The Disintegration of the Székely Community

The situation of the bellicose peasant-soldiers settled on Transylvania's southeastern corner had long been marked by a basic anomaly. The state and the rest of society had been integrated in the process of feudal development in East-Central Europe for centuries; the Székelys, on the other hand, remained in a distinctive status, neither villein nor noble.

Viewed from the outside, this unusual ethnic group still appeared unified at the beginning of the 16th century. Their society continued to be distinguished by the village community, the bearing of arms, the strength of Székely communal traditions, and the administrative autonomy of the seats. The occasional imposition of an 'ox-roast' tax did not alter their basic freedom from state levies, for it was officially construed as a 'gift'. The power of the Székely {1-709.} elite, the primors, was effectively balanced by juries that included lower-ranked Székelys (lófő and gyalog) as well as by the Székely national assembly.

However, the persistent efforts of more prosperous families to rise socially weakened the apparently solid structure of 'Székely liberties'. More and more impoverished Székelys felt compelled to enter the service of such families. By the beginning of the 16th century, this voluntary servitude was turning into a more binding relationship, for the wealthy masters began to 'extort money', i.e. demand feudal services. Population growth led to the clearing of more and more land, and these new fields and pastures became the property not of the village community but of individuals. The landowner would try to bring cotters from the outside to settle on his lands or, failing that, to hire poor Székelys. Thus the lord-villein relationship became progressively more common in the Székely region.

A number of Székely leaders gained as Hungarian noblemen titles and property in the royal counties. Having acquired land by inheritance, through defaulted mortgages, or thanks to Székely commoners who had joined their service, these nobles proceeded to introduce feudal practices. Noble families who joined the Székely community through intermarriage and progressively expanded their property and influence were particularly inclined to adopt feudal ways.

Momentarily, such tendencies were limited to individual cases and had little impact on the social and legal system. It was the events in the aftermath of Mohács that accelerated the process of change. Szapolyai's realm was considerably smaller than the former Kingdom of Hungary, and thus the relative importance of the Székelyföld increased. The ongoing state of war required a sustained military effort from the state, and society had to bear the cost. The Székelys were called upon repeatedly to supply military manpower, and their tax-exemption inevitably drew the attention of {1-710.} the cash-strapped treasury. Szapolyai obtained that the 'exceptional' (but by now well-established) war-tax apply to the Székelys as well. It was first levied in 1545, György Fráter having evoked as pretext the tribute paid to the Porte since 1543. At first, he would try to ease the Székelys' burden by making advances against their levy from his treasury. The Székelys, for their part, tried to resist by refusing to register for the tax. All this merely served to delay the inevitable, although the Turkish pretext was temporarily dropped.

If the chronically rebellious Székelys ultimately accepted this blatant abrogation of their traditional privileges, it was because the dangers were clear for all to see. However, the growth of state intervention prompted a rapid transformation of Székely society. In accordance with the 1554 statutes, the Székely primors and lófős were, like Hungarian nobles, exempted from state taxes. The exemption extended to common Székelys who served, and were, in fact, becoming the villeins and cotters of these privileged families. The remaining freemen were left saddled with the full weight of the new measures, being obligated to serve as soldiers and pay the war-tax.

The erosion of the Székelys' traditional community caused a rise in social tensions. Ordinary Székelys tended to blame the state, although their own leaders, by neglecting the common interest, bore a share of responsibility for their troubles. György Fráter had enough authority to contain the discontent, and Castaldo's administration was too brief and confused to give the Székelys any idea what they might expect from Ferdinand. The best indication that the Székelys' discontent had not reached boiling point is offered by the impact of Reformation, which touched them relatively late, and to modest effect. In the 1550s, when the Lutherans acquired their very first church, in Marosvásárhely, most Székelys continued to cling to their 'ancient institutions' and Roman Catholic faith.

The Székely problem became more acute after Transylvania's secession in 1556. Sharing the motives of their predecessors, Queen {1-711.} Isabella, and then her son and his advisers intervened more and more forcefully in the affairs of the Székely community. The 'castle-war' that raged on Transylvania's northwestern frontier demanded great military effort. At the same time, the court at Gyulafehérvár was faced with the reality that the Székely community was disintegrating. The monarch and his councillors thus had to weigh the merits preserving the increasingly illusory liberties of the Székelys.

