Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Romania in the Middle Ages

 This article is part of the
History of Romania series.
 Romania in the Middle Ages
 National awakening of Romania
 Kingdom of Romania
 Romania during World War II
 Communist Romania
 Romania since 1989

Table of contents
1 Migration age
2 Hungarian migration
3 Medieval states
4 Ottoman Invasion

Migration age

Faced by successive invasions of Germanic tribes, the Roman administration withdrew from Dacia, abandoning the last of their positions north of the Danube during the reign of Aurelian (270-275). Multiple waves of invasion followed, such as the Slavs in the 7th century, most of whom were settlers who colonized the lowlands of Romania. They came into contact with, and were assimilated by, the Romanian population living mostly in highlands. Also many warrior tribes passed through the Romanian territory, like the Huns, the Magyars in the 9th century, and the Tatars in the 13th century.

There is no written or architectural evidence that bears witness to the presence of "proto-Romanians" the lands north of the Danube during the millennium after Rome's withdrawal from Dacia, but there is no evidence that could prove the contrary. This fact has fueled a centuries-long feud between Romanian and Hungarian historians over Transylvania.

Some historians claim that the Romanians were not in fact the descendants of the Romanized Dacians and that they came from South of Danube and settled in current territory of Romania. For details about this debate, see Origin of Romanians.

Romanian historians explain the absence of hard evidence for their claims by pointing out that the region lacked organized administration until the 12th century and by positing that the Mongols destroyed any existing records when they plundered the area in 1241.

Hungarian migration

In 896 the Magyars, the last of the migrating tribes to establish a state in Europe, settled in the Carpathian Basin. A century later their king, Stephen I, integrated Transylvania into his Hungarian kingdom. The Hungarians constructed fortresses, founded a Roman Catholic bishopric, and began proselytizing Transylvania's indigenous people. There is little doubt that these included some Romanians who remained faithful to the Eastern Orthodox Church after the East-West Schism. Stephen and his successors recruited foreigners to join the Magyars in settling the region.

The foreign settlers included people from as far off as Flanders: Szeklers, a Magyar ethnic group; and even Teutonic Knights returned from Palestine, who founded the town of Brasov before a conflict with the king prompted their departure for the Baltic region in 1225. Hungary's kings reinforced the foreigners' loyalty by granting them land, commercial privileges, and considerable autonomy. Nobility was restricted to Roman Catholics and, while some Romanian noblemen converted to the Roman rite to preserve their privileges, most of the Orthodox Romanians became serfs.

In 1241 the Mongols invaded Transylvania from the north and east over the Carpathians. They routed King Béla IV's forces, laid waste Transylvania and central Hungary, and slew much of the populace. When the Mongols withdrew suddenly in 1242, Béla launched a vigorous reconstruction program. He invited more foreigners to settle Transylvania and other devastated regions of the kingdom, granted loyal noblemen lands, and ordered them to build stone fortresses. Béla's reconstruction effort and the fall of the Árpád Dynasty in 1301 shifted the locus of power in Hungary significantly. The royal fortunes declined, and rival magnates carved out petty kingdoms, expropriated peasant land, and stiffened feudal obligations. Transylvania became virtually autonomous. As early as 1288 Transylvania's noblemen convoked their own assembly, or Diet. Under increasing economic pressure from unrestrained feudal lords and religious pressure from zealous Catholics, many Romanians emigrated from Transylvania eastward and southward over the Carpathians.

Medieval states

Early Romanian states were formed in the 11th century, including the Romanian-Bulgarian kingdom (which comprised today's teritories of Romania and Bulgaria), ruled by the Romanian Asen dynasty, and several other small kingdoms that usually were disbanded after their leaders' deaths.

It was only in the 13th century that the larger principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia emerged. Transylvania was, at that time, a largely autonomous part of the Hungarian kingdom, a result of the conquest in the 11th to 13th century of the pre-existent smaller political formations.

