Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Weird Wednesday: Montague Summers, vampirologist and priest (maybe)

This little entry probably seems wildly out of character compared to my recent posts on the ceremonies of Holy Week, but I can't help myself. A friend mentioned to me the legacy of one Montague Summers to me this morning, regarded by some to be a medievalist, and this fellow is simply too weird not to share.

Augustus Montague Summers, born in 1880 in England to a wealthy and respectable family, initially followed the piety of his youth by studying to be an evangelical Anglican minister at Oxford. There, he discovered the full fruits of the Oxford movement and embraced the ritualism of the Anglo-Catholic party. (The book Decadence and Catholicism by Ellis Hanson describes his time at Lichfield Theological College thus: "he was known to burn incense in his rooms and to wear purple silk socks during Lent".) Summers was ordained a deacon in 1908 and apprenticed as to a church in Bitton, where he became embroiled in a scandal involving charges of sodomy and pederasty with choirboys. Summers was acquitted, but the case would follow him to some degree or another for the rest of his life.

Summers's path through holy orders grows hazy after this. A year after the scandal, he converted to Roman Catholicism and was apparently ordained as a Catholic deacon. Not long thereafter, he presented himself to the world for the rest of his life as a priest: the "Reverend Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers". Widespread confusion persists on whether Summers was actually a priest, since he appears in no rolls of clergy in England or elsewhere, and he never publicly offered the sacraments at home (though he did offer them publicly when traveling on the Continent, suggesting that either he had valid credentials from some bishop, or they were forged). Some sources suggest that he was ordained by an "Old Catholic" bishop while, as a young adult, he spent a number of years living in Italy and France for "health reasons".

In 1926, Summers entered the public sphere as an authority on the occult by publishing The History of Witchcraft. In an era obsessed with progress and scientific achievement, Summers stood alone as a true believer in the reality of witches, vampires, werewolves, and Church-sanctioned methods of destroying them. An excerpt from the introduction to his book:
"In the following pages I have endeavoured to show the witch as she really was – an evil liver: a social pest and parasite: the devotee of a loathly and obscene creed: an adept at poisoning, blackmail, and other creeping crimes: a member of a powerful secret organisation inimical to Church and State: a blasphemer in word and deed, swaying the villagers by terror and superstition: a charlatan and a quack sometimes: a bawd: an abortionist: the dark counsellor of lewd court ladies and adulterous gallants: a minister to vice and inconceivable corruption, battening upon the filth and foulest passions of the age." (The History of Witchcraft)

Two years later, Summers gave the world the first English translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous witch-hunting manual written by Heinrich Kramer in 1486. The same year, Summers debuted a work of his own, The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. 1933 saw the publication of The Werewolf, and in 1946, Witchcraft and Black Magic. (Just to name a few.)

Just how did this man come to learn so much about the world of witches and monsters, anyway? It's speculated that Summers's years abroad for matters of "health" actually marked a period of his life spent dabbling in occultic circles. Virtually nothing is known about the years in between his departure from Anglicanism and his return around 1916 to England. If Summers did dabble, it must have left a have sour taste in his mouth, or perhaps even a true experience of the horrific. For in all his works on the supernatural, Summers takes on the role of the modern-day witch hunter, a more fashionable version of Malachi Martin.

And yet, Summers was clearly fascinated by supernatural evil in ways beyond mere spiritual combat. Among the many other specialties he acquired, Summers was renowned for being an expert on Gothic horror fiction from the late 18th century. The seven gothic novels suggested by Isabella Thorpe in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey were long thought to have been merely inventions of the authoress's imagination. It was Montague Summers, of all people, who demonstrated that books like Horrid Mysteries and The Necromancer were real, if obscure, works in circulation in the early 19th century. Summers re-published incomplete editions of the two books I just named.

So, did Montague Summers really believe in any of this stuff in the first place? Many people who encountered him in real life thought him a charlatan, a man play-acting a character that had long since passed into extinction. Returning to Decadence and Catholicism, we read:
"... although Summers was a brilliant conversationalist, he had always a thick carapace of artificiality in his demeanor, a kind of mask that recalled the studied falsity of the classic dandy, not to mention the distrustful reserve of Walter Pater and John Gray. His style was decidedly aristocratic, Continental, and decadent, with the inevitable intimation of sexual impropriety. His friend writes of him, 'He would often meet me with such an expression as Che! Che!, accompanied by a conspiratorial smile; or he would look closely at me and murmur, 'Tell me strange things'."

