Sunday, 6 March 2011

A Vampire Chronology: Von damals bis(s) heute

Although, as I stated recently, changes in my personal life should allow me more time for this blog, and although I have promised to review this book, it has taken me some time to go back to my notes and finish the review I had started writing a couple of months ago. I apologize to the author and anyone else who have been curious to read my comments.

I suppose that over the past few decades the books by Klaus Hamberger, Peter Mario Kreuter, and Hagen Schaub have been the most comprehensive collections of information on vampires. Hamberger, of course, has the advantage that his first volume is an anthology of source texts, whereas Kreuter and Schaub present the vampire in the context of e.g. folklore and archaeology. More recently, Florian Kührer has written succinctly on the whole vampire phenomenon, and we have, of course, the specialist study by Aribert Schroeder from 1973 which, however, lacks the reprints of key texts available in Hamberger’s volume.

Now we can add Nicolaus Equiamicus to the list of authors who provide us with a useful resource for information on vampires. The backbone of the Nicolaus his recent book Vampire Von damals bis(s) heute (U Books, 288 pages, 14.95 €) is a chronological account of vampires based on a great number of sources. This chronology constitutes the first part of the book: ‘Der historische Vampirismus’, which is actually more than half the book.

Beginning with classical antiquity, we are introduced to some of the well-known texts on lamiae and empusae, as well as some information on related entities: the Alb and the Nachtmahr. Various types of revenants are dealt with, including the Nachzehrer, and also regional variants are described, partially based on Bernhard Stern’s Medizin, Aberglaube und Geschlechtsleben in der Türkei (1903). Finally, the scene is set for the famous vampire cases of the 18th century: Serbia 300 years ago: ‘Krieg und Elend – das Leben vor 300 Jahren in Serbien’. Equiamicus treats the cases in detail and follows them up with various other examples from contemporary and recent literature with particular emphasis on the two important cases from the 1750’s in Kapnick and Hermersdorf, respectively.

As we know, the vampire would not remain quiet despite the efforts of Empress Maria Theresa and the Enlightenment philosophers, and Equiamicus includes several interesting examples from the 19th and early 20th century of the ongoing belief in vampires or vampirelike revenants, including those from West Prussia in the 1870’s that are not particularly known in the English language vampire literature. All of them instances of beliefs and practices to protect the living from supposed vampires or revenants not too dissimilar from those that are known from other parts of Europe up to this day. Equiamicus even includes the weird ‘Highgate Vampire’ which is treated succinctly and soberly.

Some of these cases are only known through a few purported facts, whereas others can be supported by more detailed accounts. In several instances, Equiamicus shows his well-known expertise in digging up various old texts to illuminate the subject. He e.g. uses a contemporary article from a magazine called Die Gartenlaube to tell the story of a family from Kantrzyno who in February 1872 dug up the corpse of the family father, cut off his head and placed it face down at the corpse’s feet. This article can be read online here, and I can not help thinking that this would make for an interesting movie :-)

The chronology of vampire cases is then followed by a reasonably thorough review of the vampire debates from the 17th to the 20th century with emphasis on the ‘Leipziger Vampirdebatte’, von Görres and modern medical explanations, including Christian Reiter’s anthrax theory. Of particular interest here is also the couple of pages devoted to von Schertz’s Magia posthuma, which must make Equiamicus’s book the first one to deal with it since Calmet!

The rest of the book is devoted to the vampire in fairy tales and fiction, as well as some of the historical persons popularly related to the subject: Vlad Tepes, Elisabeth Bathory, Peter Kürten etc.

The book is illustrated throughout, mostly in black and white, but also including a section of colour photos, most illustrations being movie stills, including a fair number from Twilight. This seems to contradict the historical aim of the book, but will no doubt attract many younger readers. And honestly, if teenagers and other readers of popular vampire novels will be reading the book, and I think quite a few will – if only to dip into some of the interesting stories – quite a few people will become aware of the historical background to what has ended up as Dracula, Twilight and Buffy, and I think that is quite a laudable goal.

As with some of the best books on the subject, it is always a delight to read a book that is free of the Montague Summers tradition so prevalent in the literature until recently. Methodologically though, Equiamicus is first and foremost a collector of information on vampires, vampire cases and the vampire debates. His emphasis is on these subjects per se rather than on the broader historical context of the beliefs which is the focus of a number of historians (cf. academical anthologies like the Gespenster und Politik book and the Kakanien Revisited online collection of papers). But I am impressed by the lengths Equiamicus has gone to in order to read original documents and books. This means that there is something here for both the novice and the expert, and I must say that I have myself used it a few times to look up information. In my opinion it works well as both an introduction to the subject and as a reference book.

So if you have not bought it yet, do get hold of it. And if you know some young reader with a penchant for vampires, and who can read German, consider this as a gift. Even if the reader may only know a little German, why not give it anyway? There are many good reasons to learn to read German, and vampires is one of them, as the best books on the subject tend to written in that language. And Equiamicus's Vampire Von damals bis(s) heute should whet the appetite for anyone with an interest in vampires.

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