Tuesday, October 6, 2009

These apparitions have given rise to a little work…

Today we have a special guest blog from Niels K. Petersen over at Magia Posthuma -
On several occasions, particularly on the periphery of the Habsburg Empire during the 17th and 18th centuries, dead people were suspected of being revenants or vampires, and consequently dug up and destroyed. Contemporary authors named this phenomenon Magia Posthuma. This blog is dedicated to understanding what happened and why.

Thanks Niels!

Angelique Gaudet, the owner of a book shop in Fort McIntyre, receives a strange package for her birthday. Unpacking it, she finds a book:

The book was old, very old and heavy. The binding was leather. The typeface was small. The language was Latin.

Looking over her shoulder, Fred read the title aloud. “Magia Posthuma.” He frowned. “Let me look at that.” He opened the volume to the title page. “If I remember my law school Latin, this is a study of the reanimation of the dead. And it’s apparently a scholarly treatise. It’s dedicated to the Bishop of Olmütz and was published in 1706.” He handed it back to her. “It’s a strange birthday gift, but I suspect it’s very valuable.’

As she later on takes a closer look at the book, Miss Gaudet doesn’t feel comfortable with it:

She stroked the thin, worn leather cover. It was as if a mantle of chill air swirled around her shoulders and she shivered, but she turned the pages carefully. The volume was illustrated with ancient woodcuts. The pictures were gruesome. Scenes in graveyards with priests standing by open graves. Wooden caskets thrown open. Corpses with stakes through their chests. She shook her head nervously and put the book down. This was not a book for a night when you were having trouble sleeping.’

These events unfold in the 1989 novel Blood Legacy by Prudence Foster that otherwise is inspired by characters from the history of the so-called ‘Blood Countess’, Elizabeth Bathory, and is a variation on the theme of the age old vampire seeking the modern reincarnation of his love. ‘Love Never Dies,’ as we know from the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

I for one envy Miss Gaudet in being presented with an original copy of Magia Posthuma. It is indeed a rare and very valuable book, and a legend in its own right. Mentioned in almost every modern book on vampires, Magia Posthuma is a household title among vampire aficionados, but very few people have actually read it.

The book itself is in fact neither heavy nor illustrated with woodcuts. It isn’t even really a book about the reanimation of the dead!

Magia Posthuma per juridicum illud pro & contra suspenso nonnullibi judicio investigata was written by Karl Ferdinand von Schertz at the beginning of the 18th century and published sometime in 1704 or 1706 in Olomouc in Moravia, the Eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic.

In those days Moravia and neighbouring areas like Silesia apparently had problems with ‘magia posthuma’, posthumous magic: Dead people returning to torment and haunt the living, their corpses showing no signs of corruption. The most effective remedy against this magical phenomenon was believed to be the destruction of the corpses, in particular by fire. As the corpses were typically those of people suspected of performing acts of magic while alive, the burning of their corpses could be considered the post mortem punishment at the stake of witches.

Being a lawyer, von Schertz’s aim was to examine how to deal with such cases. Consequently, he studied a number of cases of posthumous magic, and aided by the writings of various authorities on matters of law and demonology, like e.g. the famed Catholic theologian Martin Del Rio, he closely argued pro & contra various conceptions of the phenomenon and ways to rid oneself of it.

Although a sceptic, von Schertz did not question the reality of demons and spectres. He actually ridiculed Thomas Hobbes for claiming that spectres do not exist. Although he did in fact concede to the use of post mortem executions of presumed revenants, he also suggested other methods like masses and prayer.

The practices of the Catholic Church in Moravia and neighbouring countries during that period have been debated by historians. Did the Jesuits encourage the superstitious beliefs of the local population, or did they just try to stay on good terms with the superstitious inhabitants? What is certain is that the Jesuits themselves later on came at odds with the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa’s endeavours to extend her enlightened rule to those territories. In 1755 she even set out to stop post mortem executions of corpses suspected of posthumous magic, as well as other acts of superstition.

Today exclusively known through Augustin Calmet’s famous dissertation on revenants and vampires from 1746, Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des demons, des esprits etc., a copy of the original Magia Posthuma is hard to come by. As no one put the book in a package outside my front door, it took quite some effort on my behalf to gain access to a copy. I now am aware of but three existing copies, one in France, and two in the Czech Republic.

Apparently read by very few people since Calmet’s time, Magia Posthuma sheds light on what some might consider ‘proto-vampires’, although not vampires in the modern sense. The posthumous magic of von Schertz’s time did not involve blood sucking revenants with fangs, but rather haunting spectres and poltergeists.

Magia Posthuma provides us with a link back in time from the modern vampire of fiction to the roots of vampire lore. The history of the Moravian posthumous magic, the Serbian vampires encountered by the Austrian military in the early 18th century, and various other revenant beliefs of continental Europe is no less exciting, surprising or horrifying than what can be found in vampire novels. In fact, we can learn a lot about our past and our relationship with the dead through the cases that can be found in archival material and old and obscure books like Magia Posthuma.

So as the vampire of modern novels and movies seems to become ever more successful, it is high time to explore the factual and historical basis of the myth that has brought us Lord Ruthven, Carmilla Karnstein, Count Dracula, Lestat de Lioncourt, and Edward Cullen.

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