Portrait Of A Lady (Whatever We Want Her To Be) – Elizabeth Bathory

Without a doubt the most controversial woman in Hungarian history is Elizabeth Bathory. Her name has become synonymous with mass murder. It is claimed that she was the single most prolific female serial killer in history. Whether this is true or not will almost certainly never be known.

Products of Exaggeration
A veritable mountain of evidence was given against Bathory by many different witnesses testifying at the trials of her closest associates. Much of this evidence is open to doubt, since it was either given under duress or may have been the product of score settling. One witness purported that the “Countess” murdered 650 young females. The next closest estimate from a witness was eighty. It was also alleged that the pathologically vain Bathory would bathe in the blood of virgins in order to preserve her youthful beauty. Bathory’s crimes tend towards exaggeration. This was not only done  by contemporaries, but also is a hallmark of her legacy as a cultural phenomenon. Bathory and her violent legacy sells. Whatever the truth, it is pretty obvious that Elizabeth Bathory was involved in some level of macabre activities.

A reassessment by some historians has taken place of late. It casts Bathory as a victim of the powers that be. After her husband, the legendary Black Knight, Ferenc Nadasdy, died in 1604, Bathory was besieged by powerful forces. At the time of her husband’s death Bathory was wealthier in land and financial resources than the Habsburg King, Matthias II.   The Hungarian Palatine (akin to a Prime Minister) at the time, Gyorgy Thurzo is thought to have been working with the king to wrest away the wealth and lands of Elizabeth Bathory coveted by the crown. The fact that she was a woman in an overwhelmingly male dominated society only exacerbated her problems.

Bathory’s guilt has been heavily scrutinized since she was not allowed to defend herself in court. If she had taken the stand in her own defense it would have created a greater scandal than that which her behavior had already caused. It was not just her behavior that would have been on trial, but also the aristocracy. For such reasons, it has to be asked was Elizabeth Bathory also a victim? It really depends upon the use or abuse of historical evidence, as well as the lack of such evidence. The recent reassessment of Bathory has lent an air of mystery and ambiguity to her legacy. The fact that there are more questions than answers has only served to heighten interest in her case. The picture that emerges of her guilt and/or innocence is seriously flawed.

The Usual Suspect - it is this portrait of Elizabeth Bathory that hangs in the Hall of the Ancients in Nadasladany Castle

The Usual Suspect – it is this portrait of Elizabeth Bathory that is thought to be a copy of the 1585 original

Photographic Memories
Speaking of pictures, that brings me to my recent visit to Nadasdy Castle in the village of Nadasdladany in western Hungary. This castle, though the namesake of her husband’s family, was not built until almost two hundred years after both Ferenc Nadasdy and Elizabeth Bathory died. Nonetheless, large scale portraits of both husband and wife, along with other leading members of the family, decorate the walls of the Castle’s Hall of the Ancients.

Prominently placed on one of the walls is a large scale portrait of Lady Bathory. This picture is the standard one that is often shown for her. The most striking thing about this portrait, is not the Countess’ visage, posture or stare. Instead the most appealing and revealing aspect is that we do not know for sure whether this portrait is a copy of the original said to have been done in 1585. Is the portrait true to the original or is it a distortion? In other words, we have no idea how much this copy deviates from the original.

Portrait of Elizabeth Bathory as seen in the Hall of the Ancients at Nadasladany Castle

Portrait of Elizabeth Bathory as seen in the Hall of the Ancients at Nadasladany Castle

Anything We Want Her To Be
Why does this matter? The portrait, whether a true representation or pale imitation is a microcosm of the mystery surrounding the Bathory story. Everything we know about Elizabeth Bathory is tainted by legend or her terribly dark legacy. Is there anything that can be said for sure? All the evidence of her life, her looks and her deeds is highly questionable and open to interpretation. Perhaps that is the enduring allure of her fame, more so than any acts of violence. Elizabeth Bathory can be almost anything one wants her to be. To a Slovak she is that “Hungarian whore” who murdered innocent young Slovak girls. This interpretation serves nationalist instincts. To feminists, she is a persecuted woman, done in by men who wanted to secure the existing social hierarchy. If we are Hungarian, than she is one of us, perhaps deeply flawed, but part and parcel of a Hungary that willfully resisted both Turkish and Habsburg encroachment for centuries on end. This interpretation also serves the cause of nationalism. And so it goes on. A vampire or a victim depending upon the self-interest involved.

In all these iterations notice the “is” trumps the “was.” Elizabeth Bathory is physically be a dead “was” but to the world today she “is.” All the revisions and reinterpretations keep her alive and current. She is ever present and will continue to be, because the truth about her can never really be known. The best we can hope for is an approximation, much like her picture in the Hall of the Ancients, it is her to a greater or less degree. We will never really be sure. That makes her story all the more fascinating. Elizabeth Bathory is whatever we want her to be. And what we want her to be, might just be the opposite of the truth.

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