Romanian Voivodes and Cnezes, Nobles and Villeins

As late as the 13th century, Romanian settlements in Transylvania were found only in the southern mountain region. Records show that they began to proliferate around 1300, when {1-488.} Romanians settled in virtually all of Transylvania's mountain and hill districts, with the exception of the Székely region in the Eastern Carpathians. Judging from 14th-century charters, the pattern of settlement in Hungary was undergoing rapid change. Villages materialized in areas that sources had previously ignored and indicated as being uninhabited; some of them soon disappear, only to be replaced by new villages on the same sites, or nearby. There is no doubt that this dynamic pattern, accompanied by frequent changes in toponyms, owed to a massive influx of Romanians. In one Romanian district of the Severin Province, five villages were recorded in 1365, and thirteen in 1404, with only one appearing in both lists. The process of migration did not end there, for in 1510, the district encompassed 36 villages, of which only two had existed in 1404. The appearance of new toponyms confirms that Romanian settlements became stabilized only at the end of the Middle Ages.

The scale of Romanian settlements in the 14th century was far greater than in earlier times, and it cannot be attributed to natural increase in the Romanian community of southern Transylvania. Sources indicate that at least some of the settlers came from beyond Hungary's borders. When, in 1334, a certain voivode Bogdan moved to Hungary (de terra sua in Hungariam), he brought along so many people that the migration stretched over nine months; the king delegated one of Hungary's highest dignitaries, the archbishop of Kalocsa, to organize the settlement. In 1359, six members of a distinguished Romanian family from Wallachia settled in the Temesköz (relictis omnibus bonis in terra Transalpina habitis, nostre maiestati semet ipsos obtulerunt fideliter servituros), where the king had given them thirteen villages to accommodate their retinue; six years later, they received another five properties. The voivode Balk and his four brothers moved in 1365 from Moldavia to Hungary (in regnum nostrum Hungarie advenit). Their example set off a wave of immigration, and, within a few years, numerous {1-489.} Romanian settlements materialized in hitherto sparsely inhabited mountain areas of northern Transylvania; one of the brothers even led a group of Romanian settlers to Poland.

While references to Romanians in Serbian royal charters became progressively rarer, the number of Romanians in Hungary grew steadily. By the 15th century, these people, who spoke a northern Romanian dialect, had largely abandoned their Balkan homeland to settle along the Danube's left bank. Since there were too many to accommodate on the royal castle-estates in Eastern Hungary, the Crown renounced its exclusive right to receive immigrants and tolerated the theoretically unauthorized settlement of Romanians on private estates. In the event, the Romanians found that their economic and legal status was less favourable on church and private estates. Though dispensed of military obligation, they had to supply more services in kind. Moreover, the pastures on private estates were much more confined than on the vast, alpine royal estates; to reap the maximum fee for the use of pastureland, landowners made sure that 'their' Romanians did not graze their flocks on adjoining properties. Eventually, the subdivision of privatized royal estates and the avarice of landlords rendered extensive grazing so onerous that it faded away, and most Romanian shepherds began to graze their flocks within village boundaries. Transhumance survived only on the far side of the southern and eastern Carpathians. The first permanent Romanian settlements were established (as indicted by the linguistic derivation of toponyms) on the fringes of existing Hungarian, Slav, and Saxon villages, at the foot of the mountain range. Later, in the 15th–16th centuries, the process of settlement reached higher altitudes, where the Romanian way of life was not influenced by the proximity of other peoples; only these later-established villages bear names of Romanian origin.

