Moldavian Picture gallery
Brief history of Moldavia
Armies prior to Stefan the Great
Armies of Stefan the Great
The battle of Vaslui 1475
The Battle of Obertyn 1531
Brief history of Moldavia
Voivoide Bogdan was established as governor of the land East of the Carpathian mountains by King Louis of Hungary in the early 1350’s. This province was created to form a defensive line against Tatar attacks from the Crimea. Bogdan took the opportunity, possibly as early as 1359 to create his own kingdom, naming it Moldavia after the Molda, a Transylvanian river. The earliest external references to this new Nation call it Bogdania and the Ottomans subsequently referred to it as Bogdan.
Bogdan and his immediate successors expanded their Country’s borders as far as the Dnestr river. The lands around the Dnestr river were only loosely controlled, much of it inhabited by Tatars. It would take until the 1400’s and the rule of Prince Alexandre (1400-32) before the Dnestr became a stable and viable border for Moldavia. The Tatar inhabitants being force back over the river in a series of hard fought campaigns. The Moldavian Princes also added land by diplomacy, bribery and negotiation. The Southern Bessarabia region was bought from the Wallachian princes some time in the late 14th, early 15th centuries. This region gave Moldavia the lands between the Prut and Dnestr rivers and the lands along the Danube to the black sea. A document dated 1408 mentions the town of Cetatea Alba, at the mouth of the Dnestr was a large Moldavian controlled town.
The death of Alexandre plunged Moldavia into a crisis. Over the next 20 years the throne was fought over by competing Boyar families, usually with a member of the Royal family as their figure head. This period saw the complete disintegration of central authority and the gradual reduction in peasant rights. Serfdom increasingly became the norm. Moldavia also saw increasing interference in her internal problems form her neighbours. Hungary and Poland each supported rival claimants to the throne and secured acknowledgement of their sovereignty. In 1454 the Ottoman Turks took the city of Constantinople, removing the last major obstacle in their path into eastern Europe. The Prince of Moldavia, either a certain Alexandrel or a Petru Aron signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans in 1455. The exact details of this treaty are unknown but it certainly included a yearly tribute and probably recognition of Ottoman 'protection'. In 1457 Stefan the Great (1457-1504) took control of the throne of Moldavia. Stefan rapidly secured his position and brought the Boyars of Moldavia to heel. In part this was managed by repudiating all foreign claims on Moldavian fealty. This plunged Moldavia into wars with Poland, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and from Tatar raids from the East. The outside threats to Moldavia successfully rallied the Boyars to Stefan's side. Stefan fought over 36 major battles during his reign and lost only two of these and on his death Moldavia was still an independent Nation.
The rulers who followed Stefan were unable to match his leadership and Moldavia soon became an Ottoman Dar-al-Ahd (dependent territory). Certainly by the Battle of Obertyn in 1531 Moldavian Princes were subject to Ottoman rule, The prince at the time, Raresh, was deposed by them shortly after this disastrous battle. The reason being given that he 'had disturbed the Portes best friend, the King of Poland'!
The Moldavian Army
The majority of details on the Moldavian military composition and tactics come from the reign of Stefan the Great. As such much of the earlier period is a matter of assumption based on later practises.
The core of any Moldavian army was the Oastea Mica (‘Small army’). This army was raised from the Ruler’s personal lands, cities and free villages and was supplemented by Boyars and their personal retinues. The Oastea Mica is thought to have numbered around 10,000 but by the end of Stefan’s reign this had risen to over 15,000. This is one of Stefan’s notable achievements. The Oastea Mica was, by is nature, the most effective fighting force the Moldavians could field.
In periods of emergency the Oastea Mica was bolstered by the raising of the Oastea Mare (‘Great army’). This army theoretically contained every able bodied free man available. Combined with the Oastea Mica its numbers could reach over 40,000 men. It was however rarely called upon in its full form. Stefan the Great made use of it on several occasions, usually in response to invasions by the Ottoman Turks.
These Nobles were the core of the army. They provided cavalry on par with their Wallachian neighbours and the Spahis of the Ottoman Empire. Their equipment was usually chain or leather armour along with a shield, lance and bow. The terrain of Moldavia made adoption of the Western European heavy cavalry an impracticality. Though from the middle of the 15th century the richer Boyars may well have been emulated their Polish neighbours and have worn armour midway between their traditional equipment and that of a fully plated Knight. Like the later Polish armies the lightness of the cavalry equipment did not prevent the Boyars of both Moldavia and Wallachia developing a fiercesome reputation as close combat fighters. Many of the Boyars of Moldavia were of Lithuanian origin and so may well have been armed and dressed in styles similar to them.
Moldavian retainers appear to have been recruited in a similar way to those of Poland and Lithuania. Each Boyar was expected to bring his own support group of mounted men. These Retainers were equipped in similar but lighter armour than their Boyar leaders. Like the Lithuanian and the Poles the retainers fought along side their Boyars rather than as distinct units.
The majority of infantry were only ever called up under the Oastea Mare. These infantry were raised from the Peasants and as such could be very badly equipped. The vast majority though were at least equipped with a bow. These archers formed a large part of the military power of the Moldavian army. Deployed en masse and in the rough terrain that covered much of the country they were a formidable foe. Certainly by the time of Stefan the infantry contingents were mounted, dismounting to fight. This gave Moldavian armies unrivalled mobility, especially necessary when fighting the fast moving Tatars of the Crimea.
