A Natural Explanation?
Protestants and Freethinkers
Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d’Argens, ‘Lettre 137’, in Lettres Juives for 1738
For the Catholic hierarchy, vampires posed a more immediate problem since the cases were in Catholic lands and came, directly or indirectly, within ecclesiastical jurisdiction. At first the Austrian authorities reluctantly agreed to endorse the exhumations. The Church meanwhile prevaricated. No official pronouncement was made, though, according to Dom Calmet, in France the Sorbonne passed two resolutions between 1700 and 1710, banning the decapitation and mutilation of vampire corpses.
Following the renewed wave of cases in the 1730s, the Church began finally to address theoretic questions more openly. Discussions between the Bishop of Olmutz and Guiseppe Davanzati, Archbishop of Trani, led the latter to prepare beween 1738 and 1743 a report which played a crucial role in persuading the Vatican to condemn belief in vampires as superstition. The treatise was not published until 1774, after Davanzati’s death, but it circulated widely in manuscript and was known to have been favourably received by Benedict XIV. It is very much a work of the Catholic Enlightenment, strongly rationalist in outlook. Davanzati holds that the Devil is unable to contravene the laws of nature, and puts forward scientific explanations for incorruptible cadavers, corpse lights, hair and nail-growth. Ultimately he concludes that vampires had no corporeal existence, but were tricks of the mind. The Pope himself agreed. Having served for a decade as promotor fidei the “Devil’s advocate" in petitions for beatification, Benedict was well-versed in the complexities of decomposition: in his manual De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione (1738) he too had dismissed vampires as "fictions that have deceived the imagination".
And Dom Calmet....
It may be noted that Dom Calmet himself had close connections to this international Catholic milieu. He corresponded with Benedict and was personally consulted by Maria Teresa who, with the aid of her personal physician Gerard van Swieten, moved decisively against vampirism in the Austrian land in the 1750s. Not by any stretch of the imagination, was the Dissertation a naively credulous work. Antoine Faivre, the pioneering French vampire scholar, concluded that Calmet was cautious and adopted the "wait and see" attitude common to the Catholic hierarchy of the time. However, it has been persuasively argued that Calmet never did endorse belief in vampires, even in 1746 [Introvigne (2001)]. The organisation of the Treatise encourages misunderstanding, since it is largely a compilation of sources without authorial comment; conclusions are offered only at the end of each section.
Dom Calmet's tendency is rationalist. He sets out from the doctrinal premise, that only God can truly perform a resurrection. He carefully distances Scriptural and Classical parallels from contemporary cases. He is also sceptical about other modern revenants, such as the Vrykolakas of Greece, or the uncorrupted bodies of the excommunicated in Orthodox tradition. So too he dismisses out of hand the wilder claims of the vampire reports themselves, notably that the dead "chew like hogs" in the grave.
In the first chapter of the second volume, Dom Calmet enumerates four different possible explanations of vampirism, two natural and two theological.
- Superstition. Vampires are purely chimerical, the result of the ignorance of the native population.
- Vampires are not really dead, but are living people who have been prematurely buried.
- Vampires exist by Divine permission
- They are the work of the Devil.
The available purely natural explanations are set out at length. None proves entirely satisfactory. It is not possible that "imagination" alone can bring about actual deaths or account for real physical effects. Nor can premature burial offer a solution - even a fit person in this predicament, could not remove "four or five feet of earth" in order to emerge, wander round and return to the grave without disturbing the ground. Medical explanations for the incorrupt corpses are fine as far as they go, but the fundamental stumbling block still remains: how are vampires supposed to rise up and return to the grave? - "No one has ever replied to this difficulty, and never will".
In the first edition, Dom Calmet was content to allow diabolical intervention as a theological possibility, even though, the logistics were obscure: "perhaps we had better remain silent on this point, since God did not deign to reveal the full extent of the Devil's power nor how he operates". But by 1751 he is prepared to disregard even this caveat: it is possible to argue that the Devil makes the bodies of the vampires subtle and "spiritualised", but "there is no evidence, and it is unbelievable".