Until the mid-1300s, the Romanian immigrants settled in and near uninhabited mountain areas, and not in the middle of the {1-490.} Transylvanian Basin populated by Hungarians and Saxons. Then came the Black Death, which swept across Europe in 1348–49 and, as both foreign and Hungarian sources confirm, decimated Hungary's population (mortalitas magna fuit in regno Ungarie, multe civitates et ville deserte habitatoribus vacuate). Short of manpower, the landowners settled Romanians — who, living in the mountains, had suffered less from the plague, and whose numbers were steadily growing through immigration — in the depopulated, Hungarian and Saxon villages of central Transylvania. This is the origin of the 'twin villages' that characterize the central plateau and river valleys of Transylvania: their Hungarian or Saxon names were prefixed with 'Magyar' (Hungarian), 'Szász' (Saxon), or 'Oláh' (Vlach = Romanian) to distinguish the ethnic halves of the settlement. The foundation of these twin villages is easy to date, for their names lacked an ethnic prefix before the 14th or 15th century, indicating that they had been inhabited by only one ethnic group. The Romanian settlement must have occurred between the last recorded reference to a prefix-free toponym and the first reference to an ethnically-divided village.

The dual village-names also reveal that the Romanian settlements were segregated from those of the other nationalities. This segregation is explained by enduring cultural and religious differences; the Hungarians and Saxons belonged to the Roman Church, while the Romanians were Greek Orthodox (sources from the late 14th century mention 'Vlach chapels' in the Romanian half of twin villages). Although the Romanians assimilated an agrarian way of life, shepherding remained their principal occupation. In 1461, when the crown's agents came to collect the 'sheep fiftieth' tax in villages of the Mezőség, two landowners reported that 'they had delivered sheep the previous year, but this year they had no Romanians'.[21]21. Z. Pâclişanu, 'Un registru al quinquagesimei din 1461,' in Fratilor Alexandru şi Ion J. Lapedatu (Bucharest, 1936), pp. 601-602: in Besenyő, 'nunc caret Valachys', and in Majos, 'presenti anno caret Valachys'. Evidently the Romanian shepherds had tried to practice transhumance between the Mezőség and the central Transylvanian mountains; however, those thickly-forested mountains {1-491.} had no natural alpine pastures, and thus summer pastures had to be created by forest-clearance. The sheep grazed on the new saplings but avoided the thorny undergrowth, which soon spread to cover the pastures. The shepherds in this area, which came to be known as the 'Móc region' (mócvidék), grew weary of the annual chore of clearing the thorn bushes from their summer pastures, and gave up transhumance. They thus settled near the Hungarian and Saxon villages where they had previously wintered, founding the 'Oláh' part of the twin villages. Their enduring attachment to shepherding is illustrated by the fact that, in the Middle Ages, all Romanians in Hungary had to pay the 'sheep fiftieth' tax.

In the mid-1300s, the Romanian community in Transylvania underwent a major transformation. The Romanian voivodes and cnezes, whose social and legal status was similar to that of the Saxon gerébs, followed the latter's ascent into the nobility. On the other hand, the social evolution of Romanian commoners was quite different from that of their Saxon counterparts. The kings rewarded some voivodes and cnezes for their military service with noble status, but, initially, that status was circumscribed: they remained obligated to pay taxes in kind for their estates, and to provide precisely-defined military services. Voivodes and cnezes who held this semi-noble status were identified in charters as 'noble voivode' or 'noble cnez' (nobilis voivoda, nobilis kenezius). Their social status was equivalent of that of the Hungarian 'conditional noble' (conditionarius), who was also burdened with defined services. Similarly, the bishops of Várad and Transylvania rewarded Romanian voivodes who served in their military escorts with a 'church nobility' that was akin to conditional nobility. Once ennobled, the voivodes were free to manage the land that had been originally put in their care as a nobleman's estate, and to treat the free Romanians living on the estate as their villeins; but the king or bishop retained title to the land, and the Romanians came under the jurisdiction of the royal or episcopal castellan, and not of the county's nobiliary {1-492.} courts. The bishops' semi-noble voivodes remained in this state of dependence until the early modern period, when the Reformation did away with church estates. In contrast, the crown's semi-noble voivodes and cnezes soon rose to the ranks of the full-fledged, 'national nobility', winning the same rights and obligations as Hungarian nobles.

