Monday, 21 April 2014

In search of Georg Tallar and other borderland vampire investigators

'While the belief in returning dead and the ritual/social practices related to it had already had a many-centuries-old, established tradition, it was the special relations of the borderland region [in the Southern parts of the Habsburg empire] which made them visible and problematized them for different officials of the state administration. At the same time, these same relations posed considerable difficulties for these functionaries to fulfil their respective tasks by essentially leaving them alone, baffled in the face of strange phenomena, which they nevertheless had to interpret and react to. Focusing foremost on medical experts in some form of state-service, the present essay seeks to map the power-relations of different parts of this distressing but exciting world, to which western culture’s perpetual fascination with vampirism owes its existence.'

As has so often been pointed out on this blog, despite western culture’s fascination with the subject very little has been written in English on the key events of 'vampire history', and for that reason it is very welcome to be able to point to the ’essay’ in question, which is in fact a M.A. thesis by one Adam Mezes. Supervised by Laszlo Kontler and Gabor Klaniczay, Mezes submitted his thesis, Insecure Boundaries: Medical experts and the returning dead on the Southern Habsburg borderland, at the Central European University History Department last year.

Situated in Budapest, Hungary, the History Department of the CEU according to its web site is 'the only transnational, English-language graduate school in Europe that is accredited both on the continent (in Hungary) and in the United States', it 'provides an excellent academic gateway to the history of Central, Southeastern, and Eastern Europe,' and 'offers one of the few programs in the world that effectively enables students to study comparatively the Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman Empires and their successor states, engaging with a variety of social, political, and cultural issues.' Its staff is multinational and multilingual, and among them we find Professor Laszlo Kontler who has a background in the European intellectual history of the early modern period and the Enlightenment. Kontler is the author of A History of Hungary: Millennium in Central Europe and the forthcoming Translations, Histories, Enlightenments: William Robertson in Germany, 1760-1795. Professor Klaniczay is affiliated with the Medieval Department of the CEU and author of, among many other papers and books, an influential article from 1987 on the Decline of Witches and Rise of Vampires in 18th Century Habsburg Monarchy that has featured prominently in the succeeding literature on 18th century witchcraft affairs.

In his thesis, Mezes focuses on the context of the vampire investigations of the 18th century, in particular those in Serbia (Kisiljevo and Medvedja) and those investigated by Georg Tallar in Banat and Oltenia. Briefly mentioning a few books on the subject, Mezes states that: 'It is visible from this brief literature overview that considerably more attention has been paid to the findings of the medical reports than to the authors themselves. The factors which influenced the way they constructed their own role and formulated their reports have not been researched in depth. Taking the studies mentioned last as a departing point, the present essay makes an attempt at applying a magnifying glass on this frontier-region and investigate the specific spheres of power and authority which shaped the formulation of the reports on vampirism. The exact mapping of these relations is a valid task, because much confusion exists even in the above mentioned literature dealing specificially with the topic of politics and vampires. It seems that basic, factual matters have to be cleared, otherwise the scholarly gaze on vampirism and state will remain hazy.'

Mezes is particularly interested in vampirism as 'a problem of ordering for Habsburg statecraft', because it was in the 18th century that various ways of governance and policing were explored and implemented in order to centralize and uniform the control of the authorities. In the borderland areas to the South, a direct control based on central institutions was employed, which had the effect that what was going on locally among the common people became more visible to the central authorities.

So Mezes describes the organization and development of the Militärgrenze, the military frontier in the Southeastern parts of Habsburg territory, including the military and governmental structure of Serbia in the short period that it was under Habsburg occupation. He also goes into detail with regards to the frontier's function as a plague cordon, the setting up of special quarantine stations where people were to be confined until one could be sure that they were not potential carriers of the plague miasma, and the order to report suspicious infection cases directly to the Aulic War Council.

Source: Wikimedia

Mezes correctly identifies Kisilova from Frombald's report with present day Kisiljevo, and points out the differences between Kisiljevo and Medvedja in the military and governmental structure of Serbia at the time. Kisiljevo being a cameral village, and not a Hayduk village like Medvedja, the investigations of purported cases of vampirism were handled differently in these two villages. Mezes also discusses the curious circumstances related to the copy of Frombald's manuscript and other information on the case in the Viennese archives.

