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A Short History

A Peculiar, Peculiar Little Country

It was only as recently as 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. In the Transylvania of this time the yearning for a breath of fresh air in religion was not without precedent. The spirit of Hussism had reached northern Hungary directly, and hence Transylvania indirectly. Later some Anabaptists visited and then settled. Their descendants today are referred to as Habans on the basis of some of their pottery that has come down to us.

The Lutherian teachings found their optimal entry point simultaneously in northern Hungary and in Transylvania among the urban Saxon population driving for independence and for individual recognition. This trend was promoted by the fact that most of the early pathbreakers of the Reformation were Germans. Lutheran conversions among the Hungarians followed very shortly.

The first public religious debate was held in the Transylvanian Segesvár in 1538 between a Franciscan and a "Reformed" minister. It was not only condoned, but actually organized by János Szapolyai. (The outcome was a cautious "tie"). The Transylvanian Diet in Torda in 1548 wished to limit missionary ardor, but at the same time recognized Lutheranism. This ordinance was classically two-faced and doomed to failure, yet it was undoubtedly elegant. The spread of the Calvinist form of Protestantism was also very rapid in our region. A 1557 edict of the Transylvanian Diet in Torda declared without any reservations that "Every one shall live in any religion of their choosing," while the remaining Catholics became persecuted minorities in some areas and were forced to move. They now had to be protected by laws.

We hasten to emphasize that this was not yet the end of the Catholic -- Lutheran (Evangelical) -- Calvinist (Reformed) chain. On this eastern edge of the Latin Christian world, the denial of the trinity, Antitrinitarianism also originating from the west, was deeply embedded and assumed the form of Unitarianism which evolved into a formal, national Church still very much alive today. Its evolution and flowering can be assigned to the era of John Sigismund, who at the end of his life was one of its followers. It is thus that in 1563, the Transylvanians -- again at a Torda Diet -- declared the freedom of the four "accepted" religions. These were : Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Reformed and Unitarian. The Eastern Orthodox creed, practiced by the Romanians was not among the "accepted" religions, but the increase of both its wooden and stone churches and the functioning of its monasteries proves that religious tolerance extended to them. Their omission from the Torda decree was not due to religious causes but was a function of their societal --"national"-- status.

The boldness and elegance in religious thought and religious life was relative and not entirely consistent. There were imprisonments and in some extreme cases even deaths connected to, or based on enthusiasm in the propagation of various faiths. Yet the inquisitorial rage which, in the case of Servet, a noted Anti-Trinitarian, affected even Calvin himself, was entirely absent in Transylvania.

In Transylvania, the chain was not at an end even now. Dogmatically, Protestantism evolved primarily from a return to the text of the Scriptures. The Unitarians, even more radically, rejected everything that was post-Christ. One group in Transylvania based its entire reliance on the Old Testament alone. The Sabbatarians were getting close to Judaism, not only in the observance of the weekly holiday but in other religious questions as well. (Taking a giant leap in history, we must add that the Sabbatarians faced a dreadful end and that its members were caught up in the murder machine of the Holocaust of 1944. Their few survivors were welcomed in the new State of Israel).

In the middle of the above century, the increased religious freedom and the more liberal thinking that has led to it, the doubts and the ability to select ones path in life, also allowed the entire intellectual environment to flower and become much more colorful. The religious debates, occasionally bloody and rich in obscenities, led to significantly increased reading, translating, printing and publishing. The free exchange of ideas allowed many more young men from various classes in Transylvania to attend universities. Those returning from the universities introduced more up-to-date knowledge and teaching methods throughout the land. In this, the Protestants played a dominant role. Initially their endeavors were characterized by bringing religious and other novel ideas from abroad and by their dissemination at home . Later there was a vigorous exchange of religious and other ideas locally and by interpersonal contacts. The fame of the Transylvanian freedoms spread abroad. Protestants fleeing from persecution came in groups. Protestants in other parts of Europe welcomed the emancipated young men from Transylvania, celebrated for its religious innovations.

In the final analysis, much good and bad can be said about the Transylvania of John Sigismund. We must add that most of the bad things come from Székely tradition. For them the only thing by which they judged the man, who was the last national king and the first Prince of Transylvania, was that he drowned in blood their large scale and clearly justified rebellion, triggered by their increasing subjugation. They also bitterly resented that he had two new fortresses erected in 1562, primarily to control Székely activities. The one in Udvarhelyszék was called Székelytámadt (attacked by the Székelys), and the one in Háromszék was called Székelybánja (the Székelys regret it).

His successor had a totally different fate, way of life, perspective and historic reputation. Since John Sigismund died without issue, according to their agreement, Transylvania should have gone over to the Habsburg Maximilian. The nobles, fearing Stambul, and worried about their independence -- a paradox, yet reality -- preferred to elect István Báthory (1571-1586) as voivode. Following this challenging invitation, he secretly swore allegiance to Maximilian, while publicly accepting the endorsement of his election by the Sultan. His former gesture was in vain, he had to pursue Maximilian's adherents with armed forces. He reached the peak of his career four years later, in 1575, when in Cracow he was elected king of Poland. It appeared to the Polish electors that this little voivode from Transylvania may be more malleable in their hands than some of the other eligible candidates. If this was what they thought, they were wrong. Yet, they never had any reason to regret their decision.

This change of István Báthory's role was endorsed by the Turks as well, even though Báthory hoped that with this change he could gather enough strength to make a resistance to Stambul possible, or, at least, to be regarded as an equal partner by the Sultan. Just like Mathias Hunyadi, who first tried to protect his back and was recruiting a force, but never had an opportunity to attack in the south, István Báthory got into a bitter war with the Russian Tsar Ivan IV (The Terrible), and had all his future plans negated by his premature death at the zenith of his powers, at the age of fifty-three. He had no issue and his successor had no issue either.

