Apropos of two comments over at Peter Grant’s place, I started thinking about history and memory. They dovetail into the WIP, because they involve Vlad Tepes. Was he a national hero, somewhat tragic, forced into being cruel by the cruelty of his enemies? Or was he born with a sadistic inclination that the situation allowed him to indulge, even on his own and neighboring peoples (the Saxons in some villages in Wallachia)? Given that Freudian analysis on pre-modern minds is, at the very least, fraught, I’d say the only safe answer is, “It depends on when, where, and who you ask.”
A little background. Wallachia, which includes parts of modern day Romania, Hungary, and Ukraine, was a frontier in all senses of the word between 1400-1800 or so. Here the Eastern Church, Western Church, Islam, Germanic, Magyar, Slavic, and Ottoman cultures all met, with the occasional steppe nomad invasion just for a little variety (Tatars). It is a place where churches were fortresses, castles were fortresses, and alliances were about as fluid as the borders. Dying of old age was a major achievement.
So, into this come Vlad III Tepes, also known as “Vlad the Dragon’s Son” after his father was made a member of the Order of the Dragon. As happened so often in history, Vlad and his brother were held as hostages by the Ottomans, in order to guarantee good behavior by Vlad II. Given what we know about other Ottoman hostages, it’s safe to say that if Vlad the Younger had any mental instability or sociopathic tendencies, Ottoman captivity did not make things better. The young man who emerged was hard, ruthless (he’d had good teachers), pragmatic, and had been taught not to trust anyone.
It did not help matters that Hungary, to the west, was ruled by two of the strongest monarchs in that country’s history, Jan Hunyadi and his son Matthias Corvinus Hunyadi. Both of them fought the Ottomans, and the Habsburgs, and a lot of other people. Because Wallachia was somewhat aligned with the Ottomans at times, the Hunyadi kings attacked it as well. Vlad III ended up allied with Corvinus for a time, but one gets the feeling that they were not on each other’s Christmas lists. When Vlad did not support an Ottoman invasion of Transylvania, it contributed to two of his sons (also Ottoman hostages) dying in captivity. Vlad’s family life was rough, very rough.
Now, here’s where the question of “monster or hero” starts to come in. Vlad was off and on the throne of Wallachia three times. To say that politics in that region were complicated is an understated understatement. You really do need a score card. Part of the reason for this is ethnic complications. In the 1200s, after the Mongol depopulation of the area, and as part of the development of resources in the region, the rulers invited Saxons to come settle. They tended to be miners and merchants, and stayed in urban enclaves for the most part. By the late 1400s, when Vlad was on and off the throne, the Saxons had become adept at tap-dancing for survival. In this case, they backed the wrong monarch. When Vlad returned to the throne, he considered the Saxons fair game for backing the Hunyadis and others. Some he carried off and impaled, others he just burned out of house and home. Retaliation against Wallachia of course followed. To the Saxons, Vlad III was a monster and a tool of the Ottomans. He made a useful “evil king” to compare with the great, noble Hunyadis, especially after the Hunyadi family was out of power and everyone was talking about “ah, the good old days.” (Hungarian history and politics . . . messy. Very messy.)
In Romanian tradition, he was/is a good king who was forced to take horrible steps because of what his enemies did. He managed to keep Wallachia semi-independent between Hungary and the Ottomans. Yes, he impaled people and grossed out even the Ottomans with the scale of his actions. But Vlad was their monarch and the Ottomans deserved it. That Vlad died in battle against the Ottomans sometime in the 1470s, and his body was never found, added to the mythology.
The Hungarians wrote the first stories about Vlad III, and those were pretty negative. Later Saxon tales also emphasized his evil ways and his cruelty. Slavic versions don’t make him look any nicer, but they point out that he was a hard man in a hard place and time. He is more sympathetic.
Bram Stoker’s character of Count Dracula pulls Vlad Tepes out of history. Stoker leans on the Romanian translation of “drakul” as “devil.” Drakul and its variants actually came from Latin, and are linked to “drako,” dragon.
So, what was Vlad III? A man, a powerful, ruthless, desperate man clawing for power in a time and place that are far harder and more chaotic than any of us probably want to imagine. To some he’s a monster, to some he’s a ruthless but fair monarch. I know that I’d prefer not to meet him, because that would mean going back in time to one of those places where lots of history was happening.
The Infogalactic article has solid sources, and gives you a very good idea of the chaos on the Hungarian/Wallachian/Ottoman frontier.