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What We Can Learn from Transylvania (Really!)

The village commons endures in central Romania

The word commons dates back to the medieval era, originally describing land that was shared by a community under well-defined rules. Peasants were often given specific rights to hunt and fish in these places, or to harvest medicinal herbs, forage for berries, or gather thatch for their roofs.

When these privileges were later revoked (giving exclusive use of what was once common land to landowners and nobles in a process known as “enclosure”) many peasants suffered a drastic decline in their ability to provide for themselves. Many were forced to leave the countryside and work long, hard hours in the unhealthy factories that were opening up across the continent.

This tradition of common ownership still thrives among indigenous and peasant cultures in the developing world, but has disappeared in Europe except for a corner of Transylvania where a few commons customs have endured to this day.

“It’s a laboratory for sustainable solutions,” explains Notre Dame University architecture professor Krupali Krusche who last year led a team of students to study the landscape, buildings styles, settlement patterns and lifestyle of villages spread across valleys in two remote regions of central Romania .

“It’s the one place in Europe where the life that existed in the 13th century can still be found,” Krusche notes. “It is the roots of today’s ideal of an organic lifestyle”—sustainable farming, local food, natural building methods, a closely-knit community.”

In sketches, photographs and their own vivid recollections, students documented a way of life that has managed—miraculously— to endure in our modern world. Villagers live in handsome old homes—washed in bright blue, green and ochre colors—on winding cobblestone lanes lined with pear trees. The houses are set close together, which makes the places pleasantly walkable, but each family enjoys considerable space with a long privatelyowned courtyard behind their home enclosed by a German-style timber frame barn. On the other side of the barn lie vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, walnut trees and small farm plots. Beyond that you find the commons in the form of meadows and pastures, used cooperatively by the villagers for grazing animals and making hay. They are carpeted with wildflowers, including some varieties said to grow nowhere else in Europe. Finally, you reach the oak and beech woods that cover steep hillsides, where people collectively gather firewood and building materials.

Today, these villages are home to Romanians and Roma (gypsies), along with a small number of German speakers known as “Saxons,” whose forebears were recruited here in the 13th century by the King of Hungary to help defend what was then that country’s border. Most Saxons, who once dominated the area, accepted the German government’s offer to emigrate after the fall of the Berlin wall.

But this unique example of traditional village life is threatened as modernization advances into rural Romania, with young people leaving the area in search of economic opportunities and many of the area’s original German-speaking residents emigrating to Germany.

Students documented architectural styles and local customs, along with sketching out plans for how families might renovate their homes so “modern amenities may be introduced without altering sustainable lifestyle practices,” as the students put it in a class report. This was more than an academic project. Krusche is assembling the students’ research into a pattern book in partnership with the Technical University of Dresden—which residents can use when restoring their properties and EU officials can consult when drafting tourism or preservation plans. She also believes that students’ keen interest in the villages helped convince local people that their traditions are not outdated, but actually represent a valuable living example of a green way of life

“At first, these people struck me as extremely poor, but we came to see they are rich in many other ways,” recalls Alejandra Guttzeit, an architecture student. “There was such a harmony in how they lived with the land, the animals, each other.”

Another student, Ashley Vaughan, was touched by how villagers offered homemade wine, coffee and sweets as she took measurements and analyzed architectural features in their homes. As for the hearty peasant meals cooked largely from locally-raised ingredients, she exults, “It was some the best food I’ve ever eaten.”

It was cows, however, that seized the imagination of almost everyone in the Notre Dame group. After grazing all day in common pastures on the outskirts of the village, they ambled home at dusk all on their own, each returning to its own barn to be milked. Who knew cows could do that? It seemed to symbolize the unseen possibilities that modern society misses in not paying closer attention to the cycles of nature.

Marcela K. Perett, a Medieval Studies graduate student who joined the tour to investigate the fortified Saxon churches, came away with a deeper understanding for the culture of the Middle Ages, but also a sense of how hard life would be in these villages—then and now. “I was struck by how primitive it was. These were people living on the edge of subsistence; I wouldn’t want to live like that. But on the flip side, there was great natural beauty, a really gorgeous landscape. I didn’t get the sense that the people seemed anxious to have a lot of modern things.”

Professor Krushche—a specialist in historical preservation who conducted extensive studies of sacred architecture in her native India for a forthcoming book, and spent the past summer in Rome documenting ruins with a 3-D laser scanner— notes the students “saw new possibilities for balancing the traditional and the modern.”

While a graduate at the Technical University of Dresden, Krusche first visited the villages as part of a project sponsored by the Prince’s Trust—Prince Charles’ foundation that supports the local Mihai Eminescu Trust in promoting economic incentives to maintain the villages’ distinctive culture. This Romanian organization bravely opposed Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s plans to level these villages, and in recent years helped restore 300 buildings, train 100 villagers how to use traditional skills to make a better living and encouraged 1000 Saxons to move back to the region. Their work includes eco-tourist initiatives like bed & breakfasts, walking and horse trails, folk dance troupes, a commercial organic orchard and establishing artisan businesses in weaving, tilemaking, baking, jam making, cheese, honey and garden produce. They also drove a proposed Dracula theme park out of the area.

The work of Notre Dame’s students furthers this mission by offering ideas for how visitor centers, cafes, guesthouses, craft workshops and shops can be accommodated in existing buildings to bring needed services and jobs to the villages while making sure this authentic way of life continues.

We may not want to live just like these people,” Professor Krusche points out, “but there’s huge interest today in learning about what they have in these villages.”

Jay Walljasper—whose book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons appears this winter—is co-editor of the On The Commons.org and a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler. This article was adapted from a report for Notre Dame magazine. His website, JayWalljasper.com.