Sunday, 26 February 2012

An Uncertain Place: Highgate, Kisiljevo and Medvedja

Vampire history very infrequently turns up in fiction, and as I only sporadically inform myself about fictional vampires, and by the way have never been a fan of crime fiction, the vampiric connection in Un lieu incertain (An Uncertain Place) by Fred Vargas somehow slipped under my radar. Fortunately, a reader recently mentioned it, so I have picked up and read the 2008 novel in the Danish translation, Et uvist sted.

Definitely a page-turner, although I personally find that the gallery of more or less eccentric characters smacks a bit too much of a crime fiction cliché, this novel in the series about Commissaire Adamsberg takes him and his colleagues to Highgate Cemetery in London and to a small village on the Danube in SerbiaKisiljevo, on the trail of a murderer who literally destroys his victims. The plot not only involves the infamous 'Highgate Vampire', but also the famous 18th century vampires Petar Blagojevic/Peter Plogojowitz from Kisiljevo and Arnold Paole from Medvedja, as well as their ancestors. What kind of sense this combination makes, if any, you should read the novel to learn, because I am not going to spoil the fun by giving it all away here.

Fred Vargas herself is actually a French historian and archaeologist called Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, who became a successful author of crime fiction in the mid 1990's. Some of the Adamsberg novels have been made into a TV series, Collection Fred Vargas, including Un lieu incertain as shown in the youtube video below. This episode, unfortunately, is not yet available on DVD.

'An example of modern legend-building,' according to English Wikipedia, the Highgate Vampire case, to the extent one can actually call it that, has taken on a life of its own, in particular on the internet. Because of the legend-building, perhaps even cult surround the subject, it is probably difficult to be certain what actually happened in 1969 and 1970 when a 'vampire hunt' purportedly took place in the famous cemetery.

Fred Vargas couples this incident with another legendary occurrence in the old part of the cemetery, the one initiated by poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti when in 1869 he had the corpse of his late love, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal (also visit this site devoted to her), dug up from its grave in Highgate Cemetery to obtatin the one and only copy of a book of poetry that he had left buried in her hair. Rossetti's operation is told in Felix Barker and John Gay's Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla (1984):

'Much secret preparation took place in which [Dante Gabriel Rossetti] enlisted the help of a young man called Howell who, as well as being Ruskin's secretary, had a talent for conspiracy. Through Howell, Rossetti obtained the Home Secretary's permission for an exhumation, and on a night early in October 1869 'the ghastly business', as Rossetti called it, was carried out. The deed was done by the light of lanterns and the warmth of a small bonfire watched by Howell, a solicitor and a Camberwell doctor. The receipted bill of two guineas for the workmen is still in existence. Rossetti could not bring himself to be present. Full of self-doubts he waited alone at Howell's house in Fulham.

When the coffin was opened, it was said that Lizzie's pale beauty remained unimpaired, and someone - it was probably Howell - carried back the message that her lovely hair had retained its colour and had grown in death. The vital manuscript, discovered to be intact, was eased gently from her face. After being disinfected and dried by the doctor, it was conveyed to Rossetti.'

The preservation of Lizzie, and particular the claim that her hair had grown in death, is of course reminiscent of the phenomena related to vampirism, the 'vampire state' reported about in the early 18th century from both Kisiljevo and Medvedja.

Imperial Provisor Frombald's 1725 report from Kisiljevo, which today is only known in a copy in the Viennese archives, is well-known from a contemporary newspaper, the Wienerisches Diarium, reprinted and translated in a number of journals and books, and the inspiration for the young Michael Ranft's first edition of his De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis from 1725, commenting on the similarly titled book by Philip Rohr published in 1679. Frombald's report is the oldest known use of the word vampire as spelled that way (the copy actually has: 'vanpiri').

The occurrences in Kisolova, i.e. Kisiljevo, concerning the vampire Peter Plogojowitz (probably Petar Blagojevic) are recounted in English on Wikipedia. In An Uncertain Place, the villagers in Kisiljevo are today familiar with the vampire story, and one can still locate the grave of Plogojowitz, but this is mere fiction, because Serbian media have been unable to locate any local information on this contender to the title of the world's first vampire.

In that respect Plogojowitz plays a central role in defining 'vampirism', so it is important to point out that the people who said there were haunted by Plogojowitz did not complain of bloodsucking but of being suffocated by him as he lay on top of them. Furthermore, his wife said Plogojowitz had come to her to retrieve his shoes (Oppanki = opanci, according to Wikipedia: Opanak are 'traditional peasant shoes' worn in Southeastern Europe). As Peter Kremer has pointed out, this is the well-known motif of a deceased returning as a revenant to retrieve something that he requires to rest in peace after death, in this case his shoes.

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Source for this map: Wikipedia

The exhumation and examination of Plogojowitz' corpse, including his penile erection, forebodes the large scale examinations carried out seven years later in Medvedja in the Southern part of Serbia under Habsburg military control. Commissaire Adamsberg doesn't visit this village, but Arnold Paole, probably Arnaut Pavle, contender for the title as the world's most famous and influential vampire, also plays a role in An Uncertain Place. Oddly, Vargas places Medvedja in the Branicevo District, not very far from Kisiljevo, but I am not aware of any Medvedja in that area.

For more information on this, the most famous incident in vampire history, see my post on the Visum et Repertum, as well as other posts on this blog.

This vampire case also turns up in a work of popular fiction, as German author Markus Heitz includes it in his 2006 novel Kinder des Judas.

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