Saturday 31 January 2009

Ranft - then and now

As mentioned in an earlier post, I have a couple of times been contacted by descendants of some of the people who have played a role in the history of magia posthuma and vampires. Most notably, I was recently contacted by Richard Ranft who informed me that Michael Ranft was his 5th great-grandfather. Richard Ranft lives in England and informs me that 'one of Michael Ranft's great-great grandsons, Michael Walter George Ranft (1854-1893) was born in Leipzig but later on emigrated from Geneva to London, which is why I am English.'

He has also directed me to a genealogical web site, RootsWeb, where you can follow the Ranft family from the 1500's. If you take a look at the entry on Michael Ranft, you will probably be amazed to learn that not only was he a very productive author, he was also the father of no less than twelve (12) children! Apparently, his first wife, Johanne Sophie Vogt, died at the age of 26, so Ranft married Konstantia Maria Birkholz. (Actually, according to a contemporary biography, Johanne Sophie gave birth to five children, but one of them was still born. Two of Ranft's other children died very young, and another died in his youth).

Born on December 9th 1700 in Güldengossa, Michael Ranft was the son of the local pastor also named Michael Ranft (1670-1743). Obviously an intelligent child, Michael Ranft went to school at Chemnitz from 1712-19 before going to Leipzig where he became a Baccalareus in 1723 and a Magister in 1724. In 1725 he was inspired by the Kisiljevo (Peter Plogojowitz) vampire case to write his dissertation on the mastication of the dead.

Joining his father who had in the meantime become a pastor in Droysig for a short while in 1726, Ranft became a deacon in Nebra the following year. Here he was an industrious writer of biographies and genealogical works. During this period he wrote an expanded edition of his work on the mastication of the dead, which no one seemed to take serious until the advent of the 1732 Medvedja vampire case. The ensuing vampire debate prompted Ranft to write a third edition in 1734, translating the former editions to German, and commenting on the vast vampire literature of 1732-3.

In 1739 Ranft returned to Droysig to aid his ageing father, whom he followed in office upon the father's death in 1743. In 1749 he became pastor in Groß Stechau where he died in 1774.

Obviously, Ranft was an extremely productive author, and one biographer mentions 38 books in his Ranft bibliography. A couple of his books are available online like this one, but most of them will today mostly be of interest to specialists. Somehow, he got obsessed with the matter of the masticating dead, revenants and vampires, writing three editions of his dissertation on the subject, and even later on referred to it in his writings. Certainly, it is this obsession that has made his name known today, although for many years his books on the subject were only read by those who could find a copy at a library. Recent editions in German and French, and now an online edition, have, however, made his thoughts on the subject more accessible to a modern audience.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Perpetuating myths

In my last post I didn't mention that the German Wikipedia entry on Montague Summers claims that Bram Stoker was a member of the Hermetic Order of Golden Dawn (this reference claims so as well). However, looking in Paul Murray's Stoker biography, From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker, no such thing is mentioned, and Elizabeth Miller in her delightful and informative Dracula: Sense & Nonsense clearly states:

'Though Stoker certainly knew some of its members, no evidence has been found to indicate that he himself belonged to this Order.' (p. 61 of the 2006 edition)

It is, however, a popular tale - or probably rather a myth - that he was a member of the occult society, but people find it justified to believe so because he wrote novels and short stories dealing with the supernatural!

The internet is full of such tales and myths, and it is frequently hard to find out if they are true or not. This fact made a blogger on a totally different subject write:

'My point is this: online journalism is an easy way to perpetuate urban myths through sheer repetition. It is something we have a responsibility to monitor, just like those volunteers at Wikipedia.'

Click the above image to read the original press release for Paul Murray's Stoker biography.

Apropos of Summers

Apropos of recent references to Montague Summers, I find that it's quite interesting how different the approaches to his life and works are on the English and the German Wikipedia. The German Wikipedia entry is much more critical than the English one. Neither biography is quite satisfactory in terms of providing the reader with a complete assessment of his work, but then it was pretty prolific. The thing is, as those interested in the subject will know, that it's hard to come by a) reliable information on his life, and b) an analysis of his books from a modern critical point of view. Too much of what has been written is shrouded in a mixture of his own eccentric posing and the admiration he is given by a lot of 'fans' and authors who continue along the lines he set forth - although usually sans the conviction that vampires exist :-)

In any case, whereas the English Wikipedia just mentions the books on vampires and werewolves he wrote, the German Wikipedia provides this excellent description of his approach and legacy in this particular field:

'Besonders bekannt und geschätzt in Okkultistenkreisen wurde Summers wegen seiner beiden Bücher über die Vampire und eines über die Werwölfe. Die drei Bücher stellen zwar eine auch heute noch brauchbare Materialsammlung dar, aber da Summers fest an die Existenz von Blutsaugern und Gestaltwandlern glaubte, klassifizierte er auch andere Horrorgestalten aus dem Volksglauben der unterschiedlichsten Kulturen und Epochen als Vampire, selbst wenn es sich bei ihnen überhaupt nicht Untote handelte, sondern um Lebende (Hexen) oder Dämonen, also Wesen, die niemals Menschen waren und daher keine Vampire werden konnten. Daher sind die langen Listen von angeblichen Vampirwesen, die bei Summers abgeschrieben wurden und durch die einschlägigen Internetseiten geistern, mit großer Vorsicht zu genießen.'

