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Thursday 21 January 2010

Icon Series: Elizabeth Bathory Revisited?

Elizabeth BáthoryImage via Wikipedia

Elizabeth Bathory, “The Blood Countess”, is often accepted in the mainstream, without question, as one of the world’s most prolific and sadistic serial killers. A 16th and 17th century Hungarian noblewoman, Bathory is often compared to Vlad “Dracula” Tepes, Gille de Rais and Tamerlane the Great. Women are rarely linked to recreational or sexually motivated crimes. There have been very few accepted female serial killers or, more specifically, recreational murderers, and those who have been recorded as such are often hotly debated as not fulfilling the criteria. Bathory, however, seems to tick all the boxes and her position as an almost all-powerful aristocrat who had the legal powers of life and death over many helps forward many of today’s theories on modern serial killers.

The Blood Countess, as she has become known, first came to my attention when I read a pulp non-fiction book, “The World’s Wickedest Women”, from “The World’s Greatest” series. It was a shocking story of a woman who apparently bathed in the blood of her female servants and peasant virgins in the belief that it what it was the elixir of life. She then came to my attention again when I bought an edition of Valentine Penrose’s lurid account of Elizabeth Bathory, “The Bloody Countess”. This book details a life of debauched sadism, that includes cannibalism, vampirism, elaborate torture and witchcraft, which resulted in the supposed deaths of 650 young girls. Penrose’s book puts Bathory’s unique case down to genetics, citing all the interbreeding that went on for generations in the Hungarian and Transylvanian aristocracy. She also writes in a disturbingly poetic and even erotic style that raises a possible red flag for pseudohistory. Nevertheless, Penrose wrote very much in the majority. There are many accounts long before that she could reference that detail Bathory’s sadism. She was convicted of the murders of at least 600 women - they are in the trial minutes and the product of hundreds of witnesses. So case closed…or is it?

Up until I read the book “Countess Dracula” by Tony Thorne I found that only bands like “Cradle of Filth” found Elizabeth Bathory an appealing icon. Their imaginative black metal album, “Cruelty and the Beast”, is a dubious tribute to the life and crimes of this apparent real-life vampire. Before them, of course, there was the Swedish heavy metal band Bathory. Before that there was the Hammer Horror film, “Countess Dracula” starring Ingrid Pitt in a supernatural depiction of the Blood Countess. I was therefore surprised at first when I started reading Tony Thorne’s scholarly study on the convicted Hungarian Countess, the archetype for murderous aristocratic depravity and excess, to find out how much of the image of the Elizabeth Bathory was untrue.
Tony Thorne is my kind of historian. From the introduction he makes a point of saying that he is going to both reconstruct and deconstruct history in his investigation of one of Hungary’s most sensational characters. As time has gone on I have become at least as interested in methods of studying history as I am in the actual subject matter, which means my eventual finishing of this book couldn’t have come at a better time. Thorne’s approach is brilliantly thorough and as objective as you can get. Best of all, he is not shackled by one method. He is brave enough to tackle every piece of evidence from different angles and disciplined enough not to be drawn down speculative paths. Others may be disappointed that he doesn’t take the plunge and go for an absolute conclusion as more sensationalist writers might do. Instead he strips away what we know is to be myth and leaves a more rounded view of what happened.

Revisionism gets a bad press these days. As a rational sceptic I always put the burden of proof on the claimant and more often than not the claimants come up wonting. Some rather less than thorough individuals operating on transparent confirmation biases have used the moniker of “revisionism” to back up their own worrying ideas about the world. Conspiracy theorists and Holocaust deniers are too glaring examples that spring to mind. However, the purpose of good history is to uncover new facts that either challenge or support our ideas about the past. Often an application of common sense, critical rational thinking and a sober attempt to reconstruct the time you are studying reveals startlingly different images of figures in history. This is a point Tony Thorne brings up when he discusses the flippant way crime historians have compared Elizabeth Bathory to other supposed murderous aristocrats. Gilles de Rais may have been a depraved murderer of young boys, but was he really that different from his contemporaries. And what of all the allegations of witchcraft and politics that obscured his trial? De Rais, it is not disputed by any historians, was known for his support of Joan of Arc, herself burned as a heretic. The man who gave his name to sadism, the Marquis de Sade, often argued that the difference between him and his contemporary aristrocrats was that he was honest about his practices.

I have often wondered whether the supposed real-life Dracula, Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, really should be given the bad press he gets. In his own country he is revered as a great hero and his torturous practices were inspired by his no less brutal enemies, the feared Ottoman Turks. As a freedom fighter for his countrymen how does he differ from the far more recent heroic figure of Che Guevara who tortured and executed almost 200 prisoners? Both were loved by their countrymen, both fought powerful and savage regimes, but today one is a villain of almost supernatural proportions and the other a virtual saint.

