Gerard van Swieten: “Vampyrismus” – attempted English translation

 

Gerard van Swieten was a Dutchman, and court physician of the Empress of Austria-Hungary. In this position, he was involved in the investigation of rumours of vampirism that persisted in some remote areas of the Empire. From the way he writes, it appears to me that he did not travel to these areas himself – he was, after all, a very busy man. But it seems it was his job to sum up all of the findings of the commissioners into one report. His report of March 1755 (written in French), which in the German translation is simply titled “Vampyrismus”, is a scientific refutation of the vampire myth. However, in order to dissect and reject the vampire myth, van Swieten does note and report some of the folklore surrounding vampires. And thus his treatise is one of a number of historic texts by clergymen, scientists, and philosophers that made this folklore (which may have otherwise been ignored or forgotten) known in Western Europe, laying the basis for the vampire literature of the 19th century.

 

I have read the German translation of Van Swieten’s treatise on the vampire superstition (Project Gutenberg edition) and, just for funsies, I translated it into English a little.

I did invest some time and work into it, but not too much; and I was very lax in regard to the accuracy of my translation. Often, it is more a summary of the content of the original sentence rather than a faithful translation. I have also omitted a lot of passages and merely indicated or summarised what is said in them. For all of these reasons, I must stress that this is NOT a translation anyone could safely use for school or other academic purposes. I am sure there are other translations out there that you can use, although I have until now been unable to find one. Based on the assumption that there is nothing left on earth that does not exist on the internet, I concluded that there should be an easily accessible English translation of the text somewhere. All I could find so far is a remark that, allegedly, the Complete Book of Vampires by Leonard R. N. Ashley contains a partial translation of the text.

 

So, one reason for my “lax” approach to this translation was that I was sure there must be an English translation already out there anyway.

Other reasons for my “free-form” approach to translate this text lie in the fact that the German text is in parts difficult to read (and is itself only a translation of the French original), and that van Swieten goes off on tangents more than once.

In dealing with the events of 1755, van Swieten also references earlier incidents from the 1720s and 1730s from various other locations. And unfortunately, it is not always 100% clear which case he is talking about at certain times, or if two cases he mentions in different passages of his report are actually one and the same.

Vampirism is also referred to here as “the magic of the dead”, or “posthumous magic”. Therefore, the word “witch” turns up often, instead of vampire. And in turn: the rumour that someone may have been a witch in life causes suspicion that that person may have turned to some witchcraft or unholy connection to ensure a life as a living dead. So the word witch is more prominent in parts than the word vampire.

 

 

I omitted completely the introduction by the German publisher of the 1768 print used at Project Gutenberg.

I also omitted all the footnotes – because from what I gather from the ramblings of the 18th century German publisher, it seems they are not originally by van Swieten. These footnotes are either the work of the German translator, or the German publisher, or both, and may have been taken in part from the Italian translation (Considerazione intorno alla pretesa Magia Postuma presentata al supremo Direttorio di Vienna dal Signor Barone Gerardo Van-Swieten Archiatro delle Cesaree Maestà, e Prefetto della loro Bibliotheca. Dal Francese nell’Italiano recata con annotazioni del traduttore. Roveredo ai 26. Ottobre 1756).

Whoever compiled these footnotes, used them to painstakingly list other reports that confirm what van Swieten has written; or that might elaborate on a point which van Swieten only mentions in passing. Since these documents are all dealing to some degree with rumours and folklore surrounding vampirism, I tried to compile them into a separate list.

 

 

As I said, I left out many passages, summarising or describing rather than translating them. These summaries and descriptions I put in square brackets: [ ]

(In the same way I put also some of my own remarks in such brackets, and on one or two occasions translations which are explanatory rather than “true”.)

One example for such a summarised passage is one in which van Swieten eagerly professes his Christian faith. This entire text is a scientific treatise that rejects the belief in anything supernatural, emphasising that there is a scientific explanation for each and everything, and that the more science progresses, the less unexplained mysteries will remain. So in writing this, van Swieten apparently deemed it wise to add the caveat that he is of course not doubting anything that is written in the Bible, etc., etc., so that no-one would cause him any trouble.

