1457: The Wallachian boyars

2 comments April 17th, 2011 Headsman

This date was Easter Sunday in 1457, which would make it the date associated with one of the more memorable displays of theatrical brutality by Wallachian proto-vampire Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler.

Having only just ascended the less-than-secure throne of Wallachia, a frontier principality pinched between the Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, the 25-ish prince and onetime Ottoman hostage had a bone-chilling inauguration plan to shore up his security both internal and external.

He threw a big party in Targoviste for the nobles of the realm … and had a little surprise waiting for them. It wasn’t an Easter egg hunt.

He asked the assembled noblemen:
“How many princes have you known?”
The latter answered
Each as much as he knew best.
One believed that there had been thirty,
Another twenty.
Even the youngest thought there had been seven.
After having answered this question
As I have just sung it,
Dracula said: “Tell me,
How do you explain the fact
That you have had so many princes
In your land?
The guilt is entirely due to your shameful intrigues.”

With ample proof of the boyars’ deceit and treacherous intents, Dracula decided it was timely to inflict upon them an exemplary punishment … mass impalement …

The oldest Romanian historical chronicle records the event two centuries later. It had taken place in the spring of 1457, during the Easter celebrations that the boyars were attending at the palace … “when Eastern Day came, while all the citizens were feasting and the young ones were dancing he [Dracula] surrounded them [the boyars] … led them together with their wives and children, just as they were dressed up for Easter, to Poenari, where they were put to work until their clothes were torn and they were left naked.” In actual fact, this episode, which is also recalled by the Greek historian Chalcondyles and firmly anchored in popular folklore, involved some two hundred boyars and their wives, as well as leading citizens of Tirgoviste … They were seized by Dracula’s men as they were finishing their meal in the main banqueting hall of the palace, following the elaborate Easter ritual at the Paraclete Chapel. In Dracula’s ingenious mind, one aspect of the punishment had a utilitarian purpose: the reconstruction of the famous castle high up on the Arges … On the way out of the chapel the old boyars and their wives were apprehended by Dracula’s henchmen and impaled beyond the city walls. The young and able-bodied were manacled and chained to each other and then marched northward under the vigilant eye of Dracula’s men.

This was revenge a decade in the making for the boyar class having toppled Vlad’s father and murdered Vlad’s elder brother in 1447.

But personal score-settling aside, Vlad’s sanguinary housekeeping had a statecraft dimension as well. It enabled him to centralize power in his own person, and had the happy side effect of speeding creation of a secure mountain fastness — Poenari Castle, which is one of several structures answering to the lucrative name of Castle Dracula.

While Vlad is (in)famous for his iron fist (and well-oiled spikes), it’s perhaps harder to say with confidence how much good this slaughter did him. Wallachia’s security situation was fundamentally defined by its neighbors no matter how cruel Vlad Tepes might be.

Vlad got some more impaling under his belt defending his country from Ottoman invaders (you’ll be shocked to learn that many boyars were more than happy to help the sultan get rid of this tyrant), but he was clapped in prison by the Hungarian ruler Matthias Hunyadi in 1462, lived most of the rest of his life in exile, and then died in battle attempting a Wallachian comeback in 1476. So basically, he got a few good years in … plus that whole latter-day afterlife he enjoys as tourist magnet, alleged literary inspiration, and nationalist icon.

And that’s more than one can say for most of the 15th century rulers who weren’t impaling their boyars.

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1611: Three accomplices of Elizabeth Báthory, the Countess of Blood

9 comments January 7th, 2011 Headsman

Four hundred years ago today, on Jan. 7 1611, three servants of the legendary “Countess of Blood” Elizabeth Bathory (Báthory Erzsébet, in the Hungarian) were tried, convicted, and immediately put to death for the noblewoman’s stupendous career of homicide.

This date’s entry is occasioned by the deaths of three subalterns — manservant Janos Ujvary, beheaded; and female attendants Ilona Jo and Dorottya Szentes, fingers ripped off and burned — but the headline attraction is their employer, who was never tried or condemned.

Not, at least, juridically. Posterity’s condemnation of this classic vampire inspiration has been little short of … voluptuous.


A 1971 film based on Elizabeth Bathory’s exploits. Horror star Ingrid Pitt later reprised her “role” with guest vocals on a Cradle of Filth concept album devoted to the Countess, Cruelty and the Beast.

Bathory was rarefied Hungarian nobility, the niece of the King of Poland, which is also the biography of countless aristocrats you’ve never heard of.

The world remembers Elizabeth Bathory because she exploited her rank to butcher hundreds of peasant girls, allegedly to bathe in their rejuvenating blood.

