On several occasions, particularly on the periphery of the Habsburg Empire during the 17th and 18th centuries, dead people were suspected of being revenants or vampires, and consequently dug up and destroyed. Some contemporary authors named this phenomenon Magia Posthuma. This blog is dedicated to understanding what happened and why.
Monday, 28 May 2007
It was 275 years ago...
Sunday, 27 May 2007
Erna Lesky on Gerard van Swieten
"Völlig freie Hand hat Maria Theresia ihrem 'Gesundheitsminister' in seinem reformerischen Kampf gegen den finstersten Aberglauben gelassen. Weite Bevölkerungsteile in der Walchei, in Siebenbürgen, Banat, Kroatien, Schlesien und Mähren glaubten noch an die aus den Gräbern aufsteigenden und Menschenblut saugenden Vampyre. Gegen diese Magia posthuma hat van Swieten 1755 ebenso eine eigene Aufklärungsschrift erlassen, wie er auf Verordnungswege in das Kalenderunwesen mit seinen Aderlaß- und Schröpftafeln eingriff. Alle diese Maßnahmen gipfeln in dem Verdienst, das sich van Swieten bei der Abschaffung der Hexenprozesse in Österreich erwarb. Ihm ist an die Seite zu stellen die Afhebung der Folter, die der Jurist Sonnenfels im verein mit dem Chirurgen Ferdinand Leber durchsetze." (p. 195)
Erna Lesky compiled a number of papers on van Swieten with A. Wandruszka: Gerard van Swieten und seine Zeit (1973).
Statue of van Swieten as part of the Maria Theresien Denkmal in Vienna.
Van Swieten's "Kampf"
However there is another aspect of van Heuveln's book that becomes obvious when you read it. In particular, van Heuveln's use of the word "Kampf" gains a very specific connotation. At the beginning of a chapter called "Ursachen und Anfang van Swieten's Kampfes", it is related how Catholic Austria tried to prevent the intrusion of dangerous thoughts by censorship, and van Heuveln compares this with contemporary events: "ganz wie der National Sozialismus in unseren Zeiten vor 10. Mai 1940" (May 10th 1940 was the date of the German occupation of the Netherlands in WWII).
Later on, van Heuveln refers to van Swieten's "Unverträglichkeit gegen die Juden". Van Heuveln claims that van Swieten was opposed to the practice of Jewish physicians, and that it was on his advice that Jewish physicians were prohibited from aiding residents of Austria, Jews included. This makes van Heuveln attribute to van Swieten a "Judenhasz", i.e. hate of Jews, and allows him to create a connection to recent events, including the laws that followed contemporary person's "Kampf", the Nuremberg laws:
"Bald nach der Machtübernahme am 30. januar 1933 folgte die Einführung der Nürnberger Gesetze am 15. September 1935. Diese finden heute schon während des Weltkriegs eine schnelle Ausbreitung über ganz Europa damit den Juden für immer ins Verderben führender Einflusz auf die arische Bevölkerung zum Wohle Europas entnommen wird. Auch hierin war van Swieten uns also klar und fest vorausgegangen."
And no doubt, this is one of the reasons why van Heuveln concludes that:
"Van Swieten war also nicht nur ein hervorragender Arzt und grosser Reformator, er war der Grundleger der heutigen Heilkunde in Österreich und Gründer der später so berühmten Wiener Schule.
Dadurch war er nicht nur ein grosser Niederländer, er diente hiermit der ganzen germanischen Welt.
Als solcher verdient er in allen Zeiten gewisz volle Würdigung und Anerkennung.
Möge sein Beispiel eine Lehre sein und zur näheren Einheit führen!"
There is no mention of van Swieten's remarks on vampirism or of his role in fighting superstition, but the 65 page thesis does contain some interesting background material for those who are interested in van Swieten. Caution is however obviously required, considering the 'Germanic' bias of van Heuveln.
