Sunday, 12 July 2009

Some notes on the Conference on Vampirism and Magia Posthuma

So, finally, here are the notes on the conference on vampirism and magia posthuma in the discourse of the Habsburg monarchy in the 18th and 19th centuries I have promised you. As it is always difficult to provide a detailed account of the presentations at a conference, so I will simply highlight the themes and theories presented.

First of all, I would once again like to thank the organizers, Ursula Reber and Christoph Augustynowicz, for making the conference possible and for inviting me! It was an extraordinary experience to spend three days in the company of people who share this peculiar interest and who can speak with familiarity of Frombald, Glaser and Flückinger.

Held at the Institute for East European History which is located in the buildings of the former Alte Allgemeine Krankhaus (AKH) that now house the Viennese Unicampus, we were close to the Josephinum and Van Swieten Gasse. In fact, right outside the windows of the auditorium we could see the Narrenturm. All in all I think that around fifty people participated with a nucleus of some 25 participants, many of whom presented papers during the conference in sunny and hot Vienna.

The conference started on the evening of Thursday 2 July, when Christoph Augustynowicz, Ursula Reber and the head of the institute bid us welcome. I then spoke for about an hour about this blog: Why I started the blog, my approach to vampires, my search for the book Magia Posthuma, the blog itself, its visitors and the feedback I have received. I finished my talk with some information about von Schertz’s Magia Posthuma. The evening ended with a reception and a copious supply of food, beer and wine.

Next day Peter Mario Kreuter, author of Der Vampirglaube in Südosteuropa and currently at the Südost-Institute in Regensburg, compared the state of the interest in vampires to that of the unscientific attitude towards witch research until 1970s. He recommended that researchers should examine the original documents at the Hofkammerarchiv in Vienna. As for the use of the word vampire in the documents, he interpreted the differences in the use of the word from Frombald’s 1725 document (unfortunately only known in a copy) to Flückinger’s 1732 Visum et Repertum, and posed the theory that the term 'Vampyr' must have become well-known in the years following 1725, but that the cases of vampirism in the intermediate years apparently have not been documented.

The 18th century documents on vampires were also the focus of Christian Reiter, professor extraordinarius in forensic medicine, as he delivered an analysis of the Visum et Repertum from the point of view of forensic medicine. He convincingly argued that the epidemic in Medvedja in 1731-32 was caused by anthrax. Furthermore he concluded that Flückinger and co. had falsified their report concerning the corpses not in a ‘vampire state’ with the intent of obtaining remuneration for their examination of the corpses. Clearly a number of the participants wanted to exonerate Flückinger of this charge, but was unable to oppose the theory, so no doubt Reiter’s paper will be closely studied when published.

Another kind of documentation that is often taken as evidence of vampire beliefs are archaeological finds of human remains that appears to have been treated to prevent the deceased to harm the living. Author of Blutspuren: Die Geschichte der Vampire, Hagen Schaub, presented his thoughts on these finds, including the recent excavation in Venice. Overall his analysis left little or no positive evidence that any of these archaeological finds convincingly can be taken as proof of beliefs in vampires or similar revenants. Some of the interpretations of the archaeological evidence are just far too fantastic, and alternative explanations can not be ruled out. The verdict did not seem to surprise to anyone, but it was nice to hear a clear presentation of the various founds and the theories that are frequently claimed to support them as evidence of vampire beliefs.

The interpretation of human corpses were also the topic of Marco Frenschowski, protestant theologian and associate professor with an impressive knowledge of vampires and related subjects, as he spoke on various notions concerning incorruptibility, in particular from the point of view of various Christian churches, and their relation to ‘living corpses’.

As for other aspects of vampire beliefs, Christa Tuczay, lecturer and associate professor at the Institute for German Studies in Vienna as well as author of several books including this one, discussed various examples of nightmare entities, e.g. in the works of Philostratus, Füssli and Sacher-Masoch, and how they were perceived throughout particularly the 19th century. In the following discussion, Christian Reiter mentioned that the experiences related by victims of the “alptraum” could be explained as an asthmatic attack. Hans Richard Brittnacher should have talked on blood magic, but was unfortunately unable to attend.

The development of vampire or vampire related cases and tales, as well as of the term vampire, was the topic of several papers.

Clemens Ruthner, lecturer at Trinity College in Dublin, discussed Herbert Mayo’s fictionalization of Flückinger’s Visum et Repertum with an emphasis on the literary aspects of the version.

