The Romanians

As a result of the fortunes of war against the Ottomans and Habsburgs, the new state of Transylvania came to encompass all the Romanian-inhabited regions of the former Kingdom of Hungary. These included, in addition to the original Transylvanian districts (the Southern Carpathian valleys, the Fogaras, and the Hátszeg), the southern part of Máramaros county, the mountains of Bihar, Zaránd, and Arad counties, and the eastern part of the Temesköz.

The progressive shift from seasonal migration to permanent settlement, from shepherding to farming, and from the mountains to the plain continued into the 16th century. These changes in {1-700.} ifestyle were actively facilitated by the powerful landlords, and in some cases they led to a change of language and religion. Since this process of assimilation occurred free of any compulsion, it is difficult to trace the fate of Romanians who settled among Saxons or Hungarians and adopted the life of villeins.

If this internal movement reduced the number of identifiable Romanians, the strong wave of immigration from the Romanian principalities that began in the last third of the 16th century had the opposite effect. However, the details of this second movement are equally difficult to reconstruct.

The expansion of the Ottoman empire after 1526 brought about not only Hungary's fragmentation but also the lasting subjection of Moldavia and Wallachia. The outward form of subjection did not change, for Romanian rulers continued as vassals who paid tribute, but Turkish interference acquired a different character. When Hungary collapsed, the principalities lost a neighbour which, while also demanding fealty, served to counterbalance the ambitions of the Sublime Porte. Poland, too, had entertained designs on Moldavia, but Turkish arms prevailed.

The principalities would find no rulers who measured up to the impetuous Petru Rareş, or to Radul (Radu de la Afumaţi), who devised anti-Ottoman strategies with Louis II and his successors.

In the contest for the Moldavian and Wallachian thrones, ambitious boyars foolishly vied for Istanbul's support by promising to increase the tribute. The Porte took advantage of these internal rivalries to tighten its grip on the principalities, where it already had permanently-stationed garrisons. The posts of voivode were given to the most submissive boyars, and even they were replaced every few years to forestall a consolidation of their power. In the 16th century, there was a 64-year period when Wallachia was ruled in succession by nineteen boyars, only two of whom died of natural causes. Meanwhile, the tribute paid to the Porte kept getting larger and larger.

{1-701.} Misery is always a strong inducement to migrate, but the peasants of the two principalities were uncommonly susceptible to the lure of distant refuge. Although a majority of them lived off agriculture, their shift to cultivation and permanent settlement was of recent date. (The original name given by Hungarians to the Romanians, the now rather pejorative oláh, was derived from 'walach', which also came to denote a semi-nomadic shepherd.) Many others remained in the mountains with their flocks, and even those who chose permanent settlement continued to raise sheep, a distinctively Romanian practice in Eastern Europe.

Thus the disastrous economic effects of Turkish oppression prompted a massive emigration of smallholders and of their peasants. Some of them remained beyond the Carpathians and attempted to reach Galicia, but the majority headed for Transylvania, partly because it was readily accessible from Wallachia, and partly because of the lure of its communities of earlier Romanian settlers.

The migrant Romanians took the well-trodden route through the forests and pastures of Transylvania's mountains. Their first choice was to settle in the existing Romanian communities, but these could not accommodate all of the newcomers, for the population had grown considerably over the preceding centuries; there was no pastureland to spare, and ploughland could only be expanded by onerous forest-clearing. The new settlers greatly increased the density of population. Around Belényes, in the south-eastern corner of Bihar county, the population was greater in the late 1500s than a century later.

Thus many in the latest wave of immigrants had to seek land elsewhere. They settled on pastures that had been used only intermittently and proceeded to clear more and more land. Romanian-inhabited areas came to form an unbroken strip from the Máramaros, through the Belényes Basin and the Gyalu Alps, to Fogaras, Hunyad county, and the Severin Province. This transformation drew the attention of officials at the turn of the century. {1-702.} Zacharias Geizkoffler, the Habsburg army's paymaster, reported after a visit to Transylvania that 'previously there were few Romanian villages, but now they are numerous in the mountains, for, in contrast to the devastation in the lowlands, there has been much development in highland areas.'[14]14. J. Deér and L. Gáldi, eds., Magyarok és románok (Hungarians and Romanians) (Budapest, 1943), Vol. I, p. 513.

The quest for land and the resettlement was generally orderly. Villeins from the principalities would follow a leader, still known as a 'voivode' or cnez, who contacted the owner of their chosen place of settlement. Since landowners were delighted to find new workers, there was normally little difficulty in reaching an agreement. When a new village was founded, both landowners and state tried to ease the villeins' burden by tax concessions and the provisional suspension of feudal services.

Despite these initial inducements, Transylvania's Romanians remained poorer and more wretched than their Hungarian and Saxon neighbours. Shepherding was less profitable than farming. The landowners did all in their power to convert their new villeins to agriculture, and shortage of pastureland drove them in the same direction. But the ploughlands assigned to the villeins were available precisely because of their poor quality; nor were the newly-cleared lands as productive as those long-cultivated on the plain. Moreover, the villeins from Moldavia and Wallachia had fewer agricultural skills than their contemporaries in Transylvania, and hence their productivity was also inferior. (The practice of using land alternately for cultivation and grazing continued to prevail in the principalities at a time when Transylvania's agriculture was shifting to three-course rotation.) And feudal services only added to the problems of the Romanian peasantry.

