Yes, vampires once posed an existential threat to the Habsburg empire.
The problem started in Serbia. In 1725, locals said a man from Kisiljevo named Petar Blagojević had risen from the dead and, over a span of eight days, murdered nine fellow villagers.
But he didn’t murder them in broad daylight.
After illnesses of less than 24 hours, the victims died claiming Petar had come to them in their sleep and suffocated them until they were near death.
The villagers persuaded their local priest and a magistrate, Imperial Provisor Frombald, to dig up Petar’s body. When they did, they noticed Petar didn’t look dead — his body had growing hair and nails, and rosy, supple skin.
“Not cool,” they said. So they staked his heart and burned his body.
Frombald’s report, still in the Viennese archives, contains one of the earliest uses of the word “vampyri” in an official context. ¹
Vampires Go Viral
In 1732, another vampire case in Medvedja, Serbia made headlines. Thirteen villagers had died in late 1731, and the survivors insisted a vampire was to blame.
The army’s investigating commission exhumed the corpses, most of which looked surprisingly healthy: growing hair and nails, with bodies full of fresh blood.
“So not cool,” they said. The healthy-looking corpses were decapitated and burned.
The commission’s official report made its way to Belgrade and Vienna, where it was reprinted in newspapers and circulated among diplomats. The story ignited a firestorm of interest in vampires. King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia asked scholars if the report could be true, and they reassured him that natural decomposition could account for the lifelike state of the corpses.²
But neither scholars nor their published works made much headway against villagers’ beliefs. Those villagers couldn’t make sense of diseases like tuberculosis or pulmonary plague, which caused the chest pressure that accounts for descriptions of victims being suffocated or strangled.
Over the years, more terrified citizens dug up corpses to take preventive anti-vampire measures like decapitating, staking, and burning.
The Plot Thickens
The idea of vampirism posed several problems for Serbia’s very Catholic Habsburg rulers. For starters, if saints weren’t the only ones who could be dug up and found to have lifelike, non-decomposed bodies, the church had a big problem.
Another problem had to do with the colonial nature of the Habsburg empire. In 1718, after defeating the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburgs had acquired new territory in present-day Serbia, Bosnia, and Romania.
These areas — now flashpoints of vampire activity — contained unfamiliar cultures, languages, and traditions. And not all their new subjects were happy to switch allegiances.
Vampires — which feast on the living in order to survive — were a good metaphor for a conquering empire. Allowing these supposed vampire attacks to go unchecked wasn’t good politics.
Someone was going to have to fix this.
And the job fell to a Habsburg, all right — just not the one anyone expected.
Bad Heir Day
When the vampire reports started rolling in, Emperor Charles VI had other priorities.
His empress, Elisabeth Christine, was a pale-skinned beauty who’d dazzled the court when she arrived in 1708. But empresses had one job — providing a male heir — and Elisabeth Christine hadn’t done it yet.
In 1711, Viennese court doctors prescribed large quantities of alcohol to help her get pregnant.³ You can guess how well that worked. It took five long years before she gave birth to a baby boy, who died just seven months later.
Two daughters followed, a grievous disappointment for Charles.
During a 1725 pregnancy, Charles decorated Elisabeth Christine’s bedroom with “erotic images of manly beauty and strength”, thinking this would ensure the baby was a boy.⁴ When she miscarried, the doctors chose a different strategy. This time, they told her to stuff herself at every meal. She obeyed, and was soon so overweight that she needed a machine to help her in and out of her chair.
Elisabeth Christine never had another son. However, she did leave behind a daughter…one you might be familiar with.
Her name was Maria Theresa.
Grand Theft Silesia
Charles VI made arrangements for Maria Theresa to succeed him with an agreement called the Pragmatic Sanction. He spent years getting all his European frenemies to sign it, agreeing that his daughter would rule.
In 1736, he married Maria Theresa to Duke Francis of Lorraine. France promptly forced the groom to sacrifice his dukedom in return for their support of the Pragmatic Sanction. Then Russia played the same card, forcing Austria to go to war against the Ottoman Empire in return for their support.
Maria Theresa’s new husband was defeated and had to give back much of the land they’d gained in 1718. War, famine, defeat, and a vampire panic — it seemed Austria was in a downward spiral.