Calmet is left with no other recourse than to deny the witness testimony. He refers to the vast number of documents and reports he has accumulated and finally concludes: "I have read and re-read them and cannot find the shadow of a probability, much less of a truth in what they report"/ "I doubt that there is another stand to take on this question other than to deny absolutely that vampires return from the dead."
The Tribulations of Dom Calmet
As Dom Calmet himself predicted, the treatise was greeted with general contempt by French literary society: the mere treatment of so ridiculous a subject was considered a breach of good taste. "A storm was unleashed against the author; and it must be said the it was a badly chosen moment to published such a work. It seemed to announce the abbot of Senones's intellectual decline, and this was politely observed to him" (Calmet was 77 years old). The bookseller de Bure kept him abreast of all that was said against him.
Even Calmet's friends could not hide their fear for his reputation; A letter from a fellow Benedictine, warns that the work was "not at all to many people's taste" and likely to damage his reputation for learning: "In effect, how are we to be persuaded that all the old bedtime stories from our childhood are true?" His correspondent hoped that Calmet will remain in good form to answer his critics.
The most considered attack came from the indomitable Lenglet du Fresnoy who, in his Traité historiques et dogmatiques sur les apparitions of 1751, accused Calmet of lack of critical discrimination. The latter replied, with some justification, that Lenglet's own corrosive scepticism undermined the credibility of the saints, threatened the Church Fathers and even perhaps cast doubt on Scripture.
As his later biographer points out, despite the bad press, the learned Benedictine might reasonably have considered himself vindicated by his impressive commercial success.
Later Enlightenment writers
Gianfranco Malfredi, "Voltaire et les vampires", Multitudes 2008/2 No.33:p.91-99.
An imaginary affliction?
I likewise assert that it is an easy Matter for People to fancy that they have been sucked by Vampires, and so to terrify themselves by these Apprehensions, as in a short time to die of Fright: For having their Heads full all Day of these strange Stories, what Wonder is it, if at Night, and in their Dreams, these Ideas should still disturb their Imagination, and produce that Effect which Terror often produces, immediate or consequential Death? How often have we seen Persons die away on the News of some terrible Misfortune? How frequently has even excessive Joy produced the same Effect?
In the original, D'Argens adds:
Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d’Argens, Lettres Juives, 1738‘Lettre 137’, in Lettres Juives for 1738,
English translation, The Jewish Spy, p.127-129. :
Le Glaneur, cited in Calmet, chpt 14:
The Dutch Gleaner..... asserts that the people, amongst whom vampires are seen, are very ignorant and very credulous, so that the apparitions we are speaking of are only the effects of a prejudiced fancy. The whole is occasioned and augmented by the bad nourishment of these people, who, the greater part of their time, eat only bread made of oats, roots, and the bark of trees—aliments which can only engender gross blood, which is consequently much disposed to corruption, and produces dark and bad ideas in the imagination.
He compares this disease to the bite of a mad dog, which communicates its venom to the person who is bitten; thus, those who are infected by vampirism communicate this dangerous poison to those with whom they associate. Thence the wakefulness, dreams, and pretended apparitions of vampires.
As to the cry uttered by the vampires when the stake is driven through their heart, nothing is more natural; the air which is there confined, and thus expelled with violence, necessarily produces that noise in passing through the throat. Dead bodies often do as much without being touched. He concludes that it is only an imagination that is deranged by melancholy or superstition, which can fancy that the malady we have just spoken of can be produced by vampire corpses, which come and suck away, even to the last drop, all the blood in the body.
The French original:
Le Glaneur Historique, Moral, Litteraire et Galant: vol. 3: No.9, Supplement, 23rd April 1733
The opinion of those who hold that all that is related of vampires is the effect of imagination, fascination, or of that disorder which the Greeks term phrenesis or coribantism, and who pretend by that means to explain all the phenomena of vampirism, will never persuade us that these maladies of the brain can produce such real effects as those we have just recounted. It is impossible that on a sudden, several persons should believe they see a thing which is not there, and that they should die in so short a time of a disorder purely imaginary. And who has revealed to them that such a vampire is undecayed in his grave, that he is full of blood, that he in some measure lives there after his death? Is there not to be found in the nation one sensible man who is exempt from this fancy, or who has soared above the effects of this fascination, these sympathies and antipathies—this natural magic? And besides, who can explain to us clearly and distinctly what these grand terms signify, and the manner of these operations so occult and so mysterious? It is trying to explain a thing which is obscure and doubtful, by another still more uncertain and incomprehensible.
