Barons and Other Nobles

The turmoil that prevailed at the turn of the century had consequences for the distribution of property. The huge estates acquired by the voivode László were subsequently confiscated by Charles Robert to punish the latter's sons for their rebellion. Both the king and the voivode rewarded their trusted supporters with land from the former royal estates. In the aftermath of the Mongol invasion, the beleaguered Church became the prime beneficiary of royal assistance; the king made new grants of land to expand the Church's depopulated estates. He enlarged the Transylvanian bishop's estate at Gyalu, in Kolozs county, and, for a time, even Kolozsvár was attached to it. The bishop's and canon's estates in Fehér county were also enlarged by donation, purchase, and exchange. Properties in Kolozs county and on the Küküllő River that belonged to the Benedictines' Kolozsmonostor monastery were initially reduced by crown grants, then enlarged to encompass forty-four villages; the estate along the Olt River of the Cistercian monastery at Kerc was also restored. The Church's estates remained proportionately smaller in Transylvania than in other parts of the country, and their expansion was far more modest than that of other private estates. Then again, there were only two institutional owners of large estates in Transylvania, the Church and the Crown. In practice, the Crown's estates were treated as if they {1-460.} belonged to whichever aristocrat from Hungary proper happened to be serving as voivode. Until 1370, the voivode remained master of all who toiled on the huge estates surrounding royal castles, and the beneficiary of the revenues they produced. In that year, King Louis the Great bestowed the Almás castle estates on the Bebek family. The disposal of royal-voivode estates was completed by King Sigismund, who bestowed a whole series of castle estates on one or the other voivode. Thus the Dezsőfi family, from Losonc, obtained Csicsó (1387) and Gogán(új)vár (1391), while the related Bánffy family got Bonchida (1387) and Sebesvár (1433). Bálványos was granted in 1406 to the Lackfi family, who later passed it on to the Losonci family. After 1409, when the king gave the Hunyad estate to Vajk, a knight and courtier of Romanian descent, royal donations grew scarcer. In later times, only Vajk's son, the famous military leader János Hunyadi, received major grants of land in Transylvania, including Léta castle and an estate at Beszterce. By the second half of the 15th century, the Transylvanian voivode's official lands had been reduced to the castle estates of Déva and Görgény. During Sigismund's reign, Transylvania was turned into a region of private estates; the last major beneficiaries were the Hunyadis and three branches of the Tomaj clan, the Losonci, Dezsőfi, and Bánffy families.

Following the Mongol invasion, the descendants of certain military heroes consolidated their position of eminence in Transylvania. This was the case with the Gerendi family, which traced its ancestry to one of the conquest-period clans, the Kalocsa-Tyukod, and the Dobokai family, who descended from the Kökényes-Radnót clan and had recently moved to Transylvania. The Gerendis were granted some villages from the former royal estate of Torda castle, while the Dobokais received lands around Torda and the castle they had acquired at Doboka. At the end of the 13th century, several Transdanubian families showed up in Transylvania, probably under the auspices of descendants of László {1-461.} Kán, who came from Baranya county: his sons Gyula and László (voivode from 1260 to 1267), as well as the latter's son László (voivode from 1275 to 1276) and grandson, also named László (voivode from 1295 to 1315). The Járai family, related to the famous Zichy family in Transdanubia, were granted the castle and estate at Jára, in Torda county; a branch of the Ákos clan received Torockó and its environs; Count Dénes Tomaj, an ancestor of the Losoncis, obtained the Lápos estate; and the ban Simon from the Szalók clan added estates along the Küküllő rivers to his holdings in Zala county. In the civil war, Simon shifted his allegiance from the voivode László to the king early enough to win a royal pardon, and thus his many descendants (including the Kendi family, which played a prominent role in the modern period) were allowed to keep their property.

