Sunday, 23 December 2012

What's the Harm?

It is very hard not to feel the deepest sympathy for everybody involved in the Neon Roberts case. Neon’s story hit the headlines earlier this month when a judge took the highly unusual step of identifying him publicly to help him to be located after his mother had taken him to prevent radiotherapy following surgery.

Neon has medulloblastoma. I’m not a cancer-specialist but you can search for information on it easily enough. It’s a serious condition, which seems to have a serious chance of a cure … provided the help gets to you before the rapidly developing tumour does. It’s a metastasising cancer which means that it can spread easily, in this case, through the rest of the brain and spine, which is presumably why it is necessary to deliver radiotherapy to the whole brain rather than just the operation site.

I cannot begin to imagine what it feels like to discover that your child has cancer and may die. Sally Roberts and her estranged partner must be going through hell.

This week, a judge ordered the radiotherapy to go ahead. Sally Roberts had objected on the basis that there may be side-effects – which is undoubtedly the case – and that alternative treatments may help, which is far less certain. She appears to have cited several which may be promising for the future, but which are not sufficiently well-developed or standardised yet; or else therapies which are used for other cancers and don’t have a track-record with medulloblastoma. The list includes: immunotherapy and photodynamic therapy. Also cited were boron capture therapy about which Cancer Research UK says that “there are concerns that [it] causes severe side effects”.

Again, I’m no cancer specialist, so let’s leave that to them. The Guardian reported that: “Lawyers representing the doctors told the court the experts listed by Roberts appeared to have little or no expertise in treating medulloblastoma, with one having apparently based his description of it from the internet or newspaper cuttings.”

The possible side-effects of radiotherapy Neon may face include deafness, reduction of IQ and stunted growth. However, this is not predictable. He may be OK, or affected only mildly. As the judge pointed out, the only real choice right now is between radiotherapy and death.

This story has been picked up on various places, random examples here and here, on the ‘net as a parental rights versus heavy-handed government coercion issue. 

Sally Roberts’ comment along these lines, apparently made to the Daily Mail, (and assuming for a moment that this is faithfully and properly reported) was: “I feel backed into a corner. It is taking away my human rights as a mother. Neon is my son. How dare the state impose their treatments on my son? They are not allowing me as the mother to make these decisions.”

This is an unequivocally wrong way of looking at it.

Parenthood is a relationship involving responsibility for a child but not ownership of it. Neon Roberts is not his mother’s chattel; he is a unique human being with rights of his own. Even if parental rights trumped a child’s rights – and they don’t, for very good reason – Neon has two parents, one of whom has consented to the radiotherapy.

For examples of why parental rights don’t trump children’s rights, you can look at exorcism, medical neglect and genital mutilation.

Sally Roberts is just wrong about her rights over Neon, but she at least has the excuse of being in emotional turmoil right now; an excuse that the libertarian-strand alt-med bloggers do not. I can’t criticise her for her desire for the best for her son and her fear for his future after radiotherapy. At the same time, we must remember other parents – every bit as loving and courageous – have gone through this and decided it is right to go ahead with the radiotherapy. Ms. Roberts’ fervour does not make her right about medicine.

I previously reproduced some vintage US anti-vax leaflets and quoted a Mrs. Carolyne Burns from 1927 who refused to have her son vaccinated, despite it being a prerequisite for school attendance. Mrs Burns said:

“I demand the right of a public school education for my boy and I can’t see why he shouldn’t get it. I object to vaccination and I won’t submit my boy to such a dangerous practice. It is un-American and unconstitutional to force this pus into the system of a healthy child … the school won’t accept him and I won’t have him vaccinated. What can I do?”

So this is tragic, but it’s not new. Incidentally, the vaccine to which Mrs. Burns was so averse was the polio vaccine, surely one of the candidates for ‘most significant disease intervention in human history’ award (… when they decide to invent it!)

Perhaps the most tragic thing about the Roberts family situation is that life occasionally offers you a choice between something shit and something even shittier. When life gives you lemons, sometimes all you can make is grimaces.

The human desire to personify an amorphous, generalised threat is readily observable in supernatural folklore, and it serves to provide the satisfaction of something specific to focus upon and rail against – a scapegoat. Again from The Mail, Roberts apparently claims that she will sue if Neon does suffer side-effects as a result of radiotherapy: “I will be holding them all accountable — everyone who has been involved in his treatment. The judge, the doctors, my former husband — the lot of them”.

