Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?: Erzsébet Báthory and the curative power of blood in medieval Europe

Joanna Smolenski
New York University, New York, United States (Summer 2013)

If the body is seen either as enclosed and filled with blood, or as vulnerable and bleeding, then blood can also only be interpreted either as life (when it fills the intact body) or as death (when it has left the body). (Bildhauer 2006: 5)

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In medieval Europe, blood played a complicated role in society, functioning as both “life-preserving”—for instance within the Christian faith and the practice of medicine—and “life-negating”—notably as it pertained to crime, sexuality, and female empowerment within a patriarchal status quo. To better understand how these opposing elements interacted to help define the medieval relationship to blood, the notorious case of Erzsébet Báthory, a Transylvanian countess made infamous by her penchant for bathing in the blood of virgins, will be used as a case study to highlight the diverse social factors that contextualized her crime, with a particular emphasis on the role of blood itself.

Firstly, one must situate Báthory’s fixation with blood within a culture where bloodletting, or phlebotomy, was an extremely popular medical technique, so much so that “by 1450 it was applied to just about every kind of medical problem, from toothaches and melancholy to fevers.” Bleeding was seen as a purging of bodily imbalances that cause illness, and thus could be construed as establishing the framework of thought about physical imperfection that allowed Báthory’s crimes to take the form they did: essentially performing phlebotomies on the girls who fell into her hands (Gottfried 1986: 236).

Second of all, the medieval “public was fascinated with criminal women,” so much so that popular media from the period represents female murderers at a highly disproportionate rate relative to the available historical record (Staub 2005: 7). This means that factual verification for many medieval accounts of female criminals is difficult to ascertain, particularly given the sensationalism, embellishment, and “support [of] the dominant patriarchal discourse” with which they are constructed. “Since these narratives blur the distinction between so-called history and fiction, we must look instead for the truth that they do convey, a truth that may have nothing to do with literal fact” (Staub 2005: 10-11). Despite the assertion of firsthand sources in the Báthory case, it is impossible to know what actually happened in light of the difficulty of obtaining court documents and many state-led efforts to keep the case private (Penrose 1970: 7). Regardless, the mythology that emerged from Báthory’s story has much to say about the perspective of its medieval audience, and should be understood as having been taken very seriously at the time.

Born “in the shadow of the sacred crown of Hungary” in 1560, Countess Erzsébet Báthory was simultaneously blessed with the extreme privilege of a noble lineage and cursed with the inherently limited power accorded her by virtue of her gender (Penrose 1970: 15).1 As with many aristocratic women, her honor was found in the attention of her husband, an honor all too rare given the frequency and duration of his travels throughout Transylvania and Hungary— territory rendered insular and “savage” by a steady stream of external invasions and divisions beginning as early as the year 107 (Penrose 1970: 27, 33-35). With the source of her social identity so frequently unavailable, Báthory had to seek other avenues for affirmation and to mitigate the often-crippling boredom of her isolated feudal castle at Csejthe:

In order to have confidence in herself, she had to have her beauty praised continually; five or six times a day she would change her dress, her adornment, her coiffure; she lived in front of her great gloomy mirror . . . which was made in the form of a pretzel (a figure of eight) to allow her to slip her arms through it and remain leaning there without getting tired throughout the long hours, by day and by night, she spent in contemplating her own image (Penrose 1970: 24-25).

This insecurity about appearance, particularly when the only socially acceptable recipient of her sexual energy was erratically and infrequently able to witness it, reflects the dominant, yet internally conflicted, cultural perspective toward women in medieval Europe. Their dress “evoked, paradoxically and simultaneously, positive impulses for self expression; the desire for youth, beauty, and love; [and] apprehension about sexual transgressions and the breakdown of social distinctions” (Ashley 2001: 49-50). In a culture that glorified the ideal of feminine youth, aging women became necessarily marginalized, unable to fully participate in the discourse of appearance. “Twelve stood, conceptually and in some ways actually, as a watershed age in the lives of women . . . [as the age at which they] were perceived to begin the gradual transition through maidenhood to adult womanhood . . . girls entered a potentially hazardous age but one also subject to a peculiar idealization” (Phillips 2003: 23-24).

While this view was more or less consistently held across demographics, it was particularly exalted among the elite (Phillips 2003: 36-37). As the medieval period progressed, fashion became increasingly sexualized and eroticized by the wealthy, changing rapidly in style and thus further encouraging a sense of competition between “men and women [who] vied with one another for novelty and distinction” (Ashley 2001: 53-54). The expansion of gendered clothing, particularly insofar as it varied greatly relative to the affluence and ranking of those who wore it, illustrates how “constructions of sexed . . . bodies are always simultaneously constructions of age, class, ethnicity, race, and social status” (Joyce 2005: 141).

