Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

5. Kurt W. Treptow (2000), Vlad III Dracula: the life and times of the historical Dracula

Given my current obsession with Dracula and the fact that I am a historian, it's pretty obvious that sooner or later I would want to read up on the historical man behind the myth. I also wasn't going to be satisfied with one of the many popular works on the topic. I wanted Proper History. In fact, what I really set out in search of was an English-language translation of the primary sources. Some of these are available online, such as one of the German-language pamphlets about him printed in Nuremburg in 1488 here. But those are very obviously highly sensationalistic, to a degree which makes the Historia Augusta's Life of Elagabalus look moderate and objective. Meanwhile, I could see that better material must be out there, such as the official document which this image of his signature was taken from. And I wanted to read it!

So I did my research, and very quickly this book stood out from amongst a large and rather motley field. Online reviews and tables of contents confirmed that it includes some 50 pages of translated primary source material (about 1/5 of the book), including official documents and letters from and about Wallachia, Ottoman Chronicles, a Byzantine historiographer, one of the German pamphlets and a Hungarian court historian. This isn't an absolutely comprehensive collection. The official documents and letters are 'selected'; Treptow for some reason omits the Russian pamphlets also published about Dracula (which are as sensationalist as the German ones, but to different effect); and he also cites at certain points, but doesn't present in full, the observations of Pietro Tommasi, the Venetian ambassador to Buda. But I could see in advance, and can confirm now, that it is very definitely the fullest available English-language source collection for Dracula currently on the market.

That would have been enough to make me want to buy it, but meanwhile, my investigations had also made it clear that the other 4/5 of the book were the thing I wanted next most after the primary sources - a proper scholarly analysis of the historical Dracula. This Amazon review from a history professor planning to use it in their teaching sounded particularly promising, while I also found a syllabus for a college course at Rutgers in which it plays a central role (and which I think is taught by someone different from the Amazon reviewer), and a Masters thesis published online which cites it extensively and admiringly.

All eminently promising, you would think. Surely no reason to hesitate about buying a copy? Except that there was, and is, because the author is a convicted paedophile. I should make it clear that the book referred to in that article, which he wrote in prison and which helped him to secure an early release, is not this book (which he wrote before he was arrested), but a different book, about Vlad Dracul, i.e. the father of Vlad III Dracula. But still, even if this is not a book which a paedophile used to mitigate his jail sentence, it is still a book by a paedophile.

Clearly, the unassailable moral stance here would have been not to buy the book. But I did buy the book. And although I bought it second-hand, I don't think that in itself really lets me off the hook. It does mean that I didn't do anything to directly increase the author's royalty income, but because money is a fungible commodity what it means instead is that I have now assumed responsibility for the contribution to his royalty income previously made by someone else - in this case Westford Academy Media Center, Westford MA, whose ex-library copy I now own. So I've definitely taken a less-than-perfectly-moral step in buying and reading this book, and I have to own and live with that.

