Victim of Saxon Propaganda?
Now that we have divorced the 15th-century voivode Vlad Tepes, alias Dracula, from Bram Stoker’s fictional, camp vampire, what can we make of the man? It is clear that he was a shrewd politician who changing alliances when it suited him but, somehow, too, a man of honour, holding grudges and avenging the deaths of his friends or his own subjugation when first possible. He was also extremely resourceful and realistic, using the topography of Wallachia to his advantage against his enemies, altering his military tactics when outnumbered, and using psychological warfare against those who had wronged him.
And, yet, there are countless contemporary accusations of his motiveless cruelty. These originate in the pamphlets printed at the time of his imprisonment by Matthias Corvinus, and though later the source of positive legends about him in 19th-century Romania, they are successful in portraying Vlad Tepes as a cruel and bloodthirsty man. Tales such as him dipping his bread into the blood of the impaled and eating dinner surrounded by dying prisoners on stakes turn him into a monster, and are lent plausibility by his known and widely-attested penchant for impaling his enemies. But should we believe the accusations?
Let us consider the title of the pamphlet from which the famous woodcut of Tepes’s meal surrounded by impaled corpses above is derived.
Here begins a very cruel frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves. And many other horrible things are written in this tract.
This pamphlet was published at the instigation of his great enemies, the Transylvanian Saxons.
The crimes listed above are lurid but to the modern eye seem wildly exaggerated. The accounts of cannibalism are only present in Saxon sources, and we need not belabour the fact that they had an axe to grind with a man who disrupted their trade and killed them for opposing his throne in Wallachia. Though he punished the Transylvanian Saxons without mercy, we should also remember that they opposed his rule, and he first tried to settle the dispute through trade restrictions and then diplomacy, but was ignored. The policy of impalement was very much the last resort for Tepes.
In summary, the real Dracula was an effective leader who did what was necessary to protect his throne and territory. His political machinations and actions in war were motivated not by irrational hatred but the need for survival and the brutal culture of his time: as voivode of Wallachia, Vlad Tepes ruled the vulnerable gateway to Europe from the East which was hotly-contested even from within Europe. Far from being the only member of the aristocracy guilty of using cruelty to maintain power in the bloody 15th century, Vlad Tepes was just one of the most successful.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: