Monday, August 24, 2009

Vampire in Venice

During last month's vampire research kick, I happened upon an article from this March about the corpse of a neutralized vampire which was recently uncovered by archaeologists in Venice, in a mass grave of 16th-century plague victims. Let's discuss!

Vampires and disease

If you ask me, there seems to be a strong connection between vampire legends and diseases. I guess I first noticed this a year or so ago when I read "The Shunned House," a short story by H. P. Lovecraft. As a former New Orleanian, I remember thinking that the vampire explanation for the health problems plaguing the house's inhabitants could have easily be replaced by toxic mold.

We also saw a connection to diseases in the 18th-century vampire cases examined in a previous blog post: villagers suspected the recently deceased of being a vampire when family members and neighbors began to fall ill soon after his death. In one of the cases a contagious disease expert was even sent to the village in question to investigate whether this wasn't the start of an epidemic.

The association between vampires and disease is even present in the novel Dracula, where the vampire's first victim in England, Lucy Westerna, lies bed ridden for weeks -- wasting away -- before she finally expires. When Lucy's friend Mina is later "infected" by Dracula she cries out that she is "Unclean! Unclean!" echoing the passage in Leviticus (13:45) dealing with lepers.

The link between vampires and plague/infectious disease is even clearer in the variation on the traditional vampire myth known as the nachzehrer.

Shroud Eaters

The nachzehrer, also known as a "shroud eater" in English, is a type of vampire which doesn't rise from its resting place, but rather lies in its tomb -- chewing through its burial garments. As the nachzehrer eats its way through the shroud, the deceased's family members, neighbors and friends fall ill and die. According to some accounts, one can sometimes hear the nachzehrer noisily chewing like a pig, and after it has finished with the shroud it may move on to chewing on its own flesh or that of other corpses in its vicinity. Some also claim that when the ghoul has gained sufficient sustenance in this manner it can then rise from the grave as a true vampire.

According to Matteo Borrini, the archaeologist/forensic anthropologist who discovered the corpse in Venice, shroud eater myths seem to have originated in Poland in the 1300s (the century in which the Black Death first spread through Europe). These folktales also became popular in parts of Germany such a Bavaria and Silesia which may explain the international use of the German name "nachzehrer." Over the centuries, several treatises were written on the subject of the nachzehrer including Dissertatio Historico-Philosophio de Masticatione Mortuorum ("Historical/Philosophical Dissertation on the Chewing Dead"), published in Leipzig in 1679 by Philuppus Rohr, and De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis ("Of the Chewing Dead in the Tomb"), published in 1728, also in Leipzig, by Michaƫl Ranft.

It's no surprise that this latest specimen was found in a mass grave for plague victims. On the contrary, the nachzehrer myth seems to have become closely associated in people's minds with plague. Many examples of recently interred cadavers who seemed to have chewed a hole through their burial shrouds were found during bouts of plague, and the actions of the shroud eater were blamed for spreading the plague among those who knew him.

In order to stop the malevolent shroud eaters from further oppressing surviving friends and family members, something hard and inedible like a stone or brick could be shoved into the corpse's mouth. This would sometimes break the corpse's teeth or even the jaw bone.

Vampire in Venice

The skeleton uncovered in Venice belonged to a woman who died during a 1579 outbreak of bubonic plague in the city. A brick was driven into her mouth so as to put an end to any postmortem chewing once and for all. She was one of over 1,500 people laid to rest in a mass grave on Lazzaretto Nuovo, an island in the Venetian lagoon which served at the time as a quarantine and decontamination site for people and goods suspected of carrying plague. The name "lazzaretto" or "lazaretto," applied to quarantine stations such as this, derives from the gospel figure Lazarus.

What really happened to the shrouds of corpses like this? Scientists believe that moist gases produced during decomposition would escape from the cadaver's mouth. This would make the shroud damp and heavy and cause it to eventually sink into the corpse's mouth where it might then be consumed by bacteria.

Regarding shroud eaters and other vampires, Borrini notes that these myths derived in part from popular ignorance and misinterpretation of thanatological data. Most people would only be familiar with the characteristics of bodies soon after death (when they grow cold and stiff with rigor mortis) and then perhaps with bodies in advanced stages of decomposition when little but the skeleton remains, such as might be glimpsed when crypts were opened years after burial. They were, however, unfamiliar with intermediary stages like the "emphysemateous" phase, which lasts for 3-4 months, during which the cadaver is under pressure caused by a build up of putrefying gases. As noted in the above-mentioned 18th-centry vampire post, during this stage the body may grow bloated with gases, which people misinterpreted as lively plumpness. Likewise, liquid blood might be pushed out of the corpse's orifices.

It makes sense that more vampire-corpses would be encountered during plague time given that the resting place of the recently buried would often be disturbed so that the bodies of new victims could be thrown in. Borrini also notes that during the Middle Ages, many Europeans attributed the Black Death to the devil, and thus it would make sense to see his agents on earth -- like the nachzehrer -- spreading the plague.

One final note: I previously read that vampire stories first became popular knowledge in the Anglo Saxon world during the 18th century when sensationalist reports of cases from the Austrian Empire and elsewhere in Eastern Europe were disseminated in Western Europe. If we assume that vampire myths are of Slavic origin, should we then be surprised to see a nachzehrer in 16th-century Venice and earlier stories of these creatures in parts of Germany? Not really. Silesia, Bavaria and Leipzig are all in Eastern Germany and thus fairly close to the parts of Poland (specifically, Pomerania) where we're told the shroud eater myths began. Moreover, Venice in the 1500s was a cosmopolitan port city. Located in northeastern Italy, Venice isn't far at all from Yugoslavia, and at this time the Venetian Empire included Slavic territory, such as part of the Istrian peninsula and Dalmatian coast. Thus I wouldn't be surprised if vampire myths spread here before they reached other parts of Western Europe.

Link:, a site dedicated to shroud eaters and other old school vampire mythology.

Images: Skull image by Matteo Borrini found on; drawing of Lazzaretto Nuovo taken from

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