Discover Medieval Moldavia through Europe’s Eastern Christian Frontier

When we think about Europe’s Christian frontiers, the territories of the Carpathian Mountains in modern Romania might not be the first to come to mind. But during the late Middle Ages, it was precisely these regions of the Carpathians, and in particular the principality of Moldavia, that emerged as a frontier Christian realm for the rest of Europe. 

Extending over the northeastern third of modern Romania and the Republic of Moldova, the principality of Moldavia established a footing within the shifting political landscape of Eastern Europe. After gaining its independence in 1359, the principality defined its borders and cultural identity at the crossroads of traditions. Its leaders—among them Peter I Mușat, Alexander I, and Stephen III—enabled local economic, military, cultural, and artistic growth. They also fostered contacts throughout Europe and beyond, strengthening their domain, and by extension, protecting all of Europe from enemy attacks, in particular the steadily advancing armies of the Ottoman Empire. 

Europe’s Eastern Christian Frontier offers the first accessible English-language history of the principality of Moldavia and its central role in the political, military, economic, and cultural spheres of Eastern Europe from the middle of the fourteenth century and through the rule of Stephen III, which concluded with his death in 1504. In tracing the remarkable story of this principality, this book demonstrates Moldavia’s crucial role as a buffer zone for the increasingly expansive Ottoman Empire, and as a frontier for Christian Europe. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moldavia under Stephen III also refashioned Byzantine traditions in a new context, thereby preserving and transforming the legacies of the former Byzantine Empire to the north of the Danube River. 

The interdisciplinary approach of this book takes the reader through a chronological journey focused on key historical and cultural events, as well as important figures in the period between ca. 1350 and ca. 1500. The narrative also features thematic threads that touch on issues of political and military diplomacy, ruling ideology, and patronage, in addition to examinations of significant buildings and objects from one of Europe’s key eastern Christian frontiers in the late Middle Ages.

In this book, texts and images take center stage as key sources of analysis, helping me reveal more nuanced facets of the past, as well as of the cultural connections that extended within Moldavia and across Eastern Europe during the late Middle Ages. Indeed, the extant documentary and material evidence examined in this book—consisting of letters, documents, chronicles, and inscriptions, as well as coinage, seals, and objects of art and architecture—reveals the different forces that played out in Moldavia before and after the fall of the Byzantine Empire. 

The three chapters examine Moldavia’s formative periods and its central role in the political, military, economic, and cultural spheres of Eastern Europe from the second half of the fourteenth century and through the initial decades of the sixteenth century. The first chapter addresses the history of Moldavia from the moment the principality declared its independence from Hungary in 1359 and through the fall of Constantinople in 1453, focusing on the notable reign of Alexander I (r. 1400–1432), and the troubled times that followed during the brief, but numerous, reigns of his heirs. The second chapter centers on issues of political and military diplomacy in Moldavia during the reign of Stephen III (r. 1457–1504), who took the throne of the principality a few years after the fall of Constantinople and transformed Moldavia into a Christian bastion in the face of the advancing Ottoman and Tatar forces. The final chapter examines Stephen’s shifting princely ambitions and ideologies in the context of which his numerous artistic projects and endowments to monasteries in his own domain and further afield play a key role. The Coda returns to the arguments put forth in this short book and outlines how these key formative decades in Moldavia’s history impacted the developments that followed in the sixteenth century.

This short book stems from my ongoing interest in the history and culture of medieval Eastern Europe, and particularly the principality of Moldavia, as well as my desire to bring that past to the attention of broad audiences within and beyond academia. Intended for a wider readership, this book complements my earlier work and the contents of my award-winning art historical monograph titled The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia (Brill, 2023). This book centers attention on Moldavian objects and monuments from the fifteenth through the early seventeenth centuries – ranging from fortified monasteries and churches enveloped in fresco cycles to silk embroideries, delicately carved woodwork and metalwork, as well as manuscripts gifted to Mount Athos and other Christian centers – and explains how these objects negotiated the complex issues of patronage and community in the region. Moreover, the works attest to processes of cultural contact and translation, revealing how Western medieval, Byzantine, and Slavic traditions were mediated in Moldavian contexts in the post-Byzantine period.

Readers interested in learning more about the medieval principality of Moldavia might wish to engage with Europe’s Eastern Christian Frontier first in order to establish a footing in the region and understand the historical issues and connections at play, and then delve deeper into the primary and secondary sources, as well as the textual, visual, and archaeological evidence through The Eclectic Visual Culture of Medieval Moldavia and its 100+ color images and translations of key primary sources.

I wrote Europe’s Eastern Christian Frontier for my parents, my students, and anyone interested in learning about the history of a corner of the world that has long been relegated to the margins of scholarly inquiry and the popular imagination. It is about time that Eastern Europe comes into focus and its complex histories and cultures become better known and accessible. These concerns have long been part of my scholarly mission as evident in my academic and public-facing scholarship, as well as my co-directed digital initiatives such as North of Byzantium and Mapping Eastern Europe

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

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