Saturday, 26 May 2007
Sunday, 20 May 2007
The corpse claimed to be a vampire (strigoi) was that of 76 year old Toma Petre who had died on December 26th 2003. After a few days some of his relatives claimed that he came to them while they slept and sucked their blood. Believing that people would die if they didn't destroy the strigoi, the relatives (of whom two, Gheorghe and Floarea Marinescu, are interviewed) exhumed the body and found blood all around its mouth. They cut up the corpse and removed the heart which they burnt at the cross roads. The ashes were mixed with water, and those who were ill drank the mixture to protect themselves against the strigoi. However, the sister of the deceased called upon the authorities, and six people were prosecuted.
This all happened in a village called Marotinu de Sus which is located close to Celaru about 40 km south east of Craiova. According to this Romanian web site the village has 760 citizens.
The picture shown here is from a local newspaper, the Banateanul, that covered the story, but extensive live footage is shown in the True Horror documentary.
Apart from the footage from Marotinu de Sus, the documentary is a mixture of various aspects of 'vampirism', including an interview with Sean Manchester on the so-called 'Highgate Vampire' and a walk in the company of Nicolae Paduraru of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula to Vlad Tepes' fortress overlooking the river Arges. Mark Benecke from the same society demonstrates what happens to a human corpse after its death.
Some fake documents are shown in order to dramatize the tale of Peter Plogojowitz. The documents look like something from a horror film, and for some reason Anthony Head says that the exhumation of Plogojowitz occurred in 1738, i.e. 13 years later than it actually did, and he even claims that copies of the report were sent to every court in Europe. I find it pretty strange that the producers did not attempt to be more accurate in relating one of the most famous vampire cases.
The True Horror series is available on a double disc DVD, which includes the episodes on werewolves, witches and zombies.
An example from academia is the published proceedings of a colloquium on “National stereotypes as Factors of Political Change in East Central Europe” that took place on 18-20 May 1994 in Amsterdam. The title of the book is Vampires Unstaked: National Images, Stereotypes and Myths in East Central Europe and it is edited by André Gerrits and Nanci Adler (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1995). In the introduction the choice of title is explained this way:
“Robert Hayden employed the expression ‘vampires unstaked’ in his discussion on the ‘return’ of the Cetniks and the Ustasas in the Yugoslav war. The term so appropriately characterized the phenomena dealt with here that we did not hesitate to borrow it for the book’s title.”
The Cetniks (Četnici) and Ustasa (Ustaše) were nationalist organizations from respectively Serbia and Croatia, both of which fought the Communist partisans at the end of the Second World War.
In his paper, ‘The Use of National Stereotypes in the Wars in Yugoslavia’, Robert Hayden, associate professor in the Department of Antropology of the University of Pittsburgh, writes:
“The inflammatory nature of the Serb and Croat portrayals of each other as Ustasas and Cetniks received credibility by the adoption of Ustasa and Cetnik images, symbols and uniforms by some political figures in Croatia and Serbia. The fall of communist rule and the end of its suppression of these symbols and images pulled the stakes from the hearts of these fascist vampires.” (p. 213, my emphasis)
The vampire metaphor here both relates to the fascist nature of the Cetniks and Ustatas as well as to the revival of these terms. Hayden talks of “the transformation of Cetniks and Ustasas from horror story to horrible reality” (p. 215) and analyses the “symbolic geography” that plays a central part in this transformation.
We are all no doubt aware of the symbolic geography that e.g. divides Europe into a more privileged and advanced West and a poorer and possibly uncivilized East, and that creates divisions based on religion. Hayden quotes one Eugene Hammel on this subject:
“the emergence of the modern standard classification that identifies Croats with Catholicism and Serbs with Orthodoxy came only with the absolutism of the Habsburgs in the 18th Century. Ethnic classification in the Balkans is thus not strictly an endogenous process but either exogenously imposed or endogenously shaped in response to exogenous pressures.” (p. 208)
More interesting analysis of and background material for the “symbolic geography” of East Central Europe can also be found in three papers on Transylvania: ‘Transylvania: Myth and Reality. Changing Awareness of Transylvanian Identity’, ‘The Politicization of Myths: The Transylvanian Case’, and ‘Transylvania and the Great Powers: 1945-1946’.
So although Vampires Unstaked does not contain information on Magia Posthuma, it is an interesting collection of studies on how images, stereotypes and myths play an important role in shaping political events. No doubt many of us are aware of other political 'vampires' that unfortunately have become or may become unstaked in the near future.
