Popularised by Bram Stoker, Vlad ‘Drakyula’ III’s posthumous identity is relatively easy to understand, while his cousin’s afterlife, Stephen the Great, is far more contentious.
Bram Stoker’s chance discovery of Vlad III of Wallachia, while consulting a retired diplomat’s guide to the Romanian principalities in a Whitby library, has given the 15th-century Wallachian voivode an unrivalled international fame. Vlad’s monniker, ‘Drakulya’ – used in his lifetime – has morphed into a unique posthumous identity, even if the Dracula of popular culture bears little resemblance to the medieval ruler whose bloody personal history underlies Stoker’s literary creation and the cinematic visualisations of the 20th century.
Would Dracula – Vlad III, Vlad Ţepeş (the ‘impaler’), he goes by several names – have found international renown without Stoker’s novel? Vlad’s contemporary reputation in southern and central Europe was strong, in part due to propagandising by his enemies, and he lived on in Romanian folk memory as a popular hero. He was not one of the leading exemplars chosen by Romanian nationalists in the 19th century to provide inspiration in the growth of Romanian national consciousness; but Vlad III was a remembered figure whose military campaigns against the overwhelming forces of Ottoman invaders marked him out as a defender of the homeland. Without Stoker, Vlad’s fame today would be of a different nature, but he would be known nonetheless.
The Dracula effect distorts the public image of Romanian history at the same time as providing local commercial opportunities. However, such is the recent importance of medieval heroes in the construction of national identities in countries of central and eastern Europe that Vlad Dracula is arguably only an exaggerated case of an individual’s reputation being used for socio-political purposes. This is evidenced in Romania and Moldova by the posthumous career of one of Dracula’s blood relatives, Stephen III of Moldova.
Vlad and Stephen were of similar age and their careers advanced in parallel. As youths, they were refugees together at the court of John Hunyadi, the regent of Hungary. When they acceded to the thrones of Wallachia and Moldova, respectively, in the 1450s, they faced uncertain futures: they were rulers of polities that were divided internally by factions and threatened from without, both by the great European powers and by the advance of the Ottoman empire into southeastern Europe.
The pressure proved to be too much for Vlad. His reputation for judicial cruelty would mark him out as a ruler of uncommon brutality. His campaigns against the Ottomans were glorious failures. Ultimately, Vlad’s brief reigns in Wallachia – he was voivode several times – were of a kind with the numerous Wallachian rulers of the 15th century, who held their thrones only for a few years at a time as vassals of the Ottomans.
Stephen’s career in Moldova was of a different order. He reigned almost without interruption for nearly 50 years. A military commander of rare ability, he withstood numerous invasions of his territory; a canny diplomat, he managed a sequence of ever-changing alliances which gave him parity of status among the competing empires on his borders; a great patron of religious architecture and art, Stephen’s reign established a recognisable Moldovan culture that survived into the early modern era, even as his polity began to wither.
Contemporaries bestowed on him the soubriquet ‘Great’. Following his death, Stephen received popular acclamation as a saint. The physical legacy of his reign – including castles, fortified residences and decorated churches built in a unique style – combined with folk memory and a culture of history writing to engrain Stephen the Great himself within the culture of the Moldovan lands.
Stephen’s life after death is as complicated as his web of diplomatic alliances. The accidents of war and boundary changes have left his lands spread today across the borders of three nation states. In Romania, Stephen forms a part of the narrative of national heritage. Since 1992, he has been a saint of the Romanian Orthodox Church: Putna monastery, the place of his burial, has acquired the properties of a cult site. In the Republic of Moldova, ‘Stephen the Great and Saint’ has served a different purpose – he has become a representative for the nation and the embodiment of an invented Moldovan ideal.
In the 2000s, the reformed Communist government of the Republic sought to build a sense of distinct nationhood within Moldova, using cultural history to establish the symbolic identifiers of the nation state. Pre-eminent in the roster of Moldovan signs and symbols was the image of Stephen the Great, the representative of Moldova’s independence. 2004 marked the 500th anniversary of Stephen’s death and the year was dedicated by the government to celebrating Stephen, using his example to promote a vision of the new Moldovan state as multi-ethnic but historically and culturally coherent.
The Republic of Romania also invested in Stephen’s memory – culturally and commercially. The tension between the two republics was evident when the Moldovan president refused to attend a memorial service at Putna monastery on the anniversary of Stephen’s death. Adopting Stephen as the main national hero has been problematic for Moldova: after all, he ruled the Principality of Moldova from a heartland west of the Prut in what is now northeastern Romania and southwestern Ukraine, and there are few sites of note associated with him in the territory of the Republic of Moldova. But the duality has persisted – a heritage figure in Romania, the national emblem in Moldova.
Dracula’s afterlife is relatively easy to understand; he is the ultimate vampire in a literary canon and an evocative character among the voivodes of Romanian medieval history. Stephen the Great’s posthumous reinvention is many tiered and sometimes contradictory, for all that he is revered as a saint across national borders. ■
Jonathan Eagles holds a PhD in Archaeology and Medieval History from University College London, and is the author of the new book Stephen the Great and Balkan Nationalism.
Image shows a details from The Ambras Castle portrait of Vlad III, c. 1560.