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The birth of the vampyre: Dracula and mythology in Early Modern Europe

The idea of the vampire, an undead monster seeking blood and life force from others, had a strange emergence in the Western canon. The following extract from Roger Luckhurst’s Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Dracula will provide the social and mythological context into which the ‘king of horrors’ was born.

Although occultists like the antiquarian Montague Summers would like to claim that the belief in vampires is global and transhistorical (and therefore probably true), the vampire is a thoroughly modern being. Like the Gothic genre itself, stories of vampires emerge in the Age of Enlightenment, as instances of primitive superstition that help define the rational scepticism of northern, Protestant Europe. Vampyre first appeared in English in the London Journal in 1732, adopting the Magyar word vampyre or the Russian upir. The journal was scoffing at accounts of panics amongst the peasantry of remote parts of Hungary and the Balkans. Territories like Serbia and Wallachia had recently come under Austrian imperial control. Soldiers, judges, and surgeons of the new administration were being confronted with social unrest and the desecration of graves in villages where the population held unshakeable beliefs that the dead could return to prey on family and neighbours, killing them in turn. Administrative documents on these fringe frontier disturbances returned to Vienna and thus began to circulate more widely. In 1725, Peter Plogojowitz had been dead and buried for ten weeks but was blamed by villagers for nine subsequent deaths in the village. To avoid a riot, the new Imperial Provisor agreed to open the grave. The body had not decomposed; hair and nails had continued to grow; new white skin was growing; there was fresh blood in the mouth of the corpse. According to tradition, the villagers demanded that the body of the vampire be pinned to the ground with a wooden stake, to stop the creature wandering. Officials agreed, ‘whereupon, as he was pierced, not only did much blood, completely fresh, flow also through his ears and mouth, but still other wild signs (which I pass by out of high respect) took place’. Another notorious case was published in 1732, relating to Arnold Paole. Paole, who lived in the territory between Tokay and Transylvania, had been killed in an accident, but was seen returning to menace his relatives, who recalled Paole’s story of having been ‘tormented’ by a Turkish vampire. After thirty days, the grave was opened and the body was found bloated with the blood of his victims. Paole was staked, emitting a shriek, his head was cut off, and the body was burnt. Even so, seventeen further villagers died because, it was said, they had eaten meat from oxen that Paole had vampirized.

Illustration in Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire story, by David Henry Friston. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Illustration in Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire story, by David Henry Friston. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1746, the Jesuit monk and antiquarian Dom Augustin Calmet collected these and other tales for his vast Treatise on the Apparitions of Angels, Demons and Spirits, and on the Revenants and Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. The volume included a chapter entitled ‘Dead Persons in Hungary who Suck the Blood of the Living’. Calmet included the traveller Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s account of a panic about a vroucolacas on a Greek island in 1702, which followed the same pattern of a dead man accused, an exhumation, and a ritual rekilling of the corpse. Calmet, a great biblical scholar, was caught somewhere between belief and disbelief:

‘Thanks to God, we are by no means so credulous. We avow that all the light which science can throw on this fact discovers none of thecauses of it. Nevertheless, we cannot refuse to believe that to be true which is judicially attested and by persons of probity.’

In England and France, these stories were occasions to reassert the virtues of rationalism and freedom from the tyranny of superstition. The commentary in the London press was dismissive yet already fairly sophisticated at reading the accounts otherwise. The Craftsman observed that these tales came ‘from the Eastern Part of the World, always remarkable for the Allegorical Style. The States of Hungary are in Subjection to the Turks and Germans, and govern’d by a pretty hard Hand; which obliges them to couch all their complaints under Figures.’ The vampire thus has potential as a political allegory from its earliest arrival in English. Voltaire’s A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary (1764) included a short chapter on vampires, ridiculing the circulation of tales by the credulous priest Calmet in keeping with his war on religious fanaticism and superstition. He, too, considered the only vampires were to be found in London and Paris, ‘stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight’. When in 1867 Karl Marx declared that ‘Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’, this was already a firmly established metaphor, the vampire retooled from a feudal world for modern times.

Featured image: Burne Jones ‘Le Vampire’, 1897. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Anthony Hogg

    Excellent post, Mr. Luckhurst, but two small corrections:

    First, “Vampyre” is not a Magyar word. The London Journal article (March 13, 1732) which introduced the word “vampyre” (vampire) into the English language was coverage of a Serbian case — the Arnod Paole case, mentioned in the article — which means that the word is adopted from the Serbian “vampir” (вампир). The Hungarian confusion stems from the region being under control by the Austro-Hungarian government at the time.

    Second, Voltaire’s “short chapter on vampires” was not from his philosophical dictionary (despite numerous references to its inclusion), but actually first appeared as an entry (“Vampires”) in the ninth volume of “Questions sur l’Encyclopédie.”

    Wikipedia’s “Dictionnaire philosophique” entry reveals why this source conflation exists:

    “There have been many editions and reprints of the Dictionnaire during Voltaire’s life, but only four of them contained additions and modifications. Furthermore, another work published in 1770, Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, which contained reshaped and modified articles from the Encyclopédie always in alphabetical order, led many following editors to join this and the Dictionnaire (plus other minor works) in a unique opus.”

  2. Anthony Hogg

    Regarding “Voltaire’s A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary (1764)” (proper title: “Dictionnaire philosophique, portatif”), here is its table of contents:

    http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b8626129s/f14.image

    Note no “Vampires” entry:

    Voltaire’s “Questions sur l’Encyclopédie” was published between 1770-74. The “Vampires” entry appears in the 9th volume (1772), pp. 310–17. The volume is available here: https://archive.org/details/questionssurlenc09volt

    That is the entry subsequently added to later editions of Voltaire’s “Dictionnaire.” Note also its inclusion in “Collection complette des oeuvres de M. de Voltaire” (1774):

    https://books.google.com.au/books?id=xx4-AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA465&dq=Questions+sur+l%27encyclop%C3%A9die+vampires&hl=en&sa=X&ei=1dkoVcSTA5HV8gWL_YGADg&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Questions%20sur%20l%27encyclop%C3%A9die%20vampires&f=false

    …which clearly designates the “Vampires” entry as being part of “Questions sur l’Encyclopédie,” not “Dictionnaire philosophique, portatif.”

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