Early Middle Ages, history tells us, found the rich lands of Transylvania and the Romanian territories south and east of the Carpathians, Muntenia, Oltenia, and Moldavia respectively, as a lively congregation of various cultures and traditions, brought together by the need for trade, the hope for a better life, but mostly by the local’s love and respect for their ancestor’s land.
But what was happening in the western Europe right about now? For no land can ever be isolated from the rest of the world, nor can it be observed on its own. Just as no level of the emerging, yet highly hierarchic feudal system can be understood as an isolated occurrence.
The Early Middle Ages in Europe
The three years of civil war in western Europe conclude with the Treaty of Verdun in the 9th century as the fights between the three grandsons of Charlemagne shattered the flourishing Frankish Empire. Thus, nowadays France, Austria and Germany were born. As new kingdoms formed, the growth of their population pushed to expansion – soon migration – and, quite soon, the Church of the West seized this opportunity and increased its spiritual, economic and military powers. As a result, the Church controlled an emerging educational system as well as the ruling classes.
Before the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes arrived in Transylvania…
The Magyar Tribes’ forced migration
Over in the east, in Asia, the Turk-Mongol tribes started expanding and moving westward, much like a tsunami wave, disturbing, overpowering , uprooting the local, smaller tribes often focused on their livelihood and not on their combat skills. These expanding new kingdoms soon advanced and conquered further western lands, setting a fur-lined boot with upturned toe in Europe’s far east, thus forcing the steppe’s nomad peoples and their light cavalry towards west, and south. These, last mentioned, were the Hungarians or Magyars (as they still refer to themselves), nomads originated east of the Ural Mountains and the Caucasus where they led a life of horsemen and livestock farmers. The Hungarian’s origin is doubtful as their language is Finno-Ugric (like Finnish, Estonian, and others), while their royal family holds Turkish blood. Their name, Hungarian, is thought to be derived from Oghur-Turkic On-Ogur (literally “Ten Arrows” or “Ten Tribes”).
The Magyars settle in Pannonian Basin
The Magyars from Ukraine (Kiev) in the Pannonian Fields are thus obliged by the Turk-Mongol tribes to flee south-west. They tried to cross the Danube in 880 but were stopped by the Bulgars so they adjusted their plans, turned 180 degrees, and invaded the south of the Carpathians, today Romanian plains but back then forested and inhabited by Vlachs, Dacians and Slavs too. And even further north the Hungarians pushed, crossing the Carpathians but mostly from the west, where the path was more accessible. Remember, the Hungarians were not mountain people, like the Vlachs and the Dacians were, but rather used to travel on horseback, over flat, dry steppe. As the Magyars pushed in, the local population, the Vlachs especially, retreated to the mountainous valleys.
The Magyar tribes, the Hungarians, raid Latin Europe
By 890 the Hungarians had moved into the Pannonian Basin, ideal for their herds of horses, and from there they rallied the German and Franc villages located further west… But the Hungarians were soon stopped in their attempts to invade the West (the Latin Europe) by Emperor Otto I at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. It was hot news by now, and broadcasted at each Royal Court of Western Europe, that the Asiatic danger to the Christian lands and forgotten for a century was back, in the shape of the Hungarian’s savage raids.
The Magyars, Hungarians, settle for Transylvania
The Vlachs in Transylvania, ruled by Gelou, holding their capital at Dăbâca (today Cluj County), lost the battle against the invading Magyars. But the Hungarians who settled in Transylvania were not numerous, and they needed reinforcements, and urgent, to keep the local Vlachs at bay. It took an entire European conjecture, the Crusades, the great ideal of Christendom and an increase in western population until the request of King Geza II of Hungary was fulfilled and priests, peasants and horsemen immigrated to Transylvania, Ţara Barsei and Bistrita – for the promise of free land (outside the one already owned by the Hungarian nobility), and no taxes.
The massive, Middle-Ages immigration to Transylvania
The first to arrive in Transylvania were the border-soldiers. They arrived in the Carpathian space soon after the Hungarians settled and were called Szâkely, secui in Romanian. Their role was to stand against the local tribes of Pechenegs and Cumans (the local, Black Cumans still living here for the past 200 years). It might have even been the Cumans who taught the Vallachians the war art of attacking on horse back – and how handy it came, half a century later, to Vlad Tepes during his famous night attack against the Ottomans led by Mehmed II, at Targoviste, June 17, 1462.
