We Are Valachs!

Translator:  Joseph Bittersman

Editor: Leo Baca


Editor’s Note: This article was taken from: Stopami Minulosti: Kapitol z Dejin Moravy a Slezka /Traces of the Past: Chapters From the History of Moravia and Silesia/, by Zdenek Konecny and Frantisek Mainus /Brno, Blok. 1979/


Surely you know just from hearing a number of Valachian folk songs. You’ve probably seen boys and girls dressed up in folk costumes and how they stomped out on stage the old-time Valachian dances. Did you ever ask yourself the question--Who are those Valachs? Maybe you’ve visited ‘Valasko,’ that beautiful, wooded, and romantic region of eastern Moravia. Maybe you’ve heard somewhere in the high mountains jingles of little bells attached to the necks of cute and shaggy lambs. Maybe the baca (shepherd) offered you a piece of "brynza", the mutton cheese. These are only the remnants of the former glory of the Valachs.

The Valachs lived not only in the territory of present day Moravia, but also resided throughout the vast regions of the Carpathian mountains. At the closest distance to us, this included the territory of Upper Slovakia, south Tesin and south Poland. History also instructs us that the Valachs, the mountain shepherds, were involved in a special kind of herdsmanship entirely unique in Central Europe and that they originally came from Balcany in what is now Romania.

The Valachs were, because of the character of their interesting way of economy, predestined to a traveling, roving, and almost nomadic life. From time to time, in order to survive and make a living, they had to move from one place to another because there were many of them and the original mountain region could not support them. Let us not forget the other reasons which forced the migration of the Valachs from their Romanian homeland. They were under Turkish domination. There were raids by Tartars and Cossacks all the way into the central Carpathians during which many of the Valachian settlements were destroyed and the population was driven out. So it happened that the stream of Valachian colonization moved slowly and repeatedly along the Carpathian range without any consideration of any state or national borderlines. During their migrations the Valachs came in contact with the local populations, mixed with, and accepted many of their customs and gradually started to lose their original Romanian character. The Valachian people started to be Russianized, Ukranianized, and Slovakianized until they arrived in eastern Moravia and Tesin Silesia.

The first Valachs with their herds of sheep and goats appeared on Moravian-Silesian soil at the end of the fifteenth century. Not many came until the first half of the Sixteenth Century. Their residences were scattered over the mountains as small islands. As late as in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Valachian colonization continued to the outskirts of the south-Moravian valley. The most characteristic Valachian herding regions were concentrated in the mountain areas of Hukvaldy, Valasske, Mezirici, Vsetin, Broumov, Lukov, Vizovice, Zlin, and some neighboring smaller areas.

Until the arrival of these mountain shepherds, the local feudal lords did not profit from those mountain areas. The local population was involved in agriculture in the valleys and did not have the knowledge to manage in the mountains. No wonder that the aristocratic landowners welcomed the Valachs who made it possible to extend their estates high and far into the mountains. Feudal lords, in fact, at many places lured Valachs to the mountains they owned. Valachs kept coming, but in an effort to gain new pastures for their herds of sheep and goats, they did not pay attention to the borderlines of individual landowners. This caused disputes between the landowners.

Only because the Valachs lived so high in the mountains, far away from economical and cultural centers, were they allowed to maintain their authentic way of life along with an ancient way of production. It was first of all an unusual way of breeding sheep and goats which were grazed for the whole summer in the mountains, where at the same location milk, wool, and other products were worked up. We call this kind of production salasnictvi (alpine cottage production). The mountain grazing season started usually in May when sheep and goats were taken up to the cottages. The shepherds were called Valasi (Valachs), and their leader was called baca.  Every salas (cottage) had a koliba, where the shepherds slept and produced cheese. Sheep and goats were kept inside a kosar which was a rectangular corral and was moved to different places after the grass was grazed. In order to stay close to their herds, the koliba was mobile and fit for multiple moves during the year. Sheep and goats were milked by the shepherds and the baca, but the work connected with the production of cheese was exclusively the baca's affair. All activities and life at the salas were accompanied by ancient rites which were supposed to secure the success of the alpine cottage enterprise.

