{1-471.} Székelys and Gerébs in the Nobility

Székely society had always displayed features that came to be associated with the nobility, notably individual liberty and the obligation to perform military service. Thus, by the 14th century, the Székely was considered even outside his home turf to be equivalent to a nobleman; for instance, in 1346, Pál Sényői merely had to prove his Székely ancestry in order to be allowed to live as a freeman anywhere in the country. In the Székelyföld, on the other hand, the traditions of common property and equality inhibited individual self-assertion, a quality fully displayed by county nobility. The drive to acquire great estates and exploit the labour of villeins was notably lacking among Székelys. Early on, the more enterprising Székelys sought their fortune in the service of the king, who rewarded them with shares in the former royal estates. Not wishing to give up their share of the Székelys' common inheritance, they tried to obtain grants in the Székelyföld, or in adjoining counties. The royal estates that had been wedged in among Székely lands were the first lands to be transferred to this new, Székely nobility. In 1252, the king donated to his Székely follower Bencenc, son of Akadás, a property called Szék; situated on the periphery of the Barcaság and Háromszék, it had probably formed part of the lands attached to the royal castle of Miklósvár. Bencenc — an ancestor of the distinguished Nemes, Mikó, and Kálnoki families — settled Hungarians and Székelys in a number of newly-founded villages. However, they wanted to treat villages that had Székely rights — including Zsombor, Gerebenc, Málnás, and Oltszem — in the manner of feudal nobles, and between 1342 and 1366 they were pitted in fierce battle against the Székelys of Sepsi. In the end, the latter prevailed, and the villages remained attached to the Székelyföld, although the Székelys failed to gain control over the territory of Szék. Also in the 13th century, the king granted Bálványos castle and the attached villages of Hungarians and {1-472.} Magyarized Slavs to the Székely ancestor of the Kézdi and Apor families. The new owners brought in Hungarian and Russian settlers as villeins and had the area put under county administration, but their claim to the district of Kászon was successfully challenged in 1324 by the Székelys of Csík. The Törcsvár estate, situated between Saxon and Székely territories, was granted, first to the Bölöni Forró, then to the Uzoni Béldi family. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the Béldis also received the royal estate at Kézdiszentlélek, which was surrounded by Székely lands. Thanks to their other county estates, they had earlier risen to the ranks of Transylvanian aristocracy; at the same time, they still owned lands with Székely rights.

In the course of the Middle Ages, many other prominent Székely families acquired noble estates — partly from royal donations, party from intermarriage with county nobility — in the eastern parts of counties around the Székelyföld, namely, Fehér, Küküllő, Torda, Kolozs, and Doboka counties. They bore such 'Székely surnames' as Szentkirályi Semjén, Tuzsoni Bolgár, Meggyesfalvi Alárd, Szentgyörgyi Bicsak, Lázár, Nyujtódi, Damokos, Sepsi-Baconi, Teremi, Backamadarasi, Dobai, and Fiátfalvi Náznán. It was hardly coincidental that the leading offices in the Székely clan structure, those of judge and lieutenant, were held by members of these families: only Székelys of established wealth and distinction could aspire to serve as armoured warriors of noble rank, which was an obligation for all landowners in the counties. Naturally, they received the material benefits tied to these offices, notably a share of the Székelys' communal property. Many of these families enjoyed a privileged economic status in the Székelyföld as well as the counties, and consequently played a leading role in both areas, with one member serving as a county judge and another as a Székelyföld official.

However, most Székelys lacked the means to purchase armoured and served, instead, in the light cavalry. In Western {1-473.} Hungary, this traditional military arm was fast disappearing, for contemporary European warfare required troops in armour. After the Mongol invasion, a king would no longer call to arms all those eligible by virtue of their social status; instead, he demanded a fixed number of soldiers equipped to the highest standard. As a result, the men who were no longer required were reduced to providing for the equipment and other needs of those on active service, and in effect they became villeins subjected to the economic and legal authority of the latter. Such was the lot of the Cumanians and Jazyges, who had settled during the 13th century in the Danube-Tisza corridor. Initially, all of their menfolk were obligated to perform military service for the king; when the requirement was changed to 600 soldiers, the latter drove the common folk into feudal servitude, breaking up the social homogeneity of these communities. In Transylvania, on the other hand, the external threat throughout the Middle Ages came from Mongols, Lithuanians, Romanians, and then the Ottomans, peoples who used light cavalry in warfare, and the Székelys' similar, traditional military style remained appropriate for defence. Since even Székelys of modest means could afford equipment for light cavalry, they retained both the right and obligation to personal military service, and the attendant personal liberty.

