The Three Feudal 'Nations' and the Ottoman Threat

Although the three groups, of Hungarian nobles, Székelys, Saxons were not free of differentiation in rank or of internal discord, each of them constituted an integrated community of interest with respect to the others. Each group jealously guarded the legal codes and customs that symbolized their autonomy and distinctive character. The fact that an individual's rights, obligations, and rank in Hungarian society depended on this membership only reinforced identification with his specific community, or feudal estate. In medieval terminology, these three Transylvanian Estates were each called a 'nation' (natio). This word evoked a community bound by customary laws and possessed of liberty (libertas), and not a nation in the modern sense, defined by common ethnic origin and mother tongue.

{1-497.} Thus Transylvania's feudal nations did not necessarily coincide with the ethnic groups. For one thing, only freemen could be full-fledged members. Villeins, whether Hungarian, Saxon, or Romanian, were under the authority of their lords and thus could not enjoy the freedom that was inseparable from membership in a nation. All freemen who performed military service and held personal title to property (i.e. whose land was not simply a share of commonly-held property, as in the case of Székelys and Saxons) counted as members of the 'nation' of nobles, irrespective of their ethnic background. Székelys and Saxons had an equal chance of becoming noblemen, and, as noted, many Romanians were ennobled as well. If Saxon and Romanian noblemen became assimilated to the Hungarians, this was not as a consequence of official policy or compulsion. The Hungarian nobility always included people of other mother tongues, and it possessed a distinctive lifestyle that held a powerful attraction for new recruits. If the latter assimilated the Hungarian majority's language and national consciousness, they did so voluntarily. In so far as the Hungarian nobility of the Middle Ages displayed a bias in the matter, it aimed more to exclude foreign elements — for reasons of foreign policy — than to assimilate them. To the Hungarian nobles, 'foreign' signified 'extraneous to Hungary'. When the lesser nobility pressed the national assembly to decree that foreigners could not hold public office, the target was always first-generation immigrants. The same noble 'nation' that agitated against domination by foreigners backed candidates for the throne, Matthias Hunyadi and John Szapolyai, who were not of wholly Hungarian ethnic origin. To be sure, the Hungarian nobles of Transylvania developed, in the late Middle Ages, an aversion to Saxons; the hostility, which was mutual, owed to the chronic friction between the nobility and the middle class as well as to the anti-German slant of contemporary foreign policy. The Székelys' 'nation' had long ago ceased to be a distinct nationality; indeed, they were generally regarded as the most {1-498.} Hungarian of Hungarians. Thus in 1558, Mihály Vilmányi Libécz, a poet from Upper Hungary, would advise Hungarians who were perplexed by some question of grammar or usage to

Consult without fail the language of the ancient Székelys,
For they are the guardians of the purest Hungarian tongue.[22]22. János Horváth, ed., Magyar versek könyve (Budapest, 1937), p. 31.

Only the Saxon 'nation' coincided with a distinct nationality, and even so, it did not include all the Germans of Transylvania, for neither German burghers in county towns nor Saxon villeins counted as members of the natio Saxonica. And if the Romanians did not come to constitute a 'nation', it is because when the voivodes and cnezes gained ascendancy over commoners, they effectively abrogated that ethnic community's 'liberty'.

At first, each of the three feudal nations concentrated on safeguarding and expanding its privileges and local autonomy. In the 14th century, the nobility, Székelys, and Saxons displayed no community of interest with regard to Transylvania, nor any disposition to take concerted action. At the time, Transylvania was an essentially geographical concept. The perception, that it was a somewhat autonomous region within the Hungarian realm, owed not to local patriotism but to exceptional powers held by the voivode. The latter was the chief magistrate, governor, and military commander of Transylvania's counties, and this power inevitably drew the Székely and Saxon territories into his sphere of influence. To be sure, these territories were governed by counts who were nominally independent of the voivode. Székelys and Saxons clung jealously to this status, fearing that if they were put under the same judicial and administrative authority as the noble 'nation', the nobiliary law would prevail at the expense of their own legal codes. The kings, on the other hand, tried to harmonize the administration of this remote province by appointing close relatives of the voivode to the post of Székely count (who was, at the same time, count of three {1-499.} of the four Saxon districts, Beszterce, Brassó, and Medgyes-Selyk. When Tamás Szécsényi occupied the post of voivode, the Székely count was his nephew, Simon. For most of the period between 1344 and 1376, King Louis entrusted Transylvania to his favourites, the Lackfi family: the posts of voivode and Székely count were held variously by István, András, Dénes, Miklós, Imre, and the younger István.

