What King James I Had to Say About Vampires and Werewolves

King James VI and I of Scotland and England

King James I of England, also King James VI of Scotland, is primarily known for his role as monarch of both countries from 1603 to 1625, uniting the crowns. James’ reign is known for such events as the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and overseeing the continuation of a flourishing literary culture in England which had begun under Elizabeth I, most notably through the works of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. However, James was no stranger to literature and art, nor did he sit idly by. He authored works of political theory as well as scientific works, and sponsored the King James Bible. One of James’ more interesting treatises is Daemonologie, In Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into three Books (henceforth referred to as Daemonologie), in which James explores various aspects of necromancy and demonology. Published in 1597, James was not yet King of England, though that did not mean that his writing had no impact on English culture. Aided by a reprinting in 1603, his dissertation influenced various writers, most notably William Shakespeare in his depiction of the ‘Weird Sisters’ (witches) in Macbeth (1606).

The main focus of historians when interpreting Daemonologie has — rightly — been on its attitude towards (and justification of) persecution of witches, which James explicitly endorses not just as justified but as an obligation of all good Christians and rulers. Although modern readers may assume that any work which focuses on witches, demons, and evil spirits must be of little intellectual value, two things have to be understood. Firstly, that discussions of demons were viewed as a part of legitimate scientific discussion at the time, as God acted through nature and as such spirits could use the natural world as a vehicle for machinations good or evil. Secondly, that Daemonologie is as much a political treatise as a religious/theological one. This is made clear through the continued use of a Socratic Dialogue which sees two characters (Philomathes and Epistemon) debate a variety of theological and political topics. The most historically relevant and studied aspect of Daemonologie is what it says about witchcraft. However, in this article I wish to shed some light on what King James wrote about vampires and werewolves, what conclusions he came to, and the impact of his writings on English culture.

In 1597, vampires as we know them had not yet been conceived. Revenants (undead beings under the control of evil spirits) had existed in folklore for a long time, but what we would consider a ‘vampire’ was not to be invented until the mid-17th century at the earliest and was only popularised as late as 1819 with the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre. For this reason, James never uses the term ‘vampire’ or ‘vampyre’. He does, however, mention ‘incubi’ and ‘succubi’. Although these terms existed before James’ treatise, he elaborates on their behaviour, describing them as ‘that abhominable kinde of Devils’ which ‘abuse’ men and women. The difference between an incubus and a succubus was that the former was a male and the latter was a female form of the devil. Both forms engaged in abusing men and women primarily through impregnating women (often nuns, according to James) either through the transportation of sperm from a dead man’s body or by taking the form of a man (an incubus) and seducing women. James claims that the sperm would be cold, as would the dead body which the devil might possess to carry out such a task. This is where similarities with our conception of vampires are most clear — an undead man (or woman) who acts as a sexual predator (primarily as a man preying on women). The characters of Polidori’s vampire and Count Dracula in Stoker’s Dracula (1897) — which defined the modern vampire — are very similar to this. Dracula is described as cold and a being of pure evil. Although Dracula does not primarily focus on seducing women to impregnate them (and the possible inference that Mina’s son at the end of Dracula may be at least to some extent a vampiric offspring is a tenuous claim at best), the act of blood-drinking is one which is an inherently sexual one (and is certainly depicted as such by Bram Stoker).

The political elements of James’ writing are also evident when he discusses these vampire-like creatures. The chapter itself is a self-confessed attempt to explain why these ‘kindes of spirites hauntes most the Northerne and barbarous partes of the world’. When asked why incubi and succubi are apparently found most commonly in the ‘wild partes of the worlde’, such as in Lapland, Finland, Orkney, and Shetland, Epistemon answers that those places are where ‘the Devill findes greatest ignorance and barbaritie’. Immediately following this obviously political comment is the claim that this is the reason why there are ‘moe [more] witches of women kinde nor men’. In other words, there are more female witches than male witches because women tend to be more ignorant, according to Epistemon (who is not so subtly reflecting James’ views on the matter). A final comment reveals another facet of early modern gender relations, as Epistemon argues that many witches have confessed to giving ‘their willing consent’ to the devil and were not tricked. These people, he argues, must be punished, unlike those who were deceived and should instead be prayed for. What this meant in reality was that men were much more likely to be considered the victims of the devil and women were much more likely to be considered willing collaborators. Given that the famous vampire Count Dracula was in large part a personification of late-Victorian xenophobic fears and that Gothic literature involving vampires tends to portray women as vulnerable, weak, victims, the physical similarities between James’ incubi and ‘vampires’ are complemented by political ones.

Lycanthrope (more commonly known today as the phenomenon of werewolves) was a well established concept by 1597. In fact, werewolf trials were commonly held alongside witch trials — although they were less common. Daemonologie was published at the peak of the werewolf craze, following the trial and execution of Peter Stubbe in 1589 which saw the poor man, alongside his daughter and mistress, put on the breaking wheel, skinned in 10 places, followed by having his limbs broken, and finally he was beheaded and his body burned. James mentions werewolves in the first chapter of the third book. James’ claim is that if werewolves do exist, they exist due to ‘a naturall super-abundance of Melancholie’ in the same way that melancholy allegedly made some people think they were horses or other kinds of animals. As a result, these people might have ‘counterfeited their actiones in goeing on their handes and feete, preassing to devoure women and barnes […] so to become beastes by a strong apprehension’. The claim here is that those who were apparently ‘werewolves’ were not actually supernatural beings at all but rather suffered from a form of madness, induced by extreme sadness, which made them behave like wolves and truly believe that they were. In this regard, King James shows himself to be less credulous than many others at the time, who wholeheartedly believed in the existence of werewolves.

Although many people in continental Europe believed lycanthrope to be supernatural (if not itself a supernatural act itself then at the very least a madness brought upon a person through evil spirits), James’ view of lycanthrope as a form of madness was fairly common in England. John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (c. 1613) reflects this view through the character of Ferdinand. Ferdinand is the twin brother of the titular Duchess of Malfi, whose death he orchestrates and over which he feels extreme guilt and remorse (this acts as the source of his melancholy). In Act V Scene II, a doctor is called to see to Ferdinand. The reason is that he was seen digging up dead bodies, it’s implied that he may have dismembered some, and upon discovery ‘he howl’d fearfully;/Said he was a wolf, only the difference/Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,/His on the inside.’ Clearly suffering from lycanthrope, the doctor doesn’t seek a supernatural explanation but simply states that he’ll ‘buffet this madness out of him’, a madness which he claims is present in people whose bodies ‘o’erflows [with]/Such melancholy humour’. Ferdinand goes on to act madly, attacking his own shadow and then the doctor. Unlike witchcraft and incubi/succubi, James’ claim is that lycanthrope is simply a natural phenomenon, not a supernatural one.

King James’ Daemonologie offers an interesting insight into the Scottish (and future English) King’s views on various demonic matters, from witchcraft to werewolves. The theological views alone are interesting, as James I articulates what he believes should be the process of persecuting those who work with the devil from a religious perspective. The political implications are also interesting, as reforms to the process of canonical law are proposed and frequent political comments are made pertaining to certain cultures (such as the claim of northern areas of the world being more barbaric and ignorant) and the susceptibility of women in particular to demonic practices. James’ comments on incubi and succubi (which can be interpreted as kinds of proto-vampires) and lycanthrope (in which he differs from contemporary views) are often overshadowed by his writing on witchcraft but when closely analysed have a clear historical relevance, both reflecting and influencing 17th-century attitudes towards the supernatural and the insane.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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