Romania in the Middle Ages

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Migration age

Faced by successive invasions of Goths and Carpi, the Roman administration withdrew from Dacia, abandoning the last of their positions north of the Danube during the reign of Aurelian (270-275).

The territory of what is today Romania was part of Attila's Empire of 450. After the disintegration of Attila's Empire, different parts of Romania were under successive control of the Alans, Gepids, Avars, Rukhs-As, Serbs, Croats, Bulgars, Uzes, Magyars, Pechenegs and Cumans.

There is little written or architectural evidence that bears witness to the presence of "proto-Romanians" in the lands north of the Danube during the millennium after Rome's withdrawal from Dacia. Some historians claim that the Romanians were not the descendants of the Romanized Dacians and that they came from south of the Danube and settled in the current territory of Romania. For details about this debate, see Origin of Romanians.

Arrival of the Magyars

In 896 the Magyars fleeing from the Pechenegs, settled in the Pannonian Plain. They established control over the region including (by 934 A.D) Transylvania, although some recent research suggests that the Bulgars retained at least nominal control of parts of the Carpathian Basin until around 1000 A.D. According to the Gesta Hungarorum, a chronicle dating from 12th century, the local states of Gelou, Glad, and Menumorout (Men Maroth) of Biharia were subdued by the Magyars in Transylvania during the 10th century.

In 953 the gyula of Transylvania was baptised in Constantinople and on his return to Transylvania he built the first church in the region. Strong trading links were established between Transylvania and the Byzantine Empire which also helped to propagate Christianity. In 978 Vatican missionaries established a church in a fort at the site of the present-day city of Oradea. In 1003, King Stephen I of Hungary led an army into Transylvania and the local leader submitted to him. The authority of the Kings of Hungary over Transylvania was consolidated in the 11th and 12th centuries.

During the 12th and 13th centuries, the areas in the south and northeast of Transylvania were settled by German colonists (termed Saxons). Siebenbürgen, the German name for Transylvania, derives from the seven principal fortified towns founded there by the Saxons. In 1241, the Tatars invaded Transylvania from the north and east over the Carpathians. They routed King Béla IV's forces. When the Tatars withdrew suddenly in 1242, Béla launched a vigorous development program.

During this period, Transylvania has a special status within the Kingdom of Hungary. The administration of Transylvania was in the hands of a voivod, who by the mid-13th century controlled the whole region. As early as 1288 Transylvania's noblemen convoked their own assembly, or Diet.

Medieval states

Early Romanian states were formed in the 10th and 11th century appearing in historical sources under the name of Blachi or Vallachi (Vlachs). Most of these states were small kingdoms that usually were disbanded after their leaders' deaths.

In the late 11th century the territory of Wallachia was incorporated in the Second Bulgarian Empire ruled by the Asen dynasty. A number of medieval sources call the first three rulers of the dynasty Vlachs and they referred to themselves as "Emperors of Bulgaria and Wallachia". They themselves sought their lineage among the rulers of the First Bulgarian Empire and viewed the state created by them as a continuation of the tsardom of Peter I and Samuil. The name of the dynasty (Asen), as well as the nickname of the oldest of the brothers (Belgun), however, suggests a Cuman origin.

The Romanian lands south and east of the Carpathian mountains fell under the dependency of the Tatars in the middle of the 13th century and it was only in the 13th century that the larger principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia established Diplomatic Relations with Byzantium and Papacy. Transylvania was, at that time, part of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Romanian Principalities, during the rule of  (-)
Romanian Principalities, during the rule of Mihai Viteazul (1593-1601)

Wallachia and Moldavia

Legend says that in 1290 Negru-Vodă, a leading Romanian nobleman, left Făgăraş in southern Transylvania with a group of nobles and founded "Ţara Românească" (which means "Romanian land" in Romanian language) on the lands between the southern Carpathians and the Danube. The same territory was often referred as "Wallachia", from the Slavic word Vlach, which is in turn derived from the Germanic Walh, that originally meant "foreigner", a term the Germanics used to designate the Romans. (see Etymology of Vlach)

A second legend holds that a Romanian voivode named Dragoş crossed the Carpathians and settled with other Romanians on the plain between the mountains and the Black Sea. They were joined in 1349 by a Transylvanian voivode named Bogdan, who revolted against his feudal overlord and settled on the Moldova River, from which Moldavia derives its name. Bogdan declared Moldavia's independence from Hungary a decade later. The remaining Romanian nobles in Transylvania eventually adopted the Hungarian language and culture. Transylvania's Romanian serfs continued to speak Romanian and clung to Orthodoxy but were powerless to resist Hungarian domination.

