The Istro-Romanians. Notes Regarding Their Historical Past
Gheorghe Zbuchea, University of Bucharest
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During the centuries, the Romanian entity has been spread on the entire Southeast European space. Isolated and situated at the Western extremity of the Romanian block, there exists nowadays a tiny group of the Eastern Romanity's descendants, commonly named as Istro-Romanians. They are into connection with the more numerous groups of the Megleno-Romanians, Aromunians, and especially with the so called Daco-Romanians that mainly live among the present day frontiers of Romania. The scholars' majority, primarily the linguists, either Romanians, or foreigners, considers that the four groups above mentioned constitute an ethnical union. On the other side, they are different because of the elements concerning the linguistic structure of the spoken dialect - there are four dialects of the Romanian language -, and also of their ancient or new historical destiny. The continuous numerical diminishing during the centuries, the 'melting' inside of the major population (Greek, Albanian, Slave) and the possible complete disappearing in a not far period have been and still are common features for the three groups on the right bank of the Danube.
The Istro-Romanians' case illustrates also another reality for those Romanians outside of a personal national state, respectively their continuous emigration. This latter has had as a consequence the creation of a diaspora dispersed on the European continent and outside of it. The existence of the trans-danubian groups has also some other common attributes. Therefore, all these Romanians from the South of the Danube are characterised by a bilingual or even a trilingual feature. The weight of the Roman dialect's utilisation is in a continuing decreasing, while its typical elements are in an unceasing alteration. There is also specific the general scarcity of a proper educational system at any level, and of the national activity, capable to contribute to the own identity's preservation. With the partial exception for some of the Aromunians, practically those groups has never enjoyed the fewest guarantees that should result from their official recognition as ethnical-linguistic minorities, as it has been stipulated even in some documents adopted at the scientific or political international meetings.
The Istro-Romanians live nowadays in less than ten rural settlements in the Central and Eastern side of the pre-island of Istria. They are spread on the Northern and the Southern sides of the Ucika Gora mountains (Monte Maggiore), in an area that comprises hills and valleys, beside the mountain regions. Upon some estimations, their number has been reduced with almost two thirds during the last three decades, without the possibility of a correct and exact statistical estimation. The situation is not a new one from this viewpoint. Therefore, the official Italian census mentioned in 1921 a number of 1,644 speakers of the Romanian language. Five years later, the scientist Sextil Puşcariu considered that there were less than 3,000 Istro-Romanians .
Unlike other Romanian branches or other European national minorities, the scholars took relatively late the Istro-Romanians into consideration. The preoccupations respecting their existence practically commenced in 1846 and attained the apogee only after 1900. Those who investigated the past and present realities of the Istro-Romanians were almost exclusively linguists, who approached and presented the status and the historical evolution of the Aromunian dialect, as far as they could be known . Beside the linguistic referrals to the past centuries, there have been only few researchers that has approached the ancient or new historical life of these Romanians. Consequently, some respects regarding their evolution during the centuries are less known, and many times they are full of controversies.
For the Medieval period, the most important contribution belonged to S. Dragomir, in his studies elaborated during more than three decades . Upon his interpretation, the Istro-Romanians represented just a part of the 'Eastern Romanians'. This historical reality is nowadays almost totally disappeared, however it massively existed in the Middle Ages on a geographical area distributed on the entire zone adjacent to the Adriatic Sea, from the Republic of Ragusa, through Croatia, to the proximity of Venice . During the medieval period, the Istro-Romanians had also other denominations than the one nowadays utilised as a consequence of the cult factors' intervention. A long time they were known under the names given by the others, either the populations inside of which they lived, or the chancelleries of the states they came into contact with. Therefore, they were for a long time denominated (and sometimes they still are) as 'Vlachs', then 'Morlachs', 'Cici', etc. It was before the middle of the 17th century, when it was noticed the name of 'rumeri', more connected to their Roman origin and to their language's Latin feature .
The savants' greatest number embraces nowadays the opinion that, like the Romanians from the Dalmatian and Western Croatian regions, the Istro-Romanians had not their origin in those areas. It is also considered that that their native country would be somewhere towards the East, either on the left bank of the Danube, towards Transylvania and Banat, or on the right one, towards the river Morava, the Central Serbia and even Bulgaria . During the last years, it was promoted the idea of a multi-genesis of the Istro-Romanians, constituted through the contribution of the Romanian elements coming from the all component parts of the Romanian block from the North and the South of the Danube after the 14th centuries . In itself, the hypothesis seems to be extremely plausible from the historical viewpoint. Nevertheless, it is going to be confirmed or not by some historical researches that for a moment are missing. From this point of view, we appreciate that there are some other elements to be taken into account.
Especially in the 19th century, the Italian historiography advanced the very plausible opinion of a feeble continuity between the romanity certainly existing in Istria during the Roman imperial period and a part of the so-called medieval Istro-Romanians. These ones were not totally dislocated or exterminated by the Slave mass settled there beginning with the 7th century, although it considerably diminished them. Subsequently, especially invoking the linguistic elements but also the lack of a documentary information, the idea of the Istro-Romanian nativity was abandoned, together with the opinion of the Western Romanians' nativity in general. It was began to be talked about a more restraint area towards the East, on the both sides of the Danube, where it would be formed a people speaking in a personal language, usually called as 'the common Romanian'. Afterwards, this language would be spread to the South towards the Pindus Mountains, towards the West until the Adriatic Sea, etc. Many decades ago, Sextil Puşcariu draw attention on the hypothetical and improbable feature of such a theory: "It is certitude that history demonstrates that there are a lot of examples of populations that, coming from a small country, conquered large regions, imposing their language. The spreading of the Roman people itself and of the Latin language is a typical example for this. Nevertheless, there are also some reverse examples in history, models of populations and languages formerly spread on huge spaces, but later reduced and losing their national features by conquests. This is the case of the same Roman people and of the Latin language on the Empire's peripheries, in Minor Asia, Northern Africa, in the Alps, and so on. The situation of the Roman people in the South-eastern Europe is also peripheral; in that region, the invasion of the peoples had lasted longer than in the West and their results were graver, because of the fact that some of the invaders had definitely settled in those places. Whether there existed a region somewhere in the Roman empire where the population, because of some favourable circumstances that could not be supposed, would be preserved more Romans than in the others giving birth to the Romanian people, we should expect that at least this 'cradle' to offer an ancient historical information about it or at least here to be conserved the toponymy in a traditional form. But it is not the case. Thus, it seems to me that instead of searching a cradle for the Romanian people on a restraint territory, it is more natural to admit that the Romanians are nowadays the last survivors of the Roman population that had lived in the Northern half of the Balkan Peninsula and in the romanised regions on the left of the Danube… Whether the Eastern Roman empire would last having a Latin character, more Romanic languages would be developed. The invaders', and especially the Slavs' conquest of these regions made that the Romanic population to decrease and to thin out. What as Romanic people has been preserved are we, the Romanians… Conditioned by the geographical contact, by the similar social status and by the lack of a complicated political organisation, with prosperous commercial and cultural centres, the cohesion between different pre-Romanians groups was so strong that the Romanian language could develop in the pre-Romanian epoch on the same great evolution lines…" .
It is certitude that the written sources regarding the eastern romanity's descendants are not very much at the beginning of the Middle Ages. This situation has been speculated in different manners. However, as it has pertinently been demonstrated, the eastern romanity could disappear in this part of the continent neither suddenly, nor totally . In the 10th century, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Porphyrogenitus mentioned many times in his De administrando imperio the romanised population on the Adriatic shores. He utilised the denomination of Romanoi, thus different than the Greek speaker Byzantines, respectively the Romaioi. Actually, there are all the reasons to believe that those were the future Western Romanians appeared in the medieval historical sources. They would afterwards appear under the name of 'Vlachs' on the same zones beginning even with the 11th century .
During the first centuries of the second millennium, these Balkan Romanians gradually came in contact with the different political entities and consequently were mentioned in diverse acts. It is known that then, before but especially during the Ottoman expansion, there took place some important population motions in the Balkan space, especially in its Central and Western sides, from Macedonia to the Hungarian and Austrian regions. This motions took place especially from the South to the Northeast. There were many factors that concluded the ethnic and demographic modification. Among them, there were the wars, the different maladies and natural calamities, the policy promoted by some governors to attract labour and to inhabit the devastated areas, the needed of soldiers, the natural tendencies of some impoverished families to begin a new life on another regions, etc. In the Romanian case, invoking exaggeratedly the pastoral feature, S. Dragomir identified some data concerning the Romanians' penetration and settling in Istria. The author utilised especially Serbian sources and also A. Tamaro's collection of documents. His arguments and conclusions have been generally accepted almost entirely by nowadays, and this was due to the fact that a prestigious scholar like S. Puşcariu embraced them .
Generally speaking, the situation of Istria in the Middle Ages is still less known. There still misses some massive general studies .
