Thursday, October 08, 2009

Bathory Redux

[a number of readers have asked me to repost this essay, as the photos were bust for some obscure reason. Here it is, with images reinstated]

Weird stakes in the Bathory marshes.

Greetings. I'm in Asia right now, on the hunt for... babyrat wine. This is proving difficult, hence the hiatus in blogging. To make up for the lack of info, here's a longish piece I did for the Fortean Times, this winter, about my hunt for one of the most notorious murderesses in European history - Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the Tigress of the Carpathians.

The Truth About Countess Dracula

As nondescript places go, this one takes some beating. It's a muddy little town, in the corner of a forgotten swamp, a dozen miles from a remote section of the Hungarian/Romanian border. I'd guess the locals don't see many foreigners like myself: one farmer is staring at me so hard he's almost fallen off his bicycle.

But I'm not here to astonish the peasantry. I'm here to trace the lifestory of the most notorious murderess in European history. Elizabeth Bathory. A woman whose name was once so fearsome, the people of her native Hungary were banned from mentioning it for a hundred years. A woman, it is further said, who inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.

The tiny town in which I'm loitering is called Ecsed. According to historians Ecsed is where Elizabeth grew up, in the 16th century, in a large castle belonging to her illustrious family.
Yet not a trace of a castle can I find. Dowdy bungalows, yes, scruffy bus-stops, sure. But no ancient buildings. In desperation I head for the town hall, where, using my schoolboy German, I explain to a secretary what I'm seeking. 'Ah ja!' She says. ''Erzsabet Bathory!'

Soon we are joined by an amateur local historian, Zoltan, who "teaches theology and English" in the Ecsed school. We get in a car and drive past a yellow church to a concrete shed. Inside this shack I find a desultory display of stone coffins, bits of cannon, and a broken coat of arms - featuring a dragon-like creature strangled by its own tail.

Between the shed and the church is a flat swampy field. This chilly expanse of mud is, Zoltan tells me, the site of the great Bathory castle. The edifice was levelled when the Bathory family fell from grace in the 17th century. And these few dismal relics, collected in the shed, are all that remain of Elizabeth Bathory's childhood home.

There is a picture of Elizabeth Bathory on the wall of the "museum". Zoltan shakes his head.
'You know,' he says. 'They say she killed many people. But I think she was just an intelligent and independent woman - who would not kneel to men. Maybe they made up those stories to destroy her?'

Zoltan, it seems, is a Bathory Revisionist - he belongs to that school of thought which claims that Elizabeth Bathory, the infamous "Blood Countess", was really the victim of a lordly conspiracy.
This contrary perspective has been around for some time. During the 20th century it was promulgated by Hungarian scholars, keen to cleanse the national record. At the same time, a feminist perspective on Bathory has seen her as a smart and spirited woman condemned by a misogynist patriarchy. A new film, starring Anna Friel, and due out this summer, reiterates this feminist take.

Meanwhile, many writers, artists and historians have gone to the opposite extreme, citing Bathory as the quintessence of female evil. A cannibalistic lesbian who slaughtered hundreds of virgins.

They can't all be right. So my job is to sort the revisionist wheat from the hysterical chaff. And to do that I need to follow Bathory's trail across three countries.

Climbing in my car I bid goodbye to Ecsed. As I set off across the lonely marshes I go over what we already know - what is historically undisputed - about Bathory's background.

The gory tale begins in the mists of the Dark Ages, when a clan of German warriors settled in these Hungarian fenlands, between the towns of Nyirbator and Ecsed. The family was known as the Gutkeleds.

Through the medieval era the Gutkeleds distinguished themselves in various battles and repressions. As a result their name was officially changed to Bathory, which means "brave" in Hungarian. For centuries the Bathorys claimed their name was given to them because they slew the last dragon in the swamps. Hence that dragon - actually a "wyvern" - in their coat of arms.

Of course this is myth, the name probably derives from the name of the nearby town:
Nyirbator. But the conceit does reflect a violent streak in the Bathory character (a psychological flaw which might have resulted from inbreeding - the Bathorys were keen on marriages between noble relatives).

