The Historical Dracula Is the Real Fiction

For Halloween, I’ve prepared a post about the ultimate Halloween Bad Guy: Count Dracula. In recent years it has become fashionable to publish about the Historical Dracula. When I first read the book, I fully thought there was a lot of history behind it. I’ve since discovered that the Historical Dracula is as fictional as the Count.

Yes, there was an infamous man named Vlad III Dracula. The three-time Voivod of Wallachia, he was the son of Vlad II Dracul (hence the patronymic surname). Yes, Bram Stoker even identified Count Dracula with him. And yes, there was a countess in Transylvania, Elizabeth Bathory, who at least had the reputation of bathing in young women’s blood to maintain a youthful appearance. I think you’ll find, however, that Count Dracula’s connections to Vlad Dracula are extremely superficial and that Bram Stoker probably didn’t even know of Elizabeth Bathory. I first found refutations of these two being the historical Dracula in writings by Professor Elizabeth Miller (see her web posts for even more detail), and at first I didn’t believe her. Having read the novel and the relevant sources, though, I had to agree with her conclusions.

Now I’m going to grant that my arguments rely a lot on coincidence. Count Dracula would hardly have such obscure historical counterparts in so much of modern scholarship if there wasn’t at least some smoke to the fire. The actual evidence, however, is lacking.

First, Vlad Dracula. This man ruled Wallachia in a perilous time. His family was in as much danger from its own perfidious people as from the aggressively expansionistic Turks and Hungarians. The Turks practiced impalement, and Vlad brought the custom to Wallachia when he returned from being a hostage in Turkey. His first and third reigns did not last long, and his second only six years, but he left his mark. He established order in Wallachia with ironhanded and cruel authoritarianism. With the country under his thumb, he audaciously raided Turkish territory and brought the wrath of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople, upon his land. Fighting guerrilla style, he even made an attack at night into the Ottoman camp. Mehmet, who was no shrinking violet where cruelty was concerned, quit the country when he saw a forest of stakes draped with corpses and skeletons. The Ottomans then appointed his brother Radu as a vassal, and the Vlachs gladly left Vlad’s repression for him.

So, how does Vlad Dracula come across in the novel? Dr. Van Helsing plainly states, “‘He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk’” and later refers to the “‘persistence and endurance’” with which Dracula waged his war against his Turkish enemies. Historians have noted the very close correspondence between Jonathan Harker’s description of Count Dracula’s appearance and Papal Legate Niccolo Modrussa’s firsthand description of the historical Dracula. Both include an “‘aquiline’” nose, “‘bushy eyebrows,’” and a “‘mustache,’” and, where not exactly identical, they focus on many of the same, and very specific, aspects: the chin, nostrils, temples, and lips. In fact, they list these similar features in the same order, except for the temples. It appears that Stoker copied the description, taking liberties as he desired to suit his character, such as the fangs and pointed ears. He also relates through Count Dracula’s own recounting of his family’s history how the Turks installed Vlad’s brother Radu as their vassal to supplant Vlad.

Certain subtler aspects of Vlad’s mythos seem to appear in the book and get a lot of attention from historians. Perhaps Renfield’s progressive devouring of small animals in his asylum links back to the stories that Dracula, after he had lost his throne and while he sat in house arrest in Hungary, tortured mice and birds in place of humans. A most haunting chord seems to sound in Harker’s view from his chamber in Castle Dracula: “The castle is on the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything!” This looks like it could relate to a very well known legend, which says that Dracula’s wife, fearful of capture by the Turks, threw herself from the walls of Castle Poenari into the river valley far below. Francis Ford Coppola, in fact, worked this into his adaptation of Dracula (or so I’m told- I never saw it myself).

Of course, when it comes to the rest of the real Dracula’s life appearing in the novel, the silence is deafening. Nowhere do we hear of his trademark: impalement. Some think the stake to the heart that kills vampires derives from this, but Vlad Dracula’s method was vastly different (and far more gruesome) than a simple stake through the heart. It makes more sense, when one considers the similarities between Lucy’s exorcism and Carmilla’s in the 1871 novel by that name (which Stoker very probably read), that he got the staking from that work and not Vlad Dracula. Vlad’s night assault on Mehmet’s camp remains the single most famous event of his reign, but Stoker nowhere mentions it. Count Dracula is humorless in contrast to Vlad’s extremely dark sense of humor. Vlad Dracula also escaped the Turks with elaborate tricks, but Stoker doesn’t mention them even when the vampire-hunters are trying to track the count down.

Ironically, what little history of Vlad Dracula that Stoker does provide is riddled with errors. Count Dracula identifies himself ethnically as a Szekely, while Vlad Dracula was a Vlach. Count Dracula declares, “‘I am Boyar,’” a statement which would have made Vlad Dracula roll in his grave (if he was not out of it prowling at the time). To assert his power and avenge the murder of his father and brother at the connivance of the boyars, Vlad actually persecuted them with as much ferocity as he did the Turks. Vlad Dracula did launch a savage raid into Turkey-land, as Stoker mentions, but he actually spent most of his campaign defending his own territory in the face of a massive army, and he did not, “‘when he was beaten back, come again and again, and again, though he had to come alone from the bloody field where his troops were being slaughtered.’” Dracula used hit-and-run tactics successfully until his army deserted him for Radu. Van Helsing compliments him as “‘the bravest of the sons of the ‘land beyond the forest,’’” but this is not exactly true either. Dracula was indeed born in Transylvania, but to a Wallachian voivod in exile, and the throne he sought was that of Wallachia, the region to the south.

