Medical history so often includes intersections and byways that seem to take us into folklore, fiction, and the Gothic imagination itself.
While researching “monstrous” births from the early 1800s, I came across the following reprint of Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, Magazine of remarkable characters. The story tells of a child “covered with long hair” and “grovel[ing] upon the ground.” This young man is fastened to a post like a dog and is described as “wild and ferocious.” [i] In birth histories from the medieval period to Abrose Paré’s Monsters and Marvels (in the 16th century), you frequently see tales of “dog children” or frog children, goat children and the like. And yet, this later narrative has been embellished with tone and phrasing made famous by the Gothic narratives like Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otronto and Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. The “gentleman” who reports the scene in Kirby’s insists that “he never say so wild and wretched a spot as the situation of the poor hut where [the dog boy] resides” and that “a most horrible mystery seems to hang over the whole.”[i] Just as in early Gothic fiction, the landscape becomes a repeated trope of wretched wildness, and the “mystery” has to do not only with the lad’s strange comportment, but with his paternity. Gothic literature loves an orphan… and though our young man has a mother, the boy, a “creature [with] very little human in his appearance” is essentially fatherless. [i] The mother herself, a laboring single woman, “refuses to give any account” of the father and insists that “no one has a right to question her.” [ii] And of course, the mystery and the focus is reserved for suspicious lineage, not for the inhumane treatment of the child.
Other narratives of children locked away or kept at home in potentially inhumane circumstances include one of a young girl suffering a type of palsy. This story also appears in Kirby’s, an 18th century compendium of sorts. In this story, the child is not chained and, in fact, he parents seem to take care of her, but her story is violent in the extreme. Her jaw had locked, and so she reportedly ate next to nothing for above ten years, though her parents would pry open the jaw with sticks now and then and force down liquid. The famished invalid spent her time creeping about by the wall of her parents’ home, not unlike the character of Yellow Wallpaper (yet another Gothic tale). Of most interest in this case, however, is the narrated description of the girl’s body. Given the circumstances, a strictly medical account out to show a body starving and dehydrated. But instead, “her cheeks [are] full, red, and blooming. […]she slept a great deal and soundly, perspired sometimes, and now and then emitted pretty large quantities of blood at her mouth.”[iii] The account dates from 1775, but recollects the notes of vampire commissioners during the scare of 1730s. Only decades earlier, Europe witnessed a vampire scare resulting in the appointment of vampire commissioners, autopsy inquests and the occasional mutilation of corpses. The position and condition of skeletons unearthed in Český Krumlov, near Prague, in 1732 suggest that vampire-killing rituals had been performed. Perhaps more interesting in terms of history/fiction cross-overs, is the description of the rosy-cheeked paralytic: “Her countenance is clear and pretty fresh; her features not disfigured nor sunk; […] and, to my astonishment, when I came to examine her body, for I expected to feel a skeleton, I found her breasts round and prominent, like those of a healthy young woman; her legs, arms, and thighs, not at all emaciated.”[iv] Such narratives reach back into history, but also forward, presaging the more lurid narratives of Polidori’s Vampyre or Bram Stoker’s Dracula: This description, which sexualized the paralytic invalid, also delivers a kind of threat. Rather than seeing the child as a victim, the writer suggests that she is other-worldly, even dangerous.
As the Age of Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century promoted scientific and philosophical progress. By the latter part of the century, the metaphysical and monstrous had been left behind in medical treatises— and by 1755, Gerhard van Swieten, personal physician of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, concluded his own investigation by saying that “vampires only appear were ignorance still reigns.” [v] Of course, as the popularly reprinted Kirby accounts demonstrate, it enjoyed renewed fervor in the popular press. Banishing the hunt for monsters did little to curb their appearance in print, and the line between fact and fiction continues to be blurry at best.
More of these interesting cross-overs may be found in my co-edited collection Unnatural Reproductions and Monstrosity, and some other brilliant sources on the early vampire stories may be found in Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death. And Just for fun, further documentation on Český Krumlov may be found in a fascinating documentary called The Vampire Princess, about links between the outbreak and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. You can reach the full video here, or the Smithsonian Channel’s page.
[i] Kirby, R.S. Kirby’s wonderful and scientific museum: or, Magazine of remarkable characters, Vol 4. (London: 1820), 241-2.
[ii] Ibid., 242.
[iii] Ibid., 350
[iv] Ibid., 351
[v] Steindl, Klaus T., Andreas Sulzer, Smithsonian Networks (Firm), and Österreichischer Rundfunk. The Vampire Princess: . [Washington D.C.]: Smithsonian Networks, 2008.
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