Saturday, 31 October 2020

Vampires and Freethinkers

But I require unprejudiced witnesses, free from terror and disinterested, quite calm, who can affirm upon serious reflection, that they have seen, heard, and interrogated these vampires, and who have been the witnesses of their operations; and I am persuaded that no such witness will be found.
Dom Calmet  

"Either these vampires go out to suck or they do not"
Marquis d'Argens 

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 neighbourhood of two other abbeys of the same revenue—has printed and reprinted the history of vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne?

A Natural Explanation?

Protestants and Freethinkers 

In the 1730s debate on vampires took place predominantly in Germany; centred mainly on the Plogojowitz and Medwegya cases. Protestant commentators, hostile to the miraculous,  readily  sought a rational explanation.  Their conclusions were relayed by uncensored French language periodical press in Holland, which tended to present them a provocatively anti-Christian (or at least anti-Catholic) tone. Thus in March 1732  Le Glaneur invites  physicians, who  have already furnished explanations for the Jansenist convulsionaries in Paris, to communicate their reflections. An essay from a correspondent duly appeared in No ix for 23rd April 1732.  In 1738 the marquis d'Argens, inveterate sceptic and freethinker, weighed in the Lettres Juives. This was an altogether more widely distributed publication.
 Dom Calmet faithfully reproduces the substance of both these considerations.  D'Argens notes that he would prefer to dismiss the vampire reports entirely but, faced with the weight of testimony, feels compelled to offer a natural explanation.  Both writers appeal primarily to the imagination of  the victims. D'Argens imbues the idea with a freethinker's contempt: "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".   The tales bear the marks of "an epidemick Fanaticism".   (The Glaneur suggests the ignorance and poor diet of the peasantry as contributory factors.)
D'Argens also notes the incorrupt state of the vampires' bodies "may be so well accounted for by physical Causes, as to shut out all Necessity of having recourse to Miracles" (p.130)  Certain earths have preservative qualities, and posthumous growth of hair, nails and beard have often been observed.  The fluidity of the vampires' blood may be explained by the fermentation of "nitrous particles" - as may be proved experimentally by boiling up milk with oil of tartar to create a blood-like substance. 
Finally, D'Argens takes an opportunity for a swipe at the Christian doctrine of the soul. "Either these vampires go out to suck or they do not" (p.131).Since it seems they do not appear bodily, we must suppose it is their  souls which venture abroad; its "very subtle matter" carries the blood back to the Body. But says d'Argens (quoting St. Augustine), let us blush to refute such nonsense!

Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d’Argens, ‘Lettre 137’, in Lettres Juives for 1738
English translation:


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.

    1. Superstition. Vampires are purely chimerical, the result of the ignorance of the native population.
    2. Vampires are not really dead, but are living people who have been prematurely buried.  
    3. Vampires exist by Divine permission
    4. 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.

See: Auguste Digot, Notice biographique et littéraire sur Dom Augustin Calmet (Nancy 1860), p.97-8.

Later Enlightenment writers

There is quite a lot written about the Enlightenment treatment of vampires, but in fact there are relatively few references in the canonical  Enlightenment texts, and those mainly passing.  By the late 1750s the Imperial authorities had effectively stamped out "vampirism" and relegated it to the margins of folk belief: Maria Theresa's famous Decree on Vampires in March 1755 condemned vampirism as "superstition and fraud". Most freethinkers, if they bothered to consider the phenomenon at all, simply lumped it together with other forms of contemptible superstition, - see for example Jaucourt's dismissive two sentence article in the Encyclopédie which refers to Calmet's "absurd book on the subject". 


Vampires  came briefly to the  attention of Rousseau in the 1760s.  He refers to them in the Lettre à Christophe de Beaumont, published in 1765, as an example, like miracles, of a well attested but incredible phenomenon:  "If there is in the world an attested history, it is just that of vampires"/ "Nothing is lacking - depositions, certificates of notables, surgeons, curés, and magistrates. The proof in law is utterly complete".  Yet no one actually believes in vampires. An unpublished note refers to an letter in the Gazette des Gazettes for 1st November 1765, which reproduced two vampire reports from the 1730s and challenged philosophers to come up with an explanation.  As Christopher Frayling has noted, Rousseau is not really interested in vampires at all, but in the relationship between belief and authority. The tyranny of priests oblige men to accept absurdities such as vampires, and more pointedly the "scholarly subtleties in Christianity" which they cannot understand.  The analogy between vampire and victim also served Rousseau to symbolise the corrupt ties of dependency in civilised society (See Frayling & Woker, 2010)

Here is Rousseau's source in the Gazette des Gazettes


Of all the philosophes,Voltaire might be predicted to have enjoyed Dom Calmet's discomforture - after all he and Emilie had spent many happy hours at Cirey chuckling over the implausibilities of Calmet's Old Testament commentaries. However, in the early 1750s, wandering in Lorraine,  Voltaire had more pressing problems. Far from attacking Dom Calmet, he was obliged to ask him for hospitality.  On 8th June 1754, having been ejected from Colmar,  Voltaire  requested a few days sanctuary at the Abbey at Senones with its well-stocked library.  Calmet welcomed him willingly and he stayed three weeks. The two enjoyed a great many conversations. Voltaire  - with typical perversity - joined in the life of the community, eating with the monks and even attending   night-time services;  Calmet imagined he might even regain for the Church "le plus grand déïste du monde".  Behind his back Voltaire made fun to his friends of the naivety of the monks, above all their excellent abbot qui "se piquait d'historien".

It was not until after Calmet's death, when he himself was safely esconced in Ferney , that Voltaire began to incorporate  the subject of vampires into the propaganda war against "l'infâme".  The article "Resurrection" in the  Lettres philosophiques , published in 1764, refers to vampires among a number of dubious pagan parallels to Christian belief  (mostly culled directly from Calmet's treatise)  Voltaire credits Calmet  - not entirely unjustly - with the view that since the dead cannot suck the blood of the living, vampires must indeed have been resurrected.  

The article "Vampires" had to wait until The Lettres sur l'Encyclopedie, in the early 1770s. This is not a weighty piece - Voltaire probably dashed it off rapidly.  He marvels that belief in vampires could have existed in  the age of Locke, Shaftesbury,  d'Alembert and Diderot, its history printed and reprinted by the abbot of an abbey worth a hundred thousand livres a year.  Like demoniacs, convulsionaries and, more pointedly the Jesuits, the "vampire epidemic" of the 1730s has passed into history.

I can't help feeling this response is disappointing.  One of the most attractive features of the 18th-century intellectual outlook is an insatiable curiosity, even in arcane studies of mythology and folklore. Yet vampires were either dismissed entirely, or subsumed in the wider discussion of evidence and religious belief. Ironically, the most faithful representative of the Enlightenment spirit of enquiry was probably Dom Calmet himself.  Certainly engagement with the imaginative and  psychological possibilities afforded by the vampire had to wait, in France at least, until the 19th-century Romantics.


Nick Groom, The Vampire: a new history (2018), chpt.3-4 [Preview on Google Books]

Massimo Introvigne, "Antoine Faivre: father of contemporary vampire studies", 2001[conference paper, available from Academia]

Stu Burns, "And with all that, who believes in vampires?" Undead legends and Enlightenment culture".  2007 European Studies Conference Selected Proceedings [paper available from Academia]
Kathryn Morris, "Superstition, testimony and the eighteenth-century vampire debate", Preternature, 2015 4(2): p.181-202 [on JStor or available on Researchgate]

Gianfranco Malfredi, "Voltaire et les vampires", Multitudes 2008/2 No.33:p.91-99.

Christopher Frayling and Robert Wokler, "From the orang-utan to the vampire: towards an anthropology of Rousseau" in Rousseau after 200 Years (CUP, 2010), p.109-124.


