Saturday, 7 April 2012

The product of superstitious and false beliefs

What do we understand by superstition?

I suppose that we all have some kind of commonsensical idea of what ‘superstition’ means, when we use it on an everyday basis, but when you need to apply it to a specific historical context, you easily get into trouble. So when I took up the subject of vampires and posthumous magic some years ago, I quickly felt a pressing need to get some grasp of the term and its history. This, unfortunately, was not so easy, because the meaning of the term not only has changed over time and very much depends on a given context, but frequently there is ‘a certain elasticity about it’, as Keith Thomas pointed out in his Religion & The Decline of Magic (1971, p. 48-9). Similarly, in a more recent work, Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, & Religion, 1250-1750 (2010), Euan Cameron calls superstition ‘an elusive and slippery term’ (p. 4) that is ‘a flexible designation, and can be aimed at a range of targets at different times and by different people.’ (p. 5)

'In the era of confessional orthodoxy from the late sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth, the rhetoric that had traditionally condemned superstition and magic in the eyes of the devout became a crucial part of the intellectual armour used to prosecute sorcerers, magicians, and witches. Then, in the early Enlightenment, ‘superstition’ took centre stage in religious discussions to an even greater extent than before. ‘Superstition’ and ‘reason’ became the poles around which the religious and ethical theorists of the early Enlightenment debated the proper claims of religion on the human mind.' (p. 6)

Superstition and reason are also frequently seen as the poles in the vampire debate of the 1730’s. Stefan Hock did so in 1901, dividing the authors of vampire books into two groups: those explaining vampires in terms of demonic influences, and those seeking a rational and natural explanation. However, if you actually read the books and articles from the period, you find that the texts do not easily fit into such a simple scheme. Likewise, on a more general scale, Cameron stresses the complexity of the debates concerning superstition:

'The eighteenth century did not discard the heritage of previous centuries wholesale, whatever the statements of propagandists for the ‘Enlightenment’ might at times imply. Some ‘superstition-treatises’ emerged from the movement known as ‘baroque Catholicism’ that embodied a firm belief in the continuity of traditional metaphysics and traditional pastoral theology. In Protestant Europe, the seventeenth-century debate over the reality of spirits continued into the era of the Enlightenment with no clearly discernible winners or losers.’ (p. 286-7)

In a lengthy paper from 2010, “… da sie in den närrischen Wahn gestanden, daß es Vampyren gebe”. Dimensionen des Aberglaubenbegriffs und Strategien der Aberglaubenskritik in gelehrten Beiträgen zur Vampirdebatte der 1730er Jahre, Benjamin Durst notes that the view of a vampire debate between obscurantism and Enlightenment has survived well into our time and can be found even in modern works on the subject.

Durst points out that the dichotomy between mystical obscurantism and rational Enlightenment that many historians superimpose on the eighteenth century is rather a result of the Enlightenment process than a condition of the period itself. This dichotomy is a construct of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not of the eighteenth, so Durst sets out to critically scrutinize the vampire debate in terms of the knowledge and views of its own time. Limiting himself to what he calls the first phase of the vampire debate: the debate during the 1730’s between authors whose native tongue is German, Durst divides the debate into three groups according to the arguments employed: 1) theological, 2) sympathetic (Aristotelian or Paracelsian), and 3) medical.

Their different points of view notwithstanding, all authors tend to agree that the Serbian vampire belief is superstitious. Frequently, they consider the superstitious Irrglaube and Altweibermärchen to be the surviving remains of pre-Christian, pagan beliefs. Harenberg in his Vernünftige und Christliche Gedancken über die Vampirs oder Bluhtsaugende Todten stresses the antiquity of the belief in harmful revenants, saying that it existed at the time of Moses and can be found in the works of Vergil and Homer. Michael Ranft writes of the poison of superstition from old times and thinks that it may still work in the hearts of Christians.

As the Serbians typically were Orthodox Christians, the authors participating in the debate, most of whom were Protestants, find that this Church plays a role in the vampire belief. Protestants were of the opinion that both the Catholic and Orthodox Church had introduced superstitiones superstructae, false and superstitious constructions on top of the pure Christian belief, in order to maintain and gain power and money. Polemical books about the Orthodox Church, such as Thomas Smith’s Epistola de Graecae Ecclesiae hodierno statu (1698) and Johann Michael Heineccii Eigentliche und wahrhafftige Abbildung der alten und neuen Griechischen Kirche (1711), were not only sources of contemporary views of this Church, but also contained information on the Greek popular beliefs in revenants like the Brucolaccas.

from Salomon Schweigger: Ein newe Reiss Beschreibung auss Teutschland nach Constantinopel (1639)
The participants in the debate were quick to equate the Serbian vampire belief with the Greek revenants, and generally link the Orthodox belief in the effects of excommunication with the Serbian vampire belief. They criticize the clergy for not eradicating the superstitious belief, but instead accepting or promoting it for their own purposes. Consequently Durst notes that the criticism of vampire superstitions turns into a critique of the Orthodox Church.

There were, of course, exceptions. Johann Conrad Dippel accepts the Orthodox belief in the preservation of holy people and of the excommunicated as the work of God, but refutes a connection between excommunication and vampire beliefs. The Catholic W.S.G.E. finds that the vampire belief is the product of the uneducated and superstitious Serbians’ reception of true Christian tenets. From a theological point of view, the more superstition and the less education there is in a place, the easier it is for the devil to carry out his schemes in that area.

The Serbians themselves are also the subject of various explanations. They are stereotypically considered barbarous and under the influence of opium which is thought to have influenced both the deaths of suspected vampires as well as the belief itself. Their moral deficits and lack of education make them susceptible to superstition or even demonic influence. Egidius Günther Hellmund in his book on divine judgment, Iudicia Dei Incognita, oder unerkannte Gerichte Gottes über Böße und Gute in der Welt (1737), goes so far as to consider the revenants as God’s punishment of a sinful and ungodly Serbian populace in need of repentance.

The authors, and not just those those writing from a medical perspective, find that there is a close connection between the superstitious belief and the disease that the supposed victims of vampires suffer from. In some cases an analogy between these is stated, blurring the division between disease and superstition.

The superstition leads to fear and fancy, perhaps even creating visions of nightly revenant visitations, making the villagers more prone to diseases. So itself a product of pagan doctrine, false religious beliefs and the inability of uneducated people to comprehend natural phenomena, the vampire belief is inseparable from the suffering – and ultimately the death - of the Serbian villagers.

Durst carefully describes the individual arguments behind these general views of the role of superstition in the Serbian vampire belief. He does, however, emphasize that more work on the subject will yield more facts and dimensions to our understanding of what superstition was according to the learned authors involved in the debate.

I plan to write about some other recent papers on the seventeenth and eighteenth century writings about vampires and related topics. For now, I will recommend a reading of Durst’s work which not only provides an interesting reading of the vampire debate, but also points to a handful of works that I don't recall seeing mentioned elsewhere.

Illustration in Leithäuser: Das neue Buch vom Aberglauben (1964)

1 comment:

bshistorian said...

Things like this make me wish the British education system were better for languages...

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