To be sure, the ethnic identity of villeins was of little consequence in the Middle Ages. There was a differentiation of Hungarian, Saxons, and Romanian villages in the former Hungarian kingdom (possessio hungaricalis, saxonicalis, or walachicalis), but it denoted differences in feudal obligations and {1-703.} legal status, not in ethnicity. However, feudal obligations were determined on the basis of the villeins' 'status', one aspect of which was their ethnic origin. Thus there can be no doubt that villages identified as 'Romanian' actually had a predominantly Romanian population.

With regard to the feudal burdens of 16th century Romanian villages, it was common practice in medieval Hungary the give new settlements a temporary exemption from the normal obligations. A typical case is that of the Romanians who settled around Kővár in 1566, and received a fourteen-year exemption from the basic state tax. The most common exception to the general rule was that the Romanians, not being Roman Catholic, were exempted from tithes. Only those who became assimilated and converted could be compelled to pay this Church tax. However, in 1559, the Transylvanian diet overrode this traditional principle and ruled that when Romanians settled in a locality that was registered on the tithe rolls, they too would have to pay this tax, which had meanwhile become a source of state revenue.

Some Romanian villages ended up having to deliver feudal services that were greater than the general norm. Thus, according to 1554 data, the annual corvée of Romanian villeins on the Gyalu estates included two to three days of ploughing, two days of harvesting and hay-cutting, as well as the collection and delivery of the produce — all of which amounted to at least one or two days' more work than was demanded from Hungarian villages.

The biggest difference lay in the special services that only Romanians had to provide. Thus at the Világos domain (and no doubt in many other places), Romanian villeins who had an entire plot of land owed half a day of harvesting and half a day of hay-cutting to their voivodes; those who had ten plots owed an additional half a day of ploughing. Romanians were the sole providers of cottage-cheese (brînză). The tradition of keeping sheep bore its own cost, for Romanians had to pay a special sheep-tax. In some places, {1-704.} notably in the Hátszeg district and on the Csicsó estate, this was known as the 'fiftieth' (ötvened); in the districts of Solymos, Szatmár, and Kővár, the term was 'sheepfold' (sztronga). In some of Csicsó's villages, the villeins paid what continued to be called a sheep-tax in pigs and honey. Those owning cattle incurred another tax, called tretina in Romanian, which required them to hand over a certain proportion of their stock.

The situation of Romanian villeins on the Fogaras castle domain showed some distinctive features. They did not have to pay the sheep tax, an exemption that probably originated in the period when Wallachia's voivodes controlled the district. The local terms for the tax they did have to pay were 'fish money' (halpénz) and 'silver money' (ezüstpénz). Even the term applied to villeins was different; instead of the normal colonus or iobagio, they were called vecin, just as in Wallachia.

As in the case of the Hungarians, local custom determined the manner in which Romanians' feudal dues were collected. As was noted in the case of the sheep tax at Csicsó, the distinction among the various dues began to fade. However, there was little blurring of the distinction between feudal obligations of Hungarian and Saxon settlements and those of the Romanian ones. The changes that occurred before the end of the 16th century did not alter the fundamentals. Although the traditional sheep tax disappeared, the tretina and similar taxes on other animals remained in effect.

The social status of the Romanians' leaders remained unaltered. Village officially designated as Romanian were headed by voivodes, krainiks, or, less commonly, cnezes. On several estates, notably at Világos, Csicsó, Kővár, Erdőd, and Somlyó, Romanian settlements were grouped into districts, and the titles came to signify differences in rank: the voivode was the head of the district, while the krainik denoted his deputy or the magistrate of a village. In other places, such as the Gyula domain, it was the village magistrate who bore the title voivode.

{1-705.} These leaders stood above the common villeins, but they could not rise higher than freeman-villein (szabados). Their office entitled them to demand produce and work from the villeins, but they too owed dues, however symbolic, to the landowner, in the form of deer and sparrowhawks. Even Orthodox priests had to pay a tax, called lazsnak or pokróc ('blanket').

Only in a few districts did Romanian leaders manage to join the ranks of the nobility: in Transylvania proper, in the Hátszeg region of Hunyad county, and in the Partium, in the Temesköz and parts of the Máramaros and Bihar county. However, most cases of ennoblement had occurred prior to the 16th century, and while not all of the beneficiaries gave up their language and Orthodox religion, they totally assimilated the lifestyle and outlook of the Hungarian ruling class. Thus a distinctively Romanian feudal society never materialized.

The best illustration of the limitations on social development within the Romanian communities is offered by the boyars of the Fogaras district. They enjoyed the same freedom as Hungarian nobles, and had links to the noble families of Wallachia; yet their lack of full noble status kept them out of the Hungarian ruling class, as did their language and religion, which they preserved partly because of their Trans-Carpathian links. This exclusion from the Hungarian nobility persisted in the 16th century; the only change was that they came to be called, like the Székelys, serény (agilis).

The Romanian people were excluded from politics and comparatively backward; they were farthest removed from urban culture. In these circumstances, it is understandable that the Reformation aroused little interest in their ranks. At a time when the Protestant denominations were becoming channels for feudal and social interests, and also the bearers of a burgeoning national consciousness, Transylvania's Romanians still lacked any organized church. The Orthodox priests lived as villeins, their activities supervised variously by a dean or by the abbot (igumen) of a {1-706.} monastery. Though some of the igumens also bore the title of a bishop (vlădică), neither their powers nor their districts were clearly delineated. (Some of these districts dated back to the 15th century, but most of them were created in the first half of the 16th century by the voivodes of Wallachia and Moldavia on their Transylvanian domains.) The main problem was a lack of central authority, for Transylvania's Orthodox believers would had to wait until 1574 before their Church acquired a leader.

The Reformation could have brought important benefits for the Romanians. The Orthodox religion had Greek-Slavonic roots, used the Cyrillic alphabet, and had rites and rituals that differed greatly from Western Christianity; this ostensibly poor and backward denomination could be easily dismissed as 'superstitious' and excluded from the religions recognized by the feudal state. (Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that notwithstanding John Sigismund's 1566 legislation, which in any case was never put in force, the Orthodox suffered very little persecution.) In contrast, Protestant doctrines were intimately linked to Western Europe, and those who adopted them were granted equal rights. Such recognition in the sphere of religion would no doubt have facilitated the Romanians' political integration — and what is more, an integration that would have given scope for their mother tongue.

The first attempts by Protestant Saxons in Szeben to proselytize among the Romanians showed some success. Szeben's printing press, which had lain idle for fifteen years, was equipped with Cyrillic letters and entrusted in 1544 to the town's Romanian interpreter, Filip Moldoveanul. Over the next decade, Moldoveanul published Romanian-language versions of the catechism and other religious material. At the end of the 1550s, Brassó followed the example of Szeben and established a Romanian-language publishing house directed by Coresi, a clergyman who came from the Wallachian town of Tîrgovişte. By 1581, this press had published a whole series Lutheran- and Calvinist-inspired works that enriched {1-707.} Romanian culture and represented, in fact, the beginning of Romanian book-publishing in Eastern Europe.

The fact that the publications in Brassó included works of Calvinist inspiration indicated that Transylvania's Hungarians had joined the attempts to proselytize among Romanians. The efforts of both Lutherans and Calvinists soon won the sovereign's approval and, from John Sigismund's reign onwards, overt support. The results were not long in coming. Together with his priests, a former Romanian vlădica, György Szentgyörgyi, converted to Calvinism. Other Orthodox priests followed their example and, in 1566–67, Szentgyörgyi convened the first synod of Romanian Calvinists in Transylvania. They founded their own Church, adopted Romanian for their liturgy, and elected their first superintendent in the person of Szentgyörgyi.

For a while, the Reformation continued to make inroads among Romanians. More towns provided publishing facilities to spur the religious renewal. A Romanian hymnal comprising works by Péter Melius, Gergely Szegedi, and Ferenc Dávid was published at Kolozsvár around 1570–73. In the early 1580s, part of the Old Testament published in Romanian at Szászváros.

However, by the beginning of the 1590s, the religious reform process among Romanians was losing its momentum. The state's policy on religion changed when Báthori came to power. Prince Stephen remained true to the Roman faith, and he tried to constrain Romanian Calvinists. The activities of Bishop György's successors — Pál Tordasi, who came from a noble family in Hunyad county, and, from 1577, his relative Mihály Tordasi — were essentially limited to Hunyad county and the district encompassing Lugos and Karánsebes.

Prince Stephen turned his attention to the reorganization of the Greek Orthodox Church. Thanks to his efforts, two new vlădicas were consecrated, in 1572 and 1574, and, in October 1574, the diet, meeting in Torda, recognized the right of Orthodox believers to elect {1-708.} their bishops. That same year, the Romanians of Transylvania elected Ghenadie as their first full-fledged bishop (episcop). The seat of new Transylvania-Nagyvárad bishopric was at Gyulafehérvár; a second bishopric was soon established for northern Transylvania and the Partium, with its seat at Rév. These bishops' consecration in Serbia or Wallachia maintained the links with the Orthodox Church hierarchy in Eastern Europe.

While the ruling prince was helping to provide Transylvania's Romanians with an organized Church, the ranks of the faithful were swollen by the new wave of immigrants from the principalities, people who had no knowledge of the Reformation. Thus a religious reform that promised to draw the Romanians closer to Transylvania's other peoples was ultimately undermined by state intervention and by immigration. The mass of Romanians stuck to the Orthodox faith. The organization of their church owed much to the ruling prince, yet their denomination did not win equal status with the others but remained merely a 'tolerated' religion.