Merchants with Special Legal Status

The stimulus of competition came principally from foreign merchants, especially the recent arrivals. There were foreign merchants in Transylvania already in the era of the principality, when their privileges were enshrined in a succession of laws and decrees. Initially, the largest contingent was that of the Greeks. As early as 1701, they obtained from Leopold I a confirmation of their rights. {2-559.} They could trade, wholesale and retail, in all goods that were legally in circulation; elect judges and jurymen who would adjudicate in commercial disputes among them; and, coming directly under the jurisdiction of the Court Chamber and Transylvania's treasurer, they were exempt from the obligation to quarter troops and provide relay mounts. They had a commercial association, the compagnia, in both Szeben and Brassó. The two groups of Bulgarian merchants, in Alvinc and Déva, were much smaller; by 1735, those at Alvinc numbered no more than fifteen families.

Only place names and references in legislation attest to the much earlier presence of Armenians, in Transylvania. The immigration, in 1672, of a thousand or two Armenian merchants and craftsmen from Moldavia made a more lasting impact. Apart from Ebesfalva, their first settlements were concentrated near the border with Moldavia, notably at Beszterce, Gyergyószentmiklós, and Görgényszentimre. Around the turn of the century, the Armenians' bishop was Oxendie Verzirescu (Verzár), the founder of their religious union; he was a princely prelate in the mould of Arzén Csernojevics and Inochentie Micu-Klein. Verzirescu is responsible for a series of unsuccessful attempts to have the Armenians recognized as one of Transylvania's 'nations'; the estates would not hear of it, and the imperial government saw no pressing necessity to comply.

Neither then, nor later, did the Transylvanian Armenians obtain legal confirmation of their collective privileges. Instead, privileges were granted to some of their settlements. In 1696, Ebesfalva obtained a letter patent from Mihály Apafi II; the latter was merely elected, and did not reign, but the validity of the letter was not questioned; then, in 1733, the renamed Erzsébetváros (Elisabethstadt) was granted privileged status by Charles III. The largest Armenian settlement was at Szamosújvár; the town began to arise around 1710, on a site near the castle, following the plans of a famous military engineer, Morando Visconti. Most of its first {2-560.} inhabitants had probably moved from Beszterce. Szamosújvár received its first patent in 1726, from Charles III. Judging from their original patents, these two sizeable Armenian towns enjoyed privileges similar to those held by certain market towns in Hungary. Their municipal government was autonomous, the courts of first instance were locally-chosen, and, like the Greeks, they were exempted from providing military quarters and relief horses. Erzsébetváros and Szamosújvár had a peculiar relationship to higher authority. In non-economic matters, they were answerable to the Gubernium (thus, not to the county), and, in economic matters, to the Treasury; for protection, they had to turn to the military command. Appeals in civil suits of an economic nature had to be directed to the Transylvanian treasury, and, in penal cases, directly to the royal court of appeals. Their subordinate status was reflected in their tax burden: each family head was levied 10 Rhenish florins [a monetary unit equivalent, in the 16th-18th centuries, to 60 kreuzers] by the Treasury as well as a government tax of 5 Rhenish florins. The status of the Armenian settlements at Gyergyószentmiklós, Csíkszépvíz, and Kánta was not regulated by patents, although the szék granted the first two a certain autonomy in judicial matters.

By their very number, the Armenian merchants weighed heavily in Transylvanian commerce. Moreover, like other merchants in the Armenian diaspora, they were both expert in their trade and entrepreneurial. By the 1740s, they had become dominant in their main specialty, the cattle trade. Records from that period indicate that eighteen traders from Szamosújvár grazed a total of 3,690 oxen (of which 650 belonged to a single trader), mostly in Hungary, on the Gyula plain. By their own account, traders from Erzsébetváros purchased some 500 oxen in 1740 alone. (Since they made a net profit of at least 10 forints per ox, the traders from these two towns must have earned a total of around 42,000 forints from the cattle business.) Evidently, some of these businesses approached a modern scale, for if an Armenian trader from Erzsébetváros could {2-561.} report in 1751 that he paid an annual thirtieth-tax of 4,000 forints, his turnover must have been in the tens of thousands of forints, and his income comparable to that of a Transylvanian aristocrat who owned a medium-sized estate.

To be sure, most Armenian merchants operated on a more modest scale, as itinerant peddlers and hide-traders. Many Armenian settlers made a living from their craft, the main speciality being tanning and furs. Around 1760, there were over a hundred tanners in Gyergyószentmiklós. These craftsmen, like their fellows in the larger Armenian towns, belonged to a guild. But most of their guilds were regulated locally and lacked royal recognition, a circumstance that allowed Transylvanian guilds enjoying official privilege to challenge their prerogatives.

Transylvania's estates were, at best, ambivalent, about the arrival of the Armenians. At the beginning of the period, the estates prevented the Armenians from becoming integrated politically by denying them the status of a separate 'nation'. The propertied nobles welcomed the enterprising Armenian merchants who offered quality goods at a comparatively low price. However, they turned hostile when prosperous Armenians sought to lease or buy farmland, and even more so when the two principal Armenian towns acquired agricultural estates. In 1736, Szamosújvár took over the mortgage of what remained of the original domain, twenty-two villages in all, for the considerable sum of 100,000 forints. The estates aired their protests at the next diet, in 1740, and their objections were relayed by the envoys sent to Vienna in 1741–42, but to no avail. An even greater storm erupted when, in 1752, Erzsébetváros bought free title to the Ebesfalva domain from the court chancellor, Gábor Bethlen (who had acquired this former Apafi property from the Treasury); the transfer was endorsed by the crown. In 1759, the estates launched a fierce attack on this transaction, but the government construed their attitude as prejudicial to royal authority, and, at its fall 1761 session, the diet had to back off.