Isabella's choice was unequivocal. The diet, meeting in 1556 at Szamosújvár, required the Székelys to do military service (specifically for the siege of Habsburg-held Várad) and to pay a tax of one forint per capita. The following year, at Gyulafehérvár, the diet entrenched both the principle of individual military obligation and that of taxability; the 'Székely nation' was assessed an annual tax of 5000 forints. What's more, the diet ruled that concurrent decisions of the other two, Hungarian and Saxon nations were binding on the Székelys even if the latter dissented. Finally, the diet declared — in clear violation of customary law — that the property of Székelys found guilty of disloyalty should lawfully revert to the crown.

These rulings were confirmed and extended by subsequent diets. The fiscal immunity of the Székely elite and the taxability of ordinary Székelys were reaffirmed in 1558, and again in 1559, when the diet also ordered the registration by 'gate' of the taxable Székely villeins.

Székely liberties were thus essentially reduced to two features. Unless they chose to serve as villeins, Székely freemen were immune to the {1-712.} authority of landowners and therefore spared of a variety of feudal burdens. As far as is known, no Székely was required to do corvée or pay feudal dues in kind prior to 1562. In addition, the civil and judicial administration of the territorial seats remained largely autonomous, although, from 1559, royal magistrates appointed by the sovereign tended in practice to claim the authority of lord lieutenants. But there was little left to distinguish a Székely notable from the Hungarian nobleman who was exempted from tax, had to do military service, and disposed of villeins.

In fact, Queen Isabella's laws did not represent a major innovation, for they essentially codified the changes that had come about in the Székelyföld over the preceding fifty years. It might even be argued that the measures amounted to a skilful compromise. They provided a legal framework for the unavoidable 'modernization', i.e. feudalization of Székely society, and the state got what it needed, while ordinary Székelys were left with some of their 'inalienable' rights.

Naturally, ordinary Székelys resented the privileges accorded to their social superiors, and it was equally understandable that Székely freemen should resent having to carry the double burden of soldiering and taxation. But the changes came too gradually to turn discontent into rebellion. The stimulus came once again from Hungarian politics: Menyhárt Balassa's revolt in 1562 against John Sigismund. The conspirators, who enjoyed the Habsburgs' support, included Moldavia's voivode, Despot. Taking note of the Székelys' problems, they promised to restore 'ancient liberties' and thereby managed to provoke an uprising by the more distressed members of that community. The young king had to make great concessions to secure peace, but none of them involved the Székelys; the Habsburgs' supporters readily abandoned those who had helped them to achieve significant successes in Transylvania.

Indeed, the Székelys had contributed a great many soldiers (by some obviously exaggerated accounts, as many as 40,000) to the rebellion against the monarch. However, the leaders of the 'attack' hesitated. The larger part of their army hovered aimlessly near Segesvár, while smaller forces rampaged through the environs of Marosvásárhely, Szászrégen, and Görgény. The sovereign thus had time to prepare his riposte, and the failure of the first attack — led by the castellan of Fogaras, Gábor Maylád — on the Székelys had {1-713.} no great consequences. The army of Transylvania's feudal estates, commanded by László Radák and Gábor Pekry, defeated the smaller Székely force by the Nyárád River, near Görgény. Soon afterwards, the larger Székely army seized its own leaders and delivered them to the authorities before peacefully disbanding.

Bloody reprisals followed. The Székelys' chief commanders, György Nagy and Ambrus Gyepesi, were impaled, and many others had their hands, nose, and ears cut off. The scale of the rebellion nevertheless gave the sovereign food for thought, and when the diet met on 20 June 1562 at Segesvár, the measures it took to prevent a recurrence were not free of ambivalence. Some of them were clearly punitive. Székely troops would no longer be commanded by their own 'lieutenant' but by royally-appointed officers. The production and marketing of salt, an important source of income for the Székelys, became a state monopoly. The ruling that the property of disloyal Székelys should revert to the crown, and not to the Székely community, was reaffirmed. The appeals court at Udvarhely was abolished, and henceforth Székelys were forced to appeal directly to the princely high court. The judicial system in the seats was reformed to favour the primors and lófős by the exclusion of ordinary Székelys from jury service. The elite's fiscal immunity and military obligation were once again confirmed.

