Agrarian Society

The landowning nobility stood at the apex of the agrarian social hierarchy, but it differed markedly from its counterpart in Hungary. A stratum of aristocrats possessing vast estates did not emerge in Transylvania in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it had in Hungary and Croatia. At the onset of Habsburg rule, Transylvania's 'great lords' had estates much smaller than those of Hungary's aristocrats. In Hungary there was, after 1686 and 1711, plenty of land that the monarch could bestow to enhance the authority of aristocrats old and new. In Transylvania, there was no such ownerless land, liberated from the Turks; instead, Transylvania's noble landowners would spend many years in largely fruitless attempts to assert their rights to liberated land in Hungary.

{2-549.} Only a few thousand hectares were confiscated by the crown after 1711 (notably in 1717, from the 'treasonous' Kelemen Mikes and his associates), hardly sufficient to endow a new Transylvanian aristocracy. The sovereign did put some Treasury estates out on lease. The Uniate Bishop was first granted the domain at Fogaras, then, in replacement, the Szamosújvár estate, and finally the Balázsfalva domain; Chancellor János Bornemissza received the domain at Görgény; the remaining fragments of the once huge property at Szamosújvár were given to the Armenian town that had grown up next to the fortified center of the former domain. It was only in 1757, amidst the difficult circumstances of the Seven Years' War, that the imperial government finally decided to release all Treasury properties apart from the mines. They were acquired by Court Chancellor Gábor Bethlen for the immense sum of 700,000 forints; he soon transferred the domain of Ebesfalva to Erzsébetváros, and the Fogaras property to the Saxons' local government, the Universitas. Thus only a few Transylvanian aristocrats benefited from the disposal of Treasury estates. The others had to be content with a mere title, titulus sine vitulo, which was liberally awarded by the regime not only to landowning nobles but also to high state officials of more modest means. The practice drew much malicious comment from Transylvanian noblemen of the old stamp like Péter Apor.

A baroque shower of titles began to fall on Transylvania in the 1690s. Previously, the landowners who had moved from Hungary were the only ones to bear the title of count, or, with few exceptions, that of baron. Between 1693 and 1711, an earldom was granted to members of eleven different families in Transylvania, including several branches of the Bethlen clan, and a barony to three others (not counting the recently-named barons who had been elevated to count); the grant of an earldom or barony applied only to the individual and his dependents, not to the entire family.

{2-550.} Further grants of aristocratic titles came in spurts between 1711 and 1770. In 1712, as a consequence of political consolidation and of the promotion of Roman Catholicism, an earldom was granted to the Kornis family as well as to a branch of the Haller family, and a barony to the Apor family. Over the next fifteen years, only one family (and one which did not strike deep roots in Transylvania) received an earldom; baronies were awarded to a Roman Catholic bishop, a Uniate bishop, and four families, including that of Chancellor János Bornemissza, who had a brilliant career. To quell the disobedience of the estates, five families received baronies in 1728–29; the title was also granted to another two bishops, a Catholic and a Uniate, Inochentie Micu-Klein. (Sámuel Köleséri, the greatest Transylvanian scholar of the period, and a long-serving civil servant, came into consideration but did not get a barony.) Only one earldom and five baronies were granted over the next fifteen years. Over that period, the central government had fought an arduous battle for the repeal of anti-Habsburg and anti-Catholic legislation dating from the time of the principality. In 1744, having achieved its goal thanks to rather forceful methods, it granted four new earldoms and five baronies. Then the distribution of titles slackened again, with only two earldoms and two baronies being awarded up to 1754. The typically east European largesse with titles recurred only in 1755, when five earldoms and four baronies were bestowed. Then the grants of aristocratic titles became less frequent and, after 1770, decidedly rare.

With regard to the socio-political consequences, it has to be noted that the shower of titles brought little economic differentiation. Only two court chancellors obtained large estates. One was János Bornemissza, whose aristocratic status came to be underpinned by considerable wealth. As for Gábor Bethlen, his immense fortune did set him apart from his aristocratic peers, but it had no major political consequences in the long run: the chancellor's descendants lacked his political talents, and the vast property was {2-551.} divided up among his numerous grandchildren into estates that were similar in size to those of other Transylvanian aristocrats. The dominant figures in 18th-century Transylvanian politics were not the high-ranking officials or soldier-aristocrats but, rather, members of families — Bánffy, Bethlen, Kornis, Haller, Teleki, Wesselényi — that had constituted the power elite in the last phase of the principality. Most of the governors, chancellors, and other high officials came from these families. Apart from János Bornemissza, the only outsider to break into this circle was Samuel Bruckenthal, the son of a senior civil servant from the Saxon district.

The more modestly-endowed of these aristocratic families had estates of less than six hundred hectares, and only the wealthiest reached the level of the average Hungarian aristocrat. Yet, in terms of wealth and political power, Transylvania's aristocrats stood high above the 'county nobility'. The latter had estates that were, by Transylvanian standards, medium-sized; some played a role in local politics, but hardly any participated in the diet (a pattern that could be traced back to the days of the principality).

