Revival of the Transylvanian Guilds

November 21, 2018

In Transylvanian villages and towns in present-day Romania, there is an effort to revive the guilds that once made this region a notable economic and political powerhouse at the edges of Central Europe. As with many economic successes, it all started with massive migration to the frontier of an empire.


Transylvania was a part of Hungary in the 12th century when the Saxons were invited by the King of Hungry to immigrate to the frontier of his realm. The Hungarian King promised these ethnic German craftspeople freedom from serfdom if they would populate the border regions and protect the Hungarians from raids. The Saxons were characterized as thrifty, skillful, and organized, and they set up fortified towns divided into neighborhoods based on their medieval guilds.

 

Today, the Mihai Eminescu Trustis is training and employing local people so as to gradually reintroduce the skills and the expectations within the community to allow them to once again take pride in their buildings. The Trust has trained hundreds of craftsmen and rural entrepreneurs, and helped restore over 800 houses, churches, barns, schools, roads, pavements, and bridges.

 

The greatest challenge to the Trust is to maintain the current momentum of restoration projects and to influence through example the future repair of Transylvania’s beautiful buildings. The Trust has shown it can be done, now it has to reach the wider community and persuade owners that traditional repair in the vernacular fashion is preferable in every way to insensitive 21st century modernization.

 

The Transylvania villages are today an ethnic mix of Romanians and a few Saxons – descendants of Saxon families who had originally settled in the area in the mid-twelfth century. Saxons were granted land and rapidly established over 200 villages. Repeated Ottoman raids, continuing up to the 18th century, resulted in the destruction of the majority of the early dwellings, and the only surviving medieval structures tend to be fortified churches. The traditional medieval village streetscape, however, and the ancient pattern of farming remain largely unchanged to this day.

 

The villages are generally situated in valleys, houses facing each other either side of the stream that runs through the valley. The facades include a large archway which leads into a long, narrow courtyard. Here lay the source of the villagers’ prosperity, the farm. 

 

Each plot was paid out in strips in almost identical fashion, with cellars, outbuildings and barns to suit the very specific requirements of a family living on the land. Behind the barn lay a vegetable plot, then an orchard, usually with a row of walnuts at the end to act as a fire break and provide insect free shelter from the sun. 

 

Up to the mid 20th century the villages prospered, and this is reflected in the highly decorated facades. Plaster was employed to great effect on the street frontages of buildings as a means of expressing wealth, permanence and individuality. Classical pilasters and capitals with decorative roundels and inscribed names and dates, are unique to each house. The people were proud, and would maintain an immaculate street frontage which was repaired and re-limewashed annually.

 

The Second World War brought upheaval to the villages as Saxons were punished by the Soviet Union for alleged Nazi allegiances. Their lands were seized and handed over to the Romanians, Hungarians and Roma producing the ethnic mix we see today. Saxons were offered repatriation with the newly unified Germany in 1990 following the death of Ceausescu and mass emigration left the villages decimated.

 

The buildings face two separate threats. The first is neglect; lack of annual maintenance is evident in the majority of buildings. This might start off as a leaking gutter or crack in the masonry, but left unchecked will rapidly turn to dereliction and ultimate collapse. This is the threat that the Mihai Eminescu Trust has been addressing. In 1999 the trust began what is now known as the Whole Village Project. The aim is to preserve the villages’ fabric, remedy their loss of income and revive their sense of community.

 

The second threat is more pernicious and considerably more difficult to solve. People returning to the villages with money, aspirations and external influences are replacing traditions parts of their buildings with cement renders and Swiss chalet style details.

 

New villagers are also susceptible to traveling salesmen producing plastic windows to replace wooden frames and shutters. These look jarringly out of context with their neighbors. Quite soon the plastic windows succumb to the Romanian climate and crack. In time, too, if allowed to proliferate, they will ruin the streetscapes and destroy the unique character of the place.

 

The churches in Transylvania are what originally made the area special. Nowhere else in Europe was there to be found such an unspoiled and tightly knit architectural world; some 250 churches, each within walking distance of the next, and all deteriorating fast before the villagers’ eyes. So far the trust has repaired eight Saxons churches, four Lutheran priest’s houses, four Orthodox churches, four Orthodox priests’ houses, one Catholic church, one Unitarian church, and two synagogues.

 

The Trust’s work has been reliant on donations and however large or small, consider donating to help with both the restoration of the Achita and Alma Vii churches and the synagogues in Medias. 

 

The Trust has shown it can be done, now it has to reach the wider community and persuade owners that retaining the traditional vernacular architecture and historical guilds are the best ways to retain the charm and history of rich cultural villages in Transylvania.

 

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