Thursday, February 23, 2017
The Vampire Hysteria, article in Chambers's Journal, Nov 14, 1896
The Vampire Hysteria, article in Chambers's Journal, Nov 14, 1896
Rather more than one hundred and fifty years ago there dwelt at Gandersheim, a small town in the Duchy of Brunswick, one Johann Christoph Harenberg, a pious and deeply-learned German pastor, Rector of the Foundation School, at the town just named, whose heart was vexed, and his conscience grieved, at the prevalence of superstition among his people. Superstition of any kind was abhorrent to the pastor, who saw even in the ordinary tales of gnomes and fairies, such as are told around the Christinas hearth, things repugnant to God and perilous to the soul. But it was not against these idle fables that the effort of his life was directed. He chose a darker superstition, and smote Satan in a more vital place. He would not spend his strength in arguing against the follies of children while there spread and flourished among his people a belief which menaced perpetually the safety of human life, and after life enchained the soul to a course of evil deeds here on the earth; and therefore, girding himself for a great intellectual effort, Harenberg boldly attacked the prevalent belief in vampires.
In Britain the vampire superstition seems never to have been prevalent — though the burial of suicides at cross-roads with a stake thrust through them, usual in England till well into this century, closely resembles the precaution used in Slavonic lands for inducing vampires to cease from troubling; accordingly to a native of these islands it may appear that in bringing all his ponderous engines of learning to bear on such a subject, his profound knowledge of Greek and Latin literature, his familiarity with Hebrew, and his exhaustive acquaintance with the theological treatises of all Europe, the good pastor was tilting against a windmill, attacking an illusion which might very well have been let alone. Indeed, there are probably many people to be found who, so far from comprehending the reality of the mischief which Harenberg saw at work among his flock, do not even understand its nature, and are acquainted with no vampires, save those large bats which have a reputation in South America for biting the toes of unwary persons who lie uncovered in their beds. There must always be a certain interest in the false beliefs which have possessed the minds of men; and before beginning to speak of Harenberg's book, which is now somewhat rare, it may be explained that a vampire was a person, man or woman, who, after death, or after that which seemed to be death, returned to the scene of his or her past life, and sucked the blood of living people. This was bad enough; but the worst part of the matter was, that innocent people slain in this way became vampires themselves, and so the evil spread in an ever-widening circle.
Such was the belief which Harenberg set himself to combat; being instigated thereto, not only by the pious nature of the work, but also, as he himself explained, by the wishes of 'an exalted person,' to whom he dedicates his book, in terms of mingled worldly respect and spiritual blessing, which make us feel as if we knew and loved the man. Thus fortified with the protection of the great, which he doubtless considered indispensable to him, and which, perhaps, was so indeed, Harenberg began to accumulate materials for his task.
His first proceeding seems to have been to stock his parsonage with every work he could find which touched, directly or indirectly, on vampires. To these he added an extraordinary number of treatises on necromancy, witchcraft, and the cabalistic art. He provided himself with Reuchlin's De Arte Cabbalistica and the Dialogus de Operationibus Daemonum of Michael Psellus. Meyenberg, On the Depths of Satan, stood on his shelves, side by side with the Dissertation of Theodore Kirchmeier On Men apparently Dead; while the great and learned composition of Gottlieb Wernsdorf Concerning the Condition of Souls parted from the Flesh, and their Dealings with the Living, naturally occupied a place of honour. Hoffman's work on The Power of the Devil over Human Bodies was, of course, indispensable; while on the collection of tales formed by Harsdorfer under the attractive title, Mournful Tales of Murder, the pastor relied for many precious facts. These, with Paracelsus, and a host more names of greater or of less repute among those whose thoughts dwell in darkness, adorned the pastor's study; and there the good man sat day after day— for the work must have occupied many months, if not even years — plunged in the constant contemplation of the most gruesome and terrific amongst the imaginings of man.