The ordinary, 'pedestrian' (gyalog) Székelys were hit with further sanctions. The sovereign acquired the exclusive right to elevate ordinary Székelys to the higher ranks. Their obligation to pay taxes was maintained, while their military obligation was implicitly abrogated. To be sure, the latter measure lightened their burden, but it also eliminated the theoretical basis for their status of freemen. This may be why the measure was not spelled out; the authorities simply 'forgot' to include in the statute any reference to the ordinary Székelys' military obligation.

In spite of all this, the 1562 laws were not purely punitive, for John Sigismund offered some compensation for the losses. A {1-714.} clause stated that 'the Székely community is part of our free realm, and no one may compel them to perform services'; this promised to put a halt to a process that had been going on for decades, in which ordinary Székelys were falling into villeinage.

Over the next few years the sovereign took concrete steps to protect 'his Székelys' from the demands of aristocrats and nobles. However, as the castle-war dragged on, the 'primor' and 'lófő' nobles, had ample opportunity to demonstrate that Transylvania was in great need of their military prowess — and that it would be imprudent to provoke their anger.

The experiment came to an end in May 1566, when the diet of Torda summarily identified the Székely nobles with the Hungarian nobility and sacrificed the rights of the ordinary Székelys. In subsequent years, hundreds of the latter were treated as ordinary villeins and compelled to do corvée. For the poor Székelys who were thrust into servitude, life had taken a tragic turn. On the other hand, in terms of the interests of the Transylvanian state, John Sigismund's decision was both necessary and productive. For one thing, the development of feudalism had induced the socioeconomic decline of ordinary Székelys even before the enactment of oppressive measures; in the absence of state intervention, the potentially turbulent transition would have dragged on for decades. For another, the Székelys' liberties represented a powerful disruptive force that threatened Transylvania's very survival, and thereby the interests of the Hungarian people as a whole. By its action, the principality's government effectively gave the country a uniform social structure. To be sure, there remained some deviations from feudal orthodoxy, such as certain impositions on villeins, the autonomy of Saxon villages, and the emerging social stratum of guardsmen. But none of these represented an external challenge for the social order of feudalism.

The exclusion of ordinary Székelys left the Transylvanian army short of manpower, but the gap was soon filled. When the war {1-715.} with the Habsburgs flared up again in 1564–65, the Gyulafehérvár court felt compelled to restore individual conscription among villeins; however, the measure was not aimed specifically at the Székelys, for it involved all of the country's agricultural workers. Changes that were more radical came after 1566. As noted, with regard to military service, the Székely elite had been assimilated to the nobles; ordinary Székelys who had become villeins were, like other villeins, eligible for service in the local militias. The Székelys' only advantage was that their military experience made them particularly welcome in the militia, as well as in the new 'peasant units' that were formed throughout the country in the mid-1560s. The equivalent in the Székelyföld of the 'rifleman' and 'guards' detachments was known as 'red guards', after the colour of their uniform. Their obligations and privileges were the same as those of peasant soldiers elsewhere. Thus military service could no longer help to preserve traditional Székely liberties.

The rulers were aware that ancient traditions could not be erased by the stroke of a pen. John Sigismund had two fortresses raised in the Székelyföld to keep watch over the local population, 'Székelytámad' in Udvarhely and 'Székelybánja' in the Háromszék district. (The names were ominously suggestive, for támad means attack, and bánja means regret.) The precaution was well-advised, for the Székelys kept on grumbling and protesting throughout his reign. Many of the complaints were aimed at the royal magistrates, who showed typically feudal arbitrariness in their administrative, judicial, and tax-raising activities, generally to the detriment of the village communities.

When Stephen Báthori assumed power, the Székelys' hopes were revived that their liberties would be restored. The new sovereign showed no disposition to respond to their grievances, and so, in 1571, another rebellion erupted, only to be suppressed by the government's forces. When, in 1575, rebellion flared up again, the Székelys were crushed at the Battle of Kerelőszentpál. That defeat {1-716.} deterred the Székelys for a long time from engaging in armed revolt.

The transformation of Székely society was coming to a close, and the feudal system was consolidated by direct state intervention. The destruction of their old way of life had a traumatic effect on Székelys. In the mid 1560s, the Reformation swept through that onetime bastion of Catholicism, the Székelyföld. While some smaller districts stuck to the traditional denomination, most of them shifted to Calvinism, and some of these later adopted the Unitarian faith. At the end of the century, the most radical of the Christian sects, the Sabbaticals, also drew many Székely converts. The coincidence of rapid social change and religious radicalism was not accidental. And the issue of Székely liberties did not disappear from history's agenda.