The Székelys in Transylvania

The Székelys, a Hungarian tribe, played a central part in the settlement of Transylvania's southern and eastern frontier districts. The 11th-century chronicle, and Anonymus as well as later chroniclers who drew selectively on this source, are unanimous in maintaining that when the Hungarians arrived in the Carpathian Basin, they encountered Székelys, the descendants of Attila's Huns. All through the Middle Ages, references to the Székelys identify them as a distinct ethnic group (natio Siculica) related to the Hungarians. Indeed, some evidence supports the contention that the Székelys who joined the Hungarians were a Turkic tribe of nomadic horsemen, with its own ruling class: their military and social structure was similar to that of the Oguz-Turks (6 leading clans, each with four branches), and they retained their light cavalry tactics long after the Hungarian army had adopted western-style heavy cavalry. These features seem to confirm the 11th century legends, but some other factors induce caution.

To our knowledge, the Hungarians were the only people that had not only a Turkic social structure, but also a deeply-rooted Finno-Ugric language that, while preserving some Turkic loan-words, survived Turkic linguistic influence and remained the Hungarians' common tongue. And the only information we have concerning the Székely people indicates that they spoke the same Finno-Ugric tongue. The names of their clans, clan branches, and social units are of Hungarian origin, as are all the toponyms they {1-415.} applied in their area of settlement. In the late Middle Ages, the Székelys still used a runic alphabet, of Central Asian origin, that had once served to record Turkic texts; of the 37 characters in this alphabet, 21 are of ancient Turkic, 3 of ancient Greek, and 3 are of Glagolitic (Slavic) origin. The latter include signs for the sounds 'f', 'h', 'ly' and 'c', absent from Turkic languages but present in Finno-Ugric Hungarian.

Thus even if the Székelys once spoke a Turkic tongue, they must have given it up in favour of Hungarian at an early date. The Székely dialect contains no more Bulgaro-Turkish loan-words from before the Hungarian conquest than does standard Hungarian. Such total linguistic assimilation could not have occurred after the Székelys settled in Transylvania, for they lived in the southern and eastern border districts and had contact with Hungarian communities only in the north and the east. In the event that they were not yet settled in Transylvania at the time of the Hungarian conquest, they must have moved there no later than the early 11th century; for if, in the 11th century, the Székelys had not been already located at the eastern fringe of Hungarian lands, their pattern of settlement would be just as dispersed as that of the seven Hungarian tribes. In contrast to the Hungarians, the Székelys preserved not only the clans' property rights but also administrative and judicial institutions that united each clan; this remained in effect all through the Middle Ages, and, formally, until 1848.

In light of these contradictory indications, it is not surprising that there are two schools of thought concerning the Székelys' origins and their settlement in Transylvania. Some archaeologists and historians believe that the Székelys were Hungarians, or at least an Onogur-Bulgar tribe closely related to the Hungarians, and that they were drawn by the Avars (who identified with the Huns, and were regarded as such by contemporary Europeans, hence the Székely-Hun link) into the Carpathian Basin, where they preserved their ethnic identity until the Hungarian conquest. According to a {1-416.} recent variant of this thesis, Hungarians and Székelys settled among the Avars in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 7th century, bringing with them a decorative tradition known as the 'griffin and tendril' style.

On the other hand, most Hungarian linguists, along with some historians who draw on the latter's findings, maintain that the Székelys were of Turkic origin, possessed a Turkic culture, and had joined up with the Hungarians prior to the conquest. Thus the Székelys had been largely assimilated by the time they and the Hungarian tribes reached the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century. Advocates of this thesis once sought the ancestors of the Székelys among the 'Eskil' Bulgars who cohabited with Hungarians on the Pontic steppes; although the thesis was challenged on etymological grounds, it still wins some scholarly support.

The date of the Székelys' arrival in Transylvania is also a matter of debate. One important aspect of this problem is that while the bulk of Székely settlements was located in Transylvania, there were others in southern, western, and northern Hungary, as well as in Bihar county and around Nagyvárad. Now, when other tribes joined up with eastern, nomadic peoples, the latter usually compelled them to serve as an advance guard (indeed, as late as the 15th century, the Hungarian army's advance guard consisted of Székelys). In light of this, and of the pattern of Székely settlement, Hungarian historians are tending to the conclusion that the bulk of Székelys settled in Bihar county; toponyms and written sources suggest that prior to the 13th century, and leaving aside Transylvania, this region had the largest number of Székely settlements. Then, continuing to serve as border guards, the Székelys were transferred in the early 11th century to Transylvania.

According to a legend recorded by Constantine Porphyrogenetos, the Kabars, whose three tribes belonged to the Khazar people, rebelled and allied themselves with the Hungarians. As noted, {1-417.} Anonymus believed that the inhabitants of the Bihar region were Khazars; he relates that Árpád's youngest son, Zolta, married the daughter of the Khazar leader Ménmarót and subsequently inherited the land ruled by his father-in-law. By linking this legend to King St. Stephen's first Transylvanian voivode, 'Zoltán Erdőelvi', one can hypothesise that the Székelys were none other than the Kabars (i.e. Khazars); in the mid-900s, Constantine Porphyrogenetos recorded that the latter spoke not only their mother tongue (Bulgaro-Turkish) but also the (Finno-Ugric) language of the Hungarians. Their stay in Bihar would explain why they had become linguistically assimilated by the time they were led by 'Zoltán Erdőelvi' into Transylvania and settled between the Maros and the Olt. The central settlement in their new home was named Telegd, after one of their clans; and there is a Telegd in Bihar county as well. The toponyms Ábrány and Jenő might also have been the names of clans that earlier resided in Bihar.

