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André Kom

Among all the Balkan nations which entered in the state forming process in the nineteenth century, the case of the Romanians is interesting in the perspective that they at that time represented non ruling ethnic groups, as Miroslav Hroch formulates it, at both sides of the Carpathian mountains, that is in both the Habsburg (Central European) sphere and the Ottoman (South-Eastern European) Empire. It has been said by several authors that the Walachian and the Moldavian movements owed much to the Western studied en Latinist-orientated scholars from the Transylvanian School, but discussions mainly dealt with linguistic topics and the myth of the common origin. But the comparison could be extended to the way of writing history in both parts, the way of dealing with the historical topics and the consequences of the scholarly activities in socio-political life. As a first modest contribution to this proposed examination in order to reveal if the Romanian movement(s) indeed differed as being determined by the conditions in both Empires, we shall try in this paper to draw an outline of the perception and use of the symbol of the sixteen-century Walachian ruler Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul), who had been the first prince that ruled for a short time (1599-1600) over all three Romanian principalities: Walachia and Moldova in Ottoman sphere and Transylvania in the Habsburg Empire.

             It should be noted that the perception of Michael the Brave developed radically in the nineteenth century and it is that what the Romanian historian Lucian Boia referred to when he remarked that the myth of the Michael illustrates better than whatever model the changes that had took place in the Romanian consciousness.[1] Around 1850 Michael the Brave becomes the one that united the three Romanian territories, the (re)unificator of Dacia, while until then he had not been more than a great general with moral qualities. The traditional historiographic works, the chronicles, especially those from the seventeenth century, both the Moldavian and the Walachian, described Michael always as a conqueror that protected the Christian faith from Ottoman islam and was in close relations with emperor Rudolf II. For example, in Istoria domnilor Ţării Româneşti, attributed to Radu Popescu, the Walachian author does not make any difference when he mentions Michaels enemies he subjected: Turks, Moldavians, Hungarians, 'as if they were all donkey's for him'. Neither in the chronicle of the Moldavian historian Miron Costin Michael is not associated with some 'Romanian idea'. On the contrary, Michael is again presented as a ruler who conquered Moldavia and Transylvanian and caused much bloodshed doing this. In the latter province the scholars from the so called Transylvanian School, to which the Romanian national movement owes so much, described him a century later, towards 1800, in comparable words. Samuil Micu presents Michael as a fighter, while Gheorghe Sincai underlines his moral qualities in comparison with his adversaries. As Lucian Boia formulates it: the ingredients for a myth are there now, but not the myth yet.[2] Sincai stresses on the national pride, but he doesn't exploit the idea politically, with regards to national unity of the Romanians. Still, in the works of the Transylvanian scholars the idea of a national heritage, a national identity of all Romanians, on both sides of the Carpathians, exists. But the main argument for them is the Latinist historical-linguistic one.

             One of the followers of the Transylvanian School, Damaschin Bojinca from the Banat, publishes in 1830 a biography of Michael the Brave [3] but again the accent is put on the anti-Turkish struggle. However the outlines of vague national idea emerge yet. (We know that also Gheorghe Asachi in Moldavia paid special attention to Michael, when he wrote a drama about the ruler, but unfortunately his point of view has remained unknown, while the work got lost in a fire in 1827.) The real turning point follows seven years later, when Aaron Florian publishes the second volume of his Idee repede de istoria prinţipatului Ţării Româneşti in which he dedicates the biggest part to the person and the era of Michael the Brave. Florian was a Transylvanian scholar who had worked as a teacher on the Golesti school, near Braşov, in the summer of 1827 being assisted there by Ion Heliade Rădulescu and who becomes later profesor at the most prestigious Walachian school which had been conducted by the same Heliade, the St.Sava-college in Bucharest. In about 200 pages Michael is presented by Florian in the context of the Romanian unification and the author's only reproach to Michael is that he had not been able to give the unified territories a good constitution which should have facilitated the emancipation and evolution of the Romanian nation among the other nations of Europe.

             However, Florian's opinion is not shared yet by many of his contemporaries. Mihail Kogălniceanu, for example, who later became one of the most important persons in the unification process of Moldavia and Walachia, describes in the same year, 1837, the prince in a traditional way, that is without the qualities of an unificator, but just as a ambitious conqueror, who not only occupied Transylvania, but who even dreamt of the Hungarian and Polish crowns.[4] Neither Nicolae Balcescu, the Walachian historian, doesn't spend much time with Michael in his first works, like Puterea armata si arta militara de la intemeierea principatului Valahiei pina acum (1844).

             It is after 1840 that ruler Gheorghe Bibescu (1842-1848) gives a new impulse to the public's and scholarly interest for Michael the Brave. Presenting himself as a descendant of Michael, he orchestrates a propaganda in this way. Being dismissed in 1848, he has not become the new Michael he would have liked to be, though. Also in Moldavia things evolve. In 1843 Mihail Kogălniceanu shows to have a different understanding of Michael. When opening the new school year of het Academia Mihaileana in Iaşi, he now talks about the Walachian prince as the one that united the separated parts of the old Dacia, Dacia being the simbol that covers the whole Romanian space at a moment that the name 'Romania' is not in use yet. We see in this way a very interesting link between the symbol of the Dacian empire and the new myth of Michael the Brave. The Ancient Dacia, as an expression of the primordial unity of the Romanian territories, had been brought to life for a moment by Michael the Brave, in spite of the fact that the Romanians themselves can be characterized not by their wish to unify but to be separately Moldavians, Muntenians, Oltenians, Transylvanians, mentions Kogălniceanu, who also recognizes that he prefers to consider himself as a Moldavian, even if he is very conscious of the fact that the Moldavians are connected to their brothers from the other territories by common blood, language and origin.

             But now it is the turn of his Walachian counterpart, Nicolae Balcescu, to complete the chain: The Old Dacia, once reunited by Michael the Brave, should be reunited once more and for all and, maybe even more important: this unification is the wish of the people. In this order Balcescu presents a Michael that differes significant from the one in his earlier essays. In his Istoria romanilor supt Mihai Voda Viteazul, Balcescu makes the symbol of Michael the Brave really shine like a star. Over two hundred sources Balcescu consulted for his most ambitious work, begun in 1847 but remained unfinished when the author died in 1852.[5] For the 1848-revolutionary Balcescu, ill, disappointed about both the actual politics and his contemporaries, as we can read in his correspondence, Michael is the symbol that can keep alive the flame of hope with regards to the future of the Romanians. Writing this book, he mentions in a 1850 dated letter to his friend Ion Ghica, Balcescu wants to contribute to the reunification of all Romanians, even if the Romanians at that time had even a more powerful weapon in their struggle than a wonderful ruler, he writes elsewhere: the people's patriotism.

             For Balcescu Michael is now not only a beautiful man with many moral qualities, but 'a ruler who's braveness lightened all spirits of the peoples which were tortured by the Turks; inhabitants of Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Macedonia, Albania and several parts of Greece ran from everywhere to get under his flags and all the peoples from these provinces looked at him as to a guardian angel. Since then they started to call him "Their star from the East".[6] The idea of Balcescu's work is to draw the public's attention to the glorious, united past and to mobilize their consciousness, stating that the great idea of the national unity was, at the times of Michael the Brave, a feeling of the people. So it was then, what is now (when Balcescu writes his book) a right and a duty, the only way of resisting the foreign powers.[7]

Nicolae Manolescu, the most important Romanian literary critic nowadays, remarks a direct influence of his professor at the St.Sava College, Florian Aaron, who launched Michael ten years earlier in the context of unifying the Romanian territories. But at the same time Manolescu remarks other predecessors who tended to create a cult for Michael, all of them from Transylvania: the above mentioned Bojinca, but also Gheorghe Lazar, the founder of the St.Sava College and Simeon Marcovici.

             In spite of his scientific way of writing (exploiting all possible sources and making critical notes) Balcescu doen't hesitate to introduce an apocryphal scene from Michael's pre-ruling life: an attempt to kill him that failed because the assassin was too frightened when he saw Michael and in stead of killing him, he flew away. It is this scene that reveals clearly Balcescu's Transylvanian sources: not only Aaron uses it, but also Sincai mentions it. At the same time the use of an episode like this makes the book more sensible for critics: some see in it only an instrument of propaganda (Iorga), a way o continuing the '48-revolution in exile (Manu), but others believe in his objective (Cioculescu) and scientific way (Zane) of working.

             One can observe some common characteristics between Balcescu's Michael and the one that is manufactured by the elder Ion Heliade Rădulescu in his epic poem Mihaida, pubished for the first time in 1847: especially Michael's sombreness and his meditating character. But Mihaida remains just a poem, while Balcescu's work can be read at the same time a novel and a scientific work. Heliade's Mihaida lacks also the warmth that can be experienced in Romaniii supt Mihai… Warmth we meet again in the Michael-poems of Dimitrie Bolintineanu, another revolutionary attracted to the simbol of Michael, but they remain without other impact.

             Balcescu goes that far that he states that Michael just realized the union that all his predecessors had dreamt of, that all Romanians wanted, because in their hearts had been left the idea of a common existence and the wish to re-establish that. In fact Balcescu writes for the first time in Romanian history a national history, as a history of an ideal Romanian state, that had been in the Romanian consciousness for centuries, even if it had existed only for a short time.[8] Even if the book was published only after Balcescu's death, partly in 1861, totally in 1878, after the unification of Moldavia and Walachia, it's influence has been considerably. As Lucian Boia formulates it: 'By means of Balcescu, Michael the Brave becomes defintely and decisively the first founder of the modern Romania.[9]

In the above we saw that the creation of the myth of Michael the Brave was fed by scholars from West of the Carpathians: those from the Transylvanian School, but also their successors like Gheorghe Lazar, Damaschin Bojinca, Florian Aaron and extended by the Walachian and Moldavian scholars, especially Nicolae Balcescu, under the political impulse of ruler Bibescu. As we have seen Nicolae Balcescu not only developed the myth to its culminating point, but he gave at the same time a new direction to the Romanian historiography: searching and making critical use of all existing sources in order to write a national history. Even maybe more important is the fact that Balcescu in Walachia and also Kogălniceanu in Moldavia combined their scientific work with political coloured, patriotic agitation, in order to awaken the national consciousness, in a much more emphatic way than did the scholars from Transylvania, who stressed more their cultural and social demands within the Habsburg Empire. The perception of Michael the Brave in both parts of 'Romania' illustrates this situation.

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1.               Lucian Boia, Istorie si mit in constiinta romaneasca, Bucuresti, 1997, p. 22, whose ideas are followed in this outline. [back]

2.               Lucian Boia, idem, p. 23. [back]

3.               Vestitele fapte si perirea lui Mihai Viteazul, printipul Tarii Romanesti, in: Biblioteca romaneasca, 1830. [back]

4.               Histoire de la Valachie, de la Moldavie et des Valaques transdanubiens. [back]

5.               Balcescu realized five from the six planned chapters: Libertatea nationala, Calugareni, Servagiu (Slavery), Unitatea Nationala and Miraslau. The sixt chapter should have had the title Goraslau. [back]

6.               Edition 1985, p. 50. [back]

7.               Idem, Emil Manu, preface, p. X. [back]

8.               Though, one may argue that the Cronica… of Sincai predecessed Balcescu's work in this sence: as a national history of alle Romanians. [back]

9.               Lucian Boia, idem, p. 26. Indeed Michael seems never to have lost this quality, although historians in modern age have had quite different approaches to Michael. Things seem to change imediately after the union of the Walachian and Moldovian principalities is done. The political changes coincide with the changes in historiography, where criticism becomes more and more important. In 1890 yet, A.D. Xenopol states that there had never been a national sence in the actions of Michael, who never tried to do something about the people's situation. Neither historians like Ioan Sirbu or Dimitrie Onciul don't accept any national idea. Though, Nicolae Iorga seems closer than others to Michael when he, in spite of the fact that he caracterizes the work of Balcescu as an instrument of propaganda, accuses his younger colleage P.P. Panaitescu of throwing Michal fom his socle when he wrote in his book (1936) about Michael that in facts the bojards behind him ruled the country. Only in the communist historiography and especially under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, Michael the Brave becomes again the unifaciator of Romania, to be thrown off his socle for the second time by contempory historians like Lucian Boia. [back]

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