In 1453, the forces of Mehmed II, the seventh sultan (1) of the Ottoman Empire, besieged the city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. The siege started on the sixth of April, and ended a little under two months later on the twenty-ninth of May. It ended in total victory for Mehmed II and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, whose last emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos died in the field of battle defending Eastern Christianity and his city, throne, and empire. This was the culmination of centuries worth of assault by Islamic forces on Eastern Christendom that had started before the Turks had become the dominant power in the Islamic world and before Eastern and Western Christianity had undergone a formal ecclesiastical separation to match the earlier civil separation of the Roman Empire, an assault which had provoked the response of the Crusades only decades after the aforementioned ecclesiastical separation. After the walls that had long protected the Byzantine capital fell to Mehmed’s artillery, the triumphant sultan renamed the city, which had been Constantinople since Constantine the Great had relocated the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium over a millennium earlier, Istanbul, made it the capital of his own empire, and declared himself the new Caesar. The Ottomans then set their sights on the conquest of Western Christendom, launching a campaign that would eventually bring them to the gates of the capital of the Holy Roman Empire in 1683, where they would be decisively defeated by the allied forces of Emperor Leopold I and Polish King Jan III Sobieski.
That, however, was two hundred and thirty years after Mehmed’s victory. Immediately after the Fall of Constantinople, the conquering sultan went on to attack other Christian territories, winning a number of significant victories in the Balkans. Then, less than a decade after the defeat of the Byzantine Empire, he turned his attention to Wallachia, in what is now Romania. Wallachia was situated between the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary and both had long laid claim to it as a vassal state. In the fifteenth century, these larger powers were constantly struggling against each other to put one of their own puppets on the Wallachian throne, and against a growing determination on the part of the Wallachian royalty to resist submission to either. It was this sort of resistance on the part of the Wallachian voivode (prince/warlord) that drew Mehmed’s attention. He had sent emissaries to Wallachia to receive tribute from the Romanian prince, but they were killed and the sultan received instead an invasion of his own territory, in which villages were laid waste and thousands killed. Raising a tremendous army, in 1462 he marched into Wallachia, convinced that victory was assured him. After crossing the Danube, his camp was attacked but the Romanians failed to capture him. Shortly thereafter he made it to the Wallachian capital of Târgoviște, where he met with a bone-chilling, blood-curdling spectacle. The city was deserted, but surrounding it, was a gigantic field containing large wooden stakes or pikes. Impaled upon those stakes were about twenty thousand Turks, men, women and children, whom the Wallachian prince had captured. Both impressed and horrified, Mehmed retreated.
The name of the voivode who struck such awe in the heart of the Turkish sultan is one that I am sure you are all familiar with. His name was Dracula.
The image that that name has probably summoned up is one of a clean-shaven, pale man in a tuxedo with a big cape, his black hair slicked back from his widow’s peak and plastered to his head with what looks to be an entire jar of pomade, who sleeps in a coffin all day, waking at night to speak in a bad imitation of an Eastern European accent while he bites beautiful young ladies in the neck and drinks their blood.
The above image comes, of course, from the Hollywood versions of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Bram Stoker, who was born and raised in Dublin, lived most of his life in London, where he managed the Lyceum Theatre, owned by his friend, the actor Sir Henry Irving, and wrote novels on the side. Dracula was his fifth published novel. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which had appeared eight decades earlier, it is written in epistolary format, that is to say, as a collection of letters, journal entries, and diary clippings, rather than from the point of view of a single narrator. In the novel, Dracula is a Transylvanian Count who moves to London, where he stalks a young lady named Lucy, the best friend of the fiancée of an English lawyer he had employed, draining her of most of her blood and putting her under a kind of mind control. Her friends, concerned about what is happening to her, put her in the hands of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, a physician who, conveniently enough, has the hobby of vampirology. When Lucy dies and becomes a vampire, Van Helsing and the others put an end to her undead existence and then go in hunt of Count Dracula. They track him down as he is nearing his castle in Transylvania in his last remaining coffin – he had brought a lot of backups which the vampire hunters had destroyed – and kill him.
Stoker’s having given his vampire the name of the fifteenth century historical figure was presumably a result of his having relied heavily upon Romanian folklore for his research into the vampire legend prior to writing his novel (vampire legends occur in folklore around the world, but, due mostly to Stoker’s book, the vampires that appear in twentieth century film and literature, most closely resemble those of Eastern European folklore). Within the novel, the historical figure is alluded to on a couple of occasions. Count Dracula himself, when he is trying to pass himself off as a human aristocrat, speaks of the historical Dracula as an ancestor. Dr. Van Helsing, however, later expresses the opinion that the count is none other than the undead corpse of the voivode himself.