Recently Ian Mortimer looked at a beloved historical figure, someone he had initially “liked”, in his brilliantly thorough “1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory”. Mortimer presented a book that used primary source data to present a day-by-day study of Henry’s campaigns in 1415. What he uncovered was a person who was more religiously fanatical than the religious fanatics of his time, a ruthless, merciless and oppressive warrior king who deliberately allowed masses of women and children to starve to death in front of his troops. Before Mortimer, of course, most historians agree that Richard I “The Lionheart” did not do England many favours of a monarch as he squandered the country’s treasury on his fanatical crusades. In fact, he didn’t even speak our language or spend a year over here, so there goes the patriotism.

Back to Elizabeth and “Countess Dracula” breaks 20th century conventions of historical writing by not strictly obeying a chronological order. This is not done to deliberately make the style quirky, but to serve valid functions. After an interesting preface that discusses the various myths and popular culture influenced by Elizabeth Bathory the book launches into its very scholarly chapters. The first sets the background for the times and the players in this book. On the subject of players, Thorne actually lists the main people involved before the preface under a “Dramatis Personae”. Next we get into the very savage process of justice of the time. Thorne is keen to show how different the whole judicial system worked at the time. For example, Elizabeth Bathory didn’t attend a trial, which was common at the time, given her aristocratic rank. Torture was also the accepted way that much witness testimony was taken at the time. This was coupled with the fact that a peasant or even an aristocrat of low rank was pretty much at the mercy of their superiors.

Thorne shows us the very real fact that the Palatine at the time, a one Count George Thurzỏ, possessed less land than the widowed Elizabeth. He gained land upon her conviction. He also reveals that persecution of artistocratic widows at the time was not uncommon and there are other contemporary cases of supposed sadistic women who practiced witchcraft that although recorded have not made their way into folklore. At the time of her conviction, the Bathory household was set to crumble with the countess’s nephew having been recently deposed in Transylvania. There was certainly a strong motive to falsely accuse the Countess and rather than fabricating a case for treason, which would have caused more political trouble and huge embarrassment for all those connected to the Bathory bloodline, one theory argues that a conviction for multiple murder would have been a better choice for all concerned!

Further chapters reveal that despite the religious advantages for the Catholic Habsburgs, of which Thurzỏ led, to sensationalize the apparent witchcraft committed by the Protestant Elizabeth Bathory, nothing happened of the sort. In fact, after Bathory’s trial and conviction, for which she received a life sentence of house arrest, nothing was written on her crimes for over 112 years! This is when the myths started to grow. The case notes, which Thorne quotes from, regularly reveal some sadistic practices and killings, but nothing about the Countess’s most famous crime of bathing in the blood of virgins. Apart from the logistics associated with such an elaborately twisted practice, there isn’t even any witness testimony to support it. I think, for the time being, that can be safely be judged as a myth and yet across the internet, in various sensationalist and not-so-sensationalist books you will find this story repeated again and again.

And yet Thorne doesn’t dismiss the Countess’s convictions. Looking at a lot of the primary source material, even that preceding the witness testimonies, you find a very harsh woman who was probably more severe on her servants than what was accepted in those far more savage times. Thorne is just as critical of Bathory’s supporters as he is of her accusers. For example, he explains the regular use of folk remedies at the time and that it is generally accepted that the Countess used them a lot and also had them applied to others under her instruction. However, he finds an argument that some of the witness testimony used to incriminate her were actually descriptions of her remedies gone wrong. In a time when a servant’s death from a beating was regarding as an unfortunate accident and that the practice of these remedies was commonplace, it is hardly likely that a malpractice would be mistaken for a sadistic killing.

I appreciate my write-up on Elizabeth is far from balanced. This is largely due to the evidence against her convictions is relatively unknown in popular history circles and I feel deserves some limelight. My view before reading “Countess Dracula” was the accepted belief she was an early example of what we call a serial killer today. Having read it I am not compelled as some readers have been to suddenly go to her side and to shout set-up! Although there definitely was a strong amount of politicking at the time, as was normal with most convictions against aristocrats. This is not based on the fact that, despite there being strong evidence she at least loved her children, she was probably quite a nasty piece of work even for her time. Rather I remain agnostic on the case, as Thorne’s compelling study has shown that there are two very interesting and strong cases here, neither of which matches the view found in most studies of the Blood Countess.

To vote my review of Tony Thorne's "Countess Dracula: The Life and Times of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess" please click on


If you enjoyed my reflections on Elizabeth Bathory please read my opinion on her written on Helium

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