Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Medieval Vampires

What does it mean, I wonder, to be a vampire? According an article in NewScientist,
A SKELETON exhumed from a grave in Venice is being claimed as the first known example of the "vampires" widely referred to in contemporary documents.

The evidence for it being a vampire was that she was buried with a brick in her mouth, presumably to keep her from chewing on her burial shroud.

OK, we're pushing the word "medieval" a bit here to the end of the 16th century, but every so often I'll hear tell of a vampire story from before the modern era, and every time I'm struck by how little it resembles what I think a vampire should be. Not every undead creature is a "vampire," but people seem interested in seeing them everywhere, like your favorite saint in a tortilla.

It strikes me that, at minimum, to be a vampire a creature must satisfy the following criteria:
  1. It must be dead.
  2. It must have been human in life.
  3. It must be physically animated.
  4. It must consume blood in order to maintain undeath/animation.
Anything less than that isn't a vampire in my view. It's something else, and though I've run into medieval werewolves, I've yet to run into a medieval vampire. Anyone out there have an ancient/classical/medieval vampire they know of?

h/t Medieval News, Archaeology on Europe


  1. Anonymous2:47 PM

    consuming blood to maintain animation is almost certainly Bram Stoker's invention. You'd have to rule out most if not all early modern stories if you included that criterion, to say nothing of earlier stories. Given your criteria, the vampire is a modern (and romantic) phenomenon and nothing more.

    I'm not quite satisfied with that as a definition because Bram Stoker's vision is literary. It draws on certain scattered folkloric traditions, but not without modifying them. His fascination with blood has nothing to do with the so-called vampire epidemics of early modern europe, for instance, where maintaining the life-force isn't the chief issues. Those vampires are as likely to suffocate people and rile up the farm animals as anything. And they are called vampires--at least by western european journalists, from whom the term passed into eastern european vocabularies.

    Point being, I would agree that not every walking dead is a vampire, but I'm not sure your criteria work, even for the early modern evidence.

    Genuinely medieval stories about the walking dead include the first three criteria you list, although they're going to spread the plague, not drink blood. And maybe that isn't a vampire. At the same time, in terms of medieval stories, there is a certain trope in medieval stories of the walking dead about lack of physical decay, which would connect those stories with the early modern. The chief physical sign of vampirism in the early modern period is an uncorrupted corpse. You certainly do see *that*--an evil uncorrupted corpse--in medieval stories of the walking dead. Does that make them all vampires? At least pre-Bram Stoker? I don't know. Maybe.

    I am rambling.

  2. Makes me wonder when exactly the term "vampire" came into seems numerous cultures had their own stories about the walking dead throughout history, all called different things. So how does one decide which ones were technically what we think of as vampires?

    Now I'm curious; I'll have to look up these medieval werewolves!

  3. Anonymous6:12 PM

    You forgot one more thing:

    5. Must look dead sexy in puffed sleeves and lace cuffs.

  4. Aethelflaed,

    Probably the most famous werewolf story is "Bisclavret," by Marie de France. Also, "Saga of the Volsungs" has various transformations into wolves.

    There are several other really famous ones, but those are the two that come to mind immediately.

  5. Anastasia,

    I think we can see some of the vampire-as-disease spreader in the earliest film version of Dracula, "Nosferatu." In that film, the connection is made pretty clearly between vampirism and plague. Me, I always took the blood in "Dracula" to be an inversion of the Eucharist, with Dracula as an anti-Christ figure -- where Christ shed His blood to give us eternal life, Dracula sheds our blood to give himself eternal life.

    What would be your criteria for vampires?

  6. Well, let's also not forget just how often Renfield cites Deut 12:23 as well.

    (And, yes, M once preached a sermon for the Feast of Corpus Christi where most of the illustrations were drawn from Dracula...)

  7. Years ago when I was in high school, I did a research paper on vampires. This was back when Selectric typewriters were "state of the art."

    Give a teenager the right to pick any topic in the world and they have a hard time thinking of anything. I chose vampires because I grew up loving the TV show "Dark Shadows."

    I soon discovered that the recent books on the subject credited in their authors' notes the Reverend Montague Summers and referred to him as the first vampirologist.

    So I decided read his books. There's The Vampire, his Kith and Kin and The Vampire in Europe. I was just looking on and yup, they're there as well as many others. Don't be fooled, the original copyright dates were in the 1920s. His stuff still sells, but the publishing dates listed online are reflect current printings.

    I remember looking up a lot of words in the dictionary and not finding them because the terms were no longer used. Plus he quoted extensively in Greek and Latin. That might not pose a problem for you, but I had to skip those and try to glean whatever I could from the passages written in English.

    All that being said, I learned about all kinds of weird vampire lore. I still will amuse people with strange vampire trivia I learned from that research paper.

    For example people being suspected of becoming vampires after their death would be buried at crossroads. The idea was that the vampires would be so dumb that they'd sit around and vacillate for hours as "which way should I go?"

    Plus you could only use certain woods as stakes to kill a vampire. And the magic was broken if you used more than one stroke to pound the stake.

    Lots more juicy bizarre trivia waiting for you in those books...if you really want to know. Oh and The Vampire, his Kith and Kin is fully available online via Google Books. (Scroll down the page to get to the 1929 version.)



  8. Anonymous10:48 AM

    It seems to me that none of the modern horror-film terms for the undead really work when you try and fit them to medieval beliefs. Those beliefs, as far as they can be access and as far as they could be generalised about at all, seem to run: "some people might come back from the dead; if they do so, except possibly on the right day when we can all meet them in the graveyard and have a dance (may not apply in your chosen geographical area), their intentions will not be good; the really bad ones will be the same people as they were alive, but others really very much more stupid because of being dead." One term that sort of works is `revenant', and that's the one used by the article I always point people at on this stuff, Nancy Caciola, “Wraiths, Revenants and Ritual in Medieval Culture” in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 3-45, which should be in JSTOR for those with such access. I don't know where the field's gone since then but I'd be interested to hear.

  9. Veronica1:43 PM

    I am doing a multi genre project on Vampires for my high school english class, do you know anything that could help me?