Against fearsome odds King Stephen had defeated the massive armies of the Ottoman Turks but he knew they were likely to return.
In the aftermath of his extraordinary triumph, a campaign of building monasteries emblazoned with richly coloured paintings from the Bible commenced.
At the same time, Stephen demanded that the monasteries also be able to resist invading armies. Orthodox Christianity had no choice but to become a warrior faith and it certainly couldn’t rely on the Catholic Christians to come to its aid.
And so the odd combination of beautiful biblical scenes painted in bright colours on churches and buildings surrounded by high solid walls, the only point of access a narrow portal with enormous, heavy doors.
In this, the painted monastery at Tagu Neamt was no exception.
From the monastery we planned to walk back to the town following a trail marked on our map of Moldovia. Arriving there early in the morning, the place was deserted (the pilgrims were due to arrive later in the day) – except for one other person: an elderly monk.
We communicated in German. He was a bit of a character. When we asked him about the trail from the monastery to the town, which was marked on our map, he told us that it was no longer used.
‘It goes through the mountains. You will have trouble finding it. Many years ago we monks used it because this was the quickest way to reach the town, but with the roads now, no one needs to do that anymore….’
He was right about the trail.
After tracking up a mountain side and looking around we gave up and instead followed an unsealed road which hedged along a river.
It was a remarkable journey and I found myself on a kind of pilgrimage….
In the villages there was a schizophrenic mixture of the old and new.
Some of the houses were old, built in the traditional style from wood. These were permanent dwellings. Other houses, weekend retreats for the middle class, were modern and sterile.
Some people had luxury cars, others beaten up Ladas, and still others – got around on horse and cart.
In the remains of the past, still discernible in 2018, the spectre of Stephen appeared, accompanied by a deeper sense of curiosity:
What was life like for human beings 500 years ago?
When pilgrims walked to the monastery?
To imagine the past is always a tendentious project.
I had some basis for embarking on that journey. I’d read a fair bit about medieval Europe. And there was something else, probably more important: years of travelling in remote areas of the underdeveloped world during the 1980’s/’90’s, before the rise of the global tourist industry. I had seen remote villages where people were still living a subsistence way of life, isolated from the outside world.
The patron of the famous painted monasteries, hero for many Orthodox Christians, Stephen was nevertheless a tyrant in an age of tyrants. 500 years ago, the brute reality of life for the Moldavians, like people everywhere in the world, was: war, famine and plague. There was no science, no technology. No one knew what germs or bacteria were. A plague arrived, wiped out an enormous number of people under the cruellest circumstances imaginable –and the only remedy was to pray.
There were no individual rights. No one had any. One’s world consisted of obligations, duties. You lived according to the whims and orders of the aristocrats and ultimately, the king. When King Stephen ordered your sons to serve in the army, you obeyed. In his deadly game of brinkmanship with the Turkish Sultan, tens of thousands of young men lost their lives or returned to their villages crippled. Stephen could crow about his military successes but it was a fair bet that he remained safely behind the lines whilst others, lesser mortals, died like flies. At the end of every battle, tens of thousands of corpses rotted in the open; disease spread rapidly. Often, more people died from the disease after a battle than as causalities during the battle.
There was no medical care, no medicines, no antibiotics, no health system. Standards of hygiene were abysmal. There was no soap. By 30, your teeth were rotting. There were no anaesthetics, no painkillers. Only the fittest survived. It was normal for women to die during childbirth and for children to perish at an early age.
If the crops failed because of bad weather, disease or insects, starvation was the result.
There was no such thing as economic growth and no means of creating wealth. Wealth was a zero sum game. The rich possessed land and gold; their wealth came at the expense of the poor – and the great majority of the people were poor. But even for the rich, life was compared to a poor person living in a modern society today was miserably poor.
Religion was the only salve, the only security, in a world where life was short and brutal.
There was no such thing as individual rights. No one had any. The word of God meant submission. Acceptance. You lived your life with all its sorrows and hardships hoping that at the end of it, paradise awaited.
You went on a pilgrimage to win God’s favour and God was a tyrant, like Stephen.
What for us was a pleasant walk following a river bed was a very different matter 5 centuries ago. This reality occurred to me after we met two elderly villagers sitting on a log.
The woman spoke French. If Romanians speak a foreign language it is often Italian – which the Romanian language is closely related to (though the writing is quite different). But in the case of the older generations, much depended on the local schools they attended (during the communist era). The elderly monk spoke German and now this elderly woman spoke French; she spoke slowly and it was easy for us to understand.
‘In the last years, they’ve been cutting down more trees. More land has become available and people from the city are building holiday homes. When I was a child, there was no electricity or running water. The forest came all the way down to the river’s edge. The villages were surrounded by forests on three sides. I can remember my parents telling me that when they were young there were bears and wolves in the forests. It was dangerous to walk through the forest in the morning and late afternoons.’
At one point, we crossed the delta, treading over a wide swathe of stones. We came to long narrow bridge, meant to offer a crossing when the river was flowing. Beneath it was a carpet of stones and a narrow stream. Amongst the rocks was patina of discarded plastic bags.
On the other bank of the delta, we walked through an arid area covered in spindly, half dead bushes and the bones of slaughtered animals. Late in the afternoon, rounding a bend, we came to a gypsy camp.
There are more gypsies in Romania than any other European nation. They originally lived in northern India and migrated to Europe with the Tartar invasions. Until the late 19th century, they were slaves. The lived in separate camps and this camp might well have been here in the time of Stephen. Slavery was commonplace 5 centuries ago; Istanbul for example, was the biggest slave market in the world. Slaves came from all over the Ottoman empire; a highly sought after group of slaves came from Eastern Europe – which is where the word ‘Slav’- literally ‘slave’ comes from.
Anya and I encountered gypsies in many different settings during our walking in Eastern Europe. We´d seen large groups of gypsies begging on the streets of big cities and raising their children to be beggars. We´d walked through villages where intermarriage had occurred and the inhabitants were a curios mixture of gypsy and Slav. We´d hitched rides with middle class gypsies in their cars and had some interesting conversations. In general, the gypsies form an impoverished underclass. On the one hand, discrimination is certainly involved. Eastern European nations are monocultures. They eschew every form of diversity and this is a rich seedbed for intolerance. On the other hand, the gypsies adhere to their own culture and a part of that culture is relegation of women to the role of mother at a very early age – 15 or 16 for example.
Arriving in the outskirts of Tagu Neamt late in the afternoon, we found ourselves surrounded by communist era apartment blocks and an overwhelming feeling of anonymity.
We came to a small square with a bench seat. It was a welcome stop.
In the square, a statue of yes….Stephen.