Missing image
Viennese_Illuminated_Chronicle_Posada.jpg
A medieval representation of the Battle of Posada

Wallachia and Moldavia steadily gained strength in the 14th century, a peaceful and prosperous time throughout southeastern Europe. Prince Basarab I of Wallachia (ca. 1330-53), despite defeating King Charles Robert at the Battle of Posada in 1330, had to acknowledge Hungary's sovereignty. The Eastern Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople, however, established an ecclesiastical seat in Wallachia and appointed a metropolitan. The church's recognition confirmed Wallachia's status as a principality, and Wallachia freed itself from Hungarian sovereignty in 1380.

The princes of both Wallachia and Moldavia held almost absolute power; only the prince had the power to grant land and confer noble rank. Assemblies of nobles, or boyars, and higher clergy elected princes for life, and the absence of a succession law created a fertile environment for intrigue. From the 14th century to the 17th century, the principalities' histories are replete with overthrows of princes by rival factions often supported by foreigners. The boyars were exempt from taxation except for levies on the main sources of agricultural wealth. Although the peasants had to pay a portion of their output in kind to the local nobles, they were never, despite their inferior position, deprived of the right to own property or resettle.

Wallachia and Moldavia remained isolated and primitive for many years after their founding. Education, for example, was nonexistent, and religion was poorly organized. Except for a rare market center, there were no significant towns and little circulation of money. In time, however, commerce developed between the lands of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. Merchants from Genoa and Venice founded trading centers along the coast of the Black Sea where Tatars, Germans, Greeks, Jews, Poles, Ragusans, and Armenians exchanged goods. Wallachians and Moldavians, however, remained mainly agricultural people.

Transylvania

In Transylvania economic life rebounded quickly after the Mongol invasion. New farming methods boosted crop yields. Craftsmen formed guilds as artisanry flourished; gold, silver, and salt mining expanded; and money-based transactions replaced barter.

Though townspeople were exempt from feudal obligations, feudalism expanded and the nobles stiffened the serfs' obligations. The serfs resented the higher payments; some fled the country, while others became outlaws.

In 1437 Romanian and Hungarian peasants rebelled against their feudal masters. The uprising gathered momentum before the three Estates of Transylvania - the nobililty, the burghers, and the Szeklers - united forces and quelled the revolt. Afterwards, the Estates formed the Unio Trium Natiorum, jointly pledging to defend their privileges against any power except that of Hungary's king.

The nobles gradually imposed even tougher terms on their serfs. In 1437, for example, each serf had to work for his lord one day per year at harvest time without compensation; by 1514 serfs had to work for their lord one day per week using their own animals and tools.

Ottoman Age

In the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks expanded their empire from Anatolia to the Balkans. They crossed the Bosporus in 1352 and defeated the Serbs at Kosovo Polje, in the modern-day Kosovo, in 1389. Tradition holds that Wallachia's Prince Mircea cel Batran (1386-1418) sent his forces to Kosovo to fight beside the Serbs; soon after the battle Sultan Bayezid I marched on Wallachia and imprisoned Mircea until he pledged to pay tribute.

After a failed attempt to break the sultan's grip, Mircea fled to Transylvania and enlisted his forces in a crusade called by King Sigismund of Hungary. The campaign ended miserably: the Turks routed Sigismund's forces in 1396 at Nicopolis in present-day Bulgaria, and Mircea and his men were lucky to escape across the Danube. In 1402 Wallachia gained a respite from Ottoman pressure as the Mongol leader Tamerlane attacked the Ottomans from the east, killed the sultan, and sparked a civil war. When peace returned, the Ottomans renewed their assault on the Balkans. In 1417 Mircea capitulated to Sultan Mehmed I and agreed to pay an annual tribute and surrender territory; in return the sultan allowed Wallachia to remain a principality and to retain the Eastern Orthodox faith.

