"O Quam Misericors est Deus, Pius et Justus" - The Order of the Dragon, Crusaders and Vampire Tales from the Blue Danube

12 December 1408, the Societas Draconistarum, the Order of the Dragon, one of the last and certainly one of the most peculiar military orders of the Middle Ages, was founded by King Sigismund of Hungary, later Holy Roman Emperor, and his wife Barbara of Chilli.

“I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvania history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said “we,” and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking. I wish I could put down all he said exactly as he said it, for to me it was most fascinating. It seemed to have in it a whole history of the country.“ (Bram Stoker, “Dracula”)

The order patch of the "Ordo Draconum", usually worn stitched on the collar or the shoulder 

There was a somewhat inflationary use of the term “crusade” by the end of the late Middle Ages. By and large, every conflict could be termed a crusade if it was fought by Catholics against one of the numerous heretic sects, Cathars, Bogomils, Hussites and what not, or against Muslims, of course. Indulgence of one’s sins, one of the rewards for crusading, could even be obtained ex post facto if a warrior was able to prove that he took part in a fight against the Infidel. The idea of crusading into the Holy Land was never quite forgotten, but usually, there were more pressing matters at hand, such as smashing each others’ skulls first or those of the dissidents in one’s own neighbourhood. Things were a bit different in Spain where Muslim princes still ruled in the South and nearby North Africa, but when the backwash of the original crusades hit Eastern Europe with the Ottoman expansion, the Balkan principalities and kingdoms as well as Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire and the Italian city states had the war on their own doorsteps. Or were engulfed by it from the start. Pretty much like the Muslim rulers of the Near East during the 12th century, the Christian rulers of Central and Western Europe did not even think of a united front against the invaders, nor were there any concentrated efforts to initiate a major crusade against the Ottomans, neither in the Morea, in French- and Venetian-dominated Greece, nor along the Danube. There were, however, campaigns that were dubbed “Crusades”. They ended in a catastrophe for the usually second-rate European princes who led adventurous and ignorant Western European nobility against the highly professional Ottoman armies, avoidable disasters if they just had listened to their Eastern European allies, the lords of Hungary, Serbia, Wallachia and Bulgaria, who knew how to oppose commanders like Sultan Bayezid but seldom had the means to. And just like the Westerners, neither could they agree among themselves to at least some semblance of unity against the Ottomans. It was not unheard of that Eastern European lords fought as the sultan’s vassals and allies, either out of necessity or just out of spite to put the hurt to their neighbours across the Great River or the next mountain range.     

Hermann Knackfuss (1848 - 1915) - Sigismund, covered by his faithful vassal Hermann of Cilli, flees from the battlefield of Nicopolis to the Venetian ships anchored on the Danube and escapes his Turkish pursuers

Nevertheless, the locals thusly battled to maintain their identity and, more often than not, their very lives, while the Westerners seemed to have perceived the affair as something of a light opera acted out along the banks of the Blue Danube. Even a new military order was founded, nothing like the Knights Templar or Knights Hospitaller, of course, rather a gentlemen’s club, the Order of the Dragon. Fathered by the later Holy Roman Emperor and then King of Hungary Sigismund, membership in the Order of the Dragon was a privileged affair. Members were ranging from the Serbian ruler Stefan Lazarevic and Hrvoje Vukčić Hrvatinić, Ban of Croatia and Bosnia, to Henry V of England. Not quite as blue blooded as the other European princes, but equally proud of his membership was Oswald von Wolkenstein, one of the last minnesingers, maybe the last one of consequence. However, the order was not founded as a direct consequence and counter-measure of the disastrous defeat of a Crusader army at Nicopolis in 1396, where Sigismund fled from the battlefield, but after a punitive expedition against his rebellious Croatian and Bosnian subjects, allegedly to suppress Bogomil heresy. The campaign ended in a massacre of the local nobility, former allies who had fought the Turks, and the confirmation of Sigismund’s marriage to the daughter of his most faithful vassal, Hermann of Cilli, Barbara, who was crowned as Queen of Hungary a few weeks before Sigismund allegedly came up with the plan of founding a chivalric order. It might well have been Barbara of Cilli’s idea and with her, another, darker part of local folklore mingles with the “Blue Danube” atmosphere of the order’s foundation.

A contemporary woodcut showing Sigismund and his dragon knights

During the nascent Renaissance alchemy and Hermetic magic played a significant role as reputable sciences and it was perhaps quirky but not quite the sign of a conspiracy that Sigismund chose the Ouroboros, the dragon eating its own tail, one of the most important alchemical symbols, as trademark for his new chivalric order, along with various other alchemical signs and rituals. It was frowned upon, however, when a woman dabbled prominently in said arts and Barbara of Cilli was a reputed alchemist. Described by her contemporaries as witty and beautiful paired with considerable political acumen and influence she exerted on her husband, she played a significant role in creating a somewhat Quixotic order that was, in all probability, an instrument to bind the unruly Balkan lords together under her husband’s chairmanship as well as securing Western allies with membership in a flashy club. But it wouldn’t be a tale from the Blue Danube without the garnish of Barbara being not only an alchemist and occultist but a vampire as well. Allegedly, she stalked the street of Constance during the infamous council there ten years later, drinking the blood of the living. And another famous vampire tale sprang from her chivalric brainchild. One of the founding members was Vlad II, Prince of Wallachia, who called himself Dracul, the Dragon, in honour of Sigismund’s order. His house became known as the Drăculești and Dracul’s son Vlad III became arguably its best-known scion. Also a member of the Order of the Dragon, Vlad junior became known as Drăculea or “Dracula”, the Son of the Dragon, a name almost synonymous with the word vampire, at least outside of the old Order of the Dragon’s domains along the Blue Danube.

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