Romanian Countries, during the rule of Mihai Viteazul (1593-1601)

Wallachia and Moldavia

Legend says that in 1290 Negru-Voda, a leading Romanian nobleman, left Fagaras in southern Transylvania with a group of nobles and founded "Tara Româneasca" on the lands between the southern Carpathians and the Danube. (The name "Tara Româneasca" means "Romanian land," here, actually "Walachia"; the word "Walachia" is derived from the Slavic word vlach, which is related to the Germanic walh, meaning "foreigner.")

A second legend holds that a Romanian voivode named Dragos crossed the Carpathians and settled with other Romanians on the plain between the mountains and the Black Sea. They were joined in 1349 by a Transylvanian voivode named Bogdan, who revolted against his feudal overlord and settled on the Moldova River, from which Moldavia derives its name. Bogdan declared Moldavia's independence from Hungary a decade later. The remaining Romanian nobles in Transylvania eventually adopted the Hungarian language and culture. Transylvania's Romanian serfs continued to speak Romanian and clung to Orthodoxy but were powerless to resist Hungarian domination.

Walachia and Moldavia steadily gained strength in the fourteenth century, a peaceful and prosperous time throughout southeastern Europe. Prince Basarab I of Walachia (ca. 1330-52), despite defeating King Charles Robert in 1330, had to acknowledge Hungary's sovereignty. The Eastern Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople, however, established an ecclesiastical seat in Walachia and appointed a metropolitan. The church's recognition confirmed Walachia's status as a principality, and Walachia freed itself from Hungarian sovereignty in 1380.

The princes of both Walachia and Moldavia held almost absolute power; only the prince had the power to grant land and confer noble rank. Assemblies of nobles, or boyars, and higher clergy elected princes for life, and the absence of a succession law created a fertile environment for intrigue. From the 14th century to the 17th century, the principalities' histories are replete with overthrows of princes by rival factions often supported by foreigners. The boyars were exempt from taxation except for levies on the main sources of agricultural wealth. Although the peasants had to pay a portion of their output in kind to the local nobles, they were never, despite their inferior position, deprived of the right to own property or resettle.

Walachia and Moldavia remained isolated and primitive for many years after their founding. Education, for example, was nonexistent, and religion was poorly organized. Except for a rare market center, there were no significant towns and little circulation of money. In time, however, commerce developed between the lands of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. Merchants from Genoa and Venice founded trading centers along the coast of the Black Sea where Tatars, Germans, Greeks, Jews, Poles, Ragusans, and Armenians exchanged goods. Walachians and Moldavians, however, remained mainly agricultural people.


In Transylvania economic life rebounded quickly after the Mongol invasion. New farming methods boosted crop yields. Craftsmen formed guilds as artisanry flourished; gold, silver, and salt mining expanded; and money-based transactions replaced barter. Though townspeople were exempt from feudal obligations, feudalism expanded and the nobles stiffened the serfs' obligations. The serfs resented the higher payments; some fled the country, while others became outlaws. In 1437 Romanian and Hungarian peasants rebelled against their feudal masters. The uprising gathered momentum before the Magyar, German, and Szekler nobles in Transylvania united forces and, with great effort, successfully quelled the revolt. Afterwards, the nobles formed the Union of Three Nations, jointly pledging to defend their privileges against any power except that of Hungary's king. The document declared the Magyars, Germans, and Szeklers the only recognized nationalities in Transylvania; henceforth, all other nationalities there, including the Romanians, were merely "tolerated." The nobles gradually imposed even tougher terms on their serfs. In 1437, for example, each serf had to work for his lord one day per year at harvest time without compensation; by 1514 serfs had to work for their lord one day per week using their own animals and tools.

