Dracula: Impalement, Punishment by Proxy of his Brother’s Lover?

dracula

Vlad the Impaler, also known as Dracula.

What drove Dracula? Vlad the Impaler, commonly known as simply “Dracula,” was a Transylvanian noble man whose atrocities and military escapades were so notoriously savage that his legend lives on today when his contemporaries have been nearly forgotten.

During his reign, Vlad killed 80,000 people, including the 20,000 he impaled on stakes at  Târgoviste  and placed in the path of Ottoman leader Mehmed II’s invading  army.   Dracula’s atrocities stood out in a medieval world where life was cheap and princes spent it freely. What made Dracula into such a sadistic monster? Was he simply a single-minded warrior driven by his father’s legacy of protecting Christendom? Or, were his terror tactics a sociopathic expression of long-pent up rage, built up over a childhood of deprivation, uncertainty, and sexual abuse?

Impalement, flaying, boiling alive, and other atrocities were standard fare for Vlad — in fact, he even dined out among them. Vlad took no prisoners, and anyone who offended him quickly found themselves in hot water — sometimes quite literally. When a caravan of gypsies met with him at his castle, he boiled the gypsy leader alive, his head sticking through a hole in a specially built wooden lid of a cauldron. After the leader died, Vlad forced the leader’s family to eat a dinner of his meat.

impale-dracula-dinner-woodcut

Vlad had his dinner table placed near his impaled captives so he could watch their suffering while he ate. This woodcut shows victims impaled through the chest and not the anus, which was Vlad’s norm.

Historians have long puzzled over what fueled Vlad’s sadism. Was he crazy? Did he simply love torture? Was it all part of a ruthless bid for power? The answer may be rooted in Vlad’s childhood.

Born Vlad III, son of the Wallachian duke, in 1431 in Transylvania (in modern-day Romania), Vlad was born into a turbulent, violent struggle. Wallachia was the last stronghold against the Ottoman invasion across the Balkans and into Europe. Originally a displaced duke, Vlad’s father, Vlad II, was obsessed with getting and keeping power, and then preventing Ottoman hegemony. Narcissism, instability, insecurity, fear, abandonment, and violence punctuated Vlad’s childhood in ways that may have permanently damaged his psyche.

wallachia-fifteenth-century-map

A fifteenth-century map of Wallachia. Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Vlad’s problems began when he was eleven years old – after his father’s rivals ousted him from the Wallachian throne in 1442. Vlad’s father only regained the throne, his birthright, in 1436. Up to this point, Vlad had a pretty typical childhood for a prince – and a sociopath in training.

Initially, Vlad’s early years sounds pretty similar to that of most sons of the Western nobles. Like most nobles, the women folk (midwives, wet nurses) raised him until he was five. As a young prince, albeit a second son, these women likely exalted and cossetted him. No doubt Vlad learned his importance and superiority from a young age.1  Like many medieval nobles, Vlad began his training for knighthood at age five. Vlad’s education would eventually include court etiquette, extensive horsemanship, jousting, archery, fencing, and swimming; however, these lessons had a sharper edge than in the West.

Not unlike the Spartans, the Transylvanian nobility emphasized extreme physical training from as young as five years old. The nobles required the boys to train on stormy days, deliberately hoping they would catch a chill as a test of their ability to survive.2 Local traditions maintain that even as a young boy, Vlad loved to peer down from his bedroom and watch criminals being led from the jail to the gallows.3 Professors Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally also argue that Vlad likely eavesdropped on his father’s continuous political strategizing as he vied for power.4 This climate of desperation undoubtedly left Vlad with the firm impression that power and authority could be fleeting.

dracula-father-vlad-dracul

Dracula’s father, Vlad Dracul. From a contemporary portrait from the fifteenth century.

Any anxiety the young Vlad may have felt would have only been exacerbated when his father lost his crown. To regain his throne, Vlad II decided to align himself with the Ottoman Sultan Murad II – despite having sworn an oath to the Order of the Dragon to fight against the Turks. In exchange for his support, Murad required that Vlad’s father send him two hostages to remain with him in Adrianopole: Vlad and his handsome younger brother Radu. Vlad was his father’s second son. His elder brother Mircea got to stay behind. (Mircea was likely his father’s favorite and ruled in his stead in the future.)

At this time, the Ottoman Turks were successfully expanding their borders through Eastern Europe up to the Danube. As part of this conquest, one particularly clever strategy they employed was to capture a the Balkans best and brightest boys, immerse them in the Muslim faith, teach them Turkish and Ottoman culture, and enlist them in an elite semi-free division of their army, the Janissaries.  A three-stroke cultural strike, this tactic deprived the Balkans of their greatest talent, proselytized the Turkish culture, and increased the Ottoman army’s ranks.

Murad_II

Sultan Murad II, who demanded Vlad and his brother Radu stay with him as hostages to ensure their father’s loyalty.

