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Tabula Rasa
He was not very tall, but very stocky and strong, with a cold and terrible appearance, a strong and aquiline nose, swollen nostrils, a thin reddish face in which very long eyelashes framed large wide-open green eyes; the bushy black eyebrows made them appear threatening. His face and chin were shaven, but for a moustache. The swollen temples increased the bulk of his head. A bull's neck connected [with] his head to his body from which black curly locks hung on his wide-shouldered person.
Niccolò Modrussa's impression of
Vlad Tepes at the age of thirty
His face was strong -- a very strong -- aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temple, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth; these protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years.
Bram Stoker

"This Man Belongs to Me"

The Life and Deaths of Vlad the Impaler

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#1, 1994

It is a testament to the writing of Dan Simmons that while I was reading his Children of the Night I twice considered, with spurious seriousness, visiting Romania. The novel, as you may be aware, is concerned with the plight of a child 'adopted' out of Romania to live with an American doctor, a child with the physiological ability, and need, to absorb human blood. But there are certain parties intent on seeing that the secrets of vampirism are not exposed to medical scrutiny, and chief among them is one Dracula. The real Dracula, not Bram Stoker's embodiment of repressed Victorian sexuality or Gary Oldman's tragic anti-hero.

But then, the real Vlad Dracula wasn't a vampire, so Dan Simmons isn't posing any immediate danger to the popular myth. He simply knows a great deal about his subject matter but, as may surprise some commentators, so did Stoker himself.

Vladislav Basarab was born in the town of Sighisoara, in the Tîrnava Mare valley, Transylvania, in 1431, the son of a Wallachian prince hungering for the throne, currently stationed as governor of this border town. He was trained in etiquette and command, exposed to the elements on stormy days to build his physical and moral character, taught to be a warrior. There were puppet theatres and acrobats, ball-games and quadrilateral swings of red cloth, the hunting of eagles with slingshots, and there was always his curiosity in watching the condemned walk under his window to the Jewellers' Donjon to be hanged. His father was nicknamed Vlad Dracul, and thus he inherited the title Dracula, Son of the Dragon, but during his life he earned his own title -- Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler.

About Children of the Night again, my first desire to visit the land beyond the forest (though the forest is actually in the centre of Romania, on the Carpathian mountains that separate Wallachia from Transylvania) was at the plight of the AIDS babies in the first few chapters, the chilling and factual descriptions of the conditions of the children invoking a strong and somewhat strange feeling: sort of guilt, maternal instinct, desire-to-help-those-less-fortunate-then-myself, all mixed up. (But I got over it.)

The second time was simply the description of the local scenery as our strong heroine and doubting priest go zooming round the Romanian countryside. It was beautiful, and I wanted to see it. If nothing else (and regardless of some of the real problems the novel suffers), Mr Simmons can turn a descriptive phrase, and invoke a response.

This makes it the most interesting, and perhaps the peak, of the recent Dracula craze. And if you want to know about the Impaler it's as good a summary as you're likely to need. If you want more than a summary, however, here are a few suggestions for further study, and a preview of what you're likely to find.

What goes where?

Confused by where everything fits in, geographically speaking? No need to be. Moldavia and Wallachia were countries in Eastern Europe caught between the Turkish empire to the south, Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire to the west and Russia to the north east. The two countries merged in 1861 to become Rumania, whereas modern Romania was created at the end of World War I, encompassing this area and Transylvania. The country was under Communist rule which, in 1965, became rule by Nicolae Ceausescu, a tyrant imposing a brutal reign until his execution in 1989.

Not so much a country in itself, Transylvania was a region under Hungarian rule from 1003 till WWI (with Austria in control 1711-1866) that indeed is surrounded by the horseshoe of the Carpathians. Bram Stoker placed Castle Dracula in the far north east of Transylvania, near the border with Moldavia and the state of Bukovina. There is certainly a castle there, and Dracula relates a meticulously accurate description of Jonathan Harker's route. The real Castle Dracula is, however, some distance to the south, also in the Carpathians but, naturally enough, in Wallachia. It has been damaged extensively by natural causes, and the 1,400 steps dissuade a lot of tourists.

There is another 'Castle Dracula', at least for the tourists, in the town of Bran. Unfortunately its main contender for the title is that it looks like Castle Dracula, and has little to do with the historical figure. 

