he hunt for weird social aspects within history is a never-ending one for me and I am amazed at how many of these I find within my country of origin, Romania. The country was only formed about 162 years ago and this is why you see quite a different approach to medieval history based on which region you visit (Wallachia, Transylvania, or Moldova).
Transylvania is the most set apart of the three regions due to the western influences since the times of German knights conquering the Easter European lands in the early medieval period. The architecture within the buildings best represents this difference, especially the fortified church within Biertan that has that late medieval gothic style well known around Transylvania.
However, within the church also hides something quite interesting and that is the only known prison for married couples.
History of Biertan
Biertan village saw its first settlers in 1224 when the village was officially certified by authorities in Transylvania. Interestingly enough, these settlers weren’t of Transylvanian nor Hungarian origin, they were actually a mix of French, Belgium, and German citizens invited by Hungary’s King Geza II to settle and protect it from the Ottoman Empire.
The economical power brought in by German knighthood helped raise not only the church but some of the houses within the village. For a short period of time during the 15th century, the church was fortified and used as a protective castle against any foes of the German knighthood.
One of Biertan’s oldest priests named Ulf Ziegler is also the keeper of historical records of this amazing village, saying that it had reached its peak in population during the beginning of the 15th century with a little over 5,000 villagers. He mentions that the German Knighthood played an important role in attracting villagers. This made the village quite popular for traders which would eventually raise the economy around the village, making it one of the richest villages in Transilvania, Wallachia, and Moldova at the time.
The Martial Prison
Besides the beauty of the village, there is something else that attracts most tourists to this place, and that is the prison found within the church complex. Don’t think that married couples within Medieval times didn’t have the same problems modern married couples do today. There were fights, adultery, and many other reasons for married couples to want a divorce. Married couples, just as today, took a vow in front of God and in medieval times that vow was sacred.
It was the duty of the Christian church to ensure that the couples would respect their vows and stay married through thick and thin. The church knew that it had to play a role in keeping the people of the village under the old Christian order. Divorces were not only devastating on the family created by the married couple, but they also had a domino effect where it would make other married couples consider it.
Therefore the church came with an ingenious solution, locking up problematic couples in prison until they sorted things out.
The idea was very well thought out, most couples that would be forcefully put into prison by the church would stay around a week before they would “sort things out”. The prison cell is more of a common bedroom/ living space so the living conditions were not problematic, what was problematic is the other person in the room.
Priest Ziegler mentions that it was more than just love that brought the couples back to a good marriage, the main key was the realization that the only way they could survive the harsh medieval times as peasants were by working together towards a better future. Another aspect that would rush couples to get back to good terms was the idea that the longer they would stay inside the prison, the less food they would be able to produce for the following year.
“In the 300 years there has only been one divorce.” (Quote by Priest Ulf Ziegler)
It is believed that the idea didn’t work because couples had fear of the so-called prison, but because they actually started valuing the importance of a marriage, especially during the hard life of a peasant during the medieval era.
A concept that could work even to this day
This is not just something to show that is of interest, but something from which I hope people that have problems within their marriages can learn. Let’s remind ourselves that the biggest social problem in today’s society is loneliness so be happy that you actually have someone next to you or even someone to share a prison cell with. I think that this concept should be applied even to this day as it would work much better than a session of couple’s counseling.