The actual process of colonization of Transylvania and Muntenia (later part of Wallachia) started at the end of the 12th century. First to arrive were the German settlers who left their home lands of north-western Germany, close to the Netherlands, as well as Flanders, Cologne, Aachen, Liège, Lorraine, and Luxembourg. As some arrived from the east, from old Saxony (near the North Sea coast of what is now Germany) the German populations of Transylvania was called the Saxons.
This German population was promised a better life in the hope that it will introduce an advanced agriculture, crafts and good business practices, and that it will to set up cities like the German ones, with reinforcements. Of the cities, burgs, established by the Saxons seven will be more significant, hence the name Siebenbürgen (seven citadels, seven burgs) given by the Germans to Transylvania. Between these seven two stand out for us, Brasov and Sibiu, or Kronstadt and Hermannstadt.
But let’s remember that Sibiu was initially a Daco-Roman urbs named Cedonia and in Brasov area were discovered traces of Dacian citadels.
The story of Pied Piper of Hamelin or Pan Piper
‘Tis about the children of medieval Hamelin, in Lower Saxony, who were led underground by the (now) legendary Pied Piper only to reemerged thousands of miles to the southeast, in the Carpathian Mountains.
There are a few explanations for this fable, from death by natural causes to emigration.
Life in Transylvania during the Middle-Ages
The Transylvanian settlers led a pretty good life. They were held in high regard by the King of Hungary who considering them guests, even allowing them to exploit his forests and lakes, to hunt and fish for their families, a diversion normally reserved for the King.
The first settlers in Sibiu area were appointed “primi hospites regi”(the first royal guests) in the Royal seal of 1206.
On arrival, the Saxons received land and were allowed to held political gatherings, to choose and pay their own priests, thus keeping up with their culture and traditions, their national image (although this concept will only appear several hundred years later).
The settlers were exempted from paying taxes at local markets and the Transylvanian merchants were exempted from taxes when traveling within the borders of the Hungarian Kingdom too. They led a free life in free cities where there was no notable difference between nobles, bourgeois and artisans – at a time when the feudal tradition was well established in the rest of Europe, as was in other parts of Transylvania and Wallachia.
Worth mentioning s that the Saxon’s tax exemption will cause quite an uphill during the times when Vlad the Impaler ruled Wallachia.
A large number of settlers, considering distances and ways of transport, 3000 (around 500 families) arrived first, mostly lead by the hope of a better life, and Transylvania flourished as a good balance between duties and freedom was in place. For example, the agricultural system practiced was called clacă, meaning voluntary collective work performed by peasants to help each other. Also, when a young couple got married the entire village helped to build their new house.
Only if Transylvania joined the Hungarian Kingdom in war were the Saxons ordered to supply 500 soldiers, and in case of an external war 100 armed men, but if the King was not personally participating in the campaign only 50 men. And only 500 silver marks per year were paid to the King of Hungary by all the Transylvanian lands occupied by Saxons.
The first mention of a Voivode of Transylvania is that of Mercurius, a most distinguished Hungarian nobleman who reigned rather shortly, between 1111 and 1113.
During the Second and the Third Crusade more settlers arrived in Transylvania, in search of safety.
In 1190 the Hungarian King Ladislaus build a church in Hermannstadt, Sibiu, thus the city was mentioned for the first time in an official document, and signed by Pope Celestine III. Soon after, a prior and 12 monks arrived from Pontigny, France, at the request of the wife of King Béla III, Agnes of Antioch, and founded Igriş monastery (Egresch – today Arad) near the river Mureş.
When Emperor Heinrich VI called for yet another crusade in 1195, he raised the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem to the rank of knighthood: Teutonic Order. These Teutonic Knights settled in Transylvania in 1211 and built five fortresses such as Feldioara and Cisnădioara.
Finally, when the Roman Empire fell during the Fourth Crusade in April 1204, together with Constantinople, and the “Latini” settled in Constantinople, a nasty drift appeared between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Great Schism. Over in the Romanian medieval lands Transylvania embraces the Gothic civilization and Catholicism, while Wallachia and Moldavia maintained their Byzantine tradition.
