports from Kisiljevo and Medvedja.

Further on he refers to writers on theosophy and spiritualism, who had notions of 'astral' and 'posthumous' vampirism. He also mentions von Görres' mystical views in Die Christliche Mystik (1836-42), and finally compares the New England 19th century 'vampires cases' with those of the 18th century.

All in all this makes for an interesting peek into the historical development of notions about revenants.

As for Keyworth's question: 'Were the Vampires of the Eighteenth Century Unique?', he concludes that:

“The Slavic vampire of the eighteenth century remains a unique type of revenant, given its supposed thirst for human blood.” (p. 256)

I feel that the paper is much too biased towards England and northern Europe, whereas in my opinion it is particularly interesting to know if the same trend can be found if you incorporate material from various continental European countries. Quite a few books have been written about the revenants and apparitions of the medieval period, so material should be readily available.

Furthermore, I am a bit wary of the use of e.g. the Harleian Miscellany as evidence, because this text is mainly based on other sources. In general I prefer to try to go to the most original sources, in particular those written by people who were present when examining cases of purported vampirism. Keyworth mentions two examples (and his source is obviously Paul Barber's Vampires, Burial, and Death), but there are others. In particular the military physician Georg Tallar's examination of 'vampire victims' is important.

These sources are also important when considering the 'blood sucking' of 18th century vampires. Were they really supposed to suck blood and how? In many cases the victims complained of other symptoms than losing blood, e.g. suffocation.

Keyworth does however note that the notion of blood sucking could be inferred from the post mortem effects on the human body:

“Slavic culture, however, as we have seen emphasised the apparent accumulation of blood within the organs and bodily cavities of such corpses, this being taken as supposed evidence that the deceased had been sucking the blood of the living.” (p. 257)

But is this enough evidence to claim the uniqueness of the 18th century vampires?

In my opinion there are still unanswered questions. Keyworth touches upon important aspects of the history of vampires and revenants, but I do not feel convinced by his conclusion, or perhaps I just view things from a different perspective? However, now I have even more reason to look forward to reading Keyworth's book!

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