The Daily Dose: Medical History and the Vampire

Welcome to Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose (companion to the Fiction Reboot–which resumes on Tuesday with a guest post by Curiosity Quills Press).

This week, I have continued research on “monster birth” of the 18th century, and I found yet more interesting connections between fact and fiction, medical history and Gothic literature.

There was a young woman, whose jaw had locked, that reportedly ate next to nothing for above ten years. The famished invalid spent her time creeping about by the wall of her parents’ home, not unlike the character of Yellow Wallpaper. Of most interest in this case, however, is the narrated description of the girl’s body. Starving and dehydrated she must be, yet “her cheeks [are] full, red, and blooming. […]she slept a great deal and soundly, perspired sometimes, and now and then emitted pretty large quantities of blood at her mouth.”[i] The account dates from 1775, but recollects the notes of vampire commissioners during the scare of 1730—and presages the more lurid narratives of Paliadori’s Vampyre or Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “Her countenance is clear and pretty fresh; her features not disfigured nor sunk; […] and, to my astonishment, when I came to examine her body, for I expected to feel a skeleton, I found her breasts round and prominent, like those of a healthy young woman; her legs, arms, and thighs, not at all emaciated.”[ii]

It is worth remembering that these philosophical treatises, many of which devalued or discounted the supernatural, were neither widespread nor well-accepted even among the educated classes. In fact, only seventeen years earlier, Europe witnessed a vampire scare resulting in the appointment of vampire commissioners, autopsy inquests and the occasional mutilation of corpses–the position and condition of skeletons unearthed in Český Krumlov (and dated to 1732) suggest that vampire-killing rituals had been performed. Though by 1755, Gerhard van Swieten, personal physician of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, concluded his own investigation by saying that “vampires only appear were ignorance still reigns,” banishing the hunt for monsters did little to curb their appearance in print.

Just for fun, I looked for further documentation on Český Krumlov, and found a fascinating documentary called The Vampire Princess, about links between the outbreak and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You can reach the full video here, or the Smithsonian Channel’s page on the title by clicking the image below–enjoy!

Show logo

[i] Kirby’s Wonderful Scientific Museum, Vol 6, 1809. p 350

[ii] Kirby, 351

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