Saxon Settlement and the Reorganization of the Southern Border Defences

During the Hungarian kingdom's first 150 years of existence, the political importance of Transylvania was overshadowed by other priorities. Hungary's kings successfully fought off German and Polish pressures and, at the end of the 11th century, began to concentrate on the goal of securing a route to the Adriatic Sea. With the conquest of Croatia and Dalmatia, they put themselves in direct conflict with the interests of Venice and Byzantium. For much of the 12th century, the Hungarians were at war, and these wars were coming ever closer to Transylvania.

Beyond the borders of Transylvania, the Pechenegs, and then the Uz nomadic tribes had followed in the tracks the Hungarians. These nomadic and warlike peoples repeatedly raided neighbouring countries, and even Hungary, notably during Stephen's reign. In 1068, they launched a powerful attack that took them over the Meszes Pass into Hungary, where they devastated the Nyírség as far as Bihar castle. As they withdrew through the Lapos and Szamos valleys, they were outflanked by the army of King Solomon; thanks in part to the heroism of Ladislas, the latter's nephew and himself later king, the invaders were routed near the village of Kerlés, in Szolnok county. Prolonged conflict with the Kievan Rus and with related nomadic tribes wore down the Pechenegs, and, in the 11th century, the remnants of this people settled in the Balkans as well as in Hungary.

{1-421.} By then, Transylvania's borders were threatened by another eastern nomadic people, the Cumanians. The latter, known to the Russians as polovets, were called by the Hungarians 'white Cumanians' to distinguish them from the 'black Cumanians', i.e. the Uz people. At the end of the 11th century, the Cumanians' advance guard reached the Lower Danube, and even made a foray into Hungary. However, the Russian princes soon drove them back to their home base on the Don. The small groups of Cumanians that stayed behind in the Lower Danube region presented little threat to Transylvania until, in the 12th century, a more determined enemy appeared on the southern border — the Byzantines, whose intent was not to plunder but to conquer.

The first attack came in 1166, when three columns of Byzantine troops moved up the Danube and penetrated Transylvania. Although they did not stay long, the Byzantines' heavy cavalry and armoured infantry made short shrift of the Székely and Pecheneg light cavalry. King Géza II (1141–1162) did not live to see this attack, but he had been aware of the Byzantine threat and taken some defensive measures. Hungary's kings always welcomed, and indeed invited 'guests' with military expertise; not even those immigrants who acquired private estates were exempt from military service. However, Géza II realized that the occasional immigrant settlers — whose traces are found in many toponyms, including, in Transylvania, four Németis ('Germans'), two Oroszis (Russians), two Nándors (Bulgars), and one Cseh (Czech) — would not suffice to reinforce Hungary's defences; he wanted to strengthen the most vulnerable points along Transylvania's border with large settlements of well-armed warriors. He may have been inspired by the crusaders who were crossing Hungary, and who probably saw that country as an outlet for the surplus population in their homelands. In the event, Géza invited a group of impoverished knights and land-hungry peasants from the Rhine-Moselle region to settle in Transylvania along the Olt River, on land which, according to a 1224 charter, had been 'deserted' (deserta).

{1-422.} In fact, this land was 'deserted' only because the king had resettled its Székely inhabitants to make way for the German (as well as some Walloon) settlers. The German knights, who called themselves gref (in Hungarian: geréb) could serve the king as armoured soldiers. The German peasants, for their part, applied advanced agricultural techniques, and enjoyed greater freedom than in their homeland, for they were allowed to choose their geréb and priests and benefited from tax and duty concessions; as a result, they became so productive that they were able not only to provide for their gerébs, but also to pay some taxes to the king. The earliest known reference to these privileges is found in a charter, dating from 1224, that concerns Flandrenses and Theutonici (the people who came to be known as the Transylvanian Saxons); by then, their settlements had spread well beyond the original district. It is likely that the original German settlers had been granted similar privileges; otherwise, they would not have changed countries, and the king could not have counted on the settlers financing the military service of several hundred knights.

The Germans invited by Géza II settled in the vicinity of today's Nagyszeben and, farther east, in the Olt valley, where their districts would later become the 'Saxon seats' of Szeben, Újegyháza, and Nagysink. Some of the earlier inhabitants were resettled by the king to make room for the new arrivals, who proceeded to give German names to the new settlements, but others remained in neighbouring villages. Szakadát, a Székely border village still inhabited by Hungarians, has always been called Zektat by the Saxons, who thus adapted the Hungarian name; similarly, they converted the Slavic names of two brooks, the Cibin and the Cód, into Zibin and Zodt. The Székely-manned castles at Salgó, in the southwest, and Halmágy, in the southeast, were already standing when the Germans arrived; despite the interposition of Saxon settlements, both castles retained their administrative links — in the case of Halmágy, until the end of the Middle Ages — with Fehér county.

