Dracula, Prince of Horror

Vlad DraculImpaled victims

In the autumn days of the Middle Ages, disconcerting tales of horror began to spread through Europe about Vlad Dracula (“Little Dragon”), Prince of Wallachia (part of current-day Romania). As many pamphlets and handwritings attest, this man was so bloodthirsty that he subjected not only his enemies, but even his own subjects to unspeakable cruelties, impaling them on stakes, burning them, flaying them and boiling them alive. According to one story, he particularly enjoyed dining amidst his impaled victims.

In all likelihood, these horror stories – which would give rise to the Count Dracula figure in modern novels and movies – were compiled and spread on the instigation of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, who had imprisoned Vlad in 1462 for political reasons. Yet whoever the culprit was, the numerous pamphlets against the Prince of Wallachia constitute one of the earliest uses of the printing press to commit wide-scale character assassination.


• Matei Cazacu, L’Histoire du prince Dracula en Europe centrale et orientale (XVe siècle) (Geneva 1988)
• Raymond T. McNally & Radu Florescu, In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires (2nd revised edition; Boston – New York 1994)
• M.J. Trow, Vlad the Impaler: In Search of the Real Dracula (Stroud 2003)
• Heiko Haumann, Dracula. Leben und Legende (Munich 2011)

The Beast Emerges

“There has risen frFrederick_II_and_eagleom the sea a beast, full of words of blasphemy, which, formed with the feet of a bear, the mouth of a raging lion, and, as it were, a panther in its other limbs, opens its mouth in blasphemies against God’s name, and continually attacks with similar weapons his tabernacle, and the saints who dwell in heaven.”

With these words, written in a 1239 encyclical, Pope Gregory IX assaulted the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (r. 1220-1250), with whom he was repeatedly engaged in territorial conflicts. Vexed by Frederick’s wars against the Papal States, Gregory excommunicated him twice – once in 1227, again in 1239 – and compared him to the antichrist. The language in the encyclical, which was sent to kings and bishops throughout Europe, evokes the image of the blaspheming sea beast from Revelation 13. Frederick responded in kind, calling Gregory “that great dragon, who deceives the whole world” and “the prince of darkness who misquotes prophecy, who misstates the Word of God.”


• David Abulafia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor (London 1988)
• Peter Segl, ‘Die Feindbilder in der politischen Propaganda Friedrichs II. und seiner Gegner’, in: Franz Bosbach (ed.), Feindbilder. Die Darstellung des Gegners in der politischen Publizistik des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit (Cologne – Weimar – Vienna 1992) 41-71
• Richard F. Kassady, The Emperor and the Saint: Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Francis of Assissi, and Journeys to Medieval Places (DeKalb, IL 2011)

A Maid at the Stake

Jeanne d'ArcBorn in the early years of the fifteenth century, the French peasant girl Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) had been hearing heavenly voices since she was thirteen years old. In 1429, she put on man’s clothing and travelled to the royal court at Chinon. At the time, France was troubled by the Hundred Year’s War between the great houses of Valois and Plantagenet – the kings of England – which both laid claim to the French throne. Jeanne managed to secure a meeting with the Valois crown prince Charles and, remarkably, persuaded him to let her lead an assault to break the English siege of Orléans.

Gaining a splendid victory, the “Maid of Orléans” became an inspiring religious and military leader for the French troops. Her subsequent conquest of Reims allowed the crown prince to be crowned as Charles VII at Notre-Dame cathedral. However, Jeanne was later captured and fell into the hands of the English, who put her on trial for heresy and cross-dressing. As the minutes show, the trial was heavily biased against the accused and, unsurprisingly, ended with her condemnation and burning at the stake.

Allegedly, the English showed her charred remains to the audience to take away any doubt that she had perished. Thus they sought to undermine the prestige of an important French icon and, indirectly, the prestige of the Valois king. However, Jeanne was rehabilitated in a posthumous trial and would eventually be made a saint by the Catholic Church.


• W.P. Barrett, The Trial of Joan of Arc (New York 1932)
• Régine Pernoud (transl. E. Hymans), Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses (London 1994)
• Colette Beaune, Jeanne d’Arc (Paris 2004)

Fighting the Antichrist

As the highly competent leader of the Muslim forces fighting against the European Crusaders, Sultan Saladin (r. 1174-1193) was feared and admired by his Western opponents. Both in literary and visual media, he appeared as an incarnation of the antichrist or as one of the seven heads of the dragon from the Book of Revelation. However, there was also room for a positive tradition, in which Saladin was allegedly baptized before his death. Thus it was attempted to incorporate this respected opponent in the Christian world order.


• Geoffrey Hindley, Saladin: Hero of Islam (2nd edition; Barnsley 2007)
• Dirk Jäckel, ‘Saladin und Antichrist. Das andere Bild von Ayyubidensultan im 12. Jahrhundert’, in: Wolfram Brandes & Felicitas Schmieder (eds.), Antichrist. Konstruktionen von Feindbildern (Berlin 2010) 117-134

Killer Queen

Long is the list of crimes that bishop Gregory of Tours lays at the feet of the Merovingian queen Fredegund (d. 597) in his History of the Franks. According to the bishop, Fredegund was a vicious and ruthless woman who practiced sorcery and had many of her opponents murdered or tortured. Particularly infamous is the story how she tried to kill her daughter Rigunth. Fearing that the girl might usurp her position, she took her to the treasure chest and invited her to take out all the jewels she wanted. When Rigunth bent over, Fredegund pressed down the lid on her neck and would have choked her if onrushing servants had not interfered.

Although many of the stories told about this queen may be true, Gregory’s vehement assault on her character also betrays a deep uneasiness with women who operated on their own initiative and did not shun violence.


• Nira Gradowicz-Pancer, ‘De-gendering female violence: Merovingian female honour as an “exchange of violence”’, Early Medieval History 11 (2002) 1-18
• Anne Bernet, Frédégonde: Épouse de Chilpéric Ier (Paris 2012)

A Corpse Put On Trial

The Cadaver Synod is perhaps the most macabre example of character assassination in history. In January of the year 897, Pope Stephen VI had the body of his predecessor Formosus dug up and put on trial for many crimes, including perjury and having obtained the papacy by illegal means. The rotting corpse of Formosus was found guilty; his papacy was declared null, his body stripped of its papal regalia and his right hand mutilated. Although much is unclear about the circumstances of the Cadaver Synod, the trial may have been held for the benefit of Duke Guy IV of Spoleto, whose military actions had been opposed by Formosus.


• Ernst Dümmler, Auxilius und Vulgarius: Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte des Papstthums im Anfange des zehnten Jahrhunderts (Leipzig 1866)
• Joseph Duhr, ‘La concile de Ravenne en 898: la réhabilitation du pape Formose’, Recherches de science religieuse 22 (1932) 541-579
• Girolamo Arnaldi, ‘Papa Formoso e gli imperatori della casa di Spoleto’, Annali della facoltà di lettere e filosofia dell’Università di Napoli 4 (1951) 85-104
• Peter Llewellyn, Rome in the Dark Ages (London 1971)

Further Reading: Middle Ages

The following is a list of academic studies dealing with character assassination. More readings will be posted, so be sure to check often.

Readings involving character assassination in the middle ages:

Middle ages: the time in European history between classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance (from the 5th century to the 15th century).

  • Bosbach, Franz (ed.), Feindbilder. Die Darstellung des Gegners in der politischen Publizistik des Mittelalters und der Neuzeit (Cologne – Weimar – Vienna 1992)
  • Brandes, Wolfram & Felicitas Schmieder (eds.), Antichrist. Konstruktionen von Feindbildern (Berlin 2010)
  • Edgerton, S.Y., Jr., Pictures and Punishment: Art and Criminal Prosecution during the Florentine Renaissance (Ithaca, NY – London 1985)
  • Higgs Strickland, Debra, Saracens, Demons and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton 2003)
  • Klaniczay, Gábor, ‘Representations of the evil ruler in the middle ages’, in: H. Durchhardt, R.A. Jackson & D. Sturdy (eds.), European Monarchy: Its Evolution and Practice from Roman Antiquity to Modern Times (Stuttgart 1992) 69-79
  • Meier-Staubach, Christel, ‘Verkehrte Rituale. Umkehrung, Parodie, Satire und Kritik’, in: Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, Matthias Puhle, Jutta Götzmann & Gerd Althoff (eds.), Spektakel der Macht. Rituale im alten Europa, 800-1800 (Darmstadt 2008) 181-198
  • Möhring, Hannes, ‘Heiliger Krieg und politische Pragmatik: Salahadinus Tyrannus’, Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 39 (1983) 417-466