Saxon Towns and Political Unity

The Saxons' new leaders came from the merchant class that had emerged and accumulated wealth in the process of urbanization. The gerébs' military aristocracy arose within the context, and under the impetus of Hungarian social development; similarly, the Saxon patrician class was the product not of a social evolution traceable to legal and economic institutions brought by the Saxons from their original homeland, but of Hungary's socio-economic transformation. The early Saxon society in Transylvania was marked by a village-based, noble-peasant lifestyle, and there is no reason to believe that it harboured the seeds of urbanization. The medieval middle class dwelt in towns, which nurtured crafts and commerce, and possessed a distinctive legal order and lifestyle. The institutions of Hungary's towns, and commerce, the lifeblood of those towns, came about as a consequence of economic development. The model was the Western European town, which was as typical of Europe's culture as knighthood, feudalism, or Romanesque and Gothic styles of architecture. Geography explains why the development of Hungarian towns resembled most closely that of German towns, although German urban culture — like other medieval institutions — was introduced to Hungary by immigrants from many parts of Western Europe. The earliest Hungarian towns, such as Esztergom, Buda, and Székesfehérvár, counted among their inhabitants not only native Hungarians but also neo-Latins (French, Walloon, and Italian) and Germans, and some towns, notably as {1-479.} Pest, also harboured Eastern merchants, Arabs, and Volga Bulgars. Hungary's towns did not suddenly materialize as the result of some single founding act; they evolved from royal castles and rural settlements. In Transylvania, as noted, the towns of Dés, Kolozsvár, Torda, and Gyulafehérvár grew out of royal castles that had lost their military importance as a result of the Mongol invasion; merchants and artisans joined the earlier population of farmers and craftsmen. The original castle people were of Hungarian origin, and the newcomers (hospeses) included some Hungarians, but most of them were Germans. The development of some Saxon villages into towns owed more to political than to economic factors.

After suppressing the Saxons' rebellion in 1324, Charles Robert imposed on them a new administrative system. Previously, the Saxons had four distinct and autonomous territories (often referred to in charters as comitati or provinces) administered by a count, generally a Hungarian nobleman, who was appointed by the king. After 1224, when the king issued the Andreanum, the largest area was encompassed by Szeben province, which extended from Szászváros to Barót; the territories of Medgyes-Selyk, Brassó, and Beszterce were considerably smaller. Szeben was the Saxon powder keg: the province's gerébs quarrelled interminably with the bishop of Transylvania, and often with the voivode as well. To make supervision more effective, the king in 1324 suspended the territorial authority of the Szeben count and divided the province into judicial districts, or seats. Each seat was administered by a royal judge, directly appointed by the king, who normally picked someone from a loyal geréb family. The three other districts continued to be administered by counts, Hungarian aristocrats who would normally also be acting as counts of the Székelys, and who were assisted by their Hungarian retainers.

In 1402, the seats of Medgyes and Selyk received royal permission to elect their royal judges. This concession marked the beginning of a process of emancipation that would lead to local {1-480.} self-government for the Saxons. In 1464, King Matthias allowed the town of Szeben to elect its royal judge, and, in 1469, he extended this right to the province's seven other seats. In 1486, King Matthias extended the applicability of the Andreanum — which enshrined the privileges of the Szeben Saxons — to the districts of Brassó, Beszterce, and Medgyes-Selyk. This step had major consequences: a clause in the charter, providing that the Saxons of Szeben would be governed by a single high official, was now interpreted to include Brassó, Beszterce, and even Segesvár (founded in the 14th century). Thus the king's counts were withdrawn from these districts, and the Saxons became politically unified under a single official, the Saxon count, whose title was assumed by the mayor of Szeben. In the period of fragmented administration, the localities that served as administrative and judicial centres for the seats and districts underwent steady development. Thanks to their official status, they became market towns; by the mid-1300s, they had attracted merchants and craftsmen who exploited markets in the Wallachian and Moldavian voivodeships.

