Archive for February, 2010

The Real Dracula and Other History Stuff

February 5, 2010 2 comments

I am among the nerdiest of the history nerds. Need proof?

Historiography excites me, baby.

I didn’t know what historiography was until my senior year of high school, and I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t introduced to the basic concept, without the hifalutin’ name, before  then. You see, back in the 70s, nobody but professional historians and their collegiate charges really cared about the nuances of historical interpretation, the shifting social climates and the individual biases that shape the documenting of history. For the average Joe, history was still largely fueled by Official Story, god-bless-America interpretations of the past (and probably still is). Any attempt to pull back the curtain on cherished myths, to suggest Americans ever did anything wrong in their march toward fulfilling their destiny as God’s truly chosen people (sorry, 12 Tribes) was verboten. Or done only by those commie-inspired revisionists hell-bent on destroying the country and turning us over to the Russkies.

What’s changed since then? Well, educators actually introduce the idea of historiography to much younger students, as I’ve learned in the books I’ve written. They don’t need to know the h word to understand that historians change their interpretations of facts and people as new material is uncovered and old theories are proved wanting. And because of this, there’s a greater willingness to accept challenges to some of the American myths, though conservatives are still apt to sneer out the word revisionist when attacking the historians they don’t like, even if no one believes those historians get their marching orders from Moscow. Actually, both the right and left seem to use revisionist as an epithet. I dunno, to me revisionism is just accepting new facts and adapting accordingly. But whose facts do we accept? And what happens if we don’t agree which facts are true? (Maybe David Byrne should be the troubadour for the modern historian: “facts all comes with points of view, facts don’t do what I want them too…“)

Dig that 'stache!

What deep, contentious point of history got me thinking about all this? Dracula. The real Dracula that is, Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, Son of the Dragon, Vlad Tepes – Vlad the Impaler. Historical study of Dracula is not new: Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally pioneered it here in the States several decades ago, and certainly Romanian and other Eastern European scholars have recounted his deeds for centuries. Of course, the modern American interest is fueled by the prince’s sharing a name with a certain fictional bloodsucker you may have heard something about…

I’m doing a book on the real Vlad Dracula, with an emphasis on the horrible-but-true exploits that filled his three short reigns in Wallachia (no, not Transylvania; Vlad had plenty of connections to the other count’s stomping grounds, but he did not rule or build a castle there). The problem is, some of the sources on Vlad are, well, sketchy. Either they were written down years after his death, or they were based on oral history, or, most commonly, they were written by people with an axe to grind.

More stakes! We need more stakes!

The worst of the tales come from German propaganda printed during Vlad’s life and after his death. Gutenberg’s press let the proto-tabloids churn out grotesque depictions of Vlad’s cruelty toward Germans living in Transylvania.  Some of the deeds are corroborated in other places. Some are really exaggerated or just plain unprovable by more objective sources. The impalements by the hundreds – nobody disputes that. But forcing mothers to eat their own children; well… The German press, however, did the most to shape the image of Dracula as a blood-crazed (though not blood-drinking) madman.

Turkish sources are also not flattering, since Dracula battled the Ottomans and impaled a few of them along the way. Which was not a very nice payback for the fine education he received at their hands years before, when his father Vlad II, Dracul (dragon), turned two of his sons over to the Turks. Since the days of the Persians and Romans, rulers sometimes left their boys with putative allies or potential enemies, a diplomatic move meant to show loyalty to more powerful nations. Vlad would be less likely to disobey the Turks if his sons were in their care. The Turks, in response, had an obligation to treat the young princes well, unless their father screwed up. Around the time of Vlad III’s stay in Turkish hands, the son of another European ruler had his eyes poked out when Dad upset the Turkish hosts.

The remains of Castle Dracula, at Poenari; the one at Bran often labeled such is an impostor

Romanian sources, not surprisingly, are a little kinder to Vlad. Sure, he impaled people. But those were lawless times. He was just trying to bring a little order to a chaotic land. And rein in the boyars, nobles who tried to keep Wallachia decentralized and under their influence. And don’t forget all the pretenders to Vlad’s throne that he had to thwart. In an era when war and brutality were part of life, Vlad did what he had to do to secure his rule, strengthen Wallachia, and keep out those damn Muslim Turks always knocking at the door.

So, the modern historians sift through these sources, looking for parallel accounts that seem to offer more credibility than others, and paint as true a picture as possible of the real Dracula. But of course, the interpretations differ; that‘s what makes history such a fun bloodsport.

An illustrated version of Dracula's story, as retold by your humble narrator

One small conflict developed a few years ago. Florescu and McNally noted the parallels in the real Vlad‘s life and the details Bram Stoker incorporated in his book.  For a time, the two historians thought Stoker got some of his info from a Hungarian historian he knew. The character of Van Helsing, claimed by some to be Stoker’s alter ego, mentions the Hungarian by name: Arminius (last name Vambery). Stoker and Vambery did dine together several times, but there is no evidence in Stoker’s detailed notes for Dracula that he based the fictional count on Vlad the Impaler, other than some of the general bits of Romanian history and geography. Now, Stoker got plenty of things wrong, but he wasn’t writing history. And Stoker did not base his count on the real Dracula, as far as any blood-sucking tendencies. Vampire legends were common, and the author was already writing his when he learned about the real Vlad and used elements of his life and times in Dracula.

Another Dracula scholar, Elizabeth Miller, has worked hard to discredit the Vlad-Count Dracula connection, which other writers have hyped, so people will not associate the real prince with Stoker’s creation. She wants to “separate fact from hypothesis” and “vehemently challenge the widespread view that Stoker was knowledgeable about the historical Dracula”  (more on this here).

Does all this really matter to you and me, how we live our lives, or whether or not we enjoy Stoker’s book? No. But for the historian, it’s all part of what we do: Point out inaccuracies. Debunk myths.  Find the truth of a matter, as much as it can be found.  As much as there is any one truth. And of course, there never really is. Hence, historigraphy.

My Vlad book will talk a little about the different views of the 15th-century-prince, but only a little. The kids want to read about the blood and guts. But I hope I will help them understand that the fictional count and Vlad the Impaler have only the loosest of connections. And then I move onto another historiographical hotty: What really happened before the attack on Pearl Harbor? Who knew what? Incompetence or conspiracy? I’ll let you know when I find out.

[For the historically curious, a good oveview of historiography as a broad concept is John Burrow‘s A History of Histories. I especially like the bits on ancient and medieval history. See a good review of it here, which notes the shortcomings I was too ignorant to see, while still offering some overall praise. A perfect gift for the history geek in your life.]