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Elizabeth Báthory’s Blood Baths: Separating Myth from Reality

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Elizabeth Bathory (1560–1614) depicted in an 1893 painting by Hungarian Impressionist painter, István Csók (1865–1961). (Photo: Irene/The Athenaeum)

Mention Elizabeth Báthory—or Erzsébet Báthory, her Hungarian name—to anyone and they will all know her as the Vampire Countess who used to bathe in the blood of virgins to regain and maintain her youth. Images abound of her as a beautiful young woman relaxing in tubs brimming in blood as if it were a relaxing spa. It has even been suggested that her myth inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and even the less-known “Carmilla” (1871–2) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. The latter tells the story of a young woman who becomes a mysterious Countess’s object of affection. Coincidence?

History has had 400 years to judge Elizabeth Báthory (1560–1614), and though opinions about her crimes and motives are as varied as the scholars who have studied her, whatever the facts, the blood bathing association only crept up on her in later years and enmeshed itself into her mythos as if it had always been true. The Countess has fascinated the public since her arrest in 1610 and despite attempts to erase her from history by going as far as forbidding the mention of her name, she has never the less dominated our imaginations from the very beginning of her story.

This took an added dimension when she experienced a resurgence in popularity during the 1960s and 1970s with the publication of several books and films surrounding her image. It was at that moment, and with the help of mass media that the title of blood bather forever bound itself to her name, though it wasn’t always that way.

Báthory was born on August 7, 1560 in a family estate in Hungary to an illustrious family. As was typical of royal and noble families at the time, her parents belonged to different branches of the Báthory family which included a maternal grandfather and uncles on both sides with the title of Voivod or Prince of Transylvania. Her uncle, Istvan, was also the King of Poland. In addition, the family had marital ties to the Habsburg Empire and during her reign she and her husband Ferenc Nádasdy (1555–1604) frequently dealt with the King.

Though there were accusations of cruelty and harsh staff punishments even during the earlier years of her marriage (they were married in 1575), by the mid 1580s the situation worsened when members of her household begun to die. At first this was attributed to cholera but as the deaths increased, the rumours of foul play spread. By 1609 she stood accused of murdering over 650 young and not-so-young women.

A lot has been written on the Countess and despite the hype, many historians have adopted the more sceptical approach of her innocence. It’s been suggested that the whole story was conjured up by her detractors and in particular King Mathias II (1557–1619) in order to expunge the crown’s debt to her family and seize her property. Seizures of this kind did indeed take place frequently by the crown, especially with nobility who had fallen out of favour and particularly in the case of widows who were more vulnerable than most (Kord 2009, 60).

In fact when Elizabeth’s parents chose to marry within the family and not ally with the crown, they also had part of their property commandeered by the Hapsburgs as punishments for their political affiliation (Craft 2009, 7). The practise of property seizures therefore was not an uncommon one, so to suggest the entire Báthory affair was a ploy over property is somewhat far-fetched.

It is this writer’s opinion that where there’s smoke there’s fire. Though the number of victims was no doubt exaggerated, it is unlikely that a murder frame would’ve got so elaborate to suggest that there were over 650 victims when a few choice ones would’ve no doubt sufficed to condemn her. Neither would a framed murderer have been allowed to live bricked up in a room until their natural death if the crown had elected to scapegoat her for their purposes. In addition to that, her closest accomplices, a group of three women and a man were also tried and convicted to death shortly after their arrests (Craft 2009, 165).

Witness testimony implicated them quite severely in the crimes and the Countess herself was recorded to have said that she’d been driven to murder because she was afraid of them. In a time where the authority of the Crown was indisputable there seems little reason to have gone to the trouble to incriminate five people, one a member of high society, if property seizure was their only goal.

The investigation into the Countess’s crimes lasted for months and the execution of the four accomplices would have been a particularly cruel addition to the case if they were conducted merely for giving weight to the Crown’s position. Throwing a spanner in the works in the end, the Countess managed to pass her properties onto her children before her sentencing so even that, had it been the ultimate purpose of her persecution, failed.

By July 1611, 224 witnesses had testified against her (Craft 2009, 179) and by September, 34 depositions had been taken by the Palatine against the Countess. As with anything, politics was very much to the fore of this case and out of concern for his own interests Palatine György Thurzó (1567–1616), had many reasons to support the Countess with whom he had family ties.

There was also the danger that in the volatile religious climate of the time he too could one day face the wrath of the King and experience a similar fate, and yet he did his duty both to the Crown and to the Countess. He prosecuted her, executed her accomplices and incarcerated her at the cost of displeasing the King who wanted to have her executed. There is little room to doubt that she was in fact guilty of the crimes for which she was accused.

Though it is unclear why she behaved the way that she did, it does merit mentioning the frequent mental problems of children born during the inbreeding trends of Early Modern Europe. The Hapsburgs were the most famous of the inbreeding royal families, which exchanged spouses between the Austrian and Spanish branches quite frequently. Despite the inbreeding angle, it has also been suggested that as a person who was more than likely abused both as a child she too in turn became an abuser.

