Monday 28 April 2008

H-Sonderauftrag documentary

I recently wrote about the SS H-Sonderauftrag and mentioned the German documentary Hexen which dramatizes part of the history of this special research unit of the SS. Now I have noticed that an excerpt is available in an English languaged edition on youtube here: sie Vampyri nennen...

The Austrian newspaper Wiener Zeitung is the oldest newspaper in existence. Originally published in 1703 under the name Wienerisches Diarium, it continues to this day. On July 21 1725, the Diarium published a copy of a manuscript from the Gradisker Distrikt in Hungary, actually the North Western part of Serbia. The text is Frombald's original account of the Peter Plogojowitz vampire case, and this is probably the first time the word vampire is published in print: ' sie Vampyri nennen...', i.e. in a latinized form.

The Austrian National Library has digitalized various issues of the Diarium, including the July 21 1725 edition, so we can all enjoy reading this vampire document in its contemporary context of other news, including lists of marriages and deaths in and around Vienna.

The editors of the Leipziger Zeitung found the document so interesting that they copied it, thereby bringing it to the attention of Michael Ranft who was inspired to write the first edition of his book on the mastication of the dead.

Monday 21 April 2008

A novel way of promoting vampire fiction

I think that some of you might be interested in seeing how to promote a vampire novel anno 2008. In this case, it's a new novel called Bid (Bite) by Danish author and researcher Rikke Schubart.

Found and seen

Behind these doors the reading room of the Danish Rigsarkiv is located, an archive where one can find e.g. documents relating to diplomatic and government affairs going back centuries. I was there earlier today, spending a few hours looking for, finding and perusing a couple of 18th Century documents referring to vampires, or either Wampyres or Vampyres to use the two ways of spelling the word that I encountered in the documents. Well, I found nothing fundamentally new, but the documents do add some extra facets to the history of vampires.

Sunday 20 April 2008

A stone's throw away

I don't live near places that are known from the history of magia posthuma, but close to my home in the Danish town Køge you can find this plaque on a house just round the corner from the town square. The plaque commemorates the house where one of the most famous Danish witchcraft cases occurred, and as you can see, this year it's exactly 400 years since it began.

The Devil himself was claimed to have been at large in the house, and a certain Johanne Thommeses was accused of having invoked him. Strange sounds were heard in the house, and the Devil was claimed to have been seen several times in different guises over the years in that haunted house. At court, Johanne Thommeses confessed to being a sorceress and accused other women of the same crime. All in all 12 women, including Johanne Thommeses herself, were condemned to be burned at the stake over the next few years as a consequence of the hauntings which occurred more or at less a stone's throw away from my home.

The plaque was placed on the house in 1911.

Feeds and e-mail

Although I know this blog has been somewhat quiet, I would like to mention that I have recently added some features that should make it easier for you to subscribe to feeds from this blog or to receive an e-mail when I have posted something new. There are so many ways to subscribe to feeds, but personally I currently use Google Reader.


It is well-known that lycanthropy is a term that has been used in psychopathology, but I think it is fairly unnoticed that vampirism also has been used by various authors. The above excerpt from a German book on theories on mental illnesses from 1830 is just one example that vampirismus was used to describe a demonomania that could e.g. involve the belief in being attacked by dead people.

One of the things about the subject of magia posthuma that fascinates me, is how interlinked the concepts involved are with the development of the natural sciences and in general with our ways of perceiving the forces behind our world. Obviously, the concepts of a ghost, apparition or revenant changes over the course of centuries from the late medieval period when it was understood in light of the Catholic belief in Purgatory, through the debates between Protestants and Catholics, the epistemology of natural philosophy, medicine etc., and on to the 19th Century, when revenants are no longer corporeal corpses brought back to life but usually tend to be incorporeal and intangible entities. And so on, we get spiritualism, parapsychology etc., as our Western societies tend to become more and more secular.

Being myself educated in physics, I am pretty much fascinated by what actually happened during the scientific revolution when natural science in a more modern sense became the 'winning' world view. In the naive version, people got enlightened and stopped being superstitious, but history proves this perception wrong. The development was much more complex, and here the history of magia posthuma and vampires is an interesting and thought provoking example, in particular because many of the occurrences occur more or less at the time of what we nowadays would call The Enlightenment.

In fact, the above portion from a book shows that barely 100 years after the word vampire entered European languages, it was a term used in books on mental illnesses. What happened in between? There's an interesting story to tell.

Monday 7 April 2008

Post Scriptum

I think I should mention that after having received a couple of comments on my last post from a friend of mine, I have revised it and added some extra information on the documentary. Comments are, of course, always welcome, both on the blog as public comments, and as private communications via e-mail.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Another bogus documentary

I'm sorry, but I'm about to reiterate my usual tirade about why people prefer to contruct speculative fictions about vampires rather than telling the actual story. I honestly find it very hard to understand why people don't care to tell the true story when making a documentary about vampires, but rather prefer to invent their own fiction. Why don't they care about the facts? Why do they presume that we, the public, don't want to know the facts, but are willing to be deluded by their fictions? Do they prefer to tell us how superstitious people of the past were rather than try to explain why they did what they actually did?