The main difference between the Székely and Saxon nobles and Romanian nobles is that while the former acquired the properties that qualified them for nobility outside their regions, in the counties, the latter were given nobiliary rights to the estate that they had previously administered. The natural consequence of this was that ordinary Romanians lost their freedom and became the villeins of the ennobled voivodes and cnezes. After some sporadic resistance, these people became resigned to their fate. The king had no interest in safeguarding the freedom of Romanian commoners who, unlike the voivodes and cnezes, performed no military service. Thus, by the end of the Middle Ages, most Romanians had become the villeins of Hungarian or Saxon noblemen, or, in some cases, of ennobled Romanians. This was the reason that Romanians did not become one of the feudal 'nations'. Villeins, whatever their nationality, were denied political rights. The nobility, on the other hand, constituted a single 'nation' irrespective of ethnic origin.

The social ascent of the Romanian elite was most rapid outside Transylvania, in the Máramaros region. The reason was that, in the 14th century, the most serious threat facing Hungary lay in the northeast, with the still-potent Mongol empire. The Romanian voivodes and cnezes of Máramaros participated in the campaigns of Charles Robert and Louis the Great — against the Mongols, then the Lithuanians, and, ultimately, against the rebellious voivode of Moldavia, Bogdan — and thereby won the reward of nobility. 'Real' nobility, free of tax and service obligations, was granted to cnezes of Szurdok in 1326, of Bedőháza in 1336, and of Váralja and Felsőróna in 1360. In 1380, following the model of the Hungarian {1-493.} noble counties, the Romanian noblemen of Máramaros affirmed their autonomy by electing judges (judices nobilium) and jurymen from within their ranks to assist the crown-appointed count. Hungary's first landowning aristocrats of Romanian origin who came to play a role in national politics came from the Máramaros voivodes, especially from the Drágfi family, whose estate encompassed over a hundred villages.

In the 14th century, there were no Romanians in Transylvania who had full noble status. In the Romanian districts of Hunyad county and of the counties of Severin Province that still belonged to Hungary, judicial affairs were handled until the end of the 1400s by castellans, who were appointed by Transylvania's voivode or by the governor (bán) of Severin, and assisted by jurymen selected from among the cnezes. The cnezes performed personal military service and paid land-rent and sheep-tax for the villages under their administration. As the Turkish threat intensified, the cnezes of the royal castle-estates on the southern frontier performed more and more military service. As a result, many of the Romanian cnezes in the area of today's Bánság and Hunyad county won conditional nobility and, by the end of the century, attained full nobility. It is hardly coincidental that the mass ennoblement of Romanian cnezes is linked to the name of János Hunyadi, for this great general had grown up among them and understood their aspirations. When he served as Transylvania's voivode and Székely count (the first time that the two offices were held by one man), Hunyadi drew into his retinue not only Hungarian and Székely retainers but also several Romanian cnezes. The powerful voivode's followers were naturally the first to benefit from his favour, and several distinguished Transylvanian families trace their ancestry to cnezes ennobled by Hunyadi: the Nádasdi Ungor, Malomvizi Kenderesi, Kendeffi, and Csulai families of Hunyad county, and the Csornai, Bizerei, Mutnoki, Temeseli Dési, and Macskási families from Severin Province. In the second half of the 15th century, the number of {1-494.} newly-ennobled Romanians in Hunyad county compared with that of the lesser nobility in any Hungarian county: they included cnez families from the royal castle-districts at Hátszeg, Déva, and Jófő (Bajesdi, Barbátvizi, Bári, Brettyei, Csolnokosi, Farkadini, Fejérvizi, Galaci, Karulyosdi, Kernyesti, Klopotivai, Lindzsinai, Livádi, Macesdi, Oncsokfalvi, Osztrói, Pestényi, Ponori, Puji, Riusori, Szacsali, Szentpéterfalvi, Szilvási, Totesdi, Vádi, Várhelyi, Zejkányi); some of them, such as the Szálláspataki and Demsusi Muzsina families, had estates that encompassed a large number of villages. János Hunyadi's mother came from the Demsusi Muzsina family. Noble titles and demesnes were granted to the voivodes of Sebesvár, in Kolozs county, from whom descend the Meregjói Botos, Kalotai Vajda, Csicsei Vajda, and Danki Vajda families, as well as to the Lupsai Kende family in Alsó-Fehér county. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the Romanian elite in the Fogaras region had feudal estates granted to them by the king of Hungary, but they remained under the jurisdiction of Wallachia's voivodes; this explains why they were known not as cnezes but as boyars, a title of Bulgar origin that was used by the nobles of Wallachia. In the feudal hierarchy, the boyars of Fogaras had a status similar to that of cnezes on other royal castle-estates, although they were obligated to provide feudal services on a larger scale than the latter. Several boyar families attained full noble status, notably the Maylád family, which played an important role in the early modern period. All this is in regard to the historic territory of Transylvania; there were Romanian nobles in other parts of Hungary as well.