As noted, the settlement of Saxons considerably reduced the size of the Székelys' own territory and their freedom to graze stock — especially horses — on open pastures. They therefore turned from horse-breeding to cattle-breeding, a shift reflected in the spread of the tax known as 'ox-roasting'. As the Székely population grew in numbers, agriculture came to match stock-breeding in importance. However, since the Székelyföld was short of cultivable land, the change upset the economic balance that had propped up their social system. Land, rather than stock, became the measure of social status. The clans redistributed the jointly-held land each year by the ostensibly equitable device of drawing arrows, but the more {1-474.} prominent families received a larger share. Moreover, the latter added to their holdings by having woodlands cleared by the labour of prisoners of war — a practice that was dying out in the rest of Hungary, but prevalent in this region as late as the 15th century. In Hungarian customary law, arable lands obtained by clearing were not redistributed each year, as was the case with common land, but became the freehold of the individual responsible for the clearing. The practice led to the emergence of a Székely landowning aristocracy, a class that would acquire economic predominance and fill official posts. In principle, the offices of lieutenant and judge were filled in rotation by each clan and family branch of free Székelys; in practice, the wealthier families enjoyed a marked advantage, for their property bestowed on them the prestige necessary for selection. Property became a precondition for appointment to public office, and the heir to the estate would inherit the office as well. This is probably how the practice arose, that when a property was sold, the office linked to it would be assumed by the buyer. Thus, by the end of the Middle Ages, several branches of non-Székely, Hungarian families (e.g. the Barcsai and Apafi families) would lay claim to Székely offices.

The tight link between property and public office is related to the rigidity of the Székely social system. The establishment of Székely administrative districts, the széks, at the beginning of the 14th century marked the end of the era of settlement. As the name suggests, a seat corresponded to an area under the jurisdiction of a judge (sedes judiciaria). The first seat in rank was Udvarhely; the others were Maros, Csík, Aranyos, Sepsi, Kézdi and Orbai. (In modern times, the last three were also known collectively as Háromszék.) At the end of the Middle Ages, some new seats were formed from fragments of the original ones: thus Keresztúr and Bardóc were carved out of Udvarhelyszék, Szereda from Marosszék, and Gyergyó as well as Kászon from Csíkszék. Since both Saxon and Romanian seats appeared around the same period, {1-475.} it is safe to assume that the creation of seats was part of an administrative reorganization conducted by Charles Robert. The precedents can be found in Western Hungary, where the term 'seat' was applied earlier to county districts as well as to the judicial and administrative districts of privileged groups — the noble lancers of Szepes, the Cumanians, and the Jazyges. In the courts of the Székely seats, justice was administered by clan lieutenants and seat judges (székbírák), under the supervision of the Székely count's deputy. The influence of the noble counties soon made itself felt in the Székely seats, probably by way of these deputies, the latter being mainly Hungarian noble retainers of the Hungarian aristocrat who served as count. The deputies were initially called sub-counts (alispán, vicecomes), the title used in the counties. Their title was subsequently changed to that borne by the king's representatives in Saxon seats, to royal judges (királybíró, iudex regius). The counties' influence was also evident in the institution of associate judges (bírótárs, iurati assessores), of which there were twelve in the seats, just like in the counties.