If ever ghosts or wandering spirits revisited the glimpses of the moon, one might suppose that the rectory at Gandersheim was full of them. The little study, where sat the patient student, straining, with all his intense German application, and his eager longing to know, after a clear view of the truth or falsity of the evil influences said to proceed from the next world, might surely have been a meeting-place of spirits. Doubtless, the peasants, returning late at night to Gandersheim, trembled and hurried on when they saw across the fields the light gleaming from the window where their pastor sat wrestling with Satan. One cannot doubt that Harenberg himself had his moments of terror and of shaken faith, as he read and pondered the wild and terrible stories which he either relates or refers to in his pages; but of such waverings of spirit there is no trace whatever in his work. One clear thread runs through it all; a firm and steady faith in the universal rule of goodness and of reason shines out of every paragraph. Truth it is which the pastor seeks, and not once does he bow the knee to superstition.
But now let us see what these tales were which so disturbed the excellent man and impelled him to deal this lusty blow at Satan. From the borders of Turkey they chiefly emanated. Servia is particularly named as a hotbed of such beliefs, numbers of which were vouched for on excellent authority. The following story, for example, is told by Erasmus Franciscus, who annotated Valvasor's standard work, describing the Archduchy of Krain or Carniola—the reference is to the third volume, book eleven, of that valuable treatise.
In the year 1672 there dwelt in the markettown of Kring, in the said Archduchy, one George Grando, who, in the ordinary course of nature, fell sick, died, and was buried with the usual rites of the Christian church. These rites were solemnised by one Father George, a monk of St Paul; but so little did they avail to give rest to Grando's spirit, that the monk, with the other mourners, had hardly returned to the widow's house, intending to give her consolation, when they saw Grando himself sitting behind the door. It was clearly futile to console anybody for the loss of one who was not gone after all; and arguing thus, all the mourners tumbled over each other out of the house, leaving husband and wife to settle the matter together. Even the monk fled as quickly as the rest.
As it proved in the event, he would have done better to remain and grapple with the difficulty at the outset. For, ere long, strange stories began to fly round Kring, of a dark figure seen to go about the streets by night, stopping now and then to tap at the door of some house, but always passing on without waiting for an answer. In a little while people began to die mysteriously in Kring; and it was noticed that the deaths occurred in the houses at which the spectral figure had tapped its signal. Some said the spectre was that of Grando; and, at the same time, the widow complained that she was tormented by the spirit of her husband, who night after night threw her into a deep sleep, doubtless with the wicked object of sucking blood, as all vampires did, while she lay in slumber. All these tales and rumours gathered force so quickly that, at the end of a fortnight, the 'supan,' or chiefmagistrate of Kring, could no longer disregard them, but felt himself under the necessity of taking the usual steps to ascertain whether it was indeed the case that Grando was a vampire.
It was a nervous business, but the supan summoned those whom he thought the most stout-hearted of his neighbours; and, having fortified them in advance with a judicious allowance of strong cordial, laid the matter open to them. Grando, he said, hail already been gnawing several people in Kring, and it was high time to stop his antics. The brave fellows professed loudly that they were not afraid of 'the restless night-walker,' and they sallied off, provided with two torches and a crucifix.
Perhaps it was a little foolhardy to undertake this task at night; for the wavering light of torches has ere now upset the nerves of many men who are brave enough in the cheerful sunlight. We need not, therefore, be unduly contemptuous of these stout ghost-catchers of Kring when we find it recorded that, on opening the grave, and seeing Grando's body untouched by decay, the mouth open with a pleasant smile, and a rosy Hush upon its cheeks, the whole party were seized with terror, and fled in ignominious rout back to Kring. This cowardly retreat of nine living men, before one who was not even certainly dead, annoyed the supan, who had remained behind, occupied, doubtless, with more important affairs. He rated them soundly, and tried to restore their courage with more cordial; but to no effect. Not a man would budge unless he would go back with them to the grave. Even a vampire must certainly respect the supan the men argued; but the supan himself was not quite sure, and thought it prudent to have a priest in the party. A priest was accordingly brought — not the Father George who had already been concerned in this affair, but one of tougher fibre— and the party carried with them also a heavy stake of hawthorn wood, sharpened to a point, which was generally esteemed a sovereign specific in the case of vampires.