In the 14th century, Hungary underwent a process of political and economic consolidation, and Transylvania prospered as never before, or since. The campaign led by András Lackfi had finally expelled the Mongols. The main source of unrest was the relationship between nobles and villains, which remained unsettled and was further complicated by judicial and social aspects of the settlement of Romanians in the counties. King Louis had to pay a visit in 1366 to Transylvania to deal with the disorder. Among Hungary's kings, he was the most frequent visitor to the province, one reason being the problems in the southern borderlands. The frequent rebellions by Wallachian voivodes did not represent a serious threat, but their armies would repeatedly rampage through the mainly Saxon villages in the frontier zone. To secure the mountain passes, the king had the fortresses rebuilt at Talmács and Törcs, a defensive measure fully supported by the Saxons of Szeben and Brassó.

The roster of voivodes offers one indication of the relative tranquillity that prevailed in Transylvania during the 14th century. Individuals and families who enjoyed the king's trust would hold the immensely prestigious post for long periods, thus ensuring political continuity: Tamás Szécsényi for twenty-two years, the Lackfi family for twenty-six, and László Losonci for fifteen years. The voivode represented Transylvania to the outside world; within the province, he was the link between social groups that were separated by law, language, custom, and interests. He mediated the first institutional links between the three feudal nations. When, as often happened, problems of a judicial, administrative, commercial, {1-500.} or military nature involved members of all three nations, the monarch was supposed to summon a general council (congregatio generalis), but he usually left this task to the voivode. These diets, convened at Torda, were a comparatively frequent occurrence in the 14th century, and they helped noble, Székely, and Saxon leaders to emerge from isolation and take note of their common interests. As the Ottoman threat intensified, so did the need for solidarity among Transylvania's 'nations'.

At the beginning of the 15th century, the voivode stopped convening these councils, thus suspending institutional contact between the three feudal nations. King Louis had been the last male descendant of the Anjou family, and his death in 1382 was followed by a fierce struggle for the succession. The aristocracy, which had been kept in check by Charles Robert and Louis, once again engaged in partisan battles, shattering the peace of the realm. The civil war ended with the enthronement of Sigismund of Luxembourg (1387–1437), who had to accommodate himself to a more assertive aristocracy. During the first half of the 15th century, the closely-related families of aristocrats formed themselves into 'leagues' controlling vast regions of the country and competed for political power. Whether by choice or economic and political necessity, the great mass of middle and lesser nobles became the feudal familiars of the aristocracy. The king depended on the barons' support, and would make repeated grants of land to secure it. Accordingly, the crown's holdings were diminished throughout the country — including, with some delay, in Transylvania — and the aristocracy ended up owning more land than the king. The aristocrats devoted their time and energies to partisan struggles, often at the expense of the responsibilities of their public office, which they entrusted to their retainers; the king's remedy, the appointment to important offices of not one, but two incumbents, scarcely alleviated the problem. King Louis's famous Polish general, Stibor Stiborici, served with some effectiveness as Transylvania's voivode {1-501.} in 1395–1401 and 1409–14, but his successors proved to be less conscientious. The voivodes Miklós Csáky (1415–1426) and László Csáky (1427–1437), father and son, never set foot in Transylvania, letting their deputy, Loránd Váraskeszi Lépes, govern in their stead. Lacking the authority of a voivode, the latter failed to provide Transylvania with the necessary leadership, but he and his brother, Bishop György, did promote their own family's interests with some success. Yet Transylvania was greatly in need of judicious and energetic governance, for the province was entering a critical phase in its history.

