Dracula and the Ottomans
by Gemma Masson, PhD candidate at the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham.
Like most people who went through a teen-vampire-infatuation phase, I became aware of Dracula at a young age, spending my pocket money to buy the Penguin edition of Bram Stoker’s Gothic classic and receiving the expected ribbing from my peers for my “morbid” interests. As a keen historian throughout school, I was also aware of Vlad the Impaler and the fact that many of the history documentaries I watched avidly on TV connected the two. Years later, when I began to pursue my graduate studies in my chosen field of history, my interests shifted to focus on the Ottoman Empire (how and why this happened is another story entirely) and so I started reading everything I could get my hands on. The fifteenth century was a key period for the Ottomans, centring around the 1453 capture of Constantinople (AKA Istanbul). This was the victory of Mehmed the Conqueror, son of Murad II, who had previously…..oh hello? Who’s this? Things just got a lot more interesting.
An ambitious sultan, Murad had turned his attention towards Europe and devoted much time and energy into expanding his realms and influence in that direction. In doing so, he came up against the Order of the Dragon, a chivalric order specifically founded to keep the Ottomans out of Europe. Vlad II was the ruler of the Principality of Wallachia, which lies within modern day Romania. He was also a member of this order, hence his title ‘Dracul’ (The Dragon). Both politically and geographically, Vlad II found himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place, with the Hungarian rulers to the West staunchly in favour of forcefully expelling the Ottoman Turks from Europe, and the Ottomans pressing from the East. This Catch-22 scenario led to Vlad II compromising and breaking treaties and usually counting on being able to talk his way out of a sticky situation.
Murad reached a point in 1442-3 where he was no longer willing to take Vlad II’s promises on good faith and sought a more tangible guarantee of good behaviour. This manifested in the taking of Vlad II’s two youngest sons, Vlad – later to become known as Vlad the Impaler, and Radu, to the Ottoman court. Ostensibly hostages, the two young princes were subjected to an education as befitted their rank, learning not only warfare, horsemanship and combat skills, but also Turkish, Arabic, the Koran and Islam, with all the accompanying philosophy and history that implies. During their time at the Ottoman court, they came into contact with Prince Mehmed, the future Mehmed The Conqueror.
The brothers were both very different boys and they grew into very different men. Radu, the youngest, was nicknamed ‘cel Frumos’, meaning ‘the Beautiful’ or ‘the Handsome’, which was a sobriquet he lived up to – charming every man and woman he met. He was much favoured by Mehmed, and the two became very close, with some sources claiming they were lovers. Vlad, on the other hand, could not have been more of a stark contrast to his brother. Dark, surly and quiet where his younger sibling was fair and charming, Vlad maintained his hatred of the Ottomans and, though living amongst them for years, never saw them as anything but the enemy. While Radu was being won over by Ottoman culture, viewing their captivity as good fortune, Vlad also sought to make the best of the situation by applying himself to learning everything he could. He studied everything about the Ottomans, intending, at the first opportunity, to use the knowledge against them. He took his fathers oath to rid their lands of the Turks as his own mission.
Historians Gavin Baddeley and Paul Woods have examined the time the boys spent at the Ottoman court in their youth through the lens of modern psychological theory, using Freud to argue that the young Impaler’s experiences would have had a profound affect upon his adult personality.1 While the argument could be made that, by the standards of his contemporary time, at thirteen or fourteen years old Vlad was already a man when he arrived at Murad’s court. Children were required to mature very rapidly at this time, and the children of the nobility doubly so, as they were to be groomed as leaders and warriors from birth. However, there is no denying that his time with the Ottomans did shape much of his adult life, much of it spent fighting them and using the knowledge he had gained there.
Baddeley and Woods also address the question of Radu labelling his conversion to Islam and his complete assimilation into Ottoman culture as a classic case of Stockholm Syndrome.2 Arguably Radu, as the younger, was still more malleable and open to coercion than Vlad. Another contributing factor could have been the boy’s natural differences. While Vlad was fully committed to the role of prince and warrior. Radu, with his fondness for fine things and comfortable living, found peace and compromise to be more acceptable and better for his country, even if it meant his entering Ottoman service. The desire to feel safe and accepted was doubtless contributed to by the constant uncertainty of their position: one wrong move on the part of their father, and the boys would have been punished. Such an environment would contribute to the stress and anxiety of the boys, causing each to react in their own way.
Into adulthood, each prince became more rigid in his convictions and the rift between them grew. Upon the death of their father and older brother Mircea in 1447, Murad (then re-enthroned after a brief interregnum during which Mehmet was on the Ottoman throne) sent Vlad to claim the throne of Wallachia with the understanding that he would rule as an Ottoman vassal and pay the traditional tribute. Why Murad felt he had succeeded in winning Vlad to his cause is baffling. It is likely that Vlad played his part well and paid lip service to the sultan in order to gain his freedom. Even if the sultan had his doubts in terms of legitimacy, Vlad had the superior claim to the throne, with Radu being both too young and too obviously Ottoman in his dress and manners. Murad, a shrewd ruler, would have seen the sense of allowing the elder brother to have his throne. However, life as an Ottoman vassal was the last thing Vlad had in mind. Taking to himself the title ‘Dracula’, meaning ‘Son of the Dragon’, in memory of his father, Vlad began mustering his resources to fight the Ottomans.
Owing to the apocryphal, almost mythical nature of the stories about Vlad which have survived it is hard to know how accurate sources are. What is clear is that the sultan sent emissaries to Dracula’s court to discover why Vlad had not sent the promised tributes owed to the Ottoman court. Konstantin Mihailovic, a Serbian convert in service to the Ottomans, writes in his memoirs that the sultan’s emissary, Hamza, had been impaled along with the rest of his party.3
When this news was received at the Ottoman court the sultan called for Radu, who had remained behind when Vlad returned home and, according to Mihailovic,
“Having risen, the Emperor took him by the hand and seated him alongside himself on the right side in another somewhat lower chair and ordered that a purple garment of gold cloth be brought and placed on him.”4
The implications of this are more than the sultan simply showing favour. The reference to a cloak of purple and gold is key. The Ottomans were very keen to showcase themselves as the rightful inheritors of the Roman Empire by right of conquest, and they did this by co-opting visible and obvious elements of the cultures they conquered in a bid to legitimise the inheritance and make it acceptable to the population. Imperial purple was the colour worn by Roman magistrates, and later the rulers of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, the latter of which the Ottomans would finally defeat in 1453 with their taking of Constantinople. In clothing Radu in purple and gold, the sultan not only shows him favour but marks him as a future ruler. After Vlad’s death in 1476 in battle, Mehmed did enshrine Radu in his place. Owing to the convoluted nature of warfare and politics at the time, Radu reigned twice after his brother’s death.
The problem with verifying historical events in the life of Vlad is that much primary documentation concerning his life is missing, for one reason or another and thus histories have often been resurrected on folk tales and oral accounts making much of the information we have on this individual somewhat apocryphal. Given the huge amount of scholarly literature on the novel, I am forced to confine myself to a brief discussion of the person of the Count and his identity as Vlad Dracula which, in itself, is a contentious subject. Professor Elizabeth Miller raised the issue of identity in her 1997 paper entitled ‘Filing for Divorce: Count Dracula vs. Vlad Tepes’ in which she acknowledges that Stoker found the name ‘Dracula’ in a copy of An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820) by William Wilkinson, which he borrowed from the Whitby Public library in the summer of 1890. However, this text suffers from the same problem that many histories of the family have in that ‘Dracula’ is used to refer both to Tepes’s father, also called Vlad and the Impaler himself. Wilkinson also seems to have translated ‘Dracul’ into ‘devil’ in the English instead of ‘Dragon’, arguably a more accurate interpretation due to the family connection to The Order of the Dragon.5 Miller concludes that Stoker gained his total knowledge of Vlad from Wilkinson, and as such any deeper connections to the Impaler beyond the borrowing of a name are circumstantial and that serious scholarly effort should be made to distinguish the differences between the historical Voivode and the Vampire of Stoker’s creation. Dracula historian Raymond McNally responded to Miller’s article in his own paper entitled ‘Separation Granted; Divorce Denied; Annulment Unlikely’ in which he argues that historians and literature scholars are well aware of the division and able to separate myth from fact.6 However, it is all very well to say that scholars and academics can make the distinction but for someone like Dracula, so prevalent in popular culture, I agree with Professor Miller that a popular distinction should be made.
In conclusion, the relations between the Ottoman Empire and the family of Vlad Dracula were much more long-winded and complex than I have stated here. However, perhaps next time Francis Ford Copella’s classic is aired on TV we might spare a thought for the real life history which often inspires such characters and events. The truth might not always be stranger than fiction, but it can certainly be just as interesting.
1 Gavin Baddeley & Paul Woods, Vlad the Impaler: Son of the Devil, Hero of the People, (Ian Allan Publishing Ltd, Chatham, 2010)
3 Konstantin Mihailovic, Memoirs of a Janissary, trans. Benjamin Stolz, (Markus Wiener Publishers, Princeton, 2011)
6 Raymond McNally, ‘Separation Granted; Divorce Denied; Annulment Unlikely’, Journal of Dracula Studies, No 1, 1999.