But the fact is, Neon has cancer, and there may be no consequence-free outcome available. That isn’t his father’s fault, nor his doctors’, nor the judge’s.

You may have had an experience in your life which left you limp with impotence, your only choice being the acceptance of loss. I know I have.

I use Sally Roberts’ quotes from The Mail here as illustrations of the experiences and feelings of a person in a corner and in pain. I feel bad for her.

The people I don’t feel bad for are the people on alt-med sites who promote non evidence-based therapies as effective interventions. There’s more on the Quackometer. The next time someone asks you “where’s the harm in it”, perhaps think of the false hope that de facto medical neglect can bring.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Setting Own Goals?

An only half-serious memoir of flailing, derision, ostracism and black-eyes

At school I was OK at maths and English, so it didn’t bother me much that I turned into a prototype dodo during PE. My parents, friends and especially netball team-mates totally accepted that I just wasn’t a sporty type. Chief among the unbagsied, I was usually inflicted upon whichever team complained least loudly, and my impotent flailing confined to the back of the gym/pitch/court.

The good news about a confession of this type is that I can feel through the ether the many of you who are nodding and empathising. I don’t know if there are published goals for games lessons in school – you know, enjoyment of sport, desire to participate even without the threat of detention - but to judge by the Health Survey for England (cited here, p 31) they don’t work. Using a device called an accelerometer to measure physical activity the survey found that a miserable 6% of men and 4% of women achieve the government’s recommended weekly physical activity level. As a nation, we are melding with our office chairs and sofas. Evolution will soon provide us with stain-resistant upholstery.

The good news for me is that I was very, very lucky. My brother started Judo and I fancied giving it a go. I sat my O-level mocks with matching black-eyes from my first grading, and the real exams with a repeat pair from Aikido, taken up at a similar time. I was clearly enjoying myself too much to care that I looked like a racoon. Weight training to help with strength followed and, eventually, took over. I even spent a year being a health-instructor until I realised that the tedium of being asked how to make bums smaller was going to lead to madness or violence. At the age of twenty-seven I learned to swim, and now I run.

I must add that I do all of these things very badly indeed. Except the Aikido … I was alright at that. But everything else was, and is, done despite the miserable lack of attainment. I have learned to like exercise for its own sake: in other words, exactly the opposite way it was taught at school.

A quick breeze over a report from the University of East London (p56) about the expected legacy outcomes of London 2012 considers the Olympic Games’ effects in terms of employment, skills tourism, house prices and so on. And it also addresses what is, in my opinion, an oft-repeated canard – that the sight of sporting excellence may precipitate a nation to undock from its soft furnishings and head out to the nearest playing field. It says:

The Olympic Charter aims to encourage and support the development of sport for all … There is an intention towards a virtuous circuit: sport for all feeds elite sport which, in turn, it is hoped, will inspire more people to participate. Trickle down and knock on effects are assumed with the affective charge of the Games, the role models of the athletes, the infrastructure and expertise mobilised in putting the Games on and extensive global broadcasting of Olympic sport all key ingredients in the process.”

So – plenty of good intentions. But the report’s conclusions are refreshingly unhyperbolous when it considers the real evidence: “ .. there has been a paucity of studies on post-Games participation in sport and whether an Olympic Games provides a short or longer term bounce for community participation in sport”. Where changes have been perceived in the past: “… the Olympic Games are likely to have been one factor amongst many …”

All of which makes me ponder on a strand of thought that unites both school games and the Olympics – the assumption that greatness and achievement motivate spectators to participate.

I think it probably does exactly the opposite.

There’s an apocryphal anecdote that George W. Bush was appalled that fifty percent of Americans were below average intelligence. The use of the tale is not to prove that Dubbya is as thick as the most afflicted of his countrymen – he probably didn’t say it – but it does encapsulate that sad truth that in order for some to excel, others can’t. In the case of elite sport, that’s most of us.

Yet we’re left with a durable bit of cultural software from nineteenth century public schools that runs in a seemingly uninterruptible loop: sport, pain, humiliation, virtue, sport, pain …

The psychology of motivation has been studied a great deal in the era between the brutality of Eton’s height-of-empire playing fields and our present obesity epidemic. I’m personally very fond of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on praise and motivation in which she encourages parents and teachers to give accolades for process rather than outcome. Dweck’s experiments suggested that those praised for their intelligence seemed to regard it as a fixed quality and to be more conservative in their future choices; in trying to retaining their ‘clever’ status, they did things that made them look clever all the time, sometimes missing out on trying harder tasks, disappointments, reversals and the opportunity for problem-solving that those things all bring. It seems that if you can instead get hooked on ‘process’ (and thereby tenacity), a decent level of attainment will follow anyway. It’s hard to focus on something over a long period of time and remain too bad at it.

