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The Origins of Vampire Stories in the Christian-Islamic Borderlands
It was on this day in 1717 that the Holy Roman Empire’s troops, led by Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of the great military strategists, broke through the Ottoman lines in Belgrade after a two-month siege. Soon, Serbia was in Habsburg hands.
This was part of the decisive turning of the tide in Christendom’s favour that began when the armies of Islam were repelled from the walls of Vienna in 1683: after a thousand years of Islamic imperialism threatening Europe, the next two centuries would see Islamic armies gradually driven from the Continent, and European armies following the retreating invaders onto formerly Christian lands in North Africa and the Middle East until, by 1918, the mighty Ottoman caliphate had been defeated and much of its territory placed under European rule.
Issues of such titanic importance, with all their reverberations down to the present, are for another day, however. In Habsburg-ruled Serbia over the two decades after 1717, a series of events took place that form the basis of modern vampire stories in Latin Christendom, and that is to be the focus here.
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THE FIRST VAMPIRE CASE
As Thomas M. Bohn makes clear in his 2016 book (translated into English in 2019), The Vampire: Origins of a European Myth, there were precursor vampire stories. In the Orthodox and Slavic world, the upiór in the territories of what had been the Kievan Rus came down from the Norsemen (“Vikings”) and some of the theological innovations after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans embedded these ideas further. The Latin West was infused not only with the transfer of the upiór myths to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as that State began to incorporate the former Rus areas, but the Nachzehrer folklore in German-speaking Central Europe. Undoubtedly, these oral traditions played a role in setting the framework for interpreting the events of the 1720s and 1730s, but it was these events in the early eighteenth century that furnish the key themes and archetypes of the vampire stories as we know them now.
In July 1725, an Austrian State newspaper published a report from the village of Kisiljevo, about 60 miles east of Belgrade, near the Serbian-Romanian border, where a peasant, Petar Blagojević, was reported to have died, and over the next two days another nine people perished. As Bohn describes:
Before their deaths, they all declared that Petar had visited them in their sleep, lying upon them and choking them. The testimony of Petar Blagojević’s widow, in which she claimed that her deceased husband had visited her in order to collect his shoes, caused particular excitement. … Behind the indirect hint at plans for a longer journey, implicit sexual insinuations can also be made out. …
[T]he villagers called for his grave to be opened. What they feared to find in such suspicious cases was a non-decomposed corpse, showing transformations to the skin, hair and nails that would suggest a continued natural growth process. Such bodies were referred to by the local population as “vampyri”. Since the villagers threatened to leave the village, [the Cameral Provisor] Frombald saw himself as compelled, in the company of the local priest, to attend the exhumation of Petar Blagojević’s body. Alongside the “wild sign” of an erection, … fresh blood seemed to be flowing from the mouth of the dead man, which, according to common statements, was the blood that he had drunk from his victims.
His misdeeds thus exposed, the accused was executed posthumously. His heart was driven through with a stake and his body was burned on a pyre.
As can be seen, a lot of the themes that are prevalent to this day were there at the start. There was some early external attention, especially from Michael Ranft, a Protestant theologian in Leipzig, who composed a treatise entitled, “The Chewing and Chomping of the Dead in their Graves”. But the Blagojević case remained, for now, essentially within the German-speaking world—perhaps because it was so similar to the Nachzehrer tales—and did not become a Europe-wide sensation quite yet.
Frombald’s report was primarily meant to explain to the Imperial capital that there had been an outbreak of plague, and to acquit himself of responsibility for the desecration and robbing of a grave—this was done by the mob, Frombald wanted it understood, and he had gone along with it in so far as he had to prevent a general panic taking hold and causing worse carnage. Duly noted, Vienna filed the report and that was that for a little while.
THE FRONTIER CONTEXT
As Bohn explains, plague is an important part of context in this area—generally, and in the development of the undead stories. Bubonic plague was receding in Europe, though there would be a terrible outbreak in Central Europe in 1738 (and another in Russia in 1771), but the plague was a lingering concern in Southeastern Europe and more immediately there was “Morbus hungaricus” (Hungarian disease), which destabilised the Austrian attempts to pacify the Military Frontier against the Ottomans. Notably for our story, Hungarians and Ottomans were known to be resistant to this disease—now identified as typhus—because of “their attention to hygiene and to their healthy diet—including plenty of garlic”, writes Bohn.