Moldavia and Wallachia, which later became principalities, were considered Cumanian lands when they were annexed to Hungary in the early 13th century by King Béla IV. After the Mongol invasion, their link to Hungary became purely nominal. Once the Cumanians had departed, the king put Romanian voivodes in charge of these territories, officials who were appointed in the same manner as Transylvania's voivode. However, the recurrent attacks by Mongols kept the region in turmoil, and it was only in Wallachia, along a narrow stretch of the Carpathians' foothills, that two voivodes managed to exercise their rule. Until the early 1300s, Moldavia remained a sparsely populated, political no-man's-land. Exploiting the prevailing political turmoil, Wallachia's voivodes emulated the Hungarian oligarchy by trying to expand their autonomy at the expense of the Crown. In 1330, Charles Robert failed to impose his will on the voivode Basarab, and he barely escaped {1-481.} death in his disastrous military campaign. Thereafter, Hungary's kings had to be content with oaths of fealty that gave the voivodes considerable political latitude. Székely troops, led by the Székely count Endre Lackfi, finally expelled the Mongols from Moldavia in 1352; seven years later, the territory's voivode, Bogdan, rebelled against the king, and he too won a large degree of autonomy.

Although the Hungarian king suffered a reduction in his authority beyond the Carpathians, he retained considerable influence. Rich in natural resources, his two Romanian protectorates were opened up to Transylvanian commerce. The voivodeships were barely starting to get organized (the first Romanian stone church dates from the early 1300s). When, with the fading of the Mongol threat, commerce revived, they depended on Transylvanian traders to exchange their goods for Western manufactured products. The main economic beneficiaries were the Saxon towns lying close to the border, notably Szeben, Brassó, and Beszterce. Louis I the Great, who reigned from 1342 to 1382, pursued an active economic policy: he sought to restore Hungary's place in east-west trade — for centuries, merchants had avoided passing through the country — and encouraged the Saxons' commercial endeavours. In 1369, he granted Brassó a staple right, in terms of which German and Polish merchants, intent on exporting their cloth (the period's principal export commodity) to Wallachia, were compelled to sell it to Brassó's traders; the latter then traded the cloth for Wallachian agricultural products and livestock that were sold on the Brassó market. Beszterce had been granted in 1368 a similar right over the trade route that connected Moldavia and Poland, and Szeben won comparable privileges in 1378. Most of this lively commerce with the east involved Western European products, mainly textiles, for in the 14th century, the Saxons produced few manufactured goods for the market. The Saxon traders seldom concerned themselves with the actual movement of goods. They exploited the staple right in the same manner as their Viennese counterparts, by simply exchanging {1-482.} goods in their town markets with Romanian merchants. Occasionally, they would travel to the Romanian voivodeships to negotiate a major deal, but seldom ventured farther east. Saxon traders travelled more frequently to the West, particularly to fairs in Germany, after King Louis withdrew their staple right in Buda. They conveyed Wallachian and Moldavian raw materials to these fairs, and returned with spices and textiles. They had two principal routes. One led through Kassa to Bohemia, Poland, and onward to Danzig; the other passed through Buda to either Vienna, Regensburg, and Basel, or Zara (Zadar) and Venice.

It took some time for Saxon industry to win a share of this growing economic activity. Craftsmen's guilds began to appear in Transylvania in the middle of the 14th century. King Louis disbanded the guilds, then, in 1376, responded to the Saxons' request and restored them under new rules. Although there were 19 guilds, with 25 branch crafts, the regulations provided no quantitative limits on output, suggesting that the craftsmen served only local needs. Such limits appear in guild charters of the 15th century, when the craftsmen began to produce for the market or even for export; only then did the products of Transylvanian industry find their way to the east. Industry grew at such a pace that even some village-based guilds had over a hundred members. A growing variety of goods was exported to the Romanian voivodeships: 15th century customs regulations make reference to clothing, cooking utensils, knives, weapons, unfinished metal products, spices, jewellery, parchment, paper, carts, and even dried fruit and cakes. Imports from the voivodeships still consisted of unprocessed products, notably livestock, hides, wool, wax, honey, and, more rarely, grain.

The three major Saxon towns, Nagyszeben, Brassó, and Beszterce, controlled commercial access through mountain passes to the voivodeships, thereby impeding the development not only of Hungarian towns (Dés, Torda, Gyulafehérvár) and Székely centres (Marosvásárhely, Kézdivásárhely, Udvarhely, Sepsiszentgyörgy) {1-483.} but also of other Saxon towns (Szászsebes, Medgyes, Segesvár, Szászváros). Some smaller Székely towns were situated equally close to the border, but the Székelys' martial traditions retarded the emergence of a full-fledged merchant class, and by the time this began to change, the Saxons had secured an unchallengeable lead.