History has frequently shown how people who have experienced violence in their lives turn to it later on in life. Though I am not an expert in psychology or psychiatry I have read enough to realise that Elizabeth Bathory very probably suffered from some kind of Sadistic Personality Disorder (SPD), which is defined as a (Hucker 2005),

Pervasive pattern of behavior which is characterized by cruel, manipulative, demeaning and possibly aggressive behaviour towards others. The behaviour usually begins in childhood and is consistent thereafter. It is evident in social, personal and occupational situations to varying degrees. The SPD takes pleasure in the humiliation, control and domination of others.

There is no mention of stress as catalyst for exhibiting SPD which according to Báthory scholar, Kimberly Craft, was when the Countess lashed out the most viciously, but the fact remains that if she were to be diagnosed today, she would have been identified as having some form of personality disorder.

As the years wore on, the Countess continued to torture and kill. It is unknown exactly how many victims suffered at her hands but whether by hyperbole or ignorance history has settled at 650 and by reading the chillingly graphic witness testimonies it is easy to see why such a number was reached. In fact Báthory’s alleged crimes were so cruel that as a result of the torture and murder sessions so much blood was spilled that it could be scooped up by the handful from the ground and her shirts got so soaked with it, she had to change (Craft 2009, 103).

But at no point during her trial or that of the four accomplices however was any mention made of blood-bathing. The blood-bathing practise only made a public appearance in 1729 in a publication titled Tragica Historia written by a Jesuit priest named Turóczi László (1682–1765) (Kord 2009, 62). It was from this point onwards that the idea took hold like wildfire with publication after publication on the Countess binding her inseparably with the blood bathing practise like Cleopatra and asses’ milk.

To undertand László’s line we have to consider the period’s approach to women. In the 17th and 18th centuries, attitudes to women had not changed much in relation to what they had been in the middle ages or even the Renaissance. A widespread misogyny permeated Patriarchal Europe and women were presented as a necessarily societal evil. A good woman was one who rejected “girlish frivolity” and dedicated herself “to the joys of marriage” (Rossiter 2010, 182). They were thought to be weak and to lack reason and were misrepresented for centuries and in countless texts ranging from Petrarch (1304–1374) to John Knox (c. 1514–1572) who even wrote at length about the unsuitability of women as monarchs.

It is not a stretch therefore to speculate that László’s opinion of women ranged within these parameters leading him to see them as mindless vain creatures. The creation of the blood bathing theory could therefore be described as his naïve understanding of the female sex. Expanding on the period’s misogyny one only has to think back to the witch-hunt craze that swept through Europe and America from the 15th to the 17th where approximately 50,000 people were executed for witchcraft in Europe alone; 75–90 percent of which were women (Briggs 1998, 261).

Malleus Maleficarum, “Hammer of [the] Witches” (1487), a witch-hunting manual written in the 15th century and reprinted up until the 17th speaks at length about the vices of women quoting both the Old and New Testaments as well as various other contemporary texts (Kramer and Sprenger 1971, 43–4): “All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman . . . the word woman is used to mean lust of the flesh” or in reference to their intelligence,” “Others again have propounded other reasons why there are more superstitious women found than men. And the first is, that they are more credulous; and since the chief aim of the Devil is to corrupt faith, therefore he rather attacks them.”

One of the most memorable quotes being: “Women are intellectually like children,” “Let us consider also her gait, posture and habit in which is vanity of vanities. There is no man in the world who studies so hard to please the Good God as even an ordinary woman studies by her vanities to please men” (44). Which raises the contradictory issue that though a woman’s duty was to show dedication to her husband, she had to ensure that she was not too vain about it in the process.

Even though Malleus Maleficarum was written long before the time of Countess Báthory or László for that matter, it was still being published up until 1669 and despite its controversial history, it poignantly highlighted predominant contemporary opinions on women, which would remain unchanged for centuries. To Modern Early European patriarchal society women were reasonless, feeble creatures whose only concern was to satiate their lust. It was not a major leap therefore to fabricate the idea that the Countess bathed in the blood of the women she killed for her vain needs.

The popularity with which that idea caught on and disseminated goes to show how widespread this view of women really was. According to historian Robin Briggs: “Polarized binary classification was the dominant style of early modern thought, so that demonologists had no choice but to associate women with inferiority” (Briggs 1998, 284). He adds:

Deficiency in capacity to reason supposedly left women unable to control the baser part of their nature, while their mysterious cycles were evidence for the way they were dominated by the womb. Eve had been responsible for original sin, and women’s attraction for men led to corruption and death; women’s inconstancy and self-love made them natural allies of the Devil (285).

Coupled with the fact that psychiatry, psychology and personality disorders were non-existent sciences in 1729 there was no other way to explain why a woman would feel the need to cruelly and horrifically murder other than her naïve narcissism. The blood bathing myth is in fact more telling of the era in which it was created than Báthory’s motives.