In fact, when you get into process, you stand a chance of experiencing one of the most pleasurable things known to man that doesn’t involve chocolate – a condition labelled by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as ‘flow’.

Flow occurs when you are completely absorbed in a task: you can lose time and even your sense of self. It’s been called other things too, such as ‘in the zone’, and we were certainly aware of the notion in martial arts.

Flow didn’t really figure in our incongruously-named athletics sessions at school, during which we were each timed or measured performing explosive and aspirational feats for which there had been absolutely no preparation. As wilted and asthmatic teenagers collapsed with burning lungs and pulled hamstrings, the crimplene-tracksuited gym-teacher assiduously filled out the Amateur Athletics Association paperwork. It was only later, when I did my stint assisting others in gyms, that I wondered how many of my clients would have expired on the spot if I did the same thing with them.

But the data were there – the results. We hadn’t learned to enjoy, but we had been successfully measured.

That danger of applying labels, with the attendant tendency to indelibly mark, has been usefully explored in other contexts too. Everyone who has explored cognitive-behavioural therapy for depression has encountered the idea that “depressed right now” is a description, and “depressed” or “depressive” are potentially self-fulfilling prophecies. I know that I didn’t regard myself as “bad at netball this session”, but as “inept at any kind of physical activity whatsoever”.

My Judo club ran three squash courts too, so the squashies and the judos often met in the bar area. My PE teacher and I encountered each other one evening, mutually alarmed. “How amazing to see you here” she said to me. “I never had you down as a physical type”.
So the jock/nerd dichotomy wasn’t just me then.

If I’d had the speed or the wit, perhaps I’d have responded to her cheek by pointing out that disliking standing in the drizzle in very little more than your underwear while having a wet netball smack you in the face probably isn’t all that bizarre.

It strikes me that there are many dimensions to being active. Some people get excited by distance, some by time, some by scores. Some people like to be in teams of one and some like larger groups. If you’re not competitive, that’s fine. I used to volley on squash courts for hours with a friend. No scoring. Load of fun.

Indications are that key public bodies already know that the Olympic Games aren’t going to improve gross-national-fitness by itself. This report from NHS London says: “This research shows that just having the 2012 Games in London will not automatically create a health legacy. So NHS London is launching … the ‘Go London’ programme to realise our ambition of improving health through increasing levels of physical activity.”

Judo was my very short-lived gateway drug which enabled me to overcome the twice-weekly exercise aversion sessions at school. I was very fortunate.

Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was stunning. And this week I’ll watch the gymnastics because I find it amazing and beautiful. Perhaps there are elements of the games you’ll be drawn to watch too.

But we shouldn’t believe any of the hogwash about the Olympics enciting us to become athletes. The simple human pleasure of enjoying and being in control of your body is far too important to be left to peddlers of mirages.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Psychics and Princes

My great-grandmother was psychic.

Everybody knew it. If a member of her extended family paid an impromptu visit from even a great distance, like London, they were greeted with a friendly smile and a dinner that was already virtually at the table. “I knew you were coming”, she’d say. She was known for having ‘a way’ with animals, to the extent that she could pick up and offer comfort to a dog who had been fatally injured in the street, without getting bitten.

She was never subject to rigorous testing for her gift, and that was a blessing really. To have had it revealed that meals cooked for large families inconspicuously subdivide to accommodate unexpected guests, or that simple kindness on the part of the human (or closeness to death of the animal) produces a mundane - if touching - pieta, would have compromised her identity in a very painful way.

Her family functioned around the notion of her powers and performed their roles to support and nourish it. Most of them had flickering encounters with the other-world themselves, but were naturally subordinate to their mother in their abilities during her lifetime.

My father tells me about a time he went to see a stage-spiritualist who sat with her assistant. These ladies’ status seemed to be directly proportionate to their size, and a psychic wearing what appeared to be a chintz tarpaulin was evidently a very powerful creature indeed. As the star-psychic inhaled prior to bestowing her first insight, her skinny assistant broke in with a baseless voice in a Lancashire accent: “I can see a black and white cat – has anybody lost a black and white cat?”

