Ovidiu Pecican

Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj, Romania


Between Magnanimitas and Blagorodia.
Nobility in the Romanian Middle Ages


Abstract: To this point, there is scarcely any information about the Romanian representations of nobility. In the present paper, we shall try to examine the development of ideas concerning the status of nobility in the area between the Carpathians, the Danube and the Black Sea. It seems that certain writings originating in the West played an important role in this ideological genealogy, even if the Romanians remained connected to the Slavic circuit of ideas.

Keywords: Romanian Middle Ages, images of the nobility, magnanimitas, humilitas


The Romanian Middle Ages undoubtedly saw the shine of a Romanian aristo­cracy. However, while we are aware of the wealth its members owned and the events they were involved in, we know little if anything about the imaginary of the Romanian nobility. Historical evidence of the mental projections the boyars held about their position, status and social role is rather scant, unfortunately. Under these circumstances, historians are faced with collecting indirect evidence from writings, pottery, mural paintings and archeological treasures.

My paper will focus exclusively on the concept of nobility as we discover it in the moral writings and popular romances that were copied, adapted and read in Moldova, Wallachia and the Romanian enclaves in Transylvania.

In one of his major works, The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle speaks about megalopsychia, seen as a global virtue, rather dissimilar from other virtues which own a very strictly and clearly determined domain of reference. Megalopsychia is characterised by the fact that it takes the form of a conscience of virtue in the frame of the other virtues. The practical consequences on a personal level are detectable at the behavioral level [1] .

We know that in Western Europe the text was commented on by St. Albert and St. Thomas Aquinas. Apparently, the frag­ment on megalopsychia contradicts the Christian invitation to humiliation and institutes a contrast between magnanimitas - the Latin translation of Aristotle's concept - and humilitas. If one of the two was valued in the system of the Western thinking, the other had to be rejected. St. Albert and St. Thomas decided in the spirit of theology, but a third thinker, Siger of Brabant debated the argument in his first paragraph from Quaestiones morales, seeing it differently. Siger's claim is that virtue must be a maximum disposition of the perfect ones, humiliation concerning only the imperfect ones [2] . So, "the search for magnitude, magna­nimitas, is the ideal of people who seek honour" [3] . At the same time, following the criteria of human power, there seem to be two distinct virtues: for the powerful people, the search for the soul's magnitude can mean hope; for the weak, it represents despair [4] . As it can be clearly noticed, Siger speaks about the power of the soul, the power of character, and not about temporal, social power.

This interpretation from the thirteenth century had echoes in Dante Ali­ghieri's De monarchia (I, 3, 1) and in the thinking of Meister Eckhart [5] . Unfortunately, we have so far ignored the Eastern contributions to this debate from the same period of time.

What we do know is that on the territory of nowadays' Romania, in the sixteenth century circulated several heroic romances - such as The Romance of Alexander, The Trojan War - and burlesque romances (like The Life of Aesop, the Italian novel Bertoldo and Bertoldino), which nourished in the autochtho­nous people the spiritual and cultural values of chivalry. They also proposed the type of knowledge and wise behavior expected from the miles, the aristocrats, or the boyars. One can also presume that one of the first impulses to write about the past - compiling annales, chronicles, history - came from the same admiration, based on the valuation of magnanimitas as bravery, wisdom, and magnitude, which consecrated this ideal in the Romanian medieval society.

The question about how much Plato and Aristotle the Romanian boyars read remains unanswered, even if the latter's images can still be noticed on the external walls of the Moldavian and Wallachian monasteries and churches from the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The concepts corresponding to me­ga­lo­psychia or magnanimitas are less well identified. What we really know is a series of terms for the nobility: the Slavonian blago­rodia, the Greek evghenia, the nemișug of Hungarian extraction, the Polish șlehticie, a number of Romanian syntagms like "neam înalt, vestit, ales, bătrân, vechi", or carbon-copy translations like "neam bun", "rudă bună" [6] . The first Romanian questioning On blagorodia and what is blagorodia? was formulated, together with the answer, in Îndreptarea legii/ Amendments of the Law (printed in Wallachia, at Târgoviște, in 1652). The sources used here were The Parenetic Chapters to Justinian, written by Agapet, and The Teachings of Vasilios, the Macedonian, to His Son Leon, two Byzantine works [7] .

But we can go even further in the past. The so-called Physiologus is a treatise on ethics written in Alexandria, Egypt, around the second or the third century A.D. It pretended to be a book of "...natural science where animals, birds, rep­tiles and fishes are de­scribed, together with their habits, following certain popular traditions, and are then interpreted as symbols of some moral and religious ideas" [8] . Initially, the title of the book came from the name of its author, but after a while a change was made. From Egypt the text circulated to Byzantium, where it underwent successive rewritings. Around the fourth or the fifth century, The Physiologus passed into Western Europe. Under the Latin name of Bestiaria, it was adapted and translated into the Romance and Germanic languages.

In the Romanian principalities the book came from Bulgaria and Serbia. But The Physiologus was not the only text of this kind coming from abroad and speaking about blagorodia and magnanimitas: one could mention here the thoughts of Maximus the Confessor, and The Bee, translated from Greek by the monk Anthony.

Special mention must be granted to Fiore di vertu, compiled between 1313 and 1323 in the Bologna-Ferrara area in Italy, and extending its circulation towards Venice and Tuscany. Variously attributed to a number of possible authors (Tomaso Leoni, Cherubino da Spoleto, the Benedictine Tomaso Gozzadini from Bologna), Fiore di vertu adopts the classification of virtues and vices from St. Thomas' Summa theologiae. It also copies the ethical content of the majority of virtues [9] . Nicolae Cartojan believes that the treatise was translated, beginning with the fifteenth century, into other languages [10] . The eighteenth-century Romanian version came from Russia, where the work had been translated in the sixteenth century. The title, nonetheless, mentions 1592 as the year of the Romanian translation [11] . Linguistic research has, however, identified in it at least three textual strata. The initial translator had worked in the Banat-Hunedoara area; then the text was copied in Wallachia, and it eventually also arrived in Moldova, undergoing retranscription in the monastery of Putna. The anonymous translator from Banat had worked on a Serbian version, compiled in the fourteenth century in some Benedictine monasteries on the Adriatic Sea coast of Croatia [12] .

Why is this first Ro­man­ian translation of the Fiore di vertu so important? Because it contains reflections on pride ("mare-suflețiia" [13] ) and wisdom ("plecarea-înțeleaptă" [14] ) coming from ancient philo­sophers like Tullius and Origen. It attests the philosophical sources of aristocratic ideology in the Romanian Middle Ages and it tells something about the circulation of philosophical ideas amongst the European nobility, irrespective of the disputes between Orthodox and Roman-Catholic Christianity.

[1] Mihai Maga, "Redescoperirea experienței intelectuale în idealul moral al filosofului averroist"/ ["Rediscovering the Intellectual Experience in the Ethical Ideal of the Averroesian Philosopher"], in Boetius of Dacia, Despre viața filosofului/ [On the Philosopher's Life], Iași, Ed. Polirom, 2005, pp. 111-112.

[2] Ibidem, p. 112. The author sends to Siger de Brabant, Quaestiones morales, qu. 1, obj. 2, în Ecrits de logique, de morale et de physigue, ed. critique Bernardo Bazan, Louvain, Paris, 1974, p. 98.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] Ibidem, p. 113.

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Violeta Barbu, De bono coniugali. O istorie a familiei din Țara Românească în secolul al XVII-lea/ [De bono coniugali. A History of the Family from Seventeenth-Century Wallachia], Bucharest, Meridiane Publish­ing House, 2003, p. 25.

[7] Ibidem, p. 26.

[8] Ion Gheție, Alexandru Mareș (coord.), Cele mai vechi cărți populare în literatura română. II: Fiziologul. Archirie și Anadan/ [The Oldest Popular Books in Romanian Litterature. II: The Physiologus. Archirie and Anadan], Bucharest, Minerva Publish­ing House, 1997, p. 13. Quoted from N. Cartojan.

[9] Ion Gheție, Alexandru Mareș (eds.), Cele mai vechi cărți populare în literatura română. I: Floarea darurilor. Sindipa [The Oldest Popular Books in Romanian Littera­ture. I: Fiore di vertu. Sindipa], Bucharest, Ed. Minerva, 1996, p. 16. "Floarea darurilor"/ "Fiore di vertu" is edited by Alexandra Moraru.

[10] N. Cartojan, op. cit., p. 254.

[11] Ibidem. "Cartea Floarea darurilor (virtuților) și a păcatelor tradusă din limba italiană în valahă sau bogdănească de către Gherman Vlahul, iar din vlahă tradusă în slavă de Veniamin ieromonahul Rusin, la anul 1592". "The book on The Flower of Virtues and Sins was translated from Ita­lian into Wallachian or Moldavian by Gherman the Wlach, and from Wallachian [it was] translated into Slavic by Russin the Hieromonach, in the year 1595".

[12] N. Cartojan,  op. cit., p. 256.

[13] Ion Gheție, Alexandru Mareș (coord.), Cele mai vechi cărți populare., ed. cit., p. 162. "Mare-suflețiia easte, cum grăiaște și Tulie, când caută omul nalte lucrure și slăvite și frumsețate".

[14] Ibidem, p. 170-171. "Plecarea-înțeleaptă easte, cum și Orighinie zise, să pui frâu pohtelor când ești în nălțime. Ce se zice, cându e omul boiarin, să nu îmble pre urma pohtelor inemiei lui, că va cădea în păcate mari..."