Let's add to that a description from Summers's biographer, Friar Brocard Sewell:
"During the year 1927, the striking and somber figure of the Reverend Montague Summers in black soutane and cloak, with buckled shoes--a la Louis Quatorze--and shovel hat could often have been seen entering or leaving the reading room of the British Museum, carrying a large black portfolio bearing on its side a white label, showing in blood-red capitals, the legend 'VAMPIRES'."

For my own part, I'm mostly convinced that the good "Reverend" truly believed he was living on the set of a Van Helsing movie, or perhaps, one of Gothic horror stories he so often wrote about. Perhaps the obsession with vampires and the like was simply one of his eccentricities (every proper English clergyman must have at least one), though one he played up to more than full effect. And, perhaps, his priesthood was a fraud. He certainly never exercised any regular ministry throughout his lifetime. Still, no one doubts that he actually held deep, orthodox religious convictions. The actress Sibyl Thorndike wrote:
"I think that because of his profound belief in the tenets of orthodox Catholic Christianity he was able to be in a way almost frivolous in his approach to certain macabre heterodoxies. His humour, his 'wicked humour' as some people called it, was most refreshing, so different from the tiresome sentimentalism of so many convinced believers."
I will, however, contest the title of "medievalist" that many writers have given him. Montague Summers is better described as a Romantic. Of course, medievalism and Romanticism are greatly entwined, and the medievalism of the mid-19th century which gave birth to the Modern Medievalists listed to the right of my page all descend, literally or intellectually, from the Romantics of the late 18th century who first rebelled against the Age of Reason and its tyranny of order and disbelief.
Still, as he even said of himself, Summers remains an 18th-century man. The buckled shoes, the colored silk socks, the hair styled in the fashion of a powdered wig, and especially his signature cane topped with a figurine Leda being raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, are all signs of the consummate clerical decadent. His appended name; after his confirmation saint, Alphonsus de Liguori; and his religious works on Lourdes and Counter-Reformation figure Saint Anthony Maria Zaccaria all suggest a Tridentine spirituality. Next to the occult, Summers's greatest contribution to posterity was in his monumental (and successful) efforts to revive the forgotten plays of John Dryden and other playwrights from the Restoration (the late 17th century). Montague Summers is, at best, a good fit for the Institute of Christ the King and a throwback to an age when priests were also arbiters, makers, and preservers of high culture a la Antonio Vivaldi; at worst, a "daughter of Trent" who, if he ever actually was a priest to begin with, wasted his vocation on trivialities rather than the cure of souls .
Even Summers's work in translating the Malleus Maleficarum is more an indicator of his own fixations than the spirit of the age whence it came. The age of the organized witch hunt is not a part of the medieval legacy, but rather, of the Reformation, the court of Versailles, and the colonial era. When the Malleus's author, the Dominican friar Heinrich Kramer, tried to start an inquisition against witches, he was actually thrown out by the local bishop for his eccentricities and for spreading superstitions. The official position of the Church had been established by the 10th-century canon Episcopi, which held that the "magic" performed by witches and sorcerors were merely delusions of the mind and had no effect on the physical world. The Malleus Maleficarum, then, was an anachronism in its own time (in 1486). Though its preface purports to have been given the approval of the University of Cologne's Faculty of Theology, the truth is just the contrary: the book was actually condemned by the university's review and, in Kramer's zeal to hunt witches, was printed anyway. Three years after the Malleus hit shelves, the Church officially condemned the book.
The Malleus Maleficarum's dubious origins and authenticity is a fitting reflection for our own subject today. Still, the "Reverend Alphonsus Joseph-Mary Augustus Montague Summers", whatever his faults, makes for a striking character study. We'll close this story with a quote from Summers's introduction to The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which I found at the end of another biography. Though I've denied him the title of "medievalist", I'll let him have the last word on that debate.
"There is in the Romantic revival a certain disquietude and a certain aspiration. It is this disquietude with earth and aspiration for heaven which inform the greatest Romance of all, Mysticism, the Romance of the Saints. The Classical writer set down fixed rules and precisely determined his boundaries. The Romantic spirit reaches out beyond these with an indefinite but very real longing to new and dimly guessed spheres of beauty. The Romantic writer fell in love with the Middle Ages, the vague years of long ago, the days of chivalry and strange adventure. He imagined and elaborated a mediaevalism for himself, he created a fresh world, a world which never was and never could have been, a domain which fancy built and fancy ruled. And in this land there will be mystery, because where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid. There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown. And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood."

1 comment:

  1. You may find this website interesting. Its owner, Sean Manchester is a modern day Montague Summers.