Vlad III of Wallachia, of course, had a reputation for bloodthirstiness long before Stoker wrote his novel. One can hardly do such things as he did at Târgoviște, as described a few paragraphs back, without gaining such a reputation. Among his Hungarian and Saxon enemies, this reputation even took on aspects more closely resembling the kind of bloodthirstiness that appears in Stoker’s novel. They spread the report that Vlad would set up his table in the midst of his impaled enemies, dipping his bread in their blood. Since this comes from his enemies, it is probably wisest to take it with a grain of salt. In his own Romania, however, where he is celebrated as a national hero, he is commonly referred to as Vlad Tepes (pronounced ze-pesh). Although this designation draws attention to the rather sadistic way in which he dealt with his foes – Tepes translates into English as “The Impaler” – it does not detract from his domestic heroic image but rather enhances it. He was the man who did what had to be done to prevent the barbarian hordes that had sacked the capital of Eastern Christianity from overrunning his country too.
Vlad III inherited his fight against the Ottoman Turks. His father, Vlad II, was given the name Dracul when he joined the Order of the Dragon in 1431, which is why his descendants bore the patronym Dracula, a diminutive form meaning “son of Dracul.” The Order of the Dragon was a knightly fraternity, founded by Sigismund of Luxemburg, King of Hungary in 1408, and modelled on the Order of St. George of the previous century. Its members were sworn to protect Christianity and Christendom, against the Ottoman Turks. Vlad Dracul was an illegitimate son of Mircea the Elder, who was raised in Sigismund’s court. Upon Mircea’s death, Sigismund had backed Dracul’s claim to his father’s throne, whereas the Ottomans had supported the claim of his half-brother Alexander. It was only after Alexander died that Dracul was able to assume the throne. In the meantime he had moved to Transylvania, where Vlad III, his second son, was born.
When Vlad Dracul assumed the throne of Wallachia he had a strong backer in Sigismund, who had become the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire three years previously. Sigismund died the following year, however, and the throne of Hungary was filled by Albert the Magnificent, who, not being emperor, was much weaker than this predecessor, causing Dracul to seek terms of peace with the Ottomans. When, a couple of years later, Albert himself died, the much stronger Wladyslaw III, King of Poland took his place. Wladyslaw, along with John Hunyadi, the Transylvanian voivode, pressed Dracul back into the fight against the Turks. This led to his capture by the Turks, however, who released him, only upon his agreeing to a long list of conditions, the security of which they ensured by taking Dracul’s younger sons, Vlad III and Radu, as hostages. The result of this period of captivity in the sultan’s court was that Vlad became a more zealous foe of the Turks than his father had ever been, while Radu became their loyal supporter, fighting under Mehmed at Constantinople. The consequence of this was that when Vlad Dracula claimed his father’s throne – his elder brother Mircea II had been captured and tortured to death by the boyars (patricians) of his capital city shortly before their father was killed - and turned against the Turkish sultan, Mehmed had a replacement at hand in Radu. Indeed, when the sultan retreated from Târgovișt, Radu remained to fight his brother and, garnering support among the Wallachian aristocracy and middle class, replaced Vlad III when the latter turned to the Hungarians for assistance and was imprisoned. Fourteen years later, Vlad, with the support of the same Hungarians, briefly returned to the throne before dying fighting the Turks. (2)
Vlad Dracula was a severe and cruel man even by the standards of his own day. It was not the incident at Târgoviște alone that earned him the cognomen Tepes. He was, however, in one sense, a fairly just ruler. That is to say, if the quick and efficient dispensation of punishment to the guilty is all that you are looking for by way of justice. By Singapore’s present standards, he might even be considered an exemplary ruler. For those of us in the Commonwealth realms, (3) whose traditional Common Law understanding of justice places a premium on such concepts as the presumption of innocence, trial by jury, letting the punishment fit the crime, etc., he is much further removed from our idea of a model governor. We ought, however, to refrain from judging him by the standards of our own tradition, especially without considering the historical context in which he committed his famous/infamous deeds. A good understanding of the history of the attempted Islamic conquest of Christendom, the fifteenth century collapse of the Byzantine Empire under the weight of that onslaught, and the inroads the Turks were making into the Balkans in the immediate aftermath of that collapse is essential to viewing Dracula in his proper context, and goes a long way towards helping us understand why he is considered a hero in his own national tradition.
Dracula and his era hardly held a monopoly on cruelty. Progressives of our own day, who are seemingly incapable of thinking outside of the box of liberalism, universal human rights and democracy, condemn the inhumanity of the kind of cruelty that involves physical torture except when it is a voluntary alternative lifestyle choice such as in the erotic novels of E. L. James. They are blind, however, to the cruelty they themselves often support in the name of their humanitarian, do-gooder, causes.
