Tuesday 12 June 2007

Strange histories

"In 1723, a team of doctors examined corpses disinterred from a Serbian graveyard, and decided that several of them were vampires. A number of the bodies were swollen and red-faced. The corpse of one woman was 'quite complete and undecayed': her lungs, liver and spleen were as 'fresh as they would be in a healthy person,' and new fingernails had formed on one of her hands. For modern pathologists and eighteenth-century physicians alike, it appears that the facts do not speak for themselves. The physical evidence of death may not change, but what it means depends largely on the intellectual context in which it is placed."

This passage from Darren Oldridge's Strange Histories (Routledge, 2007) obviously concerns the exhumation and autopsy of the 20 year old Stana at Medvedja in 1732 (not 1723). Although it is one of only a few direct references to vampires, the book does contain a lot of material directly or indirectly relevant to anyone interested in Magia Posthuma. It is however very much a book on the role of history and the historian. Oldridge, a lecturer in history from University College Worcester, who is also known as the editor of The Witchcraft Reader, aims to show the reader how history can help to give us another view of our own beliefs and common sense. Our predecessors were, even at their most bizarre, in fact rational and common sensical in their thoughts and views of the world. But their cultural context was unlike ours, and for that reason they interpreted facts unlike we do, they asked other questions, and found their answers using the information they had.

Oldridge underscores this by analysing the arguments and thoughts that led people in the middle ages and in the renaissance to accuse people of witchcraft and to believe in the existence of revenants and werewolves. The book contains numerous examples that show how logical and very concrete the matters were dealt with by the experts of that day and age. In some cases theologians even drew conclusions that the modern day reader will agree on, but for very different reasons and with very different arguments that led to other - 'strange' - conclusions.

The reader interested in vampires and Magia Posthuma will probably enjoy Oldridge's explanation of Catholic and Protestant views on the theology of revenants. In general, the book is well written for the lay reader who has no prior knowledge of the subject. There are notes at the end of the book for anyone interested in looking more into the subject.


Anonymous said...

This is an extremely interesting discussion and of course calls into question how many of the apparently rational viewpoints and approaches we today take for granted would be considered ludicrous from any other cultural viewpoint. Discussing this problem in relation to any contemporary approach would probably be very difficult as people would react instinctively, defending their cultural world view with great anger and failing to see the philosophical core issue. Hence it's clever and useful to discuss it from the opposite end, as you do, pointing out the rational in the apparently irrational rather than the irrational in the aparently rational, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions.

Niels K. Petersen said...

I might just add that at the end of his book, Oldridge quotes from a book by Quentin Skinner (Liberty Before Liberalism, 1998):

"[The] historian can help us to appreciate how far the values embodied in our present way of life, and our present ways of thinking about those values, reflect a series of choices made at different times between different possible worlds. This awareness can help to liberate us from the grip of any one ... account of those values and how they should be interpreted and understood. Equipped with a broader sense of possibilities, we can stand back from the intellectual commitments we have inherited and ask ourselves in the spirit of enquiry what we should think of them."

Anonymous said...

I borrowed a copy of this book from one of my libraries and finally finished reading it yesterday.

The incorrect dating of the Plogojovitz and Paole cases was most unfortunate, but the rest of the book was a fascinating read, even if it did seem devoted to apologia.

That said, its presentation of rationales in an historical context was concise enough to make even the provokative "The Case for Killing Heretics" chapter actually seem reasonable.

Thank you for drawing attention to this compelling book.

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