The foundation of Wallachia (Romanian: Descălecatul Ţării Româneşti), that is the establishment of the first independent Romanian principality, was achieved at the beginning of the 14th century, through the unification of smaller political units that had existed between the Carpathian Mountains, and the Rivers Danube, Siret and Milcov.
Prior to the consolidation of Wallachia, waves of nomadic
peoples – the last of them being the Cumans and the Mongols – rode
across the territory. The territory became a frontier area between the
Golden Horde (the westernmost part of the Mongol Empire) and the Kingdom
of Hungary after 1242. The Romanians in Muntenia, east of the Olt
River, had to pay tribute to the Mongols; and west of the river, in
Oltenia, they were oppressed by the Bans of Severin, appointed by the
Kings of Hungary. The Golden Horde’s domination decreased in the region
at the end of the 13th century, and at that time the Kingdom of Hungary
also underwent a strong political crisis. These events enabled the
incipient states of the territory to consolidate their autonomy.
One Romanian tradition records that Wallachia was founded when a
certain Radu Negru (‘Radu the Black’) arrived from the Făgăraş region
in the 1290s after crossing the Transylvanian Alps with “a great many
following him”. More credible is the report that some Romanian lords in
the Olt and Argeş valleys chose as leader one of their number, a certain
It was Voivode Basarab I (c. 1310–1352) who broke off with the
Kingdom of Hungary and refused to accept the king’s suzerainty. Basarab I
received international support and the recognition of the autonomy of
Wallachia due to his great military victory over King Charles I of
Hungary (1301–1342) at Posada on November 12, 1330. The Metropolitan See
of Wallachia, directly subordinated to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of
Constantinople, was set up during the reign of Basarab I’s son, Nicolae
Alexandru (1352–1364). The first silver and bronze coins were minted in
Wallachia in 1365.
The Battle of Posada in the Chronicon Pictum is depicted in the top background to this website.
Thursday, January 5, 2017
Lord Byron drafted the original sketch for what became “The Vampyre.” It would be the story of a mysterious nobleman who traveled to Greece, where his death would reveal, among other things, that he had been a vampire all along. That was as far as the great poet progressed before setting the tale aside.
Doctor Polidori then picked it up. He discarded his original idea about a skull-headed lady peeping through a keyhole and fleshed out Byron’s idea instead. As a writer, the doctor was not without talent; as a human being, he was touchy, petulant, envious, quick to take offense—and ultimately self-destructive. He and Lord Byron had quarreled endlessly, so as Polidori continued to create the vampire of his tale, Lord Ruthven, he modeled him on the now-hated figure of the poet. Thus did Polidori’s jaundiced view of a former friend become the prototype of the literary vampire—which, in turn, has given rise to popular depictions of the vampire today.
The most lionized poet of his time, Lord Byron at first glance made a good model for a vampire. Dark and irresistibly handsome, he was, according to one former lover, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Even his friends, such as the dashing naval officer Edward John Trelawny, acknowledged he was “prouder than Lucifer” and flashed the “smile of a Mephistopheles.” Byron stayed up all night, slept most of the day, and once used a human skull as a drinking bowl. He ate sparingly because he could not exercise; a lame leg, he said, made strenuous activity extremely painful. After Trelawny eventually saw the poet’s corpse, he noticed that, beneath the magnificent torso, “both his feet were clubbed, and his legs withered to the knee—the form and features of an Apollo, with the feet and legs of a sylvan satyr.”
But it was Byron’s character that caused the most controversy. Much has been made of the Byronic hero—the man who lives by his own code outside the conventions of society, the figure that novelist Charlotte Brontë called the “corsair.” But to Polidori, Lord Byron resembled nothing so much as Lord Ruthven in the opening scenes of “The Vampyre” he may have been the talk of the ballrooms, but he was also cold, arrogant, haughty, cruel, and predacious—“a man entirely absorbed in himself.”
Aubrey, the story’s narrator, accompanies Ruthven on a tour of Europe but grows disenchanted with him after witnessing his voracious sexual appetites and his cruel treatment of women. Ruthven has a cold, gray eye, while his skin exhibits a hue “which never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion.” Furthermore, all those to whom he gave money “inevitably found that there was a curse upon it, for they were all either led to the scaffold, or sunk to the lowest and most abject misery.”
In Greece, Aubrey falls in love with Ianthe, a beautiful girl who is attacked in a remote place one night and killed by a vampire. Regaining consciousness after wrestling with the fiend, Aubrey beholds Ruthven sitting there. After further adventures in Greece, bandits ambush the two men, and Ruthven is killed—or perhaps not, for the moonlight seems to revive him.
Ruthven next appears in London at an engagement party for Aubrey’s sister. Because he must feed at least once a year on the “life of a lovely female to prolong his existence for the ensuing months,” Ruthven preys upon Aubrey’s sister, which so enrages the young man that he dies of a stroke. In the closing line of the story, evil has emerged triumphant: “Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE!”
Soon after being published—under Byron’s name, which Polidori had not approved—in the April 1, 1819, issue of the New Monthly Magazine, “The Vampyre” was released as a book and became a best seller. Its initial connection with Byron was undoubtedly the reason; in Germany, for example, the poet Goethe supposedly pronounced it the greatest of all Byron’s works.
Whether in England or on the Continent, the saga of the rapacious Ruthven was soon in readers’ hands everywhere. Within a year, it had been mounted on the stage as well. French writer Cyprien Bérard churned out a sequel, Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires (1820), which was attributed to the multitalented librarian and master of the literary fantasy, Charles Nodier. Though he had nothing to do with its genesis, Nodier proceeded to give Polidori’s tale a second life as a play, Le Vampire, though he switched the locale from Greece to Scotland. The play’s success incited a run on vampires in Paris, moving one critic to lament, “There is not a theatre in Paris without its Vampire!”
Several seasons later, the fad was still going strong: An English correspondent declared that the vampire was being received with “rapturous applause at almost all the spectacles from the Odeon to the Porte St. Martin…. Where are the descendants of the Encyclopedists and the worshippers of the goddess Reason,” he asked, when Parisians were mad for “apparitions nocturnes” and “cadavres mobiles?”
A young theater innovator named James Planché brought a version of the French play back to London. The Vampire, or the Bride of the Isles, opened in August 1820 at the Lyceum; it was given an incongruous Scottish setting, Planché wrote despairingly, only because the producer had “set his heart on Scotch music and dresses—the latter, by the way, were in stock.” Sensationalism, then as now, ruled the pens of copywriters; the playbill stated that vampires “are Spirits, deprived of all Hope of Futurity, by the Crimes committed in their Mortal State” but nevertheless are allowed to exert “Supernatural Powers of Fascination.” They cannot be destroyed, it asserted, if they kill one female each year—“whom they are first compelled to marry.” (That proviso clearly didn’t stick.) Planché, who invented a “vampire trap” that allowed the fiend to vanish and reappear onstage in startling fashion, got it right on his second attempt a few years later, when he set a revised version of The Vampire in Wallachia, using Magyar costumes.
The literary vampire had been loosed upon the world, but Polidori did not live to see its success. He died in August 1821, only 26 years old, and was buried in the consecrated ground of London’s St. Pancras churchyard. The truth of his demise—that he had poisoned himself in despair over gambling debts—was covered up, for in 1821, an Anglo-Saxon law grimly matching Polidori’s fevered imagination still remained on the books: It stipulated that a suicide must be buried at a crossroads, with a stake through his heart. The law was repealed two years later.
Two others who shared those hours in the Villa Diodati that stormy summer of 1816 soon followed Polidori to the grave. In July 1822, Percy Shelley drowned in a sailing accident off the coast of Italy. His body was cremated on a makeshift pyre on the beach where it had washed up—a consummation common among the pagan Greeks the poet had so admired.
Not long after the torch was applied, eyewitness Trelawny recalled, the carcass cracked open; where the skull rested on the red-hot iron bars, the “brains literally seethed, bubbled, and boiled as in a cauldron, for a very long time.” When the flames subsided, there remained only ashes, some bone fragments—and Shelley’s heart, somehow undamaged. “In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace,” Trelawny recalled, “my hand was severely burnt….”
Less than two years later, in April 1824, Lord Byron died in Greece, where he had journeyed to fight in the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Turks. Byron apparently succumbed to a fever—if he wasn’t in fact bled to death by overzealous physicians—in swampy Missolinghi, just south of the Albanian border.
Mary Shelley would die of a brain tumor in 1851, at the age of 53. As her son sifted through her effects, he found not only locks of her dead children’s hair but also a copy of Percy Shelley’s Adonais, an elegy for the poet John Keats, who had likewise died young (though of tuberculosis). One page of the elegy was folded around a silk bag, which, when opened, contained some ashes—and a desiccated human heart.
And finally there is the matter of that name—Dracula!
