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The Aetiology of Vampires and Revenants: Theological Debate and Popular Belief


David Keyworth is an independent scholar formerly from the University of Queensland. He is a doctoral researcher into vampires and the undead, and he published his first book Troublesome Corpses: Vampires and Revenants from Antiquity to the Present (London: Desert Island Books) in 2007.


In this paper, I discuss the supposed aetiology of undead corpses (by which I mean corpses that refused to stay dead), and the theological explanations for their existence, as outlined in the historical documents at the time, and the various arguments that ensued. I examine the medieval notion that the Devil might reanimate a corpse and pretend to be the deceased, for example, the post-mortem effects of excommunication, and the incorruptibility of deceased saints and martyrs. In particular, I focus upon the vampires of eighteenth-century Europe and the aetiological explanations proffered by the theologians, philosophers and medical fraternity at the time, such as vestigium vitae and premature burial, compared to folk belief at the village level. Furthermore, I argue that despite the largely successful campaign by the socio-religious elite to eradicate such notions, muted belief in the existence of vampires continued to emerge thereafter because folk belief was fuelled by an entrenched early modern belief-system that had itself promoted the existence of undead corpses.