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Vlad's Impalings

Our latest issue of Medieval Warfare focuses on the 15th century Voivode of Wallachia, Vlad III. His nickname was 'the Impaler', and judging by the medieval sources that recount his life, it is not difficult to understand how he got such an infamous moniker.

The use of impalement as a method of torture or execution dates back to Antiquity - it is both a rather simple way to kill someone and also a particularly brutal act. It was something of a spectacle, meant to send a message to onlookers about either the ferociousness of the perpetrator, or that the victim merited an extraordinary punishment.

There are scattered references to the use of impalement in the Middle Ages, sometimes during war and in other cases as a criminal punishment. So it is somewhat surprising that Vlad III used this method so much when he ruled over Wallachia, especially during his second reign, which lasted from 1456 to 1462.

One of our best sources about Vlad is the Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles, who reports that:

When (Vlad) took over, he first created a corps of bodyguards for himself, who lived with him, and then he summoned separately each of the distinguished men of the realm who, it was believed, had committed treason during the transfer of power there. He killed them all by impalement, them and their sons, wives, and servants, so that this one man caused more murder than any other about whom we have been able to learn. In order to solidify his hold on power, they say that in a short time he killed twenty thousand men, women, and children. 

This passage has been interpreted as Vlad creating an immense forest of impaled victims,  but other sources reveal that these executions were more spread out, physically and chronologically.  Geschichte Dracole Waide, our earliest German source about Vlad, was printed in 1463 and seems to have been based on reports from various peoples who interacted with the Voivode or who fled Wallachia during his reign. The account is filled with numerous references to impalings ordered by Vlad. A typical one would read:

He rounded up the population of an entire region called Făgăraș, and led them to Wallachia, with women, men, and children, and had them impaled.

One certainly gets the sense that he regularly used this form of execution, but some of the stories related in the Geschichte Dracole Waide seem a little too fanciful. For example:

A nobleman was sent to him, who came to him among the people he had impaled. Dracula walked amongst the impaled and looked upon them, and there were as many as a large forest. And the nobleman asked Dracula why he walked around under the stench. Dracula asked: “Does it stink to you?” The nobleman said: “Yes.” So Dracula immediately had him impaled and raised up high in the air, so he would not smell the stench.

An even stranger story has Vlad ordering a women impaled for her sewing:

He saw a man working, wearing a short shirt, and said to him: “Do you have a wife?” He answered: “Yes.” Dracula said: “Bring her to me.” He asked her: “What do you do?” She answered: “I wash, bake, spin etc.” He immediately had her impaled because she hadn’t made her husband a shirt long enough, so that one didn’t see his belly. And immediately Dracula gave him another wife, and he ordered her to make her husband a long shirt, or he would have her impaled as well.

However, while it seems that some of these accounts might have been hyperbole, a slightly later source reveals that Vlad had a sadistic side to him, even while he was spending years as a captive of the Hungarian king. According to Gabriele Rangoni, the Bishop of Eger, Vlad "would trap mice, cut them into pieces, and stick them on bits of wood as he had done with the men he had impaled."

Perhaps Vlad carried out this brutal punishment to intimidate his enemies and subjects, or perhaps he enjoyed such cruelty. Either way, Vlad's harshness would be one of the reasons why his rule over Wallachia would be overthrown three times, with the third costing him his life as well.

You can read more Vlad the Impaler in Issue XI:4 - click here for more details.

You can read translations of Geschichte Dracole Waide and other accounts of Vlad in Matei Cazacu's book Dracula, published by Brill.

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