The lower nobility included the 'armalists', whose claim to the status consisted of little more than a letter of nobility with a family crest, and the 'single-house' ('single-plot') nobles, who had, at most, a single villein, the latter being required to pay taxes and share in the common expenses and labours of the village. At its session of January–February 1714, the diet distinguished this group from the rest of the nobility by making it subject to taxation. Thus deprived of one of nobility's most important privileges, Transylvania's lesser nobles would enjoy a standard of living lower than that of their counterparts in Hungary, and not much better than that of the peasantry. Their depressed status impelled the diet of 1790–91 to enact a bill guaranteeing them a modicum of access to public office. The boyars of the Fogarasföld constituted a separate and unique category of the lower nobility.

{2-552.} Moving down the social scale, the next, and comparatively small group consisted of freemen (libertinus, szabados) in the Hungarian-inhabited counties. Thanks mainly to locally-derived exemptions, they were free from the authority of landowners, but, like the armalists and single-house nobles, they were subject to taxation. The freemen were on the line that divided Transylvanian society between the feudal estates and the masses beyond.

In the Hungarians' agrarian society, the vast majority of people had the status of villeins and cotters. At the time, in Transylvania, the two categories were distinguished by the right to move (held by cotters, but not by villeins), and, to a lesser extent, differences in means (cotters had greater freedom to own plots of land). Their distinctive service obligations were enshrined in law.

Beyond these comparatively stable categories lay a broad stratum of nomads and vagabonds (kóborló, vagi), whose numbers only swelled in these demographically unsettled times. The situation of the Gypsies was even more insecure. A small minority of Gypsies was already settled, and the lifestyle of those who served as villeins or craftsmen (blacksmiths, locksmiths) differed little from that of other villagers. The Gypsies who washed gold on Treasury estates enjoyed special privileges and were assured of a small but stable income. However, the majority of Gypsies preserved an unsettled lifestyle and had no regular source of income.

The agrarian society of the Székely széks differed in many respects from that of the Hungarian-inhabited counties. To be sure, it encompassed a propertied nobility, aristocrats as well as lesser nobles who owned no more than 100–200 hectares. However, there lay below them a broad stratum of single-house nobles who accounted, in 1767, for 9 percent of the local population (compared to the 3.5 percent in the counties, excluding the Partium and the Fogaras district); and an even broader stratum of freemen, who accounted for close to half of the population (the proportion of lófő was 23.6 percent, and of darabont, or guardsmen, 21.2 percent). In {2-553.} the Székely lands, villeins and cotters made up no more than 38.8 percent of the population. The lófő and guardsmen were also made subject to taxation in 1714.

As might be expected, this substantial layer of free Székelys secured greater autonomy in its villages than did the villeins in villages of the Hungarian counties. In Székely villages, the community exercised broad authority over the selection, jurisdiction, and responsibilities of the local magistrate and his assistants, and over the procedures of village assemblies. The community would regulate road- and bridge-works, the admission of newcomers, and transfers of property within the village; the exploitation and preservation of forests, maintenance and leasing of village pastures, allocation of arable and cleared land, timing of certain agricultural tasks, as well as the legal status of domestics and sharecroppers; some aspects of stockbreeding (the protection of grain crops from cattle, provisions for damage done to the fields, the herding of cattle, the lending of hay), and issues of sheep-breeding, including the hiring of shepherds; and even some aspects of inheritance and social privileges. The village community would adjudicate in cases of minor theft, slander, libel, quarrels, and fights.

The differences were even more marked between the agrarian society of the Királyföld and those of the Hungarian and Székely 'nations'. As before, there was no opportunity for the emergence of a landowning nobility in the 'Fundus Regius', but the number of ennobled Saxon patrician families showed an increase in the 18th century, and, around 1760, two Saxons rose to the rank of aristocrats: Zacharias Wanckhel von Seeberg and Samuel Bruckenthal. The Saxons' agrarian society consisted of free peasants; only the Lutheran pastors, who benefited from the tithe, stood above them. In the 18th century, the patrician class that dominated the Saxon municipal authorities tried once again to impose its authority on these rural freeholders.

{2-554.} Thanks to the tithe and other revenues accruing to the Church, the Saxons' Lutheran clergy enjoyed a lifestyle similar to that of the nobility. (The tithe was raised from Romanian villagers as well, and there was more than one purely Romanian village in the Királyföld which had to support a Lutheran pastor who had no flock.) Some of their bishops, notably Lukas Graffius, a stout opponent of Pietism, had considerable property, which they managed in a wholly businesslike manner. The more prosperous Saxon pastors moved about in a carriage drawn by six horses, and their wives dressed like noblewomen. The Lutheran synod of 1726 had to remind clergymen that their spiritual tasks took precedence over economic interests.

In legal terms, the peasantry of Királyföld legally was divided into two basic categories, free Saxons and free Romanians. The reality was more complex. Some Hungarians settled in the region, and they generally had the same legal status as the free Saxons. In some villages around Szeben, there were even Southern Slav settlers (perhaps resettled, former soldiers) who enjoyed that status. There were more complicated cases: people with Romanian names who bore the status of free Saxons, and the reverse. (There were rarer instances of free Saxons or free Romanians who had a Hungarian name, and of Hungarian settlers in the Királyföld who had a Romanian name.) Thus, upon occasion, Saxon village elders might take away the land of a free Romanian bearing a German name and give it to a free Saxon bearing a Romanian name. Most free Saxons were ethnic Germans, and most free Romanians were ethnic Romanians, but legal status and nationality were not fully congruent in the Királyföld.