The Saxon towns' only serious competitor was Kolozsvár, a town that, at the time of its founding, had a mixed Hungarian-German population. Kolozsvár could draw commercial benefit from its location at the crossroads of trade between Transylvania and the rest of Hungary. Although originally its inhabitants pursued a typically noble-peasant lifestyle, the town came to play a leading role in the development of a market-based economy and society in Transylvania. Drawn by the growth of manufactures and the freedom found in town, more and more Hungarian villeins moved from the surrounding districts to Kolozsvár in the second half of the 14th century. German artisans migrated, in smaller numbers, from the Saxon lands and Germany. Before long, prosperous traders assumed leadership of the mass of craftsmen organized into guilds, and they sought a place in municipal government alongside the old commercial and propertied elite. Whereas the old elite was driven by nobiliary and military ambitions, this rising social stratum had little interest in owning land and was self-consciously German. In 1405, the new middle class won the king's support and broke the grip of the town's power elite, which consisted of a few old and wealthy families. The Germans' particularism upset the harmony between Hungarians and Saxons, who began to vie for control of the town. For a while, the Saxons prevailed; then, in 1458, the Hungarian middle class, which was in the majority, obtained — with the government's support — that the two groups share equally in appointments to the town council and the magistrature. For centuries, both parties faithfully abided by this principle, but demographics favoured the Hungarians, while the number of Saxons decreased, and Kolozsvár entered the modern era with a predominantly Hungarian population.

{1-484.} Gyulafehérvár was always a wholly Hungarian town. In the late 14th century, Hungarian peasants began to move in increasing numbers to the mining towns (Dés, Torda, Szék, Kolozs, Abrudbánya, Zalatna, Offenbánya, Torockó), where they eventually formed a majority that assimilated the earlier German population. In the Saxon towns, on the other hand, it was the Hungarians who were assimilated or otherwise disappeared. (In Szászsebes, for example, the onetime Hungarian presence is evoked by the name of Székely Street.) The growing Hungarian presence in many towns was linked to the development of crafts in the Hungarian villages. Lists of villeins, dating from the 15th century, include many surnames that evoke a variety of trades and crafts; such people already possessed the basic elements of an commercial culture when they moved into towns. Thus, at the end of the Middle Ages, Transylvania's urban middle class included not only Germans but also a large proportion of Hungarians. The Romanians, on the other hand, were absent from this early phase of urbanization, the one exception being a merchant colony in Brassó.

The Saxon walled towns that enjoyed full municipal rights included Szeben, Brassó, Beszterce, Segesvár, Szászsebes, later Szászváros, and, at the beginning of the modern age, Medgyes. Their development was strongly influenced by their function as administrative and judicial centres for the Saxon seats and districts. Each town's administration also held sway over the surrounding villages, although the inhabitants played no part in the selection of these officials. Thus the Saxon villagers found that they had merely changed masters, the gerébs being replaced by the wealthy burghers.

Szeben even tried to extend its authority over seats of similar rank. In the case of the towns of Segesvár and Szászsebes, these ambitions were frustrated, but Szeben burghers took over the office of judge in the seats of Szászváros, Újegyháza, Szerdahely, Sink, and Kőhalom. Only in the 16th century did these seats succeed in {1-485.} freeing themselves from the domination of Szeben and secure the right to elect their own judge. A middle class began to emerge in the towns around the middle of the 14th century, but initially it consisted of landowners and merchants, with the artisans remaining in a subordinate status. In 1366, when the gerébs still functioned as town judges, the office of mayor was established in Szeben, Segesvár, and Brassó, essentially to represent the interests of the increasingly prosperous merchant class. As the gerébs gradually faded in importance, so did the office of town judge, leaving the mayors in control of the towns, and therefore of the seats. At the same time, all Saxon towns except Beszterce retained the subordinate office of 'Hann', or village judge (villicus), which dated from their village origins. Beszterce had neither a mayor nor a Hann, but only a town judge. This indicates that although it existed as a Saxon settlement prior to 1241, its development — unlike that of the other Saxon towns — was interrupted by the Mongol invasion. The king therefore had to found a new town, with a fresh population, as he did in the case of Kolozsvár, where the offices of mayor and Hann were equally unknown. Obviously, in both cases the original population had been annihilated by the Mongols.

