By Martijn Icks
Few names in history hold as much terror as that of Vlad Dracula, “Little Dragon”, also known as Vlad the Impaler. Many people are aware that the blood-curdling stories about the man’s cruelties inspired the Victorian novelist Bram Stoker to name his vampiric creation Count Dracula. What is much less well known is that this terrible figure was one of the first victims of the printing press.
To be sure, Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia in modern-day Romania, was probably not a nice man. He had trouble holding on to power, reigning on and off between 1448 and 1476, with the bulk of his reign falling between 1456 and 1462. Vlad was ruthless in his quest to strengthen his hold on the throne, making many enemies along the way. He began a purge of the boyars, the highest nobles, to bring them under his thumb and led several campaigns into neighboring Transylvania, where he plundered Catholic churches and monasteries. Many of the German monks who were living in Transylvania fled the country, with some of them finding shelter in the Swiss Abbey of St. Gall.
It was here that dark tales about Vlad Dracula began to emerge. Some whispered that the prince had people impaled on stakes, grilled or flayed. Others claimed that he liked to set up his table amidst his impaled victims, enjoying his meal while they were groaning, gasping and writhing in agony. Vlad had a man cooked and forced his subjects to eat him, one story held. Vlad had ordered the belly of his pregnant mistress to be cut open, told another. A monk who came face to face with the tyrant boldly remarked that he might not even end up in hell, as it seemed possible that even the devil himself would reject him.
Many of these stories have been preserved in manuscripts from St. Gall’s Abbey, where they were written down in German dialect. However, others got wind of the terrible allegations as well. The poet Michael Beheim earned great success with the poem Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman Called Dracula of Wallachia, which was recited at the imperial court of Vienna on several occasions.
It was only the start. About two decades earlier, the printing press had been invented and printers were hungry for juicy stories to sell. From 1463 onwards, many pamphlets about Vlad Dracula saw the light of day, some of them decorated with gruesome illustrations. They bore such titles as History of the Evil Dracula and The Frightening and Truly Extraordinary Story of a Wicked Blood-thirsty Tyrant Called Prince Dracula. As one sensationalist text promised its readers, they would be treated to:
“The shocking story of a MONSTER and BERSERKER 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.” (Cited from McNally & Florescu, In Search of Dracula, p. 84)
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at least thirteen different Dracula stories were published in various German cities, making the name Dracula synonymous with unspeakable atrocities. But this tale is not just that of a ruthless ruler whose crimes were blown out of all proportion by an unscrupulous press. It appears there may very well have been a guiding hand that helped the slanders to gain ground.
Matthias Corvinus, the King of Hungary, was one of Vlad’s political rivals. In 1462, he managed to take the Wallachian prince captive – allegedly because he was a traitor to Christianity who made common cause with the Ottoman Turks. The letters cited as proof were almost certainly forgeries.
The Turks, who had conquered Constantinople not ten years ago, had gained a reputation as cruel, bloodthirsty barbarians in Christian lands. For King Matthias, who wanted to smear Vlad’s name in every way possible, it would have been all too easy to impose this enemy image on his captive and tarnish him with the same brush. What with all the disgruntled boyars, fugitive monks and others whom the Wallachian prince had antagonized, there were plenty of agents to help him spread his tales of terror.
In his native Romania, Vlad didn’t suffer such reputational damage. There, he was celebrated as a heroic figure fighting on the side of good; a sort of Romanian King Arthur, perhaps. In Bucharest’s National Military Museum, he still has a place among other national heroes. It’s a stark reminder that even this monster has a more human face.