Beyond the Woods: The Land of Seven Fortresses – Ultra Silvam, Erdely, Siebenbergen, Ardeal, Transylvania

Where does history begin? That’s a big question with no certain answer. Perhaps the best answer is that it depends on the subject. In this case, the subject is Transylvania. Where then  does the history of Transylvania begin? The area has been occupied for several thousand years. There are a multiplicity of starting points for the human history of the region. These starting points are variable. The history of the region can start with either the Dacians or the Romans who conquered them. It can start with the Hungarians or the Romanians, depending upon which nationality one prefers. It cannot quite start with the Saxons, since they were invitees, but there presence illuminates the growth , development and major historical trends of the area for nearly nine hundred years.

Beyond the Woods – The Land of Seven Fortresses
As for the place that today is known as “Transylvania”,  its written history starts in the 11th century. In 1075 for the first time Transylvania was written down as the wonderfully evocative, “Ultra Silvam” in a medieval Latin document. Translated, this means “beyond the woods.” Later “Ultra Silvam” was changed to “Trans-Silvania” and kept the same meaning. Romanians who are the majority population in the region today and speak a Latin language call the region Transylvania or “Ardeal.”

Hungarians, who conquered the region in the late 9th century, did not put their name for the region, “Erdeuleu”, into writing until it appeared in the famed Gesta Hungarorum of the 12th century. The term has now become “Erdely”, which means “the land beyond the woods.” As for the Saxons they came a little bit later to the area, but gave it perhaps the best name of all, “Siebenburgen” which means “seven fortresses” after the seven fortified cities they built across the region. These terms taken together, define Transylvania as a remote place with fortified cities. Sounds like a classic frontier.

The Land Beyond theWoods

The Land Beyond the Woods

Mysterious Beginnings
The focus on 1075 as the start of “Transylvania” seems arbitrary. Of course, the human history of the place did not begin on that date. The people who are most closely linked with the region’s history, the Hungarians and Romanians were already there.  Yet a lack of archaeological and written evidence on these peoples and their activities predating the year 1075, leaves that date as the logical starting point for Transylvania’s past. Intriguingly, for a region that has been shrouded in myth and legend it has a historical starting point just as mysterious.

The year 1075 really doesn’t tell us much. There was no major historical event that occurred in “Ultra Silvam” that year, at least not in the traditional sense. The only real thing of note is that the place was finally written into the annals of history. Sometimes history is made by great men or women achieving the improbable, sometimes it is made by anonymous social and economic forces, but in the case of Transylvania, history was made by someone simply writing down the words “Ultra Silvam.” And the rest, as they say, is history.

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