{1-687.} The Villeins

Society evolved more slowly in Transylvania than in Hungary, and the class of villeins that had emerged by 1500 displayed a more complex structure. This complexity grew greater when the socially distinctive counties of the Partium were annexed to the new principality.

Transylvania's peasantry encompassed four major and clearly distinguishable strata. Most of the top economic stratum, consisting of the peasant-citizens, became part of Transylvanian society when the region east of the Tisza was annexed. Next on the socioeconomic ladder came the free Saxon peasants and the Székely soldier-peasants. The fourth stratum was the villeins proper, who accounted for the largest share of the agricultural population, and whose numbers increased when the borders were redrawn; this stratum, in turn, was differentiated internally in several important respects.

The law provided for three basic categories of villeinage: villeins with a smallholding or plot (telkes jobbágy), free villeins (szabados), and cotters (zsellér). This did not mean, however, that all people within a category enjoyed the same circumstances of life.

Over time, the variations in family size, quality of land, and agricultural skills (along with the vagaries of fortune) had produced considerable social differentiation among the landed villeins. Although this tendency was reinforced by the market economy that emerged in the latter half of the 15th century, socioeconomic conditions in the former Eastern Hungary, and particularly in Transylvania, did not match the average level in Hungary. By the 15th century, the typical villein in the more developed Hungarian counties disposed of a half-plot of land. In contrast, the proportion of villeins disposing of a whole plot remained high in the new principality's villages well into the mid-1500s. Their proportion stood at 35 percent on the Szamosújvár domain in 1551; 65 percent in the Kővár district in 1556; and at the Erdőd castle estates, in the {1-688.} Partium, 88 percent in 1556, 90 percent in 1569, and 60 percent as late as 1578. It must be noted that since the density of population in Transylvania stood below Hungarian average, the availability of additional cultivable land may have helped to delay the process of subdivision. In any case, animal husbandry (cattle and sheep) played a major role in the economy of this mountainous region, and thus the classification of villeins by plot size cannot serve as the only measure of agricultural activity. Unfortunately, little is known about the villeins' share of animal stock.

As before, the category of freemen included peasants who had been relieved by landowners of all or most of their feudal service obligations. Their case is more complex in Transylvania than in the rest of Hungary. By general custom, the families of villeins who had been selected to serve the landowner as domestics and guards fell into the liber and libertinus categories, as did the families of those who, like butchers and fishermen, practised certain essential skills. For the most part, the magistrates in Hungarian and Saxon villages were granted the same liberties. The leaders (voivodes, krainiks, cnezes) also belonged to the category of freemen, but, as will be noted later, this was a localized phenomenon.

Cotters, the third group, also divided into many types. On most estates, the appellation inquilinus was used in the traditional sense to denote the poor, recent settlers. Elsewhere, especially in the market towns of the Partium, it was often the wealthier villeins who gave up their plots, with the result that many tradesmen and craftsmen who had risen from villeinage to become peasant-citizens remained categorized as cotters. The same was the case with the growing number of peasant intellectuals, the educated deák and literátus or honoratior.

Wealth did not serve as the key dividing line between villeins and cotters any more than it did in the case of smallholders (telkes jobbágy) and freemen. Indeed, the feudal duties borne by the cotters {1-689.} were generally lighter than average. Their services were defined by contract, and their tithes were paid mostly in the form of an agreed tax. At this time, Transylvania had more arable land than skilled cultivators; this not only eased the lot of cotters who sought to work for landowners but also reduced the number of people who actually became cotters. In the 16th century, in Hungary proper, some 25 percent of villeins fell into the inquilinus category, while in the principality, the proportion hovered between 5 and 20 percent; moreover, the figures for Transylvania included citizen-cotters who lived in the market towns of the Great Plain, some of whom were far different from real cotters.

An examination of the feudal and state dues borne by the villeins reveals even greater differentiation. For example, the tax quota (cenzus) was assigned by village, and individual contributions were determined by the local magistrates, who followed a variety of formulas. The most common basis for tax-assessment was the villein's land; another was the number of draught-oxen, and yet another the size of the plot in the far reaches of the village's hinterland, which was assigned to villeins more or less in accordance with their wealth. Typically, the first two assessment formulas were both in use in districts of Bihar, Szatmár, and Szilágy counties. For example, the land criterion was applied at Szalacs, Margitta, Bogyoszló, and Oláhapáti, and the draught-oxen one at Albis, Ottomány, Újszékely, and Tulogd. The plot-size criterion was adopted first on the Csicsó domain.