Ennobled Romanians not only took on the title but also adopted the legal code, administrative institutions, and lifestyle of the Hungarian nobility. Máramaros acquired, as noted, an administrative structure identical to that of Hungarian counties. In the second half of the 15th century, the cnezial court covering districts in Severin evolved into a standard county court; the official responsible for the preparation and application of the court's rulings, known {1-495.} as the krajnik, gradually assumed the role of county judge. A similar development took place in the Hátszeg area. In the 14th century, the assembly of cnezes was still convened by the royal castellan, and his word would rule the day; but by the early 1400s, the cnezes began to act as autonomous nobles, for they would at times assemble, render judgement, and issue charters without any involvement on the part of the castellan. In Hunyad county, where there was an established Hungarian nobility and nobiliary court, the ennobled Romanians espoused the existing institutions, and the cnezial court ceased to exist.

Many, but not all of the ennobled Romanian cnezes adhered to the Roman Catholic Church. In the Máramaros, a sizeable number of them stayed with the Greek Orthodox Church. Hungary's kings insisted on conversion only in the cases of nobles living in the southern frontier regions, and their motivation was mainly political, for the 'rebellious Wallachian voivodes' exploited religion to make trouble in Hungary. Only those ennobled Romanians became linguistically assimilated who had regular contact with the Hungarians; but, following the pattern of nobles of Slovak origin, all of them assimilated a Hungarian outlook and Hungarian values. The Romanian noblemen in Hungary were forthright in declaring themselves members of the 'Hungarian nation' of nobles. While their counterparts in Wallachia and Moldavia, voivodes and boyars, adopted — with few exceptions — a conciliatory attitude towards the Ottoman Turks, Hungary's Romanian noblemen accepted the obligations that went with their privileged status and fought loyally at the side of the Hungarians.

Hungarians did not generally regard the Romanian noblemen as foreigners. In the second half of the 15th century, Hungary's kings regularly appointed Romanians to high office, and this without incurring protest from a Hungarian nobility that already had a highly developed sense of national identity. Several Romanians were appointed to the important office of governor in Severin {1-496.} Province: Mihály Csornai (1447–54), István and Mihály Mutnoki (1467–69), and, at the end of the century, Péter Macskási. János Malomvizi Kenderesi and Mihály Pestényi both served as count of the Máramaros, and Péter Temeseli Dési as count of Bereg county. János Nádasdi Ungor, whose father had taught János Hunyadi how to handle arms, was a favourite of King Matthias. Through his wife, who issued from the Lendvai Bánffy family, he had become related to some of the country's oldest aristocratic families, and his success as a military commander earned him vast estates. Another Romanian success story is that of the Csulai family, from the Hátszeg region. Vlad Csulai, a noble cnez of modest means, had seven sons, five of whom attained high public office. László Ficsor served as ban of Jajca and of Severin, Miklós Kende as ban of Sabác, György Móré as ban of Severin and of Nándorfehérvár, János Báncsa as castellan of Bálványos, and Fülöp Móré as bishop of Pécs; their wives came from the aristocratic Bethlen, Haranglábi, and Dóczi families.