Dom Calmet - Statement of method
I am then about to examine this question as a historian, philosopher, and theologian. As a historian, I shall endeavor to discover the truth of the facts; as a philosopher, I shall examine the causes and circumstances; lastly, the knowledge or light of theology will cause me to deduce consequences as relating to religion. Thus I do not write in the hope of convincing freethinkers and pyrrhonians, who will not allow the existence of ghosts or vampires, nor even of the apparitions of angels, demons, and spirits; nor to intimidate those weak and credulous, by relating to them extraordinary stories of apparitions. I do not reckon either on curing the superstitious of their errors nor the people of their prepossessions; not even on correcting the abuses which arise from this unenlightened belief, nor of doing away all the doubts which may be formed on apparitions; still less do I pretend to erect myself as a judge and censor of the works and sentiments of others, nor to distinguish myself, make myself a name, or divert myself, by spreading abroad dangerous doubts upon a subject which concerns religion, and from which they might make wrong deductions against the certainty of the Scriptures, and against the unshaken dogmas of our creed. I shall treat it as solidly and gravely as it merits; and I pray God to give me that knowledge which is necessary to do it successfully.
Book 1, General preface.

An imaginary affliction? 

D'Argens, cited in Calmet, Chpt. 9: 

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:

In examining the Story of the Death of these pretended Martyrs to Vampirism, I discover all the marks of an epidemick Fanaticism and I see clearly that the  Impressions of their own Fears was the true Cause of their Destruction.
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.

He conjectures that this poison is nothing else than a worm, which feeds upon the purest substance of man, constantly gnaws his heart, makes the body die away, and does not forsake it even in the depth of the grave. It is certain that the bodies of those who have been poisoned, or who die of contagion, do not become stiff after their death, because the blood does not congeal in the veins; on the contrary, it rarifies and bubbles much the same as in vampires, whose
[Pg 274]
 beard, hair, and nails grow, whose skin is rosy, who appear to have grown fat, on account of the blood which swells and abounds in them everywhere.

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

One might well side with Dom Calmet, who thought this argument was weak:

Calmet, chpt.48:

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.

Premature burial?

Calmet, Chpt 44:
Some advantage of these instances and these arguments [concerning revival of people supposed dead] may be derived in favour of vampirism, by saying that the ghosts of Hungary, Moravia, and Poland are not really dead, that they continue to live in their graves.....
That is not the principal difficulty which arrests my judgment; it is to know how they come out of their graves without any appearance of the earth having been removed, and how they have replaced it as it was; how they appear dressed in their clothes, go and come, and eat. If it is so, why do they return to their graves? why do they not remain amongst the living? why do they suck the blood of their relations? Why do they haunt and fatigue persons who ought to be dear to them, and who have done nothing to offend them? 

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.....

As to the growth of the nails, the hair and the beard, it is often perceived in many corpses. While there yet remains a great deal of moisture in the body, it is not surprising that during some time we
[Pg 272]see some augmentation in those parts which do not demand a vital spirit.

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 51:
But the grand difficulty is to explain how the vampires come out of their graves to haunt the living, and how they return to them again. For all the accounts that we see suppose the thing as certain, without informing us either of the way or the circumstances, which would, however, be the most interesting part of the narrative.

How a body covered with four or five feet of earth, having no room to move about and disengage itself, wrapped up in linen, covered with pitch, can make its way out, and come back upon the earth, and there occasion such effects as are related of it; and how after that it returns to its former state, and re-enters underground, where it is found sound, whole, and full of blood, and in the same condition as a living body? Will it be said that these bodies evaporate through the ground without opening it, like the water and vapors which enter into the earth, or proceed from it, without sensibly deranging its particles? It were to be wished that the accounts which have been given us concerning the return of the vampires had been more minute in their explanations of this subject.
Supposing that their bodies do not stir from their graves, that it is only their phantoms which appear to the living, what cause produces and animates these phantoms? Can it be the spirit of the defunct, which has not yet forsaken them, or some demon, which makes their apparition in a fantastic and borrowed body? And if these bodies are merely phantomic, how can they suck the blood of living people? We always find ourselves in a difficulty to know if these appearances are natural or miraculous.

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)

The Encyclopédie

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.


Resurrection: The profound philosopher dom Calmet finds a much more conclusive proof in vampires.  He has seen some of these vampires leaving cemeteries to suck the blood of sleeping people;  it is obvious that they could not suck the blood of the living if they were still dead;  they were therefore resuscitated.  The argument is peremptory.

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......