The first horror stories about Vlad Dracula were the widely published pamphlets written by German Catholic monks, refugees from Vlad's harsh rule. Indeed his relationship with the church demonstrates a great deal of the life he lead. While his real religious beliefs are unknown to us, his family was raised Catholic for political reasons, to avoid offending Sigismund I, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and ruler of Germany, Hungary and Bohemia. He had more in common, however, with the Romanian Orthodox Church and favoured monasteries in Tismana and Snagov. In the wider arena of Christian versus the infidel, he saw himself as a Crusader against the Turks -- he would insist on proper ceremony and Christian burial for those he condemned to death, and probably believed that good works, such as the building of a monastery, could atone for evil deeds. But the Roman Catholic Church was expanding at the time with the guidance of the Hungarian King Ladislas V, and Dracula wasn't all that happy about it. He replaced the high-ranking members of new monasteries with his own men, and there are a number of stories relating to his encounters with individual Catholic abbots and monks, who could either gain favour with wit or flattery or, standing up for their faith, could become a martyr to it.

One of Dracula's political rivals at the time was a priest, Vlad the Monk, who also happened to be his half-brother. Due to all sorts of complicated political pressures happening in Hungary (notably the conflict between László Hunyadi and Ladislas V), Dracula was becoming more and more dissatisfied with the German presence in Transylvania (I told you it was complicated) and did something about it -- diplomatically at first, requesting the German-occupied town of Sibiu to give up its support for Vlad the Monk. No reply was forthcoming, and Dracula struck, in an undeclared war, across the mountains, savagely destroying the populations of a number of villages and towns, and the property of the wealthy merchants and Boyars who were patrons to his half-brother. It was only the first of his raids on the country of his birth.

One of the most telling accounts (in the words of the victims) of Vlad's relations with the church was with Brothers Hans the Porter, Michael and Jacob, in Dracula's palace, 1461. He tormented the three monks with many questions and dilemma's, most notably playing their own fear of him versus the need to defend their faith, at one point asking if he himself could be considered a saint, for shortening the heavy burden of so many unfortunates. Brother Michael answered meekly, assuring Dracula of his place in paradise, and was spared. Brother Hans the Porter, knowing he would be 'put to death... for the honesty of my words devoid of flattery', basically told him where to stick it. Dracula became mad with fury, apparently at the slur on his very real belief that because of his anointment God would have pity on his soul. Brother Hans died most horribly.

Vlad Dracula died a Catholic (for political reasons), and was buried in an unmarked tomb at a Romanian Orthodox monastery.

Whether or not the Catholics were eager to have him is an interesting question. It was people like Brother Michael and Jacob that spread word of Dracula's doings throughout Europe. Michael Beheim, a German poet, wrote a 1,070 line poem, after extensive interviews with Brother Jacob, called Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia. It was read several times (accompanied by music) to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. There were even propaganda pamphlets printed at one stage, on a similar theme, to justify the arrest of Dracula by the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus in 1462, an event that caused concern for those worried about the Turkish threat.

There is no doubt that these accounts are coloured by dramatic, political and personal necessity, blackening the name of Dracula for posterity, paving the way of his vampiric image. But there was still much truth in the story, and it is a horrific one indeed.

* * *

At the Easter celebration in 1456, the year Vlad first achieved the throne of Wallachia, he invited the Boyar to dine with him at the palace in Tîrgoviste. These were the long-established noble families of his country, and after serving them a sumptuous meal his guards swarmed into the courtyard, the old and infirm were impaled beyond the city walls for all to see and the remainder were made to march, still in their Easter finery. The journey was some fifty miles in length, up the Arges valley to the village of Arefu, and at the end of it they found pre-prepared brick ovens, lime kilns and building materials. The boyar and their families were put to work rebuilding an extensively damaged fortress some 1200 feet above the village, creating the Castle Dracula (where, indeed, Dracula's wife would one day throw herself from the battlements in response to a Turkish invasion). At the end of the arduous task those that were still alive were impaled in front of their creation.

Vlad Dracula ruled with a cruel hand. Just about every crime was punishable by death, from idleness upwards. When a certain merchant complained of the theft of his ducats (My daughter! My ducats! Sorry, I just flashed back for a moment) Vlad hunted down and killed the thief, and replaced the gold, with an extra ducat of his own. Had the merchant not owned up to the unexpected bonus he would also have found himself on the end of a stake.

