Sunday, 21 April 2013

Harenberg: Vampire icon

It is highly unlikely that Johann Christoph Harenberg imagined that, 280 years after he originally wrote it, the title page of one his books would be sold as a poster in Italy. That, however, is what happened at the Dracula e il mito dei vampiri exhibition in Milan, and the book was, of course, Harenberg's Vernünftige und Christliche Gedancken über die Vampirs oder Bluhtsaugende Todten, published in Wolffenbüttel in 1733.

Source: Europeana
Harenberg was born on April 28 1696 in the village Langenholzen close to Alfeld in present day Lower Saxony. His parents were farmers and traders of cloth. Having given birth to four daughters, his mother prayed to God that, if God would grant her a son, she would devote him to the service of God. Besides, the young Johann Christoph was a delicate child, so he was allowed to devote his energy on learning to read, write and calculate in German as well as in Latin. At eight years of age he was sent to school in Alfeld, and at thirteen he went to Hildesheim to continue his education in various subjects and languages.

As he was walking from Alfeld to Langenholzen one Saturday in the Spring of 1708, he saw a well-dressed, old man nearby whom he recognized as a man he knew. Harenberg approached him, but he suddenly noticed that the man was transparent, and the closer he got to the man, the more transparent he became. Terrified, Harenberg retreated to his village, where he next day learned that the old man had died from consumption at about the time that he had seen the vision. This was only Harenberg's first of three encounters with apparitions in connection with the death of locals.

In 1715, at the age of nineteen he went to the University in Helmstedt to study the sciences as well as further languages. In 1719 he visited the universities in Jena and Halle, and the following year he was asked by the abbess and duchess of GandersheimElisabeth Ernestine Antonie von Sachsen-Meiningen, to become headmaster of school belonging to the diocese. Besides teaching, he researched not only the Holy Writ, but also the history of the diocese. Several of his theological articles were published in the so-called Bremische Sammlungen published by Theodor Hase.

Merian's view of Gandersheim from Wikimedia
1734 was marked by ups and downs for Harenberg. He finished his voluminous history of the Gandersheim diocese, but fell into disgrace with the abbess and, although he accepted to become a parson at Bornhausen, he was finally appointed chief caretaker of the schools in the duchy of Wolfenbüttel. While there, he was in 1738 appointed a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Incidentally, in 1732 this academy had been asked to write a memorandum on the Serbian vampires.

In 1745 Harenberg became Honorary Professor at the newly established Carolina collegium in Braunschweig and dean of the St. Lorenz convent in Schöningen. He died in Braunschweig on November 12 1774.

Göttingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen November 26 1774, p. 1224
(He must have been 78 years of age, not 74).
Harenberg's multiple writings were mostly concerned with historical and theological topics, and particularly include a two volume book on the history of the Jesuit Order published in 1760. He was, however, also interested in other matters, like the fossil encrinus that was relatively common in Lower Saxony and also became the subject of one his shorter writings. In fact, at his death he left behind a large collection of these fossils, cf. Journal für die Liebhaber des Steinreichs und Konchyliologie Vol. II, pp. 524-7 (Weimar, 1775).

It was while he was Headmaster in Gandersheim that he wrote his book on vampires on the request of a high-ranking individual, no doubt the abbess herself. It must have been aimed at a wider audience, as it was not written in Latin like most of his other writings at the time, but in German. Postponing the publication in the hope that more examples would be published, he finished it on September 24 1732, and was consequently able to comment on a number of books on the subject that were published in the first half of that year. He also drew on his own experiences, including the above mentioned vision from his youth.

In Harenberg's view, the Serbs who claimed to be victims of vampires, probably suffered from angina (pectoris) that was caused by a) eating contaminated animal flesh, b) visiting other ill persons, and c) coming into contact with contaminated corpses. The illness then caused the blood to thicken, and as the blood began to stand still in the small vessels in the head, depression set in and the imagination malfunctioned. As the beliefs in harmful revenants were so impressed upon their imagination, the ill and their relations explained the illness, the chest pains and suffocation in terms of such vampires.

Ranft on Harenberg
Harenberg not only commented on a variety of theories that had been proposed since the publication of the Visum et Repertum, but also on subjects like werewolves. His etymology of the word 'vampire' was ridiculed by Michael Ranft in the third edition of his dissertation on the mastication of the dead. Ranft in fact ridiculed Harenberg and his efforts in general, leading to some controversy, when a review of both Harenberg's and Ranft's books were published in the supplements to the Leipzig Nova acta eruditorum, an anonymous review that was actually written by Harenberg himself. Obviously, Ranft felt obliged to vindicate himself, as years later, in 1742, he published a comment on the whole episode.

An in-depth study of Harenberg's book can be found in Anja Lauper's paper published in Begemann, Herrmann and Neumeyer's Dracula unbound: Kulturwissenschaftliche Lektüren des Vampirs (2008) and her subsequent book Die "phantastische Seuche": Episoden des Vampirismus im 18. Jahrhundert (2011).

Although it is, of course, his book and its subject that could be considered a 'vampire icon', one might still imagine a film inspired by Harenberg: His visions of the recently deceased and his considerations on the vampires could be intertwined and combined with machinations at the various courts and universities, perhaps even including some creative use of the controversy with Ranft, so that Hollywood could come up with stories of his own feverish experiences with bloodsuckers...

Geschichte Jetztlebender Gelehrten Vol. V (Zelle, 1732), pp. 94-144

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