Elizabeth's uncle, for instance, was the ultra-violent Prince of Transylvania: he once roasted a rebel on a red-hot iron throne, then had the man's charred corpse force-fed to his followers. Other Bathorys were drunks and rapists, one was accused of devil-worship. Yet the Bathorys were not entirely rotten: amongst them were bishops, cardinals - even a King of Poland.

It was into this brutal but remarkable family that Elizabeth was born, in 1560. She was first raised at the ancestral manor in Nyirbator, next to the fine Calvinist church built by her Protestant great uncle.

After a few years she was moved to that Bathory estate at Ecsed, in the middle of the marshes. By the age of six she was afflicted by epileptiform seizures: perhaps a hint of the madness to come. Yet she was a very intelligent child, learning German, Greek, and Latin.

Elizabeth Bathory was also quite beautiful, with hair the colour of "sumptuous ravens", and a milk-white, northern complexion, inherited from her Gutkeled ancestors. Her fairness would have stood out strongly in a land of swarthy peasants. Even today the Hungarians I can see from my car - as I drive towards Budapest - are darker than the European average.

In the late 1550s, Elizabeth had her first encounter with real savagery. A gypsy musician was caught stealing by the Ecsed guards. The thief was dragged into the forecourt of the castle, where he was sewed inside the stomach of a horse. The screaming gypsy was left to die as the horse decomposed. Elizabeth witnessed this before her tenth birthday.

In her fourteenth year Elizabeth appears to have had an affair. The details are obscure: Elizabeth was highly sexed from youth, so she might have instigated the romance herself. Other stories claim she was raped by a serf. Whatever the truth, the resultant pregnancy was concealed and the scandal hushed up. Elizabeth's parents decided that their brilliant but troubled daughter needed a husband. And quick.

A match was duly arranged. Count Ferencz Nadasdy de Nadasd of Fogasfarold was the groom.
The couple seemed a perfect fit. The 26 year old Nadasdy came from a clan of warlike Hunnish nobles, who were almost as distinguished in lineage as the Bathorys. Nonetheless the 15 year old Elizabeth kept her maiden name, in recognition of her superior ancestry.

Following the splendid wedding, Elizabeth moved into one of her husband's castles: Sarvar, near the modern Austrian border.

It's a long way to Sarvar from Ecsed - even today, on EU funded motorways, I have to stop off three times for petrol and goulash. By the time I arrive in Sarvar it's very dark, but I still can't miss Sarvar castle. Large, brooding and severe, the castle dominates the little spa town.

Next morning I linger in the castle, sheltering from the wintry drizzle. These passageways and halls, now converted into offices and gallery spaces, are where Elizabeth Bathory spent her early married life. This castle is also where the newly-wed Elizabeth first showed her tendency to sadism. At least, that's what most believe: it's at this point that we reach the disputed evidence.

According to witness statements, at Elizabeth's trial, the young countess had a portfolio of special punishments for "erring" castle servants. One of her supposed methods was to jab pins under her serving girls' nails; on a different day she might have the young women thrashed with stinging nettles.

In some of these acts she was apparently abetted by her husband. Count Nadasdy also had a taste for violence, as he proved in his many wars against the Muslims. After battles the "Black Bey", as he was known, was seen to juggle the severed heads of his enemies in the air.

When he wasn't soldiering, or juggling, Ferencz apparently chose to pass the time at Sarvar by teaching his eager young wife more ingenious methods of "punishing" the staff. One involved smearing a naked girl with honey, then leading her out into the castle grounds. There the girl would be endlessly stung by insects, to the amusement of the chortling nobles.

That the couple shared an interest in witchcraft is inarguable. In one letter to her husband, when he was away at the wars, Elizabeth said of her spells: 'Thorko has taught me a lovely new one. Catch a black hen and beat it to death with a white cane. Keep the blood and smear it on your enemy.'

"Thorko" was a manservant. During the long absences of her husband, Elizabeth had begun to surround herself with some very strange people. Within her own family there was her bisexual Aunt Klara, supposedly a sorceress. Elizabeth and Klara became great friends at this time.
Other accomplices were even odder. Amongst the Countesses servants there was a demented crone, a lesbian witch, and a dwarf called Fizko. This motley bunch helped with Elizabeth's household affairs, and her childcare (the Countess was by all accounts a 'good mother' to her several offspring).

Accompanied by these bizarre friends and underlings, Elizabeth began to travel. She specially liked to visit the other castles her family owned, like Forchtenstein, Lockenhaus and Kerezstur. It would of course have taken weeks to tour these places in the 16th century; today the castles are just an hour's drive from Sarvar - as I discover.

At Kerezstur, just across the Austrian border, I find the castle overgrown with vines, and practically derelict. Twenty miles west is famous Forchtenstein: this is still a grand edifice, inhabited today by the Esterhazys, distant relatives of the Bathorys. My last stop is Lockenhaus, high in the gloomy forests of the Burgland. It's here that I experience a truly sinister frisson.
On my arrival at the Dracula-esque castle gates, the place seems deserted, apart from a taciturn woman running a bizarre Christmas market in one of the towers. She lets me roam the empty dungeons and hallways. At one point, with the winter twilight encroaching, I am startled by a strange figure standing in a shadowy corner. Panicked, I turn the light on.

It turns out to be an iron maiden.

This is weirdly fitting, as Elizabeth Bathory was meant to have used iron maidens on her victims - in this very castle. Somewhat shaken, I retreat to my car and get out my notes. It seems the iron maiden story, despite the fine coincidence, is probably a legend. Yet there is firm evidence from Bathory's trial that, wherever she went on her travels, the Countess sought out young girls to abuse.

According to the allegations, one of Bathory's favourite tricks was to press red hot coins into the hands of girls she accused of stealing; alternatively she would iron the soles of the girls' bare feet. In more severe moods Elizabeth would cudgel her servants until she was so drenched in blood she had to change her clothes. On another occasion, she was seen to rip open the jaw of a maid with her hands.

Early next morning, I leave Sarvar, to trace the last and bloodiest part of Bathory's peculiar life. In 1602 Count Nadasdy died; some say he was poisoned by an unpaid harlot. Elizabeth was now rich, alone, untrammelled, and obsessed with her fading looks. She moved full-time to her favourite castle of Cachtice (it's pronounced Katch-teet-say).

Cachtice is quite hard to find. A good seven hours from Sarvar, its across the Slovakian border, way up in the Carpathian foothills, surrounded by enormous pineforests. When I reach my destination, and survey the silent ruins, I realise it's a suitably isolated place for anyone intent on murder.

If reports are to be believed, it was at Cachtice Castle that Bathory's crimes became truly insane - and homicidal. For instance: one wintry day at Cachtice Elizabeth ordered a wench stripped naked. The girl was led out of the keep into the snow, where she had water repeatedly thrown over her until she turned into a pillar of ice. Elizabeth watched.

On another occasion, Bathory demanded that maids be brought to her room: the girls were forced to lie unclothed on the floor: then they were tormented so viciously the blood had to be soaked up with ashes. The wildest rumours claim that this blood was used to fill Elizabeth's baths: as a cosmetic remedy for her ailing beauty.

There is an obvious sexual element in these and other alleged crimes. One of Elizabeth's penchants was, it is said, to have her girls do their chores nude. Elizabeth also liked to burn her maid's pubic hair with a candle-flame. During a stay in Vienna, Elizabeth supposedly had a naked housemaid put in an iron cage, which was then hoisted into the air; the girl was speared to death by Fizko the dwarf, while Elizabeth shouted obscenities from below.

Is this believable? Surely not. Yet the inhabitants of the monastery next door were so disturbed by the screams they threw pots at the adjoining wall.

Back in Cachtice the local villagers had, understandably perhaps, begun to hate and fear the Countess. When Bathory travelled she needed armed guards to protect her from the mob. Priests refused to bury all the mutilated corpses emanating from the castle; local girls refused to work within the castle's sinister walls. But Bathory was unabashed. As the supply of local serving-girls dried up, Elizabeth attracted aristocratic young ladies from further afield, with offers of patronage: these young women were, it's claimed, attacked in turn.

In these last desperate months Elizabeth was allegedly so deranged, when she was too tired to rise, she would have girls stripped and brought to her bedside - so she could bite them, ripping out chunks of bare flesh with her teeth.

Whether these rumours were true or not, the authorities had to act. Bathory might have been one of the noblest names in the country, but such inflammatory behaviour risked a peasant rebellion, and the disappearance of blue-blooded girls was unignorable.

One cold night in late 1610, the Palatine of Hungary, Count Thurzo, arrived at the isolated castle. He was accompanied by a platoon of guards. In his hand was a warrant from the king.
Refused entrance at the gate, Thurzo's men smashed the doors down, and marched right in.

According to some reports, they discovered Elizabeth hunched over a prostrate figure: she was torturing another girl. The Countess was arrested and taken away, along with her servants.
Thurzo's original intention may have been quite unambitious: to force Elizabeth to stop her crimes, preferably without the embarrassment of a trial; another motive for the arrest might have been blackmail: the Hungarian King wanted his debts to the Bathorys forgotten. But in the end there was no "hushing up", no backstage deal. A public trial was arranged, in nearby Bytca.

Bathory was actually tried twice. Each time, hundreds of witnesses were called, to testify to her cruelties. Some witnesses were tortured; most spoke freely.

It's here we approach the truth about Elizabeth Bathory. Yes, some of the allegations were clearly concocted. The blood-bathing, for instance, was a lurid embellishment (it only appears in accounts of her life from the 18th century). Many of the other tales were, presumably, embroidered, as is often the case with terrible tales.

But the sheer weight of evidence against the Countess was - and is - overwhelming. Aside from the many witness statements, we have contemporary letters, between priests, civil servants, and other notables, loudly complaining of Bathory's crimes. The fear and loathing the Countess provoked amongst the common people must also be taken into account; likewise the confirmed reports of mutilated corpses.

Finally there is the mortification endured by the nobility, and the Hungarian royal family, following the scandal. If the trial was just a conspiracy to defraud an uppity woman, why the centuries of shame? And why did the authorities feel the moral necessity for a trial at all, given the embarrassment this must have caused?

The answer is simple. Elizabeth Bathory was a brutal and murderous sadist, whose crimes were too atrocious to ignore. This is the only explanation that fits the many facts; any other perspective is incredible.

What we do not know is the true extent of Bathory's savagery. Did she kill 30 or 40, as seems likely? Or did she butcher 600 - as some have wildly suggested? The exact answer will always elude us.

After the trial, Bathory's female accomplices had their fingers torn out, and were then burned alive. The dwarf was summarily decapitated. The Countess herself was, by contrast, sentenced to a kind of living death. She was walled inside her room in Cachtice, with only a small window onto the world.

As I wander around the castle ruins, I see several such apertures. Any one of them is possibly hers.

For nearly five years the elderly murderess rotted away. Then, on August 21, 1614, a guard looked through the window, and saw a figure slumped on the floor. Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the Bloody Lady of Cachtice, was dead.

One mystery abides. Where was she buried? A popular theory holds that she was first entombed in her castle, then moved to the church in the valley.

But this is far-fetched. Would the villagers really have tolerated the body of this hated woman in their crypt? Much more likely is that Elizabeth's remains were taken across Hungary to the ancient family tomb: in the church built by her forebears. In Nyirbator.

My last drive is therefore a return journey: across the Hungarian plains, past Budapest, all the way to Nyirbator. Turns out it's not much of a town, the best thing in it is that church, a fine piece of central European Gothic, with a bizarre wooden belfry. Underneath the church is a sealed family vault. My hunch is that she is interred here.

If so, it is a suitable resting place. Even today Nyirbator has a bleak and eerie atmosphere, partly due to the bitter cold that sweeps in from the marshes. By nightfall the grubby streets of Nyirbator are usually deserted, and all you can hear is the howl of that wind. On a particularly bad night, it sounds like someone being tortured.

Lockenhaus castle - 'Leka'

Iron maiden, Lockenhaus Castle

Forchtenstein Castle. Bathory tortured girls in the dungeon here.

The bizarre belfry at Nyirbator church.

Kerezstur Castle. Now semi-derelict, and owned by an eccentric Austrian artist.

Ecsed Marshes.

Cachtice castle. Where Bathory committed her worst atrocities, and where she was imprisoned, and died.
Me! At Cachtice. Cold and a little spooked.