Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Original Van Helsing

It is widely believed that Bram Stoker based his character of Dr Van Helsing on a real character, also a doctor from Holland who carried out real life research into vampires. Gerard van Swieten (1700–1772) was born in Leiden, Holland and at the age of forty fives became the personal physician to the Austrian Empress Maria Theresia. His statue is given place of prominence on Vienna’s ring right underneath that of his employer.
As well as being someone in whom the empress placed great trust, he was also her personal librarian and did Trojan work for the health service and medical studies. The 18th century was a time of Enlightenment and the empress was eager to spread reform and learning throughout her vast empire, which encompassed most of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. It was from the latter territories that age old superstition challenged modern thinking. There had always been a strong belief in vampires in the Balkans and several cases of vampirism from the region had been documented when the phenomenon reached its peak in the 18th century. The first case was that of the Croatian vampire Giure Grando from the Istrian peninsula who died in 1656. According to the locals he rose from the grave and knocked on the doors of his neighbours. Wherever the knock was heard someone died from that house. When his grave was opened, sixteen years after being interred, his body was not decomposed and he had a smile on his face. Attempts to stake him with a hawthorn stick failed and it is said that his body groaned as his head was sawn off. The two most famous vampire cases were those of Arnold Paole and Peter Plogojowitz both from deeply impoverished parts of Serbia which had been recently ceded to Austria from the Ottoman Empire. It is not known how Plogojowitz died but returned from the dead to ask his son for food. It was a widely held belief that the dead got hungry and thirsty. His son refused and was found dead the next day. Several neighbours also died from loss of blood, claiming on their dead beds that Plogojowitz had visited them at night. The locals demanded from their Austrian Imperial Provisor, a man called Frombald, take action. He wanted to seek further advice on the matter from the authorities in Belgrade but hysteria among the villagers was so great that immediate action had to be taken. He was compelled to acquiesce to a vampire slaying, something of which, as an outsider, he understood little. A priest was present as the grave was opened. The body was not decomposed, hair and a beard had grown as had new skin and nails and there was blood in the mouth. The assembled crowds staked the corpse and fresh blood spurted out. Today these symptoms with the aid of medical knowledge would not be considered abnormal, but the assembled crowd knew nothing of modern medicine and followed an age old ritual. The Serbian Arnold Paole had been a soldier, who had been attacked by a vampire in Kosovo. He had told his neighbours that he had cured himself by eating the soil from the vampire’s grave. Years later he became a farmer in his native village of Meduegna and died suddenly when he fell from a hay wagon in 1726. Within three weeks of his passing four people claimed that he had visited them at night. They all died soon after. His grave was opened and again his body was not in a state of decomposition. Fresh blood had flown from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. His finger nails had apparently grown since death. A stake was driven through his heart, to which he apparently groaned and his body was burned. The same was done with his victims. The whole affair was well documented by the local authorities, which seemed to confirm the existence of vampires. Word reached the seat of the empire in Vienna and Johann Flüchinger, a regimental field surgeon was sent to investigate. His report Visum et Repertum (Seen and Discovered) was published in 1732 and became a European bestseller and Paole became known throughout Europe. Indeed, the word vampire itself entered the English language from German at this time. Academics and thinkers began to debate the existence of vampires. While some argued it was premature burial or rabies, which causes thirst and makes the victims light sensitive, others such as Dom Augustine Calmet, a well respected French theologian and scholar, brought out an influential treatise in 1746 which supported the existence of vampires. Even Voltaire seemed to believe in them and gave a description of them in his Philosophical Dictionary. The European wide discussion prompted the empress to send van Swieten to Moravia to determine once and for all whether or not vampires existed and he commenced his work in 1755.Van Swieten was not impressed by what he found. His findings were published in a report entitled Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster (Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts) in which he put forward offered natural explanation for a belief in vampires. Lack of decomposition he argued was due to the lack of oxygen in the coffin and dismissed the fears of the people as peasant superstition.
Van Swieten’s conclusion was simple- “Vampires appear only where ignorance still rules.” Given his influence over the Empress she passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and desecration of bodies by impaling, decapitating or cremating, which largely put an end to the vampire epidemics. Medical knowledge and the strange phenomena and appearances that the Austrian officials witnessed are now known to accompany the natural process of the decomposition of the body. Despite this there is still a belief in the undead in some corners of Europe as documented in the case of Petre Toma. When he died in 2003 relatives claimed he was coming back from the grave to haunt them. Three weeks later they opened his grave, removed his heart and burnt it at the village crossroads, which put a stop to his nocturnal visits.

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