Saxon Villages

Saxon villages are as easily distinguished from Roumanian ones, composed of wretched earthen hovels, as from Hungarian hamlets, which are marked by a sort of formal simplicity.

The Saxon houses are larger and more massive; each one, solidly built of stone, stands within a roomy court-yard surrounded by a formidable stone wall. Building and repairing is the Saxon peasant’s favorite employment, and the Hungarian says of him ironically that when the German has nothing better to do he pulls down his house and builds it up again by way of amusement.

Each village is usually formed of one long principal street, extending sometimes fully an English mile along the high-road; only when the village happens to be built at a junction of several roads, the streets form a cross or triangle, in the centre of which mostly stands the church. From this principal street or streets there sometimes branch off smaller by-streets on either side; but these are seldom more than five or six houses deep, for the Saxon lays great stress on the point of locality, and the question of high-street or by-street is to him every whit as important as the alternative of Grosvenor Square or City would be to a Londoner.

Formerly no Roumanians or gypsies were tolerated within Saxon villages, but of late these people have been gradually creeping nearer, and now most German villages have at one end a shabby sort of faubourg, or suburb, composed of Roumanian and gypsy hovels.

The principal street, often broad enough to admit of eight carts driving abreast, presents but little life at first sight. The windows of the broad gable-end next the street have often got their shutters closed, for this is the best room, reserved for state occasions. Only when we open the gate and step into the large court-yard can we gain some insight into the life and occupations of the inhabitants.

Near to the entrance stands the deep draw-well, and all round are built the sheds and stables for sheep, horses, cows, and buffaloes, while behind these buildings another gate generally opens into a spacious kitchen-garden. From the court five or six steps lead up to a sort of open veranda, where the peasant can sit in summer and overlook his farm laborers. From this passage the kitchen is entered, to the right and left of which are respectively the common and the best room, both good-sized apartments, with two windows each. In addition to these there is often a smaller one-windowed room, in which reside a young married couple, son or daughter of the house, who have not yet had time to found their own hearth-stone; or else there lives here the old widowed father or mother, who has abdicated in favor of the young people. A ladder or rough flight of steps leads to the loft; and below the veranda is the entrance to the cellar, where stores of pickled sauerkraut, the dearly beloved national dish of the Saxons, and casks of their pearly amber-colored wine, are among the principal features of the provisions.

In the village street, in front of each peasant house, there used formerly to stand a large fruit-tree—pear, apple, or sometimes mulberry—whose spreading branches cast a pleasant shade over the stone bench placed there for the convenience of those who like to enjoy a “crack” with the neighbors on fine evenings after the work is done. Many of these trees have now been cut down, for it was found that the godless gypsies used to make their harvest there while the pious Saxons were at church; or else unmannerly school-urchins in pelting down the fruit with stones would sometimes hit the window-panes instead, and thus cause still greater damage. The result is, therefore, that most Saxon villages now present a somewhat bleak and staring appearance, and that on a burning summer day it is not easy to find a shady bench on which to rest a while.

It may be of interest here to quote the statistical figures relating to a large and flourishing village in the north-east of Transylvania:

Houses, 326 (of these 32 are earth hovels).

Heads of population, 1416—of these the proportion of different nationalities as follows:

Saxons—481 male, 499 female.


Roumanians—118 male, 83 female (mostly farm-servants).

Tziganes—104 men, 106 women.

Jews—14 male, 9 female.

In this village, which is exceptionally rich in cattle, the different animals number:

Bulls   3

Cows   357

Young cattle   575

Oxen   1200

Buffaloes   120

Horses   475

Goats   182

Pigs   734

Sheep   1000-1500

Most of the sheep in Transylvania are in the hands of the Roumanians, while the pigs invariably belong to the Saxons. Among these latter, 1000 men possess on an average 215 horses, while among the Szekels only 51 will be found to the same number of heads.

The Saxon peasant, being an enemy to all modern improvements, goes on cultivating his fields much as did his forefathers six hundred years ago. Clinging to the antiquated superstition that a field is the more productive the longer it lies fallow, each piece of ground is ploughed and sowed once only in three years; and having, owing to the insufficient population, rarely enough hands to till his land himself, he is obliged to call in the assistance of Roumanian farm-servants.

Other people, too, have taken advantage of this agricultural somnolency of the Saxons; so the Bulgarians, who pilger hither in troops every spring-time to rent the Saxons’ superfluous fields, bringing with them their own tools and seed, and in autumn, having realized the profit of their labor, wend their way back to their homes and families. The great specialty of these Bulgarian farmers is onions, of which they contrive to rear vast crops, far superior in size and quality to those grown by the natives. A Bulgarian onion field is easily distinguished from a Saxon one by its trim, orderly appearance, the perfect regularity with which the rows are planted, and the ingenious arrangements for providing water in time of drought.

Of the numerous Saxon villages which dot the plain around Hermanstadt, I shall here only attempt to mention two or three of those with which I have the most intimate acquaintance, as having formed the object of many a walk and ride. First, there is Heltau—which, however, has rather the character of a market-town than a village—lying in a deep hollow at the foot of the hills south of Hermanstadt, and with nothing either rural or picturesque about it. Yet whoever chances first to behold Heltau, as I did, on a fine evening in May, when the fruit-trees are in full blossom, will carry away an impression not easily forgotten. From the road, which leads down in serpentine curves, the village bursts on our eyes literally framed in a thick garland of blossom, snowy white and delicate peach color combining to cast a fictitious glamour over what is in reality a very unattractive place.

The inhabitants of Heltau, nearly all cloth-makers by trade, fabricate that rough white cloth, somewhat akin to flannel, of which the Roumanians’ hose is made. It is also largely exported to different parts of the empire, and Polish Jews are often seen to hover about the place. Such, in fact, is the attraction exercised by this white woollen tissue that a colony of the children of Israel would have been formed here long ago had not the wary Saxons strenuously opposed such encroachment.

Once riding past here in autumn, I was puzzled to remark several fields near Heltau bearing a white appearance almost like that of snow, yet scarcely white enough for that; on coming nearer, this whiteness resolved itself into wool, vast quantities of which, covering several acres of ground, had been put out there to dry after the triple washing necessary to render it fit for weaving purposes.

The church at Heltau rejoices in the distinction of four turrets affixed to the belfry-tower, which turrets were at one time the cause of much dissension between Heltau and Hermanstadt. It was not allowed for any village church to indulge in such luxuries—four turrets being a mark of civic authority only accorded to towns; but in 1590, when the church at Heltau was burned down, the villagers built it up again as it now stands—a piece of presumption which Hermanstadt at first refused to sanction. The matter was finally compromised by the Heltauers consenting to sign a document, wherein they declared the four turrets to have been put there merely in guise of ornamentation, giving them no additional privileges whatsoever, and that they pledged themselves to remain as before submissive to the authority of Hermanstadt.

Some people, however, allege Heltau, or, as it used to be called, “The Helt,” to be of more ancient origin than Hermanstadt—concluding from the fact that formerly the shoemakers, hatters, and other tradesmen here resided, but that during the pest all the inhabitants dying out to the number of seven, the land around was suffered to fall into neglect. Then the Emperor sent other Germans to repeople the town, and the burghers of Hermanstadt came and bought up the privileges of the Heltauers.

The excellence of the Heltau pickled sauerkraut is celebrated in a Saxon rhyme, which runs somewhat as follows:

“Draaser wheaten bread,

Heltau’s cabbage red,

Streitford’s bacon fine,

Bolkatsch pearly wine,

Schässburg’s maidens fair,

Goodly things and rare.”

But more celebrated still is Heltau because of the unusually high stature of its natives, which an ill-natured story has tried to account for by the fact of a detachment of grenadiers having been quartered here for several years towards the end of last century.

To the west of Heltau, nestling up close to the hills, lies the smaller but far more picturesque village of Michelsberg, one of the few Saxon villages which have as yet resisted all attempts from Roumanians or gypsies to graft themselves on to their community. Michelsberg is specially remarkable because of the ruined church which, surrounded by fortified walls, is situated on a steep conical mound rising some two hundred feet above the village. The church itself, though not much to look at, boasts of a Romanesque portal of singular beauty, which many people come hither to see. The original fortress which stood on this spot is said to have been built by a noble knight, Michel of Nuremberg, who came into the country at the same time that came Herman, who founded Hermanstadt. Michel brought with him twenty-six squires, and with them raised the fortress; but soon after its completion he and his followers got dispersed over the land, and were heard of no more. The fortress then became the property of the villagers, who later erected a church on its site.

The Michelsbergers make baskets and straw hats, and lately wood-carving has begun to be developed as a native industry. They have also the reputation—I know not with what foundation—of being bird-stealers; and I believe nothing will put a Michelsberger into such a rage as to imitate the bird-call used to decoy blackbirds and nightingales to their ruin. This he takes to be an insulting allusion to his supposed profession.

In the hot summer months many of the Hermanstadt burghers come out to Michelsberg for change of air and coolness, and we ourselves spent some weeks right pleasantly in one of the peasant houses which, consisting of two rooms and a kitchen, are let to visitors for the season. But it was strange to learn that this remote mountain village is the self-chosen exile of a modern recluse—a well-born Hanoverian gentleman, Baron K——, who for the last half-dozen years has lived here summer and winter. Neither very old nor yet very young, he lives a solitary life, avoiding acquaintances; and though I lived here fully a month, I only succeeded in catching a distant glimpse of him.

Midsummer idleness being usually productive of all sorts of idle thoughts and fancies, we could not refrain from speculating on the reasons which were powerful enough thus to cause an educated man to bury himself alive so many hundred miles away from his own country in an obscure mountain village; and unknown to himself, the mysterious baron became the hero of a whole series of fantastic air-castles, in which he alternately figured as a species of Napoleon, Diogenes, Eugene Aram, or Abelard. Whichever he was, however—and it certainly is no business of mine—I can well imagine the idyllic surroundings of Michelsberg to be peculiarly fit to soothe a ruffled or wounded spirit. Wrecked ambition or disappointed love must lose much of its bitterness in this secluded nook, so far removed from the echoes of a turbulent world.

Another village deserving a word of notice is Hammersdorf, lying north of Hermanstadt—a pleasant walk through the fields of little more than half an hour. The village, built up against gently undulating hills covered with vineyards, is mentioned in the year 1309 as Villa Humperti, and is believed to stand on the site of an old Roman settlement. Scarcely a year passes without Roman coins or other antiquities being found in the soil.

From the top of the Grigori-Berg, which rises some one thousand eight hundred feet directly behind the village, a very extensive view may be enjoyed of the plains about Hermanstadt, and the imposing chain of the Fogarascher mountains straight opposite.

Hammersdorf is considered to be a peculiarly aristocratic village, and its inhabitants, who pride themselves on being the richest peasants in those parts, and on their womankind possessing the finest clothes and the most valuable ornaments, are called arrogant and stuck-up by other communities.

It is usual for the name of the house-owner and the date of building to be painted outside each house; but there are differences to be remarked in each place—slight variations in building and decoration, as well as in manner, dress, and speech of the natives, despite the general resemblance all bear to each other.

Some houses have got pretty designs of conventional flowers painted in black or in contrasting color on their gable-ends, and in many villages it is usual to have some motto or sentence inscribed on each house. These are frequently of a religious character, often a text from the Bible or some stereotyped moral sentiment. Occasionally, however, we come across inscriptions of greater originality, which seem to be a reflection of the particular individual whose house they adorn, as, for instance, the following:

“I do not care to brag or boast,

I speak the truth to all,

And whosoever does not wish

Myself his friend to call,

Why, then, he’s free to paint himself

A better on the wall.”

Or else this sentence, inscribed on a straw-thatched cottage:

“Till money I get from my father-in-law,

My roof it, alas! must be covered with straw.”

While the following one instantaneously suggests the portrait of some stolid-faced, sleepy individual whose ambition has never soared beyond the confines of his turnip-field, or the roof of his pigsty:

“Too much thinking weakens ever—

Think not, then, in verse nor prose,

For return the past will never,

And the future no man knows.”

Many of the favorite maxims refer to the end of man, and give a somewhat gloomy coloring to a street when several of this sort are found in succession:

“Man is like a fragile flower,

Only blooming for an hour;

Fresh to-day and rosy-red,

But to-morrow cold and dead.”

Or else—

“Within this house a guest to-day,

So long the Lord doth let me live;

But when He bids, I must away—

Against His will I cannot strive.”

Here another—

“If I from my door go out,

Death for me doth wait without;

And if in my house I stay,

He will come for me some day.”

The mistrustful character of the Saxon finds vent in many inscriptions, of which I give a few specimens:

“Trust yourself to only one—

’Tis not wise to trust to none;

Better, though, to have no friend

Than on many to depend.”

“If you have a secret got,

To a woman tell it not;

For my part, I would as lieve

Keep the water in a sieve.”

“When I have both gold and wine,

Many men are brothers mine;

When the money it is done,

And the wine has ceased to run,

Then the brothers, too, are gone.”

“Hardly do a man I see

But who hates and envies me;

Inside them their heart doth burn

For to do an evil turn,

Grudge me sore my daily bread;

More than one doth wish me dead.”

“Those who build on the highway,

Must not heed what gossips say.”

The four last I here give are among the best I have come across, the first of these having a slightly Shakespearean flavor about it:

“Tell me for what gold is fit?

Who has got none, longs for it;

Who has got it, fears for thieves;

Who has lost it, ever grieves.”

“We cannot always dance and sing,

Nor can each day be fair,

Nor could we live if every day

Were dark with grief and care;

But fair and dark days, turn about,

This we right well can bear.”

“Say, who is to pay now the tax to the King?

For priests and officials will do no such thing;

The nobleman haughty will pay naught, I vouch,

And poor is the beggar, and empty his pouch;

The peasant alone he toileth to give

The means to enable those others to live.”

“How to content every man,

Is a trick which no one can;

If to do so you can claim,

Rub this out and write your name.”

Among the many house inscriptions I have seen in Transylvania, I have never come across any referring to love or conjugal happiness. The well-known lines of Schiller—

“Raum ist in der kleinsten Hütte

Für ein glücklich liebend Paar,”

of which one gets such a surfeit in Germany, are here conspicuous by their absence. This will not surprise any one acquainted with the domestic life of these people. Any such sentiment would most likely have lost its signification long before the wind and the rain had effaced it, for it would not at all suit the Saxon peasant to change his house motto as often as he does his wife.


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