Thomas M. Bohn, professor in History of Eastern and Middle Europe at the University of Regensburg, in detail traced the interesting development of the original 1718 posthumous execution of Michael Kasparek in Lubló in present day Slovakia into various tales and interpretations, including that of a vampire ('ein Vorläufer der Serbischen Vampyrs, und von allen das abenteuerlichste dieser Spuckgespenster' according to in Georg Conrad Horst in his Zauber-Bibliothek). Apparently the story of Michael Kasparek has even inspired a Czecko-Slovak movie, Kisertet Lublon (1976).

Christoph Augustynowicz, professor extraordinarius at the University of Vienna, discussed the portrayal of vampires by Sacher-Masoch, Karl Emil Franzos and Bertha Pappenheim in the 19th century, and the views of Jews in Galicia in these texts.

Karin Barton, associate professor at Laurier University in Canada, is particularly interested in insects and their role in cultural history and literature, currently with emphasis on the flea. She presented a paper on The Habsburg Flea: Notes on the Cultural and Literary History of an Insect Vampire with numerous examples of how the flea has been presented in various media, including some that related it to vampires. Remarkably, she presented a source from 1866 that mentions the word 'nosferatu', a term otherwise usually perceived as constructed by Emily Gerard in her Transsylvanian Superstitions from 1885!

Ursula Reber spoke on Klaus Hamberger’s original thesis on vampires, and on Michel SerresLa Légende des Anges. Apparently Hamberger, author of the seminal collection of source material Mortuus non mordet: Vampirismus 1689-1791 (1992), in his voluminous thesis wrote in a now obsolete discourse that makes it rather difficult to read today. The organizers had actually tried to contact Hamberger to invite him to the conference, but without being able to localize him. He probably is no longer interested in the subject, but there was a general consensus that a reprint of Mortuus non mordet is long overdue. (I was by the way relieved to find during the conference that I am not the only one who has had difficulty in reading volume 2 of Hamberger’s work on vampires: Über Vampirismus: Krankengeschichte und Deutungsmuster 1801-1899).

Sigrid Janisch, Ph.D. student in Vienna, talked about various definitions of vampires from 18th and 19th century encyclopedias, the subject of her Ph.D. work, and Bernhard Unterholzner, Master student in Munich, traced the vampire debates from 1732 and onwards.

Another aspect of the topic brought vampire beliefs into our present day as we were presented with two different kinds of field work on Balkan. Assistant professor for languages and cultures of the Balkan region, Thede Kahl, talked about his field work in Albania and Northern Greece, where he got about 200 tales about vampires, revenants and other entities. He discussed the various types and divided the tales into five narrative categories depending on how the narrator referred to a belief in vampires. The interesting findings will be published later this year.

Whereas the work of Kahl is that of an outsider investigating vampires in areas of Balkan, Vlado Vlacic, a student from Munich, has carried out his field work in the parts of Bosnia where he himself grew up. So Vlacic actually has first hand experience of vampire beliefs from his native community. He struggled somewhat with presenting the beliefs and their framework to us outsiders, as he apparently found it hard to put into words and terms the ‘silent’ knowledge he has grown up with. I think that many of us who were present hope that he overcomes his frustrations and keeps working on how to communicate to us the concrete vampire beliefs of Bosnia.

Obviously the conference touched upon various aspects of the subject, all of which contribute to a better understanding of vampire beliefs, their history and reception, as well as the development of the concept of a vampire into a metaphor and a fictional character that can be used for almost any purpose. For a detailed insight into the topics presented you must wait until the papers are published on the Kakanien Revisited web site. The plan is, however, that they will ultimately be published as a regular book.

Considering e.g. Stephanie Meyer’s current bestselling books, it is amazing that a topic that is so ‘hot’ in the popular media, attracts only a relatively limited number of scholars. Peter Mario Kreuter told us about an attempt at making a TV documentary series that presented the actual historical facts on vampires and other matters. Unfortunately, no one was willing to support the project, as you apparently have to compromise historical facts to highlight fictional vampires if you want to get in the media!

Originally Kreuter himself had to win money in a quiz show to be able to finance the publication of his book on vampires. Publishers apparently are not queuing up to publish this kind of book, but fortunately he is currently working on an updated edition of his book which will be published in English!

If we accept the parallel to witch research, we may hope that the research into vampires and other revenants will follow a route similar to that of witch research within the next couple of decades. The papers from this conference should contribute to that, and I hope that this blog in some way can also contribute to this end. Before the end of the conference there was some slight discussion of a future conference, and hopefully it will be possible to arrange one in a not too distant future!

I thank participants for good company and support, as well as for interesting presentations discussions. The conference also allowed me to visit a Heuriger with traditional food and wine on the outskirts of Vienna. And most curiously, I found out that Peter Mario Kreuter speaks Danish, so to my surprise I found myself talking in my native tongue a few times with this German authority on vampires!


jola said...

I wanted to drop you a line to say that I recently discovered your blog. I'm enjoying it very much, and appreciate your historical approach to the subject. I too am interested in vampires, particularly as a rich cultural metaphor to represent high-level predatory narcissists, who are so rampant in our culture (and at least one of whom I dated in my distant youth - my Sookie to his Bill).

I'm also intrigued by your mention of the Canadian professor and her interest in vampiric insects. I was recently diagnosed with Lyme Disease. Which means (to my horror) that for at least 48 hours, unbeknownst to me, a deer tick sucked my blood, and in return gave me a bug that caused a terrible rash and a condition that will now make me especially susceptible to sunburn. I feel, quite literally, as though I've been vampirized!

So greetings from the Hudson Valley (Hudson, NY) on a beautiful day. And thanks again for your unusual and thoughtprovoking blog, which gives me another, very rich perspective by which to consider vampires.

Howard said...

Another big "thank you" from a dedicated reader and rare commentator. This is a real meat-and-potatoes post, but rest assured I read everything you write (I subscribe to your RSS feed). It's just that I know so little about the subject to offer substantive comments, so I'm mostly quiet.

I only speak this much [holds thumb and forefinger close together] German, and find that I'm completely thwarted by the Austrian dialect (let alone 18th c. courtly Austrian with its Latinisms), so thank you for providing synopses of this important resource.

Anyway, in case you feel like you're speaking to a wall, know that we're out here, and listening. More, more, more!

Nicolas Barbano said...

Thanks for your notes on the Vienna vampire conference. But pray tell, what is Karin Barton's remarkable 1866 source to the word "nosferatu"?

Niels K. Petersen said...

Thanks to all for comments. As for 'nosferatu': Out of courtesy I think we should wait to see Karin Barton's paper published on the Kakanien Revisited web site.

Amateur Vampirologist said...


Fantastic job you did in covering the conference. The topics on offer certainly piqued my interest!

I'm also over-the-moon to hear that Kreuter's work could be published in English. Finally!

Regarding the Twilight fad, in general, I don't think people are interested in this specific field of vampire research. I think they're more interested in the pop culture angle, which is why so many non-fiction books on vampires tend to be extremely repetitious.

This stuff is just too scholarly for a popular audience.

And not just that, because a lot of the "meaty" stuff is in a foreign tongue, most populist tracts tend to neglect it. Very unfortunate indeed.

As flawed as Summers' work could be, he was at least able to consult a wide variety of sources due to his familiarity with other languages.

This only occasionally manifests in modern English works like those by Perkowski, Barber and, of course, yourself.

Ingenuity Arts said...

Very interesting site. It showed up on a Michel Serres alert and I'll be posting a note about this site on

I'd be interested in what European readers make of Anne Rice's vampire novels and then, more recently, her autobiography of conversion. Serres's ideas about the parasite and Rice's notion of vampires as outsiders who long for some kind of belonging seem to be themes that are present in what you've written here.

My most recent parasitic adventure was encountering bed bugs in Glasgow, something that is foreign to me - though as a Canadian, mosquitoes are very much less rare. Bed bugs reproductive habits are rather nasty and I think the idea of something drawing out our blood while we helplessly sleep is slightly creepy, however small the vampire may be.

I hadn't made the vampire/Serres link but it does, of course, fit very well. Thanks.

Kiara Falk said...

Thank you for the update. It was extremely frustrating not to be able to attend the conference and as someone trying to become a scholar in the field, I appreciate you sharing the whose-who in academic research on the subject. Most material on vampires available in the United States deals with media vampires and the modern vampires. Your site continues to be my source for developing the bibliography for my thesis. Again, many thanks.

Anonymous said...


Just saying hello while I read through the posts

hopefully this is just what im looking for, looks like i have a lot to read.

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