The Saxons' new ruling elite, the merchants who came to form the urban patrician class, consisted of but a few families, as was the case with the gerébs; and, like the gerébs, they jealously guarded their power. The first challenge to their dominance came from the artisans, and the result was the introduction, in 1495, of an institution that already flourished in Kolozsvár and other Hungarian cities: the 'Board of a Hundred' (Hundertmannschaft), through which the guilds could make their voice heard in municipal affairs. However, since the board's members were appointed by the town council, which consisted exclusively of patricians, the artisans gained little from the innovation. At the beginning of the 16th century, the efforts of the Hungarian lesser nobility and the Székely commoners to win greater autonomy found an echo among ordinary {1-486.} Saxons, who felt equally oppressed. In 1520, the mayor of Segesvár was killed by disgruntled Saxon peasants. However, neither the urban, lower middle class nor the peasants succeeded in breaking the power of the new ruling elite. Although Hungary's lesser nobility registered some temporary successes, the higher social strata managed to consolidate their hold on power and win the king's support. The lot of villeins and common Székelys took a turn for the worse, and the political and economic subjection of common Saxons to the upper middle class was confirmed. Despite repeated challenges from the lower orders, the patricians invariably prevailed, though sometimes only at the price of bloodshed.

The Saxons' new social order was based on the primacy of the towns. The peasantry felt not only the power of the urban elite but also the economic pressure of the towns, and in this respect the urban lower middle class also gained at their expense. The seats' administrative centres systematically hindered the development of other settlements in their district, notably by reserving to themselves the right to hold public markets. In 1378, Brassó blocked the efforts of Földvár to hold a weekly market; Nagysink did the same to Szentágota in 1379, and Segesvár to Henndorf in 1428. Later, the town guilds also extended their authority, for their masters obtained the right to supervise guild activity in the villages.

Although reality belied the Saxons' principle of equal rights, the lot of the Saxon peasants was still far better than that of villeins in the noble counties or that of the poorer Székelys. The main reason for this was the progressive demilitarization of Saxon society after the withdrawal of the gerébs; the Saxons no longer faced the danger of seeing their society divided between nobles and villeins. Until the end of the Middle Ages, Saxon units continued to serve in the Transylvanian army, but middle-class values spread at the expense of a martial spirit. Fewer and fewer Saxons performed military service; they preferred to commute their obligation, or to pay for Székely and Romanian mercenaries. They walled their towns, {1-487.} fortified their village churches, and preferred, in case of danger, to retrench rather than to engage in open battle. An astute observer of Transylvania, Antal Verancsics, observed in the mid-1500s that the Saxons were anything but a warlike people (militia a maioribus ... degeneravere, pedestres exercent arma, iuxta muros fortissimi, in campo facile cedunt).[20]20. 'They have lost their ancestors' military spirit, use infantry weapons, and are strong within their walls but retreat in the field.' MHH-S 1857, p. 148.

The shift from a noble/peasant way of life to a middle-class/peasant pattern coincided with the awakening of Saxon nationalism. The gerébs, as noted, lost their sense of German identity, and the lower orders were also free of such sentiments, but the efforts at emancipation of the urban middle class in the 15th century were accompanied by a rise in national consciousness. To be sure, the Saxons, like the Hungarians, had a sense of community, and that sense was based in part on mother-tongue, but it had more to do with shared social circumstances than with their origins or language, and it did not have a political edge directed at other ethnic groups. By the end of the Middle Ages, however, the Saxon middle class — like the Hungarian lesser nobility — had adopted a passionate and exclusive form of ethnic chauvinism. An early, practical manifestation was the exclusion of non-Saxons from their guilds and towns. The first such measure was taken in 1474, when the town council of Szeben ruled that a Dominican monastery, established in a suburb, could move within the town walls only if and when Germans made up the majority of friars. The Saxon middle class's deepening sense of ethnic identity was instrumental, along with King Matthias's sympathetic support, in the political unification of the Saxons.