Countess Erzsébet Báthory, 1575, Venice and Vampires

This book changed my life. Or, to be clearer, writing Suzie and the Monsters changed my life, but there were two books that provided major inspiration.

Katharina Katt’s A Female Vampire, a dark and erotic tale about a lonely bisexual female vampire, made me want to write my own dark and erotic tale about a lonely bisexual female vampire. Almost inevitably, I played with the idea that my female vampire could be Countess Elizabeth Bathory…

At the time I knew very little about the Countess beyond the popular legend that she bathed in the blood of virgin girls. Indeed, for me, Countess Bathory was someone I associated more with Delphine Seyrig’s sinister and enigmatic lesbian vampire in Daughters of Darkness (see My Top Ten … Fantastic Female Vampires).

So I set out to learn more about the Countess and turned to Kimberly Craft’s Infamous Lady: The True Story of the Countess Erzsébet Báthory (originally published in 2009 with a new edition published in October 2014).

What I learned was that truth is far more horrifying than vampire fiction. Infamous Lady balances careful, detailed research with an accessible narrative that reveals Erzsébet Báthory the human woman and her human crimes within the social and historical context.

Young Erzsébet was what we would today call a tomboy: she demanded to be treated as well as her male relatives and staff. She enjoyed dressing up like a boy, studying like a boy and playing boys’ games, including fencing and horsemanship. She would also throw hysterical fits when she did not get her way.

I can’t help wondering what she would have been like had her fiercely independent spirit been allowed to flourish. In 1571, when she was 11 years old, she was engaged to Count Ferenc Nádasdy, and by the end of 1572 she had left her family home at Ecsed to live at Sárvár. They married in 1575. Nádasdy was a ruthless warrior and also enjoyed the torture of servants. Erzsébet Báthory may be famous for killing hundreds of girls, but from the age of 12 she lived with a man who encouraged her to torture servants.

As an adolescent, Erzsébet may very well have been brutalized herself at Sárvár in an effort to force her compliance into the role of a proper – and submissive – young wife and lady. Her husband likely brutalized her behind closed doors, as was customary at the time. Husbands were freely permitted to torture their wives into submission, to punish any act of disobedience, and to maintain their status as lord and master of the household.

Another important factor in this is the astonishing wealth and power of Nádasdy, who became Captain of the Hungarian Army and wealthier than the king. He and Erzsébet could get away with anything – even murder.

It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for her. That in no way excuses her actions, but she wasn’t a soulless monster, she was human – which makes her cruelties so much worse, but also makes her into a tragic figure, a once-bright star who, perhaps through no great fault of her own, followed a path to become one of history’s great monsters.

I feel compassion for Erzsébet Báthory, even though her acts were horrifying. I can’t help feeling that turning her into a fictional vampire does a great disservice to history. Báthory’s life story is a far darker and richer tale than that of the Blood Countess.

Interlude: 1575, Venice & Vampires

In writing Suzie and the Monsters I stumbled across the date 1575 several times.

  • On May 8th, Erzsébet Báthory and Ferenc Nádasdy married.
  • On December 14th, Stephen Báthory was elected to be King of Poland.
  • Anna Bijns died, a remarkable woman who felt that chastitity and childlessness were sacrifices worth making to be free of a man’s rule:

However rich in goods a girl might be,
Her marriage ring will shackle her for life.
If however she stays single
With purity and spotlessness foremost,
Then she is lord as well as lady. Fantastic, not?

—Anna Bijns, Unyoked is Best! Happy the Woman without a Man!
[in Katarina M. Wilson, ed. Woman Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation]

  • The plague came to Venice…

In 2009, researchers found the body of a woman in a mass grave dating to 1576 (“Vampire” unearthed in Venice plague grave). The woman was buried with a brick in her mouth, indicating that she was believed to be a vampire. Similar vampire burials have been found in Poland and elsewhere. Many believed that vampires spread the plague.

In 1575, Suzie (in Suzie and the Monsters) left Venice, heading north, eventually to Vienna where, one day, she would spy Erzsébet Báthory. By coincidence, and perhaps not such a strange one, in 1575 another female vampire arrived in Venice, one who would also travel north to Vienna and encounter Erzsébet Báthory. What is a stranger coincidence, perhaps, is the similar fates their husbands met in Venice – but that would be telling.

Bathory’s Secret: When All The Time In The World Is Not Enough

Romina Nicolaides’s Bathory’s Secret, published October 2014, is set in and around Castle Csejthe in the Kingdom of Hungary, in 1610 – the Countess’s last year of freedom – and follows a young girl, Kati, who is brought to work for the Countess, binding books that tell a terrifying tale of a vampire. Kati’s story is woven with the tale of Theodora Laskari as she reads the books she binds.

There is much to like about this novel. I particularly like the historical setting and detail – vampires provide an almost unique opportunity to have characters whose lives span centuries, and here we have Theodora Laskari, a well written female vampire, born in Constantinople in 1195 and reaching Venice in 1575. I’m less thrilled with the way the story was developed in-between, however; it feels like a wasted opportunity, hiding away from history rather than embracing it.

Kati’s story feels much more comfortable in its setting and clearly the author has done her research into the life of Erzsébet Báthory. Kati herself may be an echo of Katalin Beneczky, although the former is a fourteen-year-old girl and the latter was an elderly washerwoman. From Infamous Lady:

Katalin herself sometimes refused to perform beatings, such that she herself was punished so severely that she once needed a month of bedrest to recover. … the Countess retained the meaker Katalin Beneczky in her employ – and allowed her to remain alive – despite her refusal to participate fully. In fact, Beneczky was often given the task of hiding bodies or finding new girls. … Beneczky would sneak food to the girls at great risk to herself.

It’s an absorbing read and often tense, and certainly worthy of four stars if the grammar and formatting could be cleaned up.

About Frank

A Sci-Fi & Fantasy author and lyrical poet with a mild obsession for vampires, succubi, goddesses and Supergirl.
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