{1-423.} The boundaries of desertum that became the original Szászföld ('Saxon land') are not difficult to trace. The administrative map of medieval Transylvania shows that the three Saxon seats were surrounded by districts belonging to Fehér county, and which therefore had not been emptied to receive settlers. To the west, north, and east of the Saxon districts, German place names give way to Hungarian and Slavic toponyms; thus when new German immigrants arrived and spread out beyond the original area, they settled amidst the Hungarians and Slavs. When a provostship (prépostság) was established in 1192 at Nagyszeben, its terms of reference explicitly excluded 'Germans, other than those living on the deserted lands granted by King Géza to his Germans'; even later, its responsibilities remained confined to the three Saxon districts, or more precisely to the larger part thereof. To distinguish their first Transylvanian settlement area from later ones, the Saxons would always refer to it as 'Altland'. This was the only solid block of Saxon settlement in 12th-century Transylvania; subsequent German immigrants settled mainly in Székely, and sometimes Slav-inhabited districts.

The people who are referred to in documents as 'the first German guests of Andrew II' also founded their settlements amidst Hungarian villages, at Romosz in Hunyad county, and at Magyarigen and Boroskrakkó in Alsó-Fehér county. When news filtered back of the warm welcome that had met them, more and more groups of German settlers headed off to Transylvania. They settled to the east and west of the 'Altland', amidst a sparse population of Székelys and Slavs; these areas later came to form the northern half of Nagysink seat, and the seats of Szerdahely, Kőhalom, and Szászváros. In the western, Szerdahely seat, the Saxons found a local population of unassimilated Slavs; their place names were therefore adapted from Slavic toponyms — Kelling, Troschen, Dobring, and (in explicit reference to the Slavic inhabitants) Reussmarkt, Reussdörfchen, and Reussen. In what were later {1-424.} called the seats of Nagysink, Kőhalom, and Szászváros, the Saxons settled amidst a Székely population and adapted the latter's Hungarian place-names to produce, for instance, Tekes, Hamruden, Halmagen, Scharosch, Bekokten, Wassied, Broos, and Wurmloch. Some time before 1241, another wave of German settlers headed for the northeastern corner of Transylvania, near present-day Beszterce, to develop the local silver mines; their still current place-names — Ronda, Bistritz, Lechnitz — are of Slavic derivation and indicate that they settled among Slavs.

The settlement of Germans was given new impetus by King Andrew II. In 1211, he invited the Teutonic Knights, who had been driven out of the Holy Land, to settle in the Barcaság, a region that was under threat from Cumanian attacks. To make room, the king resettled some Pechenegs further west. Within a short time, the knights populated the region with German settlers and extended their scope of activity beyond the mountains and towards the Danube delta, into the territories inhabited by Cumanians. In terms of the royal charter, the knights came under the king's direct authority, but otherwise enjoyed broad autonomy and privileges: the voivode had no power over them, they were free to trade, organize markets, and build towns and castles, and they were exempted from taxes. However, the knights were not content; they aspired to a statehood modelled on the principalities in the Holy Land. This Western, feudal notion of sovereignty was unknown in Hungary, and the king took umbrage. Even before 1222, he was seeking ways to rid himself of these demanding and difficult 'guests'. A compromise was reached, but the knights pursued their objective by other routes, asking the Pope to establish their own bishopric. Instead, they were given an autonomous deanery. In 1224, the knights offered the Pope feudal tenure over the entire Barcaság, committing themselves to pay an annual tax, and continued their conquest of Cumanian lands. It is obvious, in light of their subsequent role in Prussia, that the knights intended to establish an eastern German {1-425.} state centred in the Barcaság, a natural redoubt, and extending to the Danube delta. King Andrew perceived the looming threat to Hungary's political interests; in 1225, overriding the Pope's strong protest, he resorted to military force and expelled the knights. The latter thereupon pursued their state-building ambitions in Prussia. Although the Pope made several attempts to have his favoured knights resettled in Transylvania, Andrew II and his successors stood firm.

Even before he resorted to expulsion, King Andrew II was moved by this confrontation to effect a sweeping reorganization of frontier defences. After transferring the Székelys from the district of present-day Szászsebes to the Háromszék Basin, he turned all the land between Szászváros and Barót over to the Saxons. He abolished the previous, multiple jurisdictions and united the Saxons into 'one people' under the authority of the royal count of Nagyszeben, who was also responsible for the Székely, Pecheneg, and Romanian border guards. The Andreanum, a royal charter regulating the status of the Saxons, turned into law the practice of delineating the Székely, Romanian, and Pecheneg 'lands', and thus enshrined the principle of ethnically-defined territories. The charter provided that henceforth, people of different ethnic affiliation or legal status could not live in the same administrative district. Thus the king considered the Szászföld to be the exclusive preserve of the Saxons, and would not permit other ethnic groups to settle there. Similarly, in the case of the reconfigured Székelyföld, the king renounced his reversionary right, i.e. to dispose freely of properties that had no heirs or whose owners had given proof of disloyalty. At the same time, he appointed a Székely count (first mentioned in a charter dating from 1235), who was to be independent of the count at Szeben. The territorial rights granted to the Székelys and Saxons allowed them to form homogeneous societies. Thus began a process of social differentiation that culminated in the recognition of three distinct and distinctive feudal 'nations': the Hungarians, the Székelys, and the Saxons.

