The History Of The Transylvanian Saxons
The Transylvanian Saxons (or ‘Die Siebenbürger Sachsen’ as they are known in standard German as well as ‘Siweberjer Såksen‘ or ‘Soxen‘ in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect) are perhaps the most significant major German ethnic group of Romania and doubtlessly one of the most renowned from Central and Eastern Europe. They are part of the broader Romanian-German group (known in German as ‘Rumäniendeutsche‘) alongside the Bukovina Germans (indigenous to Bukovina, Suceava County, north-eastern Romania), the Banat Swabians (indigenous to Banat, south-western Romania), the Zipsers (or Zipser Germans; indigenous to Maramureș, northern Romania, but also to western/south-western Bukovina or Suceava County), the Regat Germans (indigenous to Wallachia, Moldavia, and Dobruja, in southern and eastern Romania), the Bessarabia Germans (indigenous to Bessarabia, currently divided between the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine), the Transylvanian Landlers (expelled Upper Austrian Protestants to southern Transylvania in the 18th century) as well as the Sathmar Swabians (the only entirely authentic Swabian group of the Danube Swabians).
The Transylvanian Saxons represent the eldest ethnic German group from present-day Romania, disposing therefore of a long standing history and a significant presence in Transylvania spanning almost a millennium back in time. Their historical presence on the territory of contemporary Romania is filled with many significant historical achievements, contributing as such to the creation of a unique cultural space at the crossroads of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe as well as to the subsequent development of the Romanian state.
Some of their settlements, the fortified churches, citadels, and castles have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since the early 1990s, with the vast majority of them being built and fortified throughout the High Middle Ages. The seven medieval Saxon fortified towns in Transylvania which gave the German name of the region (specifically ‘Siebenbürgen‘) are most likely the following ones (listed in Standard German, Transylvanian Saxon, and Romanian):
- Hermannstadt/Härmeschtat (Sibiu);
- Kronstadt/Kruhnen (Brașov);
- Klausenburg (Cluj);
- Schäßburg/Schäsbrich (Sighișoara);
- Mediasch/Medwesch (Mediaș);
- Mühlbach/Melnbach (Sebeș);
- Bistritz/Bästerts (Bistrița; also known under its archaic German form as Nösen).
Ethnically, the Transylvanian Saxons (as paradoxically as it might seem to some) are not entirely Saxons, given the fact that their roots are to a considerable extent more diverse than most people might assume at first glance. Their history in Transylvania commenced in the mid 12th century when they were given land by the then King of Hungary, Géza II, in order to defend the eastern frontiers of the Kingdom of Hungary (which at the time comprised Transylvania as well) along with the Teutonic Knights, mine the region, and increase its economy by means of regional trade with Wallachia to the south (economically, the Saxons also contributed with the introduction of a series of other work titles within the medieval feudal system of Transylvania).
Middle Ages and Renaissance (12th century–16th century)
The origins of the Transylvanian Saxons can be geographically traced to Rhineland and the Moselle River valley (where most of them come from). Aside from Rhineland proper, the first waves of German settlers in Transylvania also stemmed from various other areas of Western/Central Europe, such as Thuringia, Bavaria, Flanders, Wallonia, and even modern day France.
A significant part of the colonists emerged from modern day Luxembourg as well, which explains why the Transylvanian Saxon dialect (known in German as ‘Siebenbürgersächsisch‘ or ‘Die Siebenbürgisch-Sächsische Sprache‘; literally meaning ‘the Transylvanian Saxon language’) is one of the most closest relatives of Luxembourgish (i.e. Lëtzebuergesch).
Together with a handful of other dialects which can be mapped to Luxembourg’s proximity (e.g. those from the areas of the cities of Aachen and Trier), Transylvanian Saxon is part of the Moselle-Franconian (i.e. Moselfränkisch) dialect branch of the German language (which comprises a series of West Central German dialects).
With respect to the origin of their name, it must be mentioned that there are several competing theories on the matter. On the one hand, it seems that the pattern denomination ‘Saxons‘ (originally ‘Saxones‘ in Latin) was broadly given to them because of a small group of either poor miners or mere convicts who ultimately originated in Saxony.
Other studies revealed that they personally attributed themselves this denomination as early as the 14th century. In the end, the most acceptable theory suggests that it all started from a misunderstanding found in the medieval textbooks belonging to the Hungarian Royal Court, where each German nobleman would be simply equated with the term ‘Saxon‘.
Geographically, the first wave of settlement is known to have taken place in southern Transylvania between the years 1140/1150 and 1300, the period of time which is referred to as ‘Ostsiedlung‘ in German historiography (literally meaning ‘Eastern Settlement‘; also known in English as ‘German eastward expansion‘).
They were invited to settle there by Géza II, King of Hungary at the time, for several important reasons, including mining expertise, regional economic growth, and borderline defense against foreign Asian invaders (e.g. the Cumans, the Pechenegs, the Tatars, the Mongols).
The initial phase of colonisation consisted in the development of the first urban settlements around what is now the town of Hermannstadt (Romanian: Sibiu), with its adjacent areas known traditionally as ‘Altland’ (i.e. old land, corresponding to the present day Sibiu county, southern Transylvania). The subsequent phases of colonisation made possible the construction of mining camps in ‘Nösnerland’ (Romanian: Țara Năsăudului) and the rise of its urban Saxon centre known as Nösen (the archaic form of Bistritz, Romanian: Bistrița).
Soon enough, the Transylvanian Saxons became regionally renowned as hardworking miners, skillful merchants, and thorough craftsmen, with successive waves of German-speaking colonists aiding the settlement process. In the meantime, two additional towns were built, namely Mühlbach (Romanian: Sebeș; the center of the region traditionally called ‘Unterwald’) and Mediasch (Romanian: Mediaș; the centre of the region called ‘Weinland’).
At the round of the 13th century, another Hungarian monarch, specifically Andrew II, invited the Teutonic Order to settle down in the region of Burzenland (Romanian: Țara Bârsei), which corresponds to the present day Brașov county, situated in south-eastern Transylvania.
Andrew II’s demand to the Teutonic Knights was to defend the eastern borderland of Transylvania from the incursions of the Cumans, a migratory people from Central Asia. Once there, the knights commenced to build up military fortifications and another important urban centre known as Kronstadt (‘Crown City’ in German; Latin: Corona; Romanian: Brașov).
Nonetheless, after hearing the news about the Teutonic Knights imposing themselves as an important military force in the region (building their castles in stone), the Hungarian King Andrew II expelled the order from Transylvania. Therefore, the Order of the Teutonic Knights was forced to relocate to Prussia but, luckily enough, the German colonists they brought with them were given right to stay.
During the remainder of the 13th century up to the mid 14th century, the Transylvanian Saxons formed their own medieval organisations (i.e. guilds) within Transylvania. Furthermore, through the ‘Golden Charter of the Transylvanian Saxons’ (originally in Latin ‘Diploma Andreanum’), a document issued by King Andrew II, they were given religious and territorial autonomy within their medieval districts (chairs/seats).
At the end of the Middle Ages, the areas subject to German colonisation within Transylvania stretched along the southern Carpathians along with an additional enclave up north, in Nösnerland, which was centred around the town of Bistritz (where gold and silver could be mined)
In the 14th century, part of the Nösnerland Saxons crossed the Carpathians to the then emerging Principality of Moldova, building its first capital (Baia, or Stadt Moldenmarkt in German) and an imposing fortification at Târgu Neamț (German: Niamtz). They were also in charge of these two urban centers under the title of Schultheiß (German for medieval mayor) for several decades, before eventually being assimilated in these local communities.
In the south, part of the Altland and Burzenland Saxons crossed the Southern Carpathians along with Radu Negru, a Romanian Duke of Almaș and Făgăraș (southern Transylvania), in order to establish the Principality of Wallachia. Just as it was the case of the Principality of Moldavia to the north, along with Romanians the Transylvanian Saxons contributed to the construction of Wallachia’s first capital (namely Câmpulung, or Langenau in German) as well as its second one, Târgoviște (according to the Cantacuzino Chronicle). Subsequently, the German-speaking settlers in question gradually assimilated in these local cultures as well.
In the meantime in Transylvania, the Transylvanian Saxons became part of the ‘Union of the Three Nations’ (originally in Latin ‘Unio Trium Nationum’), a treaty signed in the mid 15th century between them, the Hungarian noblemen, and the Szekler guardsmen of eastern Transylvania. The aim of this pact was to exclude the Romanian ethnic majority from the political and administrative life of Transylvania.
The cause that triggered this agreement to be signed was a large scale revolt on behalf of the Wallachian (Romanian) peasantry against the Hungarian noblemen in order to have more social, economic, and political rights. Alarmed by an eventual success of other rebellions of this sort, the Hungarian aristocracy persuaded both the Transylvanian Saxons and the Szeklers to join them in the case of a largely organised revolt on behalf of the Wallachians.
Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that the stance of the Transylvanian Saxons concerning the everlasting Romanian-Hungarian dispute over Transylvania was rather neutral, albeit being signers of this agreement. The goal of this treaty was meant to be mostly a straightening of their presence as a fully defined nation in the semi-independents Grand Principality of Transylvania.