But the alpine cottage production was not the only source of subsistence for the Valachs, although it was the most important and primary one. We have proof that besides herding, keeping and breeding sheep, they manufactured dairy products and wool. The Valachs also produced canvas and leather and some were partially involved in mountain agriculture.

In comparison to peasant farmers down in the valleys, the relationship between the Valachs and the lords of domains was a lot more liberal. It was irrelevant that they were considered by the landowners as peasants just like the others. The Valachs managed for a long time to keep their special position. They moved quite freely across the mountains and paid instead of all those obligations burdening other peasants, only a so-called Valachian tax, some sort of payment for the lease of land. At Hukvaldy and some other places they turned in every tenth head of sheep.

Furthermore, the Valachs maintained a greater degree of self determination. It was expressed by different judicial customs called Valachian Law. Valachian rights originated from freedoms they had previously gained in the eastern and central Carpathians. They were carried over to Moravia even though the nobility partially limited them. Valachian rights liberated people from tithes (payment of the 10th part), from corvee, from taxes to the government, and permitted them to elect their own leaders--Valachian Dukes. These supervised the Moravian and Silesian Valachs, the borderlines of pastures, managed the Valachian economy, collected Valachian taxes and turned them in to the landowners, solved and judged internal disputes in which local or government authorities did not interfere. All this substantially differentiated the Valachs from the other peasants. The Valachs were aware of this and defended their rights as best as they could.

The Valachs were not the only ones who populated the higher mountain regions of eastern Moravian and Tesin-Silesian soil. At the same time they had to share the land with the local population. The struggle for new agricultural land, pastures, and the right to produce lumber from the woods was characteristic of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries along the entire western Carpathians. At a fast pace there arose more and more mountain villages. We call the local Moravian and Silesian and on the other side Slovakian settlers--glade-ers (pasekari), or diggers (kopanicari). This colonization was even stronger than the Valachian one. It was advancing with the support of landowners like a storm from the valleys to the mountains and woods. Glade-ers and diggers gained new land mainly from clearing the woods and using it as pastures for cattle as well as for agriculture. Gradually these clearings were populated. These settlements were close to agricultural land, meadows, pastures and woods.

So, in the Valachian mountains, the shepherd colonization (Valachian) met with the agricultural-pastoral one. The second one was more stable because the life of its people depended on the cultivation of soil. On one hand the Valachs often descended from the high mountains to lower elevations in search of new pastures and on the other hand the diggers and pasekari (people from clearings) penetrated in larger numbers to the mountains. Valachs came under their influence. Farmers and pasekari learned Valachian trade and gladly accepted more liberal Valachian customs and rules. The borderline of differences between them was gradually erased. The name Valach was used not only to name a stranger who came to the mountains but became common for any shepherd of mountain stock or mountain farmer.

Pasekari, as well as Valasi, longed for more freedom than the farmers had down in the valley. In the beginning these shepherds, farmers, lumberjacks, and producers of various wooden products did not experience any obstacles from the authorities. During the centuries, the carriers of this agricultural system kept their liberties and rights with more and more difficulties. Despite this, they did not become like the people in the valleys until the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. They kept an exclusive position and special relationship with the aristocratic landowners.

Now it is about time to have a look at another page of Valachian history. It is the one which secured for them everlasting glory as courageous fighters for their rights, for freedom of the fatherland against feudalistic authorities, against local and international enemies. Only the Hussites brought to the Czech national history so much emotion, drama, and tragedy as these eastern Moravian rebels. It started before the Thirty Years War when the mountain dominion of Vsetin became the cradle of anti-feudal rebellion for the Valachians.