This is one of those passages where I found it of little value to translate word for word, and thought it more suitable to just summarise what is being said.

 

Van Swieten’s caution in regard to religion is probably also the reason why he chose to blame superstition on the influence of the Orthodox Church. Linking the Orthodox Church to ignorance and superstition allows him to implicitly set the Catholic Church apart as an institution of learning and “true” religion.

 

Here follows my shortened (and “free”) translation, containing ca. 3400 words:

 

 

 

 

Contents:

I – About Vampirism in General

II – Do the Bodies of Vampires Rot?

III – Do Vampires Haunt the Living?

 

 

 

I – About Vampirism in General

 

If people are faced with things whose cause they cannot understand, they tend to seek that cause in a power higher than that of mere humans. [I. e., if people do not understand something, they look for a supernatural explanation.] That can be seen in history throughout the centuries.

[Here follows a long paragraph in which van Swieten keeps assuring his readers in a very clumsy and cringe-inducing way that he is only talking about superstitions, and that he would of course never claim that any of the things in the Bible fall within that category; and that of course there are things that are caused by a higher power, i. e. God, etc., etc.]

[Then, van Swieten continues with his argument about superstitions and science:]

Ever since science has been on the rise, one has discovered clearly the natural causes of those things and events which used to elicit wonder in people of lesser learning. Take as an example the eclipses, which used to put whole populations in fear and panic, because they seemed like miraculous works. Improvements in astronomy banished those fears. This spectacle, which used to appear so terrifying in the past, does not terrify us today. We can calmly admire the omnipotence of God, who moves around those great bodies in such an infinitely wide space, and does so with such precision that even the feeble human intellect has been able to calculate their occurrence for our time and for centuries to come.

 

Gunpowder, electric impulses, optical illusions using mirrors and other tricks – all these are of a nature that using them you could easily perplex every person who is not aware of their existence. And so there have been many con-men who used these techniques to dupe naïve audiences and pretend to be the greatest magicians.

 

It is also true to say that the more science progresses, the smaller will become the number of miracles. The witchcraft of the dead (Magia Posthuma), which is the subject of our discussion, is another of those examples. Because all those events only occur in areas which are still unenlightened. It has also to be assumed, that the schismatic Greeks [i. e., the Orthodox Church] are the main propagator of these superstitions.

 

[Here follows a short paragraph in which van Swieten references a Frenchman by the name of Tournefort. I will not translate the paragraph in full. Tournefort was a botanist and a doctor, and had been sent by Louis XIV to Greece and Asia for studies and research. In Greece, Tourmefort witnessed how a dead body was accused of such posthumous wichcraft, and he witnessed the instruments and actions used to make sure that this dead body cannot continue to haunt the living. Van Swieten does not elaborate on any of this, but merely references Tournefort’s account, as some sort of “further reading” suggestion. He notes that the book containing these events is called Voyage au Levant par Mr. Tournefort, and that this book is divided into letters, and that the story in question can be found in the third letter.]

 

[The next paragraphs, which I while not translate in full either, concern a case that van Swieten regards as similar to the one he had been investigating (and which resulted in this short treatise). That earlier case took place in 1732 in the Siebenbürgen area of the Empire (i. e. Transylvania). The fear of the posthumous witchcraft was very common in those areas in those days, van Swieten tells us. And those dead were called Vampyri and people believed they would suck the blood of humans and animals alike. He also says that, according to these superstitions, humans that eat the meat from animals that have previously been bitten by a vampire will also turn into a vampire. And that, anyway, everyone who has been a victim of a vampire in life will become a vampire in death. The only way for a victim to avoid becoming a vampire after death, is to follow a ritual (before death) which includes eating the soil from a vampire grave and rubbing yourself with the blood of a vampire.