Saturday, 19 May 2007
Friday, 18 May 2007
Google's book search is often pretty confusing. A lot of the books are not fully available, and some of them have even been scanned so hurriedly that pages are missing. However, the general idea of establishing an online library of practically any book is ingenious and most welcome, and I have of course also been able to find interesting material using it.
A lot of libraries these days have their own online section of high quality digitalized books. The national library in my own country, the Royal Danish Library, has a number of digital facsimiles on their web site. One example is a Danish translation of a book on the dance of the dead, but you can also find the latin lext of the Gesta Danorum, and there is even a section on fabulous creatures. Unfortunately, a number of these resources are only available in Danish, so beware!
For the study of Magia Posthuma, other resources may prove more helpful. Here I will only mention one, the Gallica of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, but I will return to the subject in future posts.
Gallica is a very large collection of French books and texts. So you can e.g. find a digital facsimile of the Encyclopédie ou Dictionaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers with a definition of a vampire, and the text of the Lettres Juives ou Correspondance philosophique, historique et critique entre un juif voyageur et ses correspondans en divers endroits with its 137th letter on vampires by the Marquis d'Argent.
Of particular interest is the digital facsimile of Augustin Calmet's 1751 "nouvelle édition revûe, corrigée & augmentée" of Traité sur les apparitions des esprits, et sur les vampires, ou les revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie, &c. So with Gallica you can have the 1751 original text at your hand for reading or reference, which can come in very handy when you are studying the Magia Posthuma and e.g. wish to read Calmet's reference to de Schertz's book:
"Ces apparitions ont donné occasion à un petit ouvrage intitulé: Magia posthuma, composé par Charles Ferdinand de Schertz, imprimé à Olmuz en 1706. dédié au Prince Charles de Lorraine Evêque d'Olmutz & d'Osnabruch." (Tome II, p. 32f)
Sunday, 13 May 2007
Saturday, 12 May 2007
Languages and barriers
"The study of early modern European witchcraft has to a great extent been the domain of English and American scholars, and this has affected our general understanding and formulation of problems. Some of the questions in the current debate are simply wrong or have to be redefined because they were raised from an oblique, Anglo-Saxon angle." (p. 1)
Certainly, much of what has been published on vampires during the past hundred years has been dominated by English speaking authors as well. This may have been because of the success of Bram Stoker's Dracula and the subsequent adaptations in various media, but the two volumes by Montague Summers on vampires have also played a key role in establishing the route the literature on vampires has followed during several decades.
Nowadays most of the literature on vampires in the English language seems to focus on either the fictional vampire or the vampire as part of popular culture in general. The vampires of folklore and mythology are usually referred to, but even in longer treatments of the subject the course of attack generally goes along the lines set out by Montague Summers.
However, unlike Summers it is usually quite obvious that most authors and scholars from Great Britain or U.S.A. have not studied the source material in the original languages, but in many cases just copy e.g. Summers, even including his errors. One of the reasons is of course that many authors on the subject patently can not read German. Curiously enough, even if a scholar can read the original, there can be a language barrier.
This is illustrated by reading how Paul Barber characterizes the 1732 Visum et Repertum about the vampire case at the Serbian village Medvedja in his book Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (Yale Univ. Press, 1988). He writes that it is "a curious document", and continues:
“Hardly a literary masterpiece, it has seldom made its way in complete form into English-language books on the vampire, and this may be because it is difficult to translate: the language is stilted, the author is indifferent to questions of grammatical parallelism, and several versions are extant, each of which, incidentally, gives a different spelling of the author’s name, the most innovative of which (Clickstenger) is to be found in the English translation of Calmet.” (p. 15)
The opposite verdict on the text is offered by the German historian Peter Mario Kreuter in his thesis on the South East European vampire, Der Vampirglaube in Südosteuropa (Weidler Buchverlag, 2001). He writes that the report is “gut formuliert und logisch im Aufbau,” i.e.: “well formulated and logical in construction”.
So obviously the familiarity with the German language greatly affects how the two scholars view the document.