That said, the whole issue posed by the creative (or other) endeavours of criminals isn't entirely straightforward, or the solution to it widely-agreed. These are some of the issues which seem to come up in debates about it:
  • The public profile of the person - are they an icon or role-model? See e.g. recent debates over Ched Evans. His public status clearly made a difference to how he was treated - but should it have done? It seems that as a society we haven't agreed that all rapists who have served their legally-imposed sentences should be barred from ever working again - yet we still seek to apply that standard to some of them. But who does or should get to decide where the line is drawn?
  • Is the person alive or dead - i.e. are we implicitly condoning paedophilia (or rape or whatever) within our own society in the present? Clearly if we set out never to read, listen to or look at any creative work produced by a paedophile, it would instantly become more or less impossible to (for example) meaningfully study the ancient world. But Treptow is well and truly alive, so here this factor should weigh in favour of a boycott.
  • Is the effort put into boycotting the work of single individuals an unhelpful distraction which creates the illusion that we are 'doing something' about rape, paedophilia etc., when actually that effort could be much more productively channelled into other activities, such as campaigning for proper consent education in schools?
  • The trigger factor - knowing that something is the work of a rapist / paedophile or similar means that engaging with it involves constantly being reminded of their act. This seems to me a very reasonable basis for avoiding the work, and definitely troubled me while I was reading this particular book, but it is about the reader / consumer, and doesn't inherently either help or harm the victims of crimes.
  • The uniqueness of the work - could we as audience or consumers get the same benefit or enrichment another way? It is pretty easy to boycott large companies on ethical grounds, because there is almost always somewhere else to buy chocolate, trainers or banking facilities. But in the domain of art and culture, this tends not to be the case, and I think this factor in particular inclines many of us to allow ourselves leniency.
Certainly, for me it was the uniqueness factor that swung it. There simply is no other available English-language translation of the primary sources I wanted to read, so it was either buy this book or not read them. And it does seem like a pretty futile effort to deliberately keep myself in ignorance of some historical sources I really wanted to read for the sake of an individual boycott of Treptow's work which he will quite certainly never notice. Maybe if there were hordes of people collaborating in a mass boycott, it would be different, but as things stand me buying one single second-hand copy of one of his books doesn't exactly seem like an unspeakable evil.

Thankfully, once I had accepted the stain on my soul by buying it, the book did at least turn out to be everything I was hoping it would be as a work of history. The first few chapters, which provided background information about Wallachia and its politics in the period when Dracula came to power, were relatively unexciting, as they were primarily synthesis, but then Treptow turned in earnest to the reign of Dracula himself, and I found myself reading a chapter which began like this:
Communist historiography created the image of Dracula as a class hero who struggled to curb the abuses of the evil boyars. This thesis has been repeated so often that it is usually taken for granted, without realizing the political motives that inspired it. Precisely for this reason the relationship between Vlad III and his boyars must be reconsidered. [p. 73]
"Aha!" I thought, virtually rubbing my hands with glee, "now we are about to get some proper history!" And we did. By examining documents recording the names of the boyars who made up Dracula's court from 1456 to 1462, Treptow was able to show that far from implementing a drastic purge of the boyars at any stage during his reign, he appears instead to have gradually and steadily replaced the ones who had belonged to his predecessor's court with more loyal supporters of his own. Further chapters on the church, Wallachia's relationship with Hungarian-ruled Transylvania, the war with the Ottomans, and Dracula's imprisonment and ill-fated final reign all take basically the same approach – setting aside the established consensus and returning to the primary sources to interrogate them afresh in the light of a good understanding of their omissions, limitations and contemporary agendas. Good, because that's exactly what good history should be all about, and (as far as I can tell without expertise in this period or its sources) Treptow seems to do it pretty well.

It certainly needs doing with Dracula on a grand scale, because he has some serious reception issues. Even setting aside the whole vampire thing, he was demonised by Hungarians, Transylvanian Saxons and Ottomans during and shortly after his own lifetime, while being heroised by Wallachians and some western European Christians and simultaneously held up as a model of strict but fair rule by the emerging Russian monarchy. Set all that going in a culture with weak documentary and historiographical traditions but very rich oral and superstitious ones, throw Bram Stoker into the mix and add in Treptow's much-disdained Communist historiography to boot and you end up with a real mess. It all reminded me rather strongly of Augustus, who has likewise been heroised, demonised, muddled-up and confused over the centuries, and whose rather surprising medieval career as the world's first Christian is almost as fantastical as Dracula's literary transformation into a vampire. But I have to say that Dracula still takes the cake despite Augustus' spirited performance, and I found Treptow to be efficient and adept at slicing through it.

That's not to say I think this is the most perfect book about Vlad III Dracula that could ever be written, and it certainly doesn't attempt to be the most comprehensive. The analysis which Treptow does offer sometimes reveals biases of its own. For example, his repeated positioning against the failings of Communist historiography made me suspect early on that he might be a bit of a free-marketeer, and my view was strengthened in a section on trade between Wallachia and Brașov (a town in Hungarian-ruled Transylvania, not far from the Wallachian border) by the relish with which he found himself able to overturn a Communist-era theory that Dracula had applied a policy of protectionism in favour of arguing that he actually re-established a free trade agreement. I mean, don't get me wrong – because Treptow lays out the primary evidence in full, he allows his readers to check up on his reasoning, and it's pretty obvious in this case that his interpretation of the document in question is correct. It's not that he is distorting the evidence in accordance with his political beliefs, but just that they are detectable in the language he uses to put forward his arguments.

Meanwhile, on the issue of comprehensiveness, there are still many issues and questions about Dracula which I can see the scope for, but which Treptow doesn't really go into. His main focus is on high politics and foreign relations, but even within this context, he touches only very lightly on what to me seems the very puzzling question of why on earth Dracula provoked the Ottomans into war in 1461, apparently quite actively and deliberately. Given that this led to his overthrow in 1462, and ultimately his death in 1475/6 (when he reclaimed his throne and picked up a continuation of effectively the same war), it seems to me that it needs some analysis, but Treptow only really gives it one paragraph, and even then doesn't commit to any particular view on the issue.

Elsewhere, material culturalist me was struck by the almost total absence of any engagement with another very important category of primary evidence – the archaeological remains of Dracula's building programme. This is a man who founded churches and monasteries, reconstructed Poenari Castle and established a new princely court in Bucharest, effectively transforming it from a tiny village into Romania's future capital city. All of those projects should offer serious insights into his political activities, and I know that archaeological excavations have been carried out at all of them. But Treptow mentions these sites only in passing, and uses exclusively documentary evidence while doing so, saying nothing at all about the archaeology. That's a major oversight in my book.

So there is definitely more for me to read and discover about the historical Dracula than this book alone could tell me, but that's fine – that's how history is, and I'm glad I still have more to find out (and access to a University library to help me with it). Nonetheless, I think I was right in choosing it as my starting-point, because the historical analysis in the first 4/5 of the book was lucid, well-supported and above all transparent, while of course the translations of the primary sources in the final 1/5 now mean that I am very nearly as well-versed in the actual evidence for Dracula's reign as any expert in the field. Like most ancient rulers, his big attraction here is that the available evidence is so limited that reading it all doesn't take very long – and as I say repeatedly to my students, this means that you quickly can get on to the business of analysing and debating it, which is the really fun bit of history.

Of the sources themselves, the documentary sources (deeds, letters, decrees) are clearly the most useful for learning about the actual activities of Dracula as a ruler. Indeed, many of them are written (or dictated, or merely signed off) directly by him in the first person, which is the very best primary evidence you can ask for from any historical ruler. But I must say my favourite to read were the Ottoman sources, written by a selection of contemporary and later military figures and court historians. I quoted one of these directly in this entry about the film Dracula Untold, so I'm afraid I am merely going to repeat that quotation, on the grounds that it's the bit I have already typed out and thus don't have to do again:
Being told about the defeat of his army which he had sent to prevent the Moldavians' attack, [Vlad] Țepeș found nothing better to do than to attack the mighty Sultan. On a dark night, his heart full of wickedness and accompanied by his Infidel army, he flew like a black cloud towards the army of the wise Sultan, attacking him... At midnight the army of Wallachia started like a torrent towards the Imperial camp and made their way on horse into the middle of the triumphant army. The Turkish soldiers thrust their fiery swords deep into their black hearts. The heaps of corpses which poisoned the earth were so high that the victims of the slaughter could be easily seen even on such a dark night. [Appendix II.E]
But honestly, they are all like that – all about the GLORIOUS SULTAN and the TERRIBLE INFIDEL and so forth. They're not actually that useful as sources, because they only deal with Dracula in one specific context (his war with them), and the later ones largely just repeat the same material as the earlier ones, except simplifying and exaggerating it even further in the process. But at least their bias was not difficult to detect, and damn, they were fun to read!