Van Swieten says that he has heard about these events, and he feels certain that there must be an official account somewhere, because he is sure that there has been an official investigation of these events of 1732. {Side note: reportedly, van Swieten first came to the Vienna court in around 1744; this is the reason that he has only heard about these cases, but has no knowledge of the administrative details.}

The rituals that took place in that area in 1732 had been, according to van Swieten, done on orders of the local magistrate – which, van Swieten remarks wrily, surely must mean that the man is an expert in vampirism. It was ordered that the chest (and whole body) of a dead body suspected of being a vampire should be pierced through with a very pointy wooden stake. Afterwards, the head would be severed, all parts burned, and the entire ashes buried in a pit.

Van Swieten remarks with some sarcasm that you can become a vampire easily and swiftly, as vampirism is apparently as contagious as Scabies. Because local folklore also maintains that, if a vampiric body is not removed from a churchyard and destroyed, it will infect all other dead bodies which have been buried after it, turning them all into vampires as well.

Van Swieten again states that he does not know all the circumstance of that earlier case. But that he will instead concentrate on the more recent case of 1755, which has been investigated on orders of the Empress herself, by people of whose intelligence and professional competence van Swieten is convinced.]

 

[As van Swieten turns to the case of 1755, he is continuing his use of sarcasm:]

It is true that our vampires of 1755 had not yet actually turned into bloodsuckers; but apparently were on the best way of doing so. The hangman, who is undoubtedly very sincere in his work, assured us that when he cut into pieces those dead bodies that had been sentenced to be burned, blood shot out of them often and forcefully. However, he later admitted that that blood was less than a spoonful; which makes the whole claim appear in quite a different light.

 

The extraordinary occurrences, which people claim to have witnessed, can be grouped into two points: firstly, that the bodies of the “vampires” show no signs of decay. Secondly, that the vampires haunt the living. Those two points I will deal with, in as short a manner as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

II – Do the Bodies of Vampires Rot?

 

A body is commonly prone to rot, a process through which all parts of the body vanish almost entirely (except for the bones), leaving behind only a very light soil. This rot happens in the grave but slowly, and without any forceful impact on the body.

 

This can be proven, because, if you open a coffin after 15 years (and do so carefully, not subjecting the coffin to any tremors) you will be under the impression that the body lies unharmed in the coffin. You will still be able to see all the facial features, etc. But if you move the coffin just a little, everything will crumble to dust, leaving behind only the bones.

 

Because the dead have to make room for others in their grave, 15 years is the time that has been in many places determined to be the period after which the gravediggers are allowed to remove the bodies. I have been present several times during such an opening of graves, asking the grave-diggers to open the coffins for me slowly and carefully. Through this knowledge I am convinced that after death we are not eaten up by worms, because then the facial features would not be preserved this well.

 

If you clear out graves, you find from time to time whole bodies that have not been rotting, but instead are desiccated and of a brownish colour, possessing very firm flesh [tissue], without ever having been embalmed [i. e. natural mummification].

One grave-digger assured me that out of a hundred dead bodies, you will usually find one that is desiccated and without signs of rot.

Based on these observations, I conclude that a body is able to withstand rot for many years, without the necessity for any supernatural cause.

 

I know well that the claim about the body of a vampire is not just that it is without signs of rot, but that its flesh is also fresh, and its limbs and joints still flexible. But this, too, can be found without miraculous causes

When they brought back to Vienna the bodies of the two arch duchesses who had died in Brussels, I was present when they opened the coffins. The faces were unblemished, and the tips of their noses flexible, etc. It is true that they had been embalmed, yet the aroma of the herbs used for this was no longer noticeable [i. e. the herbs were not very strong and their oils no longer of great effect]. The preservation of the bodies must therefore be attributed chiefly to the well-sealed lead coffins, which allowed no air to enter and thus prevented rot.

I therefore conclude that if a coffin is well-closed, and if the soil is hard and dense and is made more firm through cold air after the funeral, or if any other reasons block air from entering the coffin, then there will be either no rot, or a very slow one.

