Origins of Walachia and Moldavia

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In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Transylvanian émigrés founded two principalities, Walachia and Moldavia. Legend says that in 1290 Negru-Voda, a leading Romanian nobleman ( voivode), 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 fourteenth century to the seventeenth 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress