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Vampires - An Urban Legend of the Middle Ages?

Updated on June 21, 2011

Did Anyone Really Believe in Vampires?

When I was writing my senior history thesis, my advisor asked me how widespread the belief in vampires was. Who all believed in it? Did they actually believe in vampires? I couldn't give him an answer because no one, it seems, has ever asked that question. Did people in the middle ages believe in vampires? While surfing the internet I came across a really good site on urban legends (see link below) and some of the red flags for identifying urban legends sounded familiar. It was then that I started thinking about vampires in terms of an urban legend. I think it is quite possible that the vampire myth was, in fact, an urban (or would that be rural?) legend. So having made that rather bold statement, let's take a look at vampire legend as just that--a legend.

Rural Legend?

"An Urban Legend is usually a (good / captivating / titillating / engrossing / incredible / worrying) story that has had a wide audience, is circulated spontaneously, has been told in several forms, and which many have chosen to believe (whether actively or passively) despite the lack of actual evidence to substantiate the story."

Vampire stories are captivating, etc. So much so, that the ones I have retold on "Everything You Need to Know About Vampires" are stories that I read as a child in a book of horror/ monster stories. Even today, these vampire stories are interesting. The only difference--and a very important one at that--is that we consider these vampire stories as mere fiction. In the middle ages, the supernatural aspects of the vampire were not so improbable. The Church (whether Catholic or Orthodox) taught that the Devil was a very real creature, that could come to Earth, and could manipulate things as he chose. Witches and demons could do any number of incredible things that ordinary people could not. Though we would rank stories of demons and witches as fiction, right along with vampire stories, in the middle ages the supernatural was natural--for certain people/ things.

Vampire legend certainly had a wide audience. What we would recognize as vampire legend was spread across all of Eastern Europe--including Russia and former Russian states--and the countries of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and even parts of Muslim Turkey. After 1730, the belief escaped Eastern Europe and spread like wildfire into all of Western Europe and even into America, before finally dying out by the 1760's in most places and certainly by the 1800's in all but the most remote sections of Eastern Europe. It is this last fact--that the belief jumped out of Eastern Europe and went into Western Europe--that most points towards an urban legend. 1730 is a significant date in history, believe it or not. It is at this time that the Ottoman Empire--which controls most of Eastern Europe and the Balkans--is being driven out by the Hapsburg (Austrian) Empire. The Hapsburg army represents the first large group of Westerners to enter the East in centuries--and possibly not since the split of the Roman Empire. So why is that significant, you ask? Well the traffic flow was not one way into the East. Those soldiers who went into Eastern Europe also came back out of it. And when they did come back home, they came back with tales of the living dead and plagues that killed off whole villages and attacks in the form of sex and blood drinking. So it is very significant that the explosion in vampire beliefs comes at the exact same time that people are traveling between an area that had the myth and one which did not.

Vampire myth also conforms to the urban legend in that it has several forms. In fact, vampire legends have so many different forms that they are often contradictory. One look at vampire legends will show you two dozen different ways to find a vampire and a dozen more ways to kill it. Even the goal of a vampire is not certain: sometimes he kills at random with disease, at other times he personally attacks specific people, namely family members, whom he seems to have a vendetta against, and sometimes vampires come back home and actually turn out to be nice guys, playing the role of a loving and helpful husband. Now how can you possibly rationalize that? A simple myth, one that people actually believe in--say the story of George Washington and the cherry tree--stays the same, no matter where it goes. In Oregon, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed the deed to his father. In Vermont, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed the deed to his father. No matter where you go in the U.S., schoolchildren are going to tell you the exact same story. George didn't chop down a cherry tree and confess to it in one version, and chop down a cherry tree and turn it into a soap box racer in another version. However, urban legends are known for evolving to fit the situation (the situation being the time, place, and persons participating). Compare the following vampire "fact" to George's story: In the Balkan states, the vampire roams from dusk until dawn. In Poland and Russia, the vampire roams from noon until midnight. How about the offspring of vampires: 1. Children born from a union with a vampire are born without bones--they are like jelly--and die immediately. 2. Vampires only have sons. 3. Vampires may have male and female offspring. Aswith urban legends, the vampire legend can be changed to fit the situation, which is why certain aspects of vampire legend can be localized and unique to each individual village, while at the same time, as a whole, be spread across most of Europe.

"An Urban Legend can be based on a true story. In these circumstances, what makes the story an Urban Legend is how it's told--i.e., being told in the first, second or third person (or, as having happened to me, to my friend or to my friend's friend) when in fact the true event took place to someone entirely unknown to the person relating the story."

Until the 1730's, all vampire myth was told from a third person point of view. Even after 1730, vampire myth was something of a second-hand account. We have documents written by people--doctors and army officers primarily--who claimed to have witnessed, first-hand, exhumations and the staking of bodies believed to be vampires. Did this really happen? It is questionable. The people who wrote these stories down might have actually witnessed this vampire hunt. Or they might have simply heard tale of such an event from someone they believed to be a reliable source and they wrote it down as if they were the ones who witnessed it; it's hard to say. People in Eastern Europe were seen as unedcuated, backwards, rural peasants, so tales of this kind would fit that stereotype. A native urban legend may have been embellished by Western outsiders to illustrate the ignorance of the people who believed in it. The only thing is that when these respectable army officers and doctors told such tales, they were taken for gospel truth, much in the same way people today blindly trust the newspaper or nightly news on t.v. What is evident is there is no first-hand accounts of a vampire attack. No one has ever written down, "I was attacked last night by a vampire." Stories tell of people living after a vampire's attack (Arnold Paole survived a long time after his vampire attack), so it would, therefor, not be impossible for a victim to step forward and relate his or her tale directly. But this never seems to happen.

"Robert Pollock, author of "Good Luck, Mr Gorsky," suggested that we are prone to accepting stories that do not directly contradict our personal experiences as being true because we have an underlying need to increase our understanding of the world in which we live. Where formal methods of information have been lacking in educating us about the world, we rely on informal methods, such as the oral stories we hear from others."

This is quite possibly the best explanation for why the vampire myth was so wide spread and persisted for such a long time (whereas modern urban legends come and go rather quickly, as soon as someone reports them as being false). Before the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, people's understanding of the world was limited to what they could see. Things like germs and viruses, which cannot be seen, were unknown. When a plague came through, people did not link it to an unseen bacteria, poor hygiene or contaminated food or water. They tried to rationalize what was happening based on what they could observe. This is how smell came to be linked with the plague. Bad smells were thought to cause disease (though, in actuality, they were the result of disease), so it was thought that good smells would prevent disease. Thus we get: "Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies, achoo, achoo, we all fall down." A nursery rhyme we've all skipped to as children is actually a tale of the bubonic plague. A "ring around the rosy" refers to a pink rash that formed on the skin--a sure sign of plague. "A pocketful of posies" refers to the flowers that people carried around with them to try to ward off the disease-causing bad smells of the plague. "Achoo, achoo, we all fall down" then refers to the sickness (sneezing) and then death. People were intimately acquainted with the disease, though they didn't know its true cause. So vampires were linked with this devastating illness as a way to explain it. People could see dead bodies lying around easier than they could see a virus in a flea's bloodstream.

"It's interesting to note that often people will tell or distribute an Urban Legend as being true when they don't wholly believe it. This is best demonstrated by the large number of chain e-mails that promise wealth from companies such as Microsoft for being forwarded, or warnings about a new gang initiation ritual etc. We may recognize that the claim is unlikely, but we distribute it any way, just in case. We don't have enough information to entirely discredit the story, so we keep our bases covered. I call this the "What if it is true?" factor."

It may have been that the great majority of people in the middle ages never actually--or at least fully--believed in vampires. Although the supernatural forces at work behind witches, demons, and vampires are all closely related, there is a fundamental difference between vampires and those elements controlled by the devil, such as witches and demons. Namely, the Devil himself controlled the actions of witches and demons, whereas vampires--while often driven by an evil nature--are independent of God and the Devil. It is easier to believe that the Devil could evoke the worst in people (and thus make them witches or something of the sort) than it is to believe that the dead just get up and do whatever they want. Where would they get the power from? Witches got their power from the Devil, who, in turn, ultimately gets his power from God, but vampires were once ordinary people (in the majority of cases, at any rate). It would seem that the vampire myth might have been a bit harder to swallow than tales of wicked men and women who did things contrary to Christianity. But since there was no scientific evidence at the time to discount the undead, the story was circulated- whether or not people wholly believed it or not.