On one occasion, a lady’s-maid saw something wrong in [Elizabeth Bathory’s] head-dress, and as a recompence for observing it, received such a severe box on the ears that the blood gushed from her nose, and spirted on to her mistress’s face. When the blood drops were washed off her face, her skin appeared much more beautiful — whiter and more transparent on the spots where the blood had been.

Elizabeth formed the resolution to bathe her face and her whole body in human blood so as to enhance her beauty.


McFarlane Toys figurine of Erzsebet (Elizabeth) Bathory from its grotesque “Faces of Madness” series.

These scrub-ups are what the Countess of Blood is best remembered for, but however striking the visual, it’s an atrocity that actually doesn’t turn up in the trial records.

But she could hardly complain of the embroidery, having given her interlocutors so much material.

Elizabeth Bathory is supposed to be responsible for over six hundred deaths, starting while her husband was away on campaign, and then carrying on into a wholesale operation after he died. When she and her servants were finally busted at Csejte Castle the end of 1610, their captors found a dead girl, a dying girl, and several others imprisoned and awaiting that fate.


Elizabeth Bathory, a sexually charged 1893 painting by Hungarian impressionist Istvan Csok depicting one of the countess’s victims being drenched in icy water for death by exposure.

So although the confessions the servants made this date to seal their own fates were undoubtedly torture-adduced, the documentary record turns out to be amazingly strong for such a fantastical spree. Hungarian King Matthias II convened a tribunal that examined 200 to 300 witnesses.

One can postulate that the woman ran afoul of a patriarchal culture affronted by her exercise of power or that she became a parable for the “unnatural” lust of a middle-aged woman … but so far as we are left to understand, Erzsebet Bathory really did lure young girls to her castle, and then inflict (pdf) a Nazi doctors’ litany of sadism on them … like jabbing them with needles to drain out their blood. She even kept a log of the victims in her own hand.

So, locals disappearing into the creepy castle, never to be seen again, or possibly to turn up pallid and dead. (Disposing of all those corpses became a logistical problem for the creepy castle.) No surprise to find it associated with the vampire legend.*

And no surprise that the tale became magnified, twisted, and reconfigured by popular culture.

In 1817, as accounts of the testimonies about the alleged murders and sadistic tortures were published for the first time, national and international headlines sensationalized the already misconceived story. From that on [sic], the literary countess took on a life of her own: the Grimm brothers wrote a short story about her, the romantic German writer, Johann Ludwig Tieck (1774 – 1853), cast her as a Gothic femme fatale, Swanhilda, in his short story Wake Not the Dead. It is alleged that Sheridan le Fanu shaped his female vampire Carmilla on Elizabeth Bathory. If we can believe some etymological explanation the compound English word blood-bath is of mid-nineteenth century origin possibly connected to the bloody countess’ rising popularity in England.

-László Kürti, “The Symbolic Construction of the Monstrous — The Elizabeth Bathory Story,” Croatian Journal Of Ethnology and Folklore Research, Jan. 2009

A few books about Erzsebet Bathory

To say nothing of the death porn (link not safe for work).

The noblewoman never faced an executioner herself, owing to her rank; she was shut up in the castle.

* As it turns out, a Bathory ancestor actually fought with the “original Dracula” Vlad the Impaler in the 15th century.

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1460: The residents of Amlas, impaled by Vlad Dracula

5 comments August 24th, 2010 Headsman

This date is the 550th anniversary of (in)famous Wallachian dictator/vampire prototype Vlad III Tepes‘s destruction of the town of Amlas, impaling all its surviving citizens.

The signature execution form of “Vlad the Impaler” was as nasty as it sounds: still-living victim mounted on a long, oiled stake driven through the rectum and emerging through the mouth to expire agonizingly over a period of hours or days. Or, alternatively, stuck through the midsection, leaving the subject horizontally mounted like a flopping fish.

And he had frequent recourse to it during his long struggle for power in the treacherous 1450s and 1460s, the period* when Vlad III became famous for the iron-willed cruelty required to exercise power in a Wallachia squeezed between the expanding Ottoman Empire and Hungary.

It was this terrifying period from the late 1450s that made Vlad Dracula — the titular second name inherited from his father‘s investment into the Order of the Dragon, Draco in Latin — the namesake for Bram Stoker‘s famous bloodthirsty Transylvanian noble, and the granddaddy of all its lucrative latter-day offspring.

(Bram Stoker didn’t invent the vampire myth, and the notion that Vlad Dracula “is” Count Dracula is one of those bits of popular folklore that’s become academically unfashionable. But still.)

The historical Vlad has his latter-day defenders, who see him as a nation-builder. Certainly, both the man himself and his vulnerable frontier principality were menaced by innumerable threats both foreign and domestic.

This date’s massacre was to deal with one such, Germans in the territory of Transylvania, which lay to the north of Vlad’s own Wallachia. Both realms are part of present-day Romania, and they were closely connected in Vlad’s time as well; the young Dracula himself was born in Transylvania, and Transylvanian towns had helped him take the Wallachian throne with the support of Hungary.

So far, everyone was on the same page. But when a power struggle erupted for the Hungarian throne in 1457, the “Saxon” emigres who formed the upper crust of merchants in Transylvania (supported by a vast sea of Romanian peasants) backed the Holy Roman Emperor while Vlad supported the usurping Hunyadi family that had so ably patronized him.** It’s quite a bit more dizzyingly complex than that, but the bottom line is that commercial and political conflicts soon saw Vlad Dracula mounting a campaign of Transylvanian terror from 1458 onward.

During the summer of 1460 Dracula organized his final raid on Transylvania. This time he attacked townships and villages in the district of Amlas known as the “Land of the Forest” or Unterwald … The meistersinger Beheim gives the exact date of the attack as falling on the feast day of Saint Bartholomew in the year 1460: August 24. Dracula struck in the early morning after “passing through the great forest” with his cavalry force. He burned the town of Amlas and impaled all the citizens, a priest having led the procession to the burial scene …

Dracula’s raid on Amlas was aimed at eliminating any remaining dissident resistance and at killing rival contenders to his throne … Dracula knew, for instance, that … the boyar Bogdan Doboca, was hiding in the village of Sercaia, in the Fagaras district. So he had the entire village razed to the ground; it had to be completely repopulated in the following century. Similar was the fat of the village of Mica. The narrator Beheim tells us that Dracula burned or destroyed half the communities in the Amlas district, including the capital city by that name. He “assembled all the citizens and all those he could find” from other villages and hanged them on hooks and pitchforks, after having had his men hack them to pieces with knives, swords, and sabers. Amlas was reduced to a ghost town, as it still is today, and other villages such as Saliste, Apodul de Sus, and Tilisca were similarly destroyed. Beheim claims that altogether some 30,000 Germans were killed during this Dracula raid on the district of Amlas.

Impressive as this date’s butchery would have been — although we know it from German propagandists who figure to have made the most of it — it was simply of a piece with Vlad’s Transylvanian campaign. To this campaign, Florescu and McNally attribute an impressive catalogue of atrocities, such as:

  • Slaughtering all the inhabitants of a village named Bod
  • Impaling one of his own captains who reported an inability to take an enemy position “for the inhabitants are brave and well fortified”
  • Boiling alive 600 Saxon merchants
  • Impaling as spies 41 Saxons who came to Wallachia to learn the Romanian language
  • Forcing one captured rival claimant with Saxon support to go through a Mass for the dead clothed in funerary vestments before personally beheading him

Fleeing Germans carrying spine-tingling eyewitness accounts and rumors of even worse made a happy match with that new media technology, the printing press, giving Dracula continental infamy and a purchase on future literary immortality.

“The horror genre conformed to the tastes of the fifteenth-century reading public as much as it does today,” observe those same authors Florescu and McNally in another volume. “No fewer than thirteen different fiteenth- and sixteenth-century Dracula stories have been discovered thus far in the various German states.”

The St. Bartholomew’s Day 1460 events are seemingly sometimes conflated† with a more famous bloodbath during the spring of 1459, when Vlad arranged a demonstrative mass impaling on the outskirts of Brasov.‡

All those whom he had taken captive, men and women, young and old, chlidren, he had impaled on the hill by the chapel and all around the hill, and under them he proceeded to eat at table and enjoyed himself in that way.

It’s this 1459 event that provides us the most horribly recognizable images of Dracula’s reign, with the insouciant Wallachian prince enjoying his repast amid a thicket of impaled wretches.

* 1456 to 1462, specifically, which was the second (and most consequential) of the three different periods Vlad III was Prince of Wallachia. The Ottomans drove him out in 1462, and he took refuge in Hungary before a return bid in 1476, which ended in his own death in battle.

** And specifically, Mihaly Szilagy (Hungarian link), the uncle of the ascendant king Matthias Corvinus. The latter would seek to woo Saxon support, and he had an on-again, off-again relationship with Vlad Dracula. Wallachia was a small buffer state from the standpoint of a greater power like Hungary, and Wallachia’s ruler a political instrument no matter how much impaling he might do.

† Perhaps because Brasov’s Church of St. Bartholomew was among the targets ravaged by Dracula’s force?

‡ Attack staged from picturesquely vampiric Castle Bran.

On this day..

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