Dracula stands as a fascinating cultural icon and one inspired from historical sources, particularly the life and deeds of Vlad III “the Impaler” of Wallachia. This key historical figure lived between 1431 and ca. 1476 in a region of modern Romania that developed at the crossroads of competing traditions and ambitions of the European and Ottoman worlds, but that has remained relatively marginalized and mysterious in the popular imagination.
The surviving visual and textual sources paint a complex and horrifying picture of Vlad Dracula. He is both a hero and a monster: a ruler fervently protecting his people while ruthlessly killing others. It was precisely this dual characterization that appealed to Bram Stoker in the writing of his famous novel Dracula (first published in 1897), which propelled Dracula into the spotlight as a modern vampire.
The visual material that survives consists of several painted and printed portraits and narrative scenes, including the now-famous “Ambras Portrait.” Completed several decades after Vlad’s death, but based on a now-lost original from the fifteenth century, the portrait shows the Wallachian ruler as a respectable figure dressed in rich royal garb with features that we have come to associate with him: a stern appearance, aquiline nose, large eyes, long curly hair, and prominent mustache, among others.
Vlad appears in a similar guise in other visual sources from the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, including the woodcut showing him dining among a forest of the impaled. This image was printed in Strasbourg in 1500 along with stories of atrocities committed by the Wallachian ruler, known as Dracole Wayda. In this case, the account details:
… Dracula rested near the chapel of Saint James [in the vicinity of Brașov, a town in Transylvania]. He had the suburbs burned. And as the day came, in early morning, he had women and men, young and old, impaled near the chapel and around the hill, and he sat amidst [them], and ate his morning meal with joy.
Such pamphlets—among the oldest printed sources about Vlad Dracula—detail other gruesome acts supposedly carried out at his order:
He had a great cauldron made, and over it [were placed] boards with holes, and he had people’s heads shoved through there, and thus he had them imprisoned. And he had the cauldron filled with water, and a great fire made under it. And thus he had the people scream miserably until they were boiled to death.
He had people ground to death on a grindstone, and he did many more inhumane things, which people tell of him.
There were two monks who came into his country, [and] he invited them to come to him, which happened. Then he took the one monk and asked him what good people said of him. This monk was very frightened and said: “People say everything good about you and that you are a very pious lord, [and] this I also say of you.” He ordered that this monk be held. And the other monk was brought to him, who was questioned by him like the first. Then the second monk thought: “I must die, [so] I will tell him the truth,” and he said: “You are the greatest tyrant one could find in the world, and I’ve met nobody who ever says good of you, and this you have well proven.” Then Dracula said: “You have told me the truth, therefore I will let you live,” and he let him alone. And he sent again for the first monk, and asked him if he would also speak the truth. Then he spoke as before. And Dracula said: “Take him away and have him impaled because of [his] dishonesty.”
He had a good meal prepared for all the beggars in his land. After the meal, he had them locked up in the barn in which they had eaten, and burned them all. He felt they were eating the people’s food for free and could not repay it.
Although likely exaggerated, these accounts offer a disparaging attitude toward Vlad Dracula. They present him as an immoral monster who spared no one. The lack of narrative coherence or chronology in these accounts, presenting just a series of anecdotes with horrific details and only two instances in which exact dates are mentioned, contributed to the dissemination across Europe of a certain, otherworldly image of the Wallachian ruler.
Indeed, accounts like these circulated through printed pamphlets in the decades after Vlad’s death, especially in the period between the 1480s and the 1530s. Fourteen versions of these pamphlets were printed in various German towns, from Nuremberg to Augsburg, and from Strasbourg to Leipzig.
The purpose of these pamphlets, as one hypothesis argues, was to enlist the support of German towns in the struggles of the Transylvanian German Saxons who built communities in regions of the Carpathian Mountains and suffered due to local oppressions. Vlad had many conflicts with the Transylvanian merchants during his reign, which often resulted in struggle and death for those opposing him. Another hypothesis suggests that these stories emerged as part of a propaganda campaign while Vlad was in captivity at the Hungarian court for more than a decade beginning in 1462. Such accounts certainly paint Vlad Dracula as a ruthless tyrant and enemy of the people.
In these sources, moreover, Vlad is demonized and “othered.” But what stands out is the cruelty of his deeds, and especially the acts of killing and impaling. The latter, a barbarous method of punishment, has a long history dating to antiquity. During the fifteenth century, impaling became a signifier of the vicious “East” in general (i.e., Eastern Europe or the Ottoman Empire) and intimately tied to the figure of Vlad Dracula. He and his realm became strange, savage, and mysterious through the circulation of these stories and later through the transformations of these accounts in popular media.
Bram Stoker’s research for his famous novel was not carried out “on the ground” in the Wallachian and Transylvanian regions of modern Romania, in the Carpathian Mountains, or in other parts of Eastern Europe, but in English reading rooms, at the British Library, the library in Whitby on the North Sea coast, and other places that afforded him access to primary and secondary sources, such as the pamphlets just discussed. These texts informed Stoker’s characterization of his Dracula as a monstrous, ruthless figure, mysterious and disturbing to the reader just like the realm from which he hailed.
The German pamphlets publicized a certain frightening image of Vlad Dracula, which Bram Stoker further transformed into a modern vampire—a powerful undead—perhaps even more terrifying and peculiar than the historical figure. Dracula, in turn, has inspired numerous creative adaptations in film, plays, novels, and art throughout the twentieth century and into the present, contributing to the ongoing fascination with vampires and Eastern Europe in the popular imagination.
As an art historian, my interests in Dracula span from the late Middle Ages into the present as I seek to uncover the complexities of this individual through the various surviving textual and visual sources, as well as modern adaptations in various media. Through this figure with popular appeal, I also teach my students about the rich history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe, which desperately deserve deeper study and research.
Learn more about Dracula from the select publications listed below, and at the upcoming lecture “Dracula: Medieval Hero and Modern Vampire” on Thursday, October 26, 2023. Hope to see you there!
Bram Stoker, Dracula (Westminster, 1897).
Stephen W. Reinert and Matei Cazacu, Dracula (Brill, 2017).
Kurt W. Treptow, Vlad III Dracula: The Life and Times of the Historical Dracula (Oxford, 2000).
Thomas J. Garza, The Vampire in Slavic Cultures (San Diego, 2010).
William Layher, “Horrors of the East: Printing Dracole Wayda in 15th-century Germany,” Daphnis 37, no. 1–2 (2008): 11–32.
Heather Madar, “Dracula, the Turks, and the Rhetoric of Impaling in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Germany,” in Death, Torture and the Broken Body in European Art, 1300-1650, edited by J. R. Decker and M. Kirkland-Ives (Farnham, 2015), 165–190.
Cemal Kafadar, “‘Vampire Trouble is More Serious Than the Mighty Plague’: The Emergence and Later Adventures of a New Species of Evildoers,” in The Land Between Two Sea: Art on the Move in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea 1300–1700, edited by Alina Payne (Leiden: Brill, 2022), 129–151.
Ludmilla Kostova, “Straining the Limits of Interpretation: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Its Eastern European Contexts,” in Post/modern Dracula: From Victorian Themes to Postmodern Praxis, edited by John S. Bak (Newcastle, 2007), 13–30.