First essays in Medical Forensics?
D'Argens, cited in Calmet, chpt 12:
I come next to speak of the dead Bodies which were found full of Blood, their Beards, Nails, and Hair of their Heads grown. All Philosophers know how ready the People in general are, and even what a Propensity there is in some Historians to magnify whatever has the Air of being supernatural. However, not to insist too much upon this, it is far from being impossible to account physically for these Circumstances
Experience teaches us that there are certain kinds of earth which will preserve dead bodies perfectly fresh. The reasons of this have been often explained, without my giving myself the trouble to make a particular recital of them. There is at Toulouse a vault in a church belonging to some monks, where the bodies remain so entirely perfect that there are some which have been there nearly two centuries, and appear still living.....
The fluid blood flowing through the canals of the body seems to form a greater difficulty; but physical reasons may be given for this. It might very well happen that the heat of the sun warming the nitrous and sulphurous particles which are found in those earths that are proper for preserving the body, those particles having incorporated themselves in the newly interred corpses, ferment, decoagulate, and melt the curdled blood, render it liquid, and give it the power of flowing by degrees through all the channels.
This opinion appears so much the more probable from its being confirmed by an experiment. If you boil in a glass or earthen vessel one part of chyle, or milk, mixed with two parts of cream of tartar, the liquor will turn from white to red, because the tartaric salt will have rarified and entirely dissolved the most oily part of the milk, and converted it into a kind of blood. That which is formed in the vessels of the body is a little redder, but it is not thicker; it is, then, not impossible that the heat may cause a fermentation which produces nearly the same effects as this experiment. And this will be found easier, if we consider that the juices of the flesh and bones resemble chyle very much, and that the fat and marrow are the most oily parts of the chyle. Now all these particles in fermenting must, by the rule of the experiment, be changed into a kind of blood. Thus, besides that which has been discoagulated and melted, the pretended vampires shed also that blood which must be formed from the melting of the fat and marrow.
Dom Calmet essentially agrees with this analysis:
Calmet, Chpt 51:
The fluidity of the blood, the ruddiness, the suppleness of these vampires, ought not to surprise any one, any more than the growth of the nails and hair, and their bodies remaining undecayed. We see every day, bodies which remain uncorrupted, and retain a ruddy color after death. This ought not to appear strange in those who die without malady and a sudden death; or of certain maladies, known to our physicians, which do not deprive the blood of its fluidity, or the limbs of their suppleness.
With regard to the growth of the hair and nails in bodies which are not yet decayed, the thing is quite natural. There remains in those bodies a certain slow and imperceptible circulation of the humors, which causes this growth of the nails and hair, in the same way that we every day see common bulbs grow and shoot, although without any nourishment derived from the earth.
The same may be said of flowers, and in general of all that depends on vegetation in animals and plants.
A stumbling block
Whether the vampires are truly dead or not, Calmet sees no rational solution as to how they rise from the grave.
Calmet, Chpt 60:
I have already proposed the objection formed upon the impossibility of these vampires coming out of their graves, and returning to them again, without its appearing that they have disturbed the earth, either in coming out or going in again. No one has ever replied to this difficulty, and never will. To say that the demon subtilizes and spiritualizes the bodies of vampires, is a thing asserted without proof or likelihood.
The work of the Devil?
