05 October 2015

Myth & Folklore: The vampire Count Dracula

By Lisa J. Yarde
Bela Lugosi as the vampire Count Dracula

Strigoi. Nosferatu. Vampire. In such terms, a reference to the undead, corpses mysteriously kept alive by the blood of the living. Tales of them have existed since the time of the ancient Persians, then popularized in later centuries. None more famous than the blood-drinker Count Dracula immortalized in Bram Stoker’s novel and brought to life on the screen by actors from Bela Lugosi in 1931 to as recently as Luke Evans in 2014 , the legend of this particular vampire is rooted in facts. Dracula was real, not a count, but a prince of Wallachia in the 15th century. To many of his enemies and contemporaries, his deeds epitomized extreme cruelty and bloodlust that only a demonic creature like a vampire would relish.

The real-life Prince Dracula III
of Wallachia
Born Vlad Dracula in the winter of 1431, the basis of the most popular vampire myth entered the world at a dangerous time for his people. The Ottoman Turks had invaded Eastern Europe bent on conquest. When Vlad was five, his father became the voivode or prince of Wallachia. A bitter struggle to hold power ended with Turkish support, but the cost proved high for Vlad’s father. He surrendered his two youngest sons, including Vlad’s brother Radu, as hostages. From the age of 13, Vlad endured a bitter existence among his captors. While he learned their language and religion, he also faced threats to his livelihood for his insubordination and witnessed the cruelty the Ottomans practiced against enemies of the states. If they expected the experience had subdued Vlad, they soon learned otherwise. Whereas poor Radu became the plaything of Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, upon release Vlad set about freeing Wallachia from Turkish domination. As Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, he started by refusing to pay tribute and nailed the hats of Mehmed’s ambassadors to their heads. His favorite method of punishment, impalement on wooden stakes, created gruesome forests of death across the landscape. His Turkish enemies soon gave him the epithet, Kazikli Bey or the Impaler Lord. He lost power over Wallachia twice and upon a third reign that lasted only two months, he died. So how did a freedom fighter become associated with the vampire legend?

A German woodcut showing Prince Dracula eating
among the bodies of impaled victims
The Irish author Bram Stoker had spent several years researching European folklore about vampires prior to publishing his novel in 1897. A copy of William Wilkinson’s Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with Political Observations Relative to Them introduced the Dracula family to Stoker, beginning with Prince Vlad II of Wallachia, the father of Stoker’s future antagonist. Stoker would have learned how the prince’s aristocratic relatives took the name Dracula originally after he became a knight in the Order of the Dragon in 1431, defending the country against Turkish invasions. In the modernized Romanian language, the name Dracul means devil, but in the medieval period, it meant dragon. At the time of the novel’s release, Victorian society was already aware of the vampire myth through poems and penny dreadful serials. It isn’t clear why Stoker chose the final name for the novel; earlier drafts were titled The Undead with Count Wampyr as the villain’s name. If Stoker learned anything of the real-life figure of Vlad Dracula, he found inspiration for his blood-sucking vampire in the brutal acts of a bloodthirsty man, who was not only cruel to his enemies, but people under his domain who he often punished for even minor infractions with impalement. The real Dracula may have been as terrible as the vampire later portrayed by Stoker. 

Sources: Radu R. Florescu & Raymond T. McNalley, Dracula - Prince of Many Faces, Bram Stoker - Dracula. All images in the public domain from Wikipedia.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.