Consider the example of the measures taken in response to the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus this year. After initially pooh-poohing the virus, and calling anybody who suggested a temporary ban on travel in and out of China to attempt to contain the outbreak within that country a “racist”, once it was clearly too late do any such thing and the virus was already speeding around the world, they did a complete turnabout and began supporting the most oppressive of measures aimed at stopping the virus. When the WHO first declared a pandemic it was still winter in this part of this world, but that did not prevent our governments from closing all public facilities and restaurant dining rooms and telling everybody to “stay home”, leaving the thousands of people with no home to stay at, literally out in the cold. That was an act of cruelty. Then, because very elderly people with multiple health problems are the most at risk from the virus, their loved ones were prohibited from visiting them in long-term care facilities, condemning them, in the name of keeping them “safe”, to months of loneliness and despair, which in the end, probably contributed more to the death toll in such facilities this year than the virus itself. Another act of insanely inhumane cruelty. If being very cruel to the destitute and homeless on the one hand and the elderly on the other were not bad enough, our governments, to pay for the insane and unprecedented universal quarantine they imposed upon us all, have saddled future generations for centuries to come with the burden of paying off the debt they have racked up. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and, indeed, people of all religions, have been denied the spiritual solace and comfort of their faith traditions in a time when they have an especially great need for it, this having been what has gotten people through pandemics in the past. Then, of course, there is the cruelty of the restrictions placed upon small business owners, that have been driving them into bankruptcy, even while the despicable, vile, low-life, scum who run the big technology and pharmaceutical companies have been raking in the billions off of this scam of a pandemic. Finally, there is the cruelty of telling people that they are not allowed to work, buy food and other necessities, or, basically, live, unless they wear a stupid, ugly, totem, over their noses and mouths, that has no real protective value whatsoever despite all the horse manure being spread about “the science” behind them, which makes breathing and communicating both more difficult and more uncomfortable, and which, since these things collect and breed germs the way they are being used, which is not in conformity with the safety guidelines for the use of higher grade masks in hospitals, will have the necessary effect of making people more sick rather than less.
All of the bleeding heart, world-and-humanity-loving, liberal, progressive types, who are the first to condemn the cruelty of torture and the death penalty, do not seem to have any problem with the kind of cruelty outlined in the previous paragraph, for they have been cheering all of these measures, and, indeed, crawling to their governments, like Oliver Twist, saying “please sir, I want some more”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it is not just their own rights and freedoms that they are sacrificing and surrendering for protection from the Bogeyman of SARS-CoV-2, but those of their family, friends, neighbours, and everybody else as well. As with most other matters, they have got everything backwards. The cruelty of stakes and iron maidens and other medieval tortures was at least an honest cruelty, one which made no pretense of being anything else. The cruelty which the progressives support, wears the mask of benevolence. It is the worst of the two.
If there were any human justice worth speaking of left on this planet, an extremely dubious protasis indeed, all those responsible for thinking up and imposing these measures on us all would be put on trial and charged with crimes against humanity. The precedent established at Nuremberg for dealing with such crimes, was capital punishment, at least for those who bear the greatest responsibility. In the event that this hypothetical and highly unlikely scenario were to materialize, and the court finds the culprits guilty and pronounces sentence after the Nuremberg precedent, should the judges truly wish to send a definitive message that there are to be no more universal lockdowns ever again, then when it comes time to determining the mode of execution, perhaps they should not peremptorily rule out the method preferred by Dracula. Brutal though it be, it seems somewhat appropriate for the ghoulish spiritual vampires who have spent most of this year sucking the joy out of life and making this world a living hell for everyone else.
(1) The numbering of the sultans does not include several individuals whose claim to the title was on more dubious grounds than that of those recognized by the historians.
(2) In between Dracula’s imprisonment and his brief return to power, the voivodeship of Wallachia had passed between his brother Radu the Fair and Basarab Laiotă multiple times. Basarab Laiotă was a cousin of theirs – the Draculas or Draculesti are a branch of the Basarab family, and indeed, Dracula’s full legal name, included Basarab along with Vlad and Dracula (Tepes was only added after his death, although his enemies called him by the equivalent in their tongues during his lifetime). Basarab Laiotă held the voivodeship last before Dracula’s return and would resume it again after Dracula’s death. The competing claims of the different branches of the dynasty – and it was far more complicated than when the House of Plantagenet divided into the Houses of Lancaster and York in England during the period of the War of the Roses, as can be seen in the fact that Vlad and Radu were rivals but both from the Dracula line of the divided Basarab House - were, of course, the primary means through which the larger Ottoman and Hungarian powers contended for control of the region.
(3) Singapore is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations but not a Commonwealth realm. The latter are parliamentary monarchies with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. Singapore is a republic.