Disease was not the only challenge for the Austrians in the Military Frontier in Serbia, Bohn goes on. The zone was largely settled by refugees—either Slavs who had joined with the Austrian cause in the Crusade that shattered the Ottomans in Hungary after 1683, or those who had been displaced as the borders radically shifted in this period. The Slavs who had chosen to join the Empire and many others now given a chance to develop autonomously under Austrian tutelage were pleased, but inevitably some of the displaced were less pleased to end up on the Austrian side of the line: Christian or not, they resented the unfamiliar taxation and administrative system, and this led to difficulties, even outright rebellion in Lika in 1728.
There was a compounding ideological problem in securing the Military Frontier, as the Catholic Austrians tried to find a means of “reunification” with the local Orthodox Church. When the population was not turning on the Austrian authorities, it was turning on itself; seething social tensions needed constant management. And then there was the simple practical problem with the demographics: the population density was very low. An imaginary border through a wilderness with nobody to man it is much more difficult to defend than a loyal populated area.
For the Austrians, then, the Military Frontier was viewed as a difficult zone: economically backward and difficult to defend with so few inhabitants, the population itself presented a series of challenges: not all of them were on-side, even those supporting the Austrian presence were confessionally “deviant”, and wherever their allegiances lay they were socially turbulent and incubators of pestilence.
THE SECOND VAMPIRE CASE
The vampire case that would implant itself in Europe’s memory—and drag the Blagojević incident along with it—began in Medveđa, about 200 miles south of Belgrade, right on what is now the Serbia-Kosovo border, in November-December 1731. Bohn documents that in that two-month window, thirteen people died in the village from an unknown disease. When the contagion physician Glaser arrived in Medveđa on 12 December, he could find no obvious signs of infectious disease: from the authorities’ perspective, this was good news; it meant there was essentially no issue of concern. But then Glaser was accosted with the locals’ claims that “vambyres” and “bluthseiger” (bloodsuckers) were at work. The completely contingent fact of Imperial physicians being drawn into investigating these claims of vampirism was to prove fateful.
What is notable from Bohn’s account of what happened next in Medveđa is how similar it is to what happened in Kisiljevo: Glaser, like Frombald, was induced to collaborate with a local superstition, thereby granting it a measure of credibility, for the sake of social stability—as a concession to a village population that had worked itself into a frenzy, and would do less harm by being allowed to desecrate a few corpses, than if it was allowed to search for vampires among the living.
Since the deaths of their relatives could not be traced back simply to fever and aching limbs, a real panic broke out among the villagers. … The only solution seemed to be the destruction of the vampires. In this context, in his report to the authorities in Vienna, Glaser reported the existence of a risk … of contamination through the act of “(self-)vampirization”. Placed under such great pressure, the plague physician permitted ten graves to be opened, although without undertaking any autopsies. The main suspects were both refugees from the Ottoman Empire: an old woman named ‘Miliza’ (Milica), who had supposedly eaten the meat of a sheep that had fallen victim to vampires, and a young woman named ‘Stanno’ (Stana), who had allegedly smeared herself with the blood of a vampire and had then died in childbirth.
What is detectable through the haze, even at this distance, is that the fears of the frontier were playing a role in this—not just the fear of Ottoman outsiders, but mistrust of those within the community, for class reasons (between landed families and the peasantry) and between the Austrian military authorities and the local population.
Whatever signs Frombald saw or thought he saw in that grave, no matter how “wild”, the context of his testimony, and his rank, meant it only reached a few. Glaser was different. Thrown into the middle of an alien village in the midst of a hysteria, with little understanding of the social environment and no grasp of the disease on the loose, Glaser’s judgment that some of the corpses seen during the grave-openings were “suspect” meant very little, and his call to set up an investigative commission was quite reasonable—it might find out what the disease was, meaning any spread could be prevented, and more immediately it would placate the villagers. That was the theory: the outcome was rather different.
In January 1732, the investigative commission got to work, led by another Imperial physician, Flückinger. In March 1732 a letter from Glaser’s father, Johann Friedrich Glaser, also a physician, based on a letter from Glaser Junior, was published in a Vienna newspaper, saying that it was unclear whether or how the bloodsucking was taking place in Medveđa. Glaser Senior was clearly very sceptical: he noted that the only “evidence” this was happening at all came from villagers who claimed it took place while they were sleeping, implying they might well have been dreaming, and he had little interest in the idea that the supposedly non-decomposed bodies proved anything; he wrote in, so to say, “scientific” terms, intrigued by what the disease was. The problem was that the uncertainties—in the letter and then in the investigation—stuck in the popular imagination, creating space for lurid fantasies, which were then reinforced by some of the steps taken in Serbia by the Austrian authorities to assure local stability.