 

 

[Here, van Swieten brings more evidence for this diversity in decay. He mentions an English report (printed in London in 1751) about the opening of a family plot {crypt?} in Devon in February 1750. In that plot, there were bones and rotten coffins, but curiously also one wooden coffin that was entirely intact. When it was opened, they found an apparently un-decayed body. The church-register showed that no-one had been buried in that plot since 1669. Here, van Swieten notes wryly, we seem to have an English “vampire” who was considerate enough to actually stay in his grave for 80 years, not haunting or bothering anyone.

The English report seems to contain other cases as well (not given by van Swieten in detail), mostly in connection to graves that are very deep and surrounded by very dry soil. And the report also states that such well-preserved bodies are soon beginning to rot once they are exposed to the open air.

All of this, van Swieten concludes, is enough to prove that rot is not necessarily occurring in 100% of cases, and if it does, it is often happening rather slowly – especially when the soil is frozen, or the coffin itself rather air-tight.]

 

[Then, van Swieten returns to the case at hand:]

Let us now get to the case at hand and investigate the claims [of 1755] about vampirism:

Rosina Polakin died on Dec. 22nd 1754. But on Jan. 19th 1755 her body is taken from the grave and is declared a vampire worthy of burning, because it has not rot.

We know that anatomy students can keep bodies in winter for up to 6 or even 8 weeks in the open air without them rotting away. And it has to be noted that this winter [1754/55] was extraordinarily cold.

The other bodies concerned in this case had been rotting. But apparently, seeing that they had not yet been rotten away completely was enough to throw them into the flames, too.

What ignorance! What terrible folly! The Olmütz consistory vaguely writes about certain signs that have allegedly been found on the bodies of the vampires. But they are not listed or described anywhere. Two barber surgeons, who have never seen a dissected body in their lives and know nothing of human anatomy (as they themselves confessed to the commissioner) are the witnesses [i. e. experts] on whose expertise the verdict to burn the bodies has been based.

 

It is true, the Commisioner of Olmütz cannot even rely on the expertise of a barber surgeon in many of these cases. Apparently, it is enough that two church officials give their verdict about a case of vampirism. As the files show, there had been a case in the year 1723, when the body of a man was burned 13 days after his death, on the grounds that his grandmother had a bad reputation in the parish. In 1724 the body of another man had been burned (18 days after his death) merely because he was a friend of the former man. The simple fact that someone had been the friend of an alleged vampire was enough to reach that verdict.

The body of another man had been burned two days after his death for no other reason than that his body still looked well and his limbs and joints were still flexible.

 

All which has been written above clearly shows that the preservation of a body without rot can happen though very natural causes; and that rot, when it happens, happens slowly. And that a number of factors (such as preceding illness, air temperature, soil consistency, and many others) influence these things.

From all this it is also clear that the Olmütz consistory did not actually leave the bodies nearly enough time to rot, and that this “sign” for posthumous magic is thus completely null and void.

 

 

From this false basis, the most perverse results arose. Because it had been decided that an alleged vampire spreads his evil to all other bodies that have been buried after him in that same graveyard. But it is of course quite natural that these bodies must be less rotten than those that had been buried earlier.

Through this type of beautiful reasoning, the Olmütz consistory decided on April 23rd 1731 to have the dead bodies of nine people burned (seven of them children), because it was argued that they had been infected by a vampire that had been buried before them in that graveyard.

The dead bodies who had been buried before the „vampire“, have been spared, even though the commissioners Wabst and Gosser could prove that even those bodies still contained unrotten parts and even some blood. They have also proven that the two aforementioned barber surgeons have told lies.

 

 

 

III – Do Vampires Haunt the Living?

 

Let us now look at the claims that these partially or wholly unrotten bodies are the cause of apparitions or manifestations.

Firstly, we should note that there is not a single witness who claims that the dead appear before the living. People merely claim that they feel a certain unease and fright at night-time.

I leave it to your judgement to decide if these good people, whose imagination is taken over through daily reports of ghosts and other nonsense, have any other choice but to be afraid at night-time?