The formidable priestess shot her a daggered look, and she was right to, because the monkey was taking a shot at being the organ-grinder. This was not enthusiasm – it was a takeover bid.

In a world where there are no exterior ways of denoting your status – no qualifications, no protected professional titles, no career ladder and demarked skills and experience, no gold jewellery nor designer adornments, no foreign holidays to boast of nor flash cars to drive, a person must attain their rank with the sheer force of their personality. If the criteria for their assets and virtues are unmeasurable except by the support of their cohorts, that is all for the better. Being psychic was, and is, a recourse open to people who have few other ways of differentiating themselves.

A person like this can be instead of do.

Unfortunately for her very hard-up family, my great-grandmother never had the commercial nous to go the Helen Duncan, Doris Stokes or Psychic Sally route. There must have been thousands of Elizabeth Archers all over the UK, women whose social status derived in good part from their mystical powers. That family was poor, in a way we have difficulty imagining today. My grandmother and her brother had to go to the beach to collect sea-coal for the fire. They didn’t have enough to eat and neither did their younger siblings. They were given charity shoes in front of their classes at school, but not frequently enough to permit their growing feet to avoid being cramped into forming hideous bunions. It was the Great Depression, and life was largely shit. It has frequently been observed that religious-spectrum ideas can be potent comforters and compensators, which is why we see those in most need of comfort and compensation investing in them.

As arduous exams and professional paths are, surely it is better to live in a world where you can do instead of be?

A story in The Daily Mail this week caught my eye. Apparently, Prince William is considering whether he will sign up for another three-year tour of duty as a Sea-King helicopter pilot. But is the call of royal duties threatening to divert the Prince’s chosen path?

The feature writer suggests that the Prince’s personal yearnings lie with his career. Apart from the fact that it has cost a small fortune to train him, he seems to like his job – a job that is all about doing.

But the Royal Family exists by virtue of the being paradigm – we don’t vote for the Queen. Prince William’s dilemma* is a very modern illustrations one of the rarer modern examples of being versus doing.

This model must cause them a great deal of pain as individuals. Prince Philip was famously made to give up his career in the Navy, and Princess Margaret’s privileged and empty life showed on every line of her face at the end. The Duchess of Cambridge is noted for having never had a recognisable job. The reason for this is a mystery, but if it was on advice from the Palace, I think they were very, very wrong. She married just in time to lose the ‘Waity Katie’ label, a hallmark of her indeterminate identity. But in times to come it may count against her.

I very much hope that Prince William signs up for another tour. Contrast these pictures: on one side, the capable man at the controls of a Sea-King helicopter; on the other, a person dressed for an absurd pantomime, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a child playing dressing-up with a blanket and foil-covered chocolate money for medals.

Albeit that they represent different ends of the social scale, there is personal mystique in being a Prince or a psychic – and both are equally ridiculous. It seems that being a Prince may unfortunately also be painful.

* Assuming of course, that it exists in reality rather than in the imagination of a newspaper feature writer. Whether it is an issue now, however, it certainly will be at some point.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

High Stakes

The more observant of you will have noticed that vampires have been in the news. No, not bankers. Although the droll current-affairs metaphor does apply, Voltaire got there first: describing the vampires he had seen in London and Paris in his Dictionaire Philosophique, he wrote "there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable places."

Archeologists in Sozopol, Bulgaria have excavated a couple of graves whose inhabitants had been pinned to the ground through their hearts with iron rods. Better safe than sorry, I suppose. Staking is such perfect horror-film fare that it’s hard to believe that it happened in real life too, but it truly did.

Vampires erupted onto Western European consciousness in the early 1700s, but that is not to say they were invented then. The Ottoman Turk and Austrian Empires had been slogging it out for centuries, and when the Austrian Empire finally prevailed over the Balkans, they found themselves administrating over local peoples who had quaint local customs, like mutilating corpses.

A rash of alarmed reports came back, asking how to deal with the phenomenon. To Roman Catholic Austria, desecration of the dead was not just unhygienic – it was sacrilege.

But where there’s repulsion there’s usually titillation too. The response to the new tales of the undead varied, from learned shock and outrage, to ardent and morbid curiosity. Incidentally, this is worth noting for those today who believe "horror" to be a modern and corrupting - pardon the pun - interest.