Ottoman Invasion

In the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks expanded their empire from Anatolia to the Balkans. They crossed the Bosporus in 1352 and crushed the Serbs at Kosovo Polje, in the south of modern-day Yugoslavia in 1389. Tradition holds that Walachia's Prince Mircea cel Batran (1386-1418) sent his forces to Kosovo to fight beside the Serbs; soon after the battle Sultan Bayezid marched on Walachia and imprisoned Mircea until he pledged to pay tribute.

After a failed attempt to break the sultan's grip, Mircea fled to Transylvania and enlisted his forces in a crusade called by Hungary's King Sigismund. The campaign ended miserably: the Turks routed Sigismund's forces in 1396 at Nicopolis in present-day Bulgaria, and Mircea and his men were lucky to escape across the Danube. In 1402 Walachia gained a respite from Ottoman pressure as the Mongol leader Tamerlane attacked the Ottomans from the east, killed the sultan, and sparked a civil war. When peace returned, the Ottomans renewed their assault on the Balkans. In 1417 Mircea capitulated to Sultan Mehmed I and agreed to pay an annual tribute and surrender territory; in return the sultan allowed Walachia to remain a principality and to retain the Eastern Orthodox faith.

After Mircea's death in 1418, Walachia and Moldavia slid into decline. Succession struggles, Polish and Hungarian intrigues, and corruption produced a parade of eleven princes in twenty-five years and weakened the principalities as the Ottoman threat waxed. In 1444 the Ottomans routed European forces at Varna in contemporary Bulgaria. When Constantinople succumbed in 1453, the Ottomans cut off Genoese and Venetian galleys from Black Sea ports, trade ceased, and the Romanian principalities' isolation deepened. At this time of near desperation, a Magyarized Romanian from Transylvania, János Hunyadi, became regent of Hungary. Hunyadi, a hero of the Ottoman wars, mobilized Hungary against the Turks, equipping a mercenary army funded by the first tax ever levied on Hungary's nobles. He scored a resounding victory over the Turks before Belgrade in 1456, but died of plague soon after the battle.

In one of his final acts, Hunyadi installed Vlad Tepes (1456-1462) on Walachia's throne. Vlad took abnormal pleasure in inflicting torture and watching his victims writhe in agony. He also hated the Turks and defied the sultan by refusing to pay tribute. In 1461 Hamsa Pasha tried to lure Vlad into a trap, but the Walachian prince discovered the deception, captured Hamsa and his men, impaled them on wooden stakes, and abandoned them. Sultan Mohammed later invaded Walachia and drove Vlad into exile in Hungary. Although Vlad eventually returned to Walachia, he died shortly thereafter, and Walachia's resistance to the Ottomans softened.

Moldavia and its prince, Stefan cel Mare (1457-1504), were the principalities' last hope of repelling the Ottoman threat. Stephen drew on Moldavia's peasantry to raise a 55,000-man army and repelled the invading forces of Hungary's King Mátyás Corvinus in a daring night attack. Stephen's army invaded Walachia in 1471 and defeated the Turks when they retaliated in 1473 and 1474. After these victories, Stephen implored Pope Sixtus IV to forge a Christian alliance against the Turks. The pope replied with a letter naming Stephen an "Athlete of Christ," but he did not heed Stephen's calls for Christian unity. During the last decades of Stephen's reign, the Turks increased the pressure on Moldavia. They captured key Black Sea ports in 1484 and burned Moldavia's capital, Suceava, in 1485. Stephen rebounded with a victory in 1486 but thereafter confined his efforts to secure Moldavia's independence to the diplomatic arena. Frustrated by vain attempts to unite the West against the Turks, Stephen, on his deathbed, reportedly told his son to submit to the Turks if they offered an honorable suzerainty. Succession struggles weakened Moldavia after his death.

