Having been fortunate enough recently to catch the 30th anniversary re-release of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (one of my favourite movies), I thought it time to dust off the story of Vlad Dracula’s bride, who supposedly threw herself to her death from Poenari Castle to the River Argeș below. It has (since at least 2006) appeared on the Wikipedia page for the tributary itself, albeit without any kind of cite (sigh). This story is quite key to the movie’s plot, and ‘Prince Vlad’ explains to the reincarnation of his lost love that the river was thus renamed ‘in his mother’s tongue it is called Arges; River Princess’. This bit is somewhat correct. This tributary of the river Arges is today called Râul Doamnei or Rîul Doamnei, in English the “River Lady” or the “Lady’s River”. Not that it necessarily invalidates the claim, but ‘Princess’ is a questionable translation. There are several Romanian words for ‘princess’; none of them are ‘Doamnei’, which, derived from Latin ‘domina’, means ‘Lady’, as in a mistress of a household or a gentlewoman. Thus the ‘Lady’ in question could have been a member of the nobility or ruling family, but is not necessarily royalty (even the usual English translation of Voivode as “prince” is questionable as far as I can tell, being closer to Lord or perhaps Baron – the Romanian word for Slavonic voivode is domn which is indeed “lord”).
The larger problem is that this real-life piece of folklore is not actually based upon any wife of Voivode Vlad Țepeș III, aka Vlad Dracula. It is yet another bit of BS history created by Dracula researchers Raymond McNally and (the late) Radu Florescu. You can read about a fair number of their questionable claims in Elizabeth Miller’s appropriately named book ‘Dracula: Sense and Nonsense’, and Anthony Hogg has covered the extremely dubious yet widespread myth that Dracula was accused of dipping his bread in human blood here (the accusation was actually that he washed his hands in blood). Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of their work, given their respectable academic backgrounds, is their total lack of citations, making it difficult to disentangle fact from elaboration, error, and perhaps deliberate misinformation. They expand snippets of history and indeed legend into whole paragraphs and pages, presented as complete historical accounts. Other than to entertain, sell books and boost the Romanian tourist industry, their main goal seems to have been to blur the very clear line between the historical Voivode Țepeș aka ‘Dracula’ and the fictional Count of the same name. Miller covers this very well in her book, and one of my first blog posts back in 2007 goes over it as well, but to be clear, Stoker was not inspired by the historical Vlad Dracula in his creation of the fictional Count, and the links between the two are tenuous at best. The fictional Dracula is a superficial and historically inaccurate conflation of Vlad III and his father Vlad II, based upon a single source that Stoker found whilst writing the book.
McNally and Florescu first published their version of the River Princess story in 1973’s ‘Dracula: A Biography of Vlad the Impaler, 1431-1476’ (p.106). In 1991, when production on the movie was in progress, an almost identical version was printed in the follow-up book, ‘Dracula: Prince of Many Faces’, and follows below:
“During that night, one of Dracula’s relatives who had been enslaved by the Turks years before, mindful of his family allegiance, decided to forewarn the Wallachian prince of the great danger he was incurring by remaining in the fortress. Undetected, during the pitch-dark, moonless night, the former Romanian, who was a member of the janissary corps, climbed to the top of Poenari Hill, a short distance from Dracula’s castle, and then, armed with a bow and arrow, took careful aim at one of the dimly lit openings in the main castle tower, which he knew contained Dracula’s quarters. At the end of the arrow he had pinned a message advising Dracula to escape while there was still time. The Romanian-born Muslim witnessed the accuracy of his aim: the candle was suddenly extinguished by the arrow. Within a minute it was relit by Dracula’s Transylvanian concubine; she could be seen reading the message by the flickering light. What followed could have been recalled only by Dracula’s intimate advisers within the castle, who presumably witnessed the scene. Peasant imagination, however, reconstructed the story in the following manner. Dracula’s mistress apprised her husband of the ominous content of the message. She told him that she would “rather have her body rot and be eaten by the fish of the Argeş than be led into captivity by the Turks.” She then hurled herself from the upper battlements, her body falling down the precipice below into the river, which became her tomb. A fact that tends to corroborate this story is that to this day the river at that point is known as Rîul Doamnei, or the “Princess’s River.” Apart from a brief notice in the Russian narrative, this tragic folkloric footnote is practically the only reference anywhere to Dracula’s so-called wife, who is permanently enshrined only in local memories.”
This text reappeared in “The Complete Dracula” a year later, the same year as the Coppola movie was released, forever cementing this connection as historically accurate. As noted already though, this is simply not correct, even to folklore (which of course need not reflect historical events). There are multiple Romanian legends around the Râul Doamnei, collected by Codru Rădulescu-Codin in ‘Literatură, tradiții și obiceiuri din Corbii-Musc̦elului’ (1929, available and Google-Translatable here). Not one of these involves Vlad Dracula or for that matter his castle/citadel of Poenari (Cetatea Poenari or Cetatea Țepeș-Voda). The first from the 1929 book is about a Lady who washes her clothes in the river (hence the name), the second one involves the wife of Negru-Voda (the ‘Black Voivode’) a possibly mythical early prince of Wallachia. Negru-Voda is in fact traditionally associated with the nearby Poenari Castle (as its builder), but this is coincidental folklore – the castle doesn’t feature in this case, largely because the tale relates to the royal couple travelling through the area rather than being resident at Poenari. There’s another reason, though. Poenari is far too distant from the river in question to be jumped into. If you had jumped out of any of its windows, you would just have landed on the rocky slopes below, a good 200 metres from the river. Nor is this one anything to do with either Turks, or the Lady’s suicide; she doesn’t even die in this version. This version appears in actual Romanian language literature as late as 1990 (‘Revista de Psihologie’, Volumes 36-37, Academia Republicii Populare Romîne), whereas I can find nothing in Romanian sources for any version involving Vlad. The third of the actual traditional folk tales does feature the suicide, but here it is the Voivode that the Lady (or Princess if you like) is fleeing, following a disagreement over a church that she founds whilst he is away fighting the Turk and that he destroys with cannon. This one was clearly dreamed up to explain the ruined state of the nearby Sân Nicoara church, as well as the name of the river. It would also have changed the major subplot of the 1992 movie rather drastically if Dracula was attempting to lure Mina into the same domestic abuse situation as her former incarnation!
