3. The Foundation and Development of the Rumanian Principalities

The first attempt to organize itself into a political entity was made by the Rumanian nation in the thirteenth century, when, under the impulse of the disaffected nobles coming from Hungary, the two principalities of 'Muntenia' (Mountain Land), commonly known as Wallachia and 'Moldavia', came into being. The existence of Rumanians on both sides of the Carpathians long before Wallachia was founded is corroborated by contemporary chroniclers. We find evidence of it in as distant a source as the History of the Mongols, of the Persian chronicler, Rashid Al-Din, who, describing the invasion of the Tartars, says: 'In the middle of spring (1240) the princes (Mongols or Tartars) crossed the mountains in order to enter the country of the Bulares (Bulgarians) and of the Bashguirds (Hungarians). Orda, who was marching to the right, passed through the country of the Haute (Olt), where Bazarambam met him with an army, but was beaten. Boudgek crossed the mountains to enter the Kara-Ulak, and defeated the Ulak (Vlakh) people.'[1] Kara-Ulak means Black Wallachia; Bazarambam is certainly the corrupted name of the Ban Bassarab, who ruled as vassal of Hungary over the province of Oltenia, and whose dynasty founded the principality of Muntenia. The early history of this principality was marked by efforts to free it from Hungarian domination, a natural development of the desire for emancipation which impelled the Rumanians to migrate from the subdued provinces in Hungary.

[Footnote 1: Xenopol, Histoire des Roumains, Paris, 1896, i, 168.]

The foundation of Moldavia dates from after the retreat of the Tartars, who had occupied the country for a century (1241-1345). They were driven out by an expedition under Hungarian leadership, with the aid of Rumanians from the province of Maramuresh. It was the latter who then founded the principality of Moldavia under the suzerainty of Hungary, the chroniclers mentioning as its first ruler the Voivod Dragosh.[1]

[Footnote 1: The legend as to the foundation of Moldavia tells us that Dragosh, when hunting one day in the mountains, was pursuing a bison through the dense forest. Towards sunset, just when a successful shot from his bow had struck and killed the animal, he emerged at a point from which the whole panorama of Moldavia was unfolded before his astonished eyes. Deeply moved by the beauty of this fair country, he resolved to found a state there. It is in commemoration of this event that Moldavia bears the head of a wild bison on her banner.]

The rudimentary political formations which already existed before the foundation of the principalities were swept away by the invasion of the Tartars, who destroyed all trace of constituted authority in the plains below the Carpathians. In consequence the immigrants from Transylvania did not encounter any resistance, and were even able to impose obedience upon the native population, though coming rather as refugees than as conquerors. These new-comers were mostly nobles (boyards). Their emigration deprived the masses of the Rumanian population of Transylvania of all moral and political support - especially as a part of the nobility had already been won over by their Hungarian masters - and with time the masses fell into servitude. On the other hand the immigrating nobles strengthened and secured the predominance of their class in the states which were to be founded. In both cases the situation of the peasantry became worse, and we have, curiously enough, the same social fact brought about by apparently contrary causes.

Though the Rumanians seem to have contributed but little, up to the nineteenth century, to the advance of civilization, their part in European history is nevertheless a glorious one, and if less apparent, perhaps of more fundamental importance. By shedding their blood in the struggle against the Ottoman invasion, they, together with the other peoples of Oriental Europe, procured that security which alone made possible the development of western civilization. Their merit, like that of all with whom they fought, 'is not to have vanquished time and again the followers of Mohammed, who always ended by gaining the upper hand, but rather to have resisted with unparalleled energy, perseverance, and bravery the terrible Ottoman invaders, making them pay for each step advanced such a heavy price, that their resources were drained, they were unable to carry on the fight, and thus their power came to an end'.[1]

[Footnote 1: Xenopol, op. cit., i. 266.]

From the phalanx of Christian warriors stand out the names of a few who were the bravest of a time when bravery was common; but while it is at least due that more tribute than a mere mention of their names should be paid to the patriot princes who fought in life-long conflict against Turkish domination, space does not permit me to give more than the briefest summary of the wars which for centuries troubled the country.

It was in 1389, when Mircea the Old was Prince of Wallachia, that the united Balkan nations attempted for the first time to check Ottoman invasion. The battle of Kosovo, however, was lost, and Mircea had to consent to pay tribute to the Turks. For a short space after the battle of Rovine (1398), where Mircea defeated an invading Turkish army, the country had peace, until Turkish victories under the Sultan Mohammed resulted, in 1411, in further submissions to tribute.

It is worthy of mention that it was on the basis of tribute that the relations between Turkey and Rumania rested until 1877, the Rumanian provinces becoming at no time what Hungary was for a century and a half, namely, a Turkish province.

