13 August 2009

Vampires in Britain

Great Britain is the home to many vampire stories. So many accounts exist that it would be ludicrous to repeat (or even mention) them all in this blog article. "The island nation had few original vampire traditions but nevertheless made significant contributions to the development of the vampire" fictions of modern times (Bunson 85).

"Let us look first at general information about vampires that would have been available in the late nineteenth century" (Day 3). During this time, Stoker was writing his famous (or infamous) book Dracula and the idea of romanticized vampirism was born. "In 1847 was published Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood...a very lengthy but well written and certainly exciting romance..." by Thomas Preskett Prest (Summers 103). "Prest definitely states that his romance is founded upon incidents which were alleged to have taken place in England in the last years of the reign of Queen Anne [circa 1712-1714]. No such record has been traced, but if the statement be correct it is exceedingly interesting to find a case of vampirism in England at this date where the tradition had almost, if not entirely, died out". "It is quite possible, of course, that Prest threw out these suggestions to give his work an extra spice, but, however that may be, he has certainly studied the Vampire legends and traditions with some care, and he introduces into his chapters several telling touches which can be authenticated by parallel circumstances in vampire legends" (105).

Legends of vampires were not completely unknown in England during this time. Certainly remnants of ancient tales existed, and imported stories most likely peeked native interest. In fact, "the word "vampyre" entered the English language in 1732, its first appearance (in a London periodical) occasioned by a rash of vampire sightings documented in several parts of central and eastern Europe" (Day 3). It is more likely, however, that vampires were considered unreal and archaic during the period of enlightenment and industrial revolution. "Pieces of folk-lore in the remoter countries, half-forgotten oral tradition (now almost entirely dying out), and the persistence of a few old customs,...which are casually maintained owing to some vague idea of thereby warding off some indefinite ill-luck...afford evidence of a widespread and deeply-rooted belief in Vampires, even if such manifestations were comparatively few in number" (Summers 78).

Ralph Shirley wrote, "It may be doubted, indeed, in spite of the lack of records, whether vampirism in one form or another is quite as absent from the conditions of modern civilization as is commonly supposed. Although we are not to-day familiar with the Slavonic type of vampire that sucks the blood of its victims, producing death in two or three days' time, strange cases come to light...the vampire in these cases being an entity in human form who indulges in intercourse with someone of the opposite sex" (Summers 115). Whatever the truth, by the 19th century interest in vampires and the occult revived.

"A curious case was reported in the Gentleman's Magazine, July, 1851, belongs to the reign of King Charles I, but this concerns the old idea that a dead body if touched by the murderer will bleed, and cannot strictly be said to be pertinent to Vampirism" (Summers 99). Over a few decades, this general resurgence of occultism morphed into new vampire legends which spread through Britain and to Ireland. The Irish author, Patrick MacGill wrote "In my sleep I had gone with the dead man from the hut out into the open. He walked with me, the dead man, who knew that he was dead. I tried to prove to him that it was not quite the right and proper thing to do, to walk when life had left the body. But he paid not a sign of heed to my declamation." MacGill's work shows the social constraints of the time and how they affected vampire fiction. "Like a vampire the dead man walks 'when life had left the body.' The phrase 'right and proper' demonstrates an anxiety to reassert boundaries and borders and the narrator risks his own life in order to bury the dead man....he recounts a stinking corpse "'uggin' me, kissin' me" inevitably suggesting the threatening embrace of the vampire" (Day 71).

The vampire had become a creature that could exist both within and outside of society. Ancient and Slavic accounts do not conscript the vampire to social norms or regulations, but during this period in the British isles vampires were given a place in society. Stoker's Dracula repeats this idea in the sentence, "I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is" (Stoker 28). "With this statement, Dracula not only expresses his desire to go to London but to share in the experience of the modern city, suggesting that in this novel, Stoker sought not simply to relocate the gothic tale to a new location but rather to reconfigure it for the modern world. Dracula yearns for more than blood but the 'whirl and rush of humanity.' Since Stoker's novel, vampires, particularly on film, have been increasingly attracted to cities in which they are free to hunt amongst the crowds." (Day 125).

Vampires were not always city dwellers. "William of Newburgh [1136? - 1198?] and Walter Map [born 1140, died c. 1208-1210]...note thence how prominent was the belief in earlier times" (Summers 92). In their time, they had most frequently appeared in small rural villages. In more ancient legends, "when a Vampire revisits some unfortunate town...his ravages are, owing to the appalling fetor of the corpse, in every case apparently followed by an outbreak of the plague" (Summers 88). "William of Malmesbury [c. 1080/1095-c. 1143] says that in England it was commonly supposed and indeed certainly known that evil men returned to walk in the world after they are dead and buried, inasmuch as their bodies are re-animated by the Devil, who energizes them and compels them to act as he desires: nequam hominis cadauer post mortem daemone agente discurrere" (78). Vampires and revenants at this time acted contrary to society not within it. The conflict between vampires and social norm, then mandated by the Church, was so strong that a supposed revenant would be exhumed, burned, and disposed of in a manner that is not fitting of a Christian parishioner.

In this period, vampires were evil creatures who were considered the enemy of the Church and of God, and they returned to animation in order to harass the living or unleash plague. "Walter Map has...narratives which ...nearly resemble the Vampire [Slavic] stories...and which show the idea of a re-vitalized dead man returning to molest the living" (92). In harmony with Eastern tales, the vampire most frequently visited and coupled with his former spouse. Clearly, this notion may indicate one way that a lonely widow could explain away the child born after her husband's death, and throughout history the vampire has served as the scapegoat for many social sins.

Whether the vampire is blamed for sin or created by sin, it is clear that a line was drawn between the Church and the revenants that walked the earth. Their graves were disturbed and their bodies were relinquished to be the subject of rites that resembled witchcraft. "If the living were haunted by the constant return of the dead, who vampire-like refused to remain dead, there was also a sense in which the dead were haunted by the living, refused the possibility of a final peace" (Day 73).

Beoedh ge gesunde,

Bunson, Matthew. The vampire encyclopedia.
Day, Peter. Vampires.
MacGill, Patrick. The Great Push. 118-9.
Map, Walter. De Nugia Curialium.

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