At the grave all was as the fugitives had left it. Grando lay smiling on them, with the high flush on his cheeks, like a man just awaking from a refreshing slumber; but there was one of the party now who did not fear him. The priest knelt down solemnly, and held his crucifix aloft. 'Oh, vampire, look on this!' he said. 'Here is Christ Jesus who loosed us from the pains of hell, and died for us upon the tree!' And he went on to conjure the restless spirit in the most compassionate and moving terms, on which a wonderful thing happened. Great tears formed under the vampire's eyelids, and rolled slowly down his cheeks — a sign of human weakness, which gave courage to those standing by. The hawthorn stake was brought forward; but, as often as they strove to drive it through the body, the sharpened wood rebounded; and it was not until one, bolder than the rest, sprang into the grave and cut off the vampire's head, that the evil spirit departed, with a loud shriek and a contortion of the limbs, which proved too well what it was that had found a dwelling-place in the dust and ashes which were once a man.
Such was a typical vampire story, differing in no material point from fifty others which were perpetually circulating from the borders of Hungary to the Baltic. One may imagine how the ignorant peasant folk terrified themselves with these tales, passing them from mouth to mouth with added touches, which heightened their effect, until, on infirm minds, a sensation was produced which the pastor, the natural counsellor of his flock, might well have thought it worth his utmost efforts to allay.
With quaint and curious learning Harenberg traces the development of the vampire superstition from the heathen sacrifices of living animals, offered to satisfy the thirst of invisible spirits for blood, through the fancies of the Platonists, and the dreams of the learned Jew, Isaac Abarbanel, who maintained that, before the soul can be loosed from the fetters of its flesh, it must lie some months with it in the grave, down to the doctrine, adopted rather than imagined, of the Greek Church, which taught that persons who died under its ban could not be resolved into the elements again until the curse was taken off, but lay untouched by decay, while their spirits wandered up and down the earth, tapping at house doors as Grando did, with the same fatal consequences. To serve its own ends, the church scattered this doctrine to the winds, which spread it like thistledown, laying up countless difficulties for teachers of a higher morality in the future. But even greater than the responsibility of the monks, Harenberg declares, is that of the so-called men of science, Thales, Saracenus, Boehmen, and many another, who, being cursed with intellectual laziness, introduced a spirit whenever they encountered a difficulty. 'Not, however, that I wish to deny,' he remarks, 'that the lore of spirits, when better cultivated, may give right valuable help to a Christian man; but many things are to be done before that can happen. Safe experiences, sound conclusions, and a well-grounded consideration of the most difficult places in the book of God — these are the elements, and all the "windmill spirits" and soft-blowing airs of fancy must first be swept away.'
'Safe experiences, sound conclusions'—wise and weighty words, good pastor! But when shall the world behold a controversialist who, while exposing the weakness of his adversary's buttresses, caste an equally careful eye upon his own?
'Let us grant,' cries Harenberg, 'that the flush of life was really on Grando's body many days after his death and burial. Still, there would be no miracle in that if the man were alive all the time! Look at the Chronica Slavica — by an unknown author, it is true, but not on that account to be distrusted — where you will find that a school-boy of Lubeck, in the year 1367, slept for seven years at a stretch, after which he woke up perfectly well!' If this fact be thought too venerable to use in an argument, take the Swedish gardener — no authority is quoted for this story — who, going to pull a neighbour out of the water, tumbled in himself. The water was ice cold, and the gardener lay in it for sixteen hours, at the end of which time he was token out stiff and to all appearance dead; but, being carefully toasted before a gentle fire, with abundance of blankets, came round quite nicely, and may be living still. And, as we cannot all expect to have the constitution of a Swedish gardener, listen again to the wonderful story of a woman who, travelling somewhere with her baby, a child seven weeks old, fell into a pond, and lay under water for no less than three days! You will say both mother and child must have been dead! But no! judicious treatment brought them both round, and they were none the worse; though both these stories, Harenberg admits, have caused great searchings of heart among the learned. Moreover, it is well known that swallows sleep all the winter through, and guard themselves from being waked up too soon, either by burrowing down under the earth or by sinking themselves deep in streams or lakes, where nobody can disturb them.
With such a hail of indubitable facts, the learned Harenberg bombards us into admitting that animation may sometimes be suspended; and that, if the supan of Kring had laid aside his hawthorn stoke, his knife, his crucifix, and resorted to the gentler method of chafing Grando's extremities, and toasting him before a comfortable fire, much more satisfactory results might have been obtained. Hereby, of course, a hole is knocked in the vampire superstition, which, if not as deep as a well, or as wide as a church door, is, in Harenberg's opinion, quite enough to let its life out. But, as the pastor was nothing if not an honest controversialist, he has no sooner achieved this signal success than he gathers up his forces to complete it by demolishing the stories of the living people, who claimed to have seen the vampire, or to have been bitten by him.