Count Dracula’s villainies are simply not Vlad Dracula’s villainies. The Count appears as a very sexually seductive villain, but history tells us very little about Vlad’s love life, except a reference or two in legends to a possible wife and a mistress. From what we know, Vlad Dracula usually dealt very harshly with adulterous women. Most tellingly, Vlad Dracula, at least before Stoker’s novel, was not seen as a vampire. There is only one possible reference to Vlad drinking blood, but this actually results from a mistranslation of the German. Vlad never drank blood (he is said to have eaten amid the stakes, though), just as Count Dracula does not impale.

This discrepancy between voivod and count makes sense if one reads Stoker’s notes from William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. He abridged and copied the most relevant paragraph pertaining to Vlad Dracula, and a comparison between it and the book reveals that every (correct) fact Stoker includes in his novel about Vlad Dracula can be found in this paragraph, such as his raid into Ottoman territory. Tellingly, this paragraph names him as only Dracula, not Vlad Dracula, just like Stoker. Stoker refers to Vlad’s invasion of Turkish lands thrice, as if in lieu of any of his other exploits, to which there are no explicit references. Reading one paragraph seems to me like too little to say he based his character on Vlad Dracula for, even if the names are the same. Stoker knew Arminius Vambery, a respected Hungarian professor, so some think he learned about Dracula from him, but even supporters of this theory admit he included him nowhere in his notes. Basically Stoker wanted the name. He wrote it several times in his notes but little else about the man himself. Certainly he was right about the name; it has resonated through literature.

But even if Vlad Dracula isn’t much represented in the novel, what about Elizabeth Bathory? Here we have a Transylvanian countess with a reputation for bloodthirstiness. She would bite her servants and (supposedly) bathe in their blood. She thought this would make her skin retain its youthfulness (she had a reputation for great beauty) while Dracula also appears younger after feeding. Dracula abducts children just as Bathory lured young girls into her castle on promises of employment, only for them to never be seen again. Count Dracula has three brides whom van Helsing destroys just before they deal with the count himself, and three female accomplices were executed for their participation in Bathory’s crimes. She had one male accomplice, who might be represented by Renfield, or Renfield could represent aspects of the countess herself since they both use blood to seek immortality.

Ironically, even though he seems to resemble her more than his own namesake, Count Dracula was almost definitely not based on Elizabeth Bathory. The differences are again glaring. Elizabeth Bathory was famous for beauty, but Count Dracula is very grotesque in appearance. Even though the numbers and genders of Dracula’s allies match Bathory’s accomplices, they’re not a very good representation of them. The women actively joined her in torturing her victims, while Dracula’s brides do not even accompany him on his quest to conquer England. Ficzko, Bathory’s manservant, sometimes worked the torture devices for his mistress, but Renfield only grants his master, reluctantly, access to the asylum so that he can feed upon Mina’s blood. Bathory did not bite the necks of her victims.

Besides all this, there’s simply no documented evidence that Stoker based Dracula off of Countess Bathory. He did consult The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould, and that work does include a brief passage on Countess Bathory, but writers are somewhat disingenuous when they cite this as Stoker’s source of information about her since he put things from the work in his notes. None of those notes includes Countess Bathory, and there is a simple explanation for this. Baring-Gould put her story in the naturalistic part of his book, so Stoker could have missed it if he was focusing just on the folkloric part.

Most significantly, Baring-Gould’s account of Bathory is actually quite brief and does not include most of her similarities to Count Dracula. He does not provide her title as countess or her Transylvanian origins, focusing mostly on the rejuvenation legend. Baring-Gould’s account also states, incorrectly, that Bathory had two female assistants, not the three found in Dracula. If Stoker had used this source for Bathory, Count Dracula would actually not resemble her as closely as he does.

As for their common title, it again makes more sense as a coincidence. Countess Karnstein in Carmilla seems more likely as an inspiration for Dracula’s rank than someone Stoker never referred to in his notes. As for their common homeland, Stoker chose it after reading Emily Gerard’s Land Beyond the Forest, not Baring-Gould’s work, which doesn’t even mention Transylvania. All that remains is the rejuvenation legend. It again seems scanty to say he based a character on someone just for that, especially if he didn’t include it in his notes.

I may seem to have belabored coincidence, but the evidence just does not bear out much of a historical basis for Count Dracula. Happily, we have Stoker’s own notes for the book, and all that gives us is one paragraph with a little slice of Vlad Dracula’s life and nothing for Elizabeth Bathory. I guess technically Stoker did sort of base his count off the voivod, but he used so little of his life I prefer to look at it as he didn’t. I do like the books about the history of Dracula, though.