 

The investigation by the commissioners shows that some people claim their fear was conquered by laying down, while others claim their fear was conquered by sitting up. And it is well-known that fear begets fear.

 

Others believed that they saw or heard a dog, a calf, a pig, a calf’s head, etc. So why should the devil go to all that trouble of bringing back to life the body of a dead man, if he then appears as a dog or a calf. There is no connection between the alleged cause and the purported occurrence.

A dog or a cat, especially when black, and especially when spotted at night, are always claimed to be the devil, or a ghost lurking about the graveyard. Even a sow which was happily oinking its way past a house has been, according to witnesses, taken to be a risen vampire.

 

I should feel ashamed if I were to repeat all the nonsense which can be found in these witness statements.

 

 

Now, however, is also the time to talk about the origins of these events. A woman by the name of “Sallingerin” (sometimes also called “Wenzel Richterin”) has been buried 18 months ago. Now people claim that she had been a witch and that all misfortune comes from her. But where is the proof that she had been a witch? This good woman distributed herbal concoctions, and her son has discovered some of her secrets. She used some herbs and roots, as well as crayfish eyes, but all of it without any witchcraft. Only in order to impress her clients and augment the mystery surrounding her concoctions did she make strange requests, like ordering a sick person to sew her payment into a shirt and then send that shirt to her, in exchange for her medicine.

Now people claim that this man had been cursed, but the commissioners have examined him and diagnosed his illness as a severe but natural disease called Colica Pictonum [i. e. lead poisoning (?)]. This illness causes all limbs to contract. And we are currently actually seeing a similar case at our local citizens’ hospital, where we hope to cure a person from this illness.

In another incident this purported witch is said to have predicted the day on which a sick person is going to recover.

These are the proofs given for calling her a witch. But apparently this proof was not deemed valid or sufficient in her lifetime, and she always received the holy sacraments at church, and she died as a member of the congregation. She has also received a Christian burial. But now, 18 months after her death, she is suddenly supposed to be a witch worthy of burning.

 

 

Upon such reasoning has the whole affair been constructed, and so vice has been piled upon vice, and – if I may say so – even sacrilege has resulted from this affair.

The peace and sanctity of the grave have been breached. The good name of the deceased and their families have been destroyed – the family members would have to expect a similar treatment after their death, if we were not to act against these improper dealings.

The dead bodies of innocent children, whose souls already enjoy heavenly eternity, have been handed over to the hangman. Sons have been forced (dreadful thing) to drag the dead bodies of their mothers before the hangman. Even the [graves’] crosses themselves – which are the very symbol and reminder of our salvation and are revered in church – even the crosses, I say, have not been treated better. Disgracefully, they have been burned, and only because they had been standing on the graves of these people, these unfortunate butchery-victims of ignorance and superstition.

 

The most glaring injustice can be found in the condemnation of those people who had led an impeccable life and simply had had the misfortune of having been buried in a graveyard after a purported witch had been buried there. They just declare them all to be witches and warlocks. They hand them over to the hangman so that he may burn their dead bodies. These rulings even state in writing that these people should have been treated much harsher than that, had they still been alive. But still their dead bodies are ordered to be burnt in scorn and disgrace, so that the witches’ collaborators may have an deterring precedent.

Where are there any laws that justify such a verdict? They admit that there are no proper laws as such; but with cold-hearted indifference they argue that their verdicts are justified by local custom.

 

What number of misfortunes may have resulted from these events? One might imagine that many people, including those who are ill or highly pregnant, are fleeing the area in panic, and end up dead on the highways. Their only solace being that in this way their dead bodies are at least not subjected to the same shameful process.

The populace, permeated by a constant fear, are ready to leave their home and their farms just to get to a different place. In one word: everything is in uproar.

 

I am moved to pity (but am not surprised) that the simple folk, often very poorly educated, is driven to these excesses. But that [people in official positions] are condoning and justifying those abuses which are contrary to reason, this is something that is beyond my comprehension. And it fills me which such anger that I am forced to lay down my quill, so that I may not exceed the bounds of propriety.

 

THE END

 

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