In some places, a tax, separate from the cenzus, had to be paid directly to the landowner. In the villages of the Gyalu domain, a 'synod tax' (zsinatadó) or 'whip tax' (ostoradó) had to be paid in cash and cattle. On the Somlyó estate, the landowner levied a tax (fertonpénz) to cover the salary of the counts. People in the Kővár district had to pay 'garden tax' (kertadó) or 'ako money' (akopénz).

{1-690.} The Gyalu 'whip tax' may have involved payment in kind, but the basic cenzus tax had been and remained a cash levy. The amounts varied by district, and even by village, but they consistently fell below the level prescribed in a 1514 law, one forint per villein family.

This situation was not altered by the currency's depreciation in the second half of the century. In fact, since most districts saw little change in the nominal amount of the cenzus tax, the villeins' real tax burden grew lighter. Nagybánya, a princely mining town, paid 150 forints in 1566, and the figure was the same in 1578; the market town of Tasnád was assessed some 1000 forints in both 1569 and 1589; and the villages on Kolozsmonostor estate collectively paid 180 forints in 1580 and 1599 alike. What's more, the diverse supplementary levies gradually disappeared in the last decades of the 16th century.

There was similar diversity in the system of payment in kind (munera) applied to the villeins of the emerging state. All landowners demanded oats, and some took wheat as well. The compulsory delivery of poultry, swine, sheep, eggs, honey, vegetables, fruit, and firewood varied in pattern and amounts from place to place. Like the cenzus, these levies were relatively modest, although they showed a slow but steady increase up to the end of the 16th century.

There was less flexibility and local variation in the 'ninth' (which actually meant the ninth tenth, and therefore amounted to a tenth) of agricultural output that had to be delivered to the landowner. The anti-villein laws of 1514 made this levy general and compulsory, a provision confirmed in 1549 by the Transylvanian diet, but the practical application took some time. Up until the 1550s, the 'ninth' was collected only on some estates in the Partium, notably those belonging to the Báthori family at Csehi, Kővár, and Somlyó, where the amount of grain to be delivered was far less than the prescribed one tenth. On the vast and rich domain of Gyula, the total {1-691.} value of the 'ninth' collected around 1526–27 amounted to no more than 450–460 forints. Over time, the collection of the 'ninth' became more generalized and systematic. In 1562, the 'ninth' accruing to the landowner at Gyula amounted to close to 2000 forints, although this probably covered more than twelve months.

The tax most widely levied in earlier times, the tithe (dézsma), remained in effect over the period of Hungary's dismemberment. As before, it served to finance the Church, and it was applied to virtually all agricultural products, such as grain, fruit, wine, and swine. The exemption of non-Catholic Romanians remained in force. The first changes owed not to the Reformation but to political necessity. When János Statileo, bishop of Gyulafehérvár, died in 1542, György Fráter directed that the tithes of the diocese revert to the state. The tithes of Fráter's bishopric, at Várad, also went to the public purse. Although the Habsburgs restored the status quo ante after Martinuzzi's death, the tithes were permanently assigned to the state after the 1556 secession. The measure fell readily to hand, for — as noted — the birth of the Transylvanian state coincided with the triumph of the Reformation.

The change in beneficiary scarcely affected the villeins, for the method of collection remained unaltered. The local landowners contracted to pay the tithe to the state, much as they had done earlier with the bishops, and then raised the set amount from their peasants.

Landowners in the Partium and Transylvania adopted a variety of approaches to socage (robot). This practice was also regulated by an 1514 law, which specified that one day a week, or 52 days a year were to devoted to the 'lord's work'. However, practice did not follow prescription even in pre-partition Hungary. In the turbulent era of Ottoman expansion, the socage service demanded by a landlord was influenced by tradition, the circumstances of the moment, and the growing disposition of villeins to migrate — an act that was now officially termed escape.

