July 12, 1801: Two Strikes? Vampires home free!

The Monastery of Horezu, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Wallachia, Romania

The Monastery of Horezu, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Wallachia, Romania

Wallachia, the region of southern Romania which borders the more famous region of Transylvania to the north, was an independent principality until 1859, when it united with Moldavia to form the basis of the modern state of Romania. Transylvania joined 59 years later (1918) to form the new Kingdom of Romania. Vlad the Impaler, often thought to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was actually the ruler of Wallachia (not Transylvania).

In 1801, before its unification with Moldavia, farmers and rural peasants still believed fervently in vampires even though modern science was beginning to dispel belief in vampires among the aristocracy. One of the more common ways farmers had in Wallachia to dispatch a vampire was to exhume the body and decapitate the corpse. If the vampire seemed to still attack the living after that, then the body was exhumed again and the body was either turned face-down or a wooden stake driven through it. If the attacks still seemed to continue, the body would be dug up a third time and burned (which was a difficult undertaking because dead bodies are so moist and therefore the last resort of vampire dispatchers — you can read about the fascinating science involved in burning dead bodies in Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality by Paul Barber).

It was the continued exhumation of corpses which came to the attention of the Wallachian authorities. On July 1, 1801 the authorities in Wallachia proclaimed that a corpse could not be exhumed more than TWICE in Wallachian territory if it was suspected of being a vampire!

Blood was not only important to the vampires the Wallachian farmers were trying to destroy. The stunningly beautiful Curtea de Arges Monastery was built by a ruler of Wallachia in 1512. But the walls kept crumbling because of a problem with the foundations. The architect and construction workers resorted to an ancient practice to reinforce the foundations: they sprinkled the blood of a newborn baby on the foundations and the walls stopped crumbling. (Another version of the story says how the pregnant wife of the architect was sealed alive inside the walls in order to stop them from crumbling.)

St. Michan’s Church

A view into one of the vaults in the crypt beneath St. Michan’s Church, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

A view of another vault beneath St. Michan’s, in which some of the mummies are exposed. The corpse on the left is an early medieval nun, the one is the middle had a hand cut off (accident? criminal punishment?), and the one on the right is a medieval man.

The church of St. Michan in Dublin is a fascinating place! Dublin was first settled by Danish Vikings (“Dublin” is derived from the Viking word for “Black Pool,” referring to the swampy ground the city was founded on) and Michan was apparently a Danish or Danish-Irish monk from that early 10th-11th century period. The church itself was first built in AD 1095 although the current building was erected in 1686 on the older foundation. It was the only parish church on the north side of the River Liffey (i.e. outside the city walls) for centuries.

In the crypt beneath the church are several vaults that were used to inter the coffins of the dead. These were preserved and expanded during the reconstruction of the building. Many of the coffins in the underground vaults date from the early Middle Ages although many also date from more recent times: leaders of a failed rebellion in 1798 are also interred here.

Because opening a sealed coffin is illegal — it is part of the crime of grave-robbing — no one realized there was anything unusual about the corpses below St. Michan’s until the older coffins began to break open as the weight of the newer coffins stacked atop them became too heavy. The coffins that broke open revealed that the corpses, which had not been treated in any unusual way, had all been mummified and preserved. This was probably due to the limestone used to build the vaults and the methane gas of the swamp below the foundations of Dublin. Limestone absorbs moisture and the constant cool temperature of the vaults helped preserve and mummify the bodies as well. The presence of methane reduces the amount of oxygen in the crypt and therefore reduces the amount of bacteria etc. that leads to more normal decomposition. (We presume that the corpses in the newer coffins are also becoming mummies as well although we won’t know for sure until the newer coffins break open as well. The vaults are still used on occasion for new internments so there is always the possibility of additional weight to break open the coffins that haven’t broken open — yet.)

Bram Stoker is thought to have visited the vaults in the crypt below St. Michan’s and possibly to have found inspiration there for at least a few of the scenes in his classic Dracula.

The church of St. Michan is very near the new Teeling whiskey distillery in Dublin, making a visit to both sites an easy excursion.

Happy Birthday, Bram!

Bram Stoker, an Irish author-actor-playwright, is best known for his novel Dracula.

Bram Stoker, an Irish author-actor-playwright, is best known for his novel Dracula.

Abraham “Bram” Stoker (born November 8, 1847 – died April 20, 1912) was an Irish novelist and short story writer, best known today for his 1897 novel Dracula. During his lifetime, he was better known as personal assistant of actor Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned. (Stoker’s residence and parish church can still be visited in Dublin.)

Although Stoker himself never visited Romania or the Carpathian Mountains, he spent several years researching European folklore and mythological stories of vampires. He also met Ármin Vámbéry, a Hungarian writer and traveler, whose dark stories of the Carpathians may have also contributed to Stoker’s inspiration.

Stoker’s most infamous character, the vampire Dracula, has gone on to appear in many “incarnations” or guises. In the Dresden Files series, Stoker’s novel is said to be a hunter’s manual for the Black Court vampires, now all but extinct as a result. Bela Lugosi played the vampire in both stage and film versions of the story. The new Something in the Blood by David Skal was reviewed in the New York Times at the end of October; it is an examination of where all the sexual energy and tension in the book comes from. One study, Who was Dracula? explores and uncovers the wide range of source material – from folklore and history, to personas including Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman. There are many versions of The Annotated Dracula and each opens new windows into the world of Stoker and his famous, bloody creation.