This ethnic complexity can be traced back to the appearance of the first Romanian settlements in Transylvania, in the Middle Ages. Most of the villages in the Talmácsszék and Szelistyeszék, near Szeben, were Romanian from the time of their settlement. But Romanians founded villages in other places as well, on the site of {2-555.} destroyed Saxon settlements, or in proximity to Saxon villages, there to put a small area under cultivation. Romanian shepherds and ploughmen, whether recently immigrated from the principalities or of older Transylvanian stock, could be found in most other Saxon villages of the Királyföld. This process of settlement was spontaneous and peaceful. Following the population losses at the turn on the 18th century, more than one Saxon village sought Romanian settlers to increase the number of tax- and tithe-payers and raise funds to rebuild its damaged church. Saxon villages welcomed Romanians who were willing to work as shepherds, domestics, butchers, millers, or to cultivate as freemen a neglected or less desirable plot in the hinterland. Generally, it was with the knowledge and assent of the village elders that such settlers cleared woodland or took over a share of the common land. However, as late as the 1750s, most Romanians in these parts engaged in stockbreeding.

It should not be concluded from the foregoing that relations were idyllic between Saxons and Romanians in the rural Királyföld. Frictions could arise even between a village that was purely Saxon or Romanian, and a neighbouring village where the inhabitants were of the other nationality, or mixed. In the mid-1700s, there were frequent complaints in Romanian villages that the Saxons in neighbouring villages had taken away some of their land. Many Romanian villages had enjoyed the free use of highland pastures, but in the late 1600s, and more commonly in the first half of the 1700s, the Saxon district authorities would collect a tax in cash or kind for this use; they would also suspend or otherwise restrict the Romanians' right to operate pubs and mills.

The situation was worst in ethnically-mixed villages that suffered from overpopulation. At this time, the Saxon széks encompassed some of the most densely populated areas in Transylvania, and there was a shortage of fertile land adapted to contemporary methods of cultivation. The Saxon village elders reacted to this shortage by allocating building-lots only to newly-married Saxon {2-556.} couples, and not to newly-married Romanians; what is more, they took back land cleared by Romanians on the pretext that the latter had been granted this privilege for only a year or two. In other places, the elders would not allow Romanians to clear land, obviously wishing to reserve uncleared land for Saxons. When, periodically, part of the hinterland was redistributed by arrow-shot, Romanians would be refused a share, or allocated only a smaller or poorer quality plot. Another consequence of overpopulation was a shortage of pastures, and the Saxons would therefore restrict the number of sheep and goats that could be kept by Romanians, or simply prohibit the grazing of these animals (in the summer only, or year-round), measures that compelled Romanian stock-breeders to lease pastures near other villages. Similar restrictive measures were applied to the feeding of pigs in the woods.

When Romanian villagers protested, they were commonly invited to go back where they belonged, in Wallachia or Moldavia. These frictions induced a certain primitive, peasant nationalism among Saxons. The Romanians, in turn, became receptive to the politically-charged notion of Daco–Roman continuity. The first exponent of this theory, in 1735, was the great Greek Catholic bishop, Inochentie Micu-Klein. In 1751, the Romanian elders of Resinár argued before an official investigating commission that their village had been founded earlier than Szeben(!). By mid-century, the struggle for a more secure existence was leading Romanians of the Királyföld to show the first concrete signs of nationalism and political solidarity. Some Saxon villages resorted to forceful measures in the late 1740s, and especially in 1750–51, when a tax census led them to anticipate harder conditions; they urged Romanian villagers to move away, and, in some instances, expelled the Romanians and razed the latter's homes. Facing such threats, Romanian villagers took their protests to the fiscal director, Petru Dobra. The latter took up their cause, arguing that the expulsions ran against the interests of the Treasury; the ensuing countrywide {2-557.} investigation brought some respite to the Romanians of the Királyföld.

However, it was not free Saxon peasants but the urban guilds that attempted to restrict the activity of Romanian craftsmen. More-over, in certain Saxon széks and districts, patrician officials would ignore legal provisions and demand that free Romanians perform corvée on their estates. Even local magistrates and their deputies would extract the odd day's labour from Romanians; at Kőhalomszék, the latter were required — probably on the basis of some ancient custom — to pay a tax in fox skins. There was some religious discrimination as well. Not only were Romanians obliged to pay a tithe to the Lutheran pastor; in some places, they also faced difficulties when they wanted to raise a church, or a cross, or establish a separate cemetery.

To be sure, the Királyföld's free Romanians were in a more favourable position than villeins, of whatever ethnic group, in the counties or the Székelyföld. Their resistance to Saxon pressures owed something to the fact that the culturally most advanced Romanian villages of Transylvania were found in the Királyföld, particularly around Szeben.