After Mircea's death in 1418, Wallachia and Moldavia slid into decline. Succession struggles, Polish and Hungarian intrigues, and corruption produced a parade of eleven princes in twenty-five years and weakened the principalities as the Ottoman threat waxed. In 1444 the Ottomans routed European forces at Varna in contemporary Bulgaria. When Constantinople succumbed in 1453, the Ottomans cut off Genoese and Venetian galleys from Black Sea ports, trade ceased, and the Romanian principalities' isolation deepened, although unlike the Balkan territories to their south they escaped direct Ottoman rule at this time. At this time of near desperation John Hunyadi, a Transylvanian of Romanian origin, became regent of Hungary. Hunyadi, a hero of the Ottoman wars, mobilized Hungary against the Turks, equipping a mercenary army funded by the first tax ever levied on Hungary's nobles. He scored a resounding victory over the Turks before Belgrade in 1456, but died of plague soon after the battle.

In one of his final acts, Hunyadi installed Vlad Tepes (1456-1462) on Wallachia's throne. Vlad took abnormal pleasure in inflicting torture and watching his victims writhe in agony. He also hated the Turks and defied the sultan by refusing to pay tribute. In 1461 Hamsa Pasha tried to lure Vlad into a trap, but the Wallachian prince discovered the deception, captured Hamsa and his men, impaled them on wooden stakes, and abandoned them. Sultan Mohammed later invaded Wallachia and drove Vlad into exile in Hungary. Although Vlad eventually returned to Wallachia, he died shortly thereafter, and Wallachia's resistance to the Ottomans softened.

Moldavia and its prince, Ştefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great) (1457-1504), were the principalities' last hope of repelling the Ottoman threat. Stephen drew on Moldavia's peasantry to raise a 55,000-man army and repelled the invading forces of Hungary's King Mátyás Corvinus in a daring night attack. Stephen's army invaded Wallachia in 1471 and defeated the Turks when they retaliated in 1473 and 1474. After these victories, Stephen implored Pope Sixtus IV to forge a Christian alliance against the Turks. The pope replied with a letter naming Stephen an "Athlete of Christ", but he did not heed Stephen's calls for Christian unity. During the last decades of Stephen's reign, the Turks increased the pressure on Moldavia. They captured key Black Sea ports in 1484 and burned Moldavia's capital, Suceava, in 1485. Stephen rebounded with a victory in 1486 but thereafter confined his efforts to secure Moldavia's independence to the diplomatic arena. Frustrated by vain attempts to unite the West against the Turks, Stephen, on his deathbed, reportedly told his son to submit to the Turks if they offered an honorable suzerainty. Succession struggles weakened Moldavia after his death.

In 1514, greedy nobles and an ill-planned crusade sparked a widespread peasant revolt in Hungary and Transylvania. Well-armed peasants under George Dozsa sacked estates across the country. Despite strength of numbers, however, the peasants were disorganized and suffered a decisive defeat at Timisoara. Dozsa and the other rebel leaders were tortured and executed. After the revolt, the Hungarian nobles enacted laws that condemned the serfs to eternal bondage and increased their work obligations. With the serfs and nobles deeply alienated from each other and jealous magnates challenging the king's power, Hungary was vulnerable to outside aggression. The Ottomans stormed Belgrade in 1521, routed a feeble Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, and conquered Buda in 1541. They installed a pasha to rule over central Hungary; Transylvania became an autonomous principality under Ottoman suzerainty; and the Habsburgs assumed control over fragments of northern and western Hungary.

After Buda's fall, Transylvania, though a vassal state of the "Sublime Porte" (the Ottoman Empire), entered a period of broad autonomy. As a vassal, Transylvania paid the Porte an annual tribute and provided military assistance; in return, the Ottomans pledged to protect Transylvania from external threat. Native princes governed Transylvania from 1540 to 1690. Transylvania's powerful, mostly Hungarian, ruling families, whose position ironically strengthened with Hungary's fall, normally chose the prince, subject to the Porte's confirmation; in some cases, however, the Turks appointed the prince outright. The Transylvanian Diet became a parliament, and the Transylvanian Estates revived the Union of Three Nations, which still excluded the serfs (and the vast majority of Romanians) from political power. Princes took pains to separate Transylvania's Romanians from those in Wallachia and Moldavia and forbade Eastern Orthodox priests to enter Transylvania from Wallachia.