The Order of the Dragon

In the year 1431 Vlad Basarab was involved in a ritual that took place in the Imperial fortress of Nuremberg -- his induction into the Order of the Dragon, giving him the name Dracul in his home country. The order had been founded by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1387 and was similar to other orders such as the Teutonic Order of Knights in their duties of defending Sigismund I and the Empire, shielding orphans and widows and the like. Not widely known was the undeclared aim of the Society of gaining political supremacy for the house of Luxemburg, and thus only a select number were chosen for the honour. At Vlad Dracul's death in 1447 (yes, he was assassinated) he was the only member of the order who had remained loyal to his oath, at least in fighting the Turks. Dracula inherited membership and his family were proud of the nickname, despite the double meaning of 'Devil' -- his brothers were also referred to by some as Dracula, their descendants as Draculestis (the line died out in the seventeenth century).

Each member of the order wore a medallion showing a dragon and a cross, with the inscriptions O quam misericors est Deus and Justus et Pius -- 'Oh how merciful is God' and 'Just and Faithful'.

The length of each stake depended upon the ranks of the victim, though one nobleman, wrinkling his nose as he dined with Vlad in a courtyard of cadavers, was given an extra long stake to put him above the stench of his fellows. It was not usually (just occasionally) the stake through the heart, as perhaps suggested by the vampire mythos (and Francis Ford Coppola) -- the victims were pierced from the anus to the mouth, and the stakes were carefully rounded at the end and bathed in oil, to minimise tearing and prolong the process. Whether he was always this careful was doubtful. After all, in 1462 the Turks marched across Wallachia to find a land poisoned and bare in response to their invasion, and when they reached the capital of Tîrgoviste they were confronted with a forest, one kilometre by three kilometres, of impaled corpses, the Turkish and Bulgarian prisoners Vlad had taken. The Turks gave up and went home again.

However Vlad's cruelty wasn't confined to this means of execution. He decapitated, blinded, strangled, hanged, burned, boiled, skinned, 'stuck stakes in both breasts of mothers and thrust their babies onto them', and on, and on. When his armies invaded the Germans of Translyvania they had the people 'hacked to pieces like cabbage', (and when his Captain reported to Vlad that a particular village could not be taken due to the courage of the inhabitants, Dracula had the Captain impaled).

One of his concubines hoped to gain favour by claiming she was with his child. Vlad discovered her lie and had her womb cut open from her sexual organs to her breasts, remarking 'Let the world see where I have been'.

One year he 'asked the old, the ill, the lame, the poor, the blind and the vagabonds' of his country to a feast in a large dining hall of the capital. At the conclusion of his meal he offered them an end to their misery, and burned down the hall, letting none escape.

In his six-year rule he is said to have killed between 40,000 and 100,000 people (though the latter from a somewhat suspect source). Compare this to Robespierre's Reign of Terror in Paris, from 1793-4, wherein over 20,000 were killed. And France had a population of some eighteen million, while Wallachia boasted only half a million.

* * *

To modern Romania Vlad Dracula is a hero of the people, a tradition carried down in oral folklore of a great warrior who defended his country from the Turks, in contrast to the bloodthirsty tyrant of the Germans, or the 'Cruel but Just' ruler of the Russian stories.

Stoker's novel and the Dracula films have been described as 'only one page in a vast output of political pornography directed against us by our enemies', an attack 'on the very idea of being a Romanian' by the writer Adrian Panescu in 1985. He has a point, though the fictional Dracula's pride in the history of his country, as he relates it to Jonathan Harker in chapter three of the novel, seems to do justice both to history and the Romanian viewpoint.

Whether or not Dracula's crimes against his enemies and his people are justifiable, we know a lot of the very complex issues at play in Europe in the fifteenth century, and a lot of the deeds of this man can be put down to a rational, if excessively cruel, leader. Let us finish, then, by looking at the politics and the circumstances that could lead Dracula to his actions.

While Prince (or, rather, Voivode) of Wallachia, Vlad Dracul was required by treaty to pay an annual tribute to the Ottoman Empire of 10,000 ducats, but the Turks were becoming suspicious of his fealty and invited him to Gallipoli for further negotiations. He accepted and, along with two of his sons, Vlad Jnr and Radu, made the journey, only to be seized and taken to the capital city of Adrianople. He was released almost a year later, having to make further promises of five hundred young boys for the Turkish army in addition to the annual cash tribute. Vlad Dracula (then aged about eleven) and Radu (about seven) were kept at the palace as 'guests' of the Sultan, hostages to Dracul's continued support.

While Radu would eventually make his way into Turkish favour (and the Sultan's bed) Dracula remained defiant, and lived for six years in this strange land, under constant threat of the silken cord his captors reserved for assassination, a threat greatly increased at his father's eventual allegiance with the Christian forces of Varna, a betrayal of his oath to the Ottoman Empire.

But Dracula lived, and soon after Dracul's death in 1447 he was allowed to return to his country by the Turks, as a pawn in their own politicking.