The result of all this is that a great part of Europe has been infested with vampires for five or six years, and that there are now no more; that we have had Convulsionaries in France for twenty years, and that we have them no longer; that we have had demoniacs for seventeen hundred years, but have them no longer; that the dead have been raised ever since the days of Hippolytus, but that they are raised no longer; and, lastly, that we have had Jesuits in Spain, Portugal, France, and the two Sicilies, but that we have them no longer.
Dictionnaire philosophique
. Translation from The Works of Voltaire: A Contemporary Version  (1901),  Vol. 14

Friday, 30 October 2020

Dom Calmet's Vampires

Here is a suitable book for Halloween - the famous compendium on Apparitions and Vampires by the learned Benedictine scholar Dom Augustin Calmet.   If not quite a bestseller, this volume featured in  many a well-appointed eighteenth-century library.  The first edition, published in 1746, was rapidly sold out and a second edition, with considerable additions and corrections, appeared in 1749.  In 1751 de Bure produced a definitive third edition.  There was also a further fourth edition, and translations into German,  Italian and English.  The work brought to the men of the Enlightenment, for the first time in accessible format, details of the weird and wonderful world of the vampire.
It seems that in the early eighteenth century, reaching a peak in the early 1730s, the Hapsburg lands were afflicted with a veritable "epidemic of vampirism".  It is not certain whether the phenomenon was new, or simply came under bureaucratic scrutiny for the first time - probably official interest fanned existing obsessions.  Reports invariably came from border areas where Catholic Hungarians, Orthodox Serbs and Wallachians intermingled - where Austrian officials were often even unable to speak the language of the community.  One may speculate that these were marginal populations for whom recourse to traditional beliefs provided an illusion of security in unsettled times.
Official reports were published and assiduously relayed in the gazettes of  Germany and Holland.  In 1753 the Benedictine Benito Feijoo commented that, if  reports were true,  more resurrections had taken place in Central Europe since the late 17th century than in the whole of Christendom since the birth of Christ. It is often said that the "vampire craze" affected the whole of Europe, and  certainly the resonance was felt throughout the Catholic realms. However, in France, beyond a few articles in the infant periodical press, there was relatively little information before Dom Calmet's compilation.

The Project of Dom Calmet
Although almost universally castigated for his subject,  Dom Calmet, abbot of the Benedictine house of Senones in the Vosges, was a Catholic intellectual of international reputation and his work is by no means unsophisticated.  Catholic empiricists like Calmet  placed a strong emphasis on the role of historical witness in establishing the  the truths of Christianity. Thus it is not in the least surprising that he felt impelled to address  the weight of testimony concerning "vampirism".

 In his Preface Calmet promises to take a middle road between credulity and the scepticism of "freethinkers and pyrrhonists".  He notes that the witnesses are numerous and detailed; often often  they are Austrian officials or highly placed clerics who are worthy of belief. Many of the facts came out of official inquiries and legal proceedings.  Calmet also includes testimony that he has solicited from his own network of correspondents.

 Although he examines many historical and modern parallels, Calmet sees vampirism as a new phenomenon:

In this age, a new scene presents itself to our eyes, and has done for about sixty years in Hungary, Moravia, Silesia, and Poland: they see, it is said, men who have been dead for several months, come back to earth, talk, walk, infest villages, ill use both men and beasts, suck the blood of their near relations, make them ill, and finally cause their death; so that people can only save themselves from their dangerous visits and their hauntings by exhuming them, impaling them, cutting off their heads, tearing out the heart, or burning them. These revenants are called by the name of oupires or vampires, that is to say, leeches; and such particulars are related of them, so singular, so detailed, and invested with such probable circumstances and such judicial information, that one can hardly refuse to credit the belief which is held in those countries, that these revenants come out of their tombs and produce those effects which are proclaimed of them. 
Dissertation, vol. 2. preface.  (quotes are from the 1850 translation).

