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Erzsébet Báthory: Political Prisoner

Women in a position of power have always been open to accusations of maleficence and witchcraft, and in 1610 in superstition-ridden Hungary a high-born noblewoman, whose lands stretched across the length and breadth of the country, fell victim to such accusations and was condemned to spend the rest of her years in close confinement, spared from an ignominious death only by her family name and her title. That woman was Countess Erzsébet Báthory, widow of the Hungarian war hero Ferencz Nádasdy, and relation to the kings of both Poland and Transylvania. This article is part a retelling of the fable of her life and capture and part a reclamation of her name from the dungeon of history.

There is no question that her treatment of her maidservants was harsh and violent by modern standards, but her aggression was certainly not the exception in her era. Ill-treatment of the menial classes was commonplace – an accepted part of feudal life. The accusations of causing the death of servants alone (no matter in what quantities) would not have led to a criminal case being raised against Erzsébet, and it was only because a member of the lesser nobility was one of the murdered girls that a prosecution was allowed to progress at all.

The stories of her life rely greatly on inherited 'knowledge' passed down from source to doubtful source, and thus was the legend of 'Countess Dracula' born. It is significant that nowhere in the letters pertaining to her life written by those out to discredit her, nowhere in the transcripts of the trials of her servants, is there mention of her drinking blood or indeed of her being a vampire. This is the stuff of later legends, myths encouraged by her political enemies and by the Church to blacken her name, an attempt to explain female sexual violence, menopausal depression and an apparent blood fetishism, all of which were not understood in those dark days.

Erzsébet Báthory was no saint, but neither was she the demoness portrayed in visions of the 'Bloody Countess'. Erzsébet was afraid of growing old and losing the power and privilege which had been hers since the death of her husband. The rising power of the Austrian Hapsburgs was a constant worry to the native Magyar nobility and the political machinations behind the scenes were a breeding ground for all kinds of treachery and collusion. The domains of the Báthory and Nádasdy families over which Erzsébet presided were vast and significantly placed in terms of generating wealth for the landowner and providing a strategic defensive capability in the likely event of trouble. And all this power lay in the hands of a woman, something which no doubt made her enemies' desire for the lands more urgent to satisfy.

Her principal antagonist was György Thurzó, Count Palatine of Hungary, whose familial links with the Báthorys were strong by marriage, but who personally clashed with Erzsébet over many things during their long association. Thurzó wanted the Báthory lands for himself, but soon discovered that his usually successful ploy of intimidating widows into surrendering their castles would not work with the strong-willed Erzsébet. If the lands were to be his, he would have to find another means of getting compliance from her, and discrediting her name was the plan he lit upon.

It is a commonly-held belief that Erzsébet Báthory was put on trial for murder, found guilty, and punished accordingly. This again is a myth, for in fact Thurzó had Erzsébet incarcerated without a legitimate trial, acting swiftly to prevent her from escaping. He broke the law and contravened the word of the king in order to detain her. She was found guilty 'in absentia' and her servants – Újváry János (Ficzkó), Jó Ilona, Dorottya Szentes (Dorkó) and Katalin Beniezky – 'freely' confessed (after severe torture) to their parts in the violence and killings, offering vague and ambiguous clues as to their mistress' role in it all.

Their testimony is unreliable for several reasons, chief among them being that there are no personal pronouns in Hungarian, so 'he' and 'she' are largely indistinguishable; thus what was written in the transcripts of the trials as 'she' could equally refer to any of the fellow accused servants or to the Countess herself. Names are rarely used and certainly not by the servants when referring to their mistress. And of course they gave this testimony after lengthy torture. Not to mention the fact that the clerks of the court (no doubt in the pay of Palatine Thurzó) would have expunged from the records any declarations of the Countess' innocence, if any had been made.

All in all, a very unhelpful record remains to us today of what went on at the trial. All the circumstantial evidence however, I feel, points to a plot to dispose of Erzsébet, enabling the ruthlessly ambitious Thurzó to take possession of her lands. Erzsébet's wealth and power was threatening in a world where women were mostly just pawns in the great game of political marriage played by all the major families of Europe; her age (she was 50 years old and post-menopausal when arrested and imprisoned) meant that she served no womanly function in a world obsessed with propagating heirs to noble estates; and she was reputed to consort with witches and herbalists (as did very many noblewomen of the day as an alternative to the dangerous and ill-informed ministrations of the medical profession!) – all of these things put her in the 'crone' bracket familiar to any student of the witch-hunt mania which swept Europe in the Middle Ages and culminated with the destructive purging of 17th century England by the sadistic and insane self-styled 'Witchfinder General' Matthew Hopkins.

Indeed, her case had a precedent in the persecution and trial 'in absentia' of Dame Alice Kyteler, an Irish noblewoman, in 1324. Titles were no exemption from the laws of the land, particularly if you were a politically dangerous old woman with subversive interests and a mind of her own.

Erzsébet Báthory suffered a fate perhaps worse than death – for this daughter of a noble line to be stripped of her privileges and her freedom, to be shunned and forgotten by her family, who wanted to overlook the relative who had brought such shame to their ancestral name, and to have to concede defeat to her enemy György Thurzó must all have been more humiliating than a martyr's death. She had no hope of release; nobody could or would step forward to speak for her.

Within four years of her incarceration she was dead.

But the legends attaching to the name of Erzsébet Báthory live on in the 'Carmilla' of J Sheridan le Fanu, the Hammer 'Karnstein' trilogy of movies, and the influential role of the female vampire in today's psyche. Lilith Silver in 'Razor Blade Smile' is the latest incarnation of the female vampire begun with the Hungarian Countess nearly 400 years before.

Erzsébet may never have been a vampire, but the fact that her name is still known nearly four centuries after her passing is a testament to the fact that she has now become as immortal and deathless as the vampire. Countess Erzsébet Báthory has become the legendary and near-mythical Countess Dracula. The first modern female psychopath has become the immortal after her death she so longed to be in her later life.

see also on this site: Bathory John Polidori Gilles de Rais Catherine de' Medici Mozart Aleister Crowley

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