As early as the first decade of the eighteenth century, the Sorbonne1 in Paris had passed two resolutions prohibiting the decapitation of accused vampires. And Eighteenth century western Europe avidly consumed the vampire stories that streamed in from the east. The case of the vampire Arnod Paole and his numerous victims was one of the first to be seized upon; it was enthusiastically retold, and was the subject of a best selling leaflet at the Leipzig book fair of 1732.

Arnod Paole had died when he had fallen from a hay wagon and broken his neck. His case was recounted in Visum et Repertum, a report which had been commissioned by the authorities of the Austrian Empire and written by regimental medical officers Fluckinger, Sigel and Baumgarten.

Paole had been born and died in the village of Medvegia, north of Belgrade in Serbia, but he had spent part of his life away as a soldier serving in what was then called ‘Turkish Serbia’. After his service, he had returned home, married and bought a farm. Although he was remembered as a pleasant man he was said to have had a sombre air, which was attributed to an incident that he mentioned during his travels; he had claimed to have been troubled by a vampire, and had used the folk remedy of eating earth from its grave and smearing himself in its blood to be free of it.

After his death, some of the villagers said they had been bothered by Paole, and four were reported to have died by his actions. Forty days after his burial, he was disinterred. Reported in Visum et Repertum, his body was found not to be corrupt:
"They found that he was quite complete and undecayed, and that fresh blood had flowed from his eyes, mouth and ears; that the shirt, the covering of the coffin were completely bloody; that the old nails on his hands and feet, along with the skin had fallen off, and that new ones had grown; and since they saw from this that he was a true vampire, they drove a stake through his heart, according to their custom, whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously. Thereupon they burned the body the same day to ashes and threw these into the grave."
Paole's four ‘victims’ had also been disinterred and treated the same way since they would be tainted and could turn into vampires themselves. Clearly we have the notion of contagion here.

But the deaths did not stop there. In the three months leading up to the arrival of the medical officers, (five years after Paole’s death) another seventeen people died after short illnesses of two or three days, and one had claimed to have been bothered by the spirit of one of the recently dead before she expired. It was reasoned that the curse of vampirism had managed to persist via the meat of the local cattle and sheep, whose blood Paole must therefore have sucked. The officers were thus able to witness the disinterment of more bodies, as the latest rash of vampires were dealt with.

A woman named Stana had died at the age of twenty after a three day illness following childbirth. Her baby had not survived for long, and had been buried but then pulled out of its grave by dogs and partially eaten. Stana had been sufficiently worried about the vampire (and had perhaps suspected it for the death of her baby) to smear herself with its blood as a protection against it. But to judge by her pristine condition in the grave three months after her death, this measure had not been effective. Liquid, rather than coagulated, blood was found in her vessels, her viscera were fresh and her nails on one hand were new. The only part of her which had succumbed to the grave was her uterus, inflamed and malodorous with the placenta still in place (giving an indication what why she actually died).

Another woman named Ruscha had been buried with her child soon after parturition. Six weeks and five weeks later respectively, the mother and the baby both had fresh blood in their thoracic cavities and hearts.

An old woman named Miliza had died at the age of sixty, around three months previously. Having spent her whole life looking lean and spare, she now conversely appeared to be plump and healthy in death. Like the others, her blood was liquid and her viscera were fresh.

A twenty year old woman who had been dead for over two weeks was found to be fresh with a flushed and ruddy complexion. When she was moved, fresh blood flowed from her nose.

In total, all the people above plus two teenage boys, one pre-pubescent girl, a woman, a man, a baby and an old man were found in a vampiric state.

All the vampires' heads were severed from their bodies, the carcasses were burnt and the ashes were thrown into the river Morava. Two mothers and their babies, and a man in his twenties were also exhumed but had decomposed sufficiently to allay suspicion. They were replaced back in the ground without further desecration.

Paole’s case illustrates perfectly that vampires were a phenomenon associated principally with two things: epidemics, and failure to decompose in the predicted manner.

The 17th century Greek Roman Catholic Priest Leone Allaci wrote:
"If at any time an unwonted mortality occurs and persons begin to die when there is no epidemic of sickness to account for it, the citizens shrewdly suspecting what the cause may be, proceed to open the graves of those who have been recently interred."
Ernest Jones2 provided a list of some of the most alarming outbreaks of vampirism: in Chios 1708; Hungary 1726; Medyuega and Belgrade 1725; Serbia 1825; Hungary 1832. These coincided with fatal epidemics - plagues.

