The Vampyrus Serviensis - The Vampire Epidemic in the early 18th century Balkans

26 January 1732, the final report of Dr Flückinger concerning the outbreak of a vampire epidemic along the Austro-Ottoman military frontier was officially authenticated in the Austrian provisional headquarters at Belgrade.

“WHAT! is it in our eighteenth century that vampires exist? Is it after the reigns of Locke, Shaftesbury, Trenchard, and Collins? Is it under those of d’Alembert, Diderot, St. Lambert, and Duclos that we believe in vampires, and that the reverend father Dom Calmet, Benedictine priest of the congregation of St. Vannes, and St. Hidulphe, abbé of Senon—an abbey of a hundred thousand livres a year, in the neighborhood of two other abbeys of the same revenue—has printed and reprinted the history of vampires, with the approbation of the Sorbonne, signed Marcilli? These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.“ (Voltaire)

It was a bit of the peace of the grave that lay over the regions along the military frontier of the Habsburg Empire with the Ottomans on the Balkans during the first decades of the 18th century after centuries of war, devastation and depopulation. The area was placed under military administration and was slowly resettled with ethnic groups from all over the vast lands of the Danube Monarchy. Those folks brought their own traditions and mixed them with the customs of the remaining locals. A process that would not have been very surprising if it weren’t for an ancient superstition that was suddenly condensed into a manifestation of a downright epidemic under the very eyes of the Austrian officials: Vampirism. While the belief of the restless dead walking the night and blood-drinking demons was quite universal, for the first time vampires were brought into the light of a broader European attention and the phenomenon was documented with the means of an early enlightenment-based worldview.

The Restless Dead - Here: Antoine Wiertz's (1806 - 1845) idea of a man buried alive

It started in 1725 in a village named Kisilova, somewhere in the Braničevo region in the north-east of Serbia. A Serbian peasant named Petar Blagojević, or Peter Plogojowitz, was supposed to have returned from the grave and killed nine villagers. The community was beside itself with fear, called the Austrians for help, told the Kameralprovisor Frombald that basically the same had happened under Ottoman rule before, insisted that Blagojević’s body was exhumed and, lo and behold, it was not decomposed, quite the reverse, it looked fresh, rather bloated and there was fresh blood in the corner of the mouth. Blagojević’s body was staked. Frommbald reported the incident to his chiefs and the story went around to be discussed in scientific publications, the best known being Michael Ranft’s “De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis“ (“On the Chewing and the Smacking of the Dead in Their Graves”) from the so-called vampire-debate of Leipzig. Then the next major vampire scandal broke out in 1731 in the village of Metwett, probably called Medveđa by the locals, in the Pomoravlje region, 50 miles south of Blagojević’s haunt. A hajduk or arnaut, an irregular soldier, named Paole who had died in 1725, suddenly reappeared. He had told his wife that he was plagued by a vampire while serving in the Kosovo against the Turks and a couple of days after his death, he haunted the village, killed four people and was staked. But that wasn’t enough, obviously, because he came back five years later.

Frontispiece of Michael Ranft’s
“De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis“
(“On the Chewing and the Smacking of the Dead in Their Graves”)
from 1734

In the winter of 1731, between 13 and 17 people died of a mysterious disease and the Austrians were called again and 
this time they appeared in greater numbers, with a medico specialised in infectious disease, Dr Glaser, and a military surgeon, Dr Johann Flückinger, two further surgeons and two line officers, one of them Oberstleutnant (lieutenant colonel) Büttner. They opened the graves and summarised that the victims were all “gleichermassen im Vampyrenstande” (in vampiric condition). Glaser as well Flückinger advocated the traditional methods of vampire destruction for all victims, allegedly to pacify the villagers who threatened to abandon the place lock, stock and barrel. Büttner had the “gypsies” accompanying the detachment stake and decapitate the body on the spot. Paole’s corpse was burned and his ashes spread into the river Morava. The discussion about the existence of vampires continued over the next twenty years while most authorities negated any supernatural phenomenon until Empress Maria Theresa finally forbade any vampire-killing practices in 1756 after a final report (Abhandlung des Daseyns der Gespenster (or Discourse on the Existence of Ghosts)) of her emissary Dr Gerard van Swieten, who saw the whole story as mass hysteria and collective superstition in a backward area and the vampires returned to their undead sleep in most European countries, only to be reanimated by authors of Gothic novels and the consecutive penny dreadfuls during the 19th century to become the Romantic creatures we know today.

One legendary vampiric contemporary of Petar Blagojević was a miller named Sava Savanović from Bajina Bašta in western Serbia who allegedly had assaulted his customers back then and drank their blood. His mill was later owned by a local family, made into a tourist attraction and finally collapsed in 2012. Local authorities “issued a tongue-in-cheek public health warning, advising people that Savanović was now free to look for a new home.“

An image found on depicting Sava Savanović and the legendary mill, while Savanović is attributed with a butterfly, a traditional symbol – “Of especial interest … (Because of) the widespread belief that the Vampire can appear in the form of a snake, of a butterfly or an owl, for these  were originally figurative symbols of departed souls, particularly of the parents. (Ernest Jones, “On the Nightmare”)