It is during the Third, Fourth and Fifth Crusades that a movement of people and goods to overseas territories, East, is created, either by sea, but also via land, on Transylvanian routes. This way, more traders and crusaders chose to remain on site, in Transylvania, as well as to keep trading with their land of origin as the previous settlers were already doing.
In 1222, the Bulla Aurea of King Andrew II guaranteed the privileges of the Hungarian nobility. Those of the Saxons were secured in 1224 by the Diploma Andreanum. The success of the Flandrenses encouraged the arrival of new settlers and in 1292, the first hospital in a church-asylum (Franciscan) at Hermannstadt, Sibiu, was opened.
In 1241 we find the name Transylvania mentioned again, and identified with “Septem urbicum” after the seven fortified towns of the region. For sure, the trading routes of the Balkans were strongly linked to those of the Faith, and each time a crusade took place, more peasants and tradesmen traveled through and chose to settle in Transylvania and Wallachia, where life flourished and there was – still – peace.
At the end of the 13th century four nations were part of the General Assembly of Transylvania: the Hungarian nobility, the Saxons, the Szecklers (Secui) and the Vlachs although the Secui and the Vlachs had only minor privileges.
The threat of the Mongol Empire
About the same time the threat of the Mongol Empire under Genghis-Han was on the rise from Asia, conquering China and heading East until it reached the eastern parts of Russia. So much so that in 1241 the Mongols advanced in the north of Transylvania and engaged in a fight with the Saxons settled near the Rodna mines. The Mongols even defeated the Hungarian King’s army (King Bela), but retreated suddenly in 1242 when the Great Han died.
However, the Mongols will not withdraw completely from Europe, but establish a state in southeastern Russia on the Lower Volga River, known as the Golden Horde, keeping the Russian principalities as vassals for over 200 years. After assimilating the Cuman population settled here, on the northern shore of the Black Sea, they will be known as Tatar Mongols and will represent a permanent danger especially to Transylvania, Oltenia and Muntenia (the last two will unite in 1330 to form Wallachia). Even from the first decades of the 14th century, we find that the Bulgarian, Serbian and Romanian political formations were in relation of vassality towards these Tartar Mongols.
About the same time, in 1247, King Bela IV of Hungary and Duke of Transylvania planed an active expansion over the Carpathians, towards the south-west. His plan was to increase the fortifications and setup a defense alliance against the Bulgarian Empire in the event of a second Tatar-Mongol invasion and to rebuild his devastated country. For this reason he allowed the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, the Knights Hospitaller, to settle on the newly formed border province, on Banat of Severin, or “Land of Severin” – in the mountainous regions between the Danube and the Jiu Rivers. At the same time the Principalities (Knezdoms, Cnezat, from the Slavonic Knyaz or knez meaning prince, duke or count) of Ioan (on the lower course of Olt River) and of Farcaş (higher, in the Sub-Carpathian area of Oltenia), the Voivodeships of Litovoi (on the middle and lower course of Jiu River) and of Seneslau (on the left-hand side of Olt River), extending in the mountainous and hilly regions of western Wallachia, also developed (let’s keep in mind that these have been established around the 9th century).
Note that the Lands of Litovoi, Farcas and Seneslau held territories north on Carpathians (in Transylvania), and south.
Only a century later, Clara, the daughter of Ion (lanoş in Hungarian), ban of Severin, marries Alexandru-Nicolae, Voievode of Wallachia (and son of Voievod Basarab I and of Lady Margareta). This was another way for Hungarian rulers to set a foot in Wallachia, and for Pope to spread Catholicism in an Orthodox country. And it didn’t stop here, Lady Clara made it her life’s purpose to convince her step-son, Vladislav Voiedod, if she couldn’t influence her husband, to bring a Catholic episcope in Wallachia, to convert the orthodox Vlach population, Vladislav Voievod included. But Vladislav held his ground, and he even built at Severin, on the border with Transylvania so with the Hungarian Kingdom, an Orthodox church.
Let’s not forget that the Knights of St.John were dressed in an armor weighing as much as themselves, riding the heaviest horses in Europe, who were also covered in armor, each knight being accompanied by ten squires. They arrived preceded by a reputation of skilled builders- and this was the reason why they were invited to settle here. On one condition, to not allow any Vlachs migrating from Transylvania to settle in Banat.