The elements gathered by Dragomir himself denoted some realities, beyond the fact that the Romanian nationality of the Vlachs was beyond any doubt. The same Dragomir indicated that the 16th century Croatian writers regarded the Morlachs or the Vlachs as being the same ethnical group with the Romanians from the Trajanic Dacia. Among them, he mentioned Simun Kozićić from Modrussa, Ivan Pergosić - the translator of Verboczi's Tripartitum, and also the lexicographer Iacob Nikaglia, who regarded Dacia as "Morovlasca Zemlja" .
There still does not exist an analysis of the Istro-Romanian lifestyle for the Middle Ages and for the beginning of the Modern period. The life conditions in the Istrian area, and also the recent testimonies about the traditional occupations suggest that those Romanians were engaged in breeding and in turning to good account of the animals (dairy-produce, wool, and leather). It is certitude that even in these conditions it is not the case of a nomadic feature for the breeders. Anyhow, the Venetian authorities would not mention their settling in the acts.
They were also farmers, in order to receive first and foremost their own necessities. The rich terminology that is connected to the crop activity could be a good reason for the age and the continuation of such an occupation. The same environmental conditions imposed that their life be early connected with the forest. Thus, the hunting completed and diversified their nutrition. Beside their own needs, it brought them supplementary incomes, in the sense that they furnished raw materials for the Venetian fleet's shipyards.
Also, it seems that it has been forgotten another occupation, respectively the obtaining of the coal by the wood's burning and thus the exploitation of their activity's results at Fiume, Triest and even Venice. Many of them began to display maritime activities, either as harbour workers, or especially as sailors, probably entering into the piracy. Some of them became warriors, probably like the entire Balkan populations, either under the Ottomans, or under the Hungarian kings and afterwards under the Hapsburg emperors. Thus, they had the voinuci from the Slave area in the Ottoman Empire, or the privileged militaries from the Craines created by the Viennese emperors as models.
By their Latinity, some lexical terms attest the age of the Christian faith among the Istro-Romanians. In their case, it was a kind of exception, in the sense that the sources mention them as being Catholics. Thus, they were subordinated to the Roman hierarchy, through the agency of the ecclesiastical residence from Aquilea. From this optic, it is curious that the Italian scholar Enea Silvio Piccolomini mentioned the exclusive utilisation of the Croatian and the Italian languages by the citizens from the Adriatic harbours. The curiosity relies upon the fact that the former archbishop of Aquilea and then pope under the name of Pius II also wrote about the Romanians in his work about the Dalmatian area. Thus, he was well informed about them.
It is possible that their continuing diminishing in number be determined also by their affiliation to the Catholic faith, as a consequence of the activity of the Roman curia's clergy. Anyway, T. Burada, I. Popovici and others related that around 1900 the Croatian Catholic clergy had vehemently opposed to the timid attempts of a Romanian national consciousness manifestation in the Istrian space.
Between the 15th and the 18th centuries, under the Turkish regime, just like inside of the Hapsburg Empire, the Romanians (the Vlachs) enjoyed of the existence of some proper institutions. Many of these organisational forms originated in ancient ages and were many times guaranteed by the political factors, namely by the sultans from Istanbul or by the emperors from Vienna . Perhaps that a necessary analyses of the Venetian documents would offer important data respecting the specificity of the Istrian Romanity's institutional life before the 19th century. Then, the different ways of modernisation and the new political realities, determined some other phenomena, like the renunciation to the traditional occupations, and especially the abandonment of the native villages, the departure to the Dalmatian and Istrian towns, and the more increasing emigration.
Unlike in the case of the Aromunians, there did not appear any necessary element for a national Renaissance among the Istro-Romanians, at the beginning of the Modern era. There could be many explanations for this, such as their small number, and thus the lack of an elevated cultural elite among them, the traditional lifestyle, the influence of the assimilation factors. It was only on the middle of the 19th century, meaning in the epoch of the 1848 revolution when they were 'discovered' by some Romanian leaders from the Principalities. From this viewpoint, the publishing of the article Dei Ringliani o Vlahi d'Istria by A. Ckovaz in a magazine from Triest entitled l'Istria was a 'releaser' factor. The material was immediately received in the Romanian milieus. It was reprinted at Braşov, in Foaie pentru minte, inimč ňi literaturč. Then, Aron Pumnul, in Arhiva Albinei retook it at Jassy with the translation and the notes of Gheorghe Asachi. Actually, this latter intended to send his own son to Istria in order to take direct contact with the respective Romanians . In the immediately subsequent years, Simion Bărnuţiu, studying for a period in Pavia, and Timotei Cipariu were also interested about these Western Romanians. Ion Maiorescu followed them afterwards. This latter was actually the Romanian from the North of the Danube that visited them, wrote about them from the historical, ethnographical, and linguistic viewpoints, and even drawn up the first lexical collection about them. The same Ion Maiorescu pleaded for their assistance and cultivation, considering their survival as "unu miraculu" (a miracle) . Ion Maiorescu also draw for the same time attention on the danger of their denationalisation because of the church and the school in Croatian language. To the end of the century, there appeared the idea of a national school in the Romanian language, as it was earlier proceeded for the Aromunians. It is not definitely elucidated whether this idea appeared because of a singular endeavour or because of the intervention of some outsider factors.
To the end of the 19th century, there appeared an activity in the Romanian milieus from Istria. Thus, an appeal appeared in the Giovine pensiero newspaper on October 27, 1887, signed by the Istro-Romanians from some villages, in order to approve the setting up of a school teaching in the Romanian language. Based upon a proposal belonging to an Italian, namely Dr. Constantini, the problem of a Romanian school was discussed in the autumn of 1888, in the provincial Diet of Istria. There was published the stenography of the inhabitants' letter, and also the interventions of the Italian and Croatian deputies . The Croatian representative, Dr. Laginja, vehemently contested the Istro-Romanians' existence itself, trying to demonstrate that they were Slav[e]s. Charged with the informing upon the matter, the school commission recognised that the Romanians existed in a number of 2,299 inhabitants, gathered in eight settlements. It was also considered that "I romanici d’Istria conservarono la loro lingua malgrado che siano circondati da popolazione slava e che da preti slavi ricevano l’istruzione religiosa, per cui sino da fanciulli sono costretti di apprendere lo slavo" .
The Croatian majority rejected the demand, and also declined the subsequent and repeatedly others, although the requirements were made with the assistance of some Italian deputies in the Diet. For instance, it was rejected the motion proposed on August 1900. The Italian deputy, dr. Scampichio finished one of his pleadings in this manner: "I defend today the cause of a very noble people, forgot, abandoned, neglected by everybody, of a people that has the origins in the Rome's glories in common with us, a people that must be associated with our civilisation's benefits" . Although they were protected by the public opinion and the press of Romania, the result of such an applies was contrary to the expectations. Because of the financial efforts of "Saints Cyril and Methodius Society", as a tool of the Slavisation policy, it was set up a Croatian school at Valdarsa in 1905. The school was under the care of the Catholic priest, who made usellessly efforts to attract the Romanians.
Under these circumstances, it may also be added Andrei Glavina's activity. He has been considered as the national apostle and the distinctive figure of the Istro-Romanians . Andrei Glavina was born on March 30, 1881 at Suşnieviţa and died on February 9, 1925 at Pola. As a teenager, he impressed T. Burada, professor at Jassy, who made ethnical and linguistic investigations in the area, by his liveliness and intelligence. The young Istro-Romanian came in Romania, where he began his studies at Jassy, and continued them in the great cultural centre in Blaj, where he also finished the high-school. Afterwards, he returned to Istria, becoming temporarily teacher at the Italian school in Arenzo.
He had the endeavour to create and publish for the first time a work printed in the dialect and adressed to his co-nationals, in a calendar form. Thus, it was printed in Bucharest in 1905 and spread in Istria the work entitled Calindaru lu Rumeri din Istrie cu figure lucrat parvea votea de Andreiu Glavina şi Constantin Diculescu. There was a pleading for the preserving and the recognition of the national identity. The same Glavina gathered dialectal texts from the village of Jeiani and set up two vocabularies: a Romanian-Istro-Romanian and an Istro-Romanian-Daco-Romanian one. Both of them would be published in Sextil Puscariu's volumes. He also forwarded some testimonies from his native places to the magazines in Romania and was in contact with different researchers, such as O. Densusianu, T. Filipescu, etc., thus contributing to the knowledge of the Istro-Romanian realities.
At the same period, there began his efforts destinated to create a Romanian school. They were reflected in the epoch's press, where his activity before 1914 was presented. It was appreciated by Sextil Puşcariu in 1925 in such a terms: "The Slav propaganda, stimulated by the central government in Vienna, made Andrei Glavina's efforts almost useless. The destiny reserved him the almost exclusive part of national apostle".
During the First World War, when Andrei Glavina participated in the trenches, he retook his activity under the circumstances that Istria was integrated inside of the Italian frontiers. Italy manifested intially a relative understanding regarding the Romanian ideals. For instance, it was in 1920 when it was authorised the sending of a teacher from Romania and of the books donated by the Romanian Academy. Thus, Andrei Glavina succeeded in 1921 to open at Valdarsa the first Romanian school in Istria, having the symbolic denomination of Împăratul Traian ("The Emperor Trajan"). To a certain moment, this school had a number of 443 pupils from all the seven villages and hamlets from the South of Monte Maggiore. The school developed its activity in the Romanian language and also in the Italian one. It had a distinctive part in the cultivation of the national identity. After the death of A. Glavina in 1925, the teaching in the Romanian language was ceased, the education process being developed exclusively in the Italian language. I happened not only at Valdarsa, but also in the other Romanian settlements, where there were opened schools in Italian language exclusively.
After the Second World War, the Croatian language became compulsory in all the schools. The lack of the Romanian education has contributed and still completely contributes to the assimilation and alienation processes. During the decades, none of the Bucharest authorities' endeavours succeeded. Between 1893 and 1935, some Istro-Romanians were brought in Romania for studies [of those, Domenico Cvecich - pictured right - still lived in Bucharest in 2005], in order to prepare them for a presumable schooling and national activity in their native regions. Some of them remained in Romania after the graduation, others being forbidden to return to their inborn territories by the local authorities.
Among the Romanians, the Istro-Romanians were the only ones that embraced the Catholic faith, beginning even with the medieval times. Among them, the Church authorities also acted as a factor of desethnisation. There existed some attempts to utilise the religious education for national purposes. Thus, after the First World War, A. Glavina distributed religious handbooks brought from Bucharest. There must be added the religious calendars published in dialect at Cernăuţi. In 1928, it was also issued a small book of prayers, also composed in a dialectal form. This heterogeneous and unsufficient efforts were not continued after the war, when practically every kind of circulation of the Romanian book was obstacled and even forbidden.
Even at the beginning of the 20th century, Andrei Glavina went to Bucharest, in order to obtain assistance for the Istro-Romanian cause. He addressed to the authorities', the statemen's and the culture men. He received a small material aid from the politician I. C. Grădişteanu, who also sustained the Romanians from the Timok valley and the Aromunians; actually, this latter was for a time the president of the two societies. Generally speaking, neither A. Glavina nor other Istro-Romanians or Istro-Romanians' sympathisers acquired assistence in Bucharest in order to impede an irreversible process. Whether the Romanian state enterprised different actions for the Aromunians and even for the Romanians from Timok in the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th, there missed a support for the Istro-Romanians at all. It was available on the level of the state institutions and also of the public opinion. An interest was only individually manifested, coming from some scholars, especially from the universitary milieu at Cernăuţi and Cluj, but it was unsufficient.
At the end of the First World War, under Italian administration, a distinctive administrative organisation was attempted, a leading part being played by the same Andrei Glavina. In 1923, the villages on the South of Monte Maggiore were grouped in the commune of Valdarsa. For a time, the townhall utilised a stamp having a Romanian text, and in the middle of the stamp was represented the Trajan's column. Also, there were introduced the bilingual inscriptions, in Romanian and Italian.
Long time after the Second World War, the news about the evolution of the Istro-Romanian villages and settlements missed. For decades, they were exclusively presented in scientific works, especially linguistic ones. Their problem was raised on the occasion of some international meetings, as there were the different congress of the Federative Union of the European Ethnical Communities. The general circumstances generated by the unweaving of Yugoslavia and by the breakdown of the communist regimes opened a new page in the Istro-Romanian history. The press from Romania and from other countries has begun to present the Romanian realities from Istria. On April 19, 1994, it was founded the Istro-Romanian Association "Andrei Glavina" at Trieste, with the purpose of the Istrian Romanians' salvation and of their ethnical and linguistic preservation. As president of the association, dr. Petre Raţiu contributed in different manners to the popularisation of the Istrian problems. In 1995 also began the publishing of some dialectal books, beginning with ‘Calendaru lu rumeri din Istria’. Since 1996, it has begun to appear the first Istro-Romanian magazine, ‘Scrisore către frat Rumer’. Its content is extremely various: original fiction or translated from Romanian, notes with historical and ethnical characteristics, news about the Aromunians' life, etc. The 1997 Congress of the Federative Union of the European Ethnical Communities adopted a special resolution. It supposes an appeal to the Croatian government and also to the different European organisations, in order to juridically recognise the Romanians in Croatia as an ethnical community. It also militated for the free utilisation of their language according to the European standards' system of the protection of the nationalities in the education, religious and mass media domains . There were organised for the same purpose different cultural and scientific meetings, under the care of the "Andrei Glavina" Association and also of the Democratic Association of the Romanians from Croatia, this latter one appeared in Zagreb. There were not yet materialised the efforts in order to promote the Romanian language (in its Istro-Romanian dialect) in the education system, while the impact of other forms of national activity in the area seems to be still minor. All of these do not seem to represent reliable signs for the ethnical future of this tiny Romanian group.
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