The Protestant Reformation spread rapidly in Transylvania after Hungary's collapse, and the region became one of Europe's Protestant strongholds. Transylvania's Germans adopted Lutheranism, and many Hungarians converted to Calvinism. However, the Protestants, who printed and distributed catechisms in the Romanian language, failed to lure many Romanians from Orthodoxy. In 1571 the Transylvanian Diet approved a law guaranteeing freedom of worship and equal rights for Transylvania's four "received" religions: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Unitarian. The law was one of the first of its kind in Europe, but the religious equality it proclaimed was limited. Orthodox Romanians, for example, were free to worship, but their church was not recognized as a received religion.

Once the Ottomans conquered Buda, Wallachia and Moldavia lost all but the veneer of independence and the Porte exacted heavy tribute. The Turks chose Wallachian and Moldavian princes from among the sons of noble hostages or refugees at Constantinople. Few princes died a natural death, but they lived enthroned amid great luxury. Although the Porte forbade Turks to own land or build mosques in the principalities, the princes allowed Greek and Turkish merchants and usurers to exploit the principalities' riches. The Greeks, jealously protecting their privileges, smothered the developing Romanian middle class.

The Romanians' final hero before the Turks and Greeks closed their stranglehold on the principalities was Wallachia's Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul) (1593-1601). Michael bribed his way at the Porte to become prince. Once enthroned, however, he rounded up extortionist Turkish lenders, locked them in a building, and burned it to the ground. His forces then overran several key Turkish fortresses. Michael's ultimate goal was complete independence, but in 1598 he pledged fealty to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. A year later, Michael captured Transylvania, and his victory incited Transylvania's Romanian peasants to rebel. Michael, however, more interested in endearing himself to Transylvania's nobles than in supporting defiant serfs, suppressed the rebels and swore to uphold the Union of Three Nations. Despite the prince's pledge, the nobles still distrusted him. Then in 1600 Michael conquered Moldavia.

For the first time a single Romanian prince ruled over all Romanians, and the Romanian people sensed the first stirring of a national identity. Michael's success startled Rudolf. The emperor incited Transylvania's nobles to revolt against the prince, and Poland simultaneously overran Moldavia. Michael consolidated his forces in Wallachia, apologized to Rudolf, and agreed to join Rudolf's general, Giorgio Basta, in a campaign to regain Transylvania from recalcitrant Hungarian nobles. After their victory, however, Basta executed Michael for alleged treachery. Michael the Brave grew more impressive in legend than in life, and his short-lived unification of the Romanian lands later inspired the Romanians to struggle for cultural and political unity.

In Transylvania, Basta's army persecuted Protestants and illegally expropriated their estates until Stephen Bocskay (1605-1607), a former Habsburg supporter, mustered an army that expelled the imperial forces. In 1606 Bocskay concluded treaties with the Habsburgs and the Turks that secured his position as prince of Transylvania, guaranteed religious freedom, and broadened Transylvania's independence.

After Bocskay's death and the reign of the tyrant Gabriel Báthory (1607-1613), the Porte compelled the Transylvanians to accept Gábor Bethlen (1613-1629) as prince. Transylvania experienced a golden age under Bethlen's enlightened despotism. He promoted agriculture, trade, and industry, sank new mines, sent students abroad to Protestant universities, and prohibited landlords from denying an education to children of serfs.

After Bethlen died, however, the Transylvanian Diet abolished most of his reforms. Soon György Rákóczi I (1630-1640) became prince. Rákóczi, like Bethlen, sent Transylvanian forces to fight with the Protestants in the Thirty Years' War; and Transylvania gained mention as a sovereign state in the Peace of Westphalia. Transylvania's golden age ended after György Rákóczi II (1648-1660) launched an ill-fated attack on Poland without the prior approval of the Porte or Transylvania's Diet.

A Turkish and Tatar army routed Rákóczi's forces and seized Transylvania. For the remainder of its independence, Transylvania suffered a series of feckless and distracted leaders, and throughout the seventeenth century Transylvania's Romanian peasants lingered in poverty and ignorance.