"Urban legends are simply the modern version of traditional folklore. In most cultures of the world, folklore has always existed alongside, or in place of, recorded history. In this tradition, the storyteller will usually add new twists and turns to a story related by another storyteller. Just as with modern legends, old folk tales often focus on the things a society found frightening. Many of the "fairy tales" we read today began life as believable stories, passed from person to person. Instead of warning against organ thieves and gang members, these tales relayed the dangers of the forest. In old Europe, the deep woods were a mysterious place to people, and there were indeed creatures that might attack you there."

If the vampire myth is a cautionary tale, what is it warning against? Actually, there are a variety of different warnings among vampire folklore. In some accounts, eating an animal killed by a vampire can turn the eater into a vampire. Warning: don't eat animals that you didn't kill yourself. This is an important warning because eating the meat of animals that die from disease, or that have been dead a while can cause any number of illnesses. Vampirism was seen a curse, an earthly hellish torment, meant to be punishment--not so much punishment for the victims of the vampire, but punishment for the person turned into a vampire. The single biggest reason for people becoming vampires was sin. If you were a bad person in life, you would be forced to walk the earth as the undead. Warning: don't lead a wicked life. Another element that is common in vampire stories is that a poor woman gets married to a wealthy stranger who t urns out either to be a vampire or turns into a vampire as soon as he dies. Warning: don't marry outside your village or close acquaintances; you never know what kind of person you might end up with. Illegitimate children were also likely to become vampires. Warning: don't have sex outside of marriage or you'll curse your children. (This was very true because, even if they didn't become vampires, illegitimate children were outcasts from society.) Vampires could also be created when a body wasn't handled properly. Warning: do your social duty and respect the dead.

The list, of course, goes on further, as it seems that most anything could turn someone into a vampire. What it illustrates is that the vampire-- whether it was an urban legend or believed to be real--was often used not only to explain the otherwise unexplainable, but it was used to keep people in line with a certain social order. The vampire was not created by any person or group in particular to accomplish this, but somewhere along the way it got twisted into a form of propaganda that urged people to stay faithful to the Church and live good lives.

Conclusion

So, after comparing vampire legend from the middle ages to modern day urban legends, can it be said with certainty that the vampire story at the time was just an urban legend? No. But it cannot be refuted either. Of course, we can't refute that people actually believed there were vampires out to get them, or even that there really were vampires, so perhaps we're not any closer to getting into the heads of medieval peasants than we were to begin with. Though, if you want my opinion, I think the vampire was an urban legend. Like the story of Bloody Mary (if you say her name three times while looking into a mirror, you will see her reflection in the mirror and suffer because of it), the tale of the vampire's deeds was told on long winter nights around the fire for entertainment. And though most people treated it as a story (they didn't make it a habit to go around staking dead bodies), there was something there--a little twinge of truth--that kept them a little afraid to completely discount the possibility of vampires, somewhere, being real (in the same way that I have had too many strange ghost encounters to take it upon myself to prove the Bloody Mary legend wrong). Having decided that, is the vampire legend any less intriguing? Certainly not--at least it's not for me. I think this study just calls for us to give the people of rural Eastern Europe a little more credit for common sense and rationality than was previously rewarded them.

All quotes are from: Urban Legends Research Centre (which, unfortunately, seems to dissolved)

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 23 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello again MN. Interesting, this piece about vampires. Vlad Drakul started off the ball rolling, or rather the people who put him in a lead-lined tomb/coffin did. When somebody opened the coffin after hundreds of years his corpse was whole, giving us the 'legend of the un-dead'. The mythology spread west when migrants left for America.

      The first anybody knew about vampires here was through the Irishman Bram Stoker, who took a room in Whitby, North Yorkshire ahead of his family. He based the story on the 'Demeter' from Romania being driven onto the rocks in Saltwick Bay (east of Whitby along the coast, below the abbey) and Count Dracula coming ashore as a wolf before metamorphosing into a bat. Then, in thick mist he seduced a young woman in the churchyard of St Hilda's church. (No-one in their right mind walks around in the mist at Whitby. You'd catch your death of cold).

      I've seen a number of vampire films and series (like 'Buffy' and 'Angel'. We had a raft of vampire films from the Hammer House of Horror in the 60s, including several with Peter Cushing as Van H. and Christopher Lee as the count. Great adverts for tomato ketchup if nothing else!

      Nice piece of writing.

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      Johna428 2 years ago

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