Around the middle of the 14th century, 1366, back in Transylvania the Vlachs’ lifestyle deteriorated as they were excluded from the congregations of the Diet for religious reasons related to the Schism. The Hungarians Kings, vassals of the Pope and therefore Catholics, made it their personal crusade to eliminate the Orthodox Vlachs from their kingdom, although they lived on Romanian land. In less than a century the Romanian Vlach nobility living in Transylvania was reduced to the status of a peasant. Without being under the protection of the King of Hungary they were often hunted and expropriated unless they became Hungarians and converted to Catholicism. The vast majority of Orthodox Vlach peasants soon became serfs, iobagi, tied to the feudal land without the right to self-governance as the other three nations living in Transylvania could.
The way to keep your land and status was by converting to Catholicism and adopting the Hungarian lifestyle and even build family ties with the Magyar nobility. For example, the family of Iancu de Hunedoara, Hunyadi, and even 1387-1456 Voivode of Transylvania, chose to become Hungarian. His son, Matthias Corvinus, Matei Corvin, was able to become King of Hungary.
The Land of Severin, placed between the Lower Danube and the Olt River (around the city of Turnu-Severin on the map above, between the territories in mustard and green), was previously populated but countless battles between the Hungarian and Bulgarian kingdoms have forced part of the local population to flee, probably eastward, towards the (then) rich valleys and forested planes of Oltenia and Muntenia, as well as drawn towards the trade at Danube and the Black Sea.
Under the Knights Hospitallers the Land of Severin received a bishop and became a kenezatus (almost a state of its own) ruled by two rulers, cneji, Ioan and Farcaş (a Hungarian translation of Romanian Lupu, wolf), both brought from the north, from Banat (a Romanian territory west of Transylvania and under Hungarian sovereignty). But these administrative structures had their own Romanian organization, and the vassalage relations to the Hungarian Crown did not influence the full right of the Romanian states to their own domestic organization.
The first ruler of Oltenia (later part of Wallachia) held territory in Transylvania too
It is of outermost importance that I mention now the very first ruler of Oltenia, a Romanian Land and territory between the Olt river and the Danube, Litovoi Voievode.
The Diploma of the Joannites even mentions the land of the kenazate of Voivode Litovoi, which the king left to the Vlachs “as they had held it”, and not granted to the Knights Hospitaller. The small print, though, stated that he had to pay tribute to the Hungarian Crown during 25 years, 1247-1272.
At the same time in neighboring Muntenia (Ţara Românească, Terra Blacorum) ruled Voievode Seneslau.
Both Litovoi and Seneslau looked at the promises made by the Hungarian King, that of protection against the Tatar invasions IF only they convert to Catholicism. But they also noticed how weak the Hungarian defense was. So they thought, and thought, and decided that united – and keeping their Christian beliefs -they stood a better chance against the Tatar invasion.
Between 1277 – 1280 Litovoi ruled over land on each side of the Carpathians, namely Retezat Mountains, (including Hațeg Country in Transylvania and the area that is today Oltenia) but was at war with the Hungarians over land that the Crown wanted for itself. Voievode Litovoi fell in a trap and perished in battle.
He was succeeded by his brother, named Bărbat, meaning man in Romanian. Bărbat‘s son in law was Tihomir who held both territories, left and right of Olr River, until 1310, while in 1301 the Arpad dinasty perished with the death of Andrew III. It was a marriage union between Tihomir’s son, Basarab, and countess Margareta (Marghita) that brings to the Romanian territories two lands from Transilvania, Făgăraş amd Almaş.
In 1310 all the Vlach boyars as well as those from Ardeal, chose Basarab I as their ruler, thus founding Wallachia, and sealed through the Battle of Posada in November 1330. Although legend says that it was Radu the Black in 1290… Around 1290 legendary Negru Vodă, Radu the Black, arrived from Făgăraş County and settled in Câmpulung, while his successors moved over to Argeş, from where they extended their authority all the way to Danube. The dynasty thus established had a highland origin, from the mountain (munte). It is from this “Muntenian” origin of the dynasty that the name of Muntenia probably derived, traditionally given to the whole country – a country dominated by plains.
