Dracula in the sources

Draculainspired in part by the life and deeds of the Wallachian ruler Vlad III (1431-1476)is now a figure with great popular appeal. Over time, different kinds of sources - textual and visual - have helped form the image of Dracula in popular media and the popular imagination. The historical sources consist of painted and printed portraits, as well as letters, documents, stories, and folklore that have generated great interest over the centuries. 

The earliest printed sources about Vlad Dracula are the so-called German pamphlets, which circulated mostly in Central Europe between the 1480s and the 1530s. These types of sources detail some of the most cruel and gruesome deeds of the Wallachian ruler. 


The above images come from the pamphlet Dracole Wayda. This example was printed by Peter Wagner in Nürnberg around 1488. It consists of a title page, a colored woodcut portrait of Vlad, and brief accounts of his evil deeds over several pages. A sample of these stories is offered here:

  • He had all young boys, who had been sent to his country to learn the language, locked in a room and burned. There were four hundred.

  • 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 all sorts of people impaled side by side—Christians, Jews, and heathen—so that they moved and thrashed about and whimpered amongst one another a long time, like frogs. Afterwards he had their hands and feet also impaled. And often he spoke in his language, “Oh, with what great skill they move,” and thus [in so doing] he took pleasure.

  • He had people ground to death on a grindstone, and he did many more inhumane things, which people tell of him.

  • 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.

These kinds of stories informed the characterization of the main protagonist in Bram Stoker's famous novel, Dracula (Westminster, 1897), which reimagined and propelled Vlad III of Wallachia as Dracula onto the international scene.

Abraham “Bram” Stoker is of Irish heritage, born in Dublin on 8 November 1847. Although he published his first short story at 24 years of age, and wrote many novels and theatrical stories after that, Dracula became his most successful literary achievement. 


Stoker researched the novel not “on the ground” in the Wallachian and Transylvanian regions of modern Romania, in the Carpathian Mountains, or Eastern Europe, but in English reading rooms, at the British Library, the library in Whitby, and other places that afforded him access to primary and secondary sources. These allowed him to build slowly his characters and the storyline. Stoker’s extensive notes for Dracula were acquired in 1970 by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. 


The novel was released on 26 May 1897 with the first 101 pages cut and the original epilogue shortened, in addition to other editorial changes that ensured the text struck a balance between fact and fiction. The full-length manuscript of the story, 529 pages in total—bearing the original title The Un-Dead and signed by Stoker—was discovered in Pennsylvania but failed to sell at Christie’s auction house in 2002. 


Nevertheless, Dracula’s popularity endures through the version Stoker published in 1897 and through the multitude of its iterations in various media throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 


Matei Cazacu, Dracula, edited by Stephen W. Reinert (Leiden: Brill, 2017)


This book—one of the most scholarly and comprehensive historical studies on Vlad III, his times, and afterlives—was first published in French in 2004. The book details Vlad’s early life, his reigns and exiles, his conflicts with the Ottomans and other enemies, his reimagining through propaganda images and tales, and his later afterlives as conceived through Bram Stoker’s famous novel and the vampire culture to which it contributed a new and famous protagonist. 


Under the guidance and editorial expertise of Prof. Stephen Reinert of Rutgers University, Nicole Mordarski, Alice Brinton, and Catherine Healey completed the English translation of Cazacu’s text, making this work available to Anglo-American and broader audiences for the first time. The English translation is an edited version of Cazacu’s master work that ensures the accuracy of the cited texts, updates the primary source references and secondary literature, and offers a more comprehensive bibliography on the subject. 


The book weaves excerpts from primary sources with clear explanations and historical contextualization from which emerges a rich picture of Vlad III and his times, still little known in full by modern audiences. 


The Appendices contain a chronology of relevant events in Wallachian history, key events in Vlad’s life, as well as details about scholarly work on the topic during the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries; full transcriptions and translations of key primary texts; key terms; relevant illustrations; and an updated bibliography.


Although intended for a broad readership, this accessible text is especially useful in the classroom setting. 


In addition to the key texts mentioned above, there are a few other sources worth exploring:

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).

Finally, check out the Medieval Warfare issue XI.4 dedicated to Dracula, and a recent article in Medieval World: Culture & Conflict, issue 6.

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