University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Blood will tell? Constructions of the 'vampire problem' in the eighteenth century

Blood will tell? Constructions of the 'vampire problem' in the eighteenth century

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In 1732, Habsburg military surgeons handed in an autopsy report to the provincial administration, in which they described several corpses that local Serbian Orthodox villagers claimed to be vampires. The report discussed an epidemic that disrupted the public order and resulted in dozens of dead subjects, many of whom (despite having been buried for up to two months) apparently refused to decay properly. The report incited a short-lived, but vigorous debate in the learned circles with contributors from the ranks of theology, natural philosophy, medicine and law. The phenomenon did not easily fit existing natural philosophical and demonological theories, hence opening the room for various ideas, such as vitalism, sympathies, astral influences, chemical processes and demonic activity to be discussed alongside one another. Since the eighteenth century, the debate has occupied a stable position in the narratives of disenchantment and enlightenment as a swift and complete victory of natural sciences over superstition.

Based on a reconstruction of the channels through which the first-hand reports travelled, the talk will argue that the learned debate started out at the provincial level in the form of appeals to the learned elite for scientific clarification, but it soon became a discourse in its own right. Furthermore, based on a comparative analysis of treatises and first-hand reports, the talk will try to show that the administrative and the learned discourses had different priorities and interests, which meant that in the end, the learned conclusions could not be convincingly applied at the grassroots level.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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