 Definitions of Vampire
What is a vampire?  We learn that the problem of definition is "a heated topic in scholarly vampirology" (see Vermeir, p.344: yes, he's serious!).   Some historians, following Dom Calmet, hold that a vampire is an undead-corpse with an insatiable thirst for blood.  Others favour a looser definition. The crucial distinction is between a  ghost or apparition and an animated corpse.  The possibility of corporeal resurrection was obviously theologically charged - for Catholics especially so, since the incorruptibility of the physical body was held to be a mark of sainthood.  

1. First reports - Hungarian vampires (1693-1718)
The first significant account of vampires in French appeared in May 1793, surprisingly enough in the pages of the fashionable Mercure Galant. It is reported by Dom Calmet in Chapter 13.
The author was the former secretary to the Queen of Poland, Pierre Des Noyers (1607-1693), a scholar with a profound interest in astronomy, alchemy and the  occult arts. The article is usually credited with the first appearance of the term "vampire" (or "oupire") in French.
Des Noyer's article centres on creatures known as upierz in Polish -  a word with the same root as vampire - and strygres in Latin. They are reportedly commonly found in Hungary, Poland and western Russia.
Calmet also mentions some later Hungarian vampires discovered by an imperial infantry officer, the Count de Cabreras and reported to one of his correspondents in Brigau around 1730. but concludes that these tales were probably apocryphal, inspired by the famous cases in Medwegya (Chpt.8). 

Chapter 13, "Narration extracted from the "Mercure Galant" of 1693 and 1694, concerning ghosts"
The public memorials of the years 1693 and 1694 speak of oupires, vampires or ghosts, which are seen in Poland, and above all in Russia. They make their appearance from noon to midnight, and come and suck the blood of living men or animals in such abundance that sometimes it flows from them at the nose, and principally at the ears, and sometimes the corpse swims in its own blood oozed out in its coffin. It is said that the vampire has a sort of hunger, which makes him eat the linen which envelops him. This reviving being, or oupire, comes out of his grave, or a demon in his likeness, goes by night to embrace and hug violently his near relations or his friends, and sucks their blood so much as to weaken and attenuate them, and at last cause their death. This persecution does not stop at one single person; it extends to the last person of the family, if the course be not interrupted by cutting off the head or opening the heart of the ghost, whose corpse is found in his coffin, yielding, flexible, swollen, and rubicund, although he may have been dead some time. There proceeds from his body a great quantity of blood, which some mix up with flour to make bread of; and that bread eaten in ordinary protects them from being tormented by the spirit, which returns no more..  
The original text from the Mercure galant is reproduced in Vernier, "Notes sur le vampirisme" L’Écho du merveilleux, March 1898
Koen Vermeir,  Research Professor at the CNRS, has published a study of early vampire tracts, which considers in detail Des Noyers and his commentator,  the Paris magistrate Marigner, author of two articles in the Mercure for January and February 1694. 

Professor Vermeir notes:
  • The idea that vampires suck blood is novel.  In the earliest reports, from the mid-17th-century,   they are characterised only as hungry; they "masticate" in the grave, consuming their shrouds and even their own hands and feet. (The "Venice Vampire"  discovered in 2006  has a preventative brick in her mouth.)  In a letter of 1659, Des Noyer himself referred to the "Ukrainian illness" in which a person who was born with teeth eats his shroud and limbs. (Vermeir,  p.350).
  • Des Noyer's account places a new emphasis on the victims of vampirism and, with it,  the supernatural element of the tradition.  The vampire, or a demon in vampire shape - always a possibility in Catholic teaching  - , now ranges freely abroad.  The idea of sharing bread steeped in blood as a protective charm is clearly magical in nature.  
  • Marigner saw vampirism as a "disease of the imagination", but conceived imagination as a real force exercising a physical effect. He offered a natural explanation without calling into question the validity of the supernatural or religious realm.

2. Moravian vampires (1685-1755)
In the early years of the century official reports began to come from the Hapsburg lands. Vampire scares in Moravia fell under the jurisdiction of  the Catholic Diocese of Olmutz, where the Consistory acceded to local demands for corpses to be exhumed and burned. In 1706 the lawyer Karl Ferdinand de Scherz published a famous pamphlet on what he called Magia posthuma , considered by Calmet in Chapter 7. Schertz formalised the rules governing legal intervention, but contributed relatively little to vampire lore.  His main example concerns the proto-vampire of Blow,  an incident which in fact dated back to the 14th century.  The vampires he describes seem to represent an older tradition - they appear from the ground with great noise and cause death to both men and animals; the shepherd even engages in feisty combat with his adversaries. They are halted only by decapitation and burning.  Calmet is impressed mainly that Scherz presents his tale " in a lawyer-like way" and that some sort of legal procedure is followed before the exhumation and destruction of corpses.

