The Romanesque Saxon Churches in Mediaeval Transylvania

Ioan Cosmin

Ioan Cosmin

Sibiu was elected in 2007 as the European Capital of Culture, which facilitated the knowledge of foreign tourists of the central area of Romania. Some of these tourists only came to visit Sibiu for a few days but extended their visit to discover these invaluable treasures of Europe: the fortified Saxon churches.

There were some important visitors who simply loved this region. One of them was Prince Charles of the United Kingdom who visits the small villages every year. He even bought some old German houses that were restored; his house in Viscri is a good example.

The history of Transylvania after the withdrawal of the Roman army from the province of Dacia is complicated. There have been several successive migrations of the population, perhaps even more than in Western Europe.

If we discuss the period between the third and ninth-century we can mention the Goths, Gepids, Avars, Bulgarians and Slavs on the Transylvanian territory. The Hungarians, who intended to conquer Transylvania, arrived in Pannonia in the late ninth-century.

After the battle of Lechfeld (August 10th, 955), which marked the end of the Hungarian incursions in Central Europe, the German army of Emperor Otto the Great defeated the Hungarian army, and attempts to conquer Transylvania became more enthusiastic.

The local opposition did not discourage the Hungarians. Even if we cannot speak about an important political organisation in this territory, Hungarians frequently used the best army against the local population (early Romanians). The most popular political forces of those times were the states of Gelu, Glad and Menumorut.

Romanian historians who specialise in the history of Transylvania agree on the existence of five stages, which completed the integration of the Transylvanian territory in the Hungarian sphere of influence. The last of these stages, as we will see, is the colonisation of the Saxon population.

There are multiple causes for the colonisation.

On one hand, Hungarians had an interest in ensuring themselves against external attacks at the top east border of Transylvania. On the other, the continual growth of population between the eleventh and thirteenth-centuries in Western Europe, and especially the division of feudal property and privileges, made colonists determined to settle here.

It should be noted that we cannot speak about a large number of population that moved into Transylvania at the same time.

There were relatively small groups and different years during which this migration occurred. Very often these groups did not exceed a hundred people. We can find these kind of migrates in what is today the southern region of Slovakia. These migrations cannot be considered as a movement of the country’s borders; they are only simple movements of populations.

By the end of the migrations, Transylvania was in a delicate position.

Although it first had Romanian political appearance, this territory was disputed by some powerful forces of the time, among them the Byzantine Empire or the Hungarian Kingdom. The latter would prevail because of the different methods used in the attempt to control the territory of Transylvania.

The most important is the colonisation of entire groups of populations along the Carpathian Mountains (Southern side), used mainly to protect the areas bordering the kingdom.

In the process of gaining an important and powerful position in Europe, the Hungarian Kingdom primarily needed to consolidate the eastern border. The colonisation of the German population in Transylvania was a smart step that actually solved two problems: improving the relations with the West and providing the militarily eastern border of the kingdom.

In addition, some parts of Transylvania had a major economic boom, having the Saxons as its artisans. Western European civilisation tried hard to penetrate these areas with a tumultuous history, which did not allow a faster development, as was the case in the West.

It can be said that the German settlement in Transylvania reduced, unconscious or involuntarily, at that time, differences between eastern and western areas controlled by the Hungarian Kingdom.

In order to have a correct approach to this issue, it is imperative to locate the territory correctly. Transylvania (Hungarian – Erdély, German – Siebenbürgen) is the historical region in central Romania. Transylvania comprises the central part of Romania and the hills, respectively the Carpathian Depression that bowed to it.

The second meaning of the name refers, by extension, also to Maramureş, Crişana, Sătmar, known as Partium, meaning “the parts” from Hungary, side by side after the mid-century sixteenth historic core of the Transylvanian plateau, together constitute the Principality of Transylvania.

The period to which we refer begins in the mid-twelfth-century and ends in the fifteenth-century, although there will be some information about the fate of the fortified Saxon churches after this century too. For this analysis it is also important, firstly, to know some of the political, social and even demographic aspects of this period. We can even make a connection between this settlement and the first two crusades of the Christians against the Muslims.

The crusades took place even before the colonisation process in the Hungarian Kingdom by the Saxons: 1096-1099, respectively 1147-1148.

The armies in the service of the Papacy had some contacts with this area and took a lot of information about their situation. It is possible that some of the soldiers came and stayed here, after the war. But the real causes of emigration in the East must be sought in the essence of German feudalism.

Feudalism in Germany, at least in some regions, had a faster evolution. Switching from natural systems to commodity-money relations — as a result of deepening social division of labour between agriculture and crafts — meant a real economic reorganisation.

A part of the German peasants was attracted to the cities in training, turning the artisans producing for the market, and another part, the remaining areas were threatened with the collapse of feudal households and the loss of personal freedom.

Some of them, given that they could leave the areas not yet connected to the land through extra-economic coercion emigrated, settling even outside Germany. The trend was to increase migration to the east, as the conditions of life offered by the new owners were more favourable.

The German emigration in Transylvania had an interesting particularity. It took part during the final stage of the penetration of Hungarian feudalism in Transylvania, which encountered many obstacles. The conquest of Transylvania by the Hungarian kings had been done in stages because of the opposition of local Romanian population.

On the other hand, there were Pechenegs and Cumans incursions; they started to arrive from north of the Danube.

Along with Romanians, they opposed to the entry of the Hungarians, and the danger is extended through the Tartar invasion — the big invasion of Transylvania from 1241 — until the end of the thirteenth-century.

When the Hungarian Crown succeeded in conquering the entire territory of Transylvania, it was keen to defend the kingdom against hostile invasion from the eastward.

Confidence in the local Romanian population could not be higher than the one given to foreign groups whom they brought, making them a privileged lifestyle. The Saxons who left their native places in western Germany (Flanders, Saxony, Bavaria, and the area between the rivers Rhine and Moselle) were colonised here from the middle decades of the twelfth-century onwards.

The latest research, based on philological and historical findings, proved that the first group of German settlers had come from Flanders and, as an example, in the oldest documents are mentioned as “Flandrenses”.

Another group, known as the Teutonic — peasants and artisans in villages and towns of the Rhine and Mosel region, arrived in the second stage.

The largest group, which arrived at the end of the twelfth-century, is known as the Saxons (Saxones) originating from the right of Rhine (province of Saxony). It seems that the generic name of Saxons is based on this group, which had forced traditional lifestyles, customs, institutions, and legal forms of social organisation among all the settlers.

After the year 1206, the nominal expression “saxones” is generalised in almost all the documents relating to the grant, confirm and reconfirm the initial privileges from the first Hungarian kings (Géza II (1141-1162), Béla III (1172-1196) and Andrew II (1205-1235); the last one is the author of privileges diploma from 1224 — Andreanum or “Golden Bull” of the Saxons on which are based all others).

In the first stage of colonisation, the groups came in the Sibiu area, probably in the middle of the twelfth-century under the reign of King Geza II (1141-1161). In fact, royalty had chosen a territory between Orăştie and Baraolt, which shows the original intended purpose: to strengthen the military guard of the border in south line Carpathians.

Later in the thirteenth-century, there have been settlements on the north side and in parts of Sighişoara and Mediaş; areas of Hungarian nobles. Data and renewed privileges of royalty on several occasions in exchange for border security and obligations on places where they settled, assured the Saxons, at least in the first centuries of feudalism, a free life and favourable economic, political and cultural conditions.

In the thirteenth-century, in royal cities along the border that protected the Romanian Carpathians, Saxons had the same military mission and even beehives built a fortress, first between the rivers Târnava Minor and the Olt, then along Olt and Hârtibaci.

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