It would be very tedious to follow the pastor through all the interminable branches of his argument. For, though starting majestically like a river at the flood, it must be admitted that its current soon gets choked among sandbanks of learning, and meanders on through dismal wastes, where one stumbles perpetually over authorities quoted from the most recondite sources. Diodorus Siculus, Sextus Empiricus, Censorinus, Julius Caasar Bengerus, Thomas Stanleius (one is refreshed to find an English albeit Latinised name), Mauratinus, Conrad Dippel, Epiphanius, Iamblichus — one should be a German pastor to enjoy them. But at the end of all this cavernous reasoning a gleam of light emerges. These tales of such people who believe that vampires have been plaguing them, what are they then?' Mere illusions!' shouts the pastor triumphantly. 'Nothing in the world but the workings of a diseased imagination.' Really, one is so pleased with the conclusion that one forgets to ask whether the good man might not have reached it by an easier road.
Having thus established himself securely on the hill of wisdom, Harenberg proceeds, in a few concluding chapters, to cast a pitying glance round upon the follies of his neighbours, touching lightly upon witches, Brocken-spectres, werewolves, and other grisly superstitions which were widely held among the people. Witches, he declares, are much to be pitied, there being excellent reason to suppose that all their stories of having sailed up to the Brocken on a broomstick, with a large cat perched in front, and of having done various outrageous and wicked things there, are just dreams mistaken for reality. 'Proof!' chirps the pastor; 'there is excellent proof.' Some years ago a young witch in Mecklenburg gave herself up to the authorities, being quite unable to bear any longer the recollection of the awful crimes she had committed on the Brocken, and driven by an irresistible impulse to confess them. Luckily for her, the authorities were sensible men; and, instead of setting up a stake at once and scattering her ashes to the four winds of heaven; they were minded to watch her, and see whether she really went to the Brocken. Accordingly, they locked her up, with all the charms and unguents which she declared to be necessary, and had the satisfaction of seeing that, after she had smeared her temples and the soles of her feet with an ointment of opium, she did nothing more desperately wicked than to fall into a heavy sleep. This was no hanging matter in Mecklenburg, even though the foolish woman woke up in the firm belief that she had sailed through the skies as before. The prosaic magistrates believed their eyes, and let her go.
Again, the same method is good towards werewolves, those terrific beings, human creatures with wolves' form and temper, who, by their mingled nature, create far more terror than the fiercest wolf or the most savage man. 'What shall I say of werewolves?' asks the pastor, evidently at a loss for a moment. But he quickly recollects how certain peasants once caught one, and brought him before Duke Albert of Prussia. The accusation of being a werewolf was supported by the fellow himself, who admitted that twice every year, at Christmas and at midsummer, he was turned into a wolf, and possessed with a lust for tearing men and animals to pieces. 'Shut him up over Christmas,' said the duke, 'and let us see this werewolf change.' But when Christmas had come and gone, the man was a man still, though possessed by a mania which made him fancy himself a wolf.
Strange what the fancy will do! Harenberg muses. There was a man in Harzburg, a capital fellow, a good Christian soul, but possessed with the notion that on Ascension Day anybody who tried could ascend to heaven. He tried it once himself, mounted up into a cherry-tree, spread out his arms boldly, as if they had been wings, and leaped into the air. Alas! he went down instead of up, bruising himself sorely upon the ground.
With such pleasing anecdotes, the pastor adorns his moral, and, at the same time, drives it home. But, perhaps, enough has been detailed of these reasonable and Christian reflections, as I their author styled them; for it is unfortunately true that they would be more amusing if they were less reasonable. The world — it is a deplorabl fact — does not love reason; it loves lies. Had Harenberg been a liar, he might have been a more popular and more widely-read author. He was too conscientious; and one may doubt whether his contemporaries were at all pleased with him for stripping so many of their favourite illusions of every rag of decent covering. Perhaps these considerations may serve to deter any pastor of our own days who may be impelled to slaughter some superstition-—if any there be in this dull age-—to refrain from being so very truthful and rational in his argument, and to try to pick up, as he goes along, some of that 'atmosphere' which is the only thing that can make a book attractive to the general reader.