It is quite patent from many other books, that the authors have very little knowledge of the historical, geographical or ethnic context of the vampire cases. In general, in most popular works on the subject there is usually no attempt at establishing a credible connection between the vampire cases and their context, no doubt because the aim is rather to entertain and frighten than to try to understand by asking the essential questions: What happened and why?
Fortunately, a number of Continental scholars and authors are attempting to answer these questions, and with the general integration of those South and East European countries where the Magia Posthuma was observed, hopefully other barriers for our understanding are overcome. It is my hope that this blog can be of some service in this process.
Thursday, 10 May 2007
An der Türkischen Granitz
Many years ago I first read the official report about the Medvegia vampire case, Flückinger’s Visum et Repertum, in Dieter Sturm and Klaus Völker’s classic German anthology Von denen Vampiren oder Menschensaugern: Dichtungen und Dokumente (1st edition: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1968). The reprint of the report is based on a contemporary version from Nuremberg and carries the introductory text:
“Über die so genannten Vampirs, oder Blut-Aussauger, so zu Medvegia in Servien, an der Türkischen Granitz, den 7. Januarii 1732 geschehen.”
In fact, the same text can be found on p. 211ff in Michael Ranft’s famous Tractat von dem Kauen und Schmatzen der Todten in Gräbern, Worin die wahre Beschaffenheit derer Hungarischen Vampyrs und Blut-Sauger gezeigt, Auch alle von dieser Materie bißher zum Vorschein gekommene Schrifften recensiret werden (Leipzig, 1734).
However, I never really understood that bit about “an der Türkischen Granitz”, but then I must admit that for many years I was uncertain about the location of the village Medvegia.
But when I noticed that Klaus Hamberger cites it as “an der türckischen Gräniz” in his anthology Mortuus non mordet: Kommentierte Dokumentation zum Vampirismus 1689-1791 (Turia & Kant, 1992; p. 49), it occurred to me that “Granitz” must either be a variant or possibly a misspelling of German “Grenze”, i.e. border. So Medvegia should have been located near the Turkish border.
In fact Medvegia (or actually, Medvedja or more correctly: Medveđa) is close to the river Zapadna Morava, into which the ashes of the supposed vampires were thrown, and this river was to my knowledge the border between the Northern part of Serbia occupied by the Habsburgs and the Southern part still under Ottoman rule during the years 1718 and 1739.
So “Granitz” has nothing to do with granite or whatever I might have wondered about years back, but just places this famous location of Magia Posthuma at the extreme periphery of the Austrian Habsburg Empire during the few decades when Northern Serbia was under their rule.
I will return to Medvedja and other places associated with Magia Posthuma in later posts.
Sunday, 6 May 2007
Most vampire motion pictures are expansions and variations on a popular theme that has evolved considerably since the word “vampire” originally entered the language of people around the world. On its own this is a fascinating and often quite entertaining subject, but vampire cinema generally sheds very little light on the vampire’s historical and folkloric context. Occasionally a film does however contain aspects that are of considerable interest to the historian of magia poshuma.
The 1973 Yugoslavian TV production Leptirića (Butterfly) is an example. It is set in a Balkan village in the past. A year is not specified, but as it is based on a tale called Posle devedeset godina (Ninety years later) by a Serbian author who was considered the “Serbian Gogol”, Milovan Glišić (1847-1908), more information on the context of the story is probably available in the tale. According to some web sites it concerns a Serbian vampire called Sava Savanović (Сава Сaвановић) who is associated with a water-mill (Sava’s mill, Savina vodenica).
A miller is attacked by a hideous creature, and as the word “vampire” is clearly audible later on in the film, this must be a vampire. The vampire is shrouded in a dark cape which only allows us to see the vampire’s lower face that is covered with hair. The vampire’s mouth is filled with long sharp fangs that enable the vampire to suck blood from the miller’s throat.
We then follow two sets of people: On the one hand, a young, fair haired shepherdess and a young man who (as I do not understand Serbo-Croatian, I unfortunately can not understand what they are saying, but I believe this is what happens) want to get married, but the girl’s father will not allow it. On the other, a group of men, including the local Orthodox priest, who are advised by a crone to take a horse to find the vampire’s tomb. Where the horse stops, they start to dig a hole and uncover a wooden coffin. For some reason they do not open the coffin, but simply put a long stake directly into the coffin.