According to Polish tradition, the decade of Báthory's reign is considered to be one of the glorious periods of their history. They are right. It was. At the same time, Transylvania was governed by Kristóf Báthory, the Cracovian king's honorable, but less outstanding elder brother as voivode. The fact that his activities were subject to a Transylvanian chancellery in Cracow can not be faulted, but his dynastic endeavors on behalf of his minor son are open to serious criticism.

Transylvania was kept in order and prospered under the long distance management of István Báthory. Under the rule of his nephew, the unfortunate Zsigmond Báthory (1588-1599), the not inconsiderable political, moral and economic strength of the country was rapidly wasted. He was insecure, fled from responsibility, had a notoriously unhappy marriage, and intermittently resigned from and returned to the princely throne. Transylvanian memory recalls the last years of the old century and the first years of the new one as having been worse than the time of John Sigismund -- no mean accomplishment.

The Habsburg mercenary troops, under the notoriously cruel Albanian general Basta, committed dreadful depredations in both men and goods, in spite of the fact that Zigmond Báthory, leaving the throne for the last time, offered Transylvania to the very strange Emperor Rudolph (1572-1608). We are going to give only one example of the many bad things that happened in this poor land, beset from so many sides. Transylvania became used to the idea that with the Turks on the other side of the fence, the Romanian voivodate of the Havasalfõld, providing frontier troops for the Sultan, would make inroads from time to time. This, in itself, was not amazing. Such inroads were also made in the opposite direction. At this time, however, when the Turks were much less active in this region, Mihai, the Romanian voivode of the Havasalfõld -- the celebrated Mihai Viteazul, or Mihai the Hero who was born in 1557 and ruled from 1593 to 1601 -- attacked Transylvania under Habsburg colors. For a short period he even became the ruling prince. It could not even come as a surprise that a number of Székelys, oppressed and rebellious under Sigismund Báthory, were fighting in Mihai's army.

Two years and one year. This was all the time the next two rulers had. Yet, in the little time allotted to him, the very able military commander, István Bocskai (1605-1606) accomplished much. He could do this because he managed to train a good army from among the previously chastised but now pacified Székelys and from the wild Heyduck. The latter, while not regular troops, could be disciplined fighting forces and they played an important and questionable role in the times to come. They became the cutting blades of a number of employers, which cut well, but could not rest. Condemned to inactivity -- without pay or loot -- they seemed to provoke new confrontations.

In the winter of 1604-1605, Bocskai became successively the Prince of Transylvania and of Hungary, with the latter standing on the verge of having a national king. Located between "two great imperial powers", this astute soldier shied away from the kingdom. Being aware of his own military strength, he made a favorable peace with Rudolph, and he was the intermediary for a Turkish-Habsburg peace treaty. Death stopped him from enjoying the fruits of these endeavors.

While the several ambitious and mutually suspicious aspirants to the throne arranged a brilliant funeral for Bocskai in Gyulafehérvár, Zsigmond Rákoczi (1607-1608), having previously amassed an enormous fortune, had himself hastily and slyly elected as prince. Barely a year later he was dead. He was thus just an interlude, postponing the decision. His accomplishment was to bring another brilliant Hungarian magnate family to the fore. It will very soon have an enormous influence on the life and on the political power structure of Transylvania.

What a gallery! On the throne, the first one after Rákóczi was Gábor Báthori (1608-1613), the third member of this large family to hold this position. He was an eminent soldier, but an unbridled, avid lecher, and an insanely ambitious ruler. He attacked everybody and managed to antagonize everybody. The unfortunate result of this was that his behavior causes another shift in the Transylvanian political axis and that his former adherent and associate, Gábor Bethlen, was forced to seek increased Turkish contacts. The Sultan was also enraged and used his Turkish and Tatar troops to chase Gábor Báthori from his throne. This was not very proper, but was clearly indicated. Seeing that he had lost his political power, Báthori's heyducks murdered him.

Let us interpose here something, that really should have been discussed earlier, namely the actual form of government in Hungary and Transylvania. The House of Árpád, endowed with the crown under Stephen I, established an essentially unlimited royal government, where the succession was vested in inheritance and the legitimate king owed responsibility only to God. In actual reality and after much tug of war, there were increasing limitations placed on the personal power of the king and on the regulation of the succession. We must think only of the Golden Bull (the Hungarian Magna Carta), which instituted a form of social contract between the ruler and the ruled and which wrested concessions and promises from the ruler. After the reign of the House of Árpád, but particularly with the election of Mathias Corvinus and János Szapolyai, and contrary to the characteristics of absolute monarchy, Hungary and Transylvania functioned more like a republic of the nobles. The members of this "republic" naturally did not represent the entire population, but was largely limited to the higher and middle nobility. Gradually others were endowed with quasi noble attributes and were able to participate, directly, or through their representatives in gatherings which were now known as Diets.

This type of the republic of the nobility can be demonstrated in several Middle European countries. Here, a considerably larger percentage of the entire population is given noble or quasi-noble privileges than in the countries to the west of us where the classic feudal society limited the rule to a much smaller elite. To the east of us, the prevalent form of government was the absolute royal power, and the even more absolute despotism that prevailed for very many years to come. Even though there were geopolitical pressures, the decision to dethrone Gabor Báthori was made -- with Turkish assistance -- by the nobility. It was also their decision that made Gábor Bethlen (16131629) Báthori's successor. This was the beginning of Transylvania's Golden Age.

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A Short History