{2-562.} From the outset, the Saxon and other Transylvanian craftsmen who belonged to the recognized guilds fought a sustained battle against the competing, Armenian traders and artisans. The furriers were the most persistent; beginning in the 1690s, they tried, with varying success, to constrain by administrative means the activities of Armenian leather and fur traders. Some towns tried to repel the Armenians by imposing special sales taxes. The opposition of the urban middle classes was only accentuated when, in fall 1767, Empress Maria Theresa judged it to be in the Treasury's interest to admit to Transylvania's towns Armenian merchants with a personal worth of at least 6,000 forints. The opposition was clearly inspired by a nationalistic reflex on the part of Transylvania's Saxons. The de facto head of the Transylvanian chancellery at court, Samuel Bruckenthal, argued against the proposal by invoking the need to preserve the ethnic purity and German culture of the Saxon lands; he conveniently overlooked the presence of Greek merchants in Szeben and the predominance of Greek and Romanian merchants in Brassó's trade, not to speak of the fact that Romanians had come to constitute a majority in the Királyföld. His protest nevertheless bore fruit, for Maria Theresa did not pursue the initiative.

The competition from Armenians seemed all the more threatening because of their number, the privileges obtained by their two principal settlements, and their business links to the Armenian diaspora in other countries. The other major group of new settlers, the Aromân merchants, drew their initial advantage from the peace treaty concluded with the Turks in 1718 at Požarevac. The accord granted reciprocal, free access to merchants from the signatory states, and a single low tariff of three percent. In Transylvania, the main beneficiaries were long-settled Greek merchants who preserved their traditional Balkan connections, and, perhaps to an even greater extent, Romanian merchants who had immigrated from Macedonia between 1718 and 1738. The latter, whose nationality and religion was Greek, had come from Aromân settlements in Macedonia, notably Moscopole and Seatişte, by way of Oltenia. {2-563.} Most of them settled in the Brassó suburb of Bolgárszeg. Those who did not belong to the privileged Greek company were in constant conflict with Brassó's municipal administration, which restricted their commercial activities and imposed a variety of levies. Yet, by the end of the period, the newcomers had become dominant. In 1768, there were only eleven Saxons among the town's 122 merchants; of the others, thirty-one, including some Romanians, were members of the Greek company, and eighty were Romanians from Bolgárszeg.

Those who had good business connections in both the Habsburg and the Turkish lands were best placed to exploit the advantages offered by the Požarevac Treaty, and this, in Transylvania, favoured the Greek and Aromân (as well as the local Romanian) merchants. (The Armenians, as noted, traded mainly in livestock.) In their excellent studies of Romanian trading houses in Transylvania, E. and D. Limona make clear that these business networks rested largely on family connections: the merchant's brothers-in-law, cousins, and other relatives served as his agents, correspondents, and assistants. Given the limited degree of security offered at the time by commercial law, domestic and international, merchants naturally preferred to select their associates on the basis of personal trust, and thus looked first to their extended families. The same Romanian source notes that this circle of confidence was later extended to people from the merchants' common homeland, meaning Brassó, Oltenia, and the Aromân settlements in Macedonia. These links to family and motherland also had a religious dimension. The 'Greek' (ethnic Greek as well as Aromân) and Romanian merchants drew together partly because they belonged to a separate denomination, much like the Armenians or the Jews, although the latter played a less important role in this period. This paved the way for the development of a pattern of multiple nationalism peculiar to southeastern Europe; groups distinguished by their national identity and religion competed against each other in the market. And, as attested by Bruckenthal's arguments {2-564.} in 1767, the Saxons also resorted to nationalism in order to defend their traditional preeminence.

The Greek–Romanian trading houses grew stronger towards the end of this period. Petru Luca, a merchant — perhaps a Romanianized Greek — who had moved from Oltenia to Szeben, maintained business relations with Greek traders in Trieste and Vienna. His business was taken over in 1771 by a son-in-law, Constantin Hagi-Pop, who was a Romanian from Oltenia. The founder of the Marcu trading house, in Szeben, probably came from Seatişte; he moved to Oltenia some time between 1718 and 1738, and then to Wallachia, before settling in Transylvania. One of his principal activities was the wholesale trade in wax, which he conducted in partnership with Greek and Armenian merchants from Brassó, Szeben, and Szászváros. Most of the wax was imported from Moldavia, Wallachia, and Oltenia, but he bought some in Transylvania as well; it was then exported by the Marcu firm and its partners to Trieste, Venice, Messina, and Naples. In 1769, they sold, in Venice alone, 22,080.66 forints's worth of wax. Their profit margin was in the order of 6–12 percent. In addition, the Marcu house traded in Viennese goods (including textiles, clothing, tablecloths, candlesticks, mirrors, paper, spices, and medicine), as well as goods from Venice and Trieste (coffee, sugar, sardines, rice, oil, alcoholic drinks, textiles, pearls and other luxuries, paper, and religious publications).

The status of Transylvania's Jewish merchants was secured by privileges that had been granted by Gábor Bethlen. In this period, they remained a minor force among the merchant groups that were endowed with special legal status and existed on the periphery of the feudal orders. Their economic weight was reflected by their tax burden. In 1723, the estates imposed a tax levy of 500 Rhenish florins on the Armenians of Szamosújvár, 300 on those at Ebesfalva, 250 on the Greeks at Szeben, 100 on the Greeks at Brassó, 220 on the Bulgarians at Déva, and of only 80 florins on the Jews.