One of these theories regarding the origins of the Székelys may benefit from new information and emerge the winner, but one thing is clear: the bulk of the Székely people has been in Transylvania since at least the early 11th century, when their settlements lay south of the Maros and extended to the mountain frontier in the east and south. If today's Székely region does not coincide with the area of original settlement, that is because the Székelys spread out into a part of the southern frontier zone where Saxons would eventually settle, and, in the 13th century, they moved into the Háromszék Basin as well. Evidence for this is found in the names of the Sepsi (i.e. Sebesi), Kézdi, and Orbai székek (a term that means 'seats' and was used to designate military-administrative districts in the border-guard zones of feudal Hungary), which were later united under the name Háromszék ('three seats'). These district names generally evoke a specific locality, but no villages bear the names within the confines of the three seats. However, all three names can be found farther west, in an area where Saxons settled {1-418.} in the 13th century: (Szász)sebes, (Szász)orbó, and (Szász)kézd. With regard to Szászsebes, there is documentary evidence that Székelys lived there before 1224, when King Andrew II granted it to the Saxons, and it can be assumed that the other two toponyms also evoke a Székely presence. Medgyes and its district also must have had a Székely population before the latter was displaced eastward by Saxons, who moved in during the second half of the 13th century; this is clear from the fact that, for a long time, the district came under the jurisdiction of the count of the Székelys, who was appointed by the king to govern the Székelys. Since Medgyes bears the name of a Székely clan, it may have been one of their original settlements.

In sum, before the 13th century, the Székely-inhabited region stretched from today's Szászváros (another district with toponymic traces of early Székely settlers) in a broad swath, eastward to the Olt bend, and northward to the Maros. In the west and in the north, the Székelys settled in proximity to the Hungarians of the Maros valley; in the south and in the east, they settled on the right bank of the Olt and around the upper reaches of the Maros River and the Küküllő rivers. In the Barcaság, they joined forces with the Pecheneg border guards (who were probably there earlier) to protect the southern and eastern frontier; to defend the Carpathian mountain passes, the king had raised earthworks at Salgó, Pétervár (near today's Szászcsór), Talmács, Halmágy, Miklósvár, Bálványos, Görgény, and Vécs. The early origin of these earthworks is indicated by the fact that their districts, including the villages, retained the status of royal lands even after they were settled by Székelys and Saxons had settled around them; although these districts were surrounded by full-fledged Székely and Saxon settlement areas, for administrative purposes they were attached to Fehér and Torda counties.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Székelys retained a social structure that was typical of Bulgar-Turkish peoples, and which {1-419.} was essentially identical to the Hungarians' social structure prior to King St. Stephen's reforms. The king's appointee, the Székely count, took over responsibility for only the most important political issues. In Hungary, the clan chiefs lost their political function when the king and his representatives took control of judicial and military affairs; in the Székely lands, local officials continued to function as the agents of local autonomy. In accordance with a rigid system of rotation between the six clans (each with four branches), a new judge (iudex) and military commander (capitaneus) were appointed each year. These posts were hereditary within a few prominent families and carried considerable emoluments as well as a larger share of the Székelys' collective resources. As a result, Székely society became stratified in terms of wealth, but it remained free of feudal relationships; by birthright, all Székelys were freemen, with the right and obligation to be soldiers in case of war, and entitled to a reasonable share of the commonly-held land. Later, this status was confirmed by the qualification nemes (noble).

Among Hungarians, it was the Székelys who preserved the longest the system of rotating flocks from pasture to pasture. At first, they paid their taxes in horses (like the Bulgar-Turks of the steppes); even in the 13th century, they paid taxes only for their livestock, and in kind (ökörsütés = ox-roast). This was their only tax, and it was tantamount to a gift, for they only paid it on special royal occasions, such as the coronation or wedding of the king, or upon the birth of the king's first son.

As noted earlier, the Székely army consisted of light cavalry even after the majority of the Hungarian army had changed over to heavy cavalry. The 12th-century variant of the 'Old Gesta' relates the Székelys' peculiar, nomadic fighting tactics, which consisted of rapid surprise attacks and fake retreats that turned into ambushes; the chronicler, being more familiar with the stalwart defence put up by heavy cavalry, construed these tactics as signs of cowardice. Since warriors had to provide their own equipment, the Székelys {1-420.} stuck to light cavalry, for even after they began to shift from grazing to cultivation, they — unlike noble landowners — could not afford the costly armour and weaponry required for heavy cavalry. As a result of reforms that were applied in Transylvania in the 12th century, the Székelys found themselves deprived of much of their pasture-land, and most of them became smallholders who cultivated the land with the help of their household.