When Europe suffered the Great Vampire Epidemic

There was a time when vampires roamed Eastern Europe while the authorities fought them off by digging up corpses and burning them. As with the witchcraft that plagued Europe for centuries, various intellectuals wrote thoughtful treatises on these creatures and even composed poems and painted pictures. It was these works that inspired the Irishman Bram Stoker to write his great novel, Dracula.
At the beginning of the 18th century, this fever reached Western Europe thanks to the Peace of Passarowitz (1718), when almost all of Serbia and northern Bosnia became part of Austria. The occupation troops kept hearing stories related to a peculiar local practice: exhuming corpses to burn them. One of the stories that most sparked the imagination of Europeans, and in particular that of the Germans, was that of Petar Blagojević (known in the rest of Europe as Peter Plogojowitz) died in 1725 in the city of Kisilova. He is one of the first known Serbian vampires and the best documented case thanks to the report written for his superiors by the Gradisk Imperial District Provisor, Frombald, who saw how his neighbors staked his body. As often happens, vampirism arose from an epidemic and the first to die, Plogojowitz, was accused of being responsible for the subsequent deaths: “nine people, young and old, died after 24 hours of illness,” they told Frombald. This is typical of vampire folklore: deaths are quick and unexpected.. When they dug up Peter they found that the body was “completely fresh” but not unchanged: he had lost his nose and his hair and nails had grown. He finished off the poor vampire by the usual method, driving a stake into him. According to what the inhabitants of the place told, although he bled profusely, he did not let out a single moan, as tradition claimed it should happen.

The most famous vampire

But the case that brought vampirism to Western Europe was the one carried out by Arnod Paole, a Serbian guerrilla. He was the cause of a vampire epidemic in Medveja that began in 1726 and drew so much attention from the Austrian authorities who launched two official investigations. The first was in charge of the military doctor and expert in contagious diseases, johan Glaser. When he arrived in the area in December 1731, he was informed that the vampires had killed 13 people in a month and a half. Glaser only observed malnutrition, but the locals threatened to leave the place if they were not allowed to eliminate the vampires that plagued the place: a 50-year-old woman named Milica and another 20-year-old named Stana. Glaser agreed to exhume them and autopsy them. The hysteria was such that the doctor asked permission to “execute” the corpses.

His report caused the military authority to send a new commission in January 1732 under the direction of the surgeon Johann Fluckinger: your report, known as Vision and Repertum first included the term vampire and helped spread the bloodsucking craze throughout Europe.

According to what they told him, Paole had been attacked by a vampire and to “cure” himself he used one of the techniques that – it was said – served to scare them away: he followed him to his grave and smeared his body with the vampire’s blood. Unfortunately, the poor Serb died from breaking his neck after falling out of a hay wagon; Within a month of his death, four people began to say that he was bothering them. Then the local authorities decided to dig him up and discovered that the body “It was found quite whole and incorrupt, and that fresh blood had flowed from the eyes, nose, mouth and ears; that the shirt, the shroud and the coffin were bloody… according to custom a stake was driven through his heart and he gave an audible scream and bled profusely. That same day his body was burned and his ashes were thrown into his grave.” As people who die because of a vampire become vampires, the four recognized as such were dug up and the same ritual was applied to them. Since Paole was suspected of having fed on the blood of cattle, all the people who had eaten his meat had also been converted. How to know which ones? Because “in a period of three months, 17 people, young and old, died, some of them in two or three days, without previous illness.” After the exhumation of the vampires and the subsequent autopsy, the report of this commission of inquiry concluded that the bodies of 12 of the 17 suspects had no signs of decomposition, their chests and internal organs appeared full of bloodapparently fresh and not coagulated, the viscera were in good condition and in several of them “the skin of the feet and hands, as well as the old nails, had fallen off but on the other hand the existence of new nails as well as skin was evident.” new and clean.” The conclusion of the Austrian doctors was that they were facing the characteristics that a vampire should have. Did they really come to believe in them?

arnold paolearnold paole

Archaeological evidence?

We don’t have much evidence of the vampiric madness that swept through Europe, but we do have some clues. During an excavation on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, the anthropologist Matteo Borrini from the University of Florence found in 2012 the skull of a woman with a brick caught between her teeth. According to Borrini, she was a vampire: “to kill a vampire you must remove the shroud from his head because it serves as food, and in her place something inedible must be placed in her mouth.” The skeleton was found in a mass grave from 1576, where those who died of the plague were buried. Placing the brick on it was a way to prevent the spread of the plague since they were considered spreaders of diseases. With everything, some researchers do not share this interpretation and think that it is a simple coincidence: It is one of the many bricks that are around and that could have been accidentally put into the woman’s mouth after she was buried. However, there are other remains that are clearer.

In that same 2012, more than 600 graves found in a church cemetery in the Bulgarian city of Sozopol, on the Black Sea, were excavated, and among them they found a couple of skeletons that seem to have been given “special treatment” after death: one of them had a plow-like object through the left side of his ribcage and the other had an unidentified metallic object in his solar plexus. According to archaeologist Dimitar Nedev, head of the Sozopol Archaeological Museum, they are proof that the city’s inhabitants protected themselves against those they believed were going to become vampires. And in 2013 two skeletons with two iron bars across their chests were found in the medieval archaeological complex of Perperikon in Bulgaria.


Groom, N. (2018) The vampire: a new history, Yale University Press

When Europe suffered the Great Vampire Epidemic