Transylvania under the Mongol and Turkish threat of the Middle Ages
In Transylvania, the city of Sibiu (Hermannsdorf, Hermannstadt) increased its fortifications especially after the 13th century Mongol invasion of Europe. This was possible as the trade of local artisans, mainly Saxons trading in clothing and tools, flourished but all the 19 guilds thrived and this afforded the city to increase its defense system. Soon Sibiu became the most important ethnic German city among the seven cities of Transylvania.
But the flourishing period of Sibiu will soon be overshadowed by the Mongol and the Turkish threats, especially the Turks in 1394, 1432, 1437, 1438, 1442. As a result Sibiu became a defendant outpost of Christendom. In 1438 Sultan Murad II, the predecessor and father of Mehmed II the Conqueror, led an unsuccessful siege on Sibiu and again in 1442 when Sibiu was aided in his defense by the army of Iancu de Hunedoara.
Transylvania and Wallachia under the threat of the Ottoman Empire
The Hungarian King between 1387-1437, King Sigismund of Luxembourg, spent a great amount of time in Transylvania, especially in Hermannstadt, Sibiu, and Kronstadt, Braşov, where he improved the cities’ defenses against this new threat, the Turks.
Sadly, the East–West Schism between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches proved once again what strength the ecclesiastics held during the Middle Ages, for it influenced and sabotaged the communication between the Lords of the West and the old Byzantine Voyevodes – such as Vlad the Impaler.
After the defeat of the Western armies by the Ottomans led by Bayezid I (father of Mehmed I) in the Battle of Nicopolis (25 September 1396), the Crusaders (comprising of Hungarian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Wallachian, French, German, Burgundian, Italian, Portuguese, and Polish troops) were pretty much left on their own, the West powers giving up to the idea of yet another Crusade. This decision left the Wallachian and Moldavian princes to resist on their own against future Ottoman invasions.
It was now that King Sigismund of Luxembourg created the Order of the Dragon, in 1408, and one of its eminent members, Wallachian prince Vlad Dracul (father of Vlad Tepeș, Dracula), got caught in the conflict between Hungary, Poland and the onset of Ottomans in Europe that isolated Transylvania – sealing the lives of many.
Saving not only his own people, his beloved Vlachs, but also the Hungarian and the Polish Kingdoms, and further westwards the other European lands, in 1462 Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, defeated the invading Ottoman troops under Sultan Mehmed II, sending them fleeing southward during the famous Night Attack at Targoviste.
Dracula, as he was nicknames, meaning Son of the Dragon, is still regarded in his homeland as a champion of Christianity.
War threats or not, trade flourished between the three principalities, especially Transylvania and Moldova, although Wallachia, in the south, held the trade monopoly at Danube and the Black Sea. A flourishing trade meant strong defenses built around the cities as well as moats and towers, and fortified churches with rooms for provisions (the harvest was stored there immediately, for sage-keeping), livestock and refuge. In case of a Turkish attack, even if the wooden and thatched farms were burned down all that was kept within these stone walls was safe.
Such is the St. Mihail fortified Church of Cisnădioara / Michelsberg built as a Roman basilica at the end of the 12th century, and fortified a century later.
And where fortifications were not enough, tunnels and underground chambers for food storage or as escape routes were built, such as the ones still present underneath Brasov.
Before its fall in 1453 the great Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was already paying tribute to the Turks. After it fell and Orthodox Greece fell into Ottoman hands Islam moved in front of Christendom and began advancing towards the south-east Europe, towards the great Catholic powers in the west.
The threat lasted until the late-14th and early-15th centuries when new crusades were finally organized by the kingdoms of Hungary (Transylvania included), Poland, Wallachia, and Serbia. These were defensive campaigns intended to prevent further expansion to the west of the Ottoman Empire rather than the traditional expeditions aimed at the recovery of Jerusalem.
One more idea need be explained here, that unlike the west of Europe in the Balkans an ethnic group’s consciousness and main loyalty was to their immediate habitat, be it the clan, the village, the principality, their side of mountain or valley. And, yes, a national concept was found here during the Middle Ages, although such an ideology was only expanded on in Western Europe during the early nineteenth century.
Have you read…
As part of my ongoing research for my next novel, the culture in medieval Transylvania will have to be a blog post on its own, coming soon.