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A Short History

The Tearful Chronicle

In 1221 the latest crusade was under way or actually slowly dragging along in the Holy Land, fought by unenthusiastic forces whose religious convictions and beliefs in the purpose of the crusade were equally doubtful. Suddenly electrifying news spread throughout Europe, particularly through the monasteries. An old legend had again come to life about a group of Christians who in ancient times became isolated in the East and there flourished. This was the legend of the Land of Prester John. According to the news, armies from this land had attacked the eastern provinces of the Saracens and were on their way to liberate the Holy Land. Actually, there never was a Land of Prester John. Who then were those who really did begin a march from Central Asia, although not toward Jerusalem but -- as their final goal -- against Rome?

At the same time, or somewhat earlier, a belief or legend arose in Hungary, where even though the administration was in firm control, there was a feeling of impending doom, and where indeed there were many minor dangers to be dealt with. Certain rumors spread about some alarming preparations being made along the major highway of migration along which our ancestors had traveled to arrive in their new homeland. It is possible that this unexpected and unwelcome information came to the Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin as a result of some tentative attempts to search for their original home. It is certain that several successive attempts had been made to find some Hungarian groups who had separated from the main body at the time of migration and who had remained in the east. When finally a successful contact was made with Hungarians in far away Baskiria, it was too late. By the time they were discovered, they were being swept away by a destructive flood of farther eastern forces who suddenly and justifiably spread terror throughout Europe. It is typical that while the naive European Christians were still expecting succor from the eastern Christians of Prester John's land, the much better informed conquerors were fully aware of the misinformation that preceded them. They overran the still Christian Gruz with the advanced troops carrying crosses to mislead the unsuspecting inhabitants.

We will omit a number of other details, since here we must discuss the events as they relate to Transylvania. Suffice it to say that at long last the steppe-dwelling Mongolian tribes joined together -- a traditional arrangement of the nomadic empires -- and advanced from the heart of Asia toward the heart of Europe. The unified assault, traditionally referred to in Hungary as the Tatar Invasion, reached the Carpathian Basin in the spring of 1241. By this time the mists surrounding the land of Prester John have long since dissipated. The Dominican friar Julianus and his brethren, who went in search of the Baskirian Hungarians, alerted the religious and lay leaders of Europe to the impending danger. The Hungarian King Béla IV (1234-1270) was in receipt of a letter, written in Tatar but clearly understandable following successive translations :"I, the Khan, emissary of the Heavenly King, who was granted the power on earth to raise my vassals and oppress my opponents, am amazed at you, king of Hungary. I have sent you thirty emissaries already. Why don't you send even one of them back to me with a letter containing your reply? I know you are a rich and powerful king. You have many soldiers and you rule your large country by yourself. Thus, it may be difficult for you to submit to me, but it would be better and more salutary for you if you would submit to me. I have also learned that you are keeping my Cumanian servants under your protection. I am therefore instructing you to stop protecting them and avoid confronting me on their behalf. They could escape easily, having no houses and could flee, wandering with their tents, but you who live in a house and have castles and cities will not be able to escape from my hands."

This letter is a marvel of the Asiatic style. It is convincing, and not exactly friendly. Yet, as it became obvious soon, it was prophetic. There had to be a king on the throne who had confidence in himself. If he gave in, he was no longer a king but a vassal. Concerning the eastern Cumanians mentioned in the letter, their accommodation ultimately turned out to be detrimental, but not for the reasons given in the Khan's letter. The appearance of the still nomadic, pagan, Cumanians in the Great Plain upset the internal peace of the country and raised discontent and anger with the king's decision at the precise moment when there was the greatest need for harmony. These Cumanians, whose customs and morals were similar to those of the original Hungarian conquerors, could hardly fit in with the now well settled Hungarians, even in peacetime. They were thoroughly familiar with the tactics and mentality of the approaching Tatars -- we may as well begin to call them by that name -- about whom the Hungarians knew very little. These Cumanians would be badly needed, but they were again, misunderstood. The Hungarians, opposing the king's wishes, considered the Cumanians to be advance accomplices of the Tatars, killed their tribal chieftain and expelled them. This left them even more defenseless.