The last two versions of the myth, under the title ‘Piatra Doamnei’, are conceptually much closer to the Florescu/McNally version in that the titular Lady is fleeing Turkish rapists and accidentally kills herself in the river. This is also the oldest one that I (at least) could find in print online, dating back to at least 1909 in ‘Jocuri de copii’ by Tudor Pamfile (p. 59). This and the others are no doubt much older as verbal folk tales. Its actual origins, like most placenames in the world, will be lost to history, and even the legitimate folktale/song version was probably concocted to explain the existing name. One version names her as ‘Doamna Carjoaia’. The other, simpler version goes as follows:
“In vremea de demult, ci-ca, alergau Tatarii prin partile acestea dupa o Domnita romanca, tare frumoasa, voind s’o pangareasca. Da cand a ajuns Domnita la raul asta, apa era mare de tot si ea, neputand s’o treaca, a inceput sa fuga in sus pe malul sting al rauluitot a fugit pana a ajuns in Corbi. Da, aci, era aproape s’o prima Tatarii. Ce sa faca ? A vazut o piatra mare si a dat fuga de s’a ascuns dupa piatra. Totus, Tatarii au gasito si aci. Biata Domnita atunci, a inceput sa tremure de groaza si s’a incercat sa treaca raul, cum o putea, doar-doar o scapa cu vieata. N’a avut noroc insa, ca au luat-o valurile si s’a innecat in rau biata Domnita. De atunci, raului in care s’a innecat, i-se zice Rdul Doamnei, iar pietrei, Piatra Doamnei.”
“A long time ago in these parts the Tatars* were chasing a very beautiful Romanian princess, wanting to defile her. When the princess reached this river, the water was very deep and she, not being able to cross it, started to run up on the left bank of the river and ran until she reached Corbi. Yes, here, it was almost like the first Tartar. What to do? She saw a large stone and ran to hide behind it. However, the Tatars also found her here. The poor Miss, she began to tremble with horror and tried to cross the river as best she could, she just got away. She was unlucky, however, because the waves took her and the poor Miss drowned in the river. Since then, the river in which she drowned is called Raul Doamnei, and the stone, Piatra Doamnei.”
*Most likely actual Turkish invaders rather than ethnically Turkish Wallachian Tatars.
There could be yet another version where Vlad’s princess commits suicide due to Turkish misinformation, but unlike these other versions I can find no evidence of that. A final clincher here is that various of the legend are found all over Romania and Moldova, pertaining to lots of different rivers and different female protagonists. It’s a folklore ‘motif’, the real-world predecessor of the internet meme. These stories spread like viruses amongst and between populations, who modify them to fit their locality, preferences, and prejudices, with a recognisable kernel (the tragic death of a woman) remaining the same. In that respect this one isn’t much different from the western European “grey lady” ghost stories, and has nothing whatever to do with our old friend Vlad III. As the Corpus Draculianum team has pointed out, Vlad III, although famous at the time and known to European and Ottoman nobility, was really not a big figure in folklore and popular awareness until after the founding of the modern Romanian state in 1859. This is supported by the total lack of any folklore involving Vlad III at all in Tony Brill’s 1940s collection of Romanian popular legends (‘Tipologia legendei populare româneşti. Vol. 2: Legenda mitologică, legenda religioasă, legenda istorică’, Ed. by Ioan Oprişan, 2006). The ‘Princess River’ motif does appear, but again, without any reference to Vlad III or even Poenari Castle. In the 20th century, a number of scholars, not just McNally and Florescu, then retrospectively created histories that gave his memory far more period significance and continuity than it originally had. Which is not to say that he doesn’t deserve his pivotal place in the history of the region, just that circumstances denied him that local legacy until it was, effectively, rediscovered and mythologised. On the one hand it’s annoying that we in the west had to create ‘Vampire Vlad’ through fiction and misrepresented history, but on the other, I wouldn’t have got to enjoy the 1992 movie if we hadn’t. At least that gave the real Vlad III some nuance back, since the prior western awareness was filtered through near-period exaggeration and lies about his cruel nature, notably through the Transylvanian Saxons and their Germanic cousins in the west. The real Vlad was not a vampire nor an exceptionally murderous tyrant, he was very human, and like many medieval rulers, used terror and violence to try to secure order within and without his realm. As to the “why” of all this, I don’t know why McNally and Florescu made this claim or what sources they may have used that they felt supported it, but including it certainly did help their overarching efforts to make the two Draculas appear to be one and the same. At this point they have “won”, at least in the West; much to the disgust of many present-day Romanians who had already reclaimed Vlad Dracula as a national hero, and for whom the vampire association is a perplexing reflection of the old Saxon slurs about him.