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Change Does Not Mean Improvement

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Erzsébet Báthory: Change Does Not Mean Improvement


            Our Emily Balch seminar in its discussions on evolution seems to have come to a puzzling conclusion: that change is somehow purposeful. Change moves towards a certain goal, and all change has positive consequences. This is baffling to me. Change is random, with consequences both good and bad. Change does not make perfection or move towards a specific ideal, it only forces individuals or species to adapt or die. Personal adaptation does not always mean seeing the suffering of the world around us and deciding to do something about it. Sometimes personal adaptation means seeing the suffering and deciding to cause the suffering.

            Erzsébet Báthory was a Hungarian countess in the late 16th and early 17th centuries of good education and powerful family. She married Ferenc Nádadsy, a national hero who helped keep the Ottomans out of Hungary, and had five children. She could read and write in Hungarian, Greek, Latin, German, and it is rumored even Slovak, a feat which was unheard of for most men in her time. She had good standing with the royalty, and reasonable wealth. With Báthory’s status it would seem as though she would be well-adjusted. Maybe she would be a symbol for female power, or the perfect candidate to see the awful things in the world and do something about them. She didn’t. In fact, regardless of which accounts are looked at, Erzsébet Báthory was nothing short of a serial killer.

            Erzsébet Báthory and her accomplices are reported to have killed anywhere from 50 to 300 girls who were lured into working at her estates. Most of the girls were aged 10-14, and were brutally tortured before death. They were burned, beaten, bitten, stabbed, and whipped. In most accounts it was said that her husband and other members of her family and the nobility knew of her crimes, her husband even showing her how to torture the servant girls. It was only when lower-ranking noble girls from less wealthy families started dying that those capable of stopping her did. Báthory was sentenced to house arrest, and though she did have a trial it was never public. She died in her castle, in her own bed.

            If Erzsébet Báthory was the product of generations of society moving towards one goal—to be civilized, then how did she end up so opposite of what we, even they, thought of as civilized? She was the product of inbreeding, a common practice among the aristocracy, and insanity was an occasional genetic consequence of that inbreeding. While mental illness can make it easier to harm other people, there are plenty of people with mental conditions that have never harmed another being. Báthory’s upbringing was cruel, but the same people who underwent hers, similar, or even worse upbringings looked at her and thought her mad. She was an accumulation of awful things happening to herself and to people around her. She was a violent reaction to the need for control and power. Her life did nothing to make the world any better for the people after her—if anything, because she was supposedly bisexual and epileptic she continued the notion that using sexual orientation and physical or mental impairments as scapegoats was acceptable. There is nothing about this process that can be justified as acceptable, or as moving towards a more perfect human.

            So what was it? It was not the change that our Emily Balch seminar has brought into creation. It was actual change: an unfathomable number of occurrences coinciding with each other to create something. It is not a specific thing with direction, it is just a thing. People can try to give it direction, whether with religion, or upbringing, or education, or experiences, but none of these things are guaranteed to shape what we want how we want it. And at some point if we continue to try to we will end up rather like Báthory: desperately exerting power over the one thing less powerful than we are, to have complete control wherever we can find it. I’m not trying to say that there is no purpose to anything or that we cannot change the world—I think we can. But the only purpose we can give is to ourselves, and once we see the world through that purpose the world is changed. We need to learn to inflict on ourselves and not on other people.



Craft, Kimberly L. “Infamous Lady: the True Story of Countess Erzsébet Báthory” CreateSpace Publishing. October 27, 2009.

“Elizabeth Bathory the Blood Countess” BBC h2g2. 8/2/01. 11/10/10.


Ramsland, Katherine. “Countess Elizabeth Bathory” Crime Library. 11/10/10. <>