Vaslui: A Great Christian Victory

At the beginning of January 1475, the Ottoman army entered Moldavia, in search of a decisive clash with Stephen’s army. The battle took place near the city of Vaslui. The thick fog that day played an important role, making the orientation of the Ottoman army difficult. The first Ottoman attack caused a certain amount of panic in the Moldavian camp, even Stephen the Great being, for a moment, terrified. The bursts of the Moldavian artillery, alight on the flanks, restored the balance on the battlefield, and a flank counterstrike of the Moldavian army inflicted a decisive blow. Believing themselves surrounded, the Ottomans began to retreat in disorder. The consequence was a bloodbath which lasted, according to some chronicles, no less than three days, the casualties of the Ottoman army being estimated at approximately 40,000 dead and 4,000 prisoners. The high number of the dead was also due to the ice breaking when crossing the river Siret and to the flawed manner in which Suleyman pasha ensured his retreat. The prince of Wallachia, Laiota Basarab, faithful to the prince of Moldavia, was besieged by the Turks in a fortress but, seeing the Ottoman army’s retreat, he broke out from the castle and inflicted great damages on the fleeing Turks.

After the battle ended, the prince of Moldavia made several symbolic gestures which were meant to highlight his victory. First, he executed the Ottoman prisoners, refusing any negotiations for their ransom. Then he ordered, contrary to practice, that the victory be celebrated with a four days fasting with bread and water, as a token of gratitude to God, the one to whom the triumph was owed. The victory achieved thus a divine character, and at first news presented it as a miracle accomplished by God through the hands of men for the destruction of the enemies of the Christian faith. 80 After the period of penance, Stephen the Great entered triumphantly in the capital of the country, Suceava. A cortege of priests, led by the metropolitan and the bishops, greeted the prince in a religious procession, hailing “Long live the emperor.”

Not just the Moldavian Church considered that Stephen the Great deserved a more important place among the Christian rulers. The enthusiasm stirred by the victory of Vaslui determined the Polish chronicler Jan Dlugosz to consider that to the prince of Moldavia should be awarded the honor to lead all of the army of Christendom against the Ottomans, in other words to be the captain general of the crusade, who would have been the ideal incarnation of Christian wrath. However, such acceptance by other Christian rulers was more than problematic. Even Stephen, in his circular letter to the leaders of Christendom, adopted a cautious and humble attitude.

The documents of the Moldavian chancellery from this period show that the prince of Moldavia did not take any new titles, but that he was aware of the significant increase of his prestige and worried about an inevitable retaliation of the sultan. On 25 January 1475, in a letter addressed to all princes of Christendom, Stephen the Great wrote that “the unfaithful emperor of the Turks, who is the sworn enemy of the whole Christendom” sent an army of 120,000 men and “we [.] went against the enemies of the faith, we defeated them and crushed them under our feet, and put them all to the edge of the sword.” Warning about the imminence of a new Ottoman attack, the prince appealed for Christian solidarity, considering that the loss of Moldavia will be a huge blow for all of Christendom: “the unfaithful emperor of the Turks wants to take revenge [.] and to subdue our country, which is the gate of Christendom and which God has protected until now. But if this gate which is our country will be lost-God forbid! – then the entire Christendom will be in great danger.”

MOLDAVIA

The principality of Moldavia was originally established in 1352 or 1353 by King Louis the Great of Hungary as a Transylvanian march against Tartar inroads, its first voivode being Bogdan Dragosh (after whom it was at first called Bogdania, the Ottomans continuing to call the country ‘Boğdan’ ever after). Dragosh threw off Hungarian hegemony as early as 1359 (others say 1365), though after 1397 the country instead became nominally a Polish-Lithuanian vassal. Serious Turkish inroads commenced in the mid-15th century, and tribute was first paid to the Ottomans in 1455, but Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare, 1457-1504) successfully repudiated their overlordship and, despite a major defeat in 1476, Moldavia thereafter remained independent until after his death. Polish suzerainty was effectively ended in about 1480, from which time Stephen openly aligned himself with Moscow against the king of Poland. An attempt by King Jan Olbracht (1492-1501) to reimpose Polish claims in 1497 resulted in the defeat of his Polish-Lithuanian troops, supported by Teutonic Knights, by an alliance of Moldavians, Hungarians and Crim. Tartars plus 2,000 Ottoman auxiliaries.

Moldavia’s armed forces differed little in composition from Wallachia’s, comprising ‘ lesser’ and ‘greater’ armies in exactly the same way, though with the distinct difference that unlike the Wallachians, or come to that the Transylvanians, virtually the entire army was mounted on campaign, which gave it considerable mobility, though the majority of the peasants were only mounted infantry and actually dismounted on the battlefield and fought on foot. The ‘Chronicle of Olah’ tells us also that: ‘The Moldavians hold themselves to be nobler and braver than the Wallachians, and their horses are better. They can put an army of 40,000 in the field’. Stephen the Great’s physician, Muriano, put this figure somewhat higher in 1502, stating that Moldavia ‘can assemble an army of 60,000 men in times of need’. Other accounts mention 45-75,000. Most sources seem to agree that the cavalry element (heavy cavalry of boyars, curteni and viteji, light cavalry of landowning peasants) numbered only about 12-15,000 men, the balance being infantry supplied chiefly by the general levy upon which, it can therefore be seen, considerable reliance was placed.

The obligation of all able-bodied freemen to perform military service when called upon by the voivode is only first to be found mentioned in Moldavian records in 1444, but doubtless it existed in the 14th century and probably even earlier. Little is known of its utilisation in the 14th century, except that when fighting against King Sigismund of Hungary in 1395, Stephen I ‘marched with all his people’s force’, comprising ‘a light-armed host and a great multitude of archers’. The Polish chronicler Jan Dlugosz (d. 1480) confirms Stephen the Great’s frequent use of the general levy, stating that ‘only women and children remained at home’, and that ‘if he found a peasant without arrows, a bow and a sword, he ruthlessly condemned him to be beheaded.’ Nicolae Costin referred to Moldavian peasant-soldiers in 1467 with ‘scythes, spears and axes’, and Baltazar de Piscia described the army he saw in 1476 as comprised largely of rustici armed with bows, swords and spears. They were led by their district starosras (marshals).

The standing troops of the lesser army seem to have been first established by Petru I Musat (1375-91), and comprised the voivode’s curteni – his standing troops, including castle garrisons and frontier guards (the strajeri ), some (but very few) mercenaries, and his personal retinue – plus the contingents of the boyars. Under Stephen the Great at least, and probably since the 14th century, the cavalry element of the standing troops was provided by viteji, while the infantry were comprised of voinici and iunaci (‘the brave’). Eye-witness descriptions of the army fielded in 1476 put the strength of these household troops at 10,000, but doubtless this does not include all of the frontier troops or castle garrisons, which appear to have been big enough to increase its numbers to 15,000. The figure of 10,000 also occurs in the first half of the 15th century (as, for instance, in 1430, when Sigismund of Hungary called for the voivode of Moldavia to provide that many men for service against the Ottomans), and the gradual increase in size of the standing army is reckoned to have been one of Stephen’s achievements.

In addition the curte could field a small amount of artillery, probably introduced in the early-15th century. Stephen’s army at the Battle of Vaslui in 1475 included 20 guns, and the next year he had an unknown number of cannons at Valea Alba. Most of Moldavia’s guns and gunpowder, together with some other armaments (notably swords), were imported from Brasov in Transylvania and Lwów in Poland.

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