Calmet, Dom Antoine Augustin (1672-1757)
Calmet, Dom Antoine Augustin (1672-1757)
A Benedictine of the congregation of Saint-Vannes and one of the most renowned Bible scholars of his day. Calmet was born February 16, 1672, at Minil-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.
Calmet taught philosophy and theology at the abbey at Moyen-Moutier and during the early years of his career worked on a massive 23-volume commentary of the Bible, which appeared between 1707 and 1716. His biblical writings established him as a leading scholar, and he spent many years trying to popularize the work of biblical exegesis in the church.
Calmet is most remembered today for his single work, Dissertations sur les apparitions, des anges, des démons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie et de Silésie (Paris, 1746 and 1951, the latter being the better edition), a broad survey of supernatural/occult events across Europe. The first volume of this work dealt with spirits and apparitions, but it was the second volume, on revenants and vampires, that stirred up controversy.
Like the work of his Italian colleague Archbishop Gioseppe Davanzati, Calmet's study of vampirism was set off by waves of vampire reports form 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. As a theologian, he recognized that the existence and actions of such beings could have an important bearing on various theological conclusions concerning the nature of the afterlife. Calmet thought it necessary to establish the veracity of such reports and to understand the phenomena in light of the church's world view. Calmet finished his work a short time after the Sorbonne roundly condemned the reports and, especially, the desecration of the bodies of people believed to be vampires.
Calmet defined a vampire as a person who had been dead and buried and then returned from the grave 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 vampire and either sever its head and drive a stake through the chest or burn the body. Using that definition, Calmet collected as many 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 followed several of the reported incidents of vampirism and seconded the Sorbonne's condemnation of the mutilation of exhumed bodies. He considered all of the explanations that had been offered to explain the phenomena, from the effects of regional folklore, to normal but little-known body changes after death, to 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 reach a conclusion beyond the various natural explanations that had been offered. He left the whole matter open, but seemed to favor the existence of vampires, 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 set up conditions for the heated debate that was to ensue during the 1850s. Calmet's book became a best-seller. It went through three French printings, in 1746, 1747, and 1748. It appeared in a German edition in 1752 and in an English edition in 1759 (reprinted in 1850 as The Phantom World ). Calmet was immediately attacked by colleagues for taking the vampire stories seriously. Although he tried to apply such critical methods as he had available to him, he never really questioned the legitimacy of the reports of vampiric manifestations.
As the controversy swelled following publication of his book, coupled by a new outbreak of vampirism reported in Silésia, a skeptical Empress Maria Theresa stepped in. She dispatched her personal physician to investigate. 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 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 harsh-ly 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. Although Calmet was favorably cited by Montague Summers, who used him as a major source for his study of vampires, his importance lay in his reprinting and preserving some of the now obscure texts of the vampire wave of eighteenth-century Europe.
Calmet, Dom Augustine. Dissertations sur les apparitions, des anges, des démons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie et de Silésie. Rev. ed. Paris, 1751. Reprinted as The Phantom World. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1850.
——. Treatise on Vampires & Revenants: The Phantom World. Brighton, Sussex, England: Desert Island Books, 1995.
Digot, A. Notice biographique et littéraire sur Dom Augustin Calmet. Nancy, France, 1860.
Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: From Lord Byron to Count Dracula. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1928. Reprint, New York: University Books, 1960.