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OpenLearn Live: 4th November 2016

Updated Friday, 4th November 2016

Was Europe caught in an epidemic of Vampires in the late 1720s? Why is a bank moving beyond the gender binary? What's the problem with sanitary pads in China? Free learning and research from across the day.

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OpenLearn Live throws open the crypt door of online learning and research, and brings light to the darkest corners. This page will be updated during the day.

Yesterday, we journeyed to the edge of the Thames and considered the latest Brexit twist

On this day last year, we met Bosco the mayor who was also a dog, investigated the Investigatory Powers Act, and explored the spectrum of the Spectrum

Today's posts

Banking beyond the binary

Metro Bank, one of the challenger banks, has announced that customers will no longer be tied to a gender-specific honorific:

Metro Bank is the latest organisation to let customers choose an honorific that is neither male nor female.

The High Street lender is now offering the non-binary "Mx" prefix on its forms.

It said the option will be available to customers opening products such as current accounts, as well as staff.

Metro said it has made the changes in response to feedback from staff and customers and that it could react quickly because it was relatively new.

Danny Harmer, its chief people officer, said "making sure our customers and colleagues feel comfortable and accepted is a real priority for us".

She added that she hoped Metro's move would encourage others to follow suit.

A spokesperson for LGBT lobby group Stonewall said: "The changes that Metro Bank has made to its forms give important and much-needed recognition to people who do not identify as either male or female. It's great to see them taking proactive steps to ensure their needs are met and that they are accepted and included."

Metro isn't the first bank to introduce Mx to its mix - RBS customers already have the choice to choose a non-binary option.

Read the full story at BBC News: Metro Bank lets customers choose Mr, Ms, Mrs and Mx

What are challenger banks?

Barbara Risman: The sociologist who suggested gender was a social construct

Fake sanitary protection

The Economist reports from China where a new consumer scandal has erupted: fake sanitary protection products.

IN RECENT years Chinese consumers have been duped by misbranded, shoddy condoms; tainted alcohol; 40-year-old meat and, in 2008, contaminated baby milk that killed four children and landed 50,000 in hospital. Knock-off brands of sanitary towels are the latest example of China’s enduring failure to keep products safe. In late October police arrested two suspects in Nanchang in the southern province of Jiangxi, accusing them of making some 10m pads since 2013 in a dirty workshop and packaging them with popular trademarks. Most were sold at small shops in the countryside.

Almost all women in China within a certain age-range worry about the quality of their pads—even legitimate ones sometimes fail safety tests. Sanitary towels are must-buy items for many Chinese tourists when they go abroad (along with Japanese toilet seats and designer handbags).

Read the full article at The Economist: Chinese women rage about unsafe sanitary towels

Read: Four weird ideas that people used to have about periods

Read: Why is there a tax on tampons?

Hallowain't II: Europe's vampire epidemic

This week, we've celebrated the feast of Halloween by taking the supernatural out of various events. You'll have been chilled by...

We're rounding off the week with Europe's vampire problems.

The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: Philip Burne-Jones

We turn today to the Hampshire / Portsmouth Telegraph from 17th August 1889. That paper looked back still further, and it was chilled:

A vampire fever or epidemic spread through the whole south-east of Europe from about the year 1727 to 1735. This took place more particularly in Servia and Hungary.

Now, we don't consider ourselves to be blameless chroniclers of times past, but there's a huge difference between "Serbia and Hungary" and "the whole of south-east Europe".

A terrible infection appeared to have seized upon the people, who died by hundreds under the belief that they were haunted by dread phantoms.


Military comssions were issued for inquiring into the matter, and the graves of the alleged vampires being opened in the presence of medical men, some of the bodies were found undecomposed, with fresh nails and skin growing in polace of the old; with florid complexion, and with blood in the chest and abdomen. It is extremly difficult to deny the truth of these assertions, since they were vouched for by both medical and military authorities.

It's not that difficult to deny the truth of them, though, is it? The Hampshire paper tries to bolster their case with eyewitness evidence that it found in another, unnamed paper twenty years' previously:

In the little Hungarian village where for the past two months I have been living, there has lately re-appeared the old, horrible superstition of vampirism. Already it has spread to several of the neighbouring towns, so that within a circle whose radius is fifteen miles, and whose centre is Hodmir, hardly anything is thought of or spoken of but vampires.

Recently, at about two o'clock in the morning, I awoke in a cold sweat, screaming and struggling with some horrible thing, cold as death, that lay upon my breast pinioning myu arms to my sides, and trying to fasten his clammy mouth about my throat. I yelled and fought, and presently I heard men running through the hall toward my room.

Whatever it was that had thus fastened itself upon me rose suddenly with a kind of grunt, and I distinctly saw it disappear through the window.

Our hero chased out into the night, waving his pistols (and we know where that can end up). But of the intruder, there was no sign. Returning to the inn, there was some bad news:

The landlord entered my room, looked at me, and when I told him my story shook his head gravely and told me I had better make up my mind to die in a few day - two weeks at the farthest, for I had been sucked by a vampire.

Yeah, we've all had landlords like that. Happily, though, a quick inspection of the writer's neck showed that he had not had his skin broken, and wouldn't be facing whatever the expected fate was.

There's more, though.

Shortly afterwards I was told that the devil was abroad and getting into corpses that should be lying quietly in their graves, and that all the village was frightened half out of its wits, because only the night before not less than three of the villagers had been attacked by the devil, and had their blood sucked from the bodies.

Of course, I went to the churchyard, and there I found men in long, uncouth coats, and looking as if each of them when dead would become a vampire himself, talking and gesticulating as if their whole lives were concentrated in that moment. A grave was to be opened - the grave of Peter Dickowitz, who had died three weeks before, and who, as the people said, had been harassing the village ever since.

The story in regard to this man was simply this:

He had been a shepherd during the latter part of his life, but many people remembered that he had often told them that when he was a young man he had lived in the service of a Tuirk near Belgrade. This Turk died, and after death had become a vampire. Returning to the earth he had sucked the blood from the throat of Dickowitz, who, as he claimed, had cured himself of the virus by eating earth from the grave of his old master, digging his body from the tomb and rubbing himself from head to foot in his blood.

But it appeared this cure had been imperfect.

You'll note, of course, the nationality of the sire and even if you didn't know the previous centuries had been marked by distrust between European and Turkish people, you'd have spotted the 19th century racism.

The proto-Goths of the graveyard dug up the coffins, and placed them on the ground:

The coffins were opened, and as I, pressed forward by the crowd, looked into them I saw - dare I tell it? - in the sickly light of the flambeaux, that the men within them were not dead; but, horrible beyond expression, deadly in their ghastliness, yet, alive, they lay there.

Their bodies were swimming in blood, and a horrible leer was on their mouths, and agonised fate within their staring eyes. Loathsome beyond thought, ghoul-like beyond nightmare dream, they were the living dead. The Hadnagi, with compressed lips, ordered his men to drag them forth. They were seized by the hair, pulled reeling from their coffins, and laid upon the grass.

The moonlight touched their faces, and I saw their bloated visages and leering mouths. Then the Hadnagi had them removed from the consecrated ground and laid upon the road. Of all the crowd there were but ten or twelve persons who followed, and I, with the fascination of  the fearful upon me, accompanied them.

Four men, two to each corpse, placed themselves over the bodies, and at the given signal plunged a pointed stake through each vampire's heart. As I live, there came from each such a wailing sob and cry as never did I dream even in nightmare.

Then, with the sharp spades with which their graves had been dug open, the head was sawed and hacked from each body. The trunks were then taken in front of the church and buried. Heartsick and weary, filled with many thought of what the possibilities of horror were in this pleasant world, I turned my steps homeward.

Would hacking the heads off and staking the corpses be enough to stop them behaving like vampires? Yes, more than enough. As they obviously weren't vampires.

What makes this story doubling frustrating, though, is that there's no mention of what happened to the hacked-off heads. Did they just leave them in the road?

Hang about, though - if we assume the writer of this tale wasn't making stuff up, what could account for the strange corpses he saw?

You've got to remember this story took place before embalming became a regular practice. Ford Cochran wrote about this for National Geographic:

After several weeks or months underground, corpses don’t look like they did when you buried them. They’re bloated, with nasty things coming from their mouths. “Bloated like a tick.” That was actually fairly normal before widespread embalming. If you reopened a mass grave and found a strange looking carcass, perhaps that was evidence of a vampire. You don’t find vampire stories in places where cremation was practiced.

And that 1889 Portsmouth Newspaper had its own theory:

The only reasonable explation which can be given is suggested by Dr Herbert Mayo, in this Letters on the Truths Contained In Popular Superstitions which states that the excitement caused by the beleif in vampirism, acting upon persons of peculiar temperaments, probably caused them to fall into the condition known as the death-trance; that while in that state they were prematurely buried , and that upon the graves being opened they were found still alive, though unable to speak.

It's easy to chuckle quietly at the simpler times of the 18th century - but it's worth remembering that "vampire burnings" were taking place in Europe as recently as 1909. And... it's only a couple of weeks since Britain and America found themselves hostage to killer clowns

Read: The devil and Halloween

Read: The academic take on Buffy

Watch: Richard Wilson at embalming school





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