The Vampire, excommunicated soul of the 18th century

When speaking of the eighteenth century, people first think about the Enlightenment or the “Age of Reason” – to some extent, it can be difficult to imagine that at the same period where thinkers and writers like Voltaire fought against ignorance and superstition, a contradictory phenomenon rose simultaneously in Europe: the vampire scare.

Throughout this time, official reports coming from the authorities of the East – like in Serbia – spread terrible stories across the continent. According to David Keyworth, Peter Plogojowitch and Arnod Paole were the most famous examples of vampirism at the time. In 1725, in the village of Kisilova, nine people died of a great illness accordingly after they had received the visit of the ‘undead-corpse’ of Peter Plogojowitch, who had been buried a few months before. In an Hungarian village, from 1727 to 1732, multiple murders were perpetrated by the revenant Arnod Paole, who also created his own undead offspring to haunt the living. In both cases, the only solution found by the villagers to end their gruesome activities was to drive a stake through their heart and burn their limbs to prevent the soul, which was their essence of life as vampires, from reanimating the body.

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Le Vampire, lithograph by R. de Moraine (1851-52)
(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In some way, those stories reveal many questions about the nature of death and the proper place of the dead among the living. A French Theologian named Dom Calmet offered a religious explanation in his book published in 1746 about resurrection: Dissertations Upon The Apparitions of Angels, Daemons and Ghosts, and Concerning the Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. Indeed, religion had a central place in the eighteenth century, and that firstly included the Catholic Church’s authority over death itself through Excommunication – or the act of depriving someone of their sacred rights such as attending mass or receiving the sacraments. By the principle of the injunction “Ashes to Ashes”, Calmet suggests that the excommunicated bodies didn’t get to rest in peace in payment of the sins they had committed during their lives  – in other words, their bodies failed to decompose. At the time, decomposition was indeed considered to be an earned privilege, not a natural fate – except in the rare cases where the body was saintly. 

Eighteenth-century vampires like Peter Plogojowitch and Arnod Paole were noted for the life-like condition of their corpse, flexible limbs, and an apparent lack of putrefaction.

(Cited by G. David Keyworth, Was the Vampire of the Eighteenth Century a Unique Type of Undead-corpse? , p. 252)

In that case, through resurrection, the vampire – or excommunicated person seeking revenge – can be seen as the devil twin of the Christ. But instead of inspiring hope and faith, its existence elicited terror and chaos. Many people anxiously thought that “all the dead are vampires” and that they could come back at any point to suck their blood until their demise. Or until their transformation into one, as in the case of Paole – if it be so, it might be interesting to regard vampirism as a new religion with the vampire creator as the evil deity. Moreover, the important sacrament of the Eucharist celebrating the Last Supper of the Christ before His sacrifice on the cross, in which the wine is referred to as ‘His blood’, is an inverted ritual concerning vampires : according to Calmet, in Russia, “people eat bread mixed with vampire’s blood” as a way to eliminate them.

Vampirism, then, became more than beliefs or tales. It became a madness challenging the natural and divine laws of the world. On this matter, historian Marie-Hélène Huet says in an article published in 1997, “Vampirism is not just a plague, it is a false religion.” The holy respect that was once reserved to the dead was lost and shifted towards profanation. Acts of violence and desecration on sacred grounds such as chuches and cemeteries occurred throughout the eighteenth century – the common people were becoming scared and superstitious, they just wanted to get rid of this new plague.

The treatment reserved for the [excommunicated] body is sometimes insulting; sometimes the body is even trampled underfoot, dragged by ropes, often with the face against the ground.

(Cited by Jacqueline Thibaut-Payen, Les Morts, l’Eglise et l’Etat, Recherches sur la sépulture et les cimetières dans le ressort du parlement de Paris au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, p.106).

In that sense, disease and the ‘dread to be infected’ were concerns that lingered on with these years of fear. Indeed, since the corpses of the excommunicated wouldn’t decompose, the common belief was that deadly diseases could spread and contaminate everyone. To answer those worries, the authorities decided in 1776 to move cemetries outside the cities and on grounds where the bodies would easily rot – like the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris which was effectively closed in 1785 because of complaints that the soil was taking too much time to absorb the corpses.

If those facts confirm the general anguish about the place of the dead among the living, they also reaffirm the supreme power of the Church over death. As a matter of fact, excommunication determines the fate of the living soul even before its death and Judgement Day – whether it will be freed from sin to go to a better place or banished from sacred grounds to remain doomed to eternal damnation. In the eighteenth century, this religious authority had a strong hold on people, pushing them to behave well if they wanted to be saved in their afterlife. Subsequently, we can say that the line between life and death during this period became so blurry that it formed like a whole through the Power of Excommunication.

The vampire frenzy gradually ended with the years after the adoption of a text forbidding the killing of ‘presumed vampires’ on behalf of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa but also thanks to the reports of Calmet that rationalised some things said about vampires – scientific assumptions such as the mystery surrounding the preservation of the ‘undead’ bodies.

Footnotes:

  1. Calmet, Augustin, Dissertations Upon the Apparitions of Angels, Daemons and Ghosts, and Concerning the Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, Translated from the French, (London, 1746): 211-300-324.
  2. Huet, Marie-Hélène, ‘Deadly Fears: Dom Augustin Calmet’s Vampires and the Rule Over Death’, in Eighteenth-Century Life Volume 21, Number 2 (University of Michigan, May 1997): 222-232. 
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