The Ruling Class

Hungary's ruling elite — aristocrats and the lesser nobles — were profoundly affected by the changes that came about in the course of the 16th century. These included the domestic and foreign wars that led to the country's partition, the loss of Hungarian sovereignty, the creation of a new country under powerful external constraints, and economic changes on the international and local level.

The assurance of their very survival demanded unprecedented effort and energy. The defence of their castles, manors, and feudal estates required more manpower and more costly weaponry. After a time-lag, the intellectual Renaissance was followed by related changes in taste and material lifestyle. This has already been noted in the case of the urban middle class, but, from the mid-16th century, an even stronger wave of transformation and expansion swept through the world of Transylvania's fortresses, castles, and manor-houses.

{1-717.} The precursor of these new constructions was the fortress raised in the 1530s, at Szamosújvár, on the orders of King John and György Fráter. The latter was also responsible for the erection in the 1540s of the ill-fated Alvinc castle. In 1543, Farkas Bethlen had a 'palace' constructed for himself at Bonyha. Around 1555, Ferenc Kendi started to modernize his castle, which stood on a splendid site at Marosvécs, as did Gergely Apafi with his at Ebesfalva. Captain Gábor Kornis undertook a major remodelling of the castle at Huszt around 1577, and Captain Ferenc Geszty did likewise a few years later at the famous Déva castle. Also modernized were the Bethlen castle at Keresd and Benedek Keresztúri's manor at Szentbenedek.

Having become the residence of princes and kings, the onetime episcopal palace at Gyulafehérvár was repeatedly expanded and remodelled. The modernization, major and minor, of fortifications was ceaselessly pursued. Italian architects drew up the plans for extensive works at Várad and Szatmár (in the 1570s) and at Fogaras (in the 1580s).

Such activities testified to the growing prosperity of the ruling class. Although this part of Hungarian society had become somewhat separated from Europe, its traditional affinities and the lure of the best that the age had to offer impelled it to follow the cultural lead of Western Europe. With the Renaissance, Western Europe acquired cultural superiority not only over Eastern Europe, always a laggard in this respect, but also over the Islamic world, which earlier had shown great cultural dynamism.

The question arises, how could the Transylvanian elite afford such costly modernization at a time when their historically poor region was suffering from commercial isolation, inflation, a shortage of money, and the mounting cost of defence? To be sure, the Renaissance had spread to other parts of Eastern Europe, but all of them enjoyed economic advantages over Transylvania. In Poland, the nobility disposed of profits from the large-scale production of {1-718.} wheat, which it had taken under its control. Rising agricultural prices had an impact in Habsburg Hungary as well; production and socage deliveries increased, and money was not as scarce as in Transylvania. The socage deliveries of wheat and livestock helped landowners to maintain domestics, estate managers, and personal guards, particularly since these dependents were still largely paid in kind, with produce and cloth. Even great estates that hitherto barely broke even began to generate profits thanks to the market towns, which paid most of their feudal dues in cash. (Their annual income was nearing the 10,000-forint mark, but historians are still debating whether much of this was generated by the marketing of agricultural products, i.e. by the Polish type of large-scale production.)

Transylvania did not have the capacity to follow these models. The Polish agricultural model remained impracticable in a region so remote from western markets. A few noblemen tried their hand at trading wine and cattle, the most marketable products, but Transylvania's economy was too small to make this profitable. Thus the nobles' only hope of accumulating wealth lay with their estates, and it was no easy task to make the latter generate greater profits.

In Western Europe, landowners resorted to leasing a good part of their lands to enterprising peasants, an innovation that marked the beginning of the end of feudalism. Their counterparts in Transylvania did not have this option: the region was sparsely populated, there was no shortage of arable land, and thus few peasants sought to lease land. Most villeins aspired, instead, to acquire freehold plots, which would offer them and their progeny more security than leased plots. The labour shortage drove up wages, reducing the demand for tenancy and making it uneconomical to have tenants. Some landowners tried a different tack: instead of leasing out their property in small parcels, they hired wage-labourers to cultivate the land. But they, too, were soon discouraged by the high wage rates. Around 1570, a hired hand in Szatmár had to be paid {1-719.} 8–12 forints, and some as much as 27 forints a year. The prevalence of primitive farming techniques also impeded the achievement of a mutually profitable level of productivity.

The only way to increase the profitability of an estate was to restrict the villeins' right to land, and the circumstances of the time favoured this option. The peasantry's most dynamic stratum, the peasant-citizens, had been decimated. The ongoing wars required the ruling class to maintain considerable military forces, and these could be used to impose the landowners' will on the villeins. Nor could the latter count on the protection of the law. As early as 1514, the landowner's overriding right to his lands had been included in István Werbőczy's compilation of laws, the Tripartitum. At the time, this 'law' was no more than a bold new demand from the nobility, and, in any case, the compilation was not sanctioned by the king. Over time, that 'minor flaw' was lost sight of: by the second half of the 16th century, with the evolution of common law, the Tripartitum had become a fundamental part of the legal order, legitimating the repossession of villeins' lands.

Thus the legal precondition was in place both in Habsburg Hungary and in Transylvania for the creation of manorial estates. When the attempts to lease the repossessed lands, or to have them worked by wage-labourers proved uneconomical, Transylvanian society underwent a major transformation: more and more landowners imposed corvée, i.e. the provision by villeins of unpaid services.

The pattern in Transylvania was similar to that in Hungary. The landowners first priority was to make their estates self-sufficient. For better or for worse, the estates could supply whatever was necessary to sustain agricultural production and satisfy the needs of the villein households. The products of craftsmen in the domanial villages — carpenters, wheelwrights, smiths, tailors, and tanners — may have been primitive and of inferior quality, but they were cheap, or, indeed, freely provided as feudal dues. The estates could {1-720.} also satisfy the basic requirements of the landowner's household for foodstuffs and clothes.

The shortage of cash and the attempts at self-sufficiency gave grain an uncommon economic function. Transylvania had never produced an abundance of wheat, and, in the second half of the 16th century, this grain became a virtual currency. Landowners amassed and stored as much wheat as possible. Only rarely, when prices were particularly high, did they sell any of it on the market; instead, they used it to pay their domestics, estate managers, soldiers, craftsmen, and labourers, and to buy wine for their taverns. Next in importance came oats, little of which (and of barley) was sold on the market.

Apart from developing their manorial farms, landowners tried to extract maximum value from the villeins' contributions in kind, especially with regard to tithes for tenancy. There was a rapid increase in the number of domanial mills and taverns (traditionally, the sale of wine was an exclusive privilege of the nobility); the revenue from these activities came mostly in the form of cash, which the landowners were hard put to obtain elsewhere.

Transylvania's ruling classes also adapted the management system of their estates to the new circumstances. Previously, according to feudal custom, the estates had been administered by 'familiars', who came from the lesser nobility or the 'low orders'. These officials were rewarded with small gratuities, privileges, the provisional assignment of villages and certain feudal dues, and their own farm on the estate. In the emerging system, the landowner's staff — including the castellan, the various stewards, the gardener, and the pantryman — became, in effect, salaried employees paid in cash or kind; there was no longer a mutual moral obligation binding master and servants. The landowner's staff expanded, as did the costs, but outcome was greater profitability, for most of the additional employees worked on the management of the estate or as soldiers; on the other hand, the number of those who served less {1-721.} essential needs, such as lackeys, domestics, cooks, and hunters, decreased.

It was not these changes that distinguished Transylvania from Habsburg Hungary but, rather, the smaller scale of production and the shortage of money. There were very few truly large domains in Transylvania proper, and most of these, like Fogaras and Gyulafehérvár, belonged to the exchequer. The average domain would have counted in Habsburg Hungary as no more than a medium-sized estate, and the manorial estates on these domains were also smaller. As a consequence, the utilization of corvée was also different in Transylvania, with more of it assigned to cartage and construction work.

That last feature accounts for the ability of Transylvania's nobles to emulate the architectural innovations of the Renaissance. A comparison of representative building projects in the two parts of Hungary is revealing. In Habsburg Hungary, the major builders were aristocratic families well-endowed with land and money. Thus Vöröskő was modernized by the Fugger family, Sárvár by the Nádasdy family, and Sárospatak by the Perényi family. Even some of the larger fortresses in the frontier zone, such as Pál Várday's Érsekújvár, were purely private undertakings.

By contrast, in Transylvania, much of the construction activity (e.g. at Szamosújvár, Várad, Fogaras, and Kővár) was initiated by the princely authority. And of the aristocrats' castles, even the finest and most famous paled beside those of Habsburg Hungary.

The distinctive pattern in which estates evolved in Transylvania had a more important, social-political significance. In counties of the Partium where development was similar to the Hungarian pattern, there remained vast domains that included market towns. One of the most prosperous, the Szatmár domain (which belonged to the Szapolyai realm until the 1560s) generated in 1569–70 cash revenues of around 18,000 forints as well as revenues in kind worth an additional 15,000 forints. In Transylvania, {1-722.} on the other hand, the relatively productive Kolozsmonostor domain generated only 1800 forints a year around 1580.

Thus the aristocratic families whose castles and domains lay in the Partium became far wealthier than their counterparts in Transylvania proper, a disparity that would weigh heavily in the social system of the new principality.