The threat looming in the south was the most dangerous that Hungary had to face since the Mongol invasion. The Ottoman Turks, having taken less than fifty years to conquer the Balkans, reached Hungary's border at the end of the 14th century. Mircea, Wallachia's voivode, put up a heroic resistance, then sought refuge in Transylvania and appealed to King Sigismund for help. In 1395, he confronted the Ottomans with the aid of a Hungarian army, but once again suffered defeat; one of the Hungarian commanders, István Losonci, fell in battle. Next, King Sigismund personally led an army into Wallachia to confront the new voivode, who had been installed by the Ottomans; in the event, he failed to dislodge the Ottomans from Kisnikápoly (Turnu), and as he was withdrawing, his forces were savaged by the troops of the new voivode. There followed the first Turkish incursion in Transylvania, into the Barcaság district. The king's crusaders, who included Western knights as well as Balkan freedom-fighters, suffered a disastrous defeat in 1396, at Nikopol. The following year, the Hungarian diet acknowledged the extraordinary nature of the threat by decreeing an unprecedented level of conscription in case of Turkish attack: one soldier for every twenty villeins.

After a short-lived resistance, Wallachia passed into Ottoman hands, and Mircea, who had meanwhile returned, became the Ottomans' vassal. King Sigismund sympathized with his {1-502.} Wallachian vassals, and on more than one occasion his troops helped loyal voivodes to recover their throne, but to no avail. There were plenty of Romanian pretenders ready to side with the Ottomans, and as soon as the Hungarian forces left Wallachia, one of them would lead Turkish troops to drive the king's protégé back to Transylvania. At times, the king's vassal, once he had been restored to power by Hungarian military strength, would try to forestall Turkish reprisal by offering fealty to the Ottomans, only to be driven from office by the next pretender and his Hungarian backers. Wallachia thus became a permanent battle zone, and the Ottomans, usually in concert with a voivode, broke into Transylvania with increasing frequency.

In 1420, it was — exceptionally — Transylvania's voivode, Miklós Csáky, who took charge of organizing resistance to the Ottomans, but he was defeated at Hátszeg. The enemy proceeded to devastate Hunyad county and Szászváros, then withdrew, taking much of the population into slavery. The following year, the Ottomans defeated a force of Saxons and Székelys at Brassó, and only those townspeople who sought refuge in the fortress at Cenk managed to avoid enslavement; on this occasion, the Ottomans also raided the Barcaság and the Fogaras district. In 1427, King Sigismund paid a personal visit to Transylvania's southern border-zone and, following the example set two centuries earlier by Andrew II, proposed to settle Teutonic Knights in Severin Province and Northern Wallachia. This experiment brought no lasting success. In 1432, Turkish and Romanian armies once again penetrated into Hungary; Brassó and Szeben, defended by new fortifications, successfully withstood the onslaught, but the Szászföld and, for the first time, the Székelyföld suffered great material and human losses. In 1434, the Transylvanian authorities had to take stringent measures against Romanians in the Fogaras, for people in Brassó had accused the latter of negotiating with the Ottomans to facilitate an invasion.

{1-503.} In 1435, Sigismund responded to the mounting threat with a series of military measures. He reorganized the militia (telekkatonaság, militia portalis), requiring that one mounted archer be raised for every thirty-three landed villeins, and imposing a new tax to pay for the upkeep. He also set out the requirements for Transylvania's army: 500 soldiers from each of the voivode, the Székely count, and the province's bishop, 40–150 from each ecclesiastical institution and town, 3000 from the counties collectively, and a further 4000 from the Székelys and Saxons. The Diet of the Transylvanian 'nations', convened at Torda in 1420, decided that, in case of Turkish attack, every third nobleman and every tenth villein would have to take up arms to assist the Székelys and Saxons, who were the most directly threatened.