In March 1241, the forces of Batu Khan crossed the Carpathians simultaneously through the northern, eastern and southern passes. Their Blitzkrieg, which caused Béla IV and his family to flee first to the castle of Knin in Dalmacia, then to Trorig and finally to the island of Ciovo, ground to a halt in Hungary. This was due not so much to the Hungarian resistance, but rather to internal problems caused by the death of the Mongolian Great Khan. Their elan, their methods of warfare and their customary, long continued absences from home, do not seem to suggest that they had reached the possible limits of their conquest in the Carpathian Basin.

Their main force moved south, along the right bank of the Danube, in the spring of 1242. In the Balkans, almost in passing, they subjugated the Bulgarians. A large sub-group ravaged Transylvania again, and departed through the eastern passes of the Carpathians. Behind them the country was devastated, just how badly is a matter of ancient debate. The contemporary descriptions are apocalyptic. The Tearful Chronicle of the Italian Master Rogerius, canon of Várad and later archbishop of Spalato, details it for posterity. His detailed and impassioned description sounds very much like an eyewitness account and radiates the heat of things seen and suffered. His words evoke a documentary moving picture and show us houses totally destroyed by fire, despoiled churches, and the bloody, decaying cadavers of raped and murdered inhabitants. Those who hid in the deep forests and in the swamps were lured out with ruses and false promises, and were then massacred in turn.

The modern reader discovers only gradually that the eminent Rogerius is internally contradictory. Principally, if his description had been accurate and factual, Béla IV would have been unable to rebuild quite so quickly after his return following the withdrawal of the Tatars. Many of his programs, particularly the extensive and accelerated erection of towns and castles, postulates the presence of a very large work force, huge numbers of artisans and even more helpers and, in addition, adequate building supplies and, most importantly, food for these multitudes.

Regardless how questionable the direct and indirect damages of the Tatar invasion may have been, it seems likely that the damages in Transylvania were greater than elsewhere. The harm must have been greatest in the valleys and among the population of the great basins. The mountain dwellers and their herds and settlements were probably only minimally affected, or not at all. Neither the Tatars nor the epidemics that followed their invasion penetrated the mountainous regions. Neither then, nor later. This again changed the ethnic ratios. We mentioned the significant Hungarian-Saxon-Székely emigration to beyond the Carpathians, primarily to the Havasalfõld, but also to Moldavia. After the disaster, Transylvania exerted a strong attraction. This was promoted by administrative reorganizations which linked certain Transcarpathian units with units on this side of the Carpathians. Within these linked units, changes in ownership and domicile could be easily undertaken. The administration "straddling" the Carpathians became a bridge for egress and ingress, first for the former and then for the latter.

The administration was undergoing almost continuous changes. Throughout the country the former royal county organizations were falling apart. Béla IV, sharing the regal burden of reconstruction with the magnates and with the cities, looses some of his power. There is a "Quid pro quo". Whoever gets permission to build a fortress for the protection of the country may mobilize forces against internal enemies as well.

At this time, Transylvania's regional independence became stronger rather than weaker and the personality and responsibilities of the Transylvanian voivode was undergoing frequent changes. The Székely and Saxon szék autonomy was maintained, but then a number of voivodes and ispáns were charged with the establishment and supervision of new, smaller areas. A number of these now had a Romanian majority.

It was a strange and colorful world. Just as in other parts of the Hungarian kingdom, namely in the crown lands, ethnic origin was now less significant. It was the language and the religious affiliations that become the dominant factors and not the "political" considerations. Even more important than the old tribal-national organization was the individual's place in the stratification of the classes and the accompanying division of labor. This, of course, pertained only to those members of the communities who had been fully accepted and assimilated into them.

Even though undefeated, the Tartars were gone, but the threat remained. No year went by without the news of an impending invasion. Even though these invasions may not have taken place, or may not reached the Carpathian Basin, they were not without foundation. It was for this reason that Béla IV received the fleeing son of the Russian Great Prince from Tsernygov, Rostislav, and accepted him as his son-in-law. He later assisted him with an army in the latter's Halics campaign. It seems that the king of Hungary did have an effective army, which also argues against the alleged total destruction of the country. Béla IV also took back the formerly expelled Cumanians, but this time they were given an area in the central region of the Great Plain for settlement and grazing.

