Demonising Powerful Women: The Blood Countess

Erzsébet Báthory; the Blood Countess, the female Dracula, a real woman who has become a legend. She is the inspiration of a heavy metal band and appears in the Guinness World Records as one of the most prolific serial killers in history. She was also a woman demonised by history to fit in a male narrative.

La Condesa Sangrienta, illustrated by Santiago Caruso.

Erzsébet Báthory was born on August 7, 1560, into one of the most powerful families in Central Europe at the time. As a rich noble child, she grew up surrounded by wealth and exquisite education. She was also beautiful, “a portrait from 1585 depicts a haunted, delicate beauty with a high white forehead […] staring out of the frame with huge mournful eyes” (Telfer, 2017, p. 3). At only ten years of age, she was betrothed to fifteen-year-old Count Ferenc Nádasdy, from a powerful Hungarian family. They married in the groom’s motherland in 1574 and the festivities lasted for days. As a present to his new wife, Count Nádasdy gifted Erzsébet with a castle of her own: the Castle Csejthe, a lonely Gothic fort on top of a hill.


The Nádasy-Báthory family was now one of the most powerful in Hungary at the time. Ferenc Nádasdy loved war, he rightfully earned the nickname the Black Knight of Hungary during the Long War due to his ruthlessness and cruelty. It is said that he was very creative when torturing his enemies and enjoyed playing catch with their heads. He sent war treasures to his wife, which increased the couple's wealth enormously. So much so, that when the Hapsburg (reigning family at the time) were running out of money, Nádasdy-Báthory loaned them money so Hungary could keep fighting the Ottomans (Telfer, 2017, p. 4).


While Ferenc was at war, Erzsébet ran the massive estates of her husband’s family. She was in charge of managing the lands and its people. She maintained a correspondence with her husband, but she was the one making the decisions. Ferenc at war and Erzsébet controlling the land, together they were unstoppable. Even though the couple did not see each other much, they had several children and found a very peculiar way of bonding: torturing people.


La Condesa Sangrienta, illustrated by Santiago Caruso.

It should not come as a surprise that the Black Knight of Hungary was just as vicious at home as he was at war. And his wife shared the same sentiment, she was in charge of a huge amount of peasants and punishment was a daily chore. They encouraged each other’s violence and shared new creative ways to torture their subordinates/enemies. Servant girls were dying constantly in the Báthory household, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. At the time, peasants were completely disposable and the law protected the nobles abusing them. However, it was not just her aristocratic birth that protected Countess Báthory. The king of Hungary himself owed them money. Erzsébet was untouchable, she could do as she pleased in her castle.


In 1604, the Black Knight of Hungary succumbed to illness and died. Erzsébet was forty-four years of age. According to the servants, her husband’s death changed her. She was alone in her castle, her children were already married. She grew more and more vicious and violent and she was not the only one hurting servants in her castle. She had arranged a group of sorts around her that helped and participated in her acts. The closest to her was a woman called Anna Darvolya. Together they captured peasant girls from the neighbouring villages and the girls were never seen again.


Erzsébet was confident in the law that was protecting her, she thought herself all-powerful. As it always happens in these cases, “she grew careless, she got messy, and she killed the wrong people” (Telfer, 2017, p. 10). Countess Báthory seemed to run out of peasant girls to torture and turned to noble girls. That is when the authorities began to suspect. In 1610, the king ordered György Thurzó to begin an investigation against Erzsébet. She became paranoid and resorted to magic and witches to destroy Thurzó and the king. Her efforts proved futile, Thurzó found mutilated corpses in the woods surrounding the castle and evidence of torture in the basement cells.


As an influential noblewoman, she was never brought to trial. She was imprisoned in her own castle, where she died three years later. Her followers were not granted the same courtesy and were tortured and publicly executed. The administration at the time tried to silence the case, but in the 1720s, records of her trials were found and the legend began.


La Condesa Sangrienta, illustrated by Santiago Caruso.