3. Peter Poglojowitz (1725)

The case of Peter Poglojowitz was the most famous of all the 18th-century vampire tales.

With the treaty of Passowitz in 1718 the Austrian Empire acquired large parts of Serbia and Wallachia from the Turks,  Imperial officials began to inquire into the vampire scares.  The first report, which circulated internationally. concerned Peter Plogojowitz, a peasant from the  village of Kisilova (Kisiljevo), who in 1725 was said to have posthumously strangled nine people. Plogojowitz was a Slav; his religion was Orthodox.  The Austrian judge Fromann was obliged to acquiesce in the exhumation, staking and burning of  Plogojowitz's body in order to ensure that that villagers did not act without legal sanction.

 Dom Calmet's version, taken from the work of the German pastor Michael Ranft, reflects the original report with some accuracy. 

Chapter 46: Singular instance of a Hungarian ghost

From Michael Rauff:Gradiška

The most remarkable instance cited by Rauff is that of one Peter Plogojovitz, who had been buried ten weeks in a village of Hungary, called Kisolova. This man appeared by night to some of the inhabitants of the village while they were asleep, and grasped their throat so tightly that in four-and-twenty hours it caused their death. Nine persons, young and old, perished thus in the course of eight days.

The widow of the same Plogojovitz declared that her husband since his death had come and asked her for his shoes, which frightened her so much that she left Kisolova to retire to some other spot.

From these circumstances the inhabitants of the village determined upon disinterring the body of Plogojovitz and burning it, to deliver themselves from these visitations. They applied to the emperor's officer, who commanded in the territory of Gradiska, in Hungary, and even to the curé of the same place, for permission to exhume the body of Peter Plogojovitz. .........

The emperor's officer, who wrote this account, seeing he could hinder them neither by threats nor promises, went with the curé of Gradiska to the village of Kisolova, and having caused Peter Plogojovitz to be exhumed, they found that his body exhaled no bad smell; that he looked as when alive, except the tip of the nose; that his hair and beard had grown, and instead of his nails, which had fallen off, new ones had come; that under his upper skin, which appeared whitish, there appeared a new one, which looked healthy, and of a natural color; his feet and hands were as whole as could be desired in a living man. They remarked also in his mouth some fresh blood, which these people believed that this vampire had sucked from the men whose death he had occasioned.

The emperor's officer and the curé having diligently examined all these things, and the people who were present feeling their indignation awakened anew, and being more fully persuaded that he was the true cause of the death of their compatriots, ran directly for a sharp-pointed stake, which they thrust into his breast, whence there issued a quantity of fresh and crimson blood, and also from the nose and mouth; something also proceeded from that part of his body which decency does not allow us to mention. After this the peasants placed the body on a pile of wood and saw it reduced to ashes.

Ranft's  treatise, De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis, was one of the last to focus on the idea of the hungry dead.  Ranft  rejected the idea that vampires roamed abroad though he thought the imagination of the dead might have magical effect on the living.  Dom Calmet was simply not  prepared to consider the possibility of masticating corpses,  "The imagination of those who believe that the dead chew in their graves, with a noise similar to that made by hogs when they eat, is so ridiculous that it does not deserve to be seriously refuted" (Preface to volume 2)

The notorious freethinker the marquis d'Argens included an account of Peter Plogojowitz  in his 1738 second edition of his Lettres Juives.  This was a source widely available to a French audience and is again reproduced by Dom Calmet.  D'Argens adds a few extra details;  we learn, for instance that Plogojowitz was sixty-two when he died.  The notion that vampires appeared at meal times to  their family seems to have been  a widespread one.