There came now another experiment with the crusaders -- and this brings us back to Transylvania. We cannot compete with the terse statement in the Historical Chronology of Hungary and quote the following passage from it (Note the two italicized passages: a feudal contract mentions Romanians in two places): "On June 2, 1247, Béla IV contracts with the Hospitaler [St. John's or Crusader] Order. Among other things, the king gives the Crusaders the Szõrénység, except for the land of the Romanian voivodate, all the way to the Olt river, Cumania beyond the Olt and the southeastern corner of Transylvania, with its revenues and judicial powers and permits them to participate in the transport and export of salt. He also supports them in the erection of fortresses in Cumania. The Crusaders make a commitment to improve their feudal lands, increase its population, and protect their territory together with the Romanians [Olati]. In addition, they will render military assistance in case of a Hungarian campaign into Bulgaria, Greece or Cumania."

The Hospitallers relinquish their Feudal lands sometimes between 1258 and 1260, thus, they did not have to be expelled. The problem was not that they had been building fortresses, but rather that they had not done so. They leave. Hungary and, particularly, Transylvania had very poor luck with these not very knightly Crusader knights. Nota bene: Salt! When Béla IV, in May 1242, immediately after the withdrawal of the Tatars, appointed a certain Paul of the Gerenye family as "Commissioner of Reconstruction" of the territories to the west of the Danube, the principal task with which he was charged was the suppression of highway robbery, the collection of the scattered population -- and the reopening of the Transylvanian salt mines.

In 1257, Béla IV appointed his oldest son, the crown prince, as Prince of Transylvania. Stephen was approximately eighteen-years-old at this time. His wife, whose Christian name was Elizabeth, was the daughter of one of the Cumanian chieftains in Hungary. Stephen, who very shortly promoted himself from prince to junior king, at times contracted with his father about his lands and rights and at times attacked him. He was no longer just the Prince of Transylvania. His domains included everything east of the Danube. His younger brother, Prince Béla, won Slavonia for himself. Thus, the king held only Transdanubia and a small area in the north for himself. The issue obviously was not Transylvania alone, but the burning ambition of the crown prince that the king was unable to satisfy. Yet, the relationship between them became a contributing factor in deciding that the fate of Transylvania and that of the country as a whole did not follow the same path.

As far as the Tatars were concerned, there was a gap that spanned two generations. They appeared inside of the Carpathians again in 1285. Ranging through the Verecke pass, they advanced as far as the city of Pest. This was not a concentrated attack against Europe, but only a large scale, exploratory robber campaign. When barely a month later, they retired toward the east, through Transylvania, there Loránd of the Borsa Family, the Transylvanian voivode defeated them in battle and took many prisoners. This led to serious future difficulties.

In the meantime, from having been Prince of Transylvania and junior king, Stephen V became king, but only for two years (12701272). He was succeeded on the throne by Ladislas IV (the Cumanian), the son of the "Cumanian woman". The epithet, Cumanian, was not without foundation. Even though Ladislas IV's wife was an Anjou princess, the daughter of the Neapolitan-Sicilian king, Charles I, the king was partial to his maternal relatives and to the relatives of his Cumanian mistress. Furthermore, he enlisted the Transylvanian captive Tatars into his army and used them in internal warfare. He later had to take a solemn oath before the Archbishop of Esztergom that he would not grant offices to those who had not been baptized. He abandoned the Tatars just as he abandoned his mistress, and he took back his wife, the Anjou Elizabeth. ( To what extent? The chronicles are silent about any offspring.) But this again is not part of the history of Transylvania.

Just as in the west, there was a tendency in Transylvania to replace the royal domains and the revenue generated by service in these domains, with domains and revenues -- principally in specie -- held by the magnates. The royal counties were slowly being replaced by counties of the nobility. This represented a direct challenge to all the previous privileges and autonomies granted by the king, and became a source of much internal strife. Old interests were smashed by the new ones. In the meantime, the increasingly numerous and important Romanian population, this side of the Carpathians, did not yet have or expect the advantages granted to the Székely and Saxon populations. The weakening of the central administration and the departure of the Hospitalers made secession very appealing to the Transcarpathian Romanians. Such an attempt resulted in the death of the Romanian voivode Litvoj, the lord of the Szõrény, killed during a Hungarian punitive campaign. A few years later, the Szõrény Banate, which represented a Transylvanian and Hungarian clenched fist aimed at the heart of the Balkans, was lost to the Hungarian Crown, and so was Cumania. This is just the beginning of the times when new "autonomies" rise alongside the old ones and occasionally in opposition to them. The already strongly muscular or still growing magnate families created feudal fiefdoms, questioned the royal authority and, in effect, ruled small separate "kingdoms", to the detriment of the whole country.