Maybe in the same spirit of cultural hegemony or perhaps just because he it was worthy of their station, Sultan Murad gave Vlad and his brother a premiere education. Some of the best minds of the fifteenth-century Ottoman empire taught the boys in the superb Byzantine tradition. Vlad became fluent in Turkish, Aristotelian logic, and mathematics.

Unfortunately for him, Vlad was an exceptionally difficult pupil, and his tutors frequently whipped and brutalized him to make him obedient. Not getting along with his tutors and angry with his father, Vlad tried to escape from the Turkish court with disastrous consequences.

The Sultan agreed to treat any of his hostages well provided they followed his rules. Hostages who broke the rules faced terrible punishment. The Sultan had two boys — who were his brothers-in-law — blinded after they wrote a treasonous letter to their parents, despite the tears of his wife, who was their sister. Consequently, when Vlad escaped, he broke the sultan’s rules: his punishment was harsh.

Vlad was imprisoned in a real prison, beaten regularly, and possibly sexually assaulted. After much suffering, Vlad’s good behavior finally earned him his “freedom” (at Court).

murad-archery

An example of archery training in Murad’s reign.

Meanwhile, Vlad’s exceptionally handsome brother Radu had became the toast of the town (so to speak). Radu’s beauty attracted women and male minions at the Sultan’s court, and his charming personality paved the way for special treatment. Pale, gaunt, and sullen, Vlad contrasted poorly against his alluring younger brother.

The boys’ situation became much more precarious when, in 1443, Vlad’s father broke his oath to the Sultan. Vlad II let his son Mircea cooperate with the Christian forces at Varna. Vlad II clearly understood the ramifications of this act and fully expected his sons to die. He wrote to the city fathers of Broşov, “Please understand that I have allowed my children to be butchered for the sake of the Christian peace, in order that both I and my country might continue to be vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor.”  ((Florescu Kindle Loc 1209))

The Sultan didn’t kill or maim the boys, but he did make their imprisonment more severe and they were in a much more vulnerable position. The Sultan’s heir, Mehmed, repeatedly tried to seduce (if not rape) the underage Radu. The Byzantine chronicler Laonicus Chalcondyles recorded that one night Radu slashed Mehmed with a sword – to defend himself against Mehmed’s drunken advances – and then the boy fearfully hid in a tree until morning.5

mehmed-ii-dracula

Mehmed II raped or sexually assaulted Dracula’s brother and later became his greatest adversary.

Ultimately, Radu became Mehmed’s protégé and lover. This move greatly benefited Radu’s prospects at the Ottoman court where he converted to Islam and remained, presumably willingly, for fourteen years after the Sultan released Vlad.

The two brothers developed an intense hatred for each other — amplified by the better treatment Radu received. Later in life, Vlad, Radu, and Mehmed would be locked in a power struggle, fueled by hatred and a desire for revenge. Vlad would go to extreme lengths to destroy Mehmed’s armies.

After his father was murdered, the Sultan finally gave Vlad his freedom and a rank in the Ottoman army. The citizens of the town Târgoviste executed Vlad’s father and buried his brother Mircea alive.

Vlad’s opinion of his brother’s homosexual relationship with Mehmed II is unrecorded. Given the title of this article, I should mention that Mehmed wasn’t necessarily gay; he had wives. It should also be noted that the concept of sexual orientation didn’t exist yet. In the Middle Ages, people participated in homosexual or heterosexual acts, but they didn’t self-identify as gay or straight6 .

Nonetheless, Vlad likely considered sodomy to be a sin since the Church did and he saw himself as the defender of Christianity. Vlad had an unforgiving moral code that condemned all those who violated church and man’s laws. Vlad did not hesitate to dish out extreme punishment to any adulterers, thieves, or even the disrespectful. For those participating in homosexual acts, Vlad reserved a death so cruel that it was only briefly legal in medieval England: boiling in oil7 .

During his time in Adrianople, Vlad learned about impalement as a method of execution. Over the years, Vlad refined this method of death to the point where a person could linger up to the three days on the stake. Vlad typically, but did not always, impale people through the anus.

impalement-anus

Given Vlad’s possible rape by the Turkish, his brother’s sexual relationship with his Turkish captor, and Vlad’s extreme hatred for Mehmed and the Turks, it is interesting that Vlad would “perfect” a method of torture that could be the ultimate symbolic response to these experiences: impalement.

Symbolic deaths weren’t that unusual in periods before widespread literacy. During the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Catholics stuffed bible pages and Protestant religious tracts into the mouths of Protestant corpses before burning them.8  The possibly bisexual King Edward II of England may have been murdered by inserting a hot poker in his anus.  In an age that was so sensitive to symbols, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Vlad would arrange for Mehmed, the man who sodomized his brother, to encounter a forest of people impaled through the anus.

This isn’t to say, of course, that revenge on the Turks was Vlad’s sole motivation. Vlad was a sadist with an unquenchable rage who delighted in human suffering.