Charles Robert's victory in Transylvania carried severe consequences for the aristocrats who had opposed him. Several powerful families, including some who had settled there during the conquest, had their property confiscated; the king eventually pardoned most of them (notably the Zsombor and Borsa clans), but only aristocrats of proven loyalty were allowed to play a leading role. The Kacsics clan's Tamás Szécsényi, who had subdued the Transylvanian rebels by force of arms, served as voivode until Charles Robert's death in 1342. His services were rewarded with a generous share of the rebels' confiscated property. In 1319, he received the huge Teke estate, between Beszterce and the Maros River, and, in 1324, the Salgó castle estate in Szeben county. The authority and power that he exercised on behalf of, and with the approval of the king, were as great as those wielded by the voivode László, and he followed the latter's example in marrying a Piast princess, Anna of Auschwitz. Fully disposed to practice nepotism, Tamás brought along his cousins to Transylvania. One cousin, Simon, was granted the Nagysajó estate as well as the lucrative office of Székely count; his disloyalty led in 1327 to the confiscation of his property, part of {1-462.} which passed into the hands of the voivode Tamás. The latter's prestige helped another relative, Péter Cseh, to win the hand of the heiress to the immense riches of the Saxon geréb from Talmács, and to establish a family that bore the name Geréb of Vingárt; in the 15th century, descendants of this family became voivode and bishop, the highest offices in Transylvania. Another member of the Kacsics clan married a daughter of the Saxon geréb at Radna, founding a family that took its name from the estate at Kentelke. Péter Cseh's son, János, wed one of the daughters of Mihály Kelneki, a wealthy geréb; five of her six sisters also married Hungarian noblemen. Another Hungarian noble clan, the Barcsai family from Hunyad county, improved its fortunes by inheriting some of the property of Alvinci's Saxon geréb, who had no male heir. The reverse could also happen: the Saxon geréb Brassai family became linked by marriage to a branch of the Zsombor clan, and it acquired substantial estates when that branch ran out of male heirs.

The political crisis that erupted around 1300 left a lasting impact on Hungary's social structure. In the wake of the Mongol invasion, the royal county structure disintegrated, first in Western Hungary, then, by the end of the 13th century, in Transylvania as well. There arose, in its stead, a new social and administrative system in which the nascent nobility played an increasingly important role. The new owners of the royal estates that had been either given away or unlawfully appropriated during the civil conflict included the great propertied families, the royal officials who were freed from the counts' authority, and the castle warriors (várjobbágyok). In terms of legal rights and obligations, these groups came to form a single social stratum: all of them enjoyed a right to own property, owed allegiance directly to the king, and were eligible for military service. The county was no longer an organized unit of the kings' servants, but an administrative and judicial entity, whose crown-appointed counts had the obligation, as decreed by King Béla IV in {1-463.} 1265, to provide for law-enforcement. In each county, a college of noblemen (universitas nobilium) named the count's assistant magistrates. The latter participated in judicial proceedings in the county assembly (congregatio generalis) and assize courts (sedes judiciaria, or sedria), and they would also supervise, or themselves perform, the implementation of judgments and other rulings. These county officials, known as the szolgabíró (administrative magistrate, literally 'servant judge', in evocation of royal servitors; judices nobilium, abbreviated as judlium) were elected annually as representatives of the county's autonomous nobles, and so were eight to twelve jurors (iurati assessores).

Thus the fate of the county's inhabitants was essentially determined by the nobility, who were interposed between the central authority and the lower orders on their estates. The landless folk who laboured, under varying conditions, for landowners came under the legal authority of the latter. If they became embroiled in a lawsuit with another landowner's workers, or with a nobleman, it was their own landlord who presented the case in court. The king progressively transferred to the landowner the taxes paid by those who worked on the latter's estate, thus giving birth to a new class that was subordinated, in both legal and economic terms, to the landowning nobility. Only their right to migrate freely and change landlords was protected by law. In Transylvania as well as in other parts of Hungary, the term jobbágy (better rendered as 'villein', one bound to the lord, than as 'serf', one bound to the land) acquired a new meaning: it came to designate people who were under the legal authority of the landlord and owed the latter labour as well as contributions in money and kind. The villeins, like the nobles, came from diverse backgrounds. They included impoverished freemen as well as slaves who had been liberated by their masters. The institution of slavery (rabszolgaság) had ceased to exist in Hungary by the early 14th century. The last known Transylvanian charter providing for the emancipation of a slave dates from 1339.

{1-464.} Social relations in Transylvania evolved much as in the rest of Hungary, if at a slower pace due to the peripheral location of the region. Whereas in Hungary proper, the power of county nobility began to be felt even before the Mongol invasion, in Transylvania, the system of castle warriors (várjobbágyság) still flourished in the second half of the 13th century, when charters still bore references to serfs in (Belső-)Szolnok, Doboka, Kolozs, Torda, and Gyulafehérvár. In Transylvania, the major transformation of society occurred during the years of political crisis, which may explain why in that region the castle warriors did not merge with the nobility to the same extent as in western parts of the country. Late in winning its independence, this socioeconomic group was in effect swept away. Most of the documents dealing with them involve the sale of their land; the purchasers were descendants of the original, settling clans (notably the Gerendi, Kecseti, and Szentmártoni families), other nobles of unknown origin, and the occasional churchmen. The fate of these castle warriors is not known. A few may have managed to keep sufficient property to sustain the lifestyle of a noble, but most of them must have been compelled to take service with wealthier noblemen or to seek their livelihood in the neighbourhood of the newly-founded royal fortresses. There is no evidence that any noble family living in Transylvania during the Middle Ages descended from castle warriors. To be sure, it is not possible to trace the origins — whether to first settlers or to later arrivals — of many of the noble families that emerged in the second half of the 13th or at the beginning of the 14th century. The more important families in this category include the Ősi Jankafi, Rődi Cseh, Frátai, and Csányi of Northern Transylvania; and, in the southern counties of Küküllő, Fehér, and Hunyad, all Hungarian noble families other than those known to be branches of families in other parts of Hungary, notably the Gyógyi, Gáldi, Béldi, Bagói Miske, Barcsai, Barincskai, Töreki Bakóc, and Rápolti. Their ancestors may have been members of clans in Transylvania or {1-465.} another Hungarian region, or, indeed, freemen who were in the service of the king.

Descendants of the clans that settled in the Szamos region at the time of the conquest continued to form the core of Transylvania's nobility. Although divided over time into many branches, the five clans still owned vast estates, and they played an important part in public life, mainly in Transylvania, but in some cases at the national level as well. Most of the families survived into the modern era. The main, Zsombori branch of the Zsombor clan died out in the early 1300s, though their name lived on through female descendants of a Saxon geréb family from the Barcaság that had become linked to the Zsombors by marriage. Two other branches generated descendants throughout the Middle Ages, one set bearing the names Esküllői Botos, Köblösi Teke, and Keresztúri Ördög, and the other Macskási, Szilvási, and Gyulai. The Agmánd clan's most notable branch was the Kecseti, and the wealthy Suki family may also have belonged to this clan. Other related families, which bore the names of their villages (Mórici, Hesdáti, Péterházi, Nyíresi, Szűkereki, and Kódori), did not play a role beyond the confines of their county. The Borsa clan's principal branch, consisting of the Iklódi Beke and the Majosi families, continued to flourish in medieval Transylvania; the other branch was represented by the Szentpáli family. In the Kalocsa clan, the principal, Szentmártoni branch died out in the mid-1300s, but the Kalocsa branch, named after a common ancestor, lived on in three distinguished and wealthy families bearing the name Gerendi, Detrei Urkundfi, and Figedi. The Mikola clan proved to be the most enduring. A member of its Kemény branch was Prince of Transylvania in the 17th century. As early as the Middle Ages the clan had split into two branches. The first gave rise to the Tamásfalvi Erdélyi, Szentmihálytelki Tompa, Bikali Vitéz, Farnasi Veres, and Valkai families; the second included the Kabos, Kemény, Radó, Mikola, Gyerő, and Gyerőfi families, who bore one of two nobiliary surnames, Gyerőmonostori and Gyerővásárhelyi.

