“Did you know,” my brother asked me one day, “that an impaled person could live for days up there, on a stake? If the executioner went along the spine, sparing all the vital organs…”
“Wow… so, there were people who were experts at that?” I said.
“Imagine the practice you needed to become an expert at impaling…”
For Romanian children, Vlad the Impaler is as present in legends and poems as Caliph Harun al-Rashid is in the Arabian Nights. Vlad always comes to the rescue when an injustice happens, and the culprit—boyar (nobleman), priest, or peasant—pays with his life for the crime. I still remember the story of the public fountain and the golden cup that sat on the rim of the well for thirsty travelers to drink from. No one dared to steal it though, the legend said. On the day the cup was gone, people knew that Vlad was king no more.
That was the Vlad the Impaler I knew while growing up in Romania. The impaling, the beheadings, the torture were as abstract and meaningless to me as the horrors in Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andresen or Ion Creanga.
When I moved to the United States, I was baffled by people’s belief that Vlad the Impaler had been a vampire. Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula, had been banned under Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime, and only published in Romania after the Revolution of 1989. My mother had read it and told me to skip it if I wanted to sleep at night, and so I had been going through life oblivious of one of the two things that the West associated with Romanians.
After the conversation with my brother, I realized that between the two extremes—a savior and a vampire—I had no idea who Vlad the Impaler had been.
I knew that Vlad the Impaler was a posthumous title. While he was voivode (king) of Wallachia, Vlad was known as Vlad III and Vlad Dracula, meaning son of Vlad Dracul (the Dragon). He only ruled for about six years (1448; 1456–1462; 1476), but in that short time, he revamped the economy and kept the country independent of its two neighboring empires, Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. But that version of Vlad came from the patriotic poems of 19th century Romanian writers, who were fueled by the nationalistic ideals of the 1848 European revolutions, and from communist textbooks that promoted the greatness of Romanian history in an effort to justify our growing isolation from Europe during the Iron Curtain age. Here, in America, books, documentaries and websites about Vlad the Impaler focused on disentangling the Wallachian voivode from Bram Stoker and from vampire stories in general.
But I kept looking. Out of a confusing mix of research, a character both fascinating and implausible emerged.
The house where Vlad III was born in 1431 still stands in the Citadel Square of Sighişoara, Transylvania, close to the Clock Tower, with its torture chamber, where, to this day, the ceiling is still black from the fire that heated torture instruments during the Middle Ages, and where the red bricks of the walls are still scribbled with the condemned people’s last words.
As a young boy, Vlad witnessed scores of public executions. When he was eleven, he was taken hostage to Turkey together with his younger brother, Radu, as a guarantee for his father’s loyalty to Sultan Murad. While Vlad was at the Ottoman court, Romanian boyars murdered his father, Vlad Dracul, and buried his older brother Mircea alive.
So, when Vlad became king and chose impalement as his method of execution, was he merely acting in accordance with the mores of the fifteenth century, when heads were taken as trophies, thieves were flayed and quartered, witches were roasted, and women died in childbirth every day? Or, because of his childhood trauma, he became a monster who loved watching people die in agony? A monster who also rebuilt the agriculture infrastructure of Wallachia, who regulated foreign trade to allow the indigenous merchants to thrive, and who offered a system of rewards for worthy citizens regardless of their birth rank—an unprecedented step for many up the economic ladder? A monster and a strategic mastermind who, having lived at the Ottoman court, knew that displaying 20,000 impaled bodies in Mehmet II’s path through Wallachia would scare off the great sultan—a sultan who was known to the world as “the Conqueror” because he had taken Constantinople and destroyed the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
Historical accounts of Vlad III have always been contradictory, even while he was alive. His story was one of the first non-biblical tales to be produced for mass-entertainment in Germany after the invention of the printing press.
Those pamphlets were gory and farfetched, such as the one printed in Nuremberg in 1499 that showed Vlad III dining in the fresh country air reeking of curdling blood and emptied bowels. He was reviled in Hungary and Turkey, but in Russia, he became a role model of just and strong leadership for czars such as Ivan the Terrible. (Dr. Elisabeth Miller of Memorial University of Newfoundland goes in great detail about the politics of the 15th century in her books and on her website.)
From then on, Vlad III, like Richard III of England, became a palimpsest, written over, time and time again after the earlier writing has been erased. To this day, he has been claimed by the most unlikely causes. In an interview for the BBC Travel Channel’s “Wild Carpathia” in September 2011, Prince Charles of Wales said, while promoting an initiative to save Transylvania’s virgin forests:
“The genealogy shows that I am descended from Vlad the Impaler, so I have a bit of a stake in the country.”
As for me, I still don’t have a clear idea who Vlad III Dracula was. But along the way, I did stop to imagine what impalement must have been like.
“You know what I think a person’s biggest life achievement was, back in those times?” I asked my bother.
He shook his head.
“Growing old…” I said.
Vlad III died in battle in 1476, at the age of 45. His head was brought to Mehmet the Conqueror, as a trophy. Mehmet II died in 1481, at the age of 49, of apparent poisoning, of which his son Bayezid II might have been responsible.