Remnants of the once flourishing monastic network in Transylvania

On February 15, 2019 an international workshop entitled Church and Society in Late Medieval Transylvania took place in Kolozsvár/Cluj-Napoca organized by the Research Institute of the Transylvanian Museum Society.

One of the most interesting presentations of the event was that of Beatrix Romhányi, PhD, assistant professor at Károli Gáspár University from Budapest, Special questions in a special region: Changes of the Monastic Network in Transylvania.

Beatrix Romhányi PhD, assistant professor at Károli Gáspár University from Budapest: the Transylvanian monastic network was formed relatively late in the Hungarian Kingdom, and when it emerged it reflected the special social background and, in a way, also the special economic context of Transylvania. The monastic network in Transylvania was very early dominated by the mendicant orders.

Mendicant orders are, primarily, certain Christian religious orders that adopted a lifestyle of poverty, traveling, and living in urban areas for purposes of preaching and evangelization – especially for the poor – and the ministry. At their foundation these orders rejected the previously established monastic model. This foresaw living in one stable, isolated community, where members worked at a trade and owned property in common, including land, buildings and other wealth. By contrast, the mendicants avoided owning property, did not work at a trade, and embraced a poor, often itinerant lifestyle. They depended for their survival on the goodwill of the people to whom they preached.

In Transylvania during the early times there were the Dominicans, and from the mid-fifteenth century, due to the support of John Hunyadi, came the observant Franciscans. Both are also connected by missionary targets outside the Carpathian Mountains and within the Transylvanian basin, which is very much an urban community, much more urbanized if one can say so, then in the rest of the Hungarian Kingdom. If we were to compare this network to other territories in Europe, England is another where such an urban concentration can be seen in those times.

On the one side this is obviously connected to industrial activities, to trade, which is very much present in this area, also to the lack of certain agricultural activities because of the nature of the territory but also to the fact, that Transylvania’s Saxon communities especially are very much tied to their homeland in Western Europe. This we know from other sources as well, of course. They just copy in a way the patterns they know from there, which is reflected in Transylvania.

TN: Why is the Transylvanian situation so different from the Hungarian one?

BR: First of all, the whole of the Hungarian Kingdom is much more defined by agriculture. It is an agricultural land producing wine, of course, and there was a cattle trade, which was big business in the late Middle Ages, and the society dealing with these activities is very much different from the urban presence. It is not a question of religiousness or non-religiousness, it is a question of how I can represent my Christian faith. It is also connected to the circumstances, to the economic circumstances and to the settlement network characteristic of a given region. And there is a huge difference between the rest of Hungary and Transylvania in this respect.

TN: How many monastic communities were here in Transylvania in the Middle Ages, and which one is the single one that still functions?

BR: The highest number was about fifty in the region, sometimes less, other times much less, and the only one remaining is in Csíksomlyó/Sumuleu Ciuc, a famous Franciscan friary right up to the present. There is no exact data referring to the settlement of Franciscans in Csíksomlyó. Some historians put it at 1352, some at 1372, and others think it was later.

Kolozsvár/Cluj, for example, was cleansed, if I can say so, in the 1550s during a wave of reformation. And it is very characteristic for the whole of the region that Saxons and Hungarians alike went through different Protestant movements quite quickly in the mid-sixteenth century, and monastic presence was not part of their religious representation or religious needs after the mid-sixteenth century.

Title image: former Cistercian monastery in Kerc/Carta, Sibiu county. Photo:Radu Eduard

Author: Blanka Székely