All this is a nice and clear exposition and synthesis of information most of which can be found in various books on the subject and on the Militärgrenze, but that is certainly not the case when it comes to the part of the thesis on Georg Tallar. Here Mezes carries out a detailed analysis and comparison of both the printed book and the original manuscript to learn more about this 'enigmatic figure', Tallar, his investigation of vampire cases and the reason why a publisher decided to print the book some thirty years after the report was written.

Tallar was part of a commission consisting of himself, a theologian, and a physician, the latter according to Mezes possibly the Protomedicus Paul Adam Kömovesch (actually: Kômûves) who is recorded to having singlehandedly investigated one case of vampirism. Mezes suggests that, perhaps, the three did not actually work together, which could perhaps explain why it was Tallar and not the Protomedicus who wrote the report. On the other hand, Mezes notes that in the manuscript there are sections of a more religious character, which are so different from the otherwise sceptical voice of Tallar, that he thinks they may originate from the hand of the (unknown) theologian: 'Every now and then, there appears a voice in the text – albeit faintly and awkwardly – which addresses issues of demonic activity and morals and their consequences.'

These parts of the manuscript were omitted when the Viennese publisher Johann Georg Möβle prepared the text for printing. In his foreword Möβle claims that he stumbled upon the manuscript by accident, but Mezes finds this improbable.

Although dated 1756, Tallar may have written it in 1753: 'hypothetically, it might be conjectured, that Tallar handed in his report to the Banat Provincial Administration in 1753, right after he finished his investigation, just as his fellow-commissioner, Kömovesch did. Then, when the Hermsdorf-scandal popped out, the central administration wanted to collect materials about vampirism and asked the Banat Administration to send all documents they have on the issue. This scenario would explain why the report is dated 1756: it was written on it when the Aulic Treasury (Hofkammer) received the document three years after the report was actually finished.'

So what prompted Möβle to publish the report some thirty years later in 1784? Mezes convincingly conjectures that news of another vampire investigation got to Vienna that year, and that the authorities once again searched their archives for material on vampires, found Tallar's manuscript, and asked Möβle to publish it. Mezes lists a number of works published by Möβle that supports his theory that Möβle not only catered for 'the public's hunger for curiosities,' but was in fact also publishing books that would serve as instructive 'governmental messages.'

As for the vampire case that prompted the publication, Mezes writes: 'In our opinion (though again, further investigation is needed), the publication of the report has something to do with another vampire scandal, one which secondary literature does not yet know of (in fact neither do we). What points nevertheless in this direction is a royal statute of Joseph II., dates 1784.11.02., in which the king warns the Orthodox Church to take active part in the fight against vampire-beliefs.'

Mezes refers to an entry in Franz Xavier Linzbauer's voluminous Codex Sanitario-medicinalis Hungariae (a book that contains other source material on vampire investigations) concerning the practice among some people of the Orthodox faith of leaving corpses unburied ('in aperta tumba') for fear of bloodsuckers ('Wampier'), a practice that may cause epidemics illnesses to spread, so the authorites found it necessary to reiterate its stance.*

Franciscus Xav. Linzbauer: Codex Sanitario-Medicinalis Hungariae Tomus III. Sectio I, p. 122 (Buda, 1853)
Apart from the theological omissions mentioned above, Mezes finds that Möβle was fairly loyal to the text of the manuscript, although he made some changes like removing Tallar's references to the local authorities that appointed him to the commission: 'By doing so, Möβle severed important roots which linked the report to its original circumstances, and at the same time managed to elevate the report to a more general level of the enlightenment fighting the forces of darkness, be they superstitions or illnesses.'

Obviously, this is highly interesting work, particularly on Tallar's investigations and the interest in vampires of the late 18th century Enlightenment. Certainly a well-written and well-researched thesis, it earned Mezes a Hanak Prize at the History Department of the CEU, and as it is written in English, it also offers those who are unable to read the German language literature on the subject a glimpse of what they are missing out on.

Thanks to Jonathan Ferguson for notifying me of this work.

*) The contemporary review of the printed edition of Tallar's report that I quoted in an earlier post, was published 'Wien am 17ten Hornung, 1784', i.e. in Vienna on February 17 1784, and if that is correct, Möβle published Tallar's report several months before the royal statute.

1 comment:

James Lyon said...

Another excellent post. Keep up the good work.

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