The girl and the young man are married, but on their wedding night the newly wed husband discovers a hole in her stomach. She then grows hair in her face and her teeth become long fangs, so obviously she is a vampire. She attacks him, and he runs off with her on his shoulders. They come to the site of the vampire’s grave, and the young man removes the stake from the coffin. A female vampire then gets out of the coffin, but is staked by the young man.
The film is interesting, because it enables us to see a vampire tale in a geographical and ethnic context that is related to that of the 18th Century vampire cases. The original tale by Glišić is probably inspired by 19th Century vampire fiction, so it is a bit hard to say how much of the tale is actually based on Balkan folklore. But I still find it profitable for an understanding of the context of the magia posthuma to watch a picture made by natives of the areas where the word “vampire” originated.
Unfortunately, Leptirića is hard to find, and seems to be mainly known in Balkan and the surrounding countries. However, its cult like reputation seems to be growing on the internet. A clip is currently available on youtube, which can give you an idea of the flavour of this tale.
Friday, 4 May 2007
The rationality of the strange past
"As historians have often noted, our failure to comprehend the beliefs of people in the past is a measure of the distance that separates us from them. It is the very strangeness of these ideas - from a modern perspective - that makes them worth looking at. If we can begin to understand why a French judge warned people about demonically possessed apples in 1602, we might start to unravel the intellectual context in which he lived." (p. ix)
"This book will argue that concepts like 'superstition' and ignorance do little to help us understand the vanished world of the witch of Rothenbach. On the contrary, they actually prevent us from seeing that world as it probably was: a community of men and women who were no less reasonable and well intentioned than we are. It is not only simplistic to view these people as hysterical: it also denies their humanity. To regard them as irrational is no less insulting - or mistaken - than to view African tribespeople as 'savages'. The idea that the pre-modern world was befogged with superstition also separates us from the past." (p. 2)
"When something appears to be strange, this often means it is outside our normal experience. It is strange to put a pig on trial, to execute a dead man, or to attempt to conjure a spirit. By the samme token, an idea may seem strange if it is unfamiliar. (---) If familiarity is one measure of strangeness, another is 'making sense'. Many strange beliefs strike us as nonsensical. It is not only unusual to acquit a suspected criminal because she can carry a hot iron for six paces; it also seems absurd. (---) 'Common-sense' judgments reflect the prevailing beliefs of particular communities, which often differ from one another. Ideas can be regarded as rational if they are consistent with prevailing knowledge. When we are familiar with the dominant assumptions of a certain culture - such as our own - we tend to regard the behaviour of people who act in conformity with these assumptions as perfectly sensible; when we have little understanding of the beliefs of another society, many of the acts that routinely occur within it may strike us as absurd." (p. 3-4)
"Can the dead walk? Most people in medieval Europe believed they could, and orthodox Christians assumed this would happen en masse at the time of the Last Judgment. Can witches fly? Even the most trenchant opponents of the persecution of witchcraft in sixteenth-century Europe believed this was possible. Just like us, the people who accepted these things relied on a body of knowledge to help them evaluate the facts of the world, and just like us, they inherited this knowledge from the culture in which they were born. Viewed in this light, the way to understand the events at Rothenbach in 1485 is to become acquainted with the cultural context in which they took place. Such episodes were not absurd. They only appear irrational today because our 'given reality' has changed." (p. 4)
I intend to return to Oldridge's book in a later blog entry.
Joh. Frid. Glaser's tale of horror
This tale of horror was to be found in the scientific journal, Commercii litterarii ad rei medicae et scientiae naturalis incremementum institute, on March 22nd 1732. Written in a letter from the Viennese doctor Johann Friedrich Glaser to one of the journal’s editors, Johann Christoph Götz (1688-1733), it is so remarkably reminiscent of words found in so many novels and vampire movies ever since. In my translation these lines are:
People that are certainly dead rise from undisturbed graves and kill the living, and these killed and buried people similarly rise and kill others; it happens in the following fashion: At night they attack sleeping people and suck out their blood, so that they all expire on the third day. Against this evil no remedy has been found.