This is what we read in the "Lettres Juives," new edition, 1738, Letter 137.
We have just had in this part of Hungary a scene of vampirism, which is duly attested by two officers of the tribunal of Belgrade, who went down to the places specified; and by an officer of the emperor's troops at Graditz, who was an ocular witness of the proceedings.
In the beginning of September there died in the village of Kivsilova, three leagues from Graditz an old man who was sixty-two years of age. Three days after he had been buried, he appeared in the night to his son, and asked him for something to eat; the son having given him something, he ate and disappeared. The next day the son recounted to his neighbours what had happened. That night the father did not appear; but the following night he showed himself, and asked for something to eat. They know not whether the son gave him anything or not; but the next day he was found dead in his bed. On the same day, five or six persons fell suddenly ill in the village, and died one after the other in a few days.

The officer or bailiff of the place, when informed of what had happened, sent an account of it to the tribunal of Belgrade, which dispatched to the village two of these officers and an executioner to examine into this affair. The imperial officer from whom we have this account repaired thither from Graditz, to be witness of a circumstance which he had so often heard spoken of.

They opened the graves of those who had been dead six weeks. When they came to that of the old man, they found him with his eyes open, having a fine colour, with natural respiration, nevertheless motionless as the dead; whence they concluded that he was most evidently a vampire. The executioner drove a stake into his heart; they then raised a pile and reduced the corpse to ashes. No mark of vampirism was found either on the corpse of the son or on the others.

4. Medwegya (1727-1732)

In the winter of 1731 an official Austrian commission, headed by the military surgeon Johann Flückinger was sent to investigate  incidents in the village of Medwegya in rural Serbia.  It's report, published in Vienna in January 1732,  gave rise to an explosion of interest in vampires throughout Europe.  According to the bibliography compiled by the pioneering French vampire scholar, Antoine Faivre, over twenty books and articles were published in German in 1732-33. In 1734 Ranft wrote in the German version of his treatise  that "at the last Easter fair in Leipzig it was impossible to enter a bookstore without seeing something about bloodsuckers" (quoted Introvigne, p.601.).  The case was also reported in the London JournalLe Glaneur in Holland and in the Mercure de France - the first time the term "vampyre" (and variants) became widely used in English and French. 

Events in Medwegia dated back to 1726 when a certain Arnold Paole (an irregular soldier - hajdúk  -and possibly an outsider to the community) had died after falling from a hay wagon.  Paole was known to have been troubled by a vampire when living near Gossowa in Turkish Serbia.  To protect himself, he had eaten earth from the vampire's grave and smeared himself with the vampire's blood, but  apparently all to no avail:  Paole himself now became a fully fledged "arch-vampire".

 In the thirty days or so after Paole's death, villagers reported that they had been bothered by the deceased man and four people had been killed by him.  When his corpse was dug up forty days after his burial,  it was found to be undecayed.  A stake was driven through his heart, and those of his victims.  Despite the precautions, in late 1731, a recurrence of the vampire outbreak killed another ten people. It was thought that the new victims had died because one of them had eaten meat from a sheep killed by the original vampires.  

Although Flückinger was unable to comment directly on the vampire manifestations, the commission  examined fifteen corpses and concluded that no less than eleven of them must have been vampires because they were still "full of fresh blood".  

 Calmet quotes the account given in Le Glaneur:

Chpt 10: Other instances of Ghosts – Continuation of the Gleaner

In a certain canton of Hungary, named in Latin Oppida Heidanum, beyond the Tibisk, vulgo Teiss, that is to say, between that river which waters the fortunate territory of Tokay and Transylvania, the people known by the name of Heyducqs believe that certain dead persons, whom they call vampires, suck all the blood from the living, so that these become visibly attenuated, whilst the corpses, like leeches, fill themselves with blood in such abundance that it is seen to come from them by the conduits, and even oozing through the pores. This opinion has just been confirmed by several facts which cannot be doubted, from the rank of the witnesses who have certified them. We will here relate some of the most remarkable.

