December 1, 2018, will mark the 100th anniversary of the great union of the Romanian lands to form modern Romania. As this commemoration of this great achievement in the history of the Romanian people is commemorated, it is fitting to reflect on the first time that union was achieved. In the year 1600, Michael the Brave, the prince of Wallachia, united the three Romanian principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia under his rule.
When studying the reign of Michael the Brave I am reminded of the opening passage from Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,…”
Dickens’ introduction to his novel set in the time of the French Revolution is an equally appropriate description of the age of Michael the Brave when, for one brief shining moment the prince united the three Romanian principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania, and Moldavia.
From a historical perspective, the brief reign of Michael the Brave as prince of Wallachia from 1593 to 1601 is both a great and tragic moment in the history of the Romanian people. His remarkable achievement of uniting the three principalities under his rule would not be duplicated for over three hundred years and only then under completely different circumstances.
Looking back in time, the age of Michael the Brave seems to represent the “best of times” in the early modern history of the Romanian people. Michael’s defeat of the powerful Ottoman armies and his unification of the principalities served to inspire Romanian patriots of later generations and in that way contributed to the founding of the modern Romanian state.
Michael and his contemporaries were not, however, under the influence of any nationalist ideal. The act of unifying the three principalities was undertaken out of military necessity and the quest for political and economic power. Michael became prince of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia as three separate and distinct principalities. The idea of ruling over a unified Romanian nation-state was alien to Michael. Yet, in Michael the Brave, Romanian patriots, yearning for the establishment of a national state, found a legendary hero because his achievement marked the only time that their dream of uniting the Romanian lands had ever been achieved.
For the great majority of Romanians living at the time, the age of Michael the Brave must have seemed like the “worst of times.” The country was devastated by war which naturally took its hardest toll on the peasantry who constituted the vast majority of Romanians. Michael the Brave was not a champion of the masses. The very man who was destined to revive the former glory of Romania, Michael the Brave, who would conquer Transylvania in 1599, began by paying hard cash, with the aid of the English ambassador at Constantinople, Barton, and the richest of the Christian bankers to the Porte, Andronicus Cantacuzenus, who was more imperial in name than in his business.
He closely allied himself to the boyars, the wealthy landowning aristocracy, and did little to incorporate the common people into his political goals. In 1599, Michael supported the Magyar nobility in Transylvania and brutally crushed an uprising of the Romanian peasantry which his conquest of that principality had incited. Michael’s political program did not benefit the peasantry in his native principality either. During his reign, serfdom was legalized in Wallachia. For the Romanian peasantry, the period could be termed the “winter of despair.”
The reign of Michael the Brave was a period of crisis in Southeastern Europe. As historian Geoffrey Parker has observed, “his rebellion represented the first serious threat to Ottoman control of the Balkans for almost two centuries.” Michael the Brave’s relations with the Ottoman Empire and his revolt against Islamic domination allowed him to achieve the historic unification of the Romanian. But Michael’s military successes against the Ottomans also contributed to the ultimate breakdown of that union shortly after its inception. It also sowed the seeds of his untimely demise.
Threatened by the military genius of the Wallachian prince, Hapsburg commander, Cardinal George Basta, plotted the assassination of the prince. On August 18, 1601 he was assassinated by German troops. Cut down by his own allies, Michael’s body was thrown on the carcass of a dead horse. Supporters stole his head and buried it in the Church of the Oath at Dealu, in Transylvania, where an inscription still tells that “his body lies on the Plain of Turda, where the Germans killed him.”
Michael was an ambitious ruler and although his success was transient, he inspired future generations of leaders in the Romanian lands. Princes such as Vasile Lupu (1634-1653) sought to imitate his achievement of uniting the three Romanian principalities under his rule. For nineteenth century patriots, such as Nicolae Balcescu, he served as an ideal for national unification. Nicolae Iorga, the great Romanian historian, described him as the man “who was destined to revive the former glory of Romania.”
Michael the Brave will forever hold a special place in the history of the Romania. His remarkable achievement marked a key chapter in the long struggle of the Romanian people for unification that culminated in the great union of December 1, 1918.
Recommended reading: Nicolae Iorga, A History of Romania, forthcoming from Histria Books. Visit HistriaBooks.com for details.
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