Erzsébet became the Blood Countess and all sorts of stories regarding her killings came into being. She tortured and killed 600 young girls, she once put her hand in a girl’s mouth and tore her whole face apart. She would rip out girls' flesh and forced to eat it, she “could not eat nor drink if she had not previously seen one of the virgins from amongst her maids killed in a bloody way.” (Craft, 2014, p. 14). But the most famous story of all, and what awarded her the title of Female Dracula, was the rumour of her bathing in blood. According to the stories, after slapping a servant girl, she noticed that the skin from her hand that had been splattered by blood, looked younger and smoother. She became obsessed with the idea and bathed in the blood of virgins to preserve her beauty.


And this is one of the main arguments that historians and storytellers used to justify and mystify Erzsébet Báthory. She was obsessed with the idea of remaining young and beautiful forever, and she became a ruthless killer. Of course, this is a suitable narrative for violent women, “because then all that bloodshed simply comes down to a misguided desire to look good for the boys” (Telfer, 2017, p. 9). The boys or the girls, because another popular narrative surrounding the Countess involved repressed lesbianism since her target were always young girls. Apparently, when she was younger she was very close to her Aunt Klara (who had the reputation of being violent and sexually insatiable) and some of the first biographies about the Countess accused her of having an incestuous relationship with her (Bledsaw, 2014).


Her legend extends also to her early life, because what kind of legendary murderess would she be without a dark and violent upbringing? When Erzsébet was just a child, she witnessed terrible things. As the story goes, she saw a man getting sewn to the stomach of a horse as a punishment for stealing and the young Countess cackled at the sight of the peasant’s head sticking out of the horse’s body” (Telfer, 2017, p. 2). It is true that Central Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries was not the most peaceful of lands and Erzsébet probably did see a good deal of violence when she was young. It was common to beat servants and to attend public executions. However, many historians argue that it is just another argument to add fire to the legend of the Blood Countess (Bledsaw, 2014).


La Condesa Sangrienta, illustrated by Santiago Caruso.

A ruthless killer who bathed in blood, a bisexual and sexually insatiable woman, a powerful and beautiful widow. The Erzsébet legend is morbid and therefore very attractive, but is also the story of a powerful woman that has been demonised by history. One of the first monographies written about the Countess was written by a Catholic priest called brother Laszlo in 1720. He was the first to include the blood bath. Why would he do that? At that time, the Hapsburg were controlling some territories and were very interested in converting the nobility to Catholicism. Therefore, demonising a powerful Protestant woman and turning her into a vampire was as good a technique as any other.


Nevertheless, this is not to say that she was innocent of the crimes she was accused of. There are many historical resources that confirm her violent acts. However, it must be taken into account that most of the testimonies against her were either hearsay or confessions achieved through torture. Neither seem reliable sources of information and the first accounts of her story were clearly written by biased men. She was demonised and used as a tool to contribute to others' agendas, which is very common for powerful women throughout the history. One only needs to observe how modern-day media treats women in politics.


Erzsébet Báthory has gone down in history as a legendary Blood Countess, the Female Dracula, and her castle, despite being now in ruins, is known as one of the most haunted places in Europe. Countess Erzsébet Báthory died on August 2, 1614, and was buried on holy ground, only to later be moved to the Báthory mausoleum. Her crypt was opened in 1995 and no trace of a body was found.



References:

  • Telfer, T. (2017). Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History. John Blake Publishing Ltd.

  • Craft, K. L. (2014). Infamous Lady: The True Story of Countess Erzsébet Báthory. Createspace Publishing Platform.

  • Bledsaw, R. L. (2014). "No Blood in the Water: The Legal and Gender Conspiracies Against Countess Elizabeth Bathory in Historical Context." Theses and Dissertations. Illinois State University.


Image References:

  • Pizarnik, A. [Writer], Caruso, S. [Illustrator]. (2009). La Condesa Sangrienta. Libros del Zorro Rojo.

Author Photo

Isabel Panadero

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