{1-692.} Transylvanian diets never tried to regulated socage or other villein services, for the legislators hewed to the traditional view that landlord and villein should work out their relations without state interference. They were so wedded to this principle that they never applied the 1514 legislation, although theoretically it continued to apply to them as well.

Thus, up to the mid-1500s, the practice of socage was as varied as that of the other burdens of villeinage. On some estates and domains, socage was assigned on the basis of family heads; on others, ploughs or draught animals served as the measure. Socage in villages was different from that in market towns, where villeins tended to commute their obligation. The obligation was variously measured in terms of the size of ploughland, vineyard, and hayfield, or of working days. The following data, taken from the register of the Gyula domain, serve to illustrate the prevailing practice.

In ca. 1525, the villeins were obligated to cut hay twice a year and to harvest grain crops — together with the cotters — for one day. In addition, they had to provide eight men each night to guard the castle. Villagers in the four settlements closest to Gyula had to look after transporting the produce, and the merchants in Gyula were responsible for the ferrying of wine.

In 1554, on the same domain, many villages were required to take full responsibility for cultivating one to two hectares and delivering the produce. In certain other villages, the prescribed socage work lasted two to four days a year. In yet others, it was specified that villeins who owned a plough had to till a quarter hectare of land, sow it with seed provided by the landowner, and harvest the crop; in addition, they had to cut hay seven days each year.

This relatively favourable situation began to change rapidly in the mid-1500s. At the domain of Fogaras, back in 1508, villeins were only required to deliver two cart-loads of firewood, and to cut and deliver hay for two days; by 1570, they were also required to do three days of harvesting. In addition to their other complaints, {1-693.} the villeins protested in 1596 at being required to do additional work, notably sowing, for the landowner. The market town of Csehi, in the Szilágyság, is a case in point. In 1556, when the landowner was the last of the Drágffy family, villeins were only expected to provide cartage for the castles of Erdőd and Kővár; then Gáspár Drágffy began to demand ploughing and harvesting services. His successor as landowner, György Báthori, introduced a more radical change: he sold Drágffy's ploughs and had his fields ploughed by villeins for no pay.

Peasants on Báthori's other estates also voiced protests. At Béltek, another property inherited from the Drágffy family, the villeins complained that he expected all the cultivation of his lands to be done as socage service, a departure from earlier practice, and that he even required them to tend his vineyards, a task that under Drágffy had been done by wage-labour. Moreover, Báthori did not define the extent of corvée; instead, he insisted that the villeins perform services 'according to ability' (pro facultate), which in practice meant at his pleasure.

If György Báthori was a hard taskmaster, he did not present an exception. His social peers, the barons and common nobles, acted likewise, though it took a few years for some of them to adopt his methods. Throughout the country, socage service, once precisely delimited, was transmuted into compulsory work, 'according to ability', at the lord's discretion. The former restriction of corvée to specific tasks, such as ploughing, harvesting, and cartage, was progressively eliminated. The setting of time limits to corvée also became less common; instead, the landowners would prescribe the amount of work, or the area of land to be cultivated. By the end of the century, many landowners demanded that villeins devote one third of their time to unpaid service. The most common practice was to have the villeins work for their landowner every third week — twice the amount of corvée that Werbőczy had vainly tried to impose.

{1-694.} The pattern was far from uniform, for while feudal services were generally increased, the practical application varied from estate to estate. The extent of corvée was adapted to the size of cultivable land, the quality of the soil, the variety of grain, and even the capability of the villeins. And there was an additional factor, one that had nothing to do with the necessities of agricultural production: the constant danger of war, which required consolidation of Transylvania's borders and strategic defences.

The 16th century was the age of castle-building in Hungary, and Transylvania followed suit. The manpower for raising the forts, castles, and palaces could only be drawn from the peasantry. Thus, particularly along the fortified frontier zone, corvée came to encompass not only cultivation and cartage but also construction work. This was one of the grievances raised by villeins against György Báthori; in the 1560s, complaints at compulsory construction work also surfaced on the Gyula domain and in the Fogarasföld.

Concurrently with the increases in corvée, the villeins' freedom to migrate also came under constraints. The first step had come with the 1514 statute, which imposed a general prohibition of migration, but the provision remained a dead letter during the fifteen years or so before the disintegration of Hungary. In 1530, King John I had the act rescinded by the diet, and the diet of the Habsburg kingdom followed suit in 1550.