Calmet, Chpt 60:
But should it be allowed that the demon could reanimate these bodies, and give them the power of motion for a time, could he also lengthen, diminish, rarefy, subtilize the bodies of these ghosts, and give them the faculty of penetrating through the ground, the doors and windows? There is no appearance of his having received this power from God, and we cannot even conceive that an earthly body, material and gross, can be reduced to that state of subtility and spiritualization without destroying the configuration of its parts and spoiling the economy of its structure; which would be contrary to the intention of the demon, and render this body incapable of appearing, showing itself, acting and speaking, and, in short, of being cut to pieces and burned, as is commonly seen and practiced in Moravia, Poland, and Silesia. These difficulties exist in regard to those persons of whom we have made mention, who, being excommunicated, rose from their tombs, and left the church in sight of everybody.
We must then keep silence on this article, since it has not pleased God to reveal to us either the extent of the demon's power, or the way in which these things can be done. There is even much appearance of illusion; and even if some reality were mixed up with it, we may easily console ourselves for our ignorance in that respect, since there are so many natural things which take place within us and around us, of which the cause and manner are unknown to us. (chpt 51)
Vampire: this is the name given to supposed demons who during the night draw blood from the bodies of the living, and carry it to corpses from whose mouths, nostrils and ears blood is seen to exude. Father Calmet has written an absurd book on the subject, of which one wouldn't have thought him capable, but which serves to prove how the human spirit is swept along by superstition.
Vampire: WHAT! is it in our eighteenth century that vampires exist? Is it after the reigns of Locke, Shaftesbury, Trenchard, and Collins ? Is it under those of d'Alembert, Diderot, St. Lambert, and Duclos that we believe in vampires, and that the reverend father Dom Calmet, Benedictine priest of the congregation of St. Vannes, and St. Hidulphe, abbé of Senon— an abbey of a hundred thousand livres a year, in the neighborhood of two other abbeys of the same revenue—has printed and reprinted the history of vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne, signed Marcilli ?
These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.........
After slander, nothing is communicated more promptly than superstition, fanaticism, sorcery, and tales of those raised from the dead. There were "broucolacas" in Wallachia, Moldavia, and some among the Polanders, who are of the Romish church. This superstition being absent, they acquired it, and it went through all the east of Germany. Nothing was spoken of but vampires, from I730 to 1735; they were laid in wait for, their hearts torn out and burned. They resembled the ancient martyrs—the more they were burned, the more they abounded.
Finally, Calmet became their historian, and treated vampires as he treated the Old and New Testaments, by relating faithfully all that has been said before him.
The most curious things, in my opinion, were the verbal suits juridically conducted, concerning the dead who went from their tombs to suck the little boys and girls of their neighborhood. Calmet relates that in Hungary two officers, delegated by the emperor Charles VI., assisted by the bailiff of the place and an executioner, held an inquest on a vampire, who had been dead six weeks, and who had sucked all the neighbourhood. They found him in his coffin, fresh and jolly, with his eyes open, and asking for food. The bailiff passed his sentence; the executioner tore out the vampire's heart, and burned it, after which he feasted no more.
Who, after this, dares to doubt of the resuscitated dead, with which our ancient legends are filled, and of all the miracles related by Bollandus, and the sincere and revered Dom Ruinart? You will find stories of vampires in the "Jewish Letters" of d'Argens, whom the Jesuit authors of the "Journal of Trévoux" have accused of believing nothing. .......
There no longer remained any question, but to examine whether all these dead were raised by their own virtue, by the power of God, or by that of the devil. Several great theologians of Lorraine, of Moravia, and Hungary, displayed their opinions and their science. They related all that St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and so many other saints, had most unintelligibly said on the living and the dead...
But all these stories, however true they might be, had nothing in common with the vampires who rose to suck the blood of their neighbours, and afterwards replaced themselves in their coffins. They looked if they could not find in the Old Testament, or in the mythology, some vampire whom they could quote as an example; but they found none. It was proved, however, that the dead drank and ate, since in so many ancient nations food was placed on their tombs.
The difficulty was to know whether it was the soul or the body of the dead which ate. It was decided that it was both. Delicate and unsubstantial things, as sweetmeats, whipped cream, and melting fruits, were for the soul, and roast beef and the like were for the body......
Dictionnaire philosophique. Translation from The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version (1901), Vol. 14