A recently as 1898, people on the Island of Kynthos believed that vrykolakas – Greek vampires - brought consumption. Regional variants, such as the Bosnian lampir, were associated with plagues and the Greek word ‘Nosopheros’ (from where the Balkan word Nosferatu derives) means plague carrier.

In a very peculiar twist, Balkan/Greek type folkoric practice in response to consumption also occurred in late nineteenth century Rhode Island, USA. Go here for my vodcast on The Vampires of Rhode Island.

As for the ‘undecomposed’ element of Paole and his victims, we can fruitfully turn to the science of decomposition – a science to which most people throughout history have not had access. It's worth starting with an account by a travelling French Botanist, Pitton de Tournefort from his Relation d'un Voyage du Levant of 1717, who had the opportunity of seeing a vampire examined on the Island of Mykonos in 1700.

A quarrelsome and unpleasant man had been found dead in a field, and buried as normal. Two days after his burial, he was seen striding around the town at night. He entered houses and made a great nuisance of himself, upsetting furniture and extinguishing lights. Like many other ‘vrykolalas’ – Greek vampires - he did not suck blood directly, but he terrified the wits out of the living.

Masses were said, but since the disturbances did not stop and were so widespread, that it was decided to exhume his corpse on the ninth day after burial. De Tournefort witnessed the examination which was carried out by the town's butcher whom he described as "old and ham-fisted". The butcher's aim was to find the heart of the vrykolakas, for which he began a search in its abdomen. After a time spent sorting through the corpse's entrails, it was suggested that he needed to breach the diaphragm to enter the thorax, after which the corpse's heart was successfully extracted.

Unfortunately by now the stench was overwhelming. Incense was burnt, but the pungent fumes mingled with those of the corpse and the onlookers became so excited that they swore the palls of smoke emanated from the corpse itself. The terror mounted until all de Tournefort could hear was the word ‘vrykolakas’, repeated many times by the people in the Church and in the square outside it. The group who had initially found the man's corpse in the field added to the hysteria by recounting that when they had found him, he was not as stiff as a corpse should have been, but supple instead.

"I am certain that if we had not ourselves been actually present, these folk would have maintained that there was no stench of corruption" wrote de Tournefort, a stench that meant, having secured a place quite close to the body, "we were retching and well 'nigh overcome". The butcher claimed that the innards were warm and that the blood on his hands was fresh; De Tournefort and his associate countered that the warmth was no more than the warmth of putrefaction like that of a dung heap, and that the blood was nothing more than a stinking mess. But despite this reasoning, the people still took the heart to the seashore and burnt it.

Far from being subdued, the spirit became more restless than ever, terrifying everyone except, de Tournefort sardonically adds, "the consul in whose house we lodged".

De Tournefort believed the whole thing to have been "an epidemical disorder of the brain, as dangerous as mania or sheer lunacy". Clearly, no amount of reasoning would have convinced the people of Mykenos that there was not a vrykolakas in their midst, but with two parallel interpretations of the same event – the locals’ and De Tournefort’s -  we can perceive a cognitive bias which directed people to see putrefying warmth as life, decomposing sludge as blood, and incense as a spirit emanation from a vampire body.

Paul Barber’s excellent Vampires, Burial and Death has a chapter devoted to normal post-mortem changes that can be mistaken for vampirism. I recommend the book. After you’ve eaten.

Stana, Ruscha and her baby, Miliza, the twenty year old woman and Paole himself all had ‘liquid blood’ which in some cases flowed from their noses (and in all likelihood, all other of their bodily orifices).

Barber reminds us that blood coagulates in corpses, but liquefies again. Then, quoting Mant, he writes:
“The gases in the abdomen increase in pressure as the putrefactive processes advance and the lungs are forced upwards and decomposing blood escapes from the mouth and nostrils”
Stana was round and healthy-looking in the grave, but bloating from post-mortem bacterial gases would account for that, as it would account for the Paole’s “audible groan” as he was staked.

Paole’s twenty year old female victim’s “flushed and ruddy complexion” was quite common in vampirism too. Lividity in corpses occurs where the blood vessels break down, emptying now decaying blood cells into tissue where they can cause dark staining. If a person was suspected of being a candidate for vampirism, they were often buried face-down, which produces significant facial ‘flushing’.

The suppleness of De Tournefort’s vrykolakas was remarked upon by the people who found him. But rigor-mortis passes, usually after thirty six hours or so although the process gets delayed by the cold.