{1-426.} The Medieval notion of nationality (natio) differs, of course, from the modern notion of a nation defined by language, for it was based on a wide range of distinctive customs, of which language was but one element, of varying weight. A charter, issued in 1206 by King Andrew II to three Transylvanian villages inhabited by Germans, put it this way: 'It is essential that freedom, a gift from bountiful nature to all guests of His Majesty's lands, be protected fully and without exceptions.'[9]9. Fr. Zimmermann, C. Werner, and G. Müller (eds.), Urkundenbuch zur Geschichte der Deutschen in Siebenbürgen, 3 vols. (Hermannstadt, 1892-1902), vol. I, p. 8.

As it is clearly illustrated by their dialects, the Transylvanian Saxons came in small groups from many different parts of Germany, and at different points in time. Only in their new home did they merge into a single 'people', and that largely thanks to the measures taken by King Andrew II. There were a few French-speakers among them, such as János Latin (Johannes Latinus); he was ennobled and brought into the king's personal military service, and his Transylvanian properties were withdrawn from Saxon jurisdiction. The man's Walloon origin is evoked by the name of his village, Voldorf. But the vast majority of the 'Saxons' were indeed Germans, linked by their common language and a few common-law customs — and that was all, for they had not brought any community structures, let alone urban culture, from the old country. There is no doubt that King Géza's German 'guests' were ordinary peasants, much like the settlers in the Szepesség in northern Hungary, whom a contemporary source describes as 'simple agricultural workers' (homines sunt simplices, agriculturis at laboribus intenti). From the 14th century onwards, the Saxons came to be identified with the artisans and merchants who had emerged to form a distinctive social stratum in their towns. This must not be misconstrued. Apart from Beszterce, which will be discussed later, the Saxons' towns — Nagyszeben, Szászsebes, Szászváros, Brassó, Segesvár, and Medgyes — were not born as full-fledged urban settlements of craftsmen and merchants; they simply grew out of villages populated by ordinary farmers. The growth of these towns {1-427.} cannot be attributed to the original settlers' commercial and craft skills or urban experience, for, as noted, they did not have such a background; urbanization was a consequence of Transylvania's distinctive social and economic development. Even when these settlements had grown into towns, their administrators included both the typically urban magistrate (Richter, iudex) and a leading official (Hann, villicus) whose post was carried over from the earlier village community. It can be inferred from the survival of village institutions in the Saxon towns that there were few, if any, town-dwellers among the original immigrants.

The Saxons' traditional leaders, called geréb (Gräve, comes), were essentially professional soldiers. As late as the 14th century, they were clearly distinguished from authentic nobles (nobiles et alii comites).[10]10. Ibid, vol. II., p. 269. At the same time, their high post earned them a lifestyle and privileges similar to those enjoyed by the nobility (Saxones Transilvani predia tenentes et more nobilium se gerentes).[11]11. Ibid, vol. I, p. 173. A geréb was not the landlord of the peasants under his authority, and thus he was not entitled to feudal services; he was merely a member of the community that had received a grant of land from the king, and owed the king taxes as well as military service. On the other hand, he derived some material benefit from his modest functions as administrator and magistrate (a lifelong post that he owed to the king and the support of his constituents, and in which he was supervised by royal officials): he held a larger than average share of the common land, was entitled to establish a mill, and kept a share of the fines that he imposed. The gerébs thus acquired considerable economic power, and most of them managed to pass on the title — not to speak of growing assets — to their heirs. In principle, all members of the Saxon community enjoyed equal rights, but the gerébs came to constitute a separate social stratum that had the means to finance military service and thus acquired a lifestyle similar to that of the Hungarian nobility.

{1-428.} The king did not impose military service on individual Saxons; in the Andreanum, he simply required that the Saxon community be ready to provide 500 soldiers, naturally drawn from among the gerébs. In addition, the Saxon community had to pay a land tax (terragium) that, during the reign of Béla III, amounted to 15.000 silver marks per year. The other, lesser, imposts included what was known as the 'Chamber's profit' (kamara haszna), payable when old coins were exchanged for new; from 1224 onwards, the community was allowed to pay this tax in an annual lump sum of 500 marks (one mark contained 206.7 grams of silver). The prevailing tendency in royal tax policy was to specify a lump sum payable by the Saxon collectivity, and to leave the task of collection to the latter's local officials. The system was mutually advantageous. It spared Saxons the added expense of paying for the royal tax-collectors' tours and the frictions that were bound to arise with these 'foreign' functionaries; on the other side, it provided the king with guaranteed revenues. Together with the territorial rights, also granted in 1224, this global tax system fostered development of the Saxons' autonomous local government.

There is no doubt that the Teutonic Knights' brief but assertive presence in Transylvania contributed to growing ethnic consciousness among the Saxons. Although the knights initially focused on military activity and on reviving cultivation in the devastated Barcaság, they also planned to establish towns and to foster crafts and commerce; from the start, they insisted on having the right to hold markets and to trade freely throughout the country. This was probably what inspired the neighbouring Saxons to insist that the 1224 charter include the same rights. The knights' departure did not abort the modest initiatives at urbanization, although in the Saxon district, as in the rest of Hungary, full-fledged towns emerged only in the second half of the 13th century.