2 May 2011


Sara Libby Robinson. Blood Will Tell: Vampires as Political Metaphors Before World War I. Academic Studies Press, 2011.

Sara Libby Robinson here shows how the image of the vampire emerged into Western Europe in the 18th century and how during the period around 1870 to 1914 the image of the vampire was used by a variety of political and social groups to stigmatise their enemies, and how that image acted as a symbol to express a variety of social fears and moral panics.
She argues that there are deep connections between the image of the vampire as presented in West European literature and symbolism with the notorious anti-Jewish blood libel (the idea that Jews used the blood of gentiles in Passover ceremonies), and wider antisemitic images of Judaism as a dead religion which wouldn't lie down. Some of these themes, she argues, were later taken up by anti-Catholic writers, who also presented Catholicism as a dead religion of antique superstition.

She traces the uses of the vampire image by various social and political forces to both stigmatise their enemies and to express a variety of social fears and moral panics. Left and right both used the image, thus among those associated with the vampire image were such diverse groups as anarchists and capitalists, Anglo-Irish landlords and Irish Nationalists and east European, often Jewish, immigrants and sexually aggressive "new women". Fears of foreign immigration became associated with pseudo-Darwinian ideas of racial degeneration and the role of blood. The 'infectious' nature of vampirism, and the idea that vampires can contaminate the blood with their bite naturally fits in here. Vampires were also associated with bad heredity.

At the end of the book Sarah Libby Robinson notes that in recent years the legend vampire has reverted to its peasant beginnings, in which vampires were social outcasts among the general local community and the breakers of various taboos. They are now presented as addicts or street criminals.

The one social group not mentioned in her study which was associated with vampirism was the aristocracy, which is curious as the majority of the vampires presented in the western literary tradition were aristocrats. Radical opinion in the 19th century saw the aristocracy and rentiers as vampires living off the work of the 'productive classes' which included both workers and manufacturers. The theme of the vicious aristocrat oppressing, murdering and eating the surrounding peasantry was a common one in folklore, reinforced with tales of the alleged depredations of Elizabeth Barthory and Gilles de Rais.

These anti-aristocratic blood legends do have some points in similarity with the anti-Jewish blood libel. These may relate to more general notions of the fearful cannibalistic, baby eating 'others' which can be applied to numerous groups. These more general notions appear alongside the blood libel in the various theories about Jack the Ripper, in which Jack is either presented as a Jew (even a ritual slaughterer) or a degenerate aristocrat (such as the Duke of Clarence) or at the very least a 'toff'. Folklore in colonial Africa presented Europeans as blood suckers, while Europeans saw Africans as 'savage cannibals'. Even today elements of this more general blood legend persist in for example the press coverage of Madeline McCann, which revolved around the idea of swarthy foreigners kidnapping beautiful Aryan children to improve their blood stock, to the ubiquitous greys who are said to abduct humans to improve their failing genetic line.

Robinson admits that she has little continuing interest in vampires and found Dracula in particular hard to read, and it is clear from this book that her real interest is in the history of antisemitic imagery and debates around immigration, and it has to be said that her account more than once moves away from the topic at hand, and perhaps to seeing antisemitic imagery where non was intended. Dracula after all was a Hungarian aristocrat and not a Russian Jew. In some ways the image of the vampire was the exact opposite of the 'rootless cosmopolitan Jew' of much antisemitic imagery of the period, a scapegoat for the alleged sins of modernity. Vampires are anything but modern, they are dead things from history which will not lie down and predate on the living, part of a wider set of images which link history with the wilderness.

Indeed Dracula, for example, with his obsession with blood and soil, race and honour points to a quite different direction. He is an archaic force from the wilderness of history which the secular modern world of daylight reason and common sense has neither the means of comprehending nor combating. He simply adopts the manner of the modern world of legality in order to subvert and dominate it to restore his ancient despotism. He reminds me of nothing so much as the Nazis, whom Churchill described as seeking to return the world to a new dark age made all the more terrible by the fruits of perverted science. -- Peter Rogerson

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