In fact, temperature has a massive part to play in general. As I pointed out with Mercy Brown in The Vampires of Rhode Island, if a person dies and the winter and is buried in freezing soil, buried in a shallow grave because the ground is too hard to dig a deep one, or kept them above-ground in a freezing mortuary, the corpse is not likely to decay particularly rapidly.

Death during epidemics provided another variable which contributed to the revenant myth – the idea that, as French Monk Augustin Calmet put it, "certain persons after death chew in their graves and demolish anything that is near them, and that they can be heard munching like pigs". This munching occurred especially at times of plague.

I covered this in a previous blogpost. To summarise: the bodily parts that were eaten by ‘vampires’ in their graves were those parts which would decompose first, such as entrails and finger ends. And the phenomenon was most likely to occur in late summer and autumn, the peak season for plague deaths.

While we can look this stuff up on the internet, most people throughout history have not observed the decomposition of corpses for the very good reason that they are sources of contagion. It’s unhygienic. They were left with nothing but hearsay and folklore to combat epidemic death.

I wonder what happened to the corpses in Sozopol? We can infer that the people were likely to have died during a time of plague. Perhaps the village had employed the folk diagnosis used across Southern Slav areas of walking a completely white or black virginal horse that had never stumbled, ridden by a virginal man around the graveyard. The horse would have refused to cross the vampire graves, leading to the corpses being exhumed.

Staking is an extremely prosaic way of simply keeping a corpse in its grave. It’s a rather large pin. While many traditions emphasise the importance of the material – hawthorn for some, iron for others – piercing the corpse would have let the gases out and stopped post-mortem shifting and popping. Bear in mind that these people did not have coffins.

Vampires, like all other unnatural predators, serve as scapegoats. They provide a way of communities feeling powerful in the face of insurmountable events: there is knowledge, there are rituals. It means that people can do something, where there is otherwise nothing that can be done.

Vampires were officially-designated 'outsiders', and it’s observable that such discreet populations within the main one are useful to the human psyche, and oft-created. Given that people have hanged witches, burned heretics and tortured foreigners, perhaps we should applaud the vampire-believers for their humanity in only multilating their scapegoats after they were dead.


1 The Sorbonne was founded as a theological college - and was not given to University of Paris until 1808

2 Ernest Jones (1949) On the Nightmare The Hogarth Press Ltd, London p. 122.

3 Mant ed. Taylor's Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence p. 147, quoted in Barber Vampires, Burial and Death p. 115.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Profanity and Nuptials, or, Get Your Hands Off My Language

Mr J has been researching World War I this week. One of the things which has given him most grief is trying to ascertain authentic swear-words from the trenches. We have such a pleasing range today meaning you can take your pick from the blasphemous (“Jesus Christ”) to the whimsically old-fashioned, and thus relatively unimpactful (“bloody thing”). Confusion really arises when you consider our best swearwords (those Anglo-Saxons must have hammered their thumbs a lot). Words like “fuck” and “cunt” can be either deeply offensive or even incredibly amiable, depending entirely upon context.

Paterfamlias J came partially to the rescue with a recording from Old Uncle Harry, made in the ‘70s. On this recording, Uncle Harry had rather quaintly caught himself saying “bloody” and asked if swearing was OK. We took that to mean that, to an essentially Edwardian man like Uncle Harry, “bloody” was quite a rude word.

As an aside, poor Uncle Harry had been frustrated in his chief ambition of shooting his superior officer in the head by a fellow soldier who had jumped in and threatened to do it first. His verbal self-censorship was the only blip in a fully-flowing narrative involving plentiful accounts of gassing, carnage and death, so it wasn’t that he lacked the stomach for grim reality.

Some suggest the origin of the adjective “bloody”, used in an expletive context, is a corruption of ‘By Our Lady” which would make it blasphemous. It certainly seems that at religious times, invocations of God and his cohorts were the most serious variety of verbal outburst.

Conversely, Mr J. says it seems that the word “fuck” was used so casually in the trenches that it was only its omission which panicked people. If you were told to pick up your gun, you knew that someone was short of the time to get the intensifier “fucking” in there, and that the situation was formal and serious.

So we can see that words have changed over the years, and that this trend is intimately connected with the zeitgeist – the ‘concept-soup’ in which we mentally swim; our intellectual, emotional, cultural agar.