About five years ago, a certain Heyducq, inhabitant of Madreiga, named Arnald Paul, was crushed to death by the fall of a wagonload of hay. Thirty days after his death four persons died suddenly, and in the same manner in which according to the tradition of the country, those die who are molested by vampires. They then remembered that this Arnald Paul had often related that in the environs of Cassovia, and on the frontiers of Turkish Servia, he had often been tormented by a Turkish vampire; for they believe also that those who have been passive vampires during life become active ones after their death, that is to say, that those who have been sucked suck also in their turn; but that he had found means to cure himself by eating earth from the grave of the vampire, and smearing himself with his blood; a precaution which, however, did not prevent him from becoming so after his death, since, on being exhumed forty days after his interment, they found on his corpse all the indications of an arch-vampire. His body was red, his hair, nails, and beard had all grown again, and his veins were replete with fluid blood, which flowed from all parts of his body upon the winding-sheet which encompassed him. The hadnagi, or bailli of the village, in whose presence the exhumation took place, and who was skilled in vampirism, had, according to custom, a very sharp stake driven into the heart of the defunct Arnald Paul, and which pierced his body through and through, which made him, as they say, utter a frightful shriek, as if he had been alive: that done, they cut off his head, and burnt the whole body. After that they performed the same on the corpses of the four other persons who died of vampirism, fearing that they in their turn might cause the death of others.

All these performances, however, could not prevent the recommencement of these fatal prodigies towards the end of last year, that is to say, five years after, when several inhabitants of the same village perished miserably. In the space of three months, seventeen persons of different sexes and different ages died of vampirism; some without being ill, and others after languishing two or three days. It is reported, amongst other things, that a girl named Stanoska, daughter of the Heyducq Jotiützo, who went to bed in perfect health, awoke in the middle of the night all in a tremble, uttering terrible shrieks, and saying that the son of the Heyducq Millo who had been dead nine weeks, had nearly strangled her in her sleep. She fell into a languid state from that moment, and at the end of three days she died. What this girl had said of Millo's son made him known at once for a vampire: he was exhumed, and found to be such. The principal people of the place, with the doctors and surgeons, examined how vampirism could have sprung up again after the precautions they had taken some years before.

They discovered at last, after much search, that the defunct Arnald Paul had killed not only the four persons of whom we have spoken, but also several oxen, of which the new vampires had eaten, and amongst others the son of Millo. Upon these indications they resolved to disinter all those who had died within a certain time, &c. Amongst forty, seventeen were found with all the most evident signs of vampirism; so they transfixed their hearts and cut off their heads also, and then cast their ashes into the river.

All the informations and executions we have just mentioned were made juridically, in proper form, and attested by several officers who were garrisoned in the country, by the chief surgeons of the regiments, and by the principal inhabitants of the place. The verbal process of it was sent towards the end of last January to the Imperial Counsel of War at Vienna, which had established a military commission to examine into the truth of all these circumstances.

Such was the declaration of the Hadnagi Barriarar and the ancient Heyducqs; and it was signed by Battuer, first lieutenant of the regiment of Alexander of Wurtemburg, Clickstenger, surgeon-in-chief of the regiment of Frustemburch, three other surgeons of the company, and Guoichitz, captain at Stallach.


Dom Augustin Calmet, Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Anges, des Démons et des Esprits, et sur les revenants, et Vampires de Hongrie, de Bohème, de Moravie, et de Silésie3rd edition, Bure l'aîné 1751.  vol. 2
English translation, The Phantom World (1850)

On Dom Calmet: 
This family history site has loads of personal information and a portrait:

Vampire literature:

Koen Vermeir, "Vampires as Creatures of the Imagination: Theories of Body, Soul, and Imagination in Early Modern Vampire Tracts (1659–1755)" Book chapter 2011.

"Les vampires et la bibliophilie", Le Blog du Bibliophile, post of 08.02.2016.
The most comprehensive bibliography of works on vampires is by the French scholar, Antoine Favre.
See Massimo Introvigne, "Antoine Faivre: father of contemporary vampire studies", paper of 2001, [Available on Academia]

"A Vampyre in Hungary" Wellcome Library Blog - English MS on Arnold Paul

There is tons written on the vampire phenomenon itself.  For an explanation of the folklore (and a fascinating, if gruesome, read) I recommend Paul Barber's book, Vampires, Burial and Death, Yale University Press, 1988.

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