In 1514 greedy nobles and an ill-planned crusade sparked a widespread peasant revolt in Hungary and Transylvania. Well-armed peasants under Gheorghe Doja sacked estates across the country. Despite strength of numbers, however, the peasants were disorganized and suffered a decisive defeat at Timisoara. Doja and the other rebel leaders were tortured and executed. After the revolt, the Hungarian nobles enacted laws that condemned the serfs to eternal bondage and increased their work obligations. With the serfs and nobles deeply alienated from each other and jealous magnates challenging the king's power, Hungary was vulnerable to outside aggression. The Ottomans stormed Belgrade in 1521, routed a feeble Hungarian army at Mohács in 1526, and conquered Buda in 1541. They installed a pasha to rule over central Hungary; Transylvania became an autonomous principality under Ottoman suzerainty; and the Habsburgs assumed control over fragments of northern and western Hungary.

After Buda's fall, Transylvania, though a vassal state of the "Sublime Porte" (the Ottoman Empire), entered a period of broad autonomy. As a vassal, Transylvania paid the Porte an annual tribute and provided military assistance; in return, the Ottomans pledged to protect Transylvania from external threat. Native princes governed Transylvania from 1540 to 1690. Transylvania's powerful, mostly Hungarian, ruling families, whose position ironically strengthened with Hungary's fall, normally chose the prince, subject to the Porte's confirmation; in some cases, however, the Turks appointed the prince outright. The Transylvanian Diet became a parliament, and the nobles revived the Union of Three Nations, which still excluded the Romanians from political power. Princes took pains to separate Transylvania's Romanians from those in Walachia and Moldavia and forbade Eastern Orthodox priests to enter Transylvania from Walachia.

The Protestant Reformation spread rapidly in Transylvania after Hungary's collapse, and the region became one of Europe's Protestant strongholds. Transylvania's Germans adopted Lutheranism, and many Hungarians converted to Calvinism. However, the Protestants, who printed and distributed catechisms in the Romanian language, failed to lure many Romanians from Orthodoxy. In 1571 the Transylvanian Diet approved a law guaranteeing freedom of worship and equal rights for Transylvania's four "received" religions: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian. The law was one of the first of its kind in Europe, but the religious equality it proclaimed was limited. Orthodox Romanians, for example, were free to worship, but their church was not recognized as a received religion.

Once the Ottomans conquered Buda, Walachia and Moldavia lost all but the veneer of independence and the Porte exacted heavy tribute. The Turks chose Walachian and Moldavian princes from among the sons of noble hostages or refugees at Constantinople. Few princes died a natural death, but they lived enthroned amid great luxury. Although the Porte forbade Turks to own land or build mosques in the principalities, the princes allowed Greek and Turkish merchants and usurers to exploit the principalities' riches. The Greeks, jealously protecting their privileges, smothered the developing Romanian middle class.

The Romanians' final hero before the Turks and Greeks closed their stranglehold on the principalities was Walachia's Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul) (1593-1601). Michael bribed his way at the Porte to become prince. Once enthroned, however, he rounded up extortionist Turkish lenders, locked them in a building, and burned it to the ground. His forces then overran several key Turkish fortresses. Michael's ultimate goal was complete independence, but in 1598 he pledged fealty to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. A year later, Michael captured Transylvania, and his victory incited Transylvania's Romanian peasants to rebel. Michael, however, more interested in endearing himself to Transylvania's nobles than in supporting defiant serfs, suppressed the rebels and swore to uphold the Union of Three Nations. Despite the prince's pledge, the nobles still distrusted him. Then in 1600 Michael conquered Moldavia.

For the first time a single Romanian prince ruled over all Romanians, and the Romanian people sensed the first stirring of a national identity. Michael's success startled Rudolf. The emperor incited Transylvania's nobles to revolt against the prince, and Poland simultaneously overran Moldavia. Michael consolidated his forces in Walachia, apologized to Rudolf, and agreed to join Rudolf's general, Giörgio Basta, in a campaign to regain Transylvania from recalcitrant Hungarian nobles. After their victory, however, Basta executed Michael for alleged treachery. Michael the Brave grew more impressive in legend than in life, and his short-lived unification of the Romanian lands later inspired the Romanians to struggle for cultural and political unity.

