Vampires before Dracula

In case you didn’t know, Bram Stoker didn’t invent vampires. No, neither did John Polidori, who was on that fateful 1816 summer trip to Lake Geneva with Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his fiancee, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. That trip resulted in Mary writing “Frankenstein” and Polidori writing “The Vampyre,” the great-granddaddy of all vampire fiction. So what did you do on your last vacation?

Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler, certainly did exist, and by many accounts he was a monster (depending on your point of view). But he wasn’t a vampire. Nor was Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who bathed in the blood of virgins in an attempt to keep her youth.

A Central European tradition

People who are vampire enthusiasts — vampirologists, the blooderati, fan(g)s, call us what you will — generally know that the word “vampire” itself derives from the Ukrainian word upir, a word for a re-animated corpse that returned to the detriment of the living. The word became vampir in Serbian or, by the 1700s in French, vampire.

bathory
Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary (1560-1614)

But one etymologist, Franc Miklošič, traces the word further back to ubyr in the the Kazan Tatar language. The word means “witch,” and if that’s correct, that’s just one more link connecting the two categories of supernatural creatures. 

In her dissertation “Blood beliefs in early modern Europe,” Francesca Matteoni argues that vampires and witches have a shared heritage of flouting every societal morality and expectation by using other people’s blood to increase their own power at the expense of their victim.

“[O]n one hand blood is an enriching substance, on the other one it entails a transgressed margin and therefore the risk of loss. It empowers the receiver, while it weakens the giver.(Matteoni, 2009)

vlad the impaler
Vlad the Impaler keeping it real in this engraving.

And as witch hunts and burnings faded in Western Europe in the late 1600s, they were replaced with a new panic from the East: vampires.

Vampires had been terrorizing the people of Eastern Europe since at least the late-1100s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. But these weren’t the sexy undead of modern lore. Oh, no. These were gruesome things — revenants. The word means “return” and that’s literally what they did: rise from their graves to return to their families to cause disease and death. It’s easy to see why these creatures aroused dread.

Rise of the zombie-vampires

By the 1500s, vampires were starting to make an appearance in Western Europe, at least the southern part of it. Archaeologists have uncovered the skeleton of a woman buried during Venice’s plague of 1576. She was found in a pit that served as a mass grave outside a sanitorium for plague victims, a brick shoved in her mouth (Vermier, 2011).

The brick signified her status as a vampire. It was placed there to keep her from rising from the grave to feast — on herself.

Bavarian revenant
A Bavarian revenant

That’s right. In Western lore, the earliest vampires didn’t feast on the blood of others. They ate their own flesh. They were known for chewing, not fang-like piercing of the neck and blood-sucking. So in a sense, they were more zombie-like than vampires, except for one key thing: After death, they returned to their families to cause death and disease. And in this, they perfectly fit the mold of Eastern vampires.

It didn’t take long for vampires to evolve. By 1591, stories circulated about the shoemaker of Breslau,, Poland, a man who had committed suicide by cutting his throat (The Breslau Vampire, 2010). Ashamed and in grief, his widow hid evidence of the suicide and presented him as though he had died of natural causes, so that he could be given a Christian burial. Not long after, the people of the town began to see the shoemaker walking around, usually at night. Some people accused him of afflicting them with nightmares, or even physical signs of abuse such as bruises from being pinched (Vermier, 2011). Authorities finally exhumed his body, cut it to pieces and tossed them into the river.

Vampires get enlightened

But vampires were about to encounter the same social force that shaped all other facets of Europe at that time: the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. Soon, fanciful tales of perambulating corpses that gnawed their own limbs and revenant monsters that rose from the dead to … pinch people? … would no longer be taken at face value. With the coming of the Age of Reason, such matters demanded proof.

The first known mention of vampires in Western written material dates to 1657, when the French Jesuit Father Francois Richard wrote about the Greek flavor of vampire, the vrykolakas (Matteoni, 2009). This creature reads like a cross between a vampire and werewolf. While a person could become one after living a sacreligious life or by not being buried on consecrated ground, you could also become a vrykolakas if you ate the meat of a sheep that had been killed by a wolf (or werewolf, for that matter). Like vampires, vrykolakoi were said to cause plague. They were also thought to crush people by sitting on their chests as they slept.

In 1659, Pierre Du Noyers, the secretary of a French princess who became the Queen of Poland from 1645-1667, wrote home to a friend. In his letter, he refers to the local belief in upiors,  and describes vampiric traits, but not blood drinking.

Finally, in 1679, someone got serious about these reanimated dead people that everyone was starting to talk about. In that year, Protestant theologian Philip Rohr in the Holy Roman Empire wrote a treatise entitled “Dissertatio Historico-Philosophica de Masticatione Mortuorum” — better known by its translated short title, and I kid you not here, “The Chewing of the Dead.” Rohr believed these vampires to be real, but unlike the vampire hunters of his day, he did not think it right to dig up and desecrate corpses, an act he considered immoral. Rather, he recommended people deepen their faith in God as a means of warding off evil.

Faith still held sway, but the power of superstition was starting to fold.

ranfft
The cover of Rafft’s book

Then came The Rev. Michael Ranfft, who basically said this was all nonsense. Were burial shrouds found torn and devoured? Of course, he said: those weren’t vampires eating their own shrouds, rats and worms did it. 

For Ranft, it is only the deceptive power of the imaginations of feeble ladies, or similarly weak persons, overwhelmed by tremors of fear, which causes them to believe that they perceive chewing in tombs, and which makes them attribute it to the dead. Ranft dismisses the masticating of the dead as a human invention, a figment of the imagination.

The fresh complexion of the corpses in the grave, the growing of hair and nails, the appearance of a new fresh skin, the flowing of the blood, and even the erection of the penis of the corpse are all attributed to natural causes, the study of which belongs to ordinary medicine and natural magic. (Vermier, 2011)

The age of reason had arrived.

With it, the role of the vampire was about to change. Vampires had been liberated from being ghouls that shambled mindlessly about chewing on their own clothes or possibly their own fingers just to give their widows and orphans the plague or consumption, or to pinch their god-fearing former neighbors as they slept. Freed from an unlife of such misery, they were now able to explore other avenues of being, to become sexy or to sparkle, to dabble in politics or debauchery, to do all that the undead would ever would want to do.

After all, they have all the time in the world to do it.


Bibliography

  • Matteoni, F. (2009). Blood beliefs in early modern Europe (Doctoral dissertation, University of Hertfordshire).
  • The Breslau Vampire. (2010, March 29). Retrieved June 20, 2019, from https://www.vampires.com/the-breslau-vampire/
  • Vermier, K. (2011). Vampires as Creatures of the Imagination: Theories of Body, Soul,and Imagination in Early Modern Vampire Tracts (1659–1755). In Diseases of the Imagination and Imaginary Disease in the Early Modern Period(pp. 341-373). Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols. doi:10.1484/M.EER-EB.4.00014

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