After reading the collection as a whole, I also now feel much clearer than I did before on the whole issue of impalement. Before picking up this book, I knew that the German pamphlets were full of lurid stories about the arbitrary bases on which he impaled people, and the creatively gruesome ways in which he did it, and that the Ottoman sources spoke of impalements in the tens of thousands, stretching for miles in every direction. But I also knew that the German-language pamphlets were rooted in justifications for Dracula's kidnapping and imprisonment by the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus for what seem to have been his own political ends, while the Ottoman accounts had every reason to exaggerate his atrocities in order to justify and glorify their eventual victory over him. So I didn't really know how much, if any, of what they said to trust. But a letter to the councillors of two Transylvanian border towns, Brașov and Țara Bârsei, from Dan III, a rival for Vlad III Dracula's throne in the late 1450s from another branch of the same family, seems to seal the deal. The key extract runs as follows:
He captured all the merchants of Brașov and Țara Bârsei who had gone in peace to Wallachia and took all their wealth; but he was not satisfied only with the wealth of these people, but he imprisoned them and impaled them, 41 in all. Nor were these people enough; he became even more evil and gathered 300 boys from Brașov and Țara Bârsei that he found in Târgoviște and all the markets in Wallachia. Of these he impaled some and burned others. [p. 104]
Dan explains all this to the people of Brașov and Țara Bârsei in the hope that they will support his rival bid for the throne, so of course he has a vested interested in portraying Dracula as a nasty piece of work. But since he is telling them what has happened to some of their fellow-citizens over in Wallachia, he must also have known that he needed to stick at least reasonably closely to the truth, since if those very same citizens actually turned out to be fine, the people of Brașov and Țara Bârsei would know Dan to be a liar, and would therefore refuse to support him.

So, yes, Vlad III Dracula definitely impaled some people. I doubt he did it for the arbitrary reasons the German pamphlets suggest, because that would be a very quick route to getting overthrown. Rather, in the case which Dan III describes it seems to have been partly as a retaliation for the fact that the councillors of Brașov had seized goods belonging to Wallachian merchants, and partly because they were harbouring and supporting Dan himself. Nor is he likely to have done it on quite the scale suggested by the Ottoman sources, which accuse him (for example) of filling a strip of land six miles long with impaled Hungarians, Moldavians and Wallachians. But if he was doing it to retaliate against the people of Brașov in 1459, then he will certainly have used it against the Ottomans in 1461-2, so stories of the invading Ottoman army encountering the impaled bodies of a failed earlier mission are probably broadly true. Indeed, whether or not he actually impaled any invading Ottomans, a report appended to a letter written in his own voice to Matthias Corvinus in 1462 certainly makes it clear that he killed a lot of them, along with the populations of various Bulgarian towns whom he believed had helped them:
First, in the places called Oblucița and Novoselo there were killed 1,350; and 6,840 at Dârstor, Cartal and Dridopotrom(?); likewise 343 at Orșova, and 840 were killed at Vectrem(?); 630 were killed at Turtucaia; likewise 210 were killed at Marotin; 6,414 were killed at Giurgiu on both sides of the river, and the fortress on the Danube was conquered and taken. The commander of the fortress was killed, and Hamza-beg was captured there, and the commander of Nicopolis, the son of Firuz-beg, was also captured and beheaded; and of the Turks stationed at Nicopolis, all of the most important were killed with him. Likewise, 384 were killed at Turnu, Batin and Novigrad; at Siștov and in two other villages near it 410 were killed; likewise the crossing point at Nicopolis was burned and completely destroyed, the same at Samnovit; and at Ghighen 1,138 were killed; at Rahova 1,460 were killed, and, likewise, the crossing point was completely burned, and Neagoe was appointed captain there by Prince Vlad. Likewise, at the above places where there were crossing points, they were burned and destroyed, the people, men, women, children, and babies were all killed, and in all these places nothing remained. And in the above are included only those whose heads or signs were brought to our officials who were everywhere; but those who were not presented to them, or who were burned in their houses, could not be counted, because there were so many. [Appendix I.D]
Not a very nice guy, then! But it's important to notice that all this is all going on in the context of a military campaign intended to repel an invading Ottoman force, punish those who had facilitated it, and discourage the Ottomans from having another go. Also, the entire letter is written to Matthias Corvinus in an attempt to persuade him to join Dracula in protecting Wallachia from the Ottoman counter-attack which was, despite Dracula's best efforts, by then looking rather inevitable. In other words, what Dracula is trying to say to Corvinus is basically "Look! Haven't we done well?! Please now help us to follow up on this." He clearly expects Corvinus to be impressed, not horrified, by the enumeration of the enemy dead, presumably including the women, children and babies. In other words, it's nasty stuff from our 21st-century point of view, but it is also pretty normal for pre-modern warfare - indeed, alas, plenty of modern warfare too. Much the same sort of stuff can be read for example, with the possible exception of the women, children and babies (but only for the sake of appearing 'honourable'), in Caesar's Gallic Wars. So Vlad III Dracula certainly was ruthless and barbarous, but as far as I can see not unusually ruthless and barbarous by the standards of his day. He was simply a pre-modern ruler with a shaky hold on domestic political power, in a kingdom sandwiched between two much more powerful foreign states.

