The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Giovanni di Paolo. 1455/60. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Vampire—the very word itself conjures up images of supernatural creatures who look not unlike you and me, prowl about at night, prey on unsuspecting souls, and sink their fangs into innumerable, hapless victims to quench their thirst for blood. Monstrous but beautiful, repulsive yet magnetic, vampires have fascinated us for centuries and still figure quite prominently in today’s imagination, as evidenced in the enduring popularity of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and a slew of vampire-themed films and television shows. While we can safely conclude that such beasts do not exist, a different sort of vampire did indeed roam the European continent three to four centuries ago. You would have been able to find them at the execution grounds with handkerchiefs, cups, and mugs held aloft, ready to collect the blood of a soon-to-be beheaded criminal. But they were not the nocturnal, fanged, living corpses of our collective imagination—they were ordinary men, women, and children. And they were not there to sate some perverse addiction to blood—they were there on the advice of their physicians.1, 2, 3
Magic and medicine have been closely intertwined throughout history—to our ancestors, magic was medicine and vice versa. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, the human body itself and the soul were considered to be the highest creations of God and belief in the soul was accepted without question. Blood was seen as a vital life force and like other parts of the body, was thought to have been a part of the soul, thereby making it a most potent compound. This in turn led to the belief that human body parts could be used in many ways to cure illnesses. The drinking of human blood was hence seen as a form of treatment and this supposedly therapeutic vampirism was thought to have been a powerful cure for epilepsy.1, 2, 3
The seeds for this belief were sown in ancient Rome about 2000 years ago, when physicians instructed their patients to drink the blood from wounded gladiators. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many accounts spoke of the gatherings at executions in various regions of Europe (particularly the Germanic countries, Sweden, Denmark, and Italy), where people fought to collect this precious elixir to cure their epilepsy, which then was a highly stigmatized disease. The physicians and general populace of that age believed that epilepsy was a disease in which part of or the whole soul was absent and that one could cure this by imbibing the life force and soul of another—this could be achieved by drinking the blood of another human. With swelling crowds at executions and an increasingly desperate demand for the blood cure, executioners realized that this was a lucrative opportunity and soon began accepting bribes to provide the fresh blood of executed criminals. Interestingly enough, scholars and physicians debated not on whether or not human blood should be consumed, but on how. Some advocated fresh, warm blood from young men, others differed on the effectiveness of blood from women. Others still argued for the blood to be refined or processed before consumption. By the end of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the nineteenth, however, scientific advances, the moral and philosophical awakening of the Enlightenment, and the mounting evidence on the ineffectiveness of the blood cure gradually turned physicians against the idea of drinking human blood. Nevertheless, the practice survived until the nineteenth century amongst the people, with some of the last incidents occurring in Denmark.1, 2, 3
While it is easy to dismiss these beliefs as bizarre and repugnant, the people who lived in that milieu genuinely thought of blood as a cure for their illnesses. To them, it must have seemed to be the latest development in science, and in an age where mortality rates were high, hope for recovery would have convinced them that this was a cure worth taking regardless of the method of procuring it. Furthermore, prominent personalities in the history of medicine adhered to belief in the curative properties of human blood, including the sixteenth century Swiss physician Paracelsus. The noted seventeenth century Irish chemist and physicist Robert Boyle thought that blood was an effective treatment for medical conditions other than epilepsy such as hysteria, jaundice, asthma, and certain headaches.1, 2, 3 To them and many living in pre-Enlightenment Europe, blood was truly life.
- Sugg, R. (2011). The art of medicine: Prescientific death rites, vampires, and the human soul. The Lancet, 377(9767), 712–713. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60259-6
- Sugg, R. (2016). Mummies, cannibals, and vampires : the history of corpse medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians (2015 edition.). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315666365
- Sugg, R. (2011). Prescientific death rites, vampires, and the human soul. The Lancet, 377(9767), 712–713. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60259-6
SAMEER PANI, MChD, is a medical doctor from Malaysia currently training in psychiatry at the Concord Hospital in Sydney, Australia.