(Which translates something like: Summers became particularly known and treasured in occultist circles because of his two books on vampires and one on werewolves. The tree books even today present a useful collection of material, but as Summers firmly belived in the existence of bloodsuckers and shapeshifters, he also classified other horror figures from the folklore of very different cultures and epochs as vampires, even when they had nothing to do with undead, but were rather living people (witches) or demons, i.e. creatures that had never been human and hence could not have become vampires. For that reason the long lists of alleged vampire creatures that have been copied from Summers and keep returning via internet sites, should be used with great caution).

One does perhaps tend to forget the incredible claims found in his books. Here are but two on witches:

'Although it may not be generally recognized, upon a close investigation it seems plain that the witches were a vast political movement, an organized society which was anti-social and anarchical, a world-wide plot against civilization.' (The 1928 introduction to the translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, Dover edition p. xviii)

'Now and again some gang of devil-worshippers may be - almost by accident - broken up and dispersed, but there are (I fear) few persons who realize how far-spread and how cunningly organized are these Societies of Evil. To the ordinary man Satanism often seems incredible, or at any rate a myth of the remote Dark Ages. He does not realize, and he is happy in his ignorance, the devil's fires that burn just a very little way beneath the thin and crumbled crust of our boasted modern civilization.' (A Popular History of Witchcraft, p. 259-260)

If anyone has the knowledge and the spare time to write a critical review of Summers's books on the English Wikipedia, it would be welcome.

Related post: A Veritable Bombshell.

Saturday 17 January 2009


My apologies to the so-called 'Amateur Vampirologist', whose identity and blog some people may have confused with the blogger referred to in recent posts like this. For more information, I recommend to read the recent posts on the subject on Diary of an Amateur Vampirologist.

Sunday 11 January 2009

240 years ago

Although the title page actually says 1769, on December 31st it was 240 years since the Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana was published. This criminal law passed by Empress Maria Theresa was her attempt at unifying criminal law throughout the countries under Austrian rule, thereby putting an end to various local judicial practices. E.g. the Theresiana aimed at limiting the use of torture for judicial purposes, and consequently it contains various descriptions in text and figures on the minutiae of the methods of torture. The parts of the book describing these methods are available in a German book publish by Reprint-Verlag in Leipzig: Folterwerkzeuge und ihre Anwendung 1769. This is not pleasant reading, and the pain inflicted by the torture is clearly visible on the faces of the victims in the illustrations.

The Theresiana also deals with cases of witchcraft and in that sense sums up Maria Theresa's previous endeavours to fight acts of superstition like the burning of corpses suspected of magia posthuma, see e.g. this post, although the Theresiana apparently had to be more conservative than the actual practice. Witchcraft trials had actually been abolished in 1766.

Fortunately, less than twenty years later torture was abolished with the criminal law passed by Maria Theresa's son Joseph II in 1787.

Online the Theresiana is available as a PDF file.

Internet experiences

'I was initially very concerned about the reaction my blog would get: Would I get lumped in with various self-styled 'vampires' and Goths? Would I be considered another weirdo? Well, fortunately I haven't encountered any real problems,'

I wrote in an autobiographical note last year. In general I have had mainly serious and pleasurable feedback, and I haven't had to dismiss more than a couple of comments. Actually, I am frequently surprised by how positive the feedback often is, and I am occasionally contacted out of the blue by people that I had never expected to hear from. I have e.g. on a couple of occasions been contacted by descendants of some of the people involved in vampire history that I have written about, a subject that I plan to write a bit more on in a post soon.

There are, however, so many people out there on the internet who hide behind pseudonyms or have pretty weird agendas, and a subject like that of vampires and magia posthuma will certainly attract some of those people. And when they contact you, you really don't know who you are in contact with. It could be some teenager who just hasn't yet learned ordinary good manners and thinks he or she can demand your attention. You really don't know.

Those who have politely asked me in the past will, I think, attest that I have tried to be helpful by providing source material, references to literature, discussing ideas etc. If I have on occasion forgot to provide something or follow up on requests, I am sorry, so feel free to contact me again. I endeavour to share thoughts, ideas and source material with people around the world who have a serious interest in what I usually call the historical aspects of magia posthuma.

All this said because of the recent experiences mentioned in my previous post and in the series of comments to this post.

Thursday 8 January 2009


Someone calling him- or herself The Overseer has started a blog called Diary of a Vampirologist that includes posts on a couple of famous 18th century vampirism. One of these posts is to a large extent taken verbatim from a post that I have written on this blog on the Medvedja vampire case: Visum et Repertum. 'The Overseer' does not mention that he has taken large portions of text from my blog, nor does he in any way say that this isn't his or her own text!

I kindly ask 'The Overseer' to immediately remove all parts of text that he or she has taken from my blog!

Apparently, 'The Overseer' believes in the 'reality' of vampires. Each to his own, I say, but I find it unacceptable that people plagiarize and steal text from my or other people's blogs!
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