Calmet, Dom Augustin

Calmet, Dom Augustin (1672–1757)

(pop culture)

Dom Augustin Calmet, a French Roman Catholic biblical scholar and the most famous vampirologist of the early eighteenth century, was born February 26, 1672, at Mesnil-la-Horgne, Lorraine, France. He studied at the Benedictine monastery at Breuil, and entered the order in 1688. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1696. He taught philosophy and theology at the Abbey at Moyen-Moutier and during the early years of his career worked on a massive twenty-three-volume commentary of the Bible which appeared between 1707 and 1716. His biblical writings established him as one of the church’s leading scholars, and he spent many years trying to popularize the work of biblical exegesis in the church. He was offered a bishopric by Pope Benedict XIII, but Calmet turned it down. However, in spite of his learned accomplishments, Calmet is most remembered today for his single 1746 work on vampires, Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Anges des Démons et des Espits, et sur les revenants, et Vampires de Hingrie, de Boheme, de Moravie, et de Silésie.

Like the work of his Italian colleague, Giuseppe Davanzati, Calmet’s study of vampirism was started by the waves of vampire reports from Germany and Eastern Europe. Vampirism, for all practical purposes, did not exist in France, and was largely unknown to the scholarly community there until the early eighteenth century. Calmet was impressed with the detail and corroborative testimonies of incidents of vampirism coming out of Eastern Europe and believed that it was unreasonable to simply dismiss them. In addition, as a theologian, he recognized that the existence and actions of such bloodsucking revenants could have an important bearing on various theological conclusions concerning the nature of the afterlife. Calmet felt it necessary to establish the veracity of such reports and to understand the phenomena in light of the church’s view of the world. Calmet finished his work a short time after the Sorbonne roundly condemned the reports and especially the desecration of the bodies of the people believed to be vampires.

Calmet defined vampires as people who had been dead and buried and who then returned from their graves to disturb the living by sucking their blood and even causing death. The only remedy for vampirism was to dig up the body of the reported vampire and either sever its head and drive a stake through the chest or burn the body. Using that definition, Calmet collected as many of the accounts of vampirism as possible from official reports, newspapers, eyewitness reports, travelogues, and critical pieces from his learned colleagues. The majority of space in his published volume was taken up with the anthology of all his collected data.

Calmet then offered his reflections upon the reports. He condemned the hysteria that had followed several of the reported incidents of vampirism and seconded the Sorbonne’s condemnation of the mutilation of exhumed bodies. He also considered all of the explanations that had been offered for the phenomena, including regional folklore, normal but little known body changes after death, and premature burial. He focused a critical eye upon the reports and pointed out problems and internal inconsistencies.

In the end, however, Calmet was unable to conclude that the reports supported the various natural explanations that had been offered, though he was unwilling to propose an alternative. He left the whole matter open, but seemed to favor the existence of vampires by noting that “it seems impossible not to subscribe to the belief which prevails in these countries that these apparitions do actually come forth from the graves and that they are able to produce the terrible effects which are so widely and so positively attributed to them.” He thus touched off the heated debate, which was to ensue during the 1750s. As contemporary scholar Massimo Introvigne has noted, in his first edition Calmet had posed five possible explanations of the stories he had considered. Three he dismissed, leaving him with the possibility that vampires were the result of the devil’s activity or mere superstition. While leaning toward superstition, he did not reach a firm conclusion. However, in his third and last edition, he did conclude that such creatures as vampires could return from the grave.

Calmet’s book became a bestseller. It went through two French editions in 1746 and 1749, and then the third edition in 1751 appeared under a new title Traité sur les Appartions des esprits et su les vampires ou les Revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie, etc. It appeared in a German edition in 1752 and an English edition in 1759 (reprinted in 1850 as The Phantom World). Relying primarily on the first edition, Calmet was immediately attacked by colleagues for taking the vampire stories seriously. While he tried to apply such critical methods as he had available to him, he only lightly questioned the legitimacy of the reports of vampiric manifestations. In 1751, he did question the reports in reaching his more skeptical conclusion.

As the controversy swelled following publication of his book, a skeptical Empress Maria Theresa stepped in. A new outbreak of vampirism had been reported in Silesia. She dispatched her personal physician to examine the case. He wrote a report denouncing the incident as supernatural quackery and condemned the mutilation of the bodies. In response, in 1755 and 1756, Maria Theresa issued laws to stop the spread of the vampire hysteria, including removing the matter of dealing with such reports from the hands of the clergy and placing it instead under civil authority. Maria Theresa’s edicts came just before Calmet’s death on October 25, 1757.

In the generation after his death, Calmet was treated harshly by French intellectuals, both inside and outside the church. Later in the century, Diderot condemned him. Possibly the final word on Calmet came from Voltaire, who sarcastically ridiculed him in his Philosophical Dictionary. Though Calmet was favorably cited by Montague Summers, who used him as a major source for his study of vampires, his importance lies in his reprinting and preserving some of the now obscure texts of the vampire wave of eighteenth-century Europe.

Sources:

Calmet, Dom Augustin. Dissertations sur les Apparitions des Anges des Démons et des Espits, et sur les revenants, et Vampires de Hingrie, de Boheme, de Moravie, et de Silésie. Paris, 1746. English translation as The Phantom World. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1850.
———. Traité sur les Apparitions des esprits et sur les vampires ou les Revenaus de Hongrie, de Moravie, etc. 2 vols. Paris: Debure, 1751. Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: From Lord Byron to Count Dracula. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. 429 pp.
Introvigne, Massimo. La strippe di Dracula: Indagine sul vampirismo dall’antichita ai nostri giorni. Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1997. 474 pp.
Martin, Philippe, ed. Dom Augustin Calmet: un itinéraire intellectual. Paris: Riveneuve, 2008.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1928. 356 pp. Rept. New York: University Books, 1960. 356 pp.