Blasphemous swears have become less serious for many of us, because religion does not have the same influence over our lives.

English is a pervasive language in the world. This is, no doubt, because of the country’s ardour for empire at a certain critical point in history. I’m sure there are good and bad things to be said for this spread of the language (and I can take neither blame nor credit, having sprouted from the gene pool, but not having been actually there).

But I’d propose that having English as your first or second language is a cool thing because it’s so avowedly and proudly evolving. We do not have the equivalent of L'Académie Française (whose pronouncements are not, and cannot be, binding in any case), standing like an etymological Cnut against a tide of reality. If you don’t know that “wicked” can mean cool, awesome or impressive, you’re just either old or you don’t get out enough.

In short, if enough people use it in a certain way, it gets into the dictionary. The rules are dictated by the useage, and the useage changes. This is a good thing.

Take the word “marriage” as another example. In medieval times, Canon law accepted that people could be married by their declaration towards each other. In practice, the landed and wealthy needed firmer contracts than that because of the money and power at stake. But no doubt, many simpler folk simply took up with each other, sans clergy or witnesses to bless their arrangement. ‘Common Law Marriage’ a.k.a. staying together ‘til you’re too exhausted to escape, was common throughout Europe.

This changed during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation where both sides seemed to want things formalised. The Catholic Church required that a priest and witnesses be present for a legal marriage, This was during one of the meetings of the interminable Council of Trent (nearly two decades, in case you were wondering – I think they let people out for sandwiches and the loo). In England, we had Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act which did a similar thing about a century later.

Today, marriage also doesn’t have to be a religious ceremony. In the UK, the marriage must be conducted by a person, or in the presence of a person, authorised to register marriages.

In practice, this means that if you go to the local Anglican Church, the vicar may have the relevant certificate; if you go the registry office, you’ve definitely got a one-stop-shop; if you go the local Wiccan group you’ll need a space blanket for later (those people keep taking their kits off in the moonlight) and a visit to the registry office to make it all official. At my brother’s wedding they had the Catholic priest to do the religious bit and the registrar to do the official paperwork bit.

The practice of marriage, as well as the formalities validating its creation, has changed a great deal. In medieval times, people married very young, no doubt so they could produce children before they expired of pillage, plague or starvation (or childbirth, paradoxically). One of my favourite historical characters, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was first married at the ago of 13 or 15 – both under-age by current reckoning. Plenty married younger.

A cursory look at the dynastic marriages of the nobility also shows that a woman’s consent was not particularly necessary. Aristocrats and social climbers would throw their daughters at men higher above them in the social hierarchy. Girls weren’t encouraged to think that they had a say in the matter. Because they didn’t.

This is another reason I like Eleanor of Aquitaine. She managed to get an annulment from her first (and unhappy) marriage to the King of France and arrange a new one with a bloke she fancied – the man who would become Henry II. The physical journey after her divorce and before her new marriage, incidentally, speaks of a woman flying like the wind to avoid dynastic rapists, men who would have grabbed her and violated her in order to be the new master of her lands, possession being nine-tenths of the law and all that.

Which leads on to another massively changed nuance of marriage: in most places, marriage meant that a man could force his spouse to have sex with him. Rape within marriage was a contradiction-in-terms. The phrase “irrevocable consent” was often used in this context (it has other legal applications too).

Famously, Sir Matthew Hale pronounced in 1736 that a “husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract”.

So we can see that words change over time and that that is a useful thing. We can also see, with even a cursory look (and this is just stuff I can think of off the top of my head – perhaps you can tell), that the concept of marriage itself has changed considerably. I haven’t even gone into all the historical invocations not to marry for love or lust, the increasing romanticism during the 18th and 19th centuries.

So, we’re happy with words that evolve. We’re also happy with the many, many changes that history has brought to our meaning of marriage (anyone for the legal rape of a 12 year old, given by her father to a thirty-year old? – thought not).

So why are so many people distressed that the term may now come to encompass the union of gay couples? The government’s plans to legalise gay marriage has met with howls of protest from religious groups, religious groups who are trying to both determine useage of a word that belongs to us all, and to claim that “marriage” has meant one thing since its inception.

Religious bodies will not be required to provide gay marriages. They are not the legal authorities over marriage except in countries like Saudi Arabia. Neither do they have provenance over the way we use our words.

It is inhumane to deny gay couples equality. I never want to hear another religous apologist tell me that their beliefs are primarily about ethics ever again.