From Bohn again:
The subject of their investigation were the claims that so-called “vampyrs” had killed people by sucking out their blood. Expanding upon Glaser’s visits to the sick and inspection of the corpses, more or less professional autopsies were carried out in the hope of providing further information on the causes of death and the process of decay. According to Flückinger’s report, which was given the title ‘Visum et Repertum’ (‘Proofed Report’), ten of the sixteen corpses had not begun to decay and were thus suspected of vampirism. They had all died of a plague within three days and then lain in their graves for six weeks to three months. The weak were particularly affected, that is, the very young and the very old.
Flückinger also mentioned that the twenty-year-old wife of a hajduk [Christian militiaman], ‘Stanoicka’ (Stanojka), claimed to have been visited at night and choked by the son of a hajduk, called ‘Miloe’ (Miloje), who had died at the age of twenty-five. This suggests that nightmares should also be taken into consideration. In this context, Flückinger did point out that there was a finger-length red patch under the woman’s right ear, without, however, drawing a connection with bloodsucking.
It was in Flückinger’s report that the name most associated with the Medveđa case arises: Arnold Paole, a hajduk who had died about five years earlier in rather odd circumstances—suspicion surrounded the fact that “an experienced herdsman should fall from a haycart and break his neck”, writes Bohn. Was it murder? Simple banditry? A blood feud? The Austrian authorities did not know enough even to ask these questions.
Paole’s memory was now exhumed to make him the possible Patient Zero of the “vampire disease”, his body having already been exhumed to expiate the disease:
Before his unfortunate death, [Paole] claimed to have been visited by a vampire in Kosovo, and to have smeared himself in its blood and eaten the earth from its grave as a defensive measure. Three to four weeks after his death, the hajduk began to visit the inhabitants of the village, attacking both people and cattle. He was held responsible for four deaths. When his body was exhumed forty days after his burial, it was found not to have decomposed. Therefore, in an act of vigilantism that hints at a degree of experience in dealing with such matters, his corpse was impaled and burned.
While it is notable that Flückinger was treating the issue as a “vampire disease”—in other words, a phenomenon akin to a zombie plague: unusual, but ultimately natural, rather than anything supernatural—but the fact that bodies were being dug up and “executed” rather obscured things. “In order to restore order to the village”, Bohn writes, “the investigative commission agreed to a posthumous execution of the suspects, who were decapitated and burned. In carrying this out, the local Roma population were called upon as executioners since, as outsiders, they were felt to be less bound by scruples in this respect.”
The effect of the investigation’s activities was to create the impression that there was something to the vampire stories, and already in 1732 the whole thing was becoming a public spectacle well beyond Serbia. For example, Michael Ranft, the vampire “expert” in Leipzig, weighed in to declare that Stanoicka and Miloe had had “impermissible interactions”, and debate ensued among the learned in these matters.
Some modern scholars think the disease was splenic fever, and there is some evidence that something like this spread among sheep in the area in the summer of 1731. Flückinger himself ultimately “came to the conclusion that the vampire disease had spread as a result of the cattle becoming infected”, Bohn notes, but Flückinger’s investigation had given credence to distinctly unnatural explanations, specifically his conclusion that there had been something unusual about the rate of decomposition of the bodies. In time this “contributed to the anchoring of the idea of living corpses and bloodsucking vampires among the Western public”, writes Bohn.
The mania was already beginning to spread. In January 1732, Bohn reports, an Austrian official in Kucklina, neighbouring Medveđa, reported two cases: (1) “two brothers … were … surprised in their sleep by a vampire. One of the brothers emerged from the incident with a red fleck behind his ear and passed away three days later”; and (2) “a widow was visited and impregnated by her husband, who had died several days earlier. … [I]n relation to the sexual experience, [she] spoke only of the coldness of the semen. Her child was born completely disfigured, without any limbs and with the appearance of a piece of raw meat, and, within three days, had ‘wrinkled like a sausage’.”
As Bohn delicately puts it, these incidents in Kucklina “can be read as a fairy tale”, revealing mostly about “the violent fantasies and sexual imaginations of the soldiers stationed in the region”, but they do nonetheless point to elements that would stick: “First, from the outset, Western witnesses seemed to take the bite of the vampire quite literally. Second, the issues of adultery and infanticide both seemed to play an enormous role in relation to vampirism.”
