Sunday, 6 January 2008

What the postman brought

It's always nice to find a package in your mailbox, and the first one this year contained Michael Kroner's 2005 book Dracula: Wahrheit, Mythos und Vampirgeschäft from Johannis Reeg Verlag, a publisher specialising in Romanian or rather Siebenbürgen history.

Kroner is a historian who was actually born in Romania and he has for many years researched and written books and papers on the history of Siebenbürgen and Romania. So this little book contains an introduction to the 15th century Wallachian ruler Vlad Tepes who in popular culture has become connected with vampires through Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as the works of the historians Radu Florescu and Richard McNally, in particular their 1972 bestseller In Search of Dracula. Although Bram Stoker didn't really know much about Vlad Tepes, as has been pointed out by e.g. Elisabeth Miller in her delightful Dracula: Sense & Nonsense (2000), it has almost become a popular 'truth' that the fictional vampiric count 'is' Vlad Tepes. Miller even claims that 'few would pay [Vlad Tepes] the slightest attention today, were it not for the dubious Count Dracula link' (p. 150 in the 2006 edition), but he is still an interesting historical character who plays a special role in Romanian history.

Kroner also devotes a few pages to vampires in general. He even shows the frontispiece of Georg Tallar's book, which I scanned in my recent christmas post. I can't remember seeing it in any other book, so this is probably the first reproduction in print. Otherwise, it seems to be a fairly traditional, but reasonable account of vampire cases and debates from the 18th century and onwards. Kroner continues with the various fictional Draculas, and for some reason even goes along the traditional lines of discussing 'living vampires' like Peter Kürten and Elisabeth Báthory...

There are some interesting illustrations, including a 1617 depiction of how people were impaled. I think it's the first time I have seen an illustration like this one (shown below), and I can't help thinking that it must have required a lot of effort to impale just one person. So how much time would it have taken Vlad Tepes and his men to impale those vast amounts of enemies he is claimed to have done?

Of course, this blog isn't devoted to the history of Vlad Tepes, to Dracula or to execution methods in general. Magia posthuma, however, does involve post mortem executions of corpses of witches and other dead people assumed to harass the living, and in general I find it interesting to get some understanding of how these things were really done. Particularly, because history seems to have been forgotten and replaced by a 'pseudohistory', somewhat like Disney's animated versions of classic fairy tales have replaced the original tales. It's in this 'pseudohistory' that vampires have become pale immortals leaving their coffins at night to sink their sharp fangs into the living who in turn die and become immortal.

Gothic fiction is itself usually a sort of 'pseudohistory', but it does at times attempt to approximate some of the horrors of the past. In the case of executions, there is a rare attempt at showing a quartering of a man in the German Gothic horror movie Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (1967). The trailer is available on youtube and includes a portion of the quartering scene as well as numerous other horrors.

However, the images can not rival the descriptions of a French execution in 1757 quoted in the opening pages of Michel Foucault's classic (and certainly not to be missed by anyone interested in the development of modern society!) study of the birth of the prison, Surveiller et punir (Discipline and punish), here in the words of an eye witness:

'The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success.

Finally, the executioner, Samson, said to Monsieur Le Breton that there was no way or hope of succeeding, and told him to ask their Lordships if they wished him to have the prisoner cut into pieces. Monsieur Le Breton, who had come down from the town, ordered that renewed efforts be made, and this was done; but the horses gave up and one of those harnessed to the thighs fell to the ground. The confessors returned and spoke to him again. He said to them (I heard him). "Kiss me, gentlemen." The parish priest of St Paul's did not dare to, so Monsieur de Marsilly slipped under the rope holding the left arm and kissed him on the forehead. The executioners gathered round and Damiens told them not to swear, to carry out their task and that he did not think ill of them; he begged them to pray to God for him, and asked the parish priest of St Paul's to pray for him at the first mass.

'After two or three more attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards.

'When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed wit this wood.

'... In accordance with the decree, the whole was reduced to ashes. The last piece to be found in the embers was still burning at half-past ten in the evening. The pieces of flesh and the trunk had taken about four hours to burn. The officers of whom I was one, as also was my son, and a detachment of archers remained in the square until nearly eleven o'clock.
(Penguin edition, p. 4-5)

Although dealing with a pretty morbid subject, I think it will be a while before this blog returns to this particularly cruel subject...


Anthony Hogg said...

I knew I had seen the picture - or one like it - that accompanies your blog entry.

The colour version of the print can be found in Jean Marigny's Vampires: The World of the Undead (London: Thames and Hudson, 1994) on pages 26-27.

I should note that this book is Lory Frankel's English translation of Marigny's Sang pour sang: Le réveil des vampires (1993), so I would presume that picture would be found in that work, too.

The English version's "List of Illustrations" cites the picture thusly:

"26-7 Houtnagel. Hungarians Impaled by the Turks. Coloured engraving, 1617. BN" ~ p. 139

"BN", in this case, being an abbreviation for the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

Niels K. Petersen said...

Yes, I have that book as well, but had forgotten about that illustration. In fact, it contains a lot of interesting illustrations, and is one of the nicer volumes on the subject. Furthermore, it's probably one of the rare occasions when a French book on the subject is translated into English!

Anthony Hogg said...

Yes, that is indeed the case! We English-speakers are missing out on the dearth of French material written on the subject.

I totally agree that Marigny's little tome contains a bevy of great pictures. It's very well-illustrated.

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