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 supernaturaloccult 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.
Calen Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
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
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 harshly
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,
———. 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.

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