In a battle arising following his frustration - by means not unconnected with his name - of a Turkish plot against his person, Vlad the Impaler (1458-62) completely defeated the Turks under Mohammed II; but an unfortunate feud against Stephen the Great, Prince of Moldavia, put an end to the reign of Vlad - a fierce but just prince.

A period of the most lamentable decadence followed, during which Turkish domination prevailed more and more in the country. During an interval of twenty-five years (1521-46) no less than eleven princes succeeded one another on the throne of Muntenia, whilst of the nineteen princes who ruled during the last three-quarters of the sixteenth century, only two died a natural death while still reigning.

In Moldavia also internal struggles were weakening the country. Not powerful enough to do away with one another, the various aspirants to the throne contented themselves with occupying and ruling over parts of the province. Between 1443-7 there were no less than three princes reigning simultaneously, whilst one of them, Peter III, lost and regained the throne three times.

For forty-seven years (1457-1504) Stephen the Great fought for the independence of Moldavia. At Racova, in 1475, he annihilated an Ottoman army in a victory considered the greatest ever secured by the Cross against Islam. The Shah of Persia, Uzun Hasan, who was also fighting the Turks, offered him an alliance, urging him at the same time to induce all the Christian princes to unite with the Persians against the common foe. These princes, as well as Pope Sixtus IV, gave him great praise; but when Stephen asked from them assistance in men and money, not only did he receive none, but Vladislav, King of Hungary, conspired with his brother Albert, King of Poland, to conquer and divide Moldavia between them. A Polish army entered the country, but was utterly destroyed by Stephen in the forest of Kosmin.

Having had the opportunity of judging at its right value the friendship of the Christian princes, on his death-bed Stephen advised his son Bogdan to make voluntary submission to the Turks. Thus Moldavia, like Wallachia, came under Turkish suzerainty.

For many years after Stephen's death the Turks exploited the Rumanian countries shamelessly, the very candidates for the throne having to pay great sums for Turkish support. The country groaned under the resultant taxation and the promiscuousness of the tribute exacted till, in 1572, John the Terrible ascended the Moldavian throne. This prince refused to pay tribute, and repeatedly defeated the Turks. An army of 100,000 men advanced against John; but his cavalry, composed of nobles not over-loyal to a prince having the peasant cause so much at heart, deserted to the enemy, with the result that, after a gallant and prolonged resistance, he suffered defeat.

Michael the Brave, Prince of Muntenia (1593-1601), was the last of the Vlakhs to stand up against Turkish aggression. This prince not only succeeded in crushing a Turkish army sent against him, but he invaded Transylvania, whose prince had leanings towards Turkey, pushed further into Moldavia, and succeeded in bringing the three Rumanian countries under his rule. Michael is described in the documents of the time as 'Prince of the whole land of Hungro-Wallachia, of Transylvania, and of Moldavia'. He ruled for eight years. 'It was not the Turkish sword which put an end to the exploits of Michael the Brave. The Magyars of Transylvania betrayed him; the German emperor condemned him; and a Greek in Austria's service, General Basta, had him sabred: as though it were fated that all the enemies of the Rumanian race, the Magyar, the German, and the Greek, should unite to dip their hands in the blood of the Latin hero.'[1] The union of the Rumanian lands which he realized did not last long; but it gave form and substance to the idea which was from that day onward to be the ideal of the Rumanian nation.

[Footnote 1: Alfred Rumbaud, Introduction to Xenopol, op, cit., i. xix.]

The fundamental cause of all the sufferings of the Rumanian principalities was the hybrid 'hereditary-elective' system of succession to the throne, which prevailed also in most of the neighbouring countries. All members of the princely family were eligible for the succession; but the right of selecting among them lay with an assembly composed of the higher nobility and clergy. All was well if a prince left only one successor. But if there were several, even if illegitimate children, claiming the right to rule, then each endeavoured to gain over the nobility with promises, sometimes, moreover, seeking the support of neighbouring countries. This system rendered easier and hastened the establishment of Turkish domination; and corruption and intrigues, in which the Sultan's harem had a share, became capital factors in the choice and election of the ruler.

Economically and intellectually all this was disastrous. The Rumanians were an agricultural people. The numerous class of small freeholders (moshneni and razeshi), not being able to pay the exorbitant taxes, often had their lands confiscated by the princes. Often, too, not being able to support themselves, they sold their property and their very selves to the big landowners. Nor did the nobles fare better. Formerly free, quasi-feudal warriors, seeking fortune in reward for services rendered to their prince, they were often subjected to coercive treatment on his part now that the throne depended upon the goodwill of influential personages at Constantinople. Various civil offices were created at court, either necessitated by the extension of the relations of the country or intended to satisfy some favourite of the prince. Sources of social position and great material benefit, these offices were coveted greedily by the boyards, and those who obtained none could only hope to cheat fortune by doing their best to undermine the position of the prince.