Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Real Dracula

So I realize that I may be giving people the impression that I'm big into vampires. This blog already has three vaguely vampire related posts, and there's probably more to come since I've been reading even more on the subject in the last month or so (I want to call it "research" for this book idea that came to me recently which actually has nothing to do with vampires). Before I begin post #4 (on the historical Dracula) maybe I should stop and take a second to clear up any misconceptions people might be formulating. I can assure you all that I have not, since the last time you may have seen me, become a Twilight fanboy (although I totally watch that HBO, chick-dating-a-vampire series True Blood), nor have I started to dress like the Marquis de Sade and paint my fingernails black. That said, here we go...



Vlad Dracula

Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-1476), also known as Vlad Tepes ("Vlad the Impaler") or Vlad Dracula, reigned off-and-on as the Voivode of Wallachia during a time when the region was caught in the middle of a bloody, ongoing struggle between the Ottoman Turks and the Christian army led by the Hungarians. His father Vlad II Dracul ("Vlad the Dragon," c. 1390-1447) had also been a Voivode of Wallachia and his mother Cneajna was the daughter of Alexander the Good of Moldavia. Vlad II was given his curious surname because he was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a group whose member's swore an oath to defend the Christian faith, and Vlad III's surname, Dracula, means "son of the dragon."

Despite his oath to the Christian cause, when Vlad II regained the Wallachian throne in 1443 he agreed to pay tribute to the Sultan and also to send Vlad Dracula and his younger brother Radu the Handsome to the Ottoman capital as hostages to ensure his good behavior. The two probably received a good education during these years spent at the Sultan's court, and they certainly learned much about Turkish ways.

That next year, 1444, the Kingdom of Hungary launched a large-scale offensive against the Turks under its regent John Hunyadi (the "White Knight"). Vlad II was stuck between a rock and a hard place and his loyalty was divided so, rather than joining the Magyar offensive himself, he sent his eldest son Mircea to fight in his stead. Hunyadi's crusade ended in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Varna, and when the dust settled the Magyars were probably disillusioned with Dracul and his son. Thus, in 1447, they were assassinated (Mircea was reportedly blinded with a red hot poker before being buried alive), and the Kingdom of Hungary put Vladislav II, a member of the rival Danesti clan, on the Wallachian throne.



At this point, the Turks decided to advance Dracula as their candidate to the throne. With Ottoman support, he briefly seized control of Wallachia in 1448, but he was deposed by the Hungarians in less than two months and forced to flee to his cousins' Principality of Moldavia. During this period, Dracula -- who never really liked the Sultan anyway -- effected a rapprochement with the Hungarians (in the meantime, Vladislav II, who was once again in control of Wallachia, had apparently drifted closer to the Turkish camp). The Hungarians put Dracula in charge of Transylvania (a region in the northwest of present-day Romania) and planned on helping him win back his father's principality. But before that happened, the city of Constantinople fell to the Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. The Hungarian counter-offensive came in 1456, when Dracula regained control of Wallachia (killing Vladislav in hand-to-hand combat that same year) while Hunyadi died of plague in the aftermath of the Siege of Belgrade.

Thus began Dracula's six-year reign as ruler of Wallachia and Transylvania. In 1459, Dracula ceased payments of tribute to the Sultan, and in 1461-1462 he mounted a vicious attack on the Ottoman-controlled lands to the south. The Turks struck back in 1462, sending a large army to depose Dracula and put his younger brother -- Radu the Handsome, who had remained loyal to the sultan and converted to Islam -- on the throne. The numerically-superior Ottoman troops quickly took the Wallachian capital, but Dracula kept up his resistance using guerrilla tactics. These attacks were supposedly so troubling that they convinced the Turkish officers to scram, leaving Radu to duke it out alone. But Radu cut some sort of deal with the King of Hungary (Matthias Corvinus, Hunyadi's son) and Dracula had alienated his nobles, so he was ultimately defeated by the end of 1462. There is a story that, while the couple was under siege in Poenari Castle, Dracula's first wife leapt to her death so as not to allow the enemy to take her prisoner.