That motif doesn’t end in the 18th century either, one only has to watch Countess Dracula (1971) to understand how even as recently as 40 years ago women were treated as simpler, narcissistic creatures. Even if the film’s subject matter was to be bypassed altogether for its glaring historical inaccuracies, one can still not fail to extract the sexist preconceptions of the decade when all its main female characters are treated merely as sensual objects; the Countess kills for the affections of her young suitor and her daughter is given away as the prize for the savage who keeps her under lock and key.

I won’t even talk at length about the harlots and maids that frequently tempt the viewer with their exposed flesh. If Countess Dracula was intended to be taken seriously then it is a very revealing view of one period through the dramatization of another by way of the light-hearted exploitation and abuse of the Báthory legend.

Countess Dracula was the first movie of its kind, to treat the Countess as its exclusive subject matter without taking Necropolis (1970) into consideration, which is more sci-fi in discipline. After Countess Dracula, the early 1970s saw a plethora of Báthory movies with one produced every 2–3 years, a trend that persists to the present where horror and fantasy films have borrowed the myth wholesale or in parts for various projects throughout the decades.

There have also been countless articles written discussing whether Báthory inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” One of the most well know authors on the Countess was Raymond T. McNally whose 1983 book, Dracula Was a Woman, focuses on the premise that Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula (1897) was not in fact Vlad the Impaler (1431–1476/77) (as many have come to claim) but the Countess. His main argument being Dracula’s younger appearance when he consumes blood while his victims wither and age as in the case of Harker.

Though there is no definitive proof that Stoker was in fact inspired by Elizabeth, he does illustrate that blood rituals had become so associated with youth that even in 1897 when Stoker wrote Dracula the idea was already considered normal. On a sidenote I am compelled to mention that Western associations with blood and its supernatural properties probably became ingrained in people’s minds long before the Countess. The world’s most widely-read book tells us: “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54).

Getting back to the point however, though it is seductive to believe that the world’s arguably best-known vampire book was inspired by Erzsébet Báthory, it is more likely and in fact quite ironic that the myth was created by a Jesuit priest rather than the Countess’s actual history. Whatever the case, it appears that the forging of the vampire myth as we know it today, i.e. the eternal un-aging creature caught between life and death was born through a mixture of folklore, history and misinterpretation as well as humanity’s need to understand its surroundings and must be recognised as the valuable concept that resonates with all vampire lovers, that youth is fleeting and in order to re-acquire it one must sell their soul.

References

Craft, Kimberly L. 2009. Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Báthory. N.p.: Author.

Briggs, Robin. 1998. Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft. New York: Penguin Books. First published 1996.

Kramer, Heinrich, and James Sprenger. 1971. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Translated with introductions, bibliography and notes by Rev. Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications. First published 1928.

McNally, Raymond T. 1985. Dracula Was a Woman: In Search of the Blood Countess of Transylvania. London: Hamlyn Paperbacks. First published 1983.

Kord, Susanne. 2009. Murderesses in German Writing, 1720–1860: Heroines of Horror. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rossiter, William T. 2010. Chaucer and Petrarch. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Hucker, Stephen. 2005. “Sadistic Personality Disorder.” Forensic Psychiatry.ca. Accessed Jan. 15, 2015. http://www.forensicpsychiatry.ca/paraphilia/sadPD.htm.

Romina is the author of Bathory’s Secret (2014), the first book in the upcoming “Affliction” series. It is a fictional re-examination of the vampire genre through a more scientific and literal lens. Be sure to check out her website, too.

Written by Romina Nicolaides

Romina has a Bachelor’s degree in History and a Master’s in Modern History. Writing gives her the opportunity to combine her passion for vampire fiction with her admiration of the past.

8 Comments

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  1. Great article Romina! Enjoyed all the research you put into it. I remember when researching Elizabeth I came across some info that mentioned when she was younger she had epileptic seizures. Would you be able to elaborate on that for me?

    • Thanks Erin, I’m glad you liked it! I’ve come across that too in my research. It wasn’t only while she was young. Even in adulthood she talked about eye and head pains that gave her trouble, probably in the form of seizures. It appears to have been congenital because her father was also reputed to have suffered from them.

      • That’s quite interesting, Romina. Do you think there’s enough of a case to suggest that it may have been the cause of her psychopathy or at least had a major impact on it?

        • That would be wading into medical waters that I am unqualified to discuss, but I think the two are unrelated. There’s scores of famous epileptics in history who were not homicidal maniacs. The abuse she suffered is a more likely culprit for her behaviour probably coupled with an unrelated psychopathic disorder. It’s hard to tell.

    • Lujza, thank you for sharing that! That was quite a fascinating piece in its own right. Feel free to distribute it on my Facebook grous, too, if you’re a member. Romina, have you any thoughts on it?

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