At this time, in Transylvania, these petty rulers were not yet native sons and represented "foreign" dignitaries. The most eminent among them is the voivode Ladislas Khan, who became well known when he got the Crown of St. Stephen into his hands and refused to give it up to its rightful owner, the Anjou Charles Robert. It was only after decades of bitter domestic fighting that the legitimate ruler could regain control over Transylvania from Ladislas Khan and from his sons. Even then the success was incomplete. There was hardly any voivode or other royal official who did not attempt to create an autonomous fiefdom for himself at the cost of the royal authority. There were some which were evanescent, while others were preserved for a lifetime and were even bequeathed to sons and grandsons. The Transylvanian Saxons were not exactly angels either. During their ongoing fight with the bishop of Gyulafehérvár, the king was finally forced to call in the Great Plain Cumanians to teach them a lesson.

The chapter by Master Rogerius which dealt with the Tatar invasion and was consequently entitled The Tearful Chronicle, could be continued at this time. The western parts of the country were freed from any further Mongolian threats after the "lesser Tatar invasion" of 1285. Transylvania was still subject periodically to the "Eastern Plague". In the foreground of the Carpathians, the Tatar presence underwent changes but was persistent. This restless band of brigands, always ready for raids or for campaigns to stock the ever flourishing slave markets of the Crimea with live human merchandise, was more recently less likely to act on their own, but offered its mercenary services to other leaders. It made very little difference to the subjects of their attention.

The ethnic structure of Transylvania was modified by the immigrants who fled to the more protected Carpathian Basin from the regions outside the Carpathians which were still subject to Tatar harassment. There was a particularly heavy influx from among the Romanian mountain shepherd tribes who had made the trip across the Carpathians between Transylvania and the Havasalfõld, and between Transylvania and Moldavia, twice each year for many years. They were further motivated by the fact that being Greek Orthodox, they were exempt from the church tax (tithe) and had to pay only the "one fiftieth" tax for their herds. Their settlements were well defined in increasing numbers, by the partly wooden and partly masonry churches and monasteries.

Finally, a tearful chronicle, no less lamentable than the one written by Master Rogerius, could be written about the fires and ashes of the peasant revolt led by Antal Budai Nagy (1437). The feudalism that eventually reached Transylvanian society was even more unstructured than its original Hungarian model. In Transylvania it never developed fully along the classic lines of the West. The changes in the interrelation of the classes, the increasing arrogance of the nobility and the continuing threats from the Balkans which imposesd increasing financial burdens on them, led to rebellion and it was by no means the lowest levels of society, Hungarian or Romanian, which revolted. The Transylvanian rebels proudly called themselves "The association of the Hungarian and Romanian inhabitants of Transylvania", and " Free men". These comments, typically directed against the nobility, announced the Hussite program for social equality. They also clearly followed a Hussite example when they entrenched themselves, as though on a "Transylvanian Mount Tabor", on the extensive plateau of Mount Bábolna, near the community of Alparét, in the county of Doboka." (László Makkai) Just like in the later Dózsa rebellion, the leader of this rebellion, Antal Budai Nagy, is not a serf but a gentry. In these rebellions the organizers and leaders were not those who had suffered the most, but mainly those who had something to loose beside their life. Even a significant percentage of the large group of followers came from the lower but propertied classes and not from among the "have nots". They represented a group who were deprived of something they had acquired. After several victories and conditional agreements, this bloody revolt came to an end. The major factor in its collapse was that the demands of the participating gentry were met, while the other participating groups were ignored. Thus, the unity of the rebellion fell apart.

This movement was not triggered by an ad hoc displeasure, a sudden rage or an overwhelming passion. It represented the long-term goals of its leaders. This is shown by the fact that they had met annually on Mount Bábolna to discuss their situation and actual demands. This dangerous situation was responsible for the emergence, on the other side, of the "Three Transylvanian Nations". an association of the Hungarian nobility, the Székelys and the Saxons, which then remained for a very long time an important factor and a much cited base in the constitutional struggles in Transylvania's future history. The triple union was first ratified by the delegates of the three parties in Kápolna in September 1437, and was renewed in February 1438 in Torda, the site of numerous future Transylvanian Diets. The rebellion led by Antal Budai Nagy and characterized by extreme cruelty on both sides, sapped Transylvania's inner strength and cohesion, just when a new and enormous danger arose -- from the east.

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A Short History