As a matter of fact, many Transylvanian Saxons (including a considerable number of their scholars) favoured to some extent the Romanian side in the context of this conflict. So it is that key intellectuals of this community supported their Romance origin and pleaded for a series of inalienable rights that they should enjoy based on their historical origins before the Hungarian noblemen.
Among these prominent figures were the Transylvanian Saxon humanist theologian Johannes Honterus (born in Kronstadt, who later on studied at the University of Vienna), Michael Weiß (former mayor of Kronstadt at the round of the Modern Age), Christian Schesaus (author of the epic poem ‘Ruinae Pannonnicae’), and Johann Sommer (the scribe of a Moldavian prince in the 16th century).
Initially Roman Catholic, the vast majority of the Transylvanian Saxons turned Reformed after the Protestant Reformation, many of them becoming Lutherans. An interesting legend about the arrival of the Transylvanian Saxons in modern day Romania is linked to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
It is said that in bygone times there was a multicolored-dressed pied piper who was ordered by the mayor of Hameln (now in Lower Saxony) to catch the city’s rats. In exchange, the mayor would pay him 1,000 guilders if the service was done completely and successfully.
Consequently, he managed to catch and drown all of the city’s rats (but one!) in the nearby Weser river. Upon hearing his deed, the mayor refused to pay him what he promised because he did not fulfill his task thoroughly. Because the bargain was not respected to the very end as initially agreed, angrily the pied piper lured the city’s children with his flute and travelled alongside them on through a long underground tunnel from Saxony to Kronstadt (Brașov), southeastern Transylvania. But of course, this remains largely a folk legend to these days and should be treated likewise.
Modern Age (17th century–19th century)
Starting to face themselves with rising nationalism on behalf of both the Hungarians and the Romanians at the round of the 17th century, the Transylvanian Saxons (who were consistently outnumbered by both) were inevitably caught in a crossfire, with two possible alternatives that they could have opted for at the time: either remain neutral (just as before), and as such continue to stand their own ground in a continuous ethnic-based skirmish, or to ultimately support one’s side.
While for most of the past centuries they had been clearly reiterating their neutral stance in this context (an aspect which, it should be nonetheless mentioned, did not prevent them from trading with the neighbouring Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, benefiting greatly in the process), this changed dramatically after they lost their elite status in the 18th century, when Transylvania became part of the Habsburg Empire.
So it is that Emperor Joseph II attempted to revoke their important status from ‘Unio Trium Nationum‘, fearing their power and influence in regards to administration and internal politics. Thus, from the 18th century until the end of the Modern Age, the Transylvanian Saxons had been losing more and more rights, being deprived from several unquestionable liberties.
Their perpetual neutrality regarding the Hungarian-Romanian quarrel over Transylvania inevitably faded away as of the cause of the forced process of Magyarisation imposed in the 19th century and the beginning of cultural discrimination that resulted in schools with German teaching being closed. This loss of education naturally meant that both their native language and local dialect(s) became all of a sudden extremely endangered.
Since the Hungarians became very much hostile during this time towards any other ethnicity that lived in both Transylvania and Banat (especially Romanians, but also other Slavic-speaking groups of Slovaks, Czechs, Croatians, and Serbs, and even other Germans, most notably Swabians), they decided to support the Romanian side. So it was that another Transylvanian Saxon scholar by the name Stephan Ludwig Roth (born in Mediasch) pleaded for the official status of the Romanian language.
Because he had expressed his thoughts publicly regarding this matter, Roth was executed on May 11, 1849 in Klausenburg (Romanian: Cluj) by the Hungarian authorities. In his memory, one of the high schools from his hometown, Mediasch, bears his name today.
Documentation sources and external links
- Personal travels to Transylvanian Saxon fortified cities and churches;
- Personal experiences (very positive to excellent, I might add) with people from Transylvania and Bukovina, Romania;
- Siebenburger.de, the official website of the Transylvanian Saxon community in Germany (in German);
- SibiWeb.de, created in 1996, a web forum on Transylvania as well as the culture of the Transylvanian Saxons (also in Romanian and Norwegian);
- Siebenbuergen-Fan.de, a fan-made digital shop for everything Transylvanian Saxon (in German);
- Povești săsești, a website dedicated to the culture, customs, traditions, and history of the Transylvanian Saxons (in Romanian, English, and German);
- The German colonists and The Universitas Saxorum on www.alanier.at (in English);
- The Transylvanian Saxons on the Institute for Research of Expelled Germans (in English);
- A forgotten Saxon world shows how ancient and modern can co-exist, an article on The Guardian by Simon Jenkins about the German heritage in Transylvania;
- History of Saxons from Transylvania on www.richisinfo.ro (in English);
- Transylvanian Saxon people on www.britannica.com.