From the Latin, "beyond the forest," Transylvania is located in present-day Romania. German-speakers also sometimes refer to parts of this area as Siebenbürgen. Although known primarily to English-speakers as the home of Dracula and vampires, Transylvania, particularly the area known as Siebenbürgen, has a rich and varied history.
Archaeological evidence points to constant settlement in Transylvania from at least the Stone Age. There is evidence of several influxes of peoples from different areas between then and the Bronze Age. Several of these peoples were probably related to, or at least influenced by, the Thracians. It is possible that the inhabitants of Transylvania in the 6th century BC were the Agathyrsae, referred to by Herodotus in his accounts of the Scythian Wars of King Darius.
During the Roman Empire, Transylvania was part of the province of Dacia. By that time, the inhabitants were probably a combination of Getae and other Thracian peoples. Although it had often provided a base for fairly successful campaigns against invading Germanic peoples, it was abandoned in 271, when the Emperor Aurelian withdrew his troops to the better-defensible Danube limes, leaving behind a synthetic Roman-Thracian-Germanic culture.
Rome had left Transylvania under the nominal control of the Ostrogoths, who were able to drive back encroaching Vandals, Gepids, and Sarmatians. The onslaught of the Huns under Attila loosened the Ostrogothic hold on the area. Between the 5th and the 9th centuries, Transylvania fell in turn to the Huns, the Gepids and, finally, the Avars. At the same time, especially from the 7th century on, Transylvania saw a constant and peaceful influx of Slavic immigrants. This influx eventually led to a Transylvanian culture that was predominantly Slavic by the 9th century, when the Awwars were driven back eyond the boundaries of Carlolingian Europe.
It can be argued that the history of modern Transylvania began with the Battle of Lechfeld. At the end of the 9th century, much of Europe, especially the Eastern Carolingian kingdoms, was plagued by Magyar invasions. The Magyars were defeated by the Emperor Otto I the Great at Lechfeld in 955. The Magyar leader Géza converted to Christianity and began to convert his people and build a Christian Hungarian state. His son, Vajk, succeeded him in 997. With his wife Gisela, daughter of the Emperor Otto III, he continued his father's mission of converting his people and founding religious houses and churches, while preventing the encroachment of Byzantium. In 1001, the Emperor granted him the crown as Hungary's first King, Stephen I of Hungary. Although nominally under the rule of the Emperor, Hungary remained virtually independant.
The Magyars extended the borders of Transylvania eastwards, and continued settlement there, not only by the Magyarss themselves, but also by the Szekler, who were probably of Turkish origin. The crown encouraged this settlement for the simple reason that settled, cultivated land was beneficial to the crown because it was economically profitable and more easily defended. The Hungarian crown encouraged settlers from outside the kingdom over the next two hundred years. Not only were these settlers allowed to keep their own languages and customs (Stephen is said to have told his son that a diverse population made the land richer), but they were granted personal freedom, freedom of movement, and the possibility ofd advancement -- rights that many of the settlers did not have in their own (often Imperial) homelands. These rights were subscribed in the Golden Bull of 1220 by King Andrew II of Hungary.
There is some historical argument over the origins of the so-called "Siebenbürger Saxons." Because some of the names in Siebenbürgen are similar to place names in the lower Rhein valley and Saxony, there have been many claims that these settlers originally came from there. However, arguments against this include the fact that many of these place names are derivatives of personal names. As such, they may equally have been taken from the names of leading settlers. The first appearance of the word "Saxon" in court records dates to the 13th century. From that point on, all German settlers in the area were referred to as Saxons, and all were given the same rights and privileges that were accorded one group of Saxon miners. Moreover, these rights may have been extended to non-German speakers who were willing to work as miners. The term "Saxon" thus eventually came to denote more a legal standing than an ethnic origin. It is estimated that in all, at its highest point, membership in this group reached as many as about 2600 persons.
Other specific Germanic groups were also invited into Transylvania. In 1211, shortly before the marriage of Princess Elisabeth to Ludwig, heir to the "county" (Ger. Grafschaft) of Thuringia, the Teutonic Knights (whose leader was himself a Thuringian noble)were invited into Transylvania to defend the southeastern borders of the Hungarian kingdom. They built a fortress there, dedicated to the Virgin. Their presence drew many of the German settlers to the area around this Marienburg. The Tuetonic Knights were expelled from Hungary in 1225, but the German settlers who had moved to "Siebenbürgen" remained.
Increasing trade with the west, especially with the rising Hanse port cities, influenced Hungary's legal system. At the same time, the growing threat of the Ottoman Turks increased the need for a populace that would continue to support the monarchy. The Siebenbürger Saxons were not only granted their own legal status, but also given representation in the assembly. It should be noted that many people of German heritage were not included in this special legal and social class. Those who worked the lands of others, be they "Hungarian" or "Saxon" were often unfree and accorded few, if any legal privileges. These rights were recognized by the Hapsburgs for the short time that they held sway over Transylavania before the Ottoman invasions.
With the absorption of Transylvania into the Ottoman Empire, the rights of the Siebenbürger Saxons increased. Under the Ottomans, Transylvania became an autonomous principality. It maintained an assembly made up of Hungarian nobles, free Szekler farmers (who had also received special rights in return for defending the borders), and Saxons. The Assembly held a veto, and the three groups managed to ensure the rights of all the groups at the expense of none. It was only in the mid-16th century that we first see the roots of a "nationalist" Siebenbüerger Saxon movement. When the Hapsburg Empire began to push its claim to the area, the Saxons began to claim a tie to their German roots in the hope that they would achieve ascendancy over their compatriots and aid against the Ottoman. Over about a fifty year period, the Siebenbürger Saxons pushed through legislation that made German the primary language in the seven towns. They became Protestants, while the Szeckler and Hungarians remained Catholic. They drew up new governing laws that combined Roman law and common law, and had them approved by the King of Poland. While the new society focused towards the German, to the extent that wealthy Saxons sent their children to German universities, it also was one of the first "nations" to legislate religious tolerance for all Christians, no matter their confession.
In the 17th century, the Hapsburgs regained control of Transylvania. Staunch Catholics, the Hapsburgs supported the a Counterreformation throughout their empire. Religious tensions between the now-Protestant Saxons and their Hapsburg rulers were sometimes overcome by the conversion of leading Saxons back to Catholicism, while Transylvania became a place to which the Hapsburgs could exile recalcitrant Protestants. A rise in the population of native Romanians and a tenser relationship with the Hungarian nobles only increased in the rise of a Saxon pseudo-state. Although this state can only trace its existence back to the 16th century, it has provided grist for nationalist mill that continues until today.