Did Vlad the Impaler cry bloody tears?

4 minute read

That's the irresistible conclusion of a new analysis of his letters.

Your Back Page correspondent is a longtimefan of gothic horror: spending a winter in a northern Italian town at the age of 11, long before Kindles and the internet, we drained the English-language section of the local bookshop dry, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  

The mediaeval city was a highly atmospheric setting and 11 is an impressionable age, which is probably why we maintain a soft spot for all things nosferatu.  

So this paper about Vlad the Impaler, the putative partial inspiration for Stoker’s noble, brought a tiny red tear to our eye.  

A team from the University of Catania examined three letters written by the 15th-century Voivode of Wallachia to the rulers of Sibiu in 1457 and 1475, using non-invasive protein extraction techniques and mass spectrometry, and using deamidation to distinguish ancient peptides from modern contaminants. (On the matter of contamination, the very visitworthy Sibiu in Transylvania has maintained an archive since 1465, so the two later letters have had a continuous home there for more than 500 years rather than kicking around goodness knows where.) 

The paper, published in Advances in Infectious Diseases, includes a translation of only one of the 1475 letters, which is rather dull and unbloodthirsty, merely releasing Sibiu and Brasov from their obligation to pay him a tax of 200 forints.  

Why the team undertook the proteomic analysis they don’t say, so we’ll put it down to “for shits and giggles”. But whatever they were looking for, they struck a kind of red gold.  

The team was able to characterise about 100 ancient peptides of definitely human origin as well as some 2000 from the environment. From the human proteome the authors cautiously propose that he suffered from ciliopathy and inflammation of the respiratory tract and skin.  

Even more cautiously, but with a restrained glee, they say that by 1475 he may also have suffered from haemolacria, the extremely rare condition in which you weep blood.  

And we thought that was only on TV. 

The authors don’t clearly show their working behind this result, but it seems tied to the presence of dermcidin, an antimicrobial and antimycotic peptide expressed in sweat glands, and also in blood and tears.  

Prince Vlad Draculea, who saw off the Turks and may have commissioned the deaths of up to 80,000 people, is not an easy man to imagine having a cry: 15th-century Transylvania was no time or place for men to show vulnerability, and subjecting tens of thousands of people to impalement would suggest the Voivode liked his masculinity as toxic as it comes.  

But as his fictional namesake says, “Our ways are not your ways”, and maybe even he had his sensitive moments?  

Mm, still seems unlikely, judging from this contemporary description quoted by the study authors: “he was not very tall, but very stocky and strong, with a cruel and terrible appearance, a long straight nose, distended nostrils, a thin and reddish face in which the large wide-open green eyes were framed by bushy black eyebrows, which made them appear threatening”.  

At least if he did ever cry it would have looked horrifying.  

(Dracula fans who would like to hear the narrative brought to dramatic life but find the films mostly woeful might enjoy Re: Dracula, an audio adaptation in which each diary entry, letter and recording is released as a podcast episode as dated in the novel, with an excellent cast of voices.) 

Send story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au and remember to get the recipe for paprika hendl.  

End of content

No more pages to load

Log In Register ×