Furthermore, when compared to other, more powerful European aristocracies, Hungarian “noble blood was poor,” and thus much of Báthory’s obsessive vanity stemmed from the insecurity this perception engendered (Penrose 1970: 27, 69). One day, enraged by a servant’s misstep and desperate to reassert her authority, Báthory struck her, instantly unleashing a flow of blood that stained Erzsébet’s immaculately pale skin. “On the spot where the blood had lain for several moments, she noticed that her flesh had the translucent glow of a candle illuminated by the light of another one” (Penrose 1970: 70). Transfixed by this beauty, Erzsébet concluded that blood must be the medicine—the Fountain of Youth —she needed to sustain her appearance, specifically the blood of virginal, naïve girls willing to follow her into service without suspicion. “Every time Erzsébet Báthory wished to be still whiter, she began once more to bathe in blood,” using everything from needles to knives to hot pokers to coax her elixir from her victims (Penrose 1970: 97, 109). They were required “to be very young”—often as young as the “ideal” age of twelve—for “once they had experienced love the magical power of their blood was already wasted” (Penrose 1970: 124). Menstrual blood was considered responsible for women’s sexual appetite, so only girls unsullied by this libidinous force had the sort of curative purity that their elders required (Bildhauer 2006: 120-122).

Báthory’s appropriation of blood as a tool for stopping aging reflects the tension in this dualistic perception of blood as both life-giving and life-taking. On the one hand, the Countess slew her victims by robbing them of the blood that literally kept them alive. On the other, by ingesting this blood, Báthory created a pseudo-Eucharistic ritual that saw blood as healing and a means to eternal youth. Blood could be construed as having had the power to transmit the life force of vibrant adolescents into the slowly degenerating bodies of the aged.

Thus, Báthory began with the resources most easily at her disposal: peasant girls with little power, little influence, and little chance of causing too much concern with their disappearances. Eventually however, dismayed by her lack of progress in the quest for perpetual youth, Báthory turned to Erzá Majorova, long acclaimed as a particularly adept practitioner of witchcraft, for amendments to her established regime of bloodletting:

Those bloodbaths have been useless because it was the blood of simple countrygirls, of servants not really different from beasts of burden. It doesn’t take on your body; what you need is blue blood. (Penrose 1970: 150-151)

The class-consciousness embedded in the Countess’s grotesque machinations surfaced in the seemingly obvious realization that regardless of beauty or age, only a noble woman would have the “quality” of blood necessary to cure an aging aristocrat.

Ultimately, it was this shifted focus to noble maidens that ended Báthory’s vain phlebotomy. Elite girls were far more difficult to acquire than peasants, and the suspicions and rumors that had already begun to swell about Báthory’s conduct became so widespread and controversial, they ended up presented in Parliament. Palatine Thurzó, the highest dignitary in the Kingdom of Hungary after the king himself, was given the dubious distinction of officiating the handling of the case. Unfortunately for Báthory, he found incontestable evidence of her crimes, including the presence of at least one corpse and multiple mutilated young girls. As the final judgment of Parliament ultimately stated:

[W]hat has stirred up the greatest indignation is the fact that the “Lady of Csejthe” was not content with the blood of peasant girls, but that she also required that of the daughters of Hungarian gentlemen. (Penrose 1970: 165)

For Erzsébet, a lifetime of solitary confinement imprisoned in one of her castles was deemed sufficient admonishment for someone of her stature. Her maids of honor, accomplices and often instruments of these murders, were not treated with such benevolence. Not only were they forbidden a tribunal, they were tortured before a public execution of death by being burned alive. Interestingly, the official title of their transgression, as per the tribunal’s conviction, was not murder, but somewhat euphemistically “frightful crimes against female blood” (Staub 2005: 8).

As a woman, a noble, and a practitioner of witchcraft, Erzsébet Báthory represents a unique case study in subversion and exploitation of medieval expectations to create an identity at once beholden to her social context and an outright attack on it. With blood as her medicine, Báthory aimed for infinite life, but instead found destruction: a victim of her own ideal who has fascinated medieval blood culture for long after her death.

Notes

  1. It is worth noting at the outset that there is a limited amount of literature specific to medieval Hungary as a particular nation, given its relative lack of power within the greater context of Europe. Thus, evidence will be extrapolated from other areas of Europe and cross-applied to this story, on the grounds that trends among local populations have been successfully generalized and applied more widely within medieval Europe.

References

Ashley, Kathleen M. and Robert L. A. Clark, eds. Medieval Conduct. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
Bildhauer, Bettina. Medieval Blood. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006.
Gottfried, Robert S. Doctors and Medicine in Medieval England 1340-1530. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Joyce, Rosemary A. 2005. Archaeology of the Body. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 139-158.
Penrose, Valentine. The Bloody Countess. Trans. Alexander Trocchi. London: Calder & Boyars, 1970.
Phillips, Kim M. Medieval Maidens: Young Women and Gender in England, 1270-1540. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.
Staub, Susan C. Nature’s Cruel Stepdames: Murderous Women in the Street Literature of Seventeenth Century England. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2005.

 


JOANNA SMOLENSKI received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and political science magna cum laude from Columbia University, where she was a John Jay Scholar and recipient of departmental honors in philosophy. She went on to pursue graduate work in bioethics at New York University and will begin a Ph.D. in philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in August 2013. She plans to focus her doctoral work in the areas of ethics, applied ethics, and social and political philosophy.

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