In 1536, the diet in Várad had reconfirmed Szapolyai's statute, but his successors paid no heed. After 1556, it was the act nullifying the 1514 prohibition that became a dead letter. The landowners considered that villeins were bound to the land and refused to let the state interfere in such private matters.

Even the resort to force could not erase traditions favouring the peasantry in the areas of Transylvania that bordered on the Romanian principalities. These districts, bounded by mountains, had considerable reserves of arable land, and their local administrative {1-695.} structures were comparatively primitive. There, peasants were traditionally free to migrate and to sell or exchange their land. (As elsewhere, permission had to be obtained from the landowner, who retained the ultimate right of disposal over the villeins' land; the only exceptions to this rule were lands for clearing, which had always been considered freely disposable, and lands that had been freely purchased.)

The most uniformly applied of the villein's burdens was the basic state tax (the dica), and, for a long time, the basic operation of this levy remained unaltered. Villeins whose assets reached a certain level (three forints in 1543, and six forints in 1552) were entered on tax rolls. At first, the tax rate per 'gate' (kapu, porta, rovás) was rather low, 60 denars in 1545, and around one forint after 1550. By all accounts, draught animals served as the basic measure of assets. In 1552, a pair of oxen were valued at six forints; this served as the benchmark for evaluating other breeds, so that, for example, a villein would have to own at least fifty sheep before he was made liable to the tax.

The state also imposed various special levies. The old war-tax (subsidium) was mostly abandoned or merged with the dica; in its place, the government instituted levies to pay for its mercenary troops, the operation of border forts, and the tribute to the Ottomans. These taxes were paid both in cash and in kind; for the sultan's tribute, each 'gate' was levied a half measure (ejtel) of butter and half a butt (köböl) of flour. These extra levies amounted to 2.50–3 forints, the price of an ox around 1550, and considerably less than the value of the services provided to the landowners.

In the last third of the 16th century, the fiscal burden imposed on villeins began to get heavier. The rate set in 1552 — one forint, collected twice a year — remained in effect until 1578, but in the interim, the number of taxpayers fell off, for only villeins whose assets were equivalent to four or more oxen came to be put on the tax rolls. Concurrently, the government imposed numerous supplementary {1-696.} levies. A new war-tax initially added 15–20 denars to the one-forint dica, but this surtax rose to 50 denars in 1575, 75 denars in 1590, and in 1592–93, on the eve of the Fifteen Years' War, to one forint. The additional 'sultan's tax' was collected irregularly; between 1577 and 1588, the cash value of each contribution by a 'gate' was never less than 50 denars. Finally, the state launched several major building projects in this period, and it repeatedly resorted to special levies, e.g., in 1571, 70 denars for Várad and 30 denars for Szászsebes.

Hungary's customary law, requiring villeins to keep arms and, according to certain ratios, to serve as soldiers, not only remained in force but was further refined. The 1514 laws prescribed a partial disarmament of the villeinage, but this clause, like the others, was widely disregarded. The Transylvanian diets subsequently restored the earlier provision for general conscription. In 1545, one taxpaying villein in ten, and from 1551, one in sixteen, could be recruited, armed and mounted, for military service. Sources indicate that these villein soldiers ended up in their landowner's military unit (bandérium), much as they had once served in the local militia.

In 1575, the ratio of military service was raised to two out of sixteen villeins, one mounted, the other a foot soldier. The cost of equipping and maintaining these soldiers was borne by the villeins collectively. In 1578, the diet slightly reduced this heavy burden, changing the ratio to two soldiers for every twenty taxpaying 'gates'.

The villeins' other form of military service was participation in a 'national rising'. According to common law, every able-bodied man had to take up arms when circumstances demanded it, and Transylvania's diets repeatedly reinforced this prescription. At its meeting at Torda in March 1542, the diet ruled that in the event of a national rising, only one peasant in ten could stay home. Another regulation, enacted in 1552, required that each twenty villein-soldiers bring along a cartful of food. Moving in the other direction, {1-697.} the diet in 1557 ruled that only one villein in two was obliged to participate in a national rising. In 1562, John Sigismund abrogated the law on national risings and required, instead, that the three 'nations' maintain mercenary forces; but two years later, he reinstituted the requirement for mass participation, and, in 1565, detailed regulations were issued regarding the equipment of such troops. At its 1566, 1568, 1573, and 1578 sessions, the diet did not deal with the question of mass conscription, and when war with the Ottomans erupted in 1594, it merely recommended that the peasants be armed.

