Sunday, October 23, 2011

‘I am Master’: Vlad the Impaler and the Medieval Origins of the Dracula Myth

When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, the vampire myth captivated the Victorian age.  Although man was living in a post-Enlightenment, Edison age, the countrysides of Europe were still pitch black when the sun went down.  The glow of a candle only extended about the length of one’s arm – not a comfortable distance if one hoped to keep monsters at bay.  In the dark beyond were all manner of unholy creatures, including the terrifying vampyr of eastern Europe.

Stoker’s titular character hailed from the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, Romania.  To the English reading audience, the Count’s background would make sense.  Eastern Europe was considered both exotic and very backwards, the sort of environment that could be a breeding ground for a blood-sucking ghoul. 

Although Stoker does not delve too deeply into Dracula’s history, works he was reading during the composition of his narrative suggest that he was familiar with and drew from the history of Vlad III, from the house Drăculeşti.  Born in 1431 in Transylvania, Vlad’s legacy for cruelty – particularly impalement of his victims – lead to a rapid shift of his post-mortem legacy, from Christian hero to bloodthirsty demon.  The patronymic Dracula means dragon; the Romanian word drac today has come to mean devil because of Vlad. 

Vlad was born into a noble family during a volatile period of Romanian history.  Internal divisiveness lead to political instability and civil wars. Bordering what was then the Ottoman empire, the areas of Romania and Hungary were also constantly engaged in skirmishes with the Muslim Turks.  When Vlad II, Vlad’s father, ascended the throne, he was supported by the Ottoman empire.  In return, he had to send young Vlad and his brother Radu to the Turkish sultan’s court as hostages.[1] 

Life as a hostage in a rival’s court was a precarious situation indeed.  In May of 1441, while Vlad was at the Sultan’s court in Constantinople, two Serbian princes – also hostages – were blinded with a hot iron poker for engaging in treasonous correspondence with their own father.  And while Vlad’s brother Radu thrived at the sultan’s court, converting to Islam and becoming a courtier of the prince, Vlad was notoriously difficult and was whipped often.  Some historians attribute Vlad’s later cruelty toward his Ottoman captives as a consequence of his time in Constantinople. 

Oldest known portrait of Vlad Dracula

In 1447, internal strife again threatened Vlad II’s reign.  He was killed during a battle along with Vlad’s eldest brother Mircea, the heir to the throne.  Mircea was blinded and buried alive, face down.  Vlad III fled and would not reclaim the throne until 1456.  Upon his ascension, the new ruler had Romanian boyars, or nobles, killed because he did not trust their wavering loyalties.  He also seemed to put most faith in himself alone, saying, “Here I am noble; I am the boyar; the common people know me, and I am master.”[2]

Ducats from Vlad III's reign

Bolstered by Pope Pius II’s 1459 call for a renewed crusade against Islam, Vlad III took advantage of the pope’s edict and instigated war with Mehmet II, the Sultan his brother Radu now served.  According to one story, Vlad had Mehmet’s envoys to his court killed by nailing their turbans to their skulls after they allegedly forgot or refused to remove them in his presence.  When the friction between Vlad and Mehmet escalated, numerous battles broke out.  If Vlad were successful, he dealt with his captives sadistically, often having them impaled on pikes, earning him the name Vlad the Impaler.  The Italian states, the papacy, and Christians saw Vlad’s campaigns as Christian victories and celebrated him as a crusader. 

In 1462, Vlad’s brother Radu lead a successful campaign against his brother and had Vlad imprisoned.  When Radu died in 1475, Vlad reclaimed the throne, but only briefly, assassinated only two months after his coronation.  His head was taken to Constantinople as a trophy, his body remaining behind in Transylvania. 

In less than one hundred years of his death, Vlad’s reputation transformed from crusader to monster.  In fact, his reputation for cruelty – the “Ţepeş” added to his name in 1550 meant Impaler – didn’t trouble the Saxon states until his brother Radu claimed the throne.  Under Radu’s reign, Vlad was denounced for his cruelty, claiming that Vlad had 20,000 impaled corpses surrounding his castle.

Targoviste Chindei tower, from which Vlad watch victims being impaled

Much of the anti-Vlad propaganda originated in Germany.  One German broadsheet aligned Vlad’s cruelty with notorious historical figures, claiming that “he caused many other sufferings and such great pain and tortures as all the bloodthirsty persecutors of Christendom, such as Herod, Nero, Diocletian, and other pagans, had never thought up or made such martyrs as did this bloodthirsty berserker.”[3]

Vlad as a Roman proconsul overseeing the crucifixion of St. Andrew

Vlad as Pontius Pilate

Another German pamphlet reads like a gruesome supermarket tabloid, promising readers, “The shocking story of a MONSTER and BESERKER called Dracula who committed such unchristian deeds as killing men by placing them on stakes, hacking them to pieces like cabbage, boiling mothers and children alive and compelling men to acts of cannibalism.”[4]  These accounts are likely exaggerated, but historians agree that Vlad seemed to enjoy brutality, employing a variety of torments, including strangulation, impalement, boiling, flaying, exposure, hot irons, breaking on the wheel.  Medieval accounts vary wildly, but most historians estimate his victims from the tens of thousands up into the hundreds of thousands.

German woodcut of Vlad tormenting victims

Two allegations about Vlad’s sadistic tendencies have contributed to the metamorphosis of the Transylvanian prince into legendary monster: his treatment of women and accusations of cannibalism.  The German anecdotes have numerous allusions to Vlad cutting off women’s breasts or having hot-iron pokers thrust into their genitals.  In another tale, Dracula had his mistress slit open from her genital organs to her breasts when she teased that she was pregnant with his child.  “Let the world see where I have been,” the murderer was alleged to have said when his lover was cut open.[5]  According to some historians, Vlad’s cruel torments of women, particularly his attacks on their sex are indicative of sexual sadism, and this theory likely contributed to the idea of a monster preying largely on women – as is the case is Stoker’s Dracula.  

German woodcut portait of Vlad in Romanian dress

The charges of forced cannibalism – where Dracula would have a victim boiled or roasted and then fed to other prisoners – also contribute to his legacy as a bloodsucker.  One medieval German source even accused him of engaging in the taboo act himself, writing that the prince dipped his bread into blood, “which technically makes him a living vampire – a reference that may have induced Stoker to make use of the term.”[6]

Vlad’s legacy was greatly exaggerated after his death, with the Germans focusing upon his cruelty, the Russians positioning him as a Machiavellian ruler who was cruel when necessary, and the Romanians embracing him as a national hero, a statue of Vlad today gracing the entrance to the national tourism office in Romania.  

Snagov monastery, site of Vlad's tomb

One final mystery certainly adds to the Dracula mystique.  After his death, Vlad’s headless body was said to have been interred in nearby Snagov monastery, which is only accessible by water.  When the tomb was excavated in 1933, it was empty.

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Next week: The forensics of medieval vampirism

[1] Child hostages were the norm across medieval Europe and the Ottoman empire.  You can read about English history and the often dangerous use of children as pawns in political strife here at medieval-csi at
[2] See Florescu, Radu and McNally, Raymond T.  Dracula: Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times.  (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 1989): 9.   
[3] See McNally, Raymond T and Florescu, Radu.  In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires Completely Revisited.  (New York: Houghton and Mifflin): 1994.
[4] Ibid, 84.  
[5] See Florescu, Radu and McNally, Raymond T.  Dracula, 107.  
[6] McNally, Raymond T and Florescu, Radu.  In Search of Dracula, 85.  

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