How come that it is OK to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction when dealing with the (historical) subject of vampires, when no serious historian or documentarist would attempt to do so when dealing with e.g. various episodes in 20th Century history?

Consequently, I am pretty much surprised that scholars and academics are willing to lend their names and professional reputations to bogus historical docudrama like Die Vampir Prinzessin, which is the subject of this post.

The premises of this documentary are:

  1. 3 skeletons from the first half of the 18th Century are found by archaeologists in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech republic. They are buried North-South, and show signs which could be interpreted as if they had been treated for Magia Posthuma (decapitation, stone in a mouth, impaling)
  2. In Cesky Krumlov, a princess called Eleonore Amalie von Schwarzenberg resided in the 18th Century. She suffered from a mysterious illness (actually, cancer), a seemingly mysterious autopsy was carried out on her corpse, and she was buried beneath the floor of a local church.
  3. Bram Stoker quotes Bürger's famous poem, Lenore, in his tale Dracula's Guest, and an Austrian noble woman is referred to.
Based on speculations concerning these three facts, the documentary claims that the princess was suspected of becoming a vampire, and that Bram Stoker was inspired by her tale to create a noble man vampire, Dracula.

Well, today Stoker's working notes have been studied by various authors and scholars, and it is quite certain that Stoker was not inspired by this Bohemian princess but rather by a literary tradition instigated by John William Polidori's character Lord Ruthven. So this whole idea is certainly humbug.

What about the rest of this documentary?

Well, I assume that some of the facts concerning e.g. the three skeletons and princess Eleonore are in fact correct, but I don't find the conclusions very convincing.

Were the three corpses actually treated to prevent them from becoming vampires? The evidence presented is not so convincing that alternative explanations are ruled out.

Furthermore, it is claimed that a certain Dr. Frantz von Gerstorff inspected many cases of vampirism and that he also examined princess Eleonore. Oh, well, Frantz von Gerstorff was actually an Inspector at a mining facility in Transylvania who was involved in examining the case of a certain Dorothea Pihsin who was claimed to be a vampire in 1753. So he wasn't a doctor, and he probably had nothing to do with Eleonore Amalie who died in 1741. So this is even more humbug!

It is also claimed that Stoker probably based his character Abraham van Helsing on Gerard van Swieten, but to my knowledge there is no evidence that he had ever heard of van Swieten. So it's pure speculation.

As for 18th Century doctors, we are required to believe that some of them seriously believed in vampires, whereas the fact is that hardly any enlightened and well educated physician of that day believed in vampires. So when we furthermore are presented with the hypothesis that the autopsy conducted on Eleonora Amalie may have been carried out to prevent her from becoming a vampire, we are required to suspend our disbelief more than anyone can expect.

But then we are assumed to believe that her coffin was put into a specially walled up cavity beneath the church floor to prevent her from coming back, whereas this as far as I'm told isn't a particularly unique way of placing coffins in crypts and church floors.

Well, there's a lot more I could say about the speculations and nonsense that is presented in this documentary, but the above should suffice. What is perhaps even more strange is the appearance of various scholars from universities in e.g. Vienna, whose presence lends credibility to this ludicrous documentary.

So why do they do it? Why don't they tell the true story of the vampires of Serbia, the Magia Posthuma of Bohemia and Moravia, of van Swieten, Maria Theresa, Augustin Calmet etc.? In my opinion the true story will always be more fascinating and interesting than the speculative fantasies presented in documentaries like this one.

It actually really worries me that documentarists don't feel that they owe the public a true understanding of history? Do they really believe that it doesn't matter if we are told the true story or not?

The only redeeming thing about this documentary are the bonus features on the DVD which I have mentioned in an earlier post.

The photo shows Rainer Köppl from the University of Vienna, who hosts the documentary.

Saturday 5 April 2008

What a load of ...

I have purchased the Vampire Secrets DVD along with four other Haunted Histories documentaries from The History Channel. Now I have also watched the vampire episode, and, honestly, what a load of ... rubbish!

As one would expect, it's pretty well produced, but the contents are simply so flawed by errors and misinterpretations of fact that it's really hard to understand why a channel like The History Channel lends its name to this documentary. It is claimed that Elisabeth Bathory played some important role in the history of vampires, and furthermore that people in around 1400 would become scared by hearing the word vampire, and that Calmet's Dissertation is some sort of manual for vampire hunters. Perhaps one shouldn't expect more considering some of the 'experts' that have been chosen for the documentary, but in my opinion this kind of misrepresentation of historical facts is more harmful than all the outlandish vampire fictions that we are used to in novels, comics and movies. Unfortunately, it is symptomatic of too many attempts at representing the history and phenomenon of vampires that one is more concerned with presenting chilling tales than in getting the facts and the historical perspective right.

The only really interesting and worthwhile part of the documentary is one in which Mark Benecke describes how the decomposition of actual corpses may have been interpreted as signs of vampirism. Apart from this short part of the documentary, I think that most people will have a better time and benefit more from watching one of the purely fictional vampire movies like those shown alongside the Haunted Histories DVD box in the photo below!

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