It was not until 1456, with the help of an ex-enemy, John Hunyadi, the viceroy of Hungary and governor of Translyvania, that Vlad Dracula became Voivode in his own country. But Hunyadi died soon after, leaving Vlad dangerously exposed, even in his own country. Thus he '[Bowed] even Our head and the heads of Our subjects' to the Hungarian king, signed a defence pact and free trade agreement with the Saxons of Brasov and paid 10,000 gold ducats annually to the Turks while he consolidated his power.

That meant doing something about the Boyar class, an unruly group that considered themselves above the Voivode, able to depose princes as they pleased -- not to mention that they had already killed Dracula's elder brother Mircea by burying him alive. So he did do something, thus the building of Castle Dracula, and the start of his reputation.

Pass it Around

Vlad Tepes adopted the methods of impalement from his Turkish captors, but he wasn't the only one. John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, used the impaling technique he had learned whilst Crusading in eastern Europe to depose his Lancastrian enemies. He was executed for his crimes.

* * *

Dracula was the ruler of Wallachia from 1456 till 1462, and again briefly in 1468. His death is shrouded in mystery, but he died in the Vlasia forest near Bucharest, during an invasion by the Turks. It is believed he was killed by a servant, possibly in the pay of the Turks themselves, or the remains of the Boyars, who had been offered an alternative to rule by the stake from Dracula's brother, Radu the Handsome.

His head disappeared, probably taken as a gift to the Sultan, and his body was thought to be buried in front of the altar at the monastery at Snagov which his family had long been associated with. Nothing is clear, there was no marker at his tomb, and there seems to have been a concerted effort to simply forget the dread Prince and his reign. A richly-dressed and crowned body -- without a head -- was unearthed outside the main doors of the monastery in the 1930s. If it is Dracula then he was perhaps moved outside by a priest who believed he was too evil a man to be buried beside an altar of God.

Vlad Tepes was a complex and fascinating figure of history. Dracula is, now, the vampire that Bram Stoker, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and many others have shared with the world. It would be nice indeed to visit Romania and try to equate one with the other, the brutal ruler and the solitary demon in the beautiful forests. The orphanages of real-world current-affairs misery, I'm afraid, I'm not too keen on. Such are the ways of life.


* Bram Stoker's Dracula, d Francis Ford Coppola, w James V Hart, 1992. Hart uses some details about Vlad Tepes not available to Stoker, but isn't exactly going for historical accuracy (you guessed).

* In Search of Dracula, Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, Hale, 1973.

* Dracula, A Biography of Vlad the Impaler, Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally, Hale, 1974.

[79] Dracula: Prince of Many Faces, Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1989. These two scholars have discovered a great deal of information and generated a great deal of excitement about the historical Vlad Dracula. They are the current definitive work and, if occasionally a bit dry to read, they are the (none too subtle) direct ancestors of this particular article, among others.

[80] Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, Christopher Frayling, faber and faber, London, 1991. Irreverent, definitive, wonderful. Read it.

* Drakula: Contributi alla storia delle idee politiche nell' Europa Orientale alla svolta del XV secolo, Gianfranco Giraudo, 1972. The standard work on our man Vlad [80].

[81] The Dracula Scrapbook, Peter Haining, Chancellor Press, London, 1992, c1987. Not bad in some respects. Not too good in others. I wouldn't pay too much attention to its history.

* A Biography of Dracula: The Life Story of Bram Stoker, Harry Ludlam, W. Foulsham & Co, London, 1962. As the subtitle suggests this isn't actually much use in getting the low-down on Vlad, though it has some interesting material on the novel and various adaptations. It includes details on Stoker's research, but don't bother if you can get hold of [80] instead.

[82] Into the Unknown, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1982.

[83] The Rough Guide to Eastern Europe: Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, Dan Richardson and Jill Denton, Harrap-Columbus, Kent, 1988. Of the various books I found actually about Romania this was easily the best.

[84] Children of the Night, Dan Simmons, Headline, London, 1992. A novel that works best for the detail contained within. Pity about the unsatisfying structure -- more thriller than horror.

* Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallacia, Nicolae Stoicescu, Bucharest, 1978. Romania's standard (and highly complimentary) biography [83].

[85] Dracula, or the Un-Dead, Bram Stoker, Constable, 1897. Well, you like it or you don't.

* Dracula Country, Gahan Wilson, in Playboy, September 1978. The single best source for tracking down the real Castle Dracula [84].

* In Search of Dracula, 1971. Christopher Lee documentary (and we seem to recall Vincent Price did one as well).


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