AFTERMATH AND LEGACY
The Serbian vampire cases spread through both high society and the popular media in Europe, initially in the Germanic lands, soon well beyond. The “facts” of the investigation, garbled as some of them were, retold and embellished, would circulate, becoming the source material for campfire stories, novels, and ultimately films. The sense that vampires were something from Southeast Europe would remain, though the specifics would tend to shift from Serbia to Romania after the publication of the novel Dracula by Irish author Bram Stoker in 1897. It was Stoker who fixed Transylvania as the vampiric headquarters and Stoker, too, who back-projected vampires to the fifteenth century, associating them with “Vlad the Impaler”.
Stoker’s historical fiction is interesting for another reason: it highlights how very late the vampire stories are. Vampires do not have the deep pedigree of witches or werewolves, and, indeed, surface in the form we know them just as the belief in these other supernatural creatures was fading.
The witch craze, which is often thought of as a feature of the medieval world, was really more of an early modern phenomenon. The Roman Catholic Church’s official stance for much of the Middle Ages was that witchcraft was a fraudulent parody of God’s holy power by pagan hucksters. The change came about slowly in the aftermath of the Papal Revolution, into the fourteenth century, as the concept of “heresy” crystallised, with clear lines being drawn around orthodoxy and a drive was initiated to root out internal diseases that threatened the health of Christendom. It was in this environment that it began to seem possible that witches existed, essentially as agents of Satan, and connections began to be made between witchcraft, Jews, and “sodomites”, another novel category: the term had been ambiguous until Thomas Acquinas, matching the Papal revolutionaries’ concern for precision, clarified that it referred to homosexual sex.
The sea change about witches among Christians can be conveniently dated to 1486, with the publication of Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches), by Heinrich Kramer, a German cleric, but the witch craze—i.e., the killing of “witches” on a significant scale—occurs later, from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries, not coincidentally during the height of the civil war in Latin Christendom between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. An episode like Salem—which in the grand scheme is very small, involving the judicial killing of nineteen people—is remembered so vividly because it was so shocking at the time, occurring in 1692, when the craze had passed and the belief in witches tout court was waning again.
The year before the Salem witch panic began, a Swedish man, Thiess of Kaltenbrun, went on trial in Livonia (now Latvia), after being accused of heresy. Thiess rejected the charge, “confessing” that he was indeed a werewolf and that he travelled to Hell, but he made the journey and used his powers to combat witches and their Satanic master. The judge was having none of it—Thiess was flogged and banished—but this was the end of a story, not the beginning: the fairly widespread medieval belief in werewolves had already dwindled and was soon eclipsed.
It is perhaps less surprising, then, that the belief in vampires did not really gain a mass audience in Latin Christendom. Certainly, there were less educated people who believed in vampires; there still are. But as Bohn documents so extensively, the major sources of authority at the time rejected the idea vampires were real. The dozen or so proto-scientific treatises that appeared on vampirism in 1732-33 were concerned with the vampire disease. These were Enlightenment figures who assumed there was a rational explanation for what had happened and denounced as superstition any belief in the literal undead. The Roman Church, likewise, rejected the possibility of vampires: the bodily resurrection of sinful mortals was not something Catholic teaching smiled upon, and since it was the corpses of Saints that were said to be incorruptible, associating such incorruptibility with creatures of the night was hardly welcome, either.
Things were somewhat different in the Orthodox world, Bohn notes, specifically the part of it that lay under Ottoman rule, where certain theological concepts—and some surviving pre-Christian traditions in rural areas—made vampires less problematic to slot into their picture of reality, and for a time vampires played a witch-like scapegoat role in some places, as an explanation during times of stress, like plagues and droughts.
The political use of vampirism was arguably its biggest impact on Latin Christendom in the eighteenth century, and to some extent beyond. During the competition over Silesia, Prussian King Frederick the Great, the archetypal “Enlightened despot”, who was never at his best in dealing with women, engaged in a sly propaganda campaign against Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, to present her as an “Oriental” tyrant ruling a backward realm because of the vampire stories still rattling around the Austrian press in the 1740s. She hardly helped her image by banishing Jews in this same period, but in 1766 the law on sorcery, soothsaying, and various superstitions purged vampires from the Austrian press. In a similar way, the idea that vampires were believed in by people in the East—as a folk custom and/or a local explanation for disease—became a way for the Enlightenment philosophe in the West to code particularly the Ottoman-Islamic Empire as backward. Perhaps the most lasting impact was the series of images and themes that vampires provided to Enlightenment antisemitism. No less a figure than Immanuel Kant, in June 1789, described the Jews as the “vampires of society”, which is to say demonic bloodsuckers that must be eliminated. That program would be taken up by a current of the German Enlightenment at a later date.