The army of Stefan the Great
On his accession to the throne Stefan reorganised and increased the size of the Moldavian army. The twenty years of conflict prior to his reign had dangerously weakened the state of Moldavia's military. The encroachment of the Nobles on the rights of the free peasantry had significantly reduced the numbers available to the Oastea Mare. Stefan's reforms tried to deal with this issue and to curb the power of the Boyars. The reforms initiated by Stefan are very similar to those use by the Ottomans in pacifying a captured area and for the raising of provincial Spahis. The Ottomans would weaken the power of the local nobility by transferring much of the military requirements on to 'gentry' or free peasants. Military service was by land grant from the central authority and failure to provide the required numbers and/or equipment was punishable by death. Both of these requirements were introduced under Stefan's reign.
Stefan did little to alter the raising of Boyar contingents, except to set down the precise number of men each was expected to bring. The wealth of the Boyar being used as a determining factor. Their equipment altered little from the pre-Stefan period.
The Retainers (Viteji)
Boyars continued to raise their own retainers for service alongside them. Stefan introduced land grants to free peasants and lesser Boyars. In return for the land and other political and economic privileges these lesser Boyars and free peasants were expected to provide military service. These new style retainers were equipped as previously but mustered under district commanders appointed by the Crown.
These remained an important secondary part of the army. Stefan made good use of the Oastea Mare on several occasions during his reign. Part of Stefan's reforms was to include an infantry group in the Oastea Mica. This group was also raised by a system of land grants and were called Calarisi. They were mounted infantry and their main role was for ambushes, siege work and for fighting in terrain not suited to the cavalry. It is likely that they were better armed than the majority of the infantry levy but the bow was still likely to be the most used weapon.
Stefan greatly increased the use of artillery in the army. Effective battlefield artillery was still in its infancy in this period. However due to Stefan's extensive use of field fortifications and favourable terrain the Moldavians were very adept at placing their artillery for maximum advantage.
Campaigns fought with in the borders of Moldavia almost always followed the same pattern. Initially enemy armies would be harassed by fast moving light horse and mounted infantry. Supply columns, camps and scouting parties were prime targets for the hit and run tactics of the Moldavians. These tactics would continue until the enemy forces reached an area where the Moldavians felt able to engage them in 'open' battle. Moldavian battles usually fell into two distinct phases. The first was deployment of the infantry and artillery in defensive terrain where superior enemy manoeuvrability or numbers could be negated. The Moldavian cavalry would deploy behind their infantry, often concealed from the enemy by the nature of the terrain. The main goal of the infantry and artillery was to break up or wear down enemy attacks. Once the enemy forces were judged to be heavily committed against their infantry or sufficiently 'worn down' the cavalry would launch a counter attack. Once the enemy were broken their followed a systematic pursuit by the cavalry. Both the Moldavian and Wallachians were particularly effective in their pursuit of broken enemy armies. Moldavian armies also made extensive use of battlefield fortifications to improve upon the natural terrain.
The battle of Vaslui 1475, between Moldavia and the Ottoman Turks
This battle is a classic example of defensive Moldavian field tactics. The Moldavian army numbered some 40,000 men and included small contingents of Hungarian and Polish troops and some 20 pieces of artillery. The army deployed in a valley through which flowed the river Birlad. The valley floor was mostly water meadow or marshes. To this the Moldavians added several lines of defensive ditches behind which the infantry and artillery deployed. The artillery occupied the ends of the second line, Presumably either flanking the first line, allowing clear field of fire or being deployed higher up the valley sides. The majority of cavalry was deployed further down the valley concealed in or by heavy woods. Stefan deployed light cavalry in advance of the main lines, their job was to lure the Ottomans into the valley and into the prepared infantry positions.
The Ottoman army appears to have outnumbered the Moldavians by quite a significant amount. There are no direct figures mentioned in the sources, although contemporary western writers put the Ottoman dead at over 40,000. This figure is unlikely to be realistic but Ottoman chroniclers do say that the majority of the army was killed and that it was the worst defeat ever suffered by a Turkish army. Given that the Modern estimates of the Ottoman army at Constantinople in 1453 was around 80,000 men and with the increase in territory held by the Ottomans over the following 20 years. I would not think it unreasonable for the provincial army at Vaslui to have numbered something similar. As the cavalry held the centre of the Ottoman line during the battle the majority of the force was probably infantry.
The Moldavian light horse were successful in leading the Ottoman army into the valley. The Ottoman cavalry deployed in the centre with their infantry divided between the two wings. There followed numerous assaults on the Moldavian positions. Although it is likely that the Ottoman cavalry centre merely pinned the Moldavian centre while their infantry assaulted the flanks. The majority of the battle appears to have taken place in a dense mist. The Ottomans eventually took the first line of defences and were assaulting the second when Stefan released the Moldavian cavalry into the flank of the Ottoman right. Simultaneously Moldavian buglers concealed behind the Ottoman lines, possibly in conjunction with light horse sounded the attack. The Ottomans were confused by the Buglers and some units turned to face them rather than their flanks and were hit by the Moldavian cavalry, charging out of the mist, while facing the wrong way. The Ottoman army fled and the Moldavian Light horse pursuit lasted three days.
Ottoman losses although heavy did not prevent the Sultan himself leading a second campaign the following year, with an army larger than this one.
Copyright © 2002-2020 Matthew Haywood
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