Glaser wished to inform the learned world of a remarkable experience his son had had in a village in the part of Serbia occupied by the Habsburgs, and close to the border to Ottoman territory, namely a case of a kind of magic (magicam aliquam) that Glaser in his letter names Vampyres!
Glaser certainly got the attention of the learned world. The Nürnberg journal which otherwise was mostly interested in more ordinary scientific topics, put in print a large scale debate on vampires throughout the year of 1732.
Personally, I find it fascinating to read those lines from Glaser, because in my view he takes the more diffuse vampire of the official reports one step further and establishes it as something that anyone today will recognize. This in my opinion is a piece of cultural history!
Gerard van Swieten commemorated
However, as those of us who are interested in the history of magia posthuma of the 18th Century know, van Swieten played an important role in trying to stop the belief in magia posthuma. In a recent book on vampire slayers, Slayers and their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead by Bruce McClelland (University of Michigan Press, 2006), he is even called "the Lowlands slayer", and it is claimed that "in 1755, Maria Theresa dispatched Van Swieten to Hermersdorf, Moravia, to investigate the postmortem treatment of a certain 'Rosina Polackin'".
However, I can find no evidence of Van Swieten playing this active role in the investigation himself.
In his written remarks on the affair and on vampirism in general, Van Swieten only mentions that the Empress sent two other physicians to investigate this case of magia posthuma: the Professor of Anatomy, Johannes Gasser, and the court physician, Christian Wabst. As has been noted by vampire historians, this was the first time physicians of this calibre were sent to investigate a vampire case, which in itself is a testament to the progress of medicine during the few decades that had passed since the famous Serbian vampire cases. It was the report of Gasser and Wabst to Empress Maria Theresa that prompted Van Swieten to write about vampires and to recommend to the Empress that she should pass a law against digging up corpses and burning them because of beliefs in magia posthuma.
The role of Van Swieten and Maria Theresa in the history of the magia posthuma has only recently been recognized in vampire books in English, no doubt aided by Gábor Klaniczay's paper on The Decline of Witches and the Rise of Vampires under the Eighteenth-Century Habsburg Monarchy which has become a standard text in the historical study of witchcraft.
Wednesday, 2 May 2007
Carl Ferdinand von Schertz: Magia Posthuma
It is quite obvious from other books that refer to von Schertz’s Magia Posthuma, that the authors are simply quoting or paraphrasing either Calmet or Summers. A few authors even comment on the unavailability of the book. Stephan Hock in his Die Vampyrsagen und ihre Verwertung in der deutschen Literatur (1900) mentions that it is “mir leider nicht zugänglich”, i.e. it was not available, and Aribert Schroeder in Vampirismus: Seine Entwicklung vom Thema zum Motiv (1973) indicates that the book belongs to the category that “konnte nicht eingesehen werden”, i.e. it was unavailable.
I have tried to ask the Danish Royal Library to locate the book for me. However, they could not locate a copy. Consequently I have myself looked at a number of web sites of Continental European libraries, but still without result.
So it seems that this book, which some have labelled as the earliest book on vampires, remains a bit of a mystery. Frankly, I have at times doubted that this book might even exist, so if anyone can shed any light on the whereabouts or even existence of a copy of this book, I would be very grateful!
Welcome to Magia Posthuma
In creating this blog it is my hope that I will get in touch with other people around the world who like me are intrigued by the facts and thoughts of those early modern Europeans who tried to investigate and understand vampires cases, in particular those that occurred on the periphery of the Habsburg empire during the 18the Century. To stress that this is the primary subject for this blog, I have decided to name it Magia Posthuma: posthumous magic, which was the term used by some writers of that day to describe the phenomena of uncorrupted corpses harassing the living and the means used to stop the activities of these corpses.
I intend to now and then post information, reviews, questions and bits of source material. I hope to get feedback from people with a similar interest. In particular I hope to get in touch with people who will share information and thoughts on Magia Posthuma, and if the blog proves to be a successful site for sharing ideas and information, I may also put some longer essays on the blog.