Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Transylvanian Saxons

My son told me recently that he and his cousin Michael had developed a growing interest in their Transylvanian Saxon bloodline. He did not know the historical background of these ancestors, so I decided to pull a page out of our family history book to give them a background on where we came from as a people. Their interest is encouraging because this is the generation that will keep a potentially forgotten heritage alive.

For Michael and Jordan……

Transylvania. The word alone brings to mind lightning plagued castles, darkness and fog, and a pale man with odd teeth wearing a black cape. If asked, most people will inform you that Transylvania is a fictitious land that was created by Bram Stoker as a scene for a story. It was never a real place, or was it?

Back in the 10th century, after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, a land called the Hungarian Kingdom arose between the Byzantine and German Empires. The people of this land were called Magyars, and they were a pagan and aggressive people. The Magyars terrorized western Europe in the first half of the 10th century, looting and burning villages as far away as Spain and northern Germany. In 955, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I handed the Magyars a crushing defeat at the Battle of Lechfeld and ended the Magyars raiding days for good. This defeat was taken as a omen by the Magyar leader Duke Geza, and he converted to Christianity and organized a state.

As the country grew geographically, a problem arose for Geza’s son who was baptized Stephen I. His expanding kingdom did not have enough population to settle on, develop and defend his widening borders. A large portion of the land he had conquered was called Transylvania, or “land beyond the forests”. Stephen had a unique plan to solve his border problem, he would invite citizens of other countries to settle in these lands. He would entice them with land ownership, unheard of for commoners in feudal Europe, and by granting privileges and perks to these guest settlers. Each group could negotiate a deal with the rulers, and the privileges granted were many.

One such group came from Germany sometime around 1200. The Magyars were very short on skilled tradesmen and miners to take advantage of the many natural resources to be found in Transylvania. The German group filled the need perfectly and were able to negotiate a particularly good deal with the Magyars. These settlers were and are still known as the Transylvanian Saxons. For centuries the privileges given to these settlers were honored by whomever ruled Transylvania at that given time.

In 1526 Transylvania fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and again the Saxons were well treated, but wars with the Habsburg Monarchy landed Transylvania in their control in 1683. For the next two centuries the Transylvanian Saxons would be systematically stripped of all special privileges due to the Habsburg obsession with uniformity. The Monarchy believed that there should be no ethnic separation in their dominion, and all citizens in Transylvania were pushed down to the same social and political standing as the lowest subject. All were equal and at the bottom of the barrel except the ruling class, just as the Habsburgs liked it. The final insult came with the absorption of Transylvania by Hungary. The Saxons now had no independent identity, no political clout and no country to point to on a map. In 1867 they were treated to the coronation of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef as their King.

Things had deteriorated indeed.

For further information visit:

Upper Picture: Saint Stephan of Hungary, or Stephan 1 from Wikipedia
Lower Picture: Alliance of Transylvanian Saxon fraternal organization logo, Cleveland Oh.


Aquilifer said...

Any further information available on that graphic with the red lettering? The seven heraldic castles are an obvious reference to Siebenbuergen; is this a Saxon society emblem?

D said...

Aha, caught me slacking and not citing my images. You are correct about the seven heraldic castles, but this particular logo is from an ATS fraternal organisation out of Cleveland that my father and grandfather were life members.

Good catch on the lack of citation, thanks!

dean said...

Its good to know that the seiben refers to the castles. I was told they represented the 7 hills. Also, how the saxons were awarded their land is an interesting story with the Hungrian king promising to give them as much land as a sheep skin could cover. Their best skinners trimmed the skin thread thin and surrounded the entire area.