I have certainly learnt a lot about late medieval eastern Europe from this book, which has in turn helped me think about various aspect of ancient politics and warfare by comparison and contrast. Reading about almost any monarch whose power essentially rested on military strength also helps me to understand Augustus better in the same sorts of ways, while one whose source-issues and reception history bear such close resemblances to Augustus' is particularly helpful. But of course I didn't just come here for a real-world history lesson, but also to flesh out the back-story for my favourite fictional vampire. I'm well aware that Bram Stoker knew pretty little about the historical Dracula, and was a bit confused about what he did know. But what if, in spite of that, you want to play the game of splicing together the two?

The truth is, it's difficult to do plausibly. The biggest problem is that the historical Dracula had at least two children between losing his throne in 1462 and regaining it in 1475, and then died in warfare only months after the latter event. If you assume both a) that vampires can't have children, and b) that his motivation for becoming a vampire would have been to achieve political success, then you end up stuck in a blind alley, because he can't have become a vampire until after he had finished having children, and by that point in his life his political successes were qualified at best. It also doesn't help that, like most Wallachian monarchs, he went round founding or granting bequests to churches and monasteries, and writing letters full of phrases like "by the grace of God", "we swear before God", "with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ", etc. - all of which would surely burn in the mouth of any vampire Dracula.

Then again, there are occasional phrases in the primary sources which leap out at anyone looking for a spot of vampirism. Like in Dan III's letter to the people of Brașov and Țara Bârsei, where he says that Dracula has broken faith with the Hungarians "following the teaching of the Devil", or the various references in the Ottoman sources to him flying through the battle-field "like a black cloud", or the story from a poem written shortly after his imprisonment (annoyingly omitted from this book) about him dipping bread in people's blood and eating it. There is also the fact that one of his most famous military attacks took place at night. All of this is of course either perfectly easily-explicable in ordinary human terms, or probably made up – but if you want to, it does provide just about enough fodder to build up a story in which he dabbles with vampirism and / or is assisted by a vampire for some years, but doesn't actually become one himself until at or shortly before the moment of his (historically ill-documented) human death. That is good enough for me.

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Tags: ancient history, archaeology, augustus, books, books read 2014, dracula, history, julius caesar, romania, vampires

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