Sunday, 15 July 2007

Shroudeater and other troublesome corpses

I have been in touch with Rob Brautigam a couple of times. He has been interested in vampires for about four decades and currently has a nice web site which is devoted to the study of vampires in a way that is in many ways similar to my own interest in the subject. For a long time, the web site, which is called Shroudeater, hasn't been updated, but I just happened to notice that he has updated it a few days ago.

Among the updates are new books that have been added to the bibliography, including a brand new book in the Desert Island Books Dracula series, which I was unaware of. Desert Island Books has otherwise specialised in books by, about or related to Bram Stoker and Dracula, but with the new book called Troublesome Corpses written by David Keyworth, it seems that they have published a book that focuses on vampires and other revenants. This is what Brautigam has to say about it:

"Excellent study by a brilliant Australian scholar about undead corpses in Europe. David Keyworth has discovered an amazing lot of absolutely fascinating material, and he has managed to present it in such a way that it actually makes sense, even to someone as shallow as myself. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED."

So I have just ordered it and look forward to finding out more about this book, which is probably based on Keyworth's 2006 thesis, The Undead: An Unnatural History of Vampires and Troublesome Corpses in Western Europe from the Medieval Period to the Twentieth Century that carries this ambitious abstract:

"In this thesis, I undertake a multi-disciplinary survey and descriptive analysis of vampires and other types of undead-corpse in Europe from the medieval period to the twentieth century. Broadly speaking, the first three chapters of the thesis discuss the typology and folklore of vampires and undead-corpses, and so too the burial practices associated with such revenants. The remaining chapters delve into the etiological explanations for the existence of undead-corpses, the vampire infestations of the eighteenth century, the reasons for declining belief in walking-corpses thereafter, and the increasingly popular notion of astral vampirism in the nineteenth century. In the early eighteenth century, popular belief in the existence of undead-corpses was fuelled by numerous reports of vampire outbreaks across Eastern and Central Europe. In his Treatise on Vampires and Revenants (1746), Augustin Calmet argued that although there may have been troublesome undead-corpses and ‘vestiges of vampirism’ in the past, the vampires of eighteenth-century Europe were inherently unique. In the first chapter of this thesis, I investigate Calmet’s assertion and compare/contrast the distinguishing features of the various types of undead-corpse that supposedly existed in Europe from the medieval period to the Enlightenment, and argue that the outstanding characteristic of eighteenth-century vampires was their implied thirst for blood, and that the vampire is indeed a unique type of undead-corpse. In the second chapter, I assess to what extent undead-corpses like the vampire acquired the characteristics formerly attributed to other folkloric beings. Subsequently, I undertake a folkloric analysis of vampires and undead-corpses in Europe from the twelfth to the eighteenth century and compare/contrast their features with that of other folkloric entities like ghosts, incubi/succubi, witches and fairies. I demonstrate that a distinction can be made between the folkloric vampire and ‘historical’ vampires of the eighteenth century like Arnod Paole. And argue that although medieval revenants were very corporeal beings, subsequent undead-corpses like the spectrum of sixteenth-century Silesia, and so too the vampire of folklore, took on a more semi-corporeal nature, indulged in all manner of supernatural activity and acquired many features formerly attributed to other folkloric beings. In the third chapter, however, I delve into the various burial practices associated with vampires and revenants, the prophylactic measures used against them, and the methods employed to dispatch the undead. I argue that the main reason for impaling vampires with a wooden stake and other such practices was simply to hasten the decomposition of the deceased, given that there was no guarantee that a corpse was actually dead until the flesh had rotted from the bones. In the next chapter, I discuss eschatological notions like Purgatory and excommunication, and argue that by the end of the seventeenth century, three main theological/metaphysical notions had developed to explain the existence of undeadcorpses. Firstly, undead-corpses were inhabited and enlivened by the actual soul of the deceased individual and empowered by some sort of remnant energy or vestigium vitae, which took on a life of their own until the body had decomposed and the remnant energy had dissipated. Secondly, it was the Devil that reanimated the corpse, rather than the deceased soul, in the same manner that the Devil could possess and manipulate a living body. Furthermore, necromancers could raise the dead through sorcery, albeit with demonic help. Thirdly, the Devil could create a semi-corporeal body of congealed air and appear in the guise of someone recently deceased in order to torment the living. I argue that it was the earthbound soul of the deceased that supposedly animated the vampires of the eighteenth-century. In the fifth chapter, I outline the socio-religious topography of the vampire outbreaks in eighteenth-century Europe and discuss the reactions of the Austro-Hungarian authorities, under whose jurisdiction the outbreaks occurred. Similarly, I discuss the response of the intelligentsia and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the state religion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to the vampire infestations. I demonstrate that official belief in undead-corpses had waned by the Enlightenment, and that the civil authorities were keen to enlighten and re-educate the populace, and initiated official investigations into further outbreaks of vampirism, and introduced legislative measures to eradicate such beliefs. In particular, I review the various natural explanations furnished by the educated elite at the time to account for vampires. I argue that it was difficult for the authorities and educated elite to eradicate belief in undead-corpses largely because the masses and lower echelons of the Church at the time were fuelled by a pre-modern belief-system that had itself promoted belief in revenants. In the final chapters, I note that although the occasional vampire outbreak still arose in nineteenth century Europe and undead-corpses were reputedly responsible for consumption in late nineteenth-century New England (USA), popular belief in walking corpses per se had largely ceased. Nonetheless, the rise of spiritualism, theosophy and popular occultism at the time encouraged a reinterpretation of the traditional vampire and fuelled the notion of ‘astral’ vampires. Finally, I elaborate upon the importance of the vampire to our own lives and note that occasional belief in flesh-and-blood vampires still occurs today, and that a contemporary Vampire subculture has arisen of ‘living’ individuals who claim to be the ‘real’ vampires."

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