The transformation of Saxon society was as painful as that of the Székelys, but it went in a wholly different direction. Here, as elsewhere, military considerations predominated in the general shift to feudalism. The Saxons, unlike the Székelys, had no personal obligation to perform military service. Instead, their community was bound to provide a certain number of soldiers. Thus, from the start, the social advantages linked to military service accrued to only a small group, principally to the gerébs; as noted, the latter had the king's mandate to administer the German settlers. The office of geréb, which combined the functions of judge, administrative authority, and military commander, was passed on by right of inheritance. Thus, much as in the case of the Székelys, the office and the attendant property became inseparable; it could be sold or mortgaged. The geréb was bound by the interests of his community: he had to abide by the Saxons' laws and bear his share of communal {1-476.} taxes. And he, like the wealthier Székelys, would have to seek opportunities beyond his district, in the noble counties. That was where the gerébs obtained estates in reward for their military service, estates that they proceeded to people with Saxons. They treated these settlers not as free and equal compatriots, but as villeins. Thus did Saxon villeinage appear, in the 13th century, on lands beyond the confines of the Szászföld.

The gerébs administered their county villages in the style of nobles, according to the nobility's laws. Indeed, many of them were ennobled by the king; the first known case, that of the comes (count) János Latin, a man of Walloon origin who lived in Voldorf, dates from 1206. Otherwise, they were still regarded as noblemen but were distinguished from fully-entitled nobles (hence the reference in 1358 to nobiles et alii comites). The main reason for this distinction was that the gerébs (again, like Székely notables) did not renounce their property in the Szászföld; indeed, they used the power derived from their county holdings to buttress their preeminence in the Szászföld. The evolution of Saxon society in the 13th and 14th centuries is marked by the growing entrenchment of the dominant geréb families. The latter held all the posts in local self-government and came to symbolize the military and economic power. Their lifestyle, which imitated that of the propertied Hungarian nobles, made a deep impact on all aspects of Saxon culture.

In the 14th century, the Saxons' society and economy was based on the agricultural village. (Indeed, this continued to apply to the majority of Saxons even in modern times.) The pattern of local power was the same throughout medieval Europe: the village's natural leader was the noble landowner-warrior. For the Saxons, the geréb was this indispensable leader. To be sure, his power undermined the principle of equal rights, but the geréb families were uniquely endowed with administrative and judicial experience and authority, qualities that were nurtured and passed on from generation {1-477.} to generation. Although they would resist the occasional abuse of power, ordinary Saxons yielded voluntarily to the authority of the gerébs, and thereby acknowledged the ruling status of the Hungarian nobility. With their county estates, and by way of intermarriage, the Saxon gerébs forged intimate links with the Hungarian nobility. They aspired to the latter's way of life and made every effort at assimilation. Adopting the nobles' custom, they took on the name of an estate, preferably the one, outside the Szászföld, that gave rise to their own noble status. Sometimes only a German given name or the surname Geréb would betray the Saxon origin of a noble family. Thus, over time, the geréb families became wholly Magyarized. As noted, the wealthiest among them — the Talmácsi, Kelneki, Alvinci, Kentelki, and Vingárti Geréb families — became assimilated on the female line to the Hungarians. The less wealthy families broke with their Saxon roots to became assimilated on the male line as well; such was the case with the Apoldi, Nádasdi, Hidegvizi, Pókafalvi, Alcinai, Dályai, Vizaknai Geréb, Balázsfalvi, Hosszútelki, and Kisenyedi families in Fehér county, and with the Drági, Zsombori, and Kajlai families in Doboka county. Several of their members ended up as county officials, as sub-counts or county magistrates. In the fifteenth century, a member of the Vizaknai Geréb family became deputy voivode of Transylvania, and then Székely count. These talented Saxons, endowed with qualities of leadership, were a valuable addition to Transylvania's nobility, but they scarcely transformed that caste: the vast majority of nobles were of Hungarian origin, and it was the non-Hungarian recruits who became fully assimilated.

At the end of the 15th century, there were still some gerébs who played a prominent role in Saxon society, but their number was steadily falling. In the meantime, the Saxon community had been evolving in a direction that did not match the interests of the gerébs. Partly due to pressure from the Saxon middle classes, who were intent on preserving equality of rights and social cohesion, partly of {1-478.} their own free will, the gerébs gave up the lands and offices that they had held in the Szászföld and moved to the noble counties, where they lived on as noblemen. Thus, in the end, the principle of equal rights prevailed: a Saxon nobility did not become entrenched in the Szászföld, and the Saxon peasants did not sink into villeinage.