In Transylvania Basta's army persecuted Protestants and illegally expropriated their estates until Stephen Bocskay (1605-1607), a former Habsburg supporter, mustered an army that expelled the imperial forces. In 1606 Bocskay concluded treaties with the Habsburgs and the Turks that secured his position as prince of Transylvania, guaranteed religious freedom, and broadened Transylvania's independence. After Bocskay's death and the reign of the tyrant Gabriel Báthory (1607-1613), the Porte compelled the Transylvanians to accept Gábor Bethlen (1613-1629]) as prince. Transylvania experienced a golden age under Bethlen's enlightened despotism. He promoted agriculture, trade, and industry, sank new mines, sent students abroad to Protestant universities, and prohibited landlords from denying an education to children of serfs. After Bethlen died, however, the Transylvanian Diet abolished most of his reforms. Soon György Rákóczi I (1630-1640) became prince. Rákóczi, like Bethlen, sent Transylvanian forces to fight with the Protestants in the Thirty Years' War; and Transylvania gained mention as a sovereign state in the Peace of Westphalia. Transylvania's golden age ended after György Rákóczi II (1648-1660) launched an ill-fated attack on Poland without the prior approval of the Porte or Transylvania's Diet. A Turkish and Tatar army routed Rákóczi's forces and seized Transylvania. For the remainder of its independence, Transylvania suffered a series of feckless and distracted leaders, and throughout the seventeenth century Transylvania's Romanian peasants lingered in poverty and ignorance.

During Michael the Brave's brief tenure and the early years of Turkish suzerainty, the distribution of land in Walachia and Moldavia changed dramatically. Over the years, Walachian and Moldavian princes made land grants to loyal boyars in exchange for military service so that by the seventeenth century hardly any land was left. Boyars in search of wealth began encroaching on peasant land and their military allegiance to the prince weakened. As a result, serfdom spread, successful boyars became more courtiers than warriors, and an intermediary class of impoverished lesser nobles developed. Would-be princes were forced to raise enormous sums to bribe their way to power, and peasant life grew more miserable as taxes and exactions increased. Any prince wishing to improve the peasants' lot risked a financial shortfall that could enable rivals to out-bribe him at the Porte and usurp his position.

In 1632 Matei Basarab (1632-1654) became the last of Walachia's predominant family to take the throne; two years later, Vasile Lupu (1634-1653), a man of Albanian descent, became prince of Moldavia. The jealousies and ambitions of Matei and Vasile sapped the strength of both principalities at a time when the Porte's power began to wane. Coveting the richer Walachian throne, Vasile attacked Matei, but the latter's forces routed the Moldavians, and a group of Moldavian boyars ousted Vasile. Both Matei and Vasile were enlightened rulers, who provided liberal endowments to religion and the arts, established printing presses, and published religious books and legal codes.

The end of the same 14th century also brought the Ottoman Turks to the Danube. Their territory expanded rapidly. In 1453 Constantinople fell, and in 1541 all the Balkans and most of Hungary became provinces of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Transylvania remained autonomous, under Ottoman suzerainty.

The year 1600 brought the first unification of the three principalties by Wallachian prince Mihai Viteazul, known in English as Michael the Brave. The union did not last: Mihai was killed only one year later by the soldiers of an Austrian army officer.

At the end of the 17th century, following the defeat of the Turks, Hungary and Transylvania become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrians, in turn, rapidly expanded their empire: In 1718 an important part of Wallachia, called Oltenia, was incorporated into the Austrian Empire and was only returned in 1793.

The eastern province of Moldavia also had a reasonably complex history during this period. In 1775 the Austrian Empire occupied the north-western part of Moldavia, later called Bukovina. In 1812, Russia occupied the eastern half of the principality, calling it Bessarabia.

See also: