Monday 30 October 2017

Dracula, St. George and Lesbian Vampires

In anticipation of tomorrow’s Hallowe’en this article deals with some of the inspirations behind modern horror clichés, in particular the lesbian vampire. As well as the legendary serial killer Countess Erzsebet Bathori there is another real historical woman who helped to inspire the fictional lesbian vampire and she has a link to the patron saint of England, St. George.

Lesbian vampires have been an integral stereotype found in many horror films, epitomised by the Hammer Horror films of the 1960s. The female vampire who sucks the blood of young maidens can be traced to a novel called “Carmilla” written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (a friend of both Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker). The novel was published in 1872, several years before Stoker’s “Dracula”. The novel’s title character Carmilla makes deeply affectionate advances to a young woman whose family she lived with. As a child the young woman, Laura, had nightmares of a woman resembling Carmilla laying in bed with her and leaving needle-like pains in her breast. A visiting general recognises Carmilla as a vampire. Tracking her to her grave she has the now customary stake driven through her heart.

The origin of Carmilla may have been inspired by the real-life Countess Barbara von Celje (d.1451), the wife of Holy Roman Empire, Szigmund von Luxembourg. Barbara was an extremely powerful and intelligent woman. She was married to Szigmund, then just the King of Hungary, after her father had freed him from imprisonment by rebel Hungarian barons. Barbara effectively acted as ruler of Hungary while her husband was on his many battles and campaigns against both his own barons and neighbouring kingdoms. They only had time to have one child, a daughter called Elizabeth. Szigmund was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1414.In December 1408, not long after King Szigmund and Queen Barbara married, they co-founded an order of knighthood usually known as the Order of the Dragon. Women don’t found orders of knighthood, so it is a testament to Barbara’s power that her husband allowed her to share founder status. The badge of the order was a curled dragon with a red cross on its back (pictured). It represented the dragon tamed by St. George.
Embroidered badge of the Order of the Dragon from around 1430 now in the Bayerisches National Museum.
One of the founding members of the Order of the Dragon was the Voivode (Prince-Governor) of Wallachia, Vlad II. In his own country he acquired the nickname of Dracul, meaning dragon, based on his membership of the order. Vlad’s son, Vlad III, called himself the Son of the Dragon – Dracula.

Back to Queen Barbara. Like all powerful people she was the victim of smear campaigns. In the fight against her enemies, mainly Catholic princes, Barbara supported the Hussite sect who were declared heretic. After her death Barbara was accused of more heresy and of drinking blood and keeping a female harem for her sexual and bloody pleasure. For the Countess Erzsebet Bathori two centuries later there was no need for rumours, she was actually like that. But for Queen Barbara it was merely a smear campaign by her enemies.

A mystic book on sorcery and magic published in 1458 adds to Queen Barbara’s vampiric reputation. The author stated that he restored the dying soul of the “lady who was much beloved by the emperor Sigmund” back into her dead body and gave her new life. It is assumed that he was referring to Queen Barbara because there’s no record of Sigmund having and other “beloved”. Added to this are other legends that circulated after her death that she was an enchantress herself. She was given the name “The Black Witch” and the “Messalina of Germany” (Messalina was the adulterous and conniving wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius).

Whatever the origin of all the rumours of Queen Barbara’s alleged supernatural, vampiric or magical abilities they may all have contributed to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s title character in his novel “Carmilla”. After all, he is known to have visited the region before writing his book.

So a smear campaign by her enemies after her death and the founding of an order of knighthood led to the lesbian vampires and Count Dracula. Being labelled a lesbian vampire doesn’t indicate that Queen Barbara was either, of course. Yet, even today, there are still esoteric and pseudo-historical groups who believe it all to be true.

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