Then, in 1740, Emperor Charles VI died.
He’d never given up hope that he would have a son — or that his wife might die, and he could remarry and then have a son. Although he’d paved the way for Maria Theresa to succeed him, he didn’t give her the training she needed to rule.
And the king of Prussia, Friedrich II, knew it.
In return for his support, he demanded she give up Silesia (southwestern Poland), a resource-rich territory Prussia coveted. When Maria Theresa refused, he invaded and took it anyway.
The resulting conflict, the War of the Austrian Succession, lasted eight years and sprawled across two continents. Maria Theresa proved she had the courage, patience, and intelligence to lead an army and a government, but she lost Silesia and part of northern Italy.
Once peace had been signed and everyone knew she was here to stay, she turned her attention to the home front.
Maria Theresa reformed laws, taxes, and education, but there were still disturbing reports of vampire attacks and exhumations. The rest of Europe continued to speculate on what the hell was happening in her empire. In 1746, a French monk published what became a best-seller, Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants of Hungary, Moravia, et. al.
The issue just refused to die.
So in 1755, Maria Theresa asked her court physician, Gerhard van Swieten, to get to the bottom of things: were vampires real?
Van Swieten began to investigate.
What he found was widespread superstition and ignorance, even among Catholic priests. So he dropped some knowledge about tuberculosis, fermentation, and lack of oxygen in corpses.
When he reported back to Vienna, he published his findings in Remarques sur le vampirisme de Silesie de l’ane 1755, concluding vampires did not exist.
Maria Theresa made sure everyone knew what her empire’s official position was. On March 1, 1755, she condemned the vampire panic as the result of fraud and gullibility. She made it illegal to dig up corpses and maim or burn the bodies. Instead, you were supposed to report anything strange to the authorities, who would investigate and punish any pranksters who might be behind any “vampire” attacks.⁵
Maria Theresa probably didn’t know it yet, but when she issued that declaration, she was newly pregnant with her last daughter, Maria Antonia — better to known to history as Marie Antoinette. In a strange, sad coincidence, Marie Antoinette was beheaded in 1793, a method of extermination often meted out to supposed vampires.
Today, you can see van Swieten as one of the five cultural luminaries of Maria Theresa’s reign, depicted at the Maria Theresa monument in Vienna.
¹ Wilson, History, p. 579.
² Kord, Murderesses, p 49.
³ Ingrao & Thomas, Piety, p. 114.
⁴ Ingrao & Thomas, Piety, p. 114.
⁵ Petersen, Maria Theresia.
Bohn, Thomas M. “Vampirismus in Österreich and Preußen. Von der Entdeckung einer Seuche zum Narrativ der Gegenkolonisation.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 56, H.2 (2009): pp. 161–177.
Frombald. “Copy of a letter from the Gradisker District.” Wiener Diarium, July 21, 1725.
Gelardi, Julia. In Triumph’s Wake. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008.
Groom, Nick. The Vampire: A New History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018.
Ingrao, Charles W. and Andrew L. Thomas. “Piety and Power: The Empresses-Consort of the High Baroque.” In Queenship in Europe 1660–1815: The Role of the Consort, edited by Clarissa Campbell Orr, 105–128. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Kord, Susanne. Murderesses in German Writing, 1720–1860: Heroines of Horror. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Petersen, Niels K. “Visum et repertum.” Accessed July 29, 2020.
Petersen, Niels K. “Wir Maria Theresia.” Accessed July 29, 2020.
Sabbatini, Serio and Sirio Fiorino. “Pestilence, riots, lynchings and desecration of corpses. The sleep of reason produces monsters.” Infections in the History of Medicine 2, 2016: p 163–171.
Wilson, Katharina M. “The History of the Word “Vampire”.” Journal of the History of Ideas 46, no. 4 (1985): 577–83. Accessed September 24, 2020. doi:10.2307/2709546.
Portions of this post originally appeared in “Was Eleonora von Schwarzenberg a Real-Life Vampire Princess?” on GirlInTheTiara.com.
Header image, Maria Theresa: Painting by Martin van Meytens (1759), public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Header image, manuscript: Screenshots from “Consideration about the alleged posthumous magic…” by Gerhardt van Swieten and Giuseppe Valeriano Vannetti. Public domain via Google Books.