From Antiquity to the Austrian Period

From:The History of Bukovina, PART I: FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE AUSTRIAN PERIOD (107 A.D. – 1775),
by Sophie A. Welisch, PhD

Posted with permission of the author, March 2002

“Bukovina” is today a geographical expression, its name meaning “beech land.” Its territory, now partially in Ukraine and partially in Romania, was traversed and occupied by peoples from the dawn of history. When the Romans under Trajan in 107 A.D. defeated the Dacians and occupied present-day Moldavia and Walachia, the Dacians had already extended their sovereignty over some parts of the region later called Bukovina. By the mid-third century A.D. the Ostrogoths and later the Gepedi entered Bukovina in their conflicts with the Roman Empire. In time they were followed by Huns, Avars, Mongols, Tatars, Ruthenians (Ukrainians) Vlachs (Romanians), Turks, and others.

In 1241 a Tatar army crossed into Bukovina in the vicinity of Kimpolung, Dorna and Rodna on its way to Transylvania. The territory east of the Carpathians remained for a century under the control of the Cuman Tatars until the founding of the Moldavian Principality in 1350. After the Tatar withdrawal, Moldavia, which then included Bukovina and Bessarabia, became a principality under native rulers.

That Bukovina early in its history assumed the character of a borderland and transit area is reflected in its economic development and in its ethnic composition. There is strong evidence of German influence in Bukovina as early as the thirteenth century, the Germans having entered the Principality after the disintegration of the Tatar empire. Coming either via Galicia or Transylvania, they proceeded to develop an urban life and contributed to the growth of the towns of Sereth and Suczawa in Bukovina as well as to Baia, Piatra Neamt, Roman (Romsmarkt) and Jassy (Yosmarkt) in other regions of Moldavia.

The Germans introduced stone masonry, built churches and fortresses, started artisan and merchant guilds and, along with Greeks, Jews and Armenians, carried out the trade of the province. Moldavian princes encouraged German immigration, seeking their services as architects, masons, bricklayers, watchmakers and bakers. Under German influence a Western-style architecture was introduced into Bukovina, evidence of which may still be seen in the ruins of old church foundations in Sereth, Suczawa and Radautz with their triple naves in the form of a Latin cross. The Poles, Hungarians and Germans introduced Roman Catholicism and various denominations of Protestantism.

Family names in town registries also attest to a German presence in Bukovina during this early period. Between the end of the fourteenth and the sixteenth centuries, Sereth and Suczawa were towns with a German population, organized under German law and administration. The archives of Lemberg (Lviv), Bistritz and Kronstadt (Brasov) reveal regular communication between Bukovina and German settlements in Galicia and Transylvania.

After the decline of the Tatar empire Ruthenians also began migrating to Bukovina from the north and from Transylvania and other regions of Moldavia came the Romanians. Settlement of the latter was encouraged by Dragosh, who under the leadership of his father Sas (the Saxon), had driven the Tatars back to the Dniester River and in 1342 took up residence in Bukovina. The actual founder of the Principality of Moldavia was Bodgan I from neighboring Maramoros, who established a seat of power in Suczawa. It was his predecessor, Dragosh-Voda, who had ruled for only two years (1342-1344) and his son, Gyula-Sas (1344-1348), who extended dominion over Bukovina north to the Sereth River.

Bodgan I, governing between 1349-1365, was the first to cast a die for a Moldavian coin depicting an extinct European bison, called an aurochs, encircled by three stars. This emblem still serves as Bukovina’s coat of arms. Three decades later, in 1392, the term “Bukovina” appears in the annals for the first time.

In 1340 the Polish king Casimir the Great (1309-1370), the last of the Piast dynasty, had seized Galicia, which included the fortification of Chotin on the Dniester River and Cecina in the vicinity of what would later be Czernowitz. War again erupted in 1359 between the Poles under Casimir and the Moldavians in which the Poles were defeated.

One of the most respected of the Moldavian princes was Alexander the Good (Cel Bun), who governed between 1400-1432. After becoming a vassal of the king of Poland, he renewed the alliance with Poland and Walachia intended to contain Hungarian expansionism. He founded the archbishopric of Suczawa and the bishoprics of Radautz and Roman, built several monasteries and codified Moldavian law. Alexander advanced trade with his neighbors, most of which lay in the hands of Armenians, and signed commercial treaties with German merchants, who had established trading stations in Lemberg in Galicia, in Kronstadt and other towns in Transylvania, and on the Black Sea as early as the thirteenth century. While Moldavia enjoyed a temporary economic upswing, prosperity nonetheless remained elusive as a result of dynastic disputes the succession.

During the reign of Stephen the Great (Cel Mare, 1433?-1504), the conflict between Poland the Ottoman Empire for influence in Moldavia continued unabated. After his military victory over the Turks at Racova in 1465, Stephen built a monastery in Putna, completed in 1469, where he lies interred. It was at this time that Moldavia initiated a political and cultural break with the West and looked increasingly to Byzantine influence in art, architecture and religion. Under Stephen the Great the Principality reached its cultural and political apex.

But during the reign of Bogdan III (1504-1517), Stephen’s son and successor, Moldavia once again became a tributary state of the Ottoman Empire. As a subject of contention among stronger neighbors, the Principality entered a tragic period of its history. In the last three decades of the seventeenth century Moldavia served as a battlefield between Turks and Poles and in the early eighteenth century even hosted the army of Charles XII of Sweden, routed after sustaining a number of military setbacks at the hands of Russia’s Peter the Great.

As a vassal state under Turkish rule the Principality was repeatedly subjected to religious and political strife, war and the threat of war, and proverbial Ottoman mismanagement. In Bukovina as well as in other regions of the Carpathians, town life began to stagnate and finally disappeared. In the absence of further immigration, the Germans eventually assimilated into the native population, intermarried, and converted to Eastern Orthodoxy or simple emigrated. The Catholic bishopric of Sereth had already been disestablished by the mid-fifteenth century. By the end of the sixteenth century Sereth and Suczawa had lost their commercial significance and had lapsed into decay with only ruins attesting to an earlier presence of Catholic and Protestant churches.

The nobility of Moldavia possessed extensive lands, bestowed on them by their lords as outright gifts or as entailed fiefs. The princes also granted extensive lands to the Orthodox monasteries and churches. Unfree peasants of various ethnic origins, prisoners or war, and slaves cultivated the estates of the great landowners (boyars). The Tatars, who had remained in the Principality, as well as the Gypsies, were reduced to serfdom by their lords. Torn by strife among the boyars, the office holders and rival claimants to the throne, the rural population was reduced to great misery and subjected to the despotism of the princes, who ruled with Oriental absolutism.

The monasteries and churches, supported by the nobility, played a significant role in shaping culture and economics in the Principality until the early seventeenth century after which their influence waned. In the mid-eighteenth century the peasantry in the area of Wama and Kimpolung arose against the domination of the monasteries, which extended to the north as far as the Sereth River. After their dissolution there remained only three viable monasteries: in Putna, Suczewitza and Dragomirna along with the old monastery churches of Woronetz, Kloster Humora and Suczawa. There monasteries with their frescoes painted on their facades rather than on their interior walls, have withstood the ravages of time and weather surprisingly well. They are today considered not only national monuments but world monuments as well.

In contrast to their counterparts in the West, the monasteries of Bukovina contributed little to the spiritual education, economic life, or cultural development of the population. The monks lacked benefactors and were themselves often reduced to great economic need. Neither their land nor their forests were economically productive, in addition to which frequent warfare, internecine strife, and mismanagement by the clerical leadership contributed to their general decline. When the Austrians annexed Bukovina in 1775 they found illiteracy to be the norm among the monks. With the Convention of Constantinople, by which the Sublime Porte ceded Bukovina to Austria, a new era dawned for this land between Orient and Occident. Its Janus head now faced West.