The first popular mutiny which seriously threatened the powers of feudal authorities burst out in 1612. The first threatened was no one else than the Imperial General Albrecht of Wallenstein to whom Valachs declined to fulfill their obligations as subjects and against whom they filed a complaint because of his cruelty and recklessness directly with the Land-Captain Karel the Elder of Zerotin. Wallenstein zealously opposed the non-Catholic religion of the Valachian people. He found supporters in neighboring landlords-Lord of Broumov- Jan Kavka of Ricany, and in the Hungarian Duke Emerich Doczi of Natluce, Lord of Vizovice. It should be noted that Lord Doczi was assaulted by Valachs and beaten with canes and was for a long time bedridden because of wounds he suffered. Events of national and European significance soon came to bear on the local Valachian rebellions. On May 23,1618, the Catholic governors were thrown from the windows of the Castle of Prague. The revolt of the Czech protestant nobility became an anti-Habsburg uprising.

Because of the perplexed politics of Karel, the Elder of Zerotin, Moravia joined the uprising one year later. Non-Catholic Moravia-Evangelics and Czech Brethrens straightened their accounts first with the bishop of Olomouc, Cardinal Frantisek of Ditrichstejn, whose estates were expropriated and who was chased out of the country. The same happened to Albrecht of Wallenstein and Jan Kavka of Ricany. The leader of the revolt was Ladislav Velen of Zerotin who took over his cousin Karel’s office of Land-Captain.

On November 08,1620, the Czech noblemen were defeated at the battle of White Mountain (Bila Hora). This tragic defeat became an important milestone in the destiny of the Valachs. Troops of the victor at Bila Hora, General Buquoy started to penetrate into Moravia. First of all to save the estates of Lords Ditrichstejn and Wallenstein from the armies of the Duke of Seven Castles, Gabor Bethlen, ally of the defeated Czech nobility. In his camp the defeated non-Catholic nobility found shelter.

Now we meet again the former Moravian Land-Captain Ladislav Velen of Zerotin and meet Sir Jan Adam of Vickov who was getting ready to hold eastern Moravia with help of the Valachs. The Valachs and peasant people had their own reasons for revolting against the authorities and became, therefore, natural allies against the Habsburgs. They meant to renew to their original economic and social freedoms. It is remarkable how they knew to connect their own struggle with the large international war situations. It happened first of all during the invasion of Danish and Swedish armies into Moravia. Prince Gabor Bethlen planned to form with the Danes and Swedes a strong alliance against the Habsburgs. For a number of years these circumstances drove the Valachs into battles where they never voluntarily laid down their weapons. This is remembered by one of the most significant contemporaries of that time, Jan Amos Komensky. "Moravian mountain people around Vsetin, so called Valachs, a courageous people, after Frederick’s  (Czech King) defeat in 1620, refused to accept the Austrian yoke and for full three years managed to defend with arms in their hands their freedom.” J. A. Komensky had on mind only the beginning of the Valachian rebellions.

The first wave of Valachian uprisings boiled up in the beginning of 1621. In January, Valachs turned against the Catholic aristocratic authorities who longed for a renewal of submissive relations in the Valach country. The Valachs fought against imperial soldiers and foreign mercenaries . After a number of small fights, they prepared an extensive action, an attack against Valasske Mezirici. They took it and they became, for a number of weeks, its masters. Only in March of 1621 were they forced by the greater power of the imperial army to leave the town. They did not give up cheaply and paid for their courage with a high price in blood. Let’s read the words of the historian from Mezirici.

There was such a shooting you could not see because of the smoke. Those defeated Valachs, who could, escaped to the village of Kriva and hid themselves in barns and other places. Then came the cavalry who ambushed the village. They sent for musketeers and hornists. When the musketeers arrived, they set the barns in Kriva on fire so those who did not come out were burned alive. Those who ran out were killed. And so there were on that field more than 300 murdered. They were laying on that field like bales.”

Now Cardinal Frantisek Ditrichstejn came back to Moravia. Until he died in 1636, he became supreme lord of this land. The Valachs often used the tactics of guerilla warfare, and alas to any foreign mercenary who fell into their hands. Nothing was achieved by a penal expedition of Spanish and Italian troops. They had to return without success. For the time the Valachs were invincible in their mountains. Cardinal Ditrichstejn was in a rage since he did not know what to do against them. The Valachs again attacked Valasske Mezirici, deeply penetrated into the domain of Olomouc, took the town of Hranice, tried to take over Castle Lipnik, and barricaded the pass of Jablunkov, etc.

Their forces were led by Jan Adam of Vickov and Ladislav Velen of Zerotin. The latter published a number of patents (proclamations) appealing to the Valachs to remain in the anti-Habsburg struggle,…that very soon expected freedom would return. It remains a fact that during 1621, all of eastern Moravia was in the hands of the rebels and the imperial armies did not even dare to go there. Valachs dominated even the country around Mistek, Frydek and Pribor. Perhaps never during the Thirty Years War did they have such a hope for success as they had at that time.

In larger operations the Valachs relied on help of Gabor Bethlen’s armies. But he signed a treaty with the Emperor so the front split. But the Valachs knew well how to use their own forces and changed to small but still merciless attacks against the authorities. But they lost the towns, like Valasske Mezirici, Lipnik, Hranice, Vizovice and Vsetin, the main center of the rebels. By the will of Cardinal Ditrichstejn, tens of Valachs were incarcerated and executed. But the places which the power of Catholic lords and imperial armies did not reach were small mountain villages and clearings which became the focus of constant resistance.

After the winter season of 1622/23, Valachs freeholders came to the forefront of the Valachian rebellion. They were the mountain people who during the time of the unrest refused to fulfill any of their obligations to the authorities and lived in the mountains their own life without any masters. Landholders held them to be a dangerous enemy of their privileges. The international situation at that time did not favor the Catholic camp. Free Valachs maneuvered as smaller but remarkable well organized groups maintaining the flame of the Valachian uprising. Ruling Catholic authorities often called them villains and compared them to common robbers. This was a result of their helplessness in fighting the Valachs. As a result, two of the most cruel noblemen, Albrecht of Wallenstein and Jan Kavka of Ricany, sold their estates which had not earned them any profit for a long time. The torch and also the burden of rebellion was carried until 1626, first of all by the relentless Valachs from Vsetin.

Then for all of those who opposed the Habsburgs, a new hope arose. The anti-Habsburg alliance gained a new ally--the Danish King, Christian IV. His armies occupied northern Moravia and were supposed to unite with Gabor Bethlen, who again opposed the emperor. The Habsburg’s allies were running out of Moravia and the Valachs rejoiced. For the second time they took arms on a large scale, led again by Jan Adam of Vickov. The Valachian territory was assigned a very important role--to act as a bridge joining the Danish and Bethlen’s armies camping on the river Vah.

The anti-Habsburg war plans, which had such a narrow relationship to Moravia, soon fell apart. This decided the destiny of the second Valachian uprising. Hopes for victory which seemed to be at hand were again destroyed, even if the imperial army could not defeat, disarm or force to obedience the Valachs. For two months organized mercenaries rode through the Valachian mountains. Because of vengeance they burned Vsetin and executed many Valachs. But all this was hopeless. The real center of Valachian uprising was in the mountains, which protected them against arbitrariness of the enemy, like a mother protects her children.

The second Valachian uprising lasted fifteen months (1626-1627). Cardinal Ditrichstejn insulted them by calling them Valachian bandits and Valachian rabble. The Valachian people united in struggle. They ambushed and conquered towns and castles and dared to go into greater battles against German, Spanish and Italian mercenaries. They fought marvelously well and their name became world famous.

Then there was an interval in the Valachian insurgencies; however, there was no peace. The rebels were waiting for a more appropriate time. In l634, Archbishop Petr Pazmany from Gyor (Ostrihon-Hungary) became the owner of the domain of Vsetin. His effort to accelerate economic repressions found tough resistance. The population of Vsetin went so far as to reject Pazmany as their master and denied him obedience. The quarrel dragged on for many years until Pazmany’s death in 1637. During this fighting Pazmany even issued a bounty declaration in which he offered for each captured Valach rebel 30 Guldens or l5 for a dead one. But his treasury was saved from such expenses because the people held together and did not betray each other.

After Cardinal Ditrichstejn’s death (1636), Jan Count of Rottal, Lord of Napajedla, Kvasice and Tlumacov became the leading representative of the anti-Valachian war. This event is connected to the decision of the emperor announced in February 1638, to “attack by surprise rebellious and disobedient Valachs of Vsetin, take leaders prisoners, and execute them as an example to scare the others”. Thanks to the Count of Rottal, a punitive expedition was ready in the spring of 1638 to punish the Valachs. By the end of March the expedition climbed up the narrow valley of the small river Rokytnice which was surrounded by woods. The expedition’s commander, Colonel Jindrich Halbich, foolishly assumed that this was going to be an advantage-helping him to get unnoticed right to the center of the Valach rebels. But this was a miscalculation. The Valachs took advantage of the dense woods and sharp slopes and assaulted the unsuspecting imperial musketeers and their helpers. One thousand five hundred were taken prisoner and were disarmed, but later were released, including their commander, only to put them to greater shame and disgrace.

When noblemen could not succeed to dominate Valachs by armed force, they selected new tactics. They realized the sad truth that the only way to fight successfully against the Valachs would be to fight them only with help of Valachs whose service was acquired through bribes. So at the end of thirties, birth was given to a special mountain police recruited from the Valachs, a militia called portashes. For two hundred years these renegades protected the estates of the nobility and served against the interests of the Valachian people. The authorities asserted that they hired them to protect themselves against cruel bandits, which is what they named the Valach rebels.

Especially in the Thirties of the Seventeenth Century, there spread a new form of popular resistance--“zbojnictvi" (small guerilla war). Yes, during those times, the Valach country had its own “mountain boys” (horni chlapce), its Janosiks, who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Let us at least remember 0ndruska from the domain of Vsetin, and the Valachian Captain Adamcik, whose guerrilla organization, for a long time, was feared by the wealthy. Zbojnictvi was not robbery and murders; it was only an unusual, perhaps even a guerrilla-form of popular resistance, and a continuation of famous traditions of the first and second Valachian uprisings

People loved the “mountain boys” (horni chlapce) and did not go into hiding like the rich noblemen. Quite the contrary, they protected them, supported and hid them. As time went on they created a myth about their invincibility and invulnerability. Only the Austrian authorities who still did not learn enough from the Valachian rebellions, could on January 09,1641, publish a patent presenting a strange proposition on how to get rid of “zbojnictvi.” This patent promised a pardon and, furthermore, a generous reward to any “zbojnik” who would kill his comrade, another “zbojnik”, and present convincing proof about it. What pride filled up the hearts of the Valachs when this announcement fell on barren soil.

Also the third Valachian uprising in the Forties of the Seventeenth Century took advantage of a favorable situation in the international anti-Habsburg war-- the invasion of Swedish army into Moravia. With the arrival of the Swedes, the Valachs again cut loose all fabrics of peasant obedience and got ready for war. This time none of the significant members of anti-Catholic aristocracy returned to Moravia. They were dead and the people took power into their own hands without the nobility and without the bourgeois, fully trusting in Swedish help.

The Emperor tried to prevent the alliance between the Valachs and the Swedes. He ordered the formation of armed groups of Valachian people. He generously promised excellent pay, outstanding provisions, and generous war booty shares. This met with no success. Instead the Valachs made connections with the Swedes with headquarters in Olomouc. The first step was made by Vsetin in the beginning of l643. Historical sources are not too generous about these events. But one thing is for sure, the negotiations took place. Valachs started to provide provisions for the Swedish army. Transport was done by armed groups (as much as several hundred men strong) because at many places there were hungry imperial soldiers waiting for them. Many times the Valachs had to clear their way by using their valasky. It was a three-foot long cane where on one end an axe was attached. It was their preferred weapon that they mastered perfectly. They supplied the Swedish army with clothing, materials, shoes, and even with simple military items such as saddles and pistols of their own manufacture.

Naturally, there was also a military alliance between the Swedes and the Valachs, and many times Valach soldiers fought with the Swedish army. Let us remember at least their help in taking the fort of Kromeriz in the middle of 1643. Valachs not only fought only side by side with the Swedes, but also independently. They were also involved in a small guerrilla war. Their third uprising spread all over the mountain region of Valachian territory. The destiny of this uprising was basically decided by the forces of the anti-imperial block, especially the Danes, who unexpectedly went over and joined the Imperial side, since they feared Swedish domination of the Baltic Sea. The Swedes had to recall all their garrisons from Moravia and the emperor had a free hand to take action against the Valachs.

He took instant advantage of the favorable situation and assigned Count Rottal to repeat a punitive expedition against the Valachs which would not lead to a shameful fiasco as the previous one on the river Rokytnice. At the military meeting on January 14,1644, Count Rottal along with imperial General Buchheim worked out a detailed plan of military action against the Valachs. The attack against Vsetin would be led from three directions: from Valasske Mezirici, from Holesov, and from Uhersky Brod. Not many records were preserved about the main battle against the Valachs. It took place probably on January 26 and 27, l644, and it is for sure it ended with the defeat of the rebels. Imperial power was regained this way after twenty-three years of heroic popular resistance. The supreme commander of Moravia, Count Rottal, could now without any obstacles, take bloody vengeance on the Valachian people. Now the Valachs suffered their “Bila Hora.

When 300 Valachs were executed, the executions were far from ended. Punishments were cruel, just as we know about them from other popular rebellions: beheadings, hangings, quartering while alive, breaking on the wheel, smashing limbs with a pestle, burning alive on a spit, tearing out of the tongue. The imperial army plundered and burned large areas of Valach territory. This inhuman behavior of the victors was supposed to scare off all Valachs and silence forever their desire for freedom. Many Valachs managed to escape and so the number of inhabitants in rebellious domains dropped to about one quarter . The execution of twenty-one Valach leaders was set up in Brno. Valach captains were led on ropes and chains into the jail of the Brno town hall. Those who fell to the ground because of exhaustion were hung on the nearest tree.

Representatives of Valachian towns and villages had to sign a promise that all Valachs were going to properly fulfill their obligations as subjects, not keep any weapons, and that they, themselves, were going to capture fugitive leaders of the rebellion and non-Catholic priests and hand them over alive or dead to authorities. The Valachian country went through many changes. The power of Catholic landowners rose and became stronger.

So this was the tragic end of a glorious epoch of our history which was forever recorded by the Valachian people of eastern Moravia and Silesia.

The defeat of the rebellion did not destroy the Valachs nor their special kind of mountain economy. In the second half of the Seventeenth Century, the Valachian mountains began receiving a new wave of colonization. Local people from the valleys came with hopes of making a living in the mountains and also of finding shelter from the authorities. The mountains started to live again and they became again a traditional center of rebellious people. The Valachs started again several quarrels with land owners, stopped paying taxes, sent complaints to the Moravian Land Council, etc. They tried to maintain ancient Valach rights including the offices of Valach Dukes, something what did not happen anywhere else in Europe. It was as if they wanted to prove the truthfulness of their song --to stand with everlasting courage against injustice and arbitrariness, to show the world their untamable longing for freedom and regain it even by new blood.

Forms of popular Valachian resistance varied in those times and one of the most wide spread was the ‘zbojnictvi.’ Cruel methods of justice at that time resulted in the rebels on the gallows, hangman’s sword, or hook. In spite of this, the mountains were full of ‘zbojniks’, who, especially according to folk stories, took from the rich and gave to the poor. One of them was in Silesia in the beginning of the Eighteenth Century. Ondras from Janovice was probably the most cited in popular stories. To this day, there is a Silesian zbojnik song about him:

Call for me Ondras,

to hear the wisdom of mine,

as I his old father will give him,

before I shall die.

Hear my son Ondras

you will be well of

you have the heart of a zbojnik,

you gain of money a lot.

You take on your side a carbine

and a club in your hand,

rule from Lysa in Beskydy

and punish bad people for their sins.