Had Bram Stoker not come across a copy of William Wilkinson’s An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, in which he learned of a 15th-century Romanian prince named Dracula who fought the Ottoman Turks, we might today have a forgotten 19th-century novel about a Count Wampyr—the author’s original choice for his main character’s name. Happily for literary posterity, however, Stoker responded positively to the name Dracula: Drakul is Romanian for “dragon,” but it also means “devil,” as in those distinctive Romanian landscape features Gregynia Drakuluj (Devil’s Garden) and Gania Drakuluj (Devil’s Mountain).
That may be all there is to it. Stoker might never have known about Dracula’s other Romanian sobriquet, Vlad Tepes, or “Vlad the Impaler.”
A portrait of Vlad Tepes hangs in Ambras Castle, Austria, alongside one of a man so hirsute he resembles a were-wolf and another of a person who lived with a lance sticking through his head. Vlad won a place in this notorious “Chamber of Curiosities” because he was considered the archetype of the bloodthirsty ruler. This reputation had been fostered by a series of best-selling German pamphlets that depicted him, in one case, dining serenely while severed limbs covered the ground and all around him bodies hung from sharpened stakes.
Over the past several decades, a fierce debate has erupted about whether Stoker knew of Vlad’s bloodthirsty reputation. If so, did he model his Dracula directly on that historical figure? The debate is not merely academic; many, if not most, tourists visiting Romania today equate Count Dracula with Vlad the Impaler. And many, if not most, Romanians object to this misconception, for Vlad is a national hero as the defender of their country. Celebrated in poems and ballads, his statue gazes over Romanian towns, and his visage has appeared on commemorative stamps. Under no circumstances, therefore, should Vlad be associated with the world’s most famous vampire. Some locals, perceiving a business opportunity, shrug their shoulders and opt not to sweat the distinction; others justifiably resent the Vlad-vampire conflation as a myth imposed on them from outside.
No doubt both camps are correct. Whatever sins may be attributed to Vlad, however, vampirism cannot be counted among them. True, Vlad was accused in the old German pamphlets of dipping his bread in the blood of his victims. But it’s unlikely that Bram Stoker knew much about him. The general traits of Stoker’s vampire seem to have been settled when he was still known as Count Wampyr; from Vlad, Stoker borrowed only the more dramatic name—and perhaps the hint of a proud military past. Otherwise, the fictional Count Dracula owes more to the traditional villain of Gothic romance than he does to the historical prince of Wallachia.
That prince—he was actually a voivode, generally translated as “prince” or “duke”—was born in Transylvania in 1431. That was the year when Vlad’s father, in charge of guarding the Carpathian passes against the Ottomans, was summoned to Nuremberg, Germany. There, the Holy Roman Emperor inducted Vlad’s father into the Order of the Dragon, a military fraternity dedicated to defending Christendom against the Muslim Turks. As voivode of Wallachia, he became known as Vlad II Dracul, or “Vlad the Dragon.” When his son eventually succeeded him as voivode, he naturally became Vlad III Dracula — “the Dragon’s Son.”
Part of southern Romania today, Wallachia is a grassy plain bordered on the east and south by the Danube River and on the north and west by the Carpathians. As the gateway to further Ottoman expansion in Europe, it lay fully exposed to the Turkish forces patrolling the river’s south bank. Therefore, Vlad II, despite his oath to the Order of the Dragon, bought a tenuous security by paying annual tribute to the sultan. He also surrendered his two younger sons as hostages for good behavior.
By the time Vlad III Dracula became voivode in 1456, he was nursing two long-standing grievances: His years of captivity had imbued in him a deep hatred for the Turks, and the murder of his father and older brother (the brother had been buried alive) had induced a lasting enmity toward their killers, the Wallachian boyars, or nobles.
This is where the stories of Vlad’s barbarism begin. In 1457, he invited the boyars to Tirgoviste, the Wallachian capital, for an Easter feast. There, Vlad sprang a trap: He impaled those complicit in the murders of his father and brother. The others he marched off to the mountains to build his castle, where he worked them until their clothes fell from their bodies in tatters and they were forced to slave away naked.
Emboldened by his coup, Vlad terrorized the Transylvanians between 1459 and 1460, impaling 10,000 in the city of Sibiu, and 30,000 boyars and merchants in Brasov—allegedly in a single day. In the midst of these killing fields, a table was laid so that boyars who escaped punishment might join Dracula for an alfresco feast. Unfortunately, one of his guests could not stomach the spectacle; the nauseating odors of the rotting corpses, the Impaler noticed, seemed to overcome the man. The sensitive noble was therefore impaled on a stake higher than all the rest, thus permitting him to die above the stench.
Two monks passing through Wallachia were accosted by Dracula, who asked them if his actions might be justified in the eyes of God. The first monk more or less told him what he wanted to hear. The second one, however, condemned his actions as reprehensible. In most German pamphlets depicting this episode, the honest monk is hoisted aloft while the cowardly one is rewarded. In most Russian pamphlets, by contrast, the honest monk is spared.
In another tale of savagery, two ambassadors arrive from a foreign court and decline to remove their hats in the presence of Dracula. Vlad thereupon orders that their hats be nailed to their heads.
There are dozens of such stories, and most of them are clearly exaggerated. This is not to suggest that executions did not take place—death by impalement was a custom in eastern Europe and among the Turks—but the numbers and incidents are almost certainly inflated. A typical impalement seems to have involved hitching a horse to each of a victim’s legs and by those means pulling him slowly onto the point of a horizontal greased stake, driving it through the rectum and running it up through the bowels. The stake with its gory burden was then hoisted into a vertical position. Done correctly—if that is the word for it—the agony of death might be prolonged for hours. Whatever method was employed, impalement was unquestionably labor- and resource-intensive: It demanded time, men, horses, and wood. Vlad’s forces were never very large, and although he had access to abundant timber in the Carpathians, most of Wallachia was steppe.
Menaced by the Turks to his front and by rebellious nobles to his rear, bled by German merchants in Transylvania monopolizing trade and ignoring his customs duties, Vlad, cruel though he might have been, had a motive for ruthlessness. On the other side, German pamphleteers, informed by refugees that German merchants were being persecuted, had every reason to depict Vlad as a bloodthirsty sadist. In any event, as owners of newly invented printing presses quickly discovered, sensationalism sold.
We are on firmer ground, thanks to Ottoman chronicles, when war between the Wallachians and the Turks resumed between 1461 and 1462. Here, Dracula proved himself an exceptionally able commander, raiding deep into Ottoman territory and waging daring attacks by night. But his forces were greatly outnumbered, and as he retreated deeper and deeper into Wallachia, he engaged in scorched-earth tactics: burning villages, poisoning wells, and sending plague victims in disguise to sow pestilence in the Turkish camps.
The harried Janissaries crumpled beneath their crescent banners. The final straw was apparently the sight of the “Forest of the Impaled”—the rotting corpses of thousands of Turkish prisoners that stood outside the city of Tirgoviste. Sultan Mehmed II, never one to quail easily, was so sickened by the sight of ravens nesting inside the putrid carcasses that he abandoned the campaign and returned to Constantinople.
Savior or psychopath, it seems unjust that Vlad would be arrested soon afterward by the Hungarian king. Preferring a policy of appeasement toward the Ottomans, the king schemed to replace Vlad with his younger, pro-Turkish brother. After that brother died in 1476, Vlad returned to Wallachia and resumed his campaign against the Turks. Forsaken by his allies, however, he was forced to march with fewer than 4,000 men against a far larger Ottoman army. It would be his last fight.
Yet, even Vlad’s death and burial have their legendary elements. Dracula was most likely assassinated by a Turkish agent in the marshes of the Vlasia Forest near Bucharest in the last days of 1476. By all accounts, his severed head was then sent to the sultan. Whatever further indignities may have been inflicted on his body, it was said that monks eventually claimed it and ferried it across the deep waters of a lake to the island monastery of Snagov (reminiscent of the dying King Arthur’s journey to the Isle of Avalon). There, Vlad was buried in the chapel, at the foot of the altar beneath a stone slab polished smooth by generations of piously shuffling feet.
Between 1931 and 1932, Romanian archaeologist Dinu Rosetti removed that slab and found a tomb containing nothing but scattered animal bones and a few bits of ceramic. Then another—and nearly identical—stone slab was discovered near the church doors. After removing it, Rosetti beheld a coffin covered by the remains of a gold-embroidered purple pall. Inside the coffin was a headless skeleton. It was clothed in disintegrating silk brocade, and in place of the missing skull were the remains of a crown, worked in cloisonné and studded with turquoise. There was also a ring such as the sort of token a 15th-century noblewoman might have bestowed upon her favorite knight—and indeed one did bestow such a prize on Vlad II Dracul, the father, on the night of his 1431 investiture in the Order of the Dragon, and he is believed to have passed it on to his son.
Rosetti, understandably, believed he had found Dracula’s remains. Perhaps some abbot, discomfited by the notion of that man so near the altar, had moved the remains from their original crypt? However they got there, they were now transported to the Bucharest History Museum. From there, they disappeared during the chaos of World War II. They have not been seen since.
And the head? Reportedly, it was taken to Constantinople and displayed high atop a stake before the sultan’s palace, where all might behold the Impaler impaled.