Dracula, on the other hand, was imprisoned in Hungary. It's uncertain how long he remained locked up, however, by 1467 he had not only been released but he had also married a member of the Hungarian royal family. It's thought that this reversal of fortune may have been due to public opinion (Dracula had heroically battled against the Turks), as well as the Magyars' displeasure with the pro-Ottoman Radu. The fact that Dracula had also converted to Catholicism (I think he had been a nominal Orthodox Christian up until then) probably didn't hurt either. Anyway, in 1467 he managed to regain control of Wallachia one last time before being killed in combat against the Turks later that year. His head was reportedly carried to Constantinople to prove to the Sultan that this nasty thorn in his side had been removed once and for all.

His Bloody Reign

During his six-year reign (1456-1462) as Voivode of Wallachia, Vlad III Dracula sought to consolidate his power and bring law and order to the war-torn principality, in addition to punishing his enemies. By all accounts he is responsible for executing ten of thousands of men, women and children: not only Ottoman prisoners of war, but also supporters of his rivals the Danesti clan (who were his cousins), boyars (the principality's nobles whom he suspected of supporting the Danestis and of being responsible for the murder of his father and brother), and Saxon Transylvanians (ethnic Germans, and a privileged class with ties to the boyars). As you may have guessed, his preferred method of execution was impalement: this would usually result in a slow and torturous death, with the victim being lowered on to a long spike which would enter through the anus and rip through his insides, eventually exiting through the mouth.

Of all the stories surrounding Dracula, the German-language accounts are the most damning, portraying him as an insane, bloodthirsty fiend. These no doubt originated with the Saxon Transylvanians who were among the chief victims of his mass executions. The stories recorded in Russian under the early tsars tended to paint Dracula in a better light, as a strong ruler. Granted, the Russians didn't deny that he committed these atrocities, they were just more forgiving of them. Meanwhile, to the Romanians, Vlad Dracula would become a symbol of national pride -- a hero who fought fiercely against the enemies and oppressors of the Romanian people. Dracula lived during brutal times (remember how his older brother was blinded with a red hot poker and buried alive?), but it is also clear that he was among the most savage princes of the day. If his name inspired fear in the Turks, this was due not only to his reputation as a formidable warrior but also to the barbarous way he dispatched with his enemies en masse.

Connection to Vampires Legends

Dracula may have been a tyrannous, homicidal bastard, but his name was not connected to vampire legends prior to the publication of Bram Stoker's novel in 1897. Accounts of the book's genesis indicate that Stoker found the name "Dracula" in a history book listing Romanian rulers and decided to adopt it for his vampire count. Besides the name, Stoker seems to have known almost nothing about Vlad III of Wallachia. Indeed, in the novel Dracula identifies himself as a Székely -- an ethnic group represented in Transylvania and closely related to the Magyars -- whereas Vlad was an ethnic Romanian. Later in the book, Van Helsing describes Dracula as having been a fearless warrior who fought his way into the heart of "Turkeyland." Vlad did indeed devastate Ottoman-held territory in the Balkans during his 1461-1462 campaign, but this seems to suggest that the vampire crossed over into Anatolia -- something which the historic Dracula never did. In short, it seems that Stoker named his villain after this bloodthirsty figure quiet accidentally, and if he had known of Vlad's butchery he would have surely mentioned it in the book.

Link: The Historical Dracula


Images: 1453 map from Heritage History; portrait of Vlad from about.com; photo of Poenari castle taken by flickr user retro traveler and used under Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

peter said...

no much people know about the true story of Vlad the impaler, this men was named years later as Dracula, Vlad was a price in a war against Turkish he impaled three hundred men in the road to his castle, some years later people called to him as Dracul or Draculea that means is "son of the dragon", one thing is sure viagra online don't were in there to help people to put this name to this men.