In 1545, Hungarian society was transfixed in a period of constant war and revolution- constantly at war with the Ottoman Empire on its borders with Transylvania. At the same time, rumors began to spread of the merging of Hungary into the Holy Roman Empire. The society was a war-obsessed society to say the least. It was a society that glorified the warrior and created him to be the ideal standard of manhood. It was a society in which, one’s manhood could only be tested and proved on the battlefield and nowhere else, mirroring the beliefs of several war lords, warriors and people of the times.
This can be seen through works of great literary personas such as Shakespeare through his play ‘Coriolanus’, where, he expresses the general trend of the time-the trend of war being the only noble test of manhood. For this reason, being a warrior was a great symbol of pride and a great social booster. However, for the women, who could not work and had almost non-existent rights of feminist equality with the men of their times, the only way to climb the social ladder was though the profession of the men in their family and their husbands. In medieval Hungary, two families ruled the country and the society since its very formation. The House of Báthory was one of these families. Their name comes from the Hungarian word that very literally in Hungarian translates to ‘brave’ was a war-obsessed noble family who held high military, administrative and ecclesiastical positions in the Kingdom of Hungary and ruled over Transylvania in particular. As for the Nádasdy Family, it was the only equal in terms of social status to the Bathory Family and thus, it was only expected when the engagement of Elizabeth Bathory and Ferenc Nádasdy- both teenagers at the time. At the age of 15, she was married to him and she was plucked out of the socially exciting society of Vienna and was forced to live in Transylvania’s barren and isolated kingdom, cut off literally from the rest of the world. Both families had one practice in common- interbreeding. Possibly to keep the wealth and influence within the family, this practice was continued, a rather common practice with nobility and monarchy throughout time. The product of this was rather malicious personalities that would be considered in modern pop culture as ‘evil genius’ forming in both families. Elizabeth Báthory and her husband were both products of this.
Married at the young age of 15, she was determined to be a ‘good’ wife and woman to society. However, this resulted in her giving up her education and social life all together. After all, Transylvania was literally cut off from the word and through her wedding, she owned Transylvania in entirety and her family at the time, owned more land than the king of Hungary himself. At first, she had a rather fair reputation- providing a medical service to the villages in her territory and often carrying out negotiations with the Turks when people of her villages were harmed. Instances have been recorded when she negotiated on the behalf of a family in one of her villages where one of the girls was kidnapped and raped by Turkish soldiers. This shows how highly she was educated at the time and for this reason, she is often considered to be one of the most influential women of her times. As for her husband, he was often considered to be one of the greatest warriors of his time, often spending 10-11 months in a stretch away from home. Almost instantly after their wedding, he left to Vienna to pursue his education whereas; she was left in Transylvania, cut off from her social circles.
Despite all of this, she was considered to be a devoted wife and a good mother. Before their wedding, around the age of 14, Elizabeth became the mother of an illegitimate daughter- Anastasia, through a manservant. When her husband did find out, the servant was promptly killed and as for Anastasia, she was given to peasants to raise in the countryside, away from the family. However, she would be allowed to adopt the name. This was the first and the last time she was ever unfaithful to her husband.
After a few years of executing her social responsibility, like any other person, Elizabeth began to grow bored of her lifestyle. Disconnected from her social society, she felt isolated from the world. While they were several villages that she did own, none of those people were of the same social status as she was. After all, under the feudal laws of that time, she owned them. Thus, she was lonely and bored out of her mind; she began her illustrious streak of torture that she would be infamous in history for. It is unclear as to who exactly prompted her into this. Some claim that it was her aunt who suggested this to her as an amusing recreational activity. However, some claim that it was because of her husband. Known quite well for his cruelty both in and outside the battlefield, he had quite a reputation. Thus, it was not long before both husband and wife began these practices.
Their preferences were young virgin girls of the villages they owned and eventually, the student surpassed the master. At first, this was a simple means of amusement. She would recruit her maids from the neighboring villages, luring the young girls in with the promise of teaching them the ways and mannerisms of the Court. After all, she was famous for having a rather sophisticated and impressive court in her favorite castle in Cachtice. It was thus, not surprising that so many girls did come. She would torture them, often beating the girls down to bloody pulps. Her husband’s methods often included soaking the servant girl in honey and forcing her to stand outside naked to be stung by bees and wasps. Another favorite of her methods was one that she inherited from her husband- star kicking. Strips of paper would be soaked in oil and placed between the toes of the servant girl. They would then be lit. Out of pain, the servant girl would kick violently and she would see stars in her eyes because of the unbearable amount of pain. She was a cruel mistress as well. Supervising the work of her servants on a daily and personal basis, she would tolerate nothing but absolute perfection. Records do show that she was rather cruel to her servants. If a servant did not iron her clothes to her liking, she would stamp their face with the heated iron, scaring them for life. Because of the magnitude of servants, her role has often been considered to that of a CEO of a multinational company- that would be her position in the modern world. Off course, she would not be allowed to be this harsh. But at that time, laws did not protect the peasants. They were viewed as discarded property. Thus, they had little or no rights. No one could protest against her and no one could supervise her. Thus, she is infamous in history, not because she tortured her servants. She is infamous because she tortured them to an extent no one else ever dared to do.
After her husband’s death, her reasons for torture changed. She soon became very concerned with her physical appearance. She would often bathe in blood; drink it straight from the veins of the girl if the servant was beautiful as well. Although, there is not enough documented evidence to actually prove this. Nevertheless, she became very concerned with her physical appearance and would do anything and everything to protect it. Moreover, with the death of her husband, she had almost no one else to turn to anyway. In an already lonely life, she was abandoned yet again. For this reason, it is often suggested that she wanted to be caught. As the Christmas season of (crime library) 1609 approached, she was already a great suspect. Four bodies had been thrown off the balconies of her castle and villagers had noticed. This is what ultimately sparked off the investigations into her crimes. Off course, it was mainly because of the letters of the Lutheran Minister István Magyari addressed to her, regarding her crimes. This shows clearly how bad the situation was already. After all, for a Lutheran minister to actually compose a letter accusing her of her harsh attitude towards her servants, the situation must have been absolutely horrid.
However, for a woman who had survived her entire life, torturing peasants and had escaped it, it made absolutely no sense for her to simply become careless. In my personal opinion, she was simply bored with her life. Her children had left her- married and living their own lives. Her family and her social circle were absolutely out of her reach. Moreover, she was suffering from a personal age crisis. She simply could not accept growing older and this is quite obvious from the way she was willing to do almost anything and everything to maintain her youth. The rumors of her bathing and drinking blood also gave birth to the common misconception of her being the first Vampire. This would later be one of the reasons as to why she was nicknamed the ‘Tigress of Cachtice – one of the many nicknames she would acquire over time.
She was tried and put under house arrest. She was never tried publically because of the sheer influence of her family. . Through her mother, Elizabeth was the cousin of the Hungarian noble Stefan Báthory, King of Poland and Duke of Transylvania. For this reason, she was never publically tried, nor was she publically executed. Instead, she was simply placed under house arrest in her castle in Cachtice, where she would spend the next four years, until her death. However, even by being sentenced to house arrest, she was confined to a single room in the vast castle. By this time, through several witnesses, survivors and detailed journals of her torture practices, about 600 cases had been documented and confirmed. Elizabeth Báthory, therefore, earned the title of the ‘most dangerous woman in history’ as she was now responsible for the death of 600 virgin peasant girls, all with the aid of 4 servants. On August 21, 1614, she was found dead in her room. Found by a guard when he was delivering her food, it is unclear exactly when she died. Plates of untouched food remained in her room, suggesting that she starved herself to death.
Much of her life still remains a mystery. The largest source of information about her comes from the national archives of Hungary and because of this, several inaccuracies are present. One of the greatest inaccuracies is of the very crime she was accused of. At the time she was alive, she was often considered to be one of the most influential women in the kingdom because of her education. At a young age, she learned to fluently speak Latin, Greek and German. Although it is a rather unpopular view, some people do believe that she was the victim of conspiracy theories. László Nagy, one of the supporters of this view, argues that at the proceedings were largely politically motivated. The theory is consistent with Hungarian history at that time, which included religious and political conflict, especially relating to the wars with the Ottoman Empire, the spread of Protestantism and the extension of Habsburg power over Hungary. As a Protestant, it was a clear threat to even have her alive and thus, she had to be removed and the best way to reduce her influence would be to absolutely demonize her. The fact that Báthory herself was never put to death, despite the personal requests of King Matthias of Hungary simply strengthens these theories. After all, her husband had been for almost 10 years at the time. She was technically richer than the king himself- owning far more land than he ever did. Thus, her death would benefit him and it did. The moment she was arrested, her children were exiled from Hungary and her land was confiscated, supporting further this theory.
However, few do believe her to be absolutely innocent. This, in my opinion is not possible as over 300 witnesses and survivors did testify, at the rate of 35 per day at the testimonies of her accomplices. Moreover, the corpses of dead girls strewn inside and around the castle would also have to be discounted. Thus, her absolute innocence is impossible to establish. However, few do dare to view her as a feminist as she was one of the few influential women of her times. Off course, she was not the only one- Queen Elizabeth I, after all was her contemporary. Never the less, she had significant political influence, even as a women that would be a significant threat to more the men of her times as she was one of the richest and most well educated women of her time.
Personally, I believe that she was guilty of her crimes. However, it was not her singular fault. The social trend was the abuse of the peasants. She would also treat the nobles below her rank with absolute indifference, indicating how classist Hungarian society really was at the time. Other land owners off course, did torture their employees, as did she. However, she was scrutinized for the extent of her torture. It was prompted by her family, her husband and her society in general but reached the absolute panicle after the death of her husband. This was when the torture was the worst, suggesting her sheer loneliness and her struggle to actually reconnect with society. She was a heartbroken woman and although that hardly pardons her sins, it prompted it. She longed for attention, which she lacked from her family and her husband due to his continuous absence and sought to replace it through recreations such as the torture of her servants. It is all this that earned her the nickname of ‘Countess Dracula’ and eventually would be one of Bram Stoker’s inspirations for his book, ‘Dracula’.