 

By 

  1. Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and Times by R. Florescu and R. McNally Kindle Loc 954 []
  2. Florescu Kindle Loc 956 []
  3. Florescu Kindle Loc 971 []
  4. Florescu Kindle Loc 971 []
  5. Florescu Kindle Loc 1223 []
  6. See the Handbook of Medieval Sexuality Ed. Vern Bullough and James Brundage amongst others. []
  7. Constantin Razachevici, ”Cruzimea” lui Vlad Ţepeş – o excepţie? []
  8. HH Leonard on p. 56-57 in The Huguenots: History and Memory in Transnational Context: Essays in Honour  ed. David JB Trim []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

13 Comments

  • Reply April 4, 2014

    Gyre

    Fiendish? I would call the Turk’s strategy to be common sense. If you want to control a place, you make its young elites want to be part of your system.

    • Reply April 4, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Well, you know that’s actually a very fair comment. Perhaps the word “fiendish” was a bit strong. Maybe I should have written “very clever” or something instead. I found myself admiring the Turks while I researched them.

  • Reply April 4, 2014

    Grant

    Sorry, using shared computers sometimes means that I accidentally click on the wrong name when I type a comment. Anyway, “fiendish” can be used as an added description for being clever, but on its own generally has a negative connotation.

    • Reply April 5, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      I meant it negatively, actually, when I wrote it. What I was reading was very much from the perspective of those being invaded by the Ottomans. But when you think about it, conversion through culture is a better tactic than mass slaughter. (Meaning maybe not so “fiendish” after all.)

  • Reply April 6, 2014

    Grant

    Maybe it’s the difference in training and approach. I studied political science, so I view it all as something to study for how different groups did what.

  • Reply April 6, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    Do you mean objectively? That you try to be objective?

  • Reply April 7, 2014

    Grant

    Pretty much. Ideally a political scientist cares about their subject, otherwise why bother researching it, but unless their job is to craft a solution to a specific problem then caring too much can ruin their ability to figure out what’s going on and what it should be interpreted as. Of course that’s not always easy, that’s why when I went for my Bachelor’s I did my paper on Central Asia. It’s a lot easier to be dispassionate about a part of the world where your nation has little interaction with.

  • Reply May 28, 2015

    Anonymous

    I think who ever wrote radu and mehmed were lovers is absolute nonsense.And somehow portraying vlads sadism and gutless war tactics on maybe cos they were lovers is wrong.Not that there is anything wrong with being gay.Get ur facts right.Dont speculate on documented history.Vlad got a well deserved death by the turks hands.he was not doing anything for christians.he actualy killed more catholics.Mehmed the 2nd was the most religous of all ottoman sultans.Also as he had wives he was not gay and if he was he couldnt have became Sultan.He conquered constantinople now called istanbul in 1453 and princeRadu a lifetime friend and advisor.may Mehmed and Radu RIP

    • Reply May 30, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      So first of all, of course, there is nothing wrong with being gay. Second, I’m not the one who came up with the theory that Vlad was sexually abused. His biographer made a fairly reasonable case for it. Third, just because a man has wives doesn’t mean he isn’t bisexual or even gay. That presupposes that everyone who gets married wants to get married – and that certainly wasn’t the case in the Middle Ages.

    • Reply May 9, 2016

      MGK206

      What a rude case of the pot calling the kettle black. Jamie provides documentation (see the citations at bottom of article) for her information. All history after a certain point is speculative because we weren’t there, and, human nature being what it is, even if we were each one of us would experience the same event differently. You (poorly written and poorly punctuated) paragraph, on the other hand, is FULL of speculation, with no evidence or documentation to back up your statements.

      Maybe instead of insulting a woman who’s taking time to create an interesting website, don’t read it, or start your own that is more to your liking. God forbid someone should be kindly sharing information with others out of good will…she doesn’t deserve your insults and consternation.

  • Reply August 6, 2016

    Cantaloupe

    Could the act of impalement on his enemies and ensuring that his most hated enemy found a small forest of impaled soldiers have been Vlad’s way or symbolically raping those who may have rapedone him and Radu?

    • Reply August 8, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Yes, definitely — perhaps it might be. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Vlad was obsessed with impaling people — a form of killing in which a stake was shoved through the anus. I don’t know if this was conscious or unconscious on Vlad’s part, but in a generally illiterate age that was so invested in symbols — church artwork, religious paintings, sigils, badges, etc. — it boggles the mind that the symbolism would have been completely unintentional. It was hard to find serious books about Vlad so I don’t know how credible the sexual abuse theory is. But, I seem to recall that I read it presented as a theory in a fairly well researched book by an academic. And, it might fit given his obsession with impalement.

  • Reply August 9, 2016

    Cantaloupe

    But he boiled others in oil for homosexual acts. Since symbolism was a huge part of the illiterate being able to really grasp the situation, why boil them in oil when impalement makes more (potentially at least) sense?

Leave a Reply