During Michael the Brave's brief tenure and the early years of Turkish suzerainty, the distribution of land in Wallachia and Moldavia changed dramatically. Over the years, Wallachian and Moldavian princes made land grants to loyal boyars in exchange for military service so that by the seventeenth century hardly any land was left. Boyars in search of wealth began encroaching on peasant land and their military allegiance to the prince weakened. As a result, serfdom spread, successful boyars became more courtiers than warriors, and an intermediary class of impoverished lesser nobles developed. Would-be princes were forced to raise enormous sums to bribe their way to power, and peasant life grew more miserable as taxes and exactions increased. Any prince wishing to improve the peasants' lot risked a financial shortfall that could enable rivals to out-bribe him at the Porte and usurp his position.

In 1632 Matei Basarab (1632-1654) became the last of Wallachia's predominant family to take the throne; two years later, Vasile Lupu (1634-1653), a man of Albanian descent, became prince of Moldavia. The jealousies and ambitions of Matei and Vasile sapped the strength of both principalities at a time when the Porte's power began to wane. Coveting the richer Wallachian throne, Vasile attacked Matei, but the latter's forces routed the Moldavians, and a group of Moldavian boyars ousted Vasile. Both Matei and Vasile were enlightened rulers, who provided liberal endowments to religion and the arts, established printing presses, and published religious books and legal codes.

Transylvania under the Habsburgs

In 1683 Jan Sobieski's Polish army crushed an Ottoman army besieging Vienna, and Christian forces soon began the slow process of driving the Turks from Europe. In 1688 the Transylvanian Diet renounced Ottoman suzerainty and accepted Austrian protection. Eleven years later, the Porte officially recognized Austria's sovereignty over the region. Although an imperial decree reaffirmed the privileges of Transylvania's nobles and the status of its four "recognized" religions, Vienna assumed direct control of the region and the emperor planned annexation.

The Romanian majority remained segregated from Transylvania's political life and almost totally enserfed; Romanians were forbidden to marry, relocate, or practice a trade without the permission of their landlords. Besides oppressive feudal exactions, the Orthodox Romanians had to pay tithes to the Roman Catholic or Protestant church, depending on their landlords' faith. Barred from collecting tithes, Orthodox priests lived in penury, and many labored as peasants to survive.

Under Habsburg rule, Roman Catholics dominated Transylvania's more numerous Protestants, and Vienna mounted a campaign to convert the region to Catholicism. The imperial army delivered many Protestant churches to Catholic hands, and anyone who broke from the Catholic church was liable to receive a public flogging. The Habsburgs also attempted to persuade Orthodox clergymen to join the Uniate Church, which retained Orthodox rituals and customs but accepted four key points of Catholic doctrine and acknowledged papal authority.

Jesuits dispatched to Transylvania promised Orthodox clergymen heightened social status, exemption from serfdom, and material benefits. In 1699 and 1701, Emperor Leopold I decreed Transylvania's Orthodox Church to be one with the Roman Catholic Church; the Habsburgs, however, never intended to make the Uniate Church a "received" religion and did not enforce portions of Leopold's decrees that gave Uniate clergymen the same rights as Catholic priests. Despite an Orthodox synod's acceptance of union, many Orthodox clergy and faithful rejected it.

In 1711, having suppressed an eight-year rebellion of Hungarian nobles and serfs, the empire consolidated its hold on Transylvania, and within several decades the Uniate Church proved a seminal force in the rise of Romanian nationalism. Uniate clergymen had influence in Vienna; and Uniate priests schooled in Rome and Vienna acquainted the Romanians with Western ideas, wrote histories tracing their Daco-Roman origins, adapted the Latin alphabet to the Romanian language, and published Romanian grammars and prayer books. The Uniate Church's seat at Blaj, in southern Transylvania, became a center of Romanian culture.

The Romanians' struggle for equality in Transylvania found its first formidable advocate in a Uniate bishop, Inocenţiu Micu Klein, who, with imperial backing, became a baron and a member of the Transylvanian Diet. From 1729 to 1744 Klein submitted petitions to Vienna on the Romanians' behalf and stubbornly took the floor of Transylvania's Diet to declare that Romanians were the inferiors of no other Transylvanian people, that they contributed more taxes and soldiers to the state than any of Transylvania's "nations", and that only enmity and outdated privileges caused their political exclusion and economic exploitation. Klein fought to gain Uniate clergymen the same rights as Catholic priests, reduce feudal obligations, restore expropriated land to Romanian peasants, and bar feudal lords from depriving Romanian children of an education. The bishop's words fell on deaf ears in Vienna; and Hungarian, German, and Szekler deputies, jealously clinging to their noble privileges, openly mocked the bishop and snarled that the Romanians were to the Transylvanian body politic what "moths are to clothing". Klein eventually fled to Rome where his appeals to the pope proved fruitless. He died in a Roman monastery in 1768. Klein's struggle, however, stirred both Uniate and Orthodox Romanians to demand equal standing. In 1762 an imperial decree established an organization for Transylvania's Orthodox community, but the empire still denied Orthodoxy equality even with the Uniate Church.

Emperor Joseph II (1780-90), before his accession, witnessed the serfs' wretched existence during three tours of Transylvania. As emperor he launched an energetic reform program. Steeped in the teachings of the French Enlightenment, he practiced "enlightened despotism," or reform from above designed to preempt revolution from below. He brought the empire under strict central control, launched an education program, and instituted religious tolerance, including full civil rights for Orthodox Christians. In 1784 Transylvanian serfs under Horea, Cloşca and Crişan, convinced they had the emperor's support, rebelled against their feudal masters, sacked castles and manor houses, and murdered about 100 nobles. Joseph ordered the revolt repressed but granted amnesty to all participants except their leaders, whom the nobles tortured and put to death before peasants brought to witness the execution. Joseph, aiming to strike at the rebellion's root causes, emancipated the serfs, annulled Transylvania's constitution, dissolved the Union of Three Nations, and decreed German the official language of the empire. Hungary's nobles and Catholic clergy resisted Joseph's reforms, and the peasants soon grew dissatisfied with taxes, conscription, and forced requisition of military supplies. Faced with broad discontent, Joseph rescinded many of his initiatives toward the end of his life.

Joseph II's Germanization decree triggered a chain reaction of national movements throughout the empire. Hungarians appealed for unification of Hungary and Transylvania and Magyarization of minority peoples. Threatened by both Germanization and Magyarization, the Romanians and other minority nations experienced a cultural awakening. In 1791 two Romanian bishops--one Orthodox, the other Uniate--petitioned Emperor Leopold II (1790-92) to grant Romanians political and civil rights, to place Orthodox and Uniate clergy on an equal footing, and to apportion a share of government posts for Romanian appointees; the bishops supported their petition by arguing that Romanians were descendants of the Romans and the aboriginal inhabitants of Transylvania. The emperor restored Transylvania as a territorial entity and ordered the Transylvanian Diet to consider the petition. The Diet, however, decided only to allow Orthodox believers to practice their faith; the deputies denied the Orthodox Church recognition and refused to give Romanians equal political standing beside the other Transylvanian nations.

Leopold's successor, Francis I (1792-1835), whose almost abnormal aversion to change and fear of revolution brought his empire four decades of political stagnation, virtually ignored Transylvania's constitution and refused to convoke the Transylvanian Diet for twenty-three years. When the Diet finally reconvened in 1834, the language issue reemerged as Hungarian deputies proposed making Magyar the official language of Transylvania. In 1843 the Hungarian Diet passed a law making Magyar Hungary's official language, and in 1847 the Transylvanian Diet enacted a law requiring the government to use Magyar. Transylvania's Romanians protested futilely.

At the end of the 17th century, following the defeat of the Turks, Hungary and Transylvania become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrians, in turn, rapidly expanded their empire: In 1718 an important part of Wallachia, called Oltenia, was incorporated into the Austrian Empire and was only returned in 1793.

The eastern province of Moldavia also had a reasonably complex history during this period. In 1775 the Austrian Empire occupied the north-western part of Moldavia, later called Bukovina. In 1812, Russia occupied the eastern half of the principality, calling it Bessarabia.

See also:


pt:Romęnia na Idade Média

ro:Principatele medievale române

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