the body of a woman was exhumed, decapitated, and burnt on the grounds that her corpse had been attacking villagers at night

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During the first half of the eighteenth century, vampires became a media sensation. Official reports documenting the popular belief in vampires in the part of Serbia recently occupied by the Habsburgs were leaked to news sheets and medical journals. The stories they told of the undead feasting on the living, of exhumed bodies oozing with the blood of victims, and of stakings and beheadings, were luridly reproduced and combined with older tales of shape-shifting and shroud-eating corpses. Voltaire in Paris later noted how ‘between 1730 and 1735 nothing was spoken of more than vampires—how they were hunted down, their hearts torn out, and their bodies burnt. They were like the martyrs of old; the more of them that were burnt, the more they found.’1

1717-1780

Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions, ruling from 1740 until her death in 1780. She was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands, and Parma. Wikipedia

Reports of contagion spread from Serbia to Hungary and Transylvania. Unusual deaths or sightings, outbreaks of plague, and the discovery that a corpse had mummified rather than decomposed prompted copycat explanations and exhumations. There were plenty of educated authors who investigated the phenomena and found the evidence for vampirism to be lacking, but they often dressed up their otherwise measured accounts with sensationalist descriptions. Michael Ranft, whose sober treatise on whether corpses munched through their shrouds was first published in 1725, reworked his account a decade later to include a graphic account of the Serbian vampires, which he published in his compendious Treatise on the Chewing and Gnawing of the Dead in Their Graves, in Which Is Revealed the True Nature of the Hungarian Vampires and Bloodsuckers (Ranft thought Serbia to be in Hungary).2


Vampirism was reported in Moravia too. In 1755, with the agreement of the church authorities, the body of a woman was exhumed, decapitated, and burnt on the grounds that her corpse had been attacking villagers at night. This was the fourth time in three decades that the diocese of Olomouc had sanctioned exhumation, including in 1731 the disinterment of seven children, whose bodies had all been burnt. On news of this latest episode, Maria Theresa sent two doctors to investigate, but the terms of their commission left in no doubt what the empress expected of them. As she explained, it would be of ‘great service to mankind’ if their report could wean ‘credulous people’ from their misbelief.3 (Pg.200)

Gerard van Swieten (7 May 1700 – 18 June 1772)

Gerard van Swieten (7 May 1700 – 18 June 1772) was a Dutch physician who from 1745 was the personal physician of the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa and transformed the Austrian health service and medical university education. He was the father of Gottfried van Swieten, patron of HaydnMozart and Beethoven.

The doctors’ findings were submitted to Gerhard van Swieten, who made a summary which he subsequently published as a pamphlet. Van Swieten trebled up as Maria Theresa’s court librarian, personal physician, and censor. Thoroughly imbued with the spirit of rationalism, van Swieten rejected the supernatural for the same reason that he refused to wear a wig, since neither might be logically explained. Unsurprisingly, van Swieten found the Moravian case to be the product of error and rumour, akin to the conviction that black cats harboured devils or to the magical potions of conjurors. He wrote that on those occasions when corpses were found undecomposed, natural explanations might be found, most obviously that the weather was cold. Likewise, strange symptoms often proved to be the result of commonplace illnesses. Blameless people were being dug up in graveyards, van Swieten lamented, and the grief of mourners needlessly prolonged.4


Upon receiving van Swieten’s report, Maria Theresa published in 1755 an instruction forbidding churches to permit exhumation on grounds of ‘posthumous magic.’ As she explained, accusations of this type were almost always the product of superstition and fraud. In future, they and all cases of hauntings, witchcraft, and diabolic possession were to be referred by churchmen to local government offices and to be investigated by medical personnel. For good measure, she also banned the prognostication of winning lottery numbers.5

Maria Theresa’s response to rumours of vampirism is a lens through which to view the Enlightenment and the ways in which it influenced policy in Central Europe. The Enlightenment stood above all else for reason and for explanations that were rooted in the laws of nature and human conduct. The empress’s appointment of doctors to lead the investigation into vampirism in Moravia, and of van Swieten to summarize their reports, and both van Swieten’s and her own verdicts, are characteristic of an enlightened manner of thinking that preferred rational to supernatural explanations. Rather than attribute vampirism to diabolical forces, Maria Theresa was readier to believe that natural causes or malevolent earthly agents were responsible. (Pg.201)

The Enlightenment was not, however, a single phenomenon but manifested itself differently according to location. In Britain and North America, the Enlightenment tended towards the extension of popular sovereignty, curbs on government, and a new ‘science of freedom’ aimed at securing individual liberty and the rights of the citizen. In Central Europe, the Enlightenment tended towards the reverse—towards regulation, the ‘science of the state’ or ‘science of order’, and the subjection of the individual to the common good, as the sovereign understood it to be. As one of the main exponents of the Central European Enlightenment put it: ‘All duties of people and subjects may be reduced to the formula: to promote all the ways and means adopted by the ruler for their happiness, by their obedience, fidelity and diligence.’6

Hero of the Enlightenment

Bureaucracy and a conviction that officials knew best is manifested in the role that Maria Theresa accorded the civil service in the case of the Moravian vampires. Already, the medical profession had been regulated, and many of its members converted into government officers responsible to local boards of sanitation. These newly created officials were now entrusted with the investigation of allegedly supernatural events, even in graveyards and what had hitherto been an exclusive preserve of the church. The Central European Enlightenment was not anticlerical, but it opposed the special rights of the clergy and the separate status that the church enjoyed. Unleashing the medical profession on cemeteries was a practical manifestation of this imperative.7

Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina (GermanMaria Theresia; 13 May 1717 – 29 November 1780)

Maria Theresa’s concern was for the welfare of her subjects. Her injunctions against ‘posthumous magic’ are characteristic of her paternalism or even maternalism, for she willingly embraced the soubriquet of ‘Mother of her People.’ To that end, she cajoled her subjects and nannied them into good behaviour—forbidding them from blowing post horns at night, requiring tobacco pipes to be fitted with lids, banning candles from barns, prohibiting advertisements for arsenic, and so on. More lastingly, she banned torture and most trials for witchcraft, and she made a start on the education of the peasantry, declaring that all children attend six years of schooling. For the good of her subject’s souls she also deported several thousand Protestants from the Austrian lands to Transylvania, and she briefly ejected Jews from Vienna on the grounds that she found their presence in the city objectionable. In many ways, Maria Theresa was also strikingly unenlightened. (Pg.202)

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