The reasons for the gradual disappearance of the policy of 'national rising' are evident. The century had seen demonstration of the superiority of trained and experienced, professional soldiers. Their efficacy in combat far surpassed that of the untrained and generally ill-equipped peasant conscripts.

However, the resulting changes in Transylvania did not eliminate the villeins' military obligation, for the local militias proved to be a handy and useful adjunct to the regular forces. Indeed, when Prince Stephen Báthori introduced a series of reforms in 1575, he prescribed that conscripts don green uniforms, that militiamen be kept in a constant state of readiness, and that the units be inspected twice a year. Predictably, the villeins in these units were reluctant to resume their feudal duties, and preferred to try their luck as professional soldiers in a castle garrison, or in the guards regiment of the prince or some magnate.

Transylvania's rulers understood that only professional soldiers could constitute an effective army, and that the local militias were, at best, a semi-professional force. John Sigismund already had chosen to maintain a permanent armed complement by his side, a decision that led to the war-levy known as the subsidium. In those days, European armies were full of German, Moravian, Swiss, Spanish, Walloon, and Italian professional soldiers, but since few of them strayed as far as Transylvania, the principality's rulers had {1-698.} to find mercenaries closer to home, primarily among the nobility, Székelys and Serbs, and the villeins. The local militias served as a good training ground for peasants who aspired to join the mercenary forces.

Through these adaptations, the villeins' tradition of armed service led to the emergence of a new category of freeman. By century's end, the units where peasant soldiers, progressively freed of feudal obligations, were serving acquired the distinctive names 'guardsmen' (darabontok) and 'riflemen' [puskások]. The government saw this as a positive development. The peasant soldiers had severed their links with the villeins but had no access to the nobility. They provided the principality with a cheap fighting force, one that, thanks to its lack of social ties, would obey their sovereign in all circumstances.

In sum, the only aspect of the villeins' burden that grew lighter in real terms was the cash contribution to landowners, and this was largely counter-balanced by heavier state taxes. All the other feudal services increased — slowly in the case of payments in kind, rapidly in the case of corvée. The prohibition of migration added to the vicissitudes of villeins. This was also a period in which attempts were made to expand the manorial lands, and while the tendency was short-lived, the villeins did lose some of their most productive land.

In some cases, traditions that were peculiar to Transylvania and the Partium made the picture less dismal. It is clear that despite a worsening of conditions, the villeins were not reduced to misery. A parallel may be drawn between their situation and one of the innovations of the times, the 'tavern monopolies'. The landowner could impose his exclusive right to operate taverns, but his own vineyards could not supply sufficient wine; most of the taverns' wine had to be purchased from the villeins, who thus lost only the retailer's profit margin.

It remains that from the mid-1500s, the villeins' life became more difficult and more vulnerable to the landowners interference. {1-699.} The typical Transylvanian villein had not been able to enter the emerging market economy, and the possibility of such participation had only dimmed. To a growing extent, his surplus produce, tiny cash revenue, and labour were expended in meeting the demands of landowner and state. There was no apparent escape from his deepening dilemma. The alienation of the more soldierly villeins from their agricultural society only reduced the possibility of a non-economic challenge to the status quo.

Mired in backwardness and facing growing problems, Transylvania's villeins were victims and passive observers when, in the second quarter of the 16th century, Transylvania suffered catastrophe and was reborn as a new state. Peasants had no political function in the feudal society, and the activity of peasant-citizens in the market towns of the region east of the Tisza remained an isolated exception to this rule. Nor did Transylvania's villeins play a spontaneous or active part in religious reform; they were drawn to the Reformation by the example or forceful measures of landowners and towns. Even the Transylvanian market towns that won full town status (Dés, Torda, Marosvásárhely, and Nagybánya) accepted preachers only after some delay, in the 1550s.