Daily Archives: 25 October 2006

The Real Dracula’s Contemporaries

The real Dracula, who ruled the territories that now constitute Romania, was born in 1431, the year that Joan of Arc was burned as a witch at the stake in Rouen, France. He died in 1476, two years before Spain was united as a kingdom under the rule of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. He was very much the by-product of the Europe of his day — the Renaissance, essentially a period of transition….

It was in the age of Dracula that the notion was introduced of Balkan crusading, the efforts of the lands on the fringes of the Ottoman conquest, the borderlands of Europe, to resist the power of Islam in the name of the cross. It represented a struggle in defense of Europe quite as significant as the Spanish resistance to the Moors, which had preceded it….

One of the more tragic aspects of the Turkish onslaught on Europe was the western powers’ reluctance to defend the frontiers of their culture in eastern Europe. This extraordinary failure of moral fortitude was not intelligible in the fifteenth century, since French ruling families had originally consolidated the Polish and Hungarian states; Venetians, Pisans, Genoese, and Spaniards ruled in the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean seas; and countless western adventurers occupied a string of threatened colonies along the disputed eastern coast and on the islands near what are now Yugoslavia and Greece.

The pretexts for the fifteenth-century failure of the west to respond to successive crusading appeals were no different from those that had awakened such deep emotional response during the heyday of the crusades, in the age of faith. Charles VII, king of France, the oldest daughter of the Catholic church and foremost crusading power, had just emerged from one of the most crucial conflicts in his country’s history, the Hundred Years’ War. He and his soon-to-be successor, Louis XI, “the Spider King,” who had a predilection for hanging young boys from the branches of trees and placing his enemies in cages to consolidate royal power, had just liberated their country from the English. The French kings were also busy fighting the dukes of Burgundy for supremacy in the French state. The semiroyal dukes of Burgundy were in fact the only rulers within the actual territories of what is now France who for a time remained true to the crusading tradition. Their generous participation in Dracula’s father‘s crusade in 1446 atoned somewhat for the ineffectiveness of their cousins in Paris.

England was to be no more closely drawn than France into fighting the Muslims; the traditions of Richard the Lionhearted were entirely forgotten. Two rival families there were locked in a desperate struggle for survival, the Wars of the Roses (1455–1485). (The white rose was the symbol of the followers of the Duke of York and the red rose represented the House of Lancaster.) This last of England’s feudal wars dragged on throughout Dracula’s lifetime. The only Englishmen connected in any way to our plot were individual soldiers of fortune who enrolled as volunteers in various crusading armies. (One of these veterans, John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, later used the impalement technique that he had learned in eastern Europe to kill his Lancastrian enemies. He was executed for his crimes.) …

Of the lands of the future Kingdom of Spain, only Aragon faces eastward. In particular, the Catalans of Barcelona, an important Mediterranean port, were concerned by the Turkish menace, because it threatened ancient commercial routes and their appetite for eastern expansion. Even before Dracula’s time, an effective group of military adventurers had been formed, the famous Catalan Company, to defend the Byzantine emperors against all their enemies, though in effect the Catalans fought for themselves. The Aragonese wished, through Balkan crusading, to forge commercial and political contacts with the Aegean, the Adriatic, and the Black Sea. The ambitions of the Aragonese king, Alfonso V, are best exemplified by the decision of his bastard son Ferrante to make Naples — closer to the eastern theater of war — the center of his power. Ferrante managed to perpetuate his rule through the use of terror: having killed most of his political opponents, he had his victims mummified and placed in the royal museum, where they were shown to his guests.

Fifteenth-century Italy was the headquarters of the Renaissance. Although Niccolo Machiavelli was not born until 1469, the amoral principles he would set out in The Prince (1517) were being applied well ahead of publication. There was certainly little evidence then of Italian patriotism among the warring republics and city-states of northern Italy, and less evidence of crusading spirit, though the straits of Otranto, at the heel of the peninsula, separate Italy from the Balkans by only some thirty miles….

It was the pontificate (1458–1464) of Enea Silvio de’ Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, that most closely coincided with Dracula’s reign. Piccolomini began his career as a libertine not devoid of literary talent and changed his ways only when he became a priest in 1446. He was enough of a medievalist to understand the threat inherent in the Ottoman expansion. From 1459 onward the Pope repeatedly appealed to the Christian powers to join in a common crusade, and he raised the monies to subsidize such a concerted movement. Indeed, Pius II, although a “Europeanist,” saw the Ottoman menace not merely as a danger for eastern Europe but for Christianity itself. Dracula alone responded to his call.

SOURCE: Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times, by Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally (Back Bay, 1989), pp. 13, 15, 20-21, 23-24

UPDATE: This book is certainly filling in a lot of gaps in my heretofore rather superficial Draculalogy, as well as my understanding of Romanian medieval history more generally. Although I had encountered during my Fulbright year there in 1983-84 many of the famous names in Romanian history—like Ştefan cel Mare, Mircea cel Bătrân, Vlad Dracul, and Dracula—I had not realized that Mircea the Elder (1386-1418), Vlad Dracul (r. 1436-1442), and Vlad Dracula (r. 1448, 1456-1462, 1476) were Father, Son, and the Unholy Impaler; nor that Vlad Dracul acquired his epithet from being named to the crusading Order of the Dragon (not Devil) by the Holy Roman Emperor, in whose court at Nuremberg he served as page; nor that Vlad the Impaler impaled almost as many Transylvanian Germans as he did Turks; nor that the Impaler may have been born in Sighişoara (pictured above, from our visit in 1984), but held court at Târgovişte, on the Wallachian side of the Carpathians and upriver from Bucharest.

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