{1-466.} In the Middle Ages, the core of the nobility in rural parts of Belső (Inner)-Szolnok, Doboka, Kolozs, and Torda counties was made up of descendants of the clans that had participated in the Conquest. They were differentiated only in terms of their wealth. In some cases, as the descendants multiplied, property had to be subdivided into very small estates. Thus several noble families might each have a manor (kúria) in the vicinity of the same village, where they would dispense with villeins and cultivate the land themselves; such 'kurial' villages included Magyarmacskás, Burjánosbuda, Kide, and Csomafája. Even less prolific families rarely owned more than ten villages. Only the wealthiest families might own as many as 20–30 villages, generally dispersed among the holdings of other families. On the periphery of this region of small and medium-sized estates, a few larger estates emerged that each consisted of a single block of 20–50 villages.

Due to the power of the provincial voivode, the nobility in Transylvania was emancipated more slowly than that in the rest of Hungary. At the beginning of the 14th century, Transylvania's nobles were still paying taxes to the king, or rather to the voivode. In 1324, to reward them for their aid in suppressing the Saxons' rebellion, Charles Robert abolished the tax. Only in 1342 did they acquire jurisdiction over the people on their estates, and thus become fully-empowered landowners. Their efforts to win autonomy for their counties were less successful. To be sure, by the early 1300s, nobles were electing the szolgabíró and other representatives to county courts even in Transylvania, and some counties would hold general assemblies. However, the voivode soon prevailed in his efforts at centralization and terminated the practice of county assemblies chaired by a count. Instead, the voivode would convene a joint assembly of the seven counties, normally at Torda, and this assembly appointed two administrative magistrates (szolgabíró) — and not four, like in the rest of the country — for each county. The voivode thus came to govern Transylvania's counties {1-467.} as if they were one great county, thereby delaying the development of local self-government. On an individual basis, Transylvania's noblemen possessed all the rights that distinguished Hungarian nobles from commoners, but they did not constitute a social — feudal — order that could impose its will on the voivode. One obstacle was the social institution known as familiarity (familiaritás) — a Hungarian version of vassalage that emerged in conjunction with the great estates, or latifundia.

Initially, poorer freemen would spontaneously enter the service of noble lords, mainly as the latter's armed escorts or estate managers. The nobleman would receive them into his extended family (hence the term 'familiarity') and commit himself to provide for their material needs and legal protection. The 'familiars', for their part, would take a pledge of loyal service. The greater a lord's wealth and power, the larger the number of nobles of lesser means who would enter his service. The latter were commonly rewarded with a fief, and if the lord was named to high office by the king, he would appoint his retainers to subordinate official posts. In Hungary's medieval administrative system, only the highest posts were filled directly by the king, and thus the retainers of great lords would come to play an important role in the middle and lower reaches of administration.

Accordingly, Transylvania's voivode would name one of his retainers as his permanent deputy; and this deputy voivode would also serve, ex officio, as the count of Fehér county and chairman of the voivode's 'octaval' court. By the 13th century, the Borsa founding clan had contributed two deputy voivodes, László and György Almási, and, as noted earlier, one of their relatives, Loránd, served as voivode. The counts, appointed directly by the king, came from the most prominent families, and chose their deputies from among their personal followers. Since the post was both lucrative and prestigious, even members of the wealthiest Transylvanian clans — Agmánd, Borsa, Kalocsa, Mikola — were eager to serve. Over time, {1-468.} a broad cross-section of Transylvania's lesser and middle nobility found itself in a 'familiar' relationship with one or the other voivode, and the latter's power was only strengthened by this social network. This may explain why even the wealthiest aristocratic families in Transylvania could not match the social prestige of the voivode. Although the voivode normally came from outside Transylvania and did not own significant property in the province, he filled the posts under his jurisdiction not only with retainers from his family estates, but also with locally-recruited 'familiars', thus securing the loyalty of much of Transylvania's nobility.

The institution of 'familiarity' offered a high degree of mobility to the nobility. A retainer who performed meritorious service for his lord would see his estates enlarged with new grants; and if he earned distinction as a soldier or functionary, his lord might well commend him to the king, whose favour could launch him on an independent career. It was, of course, the king's own retainers who had the best chance of rising to the highest levels. Some of them became more influential than members of the king's council who were aristocrats by birth or by wealth, and would rapidly join the ranks of the aristocracy. Even propertyless commoners could profit from familiarity if they impressed the lord with their talents. In the Middle Ages, Hungary's noble estate had not yet become a rigidly defined caste to which accession depended entirely on royal sanction. The main attribute of a nobleman was his freehold estate: nobility was synonymous with ownership (homo possessionatus). A landless man who obtained a freehold by royal or private grant, by marriage or by co-optation, automatically became a member of the nobility. Many retainers gained land and noble status through the benevolence of their lords. There were, to be sure, gradations in this social ascent. Often, the king, clergy, and private landowners would make a grant to their landless familiars — servants, personal attendants, soldiers, or estate managers — subject to certain conditions. The recipient would be bound to continue providing the same {1-469.} services as before, and upon his death, the property would revert to the landlord. Moreover, this conditionarius nobleman would remain under the legal authority of his lord, and not come under that of the county court. The recipient would enjoy the normal civil rights of nobles only if his lord exempted him from further personal service. The restrictions did not prevent a conditionarius from acquiring the nobility's lifestyle. With their lord's assent, they could sell, mortgage, or hand down their property; in this case, the new owner would have to accept the original terms of deed, which generally involved military service and a tax burden lower than that borne by feudal tenants. In the 14th century, Hungary's armed forces consisted largely of the private troops (banderia) of lay and ecclesiastical landowners. Charles Robert had reduced but could not fully eliminate the oligarchy's political power; he therefore compelled aristocrats to serve the national interest by raising troops in proportion to the size of their property. A retainer would join the royal army under the standard of his lord, while the free nobles served in the voivode's military units.

The feudal peasantry evolved necessarily in step with the nobility. In the medieval Hungarian state, the bearing of arms was the most important and highest degree of public service. Its material precondition was the soldier-nobleman's economic well-being, and this the king guaranteed by granting the nobles total legal and economic authority over the people on their estates. Only with the consent of the feudal nobility could the king impose a tax on villeins. An inheritance law, promulgated by King Louis I in 1351, confirmed the ancient customary law according to which a noble family retained full rights to its estate as long as there was an unbroken line of male descent from the original proprietor. Otherwise, the land reverted to the king, who generally would bestow it once again, frequently upon descendants of the female line. The lands of noblemen who were found guilty of disloyalty (high treason) also reverted to the king. In 14th century {1-470.} Transylvania, there was a sharp distinction between regions where the feudal order of nobles and villeins predominated, and those occupied by homogeneous communities of Székelys and Saxons. In the latter areas, the king did not exercise his right of escheatage, whether for disloyalty or because of the extinction of the male line; instead, the land in such cases reverted to the Székely or Saxon community. The feudal regions eventually were transformed into counties of the nobility, administered by counts appointed by the voivode: Belső-Szolnok, Doboka, Kolozs, Torda, Fehér (including its enclaves in Saxon and Székely territory), Küküllő, and Hunyad. To make the distinction clear, the administrative districts of the Saxons and Székelys came to be called széks (sedes = seats).

The king's purposeful policy of military defence was the motive force behind the great social transformation that gave rise to the social class of nobles. The maintenance of an effective armed force was the central and overriding concern of government, and thus the inspiration for all attempts by monarchs to mold society: those who were to bear the heavy burden of military service had to enjoy economic security and high social status. Accordingly, the measures taken in the last three centuries of the Middle Ages to assure the defence of the realm affected not only the noble estate of free Hungarians and emancipated castle warriors, but also the Székely, Saxon, and Romanian communities. Social elements that could contribute to defence were always the ones to benefit from the king's favour. The Hungarian soldier was imbued with the aura of a crusader, and since the qualities of soldier and noble became inseparable, the Székelys, Saxons, and Romanians were drawn by the prestige of noble status. To be sure, they were also attracted by the lifestyle, which encompassed considerable material and political advantages: freehold estates worked by unpaid villeins, exemption from taxes, and direct legal subjection to the king. The aspiration to nobility was a powerful factor in the development of Székely, Saxon, and Romanian society.