The Hussite Movement and the Peasant Revolt

The burdens of national defence were felt most keenly by the villeins. Romanian villeins were taxed only on their sheep, and, being Greek Orthodox, they were exempted from paying tithes. As growing numbers of Hungarian and Saxon villeins moved to the flourishing towns, the lords recruited Romanians to take their place on the land; it was also the Romanians who repopulated the lands of Hungarian and Saxon villeins carried off by the plague or enslaved by the Ottomans. At the request of Transylvania's bishop, the king ruled that Romanians who had been settled on 'Christian lands' (i.e. previously worked by Roman Catholic villeins) had to pay the appropriate tithe. The measure aroused much discontent among the Romanians, who were accustomed to the less onerous sheep tax.

The circumstances of the Hungarian and Saxon villeins also worsened. The spread of a cash economy induced higher material expectations among the nobles, and this, along with the military obligations arising from the Turkish threat, impelled them to raise {1-504.} the feudal dues of the villeins. In 1351, a new feudal impost was introduced, modelled on the tithe and called the 'ninth' (kilenced); the noble landowners demanded this in addition to the earlier feudal services. They raised the ground rent, imposed exceptional taxes, and did all in their power to impede the free migration of villeins. Having been spared from military service for several hundred years, the peasantry did not take kindly to the apparently permanent reimposition of this obligation. Unrest spread among Transylvania's villeins, who in many localities refused to pay church tithes. The trouble began in the less prosperous Székelyföld; deprived of sustenance, priests began to abandon their parishes, and entire districts found themselves deprived of spiritual guidance. Bishop György Lépes laid an anathema on the recalcitrant villages, but the measure proved counter-productive, for it only deepened the despair of the peasantry.

Meanwhile, in Hungary's immediate vicinity, a twenty-year old crusade was being waged against the Hussites by King Sigismund, who was at the same time King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, and who relied in part on Hungarian troops for this purpose. The origins of this war lay in religious disputes that foreshadowed the Reformation; over time, the struggle became linked to Czech nationalism and, when the radical Taborite party (named after the Hussite centre in southern Bohemia) got the upper hand, it acquired an anti-feudal character. The radical party rejected ecclesiastical courts and taxes and proclaimed social equality, claiming that 'nobody, not even the Pope or the Emperor, can be greater than another man, for we are all brothers in Christ.' These doctrines reached Transylvania and aggravated the unrest of the peasantry. The bishop suspected that his rebellious flock was infected with Hussitism; in 1436, he summoned to Transylvania the Franciscan Jacob of Marchia, an Italian inquisitor who had been dispatched to suppress the Hussites in southern Hungary. Assisted by the bishop's armed contingent, the inquisitor conducted a heavy-{1-505.} handed purge and even made forcible attempts to convert the Greek Orthodox Romanians.

With the unrest apparently stilled, the bishop presumed he could start collecting the arrears of tithes. Earlier, King Sigismund had allowed the currency to be debased, and he issued a new, strong currency in 1436; the bishop insisted that the arrears as well as current tithes be paid in this specie, in effect multiplying the value of the tithe. In the spring of 1437, having been driven beyond endurance, Transylvania's peasantry, Hungarian and Romanian, rose in arms. Their rebellion may have been linked to the concurrent rising — promptly suppressed by the nobles — of peasants in the Nyírség.

The Transylvanian insurgents styled themselves 'freemen' and 'the general union of Hungarians and Romanians in the Transylvanian parts', employing expressions usually applied to nobles to propagate the Hussite program of social equality. They clearly followed the Hussite example in establishing a camp — a kind of Transylvanian 'Tabor' — on the vast Bábolna plateau, near Alparét in Doboka county. Their leaders (Antal Budai Nagy, from Diós, Mihály and Gál Nagy, from Kend, Tamás Nagy, from Szék, János, son of Master Jakab of Kolozsvár, László Gálfi, from Antos, and the standard-bearer Pál Vajdaházi Nagy) dispatched emissaries from the camp to meet the voivode, László Csáky, who had hastened to Transylvania. They demanded the lifting of the excommunication, the settlement of grievances arising from the tithes, and guarantees of free migration for villeins.

The voivode had the emissaries mutilated, then killed. Having assembled the soldiers of the bishop, of his deputy Loránd Lépes, and of the Székely counts Henrik Tamási and Mihály Kusalyi Jakcs, he proceeded to launch an assault on the peasant rebels. (The voivode had to do it without the forces of Péter Lévai Cseh, co-voivode of Csáky since 1436, for they had been dispatched to confront the Ottomans in the Temes marches.) When his forces suffered {1-506.} a defeat, Csáky left Transylvania, and, at year's end, he was dismissed from office by the king.

The nobility was compelled to negotiate, and on 6 July, at the Kolozsmonostor monastery, agreement was reached that the villeins' grievances would be redressed. The insurgent peasants won a significant victory. The bishop reduced by half the monetary value of the tithes and made concessions in the matter of arrears. The nobles settled for a ground rent of 10 dinars instead of the former one and a half gold forints, and for an annual corvée (involving mainly the maintenance of mill-dams) of one day. They abolished the 'ninth' levy as well as the earlier akó, which involved the delivery of produce. In effect, the nobles had given up their feudal claim to produce and services and contented themselves with a moderate cash levy — a promising step in the emancipation of the peasantry. For his part, the deputy voivode promised to regulate the housing conditions of conscripts. Finally, the villeins' right to free migration was acknowledged. The most ominous clause in the agreement was one guaranteeing the right of villeins to assemble — under arms — each year on the Bábolna plateau, in order to review the compliance of the nobility and, if necessary, take steps to punish abuses.

Although the insurgents affirmed that they were acting on behalf of Transylvania's Romanians as well as Hungarians, there is little sign of active participation by Romanian villeins. Judging from their names, the movement's leaders were evidently Hungarian. Among them, Antal Budai Nagy and, perhaps Pál Vajdaházi Nagy, belonged to the lower nobility. Two members of the eminently noble Suki family joined the rebels; their relatives were active in the opposite camp. The participation of lesser nobles in the rising may be attributable in part to the attempt by Bishop Lépes to impose tithes on their class, and to discontinue the commuting of tithes, which had become common among lay landowners. As for the urban middle class, to the extent that it sympathized {1-507.} with the rebels, it was motivated by disputes with the nobility over customs duties and the migration of peasants to the towns. One of the rebel leaders, János, son of Jakab, was a Hungarian burgher from Kolozsvár. The only rebel leader of Romanian origin was Mihály Virágosberki Oláh; late in the rebellion, he had replaced László Gálfi, who probably fell in battle. The rebels made no reference to specific Romanian demands and had no objection to the 'fiftieth' sheep tax. In fact, the interests of the large number of Romanian villeins settled on 'Christian' lands were the same as those of the Hungarians, and it can be assumed that they supported the rebellion.

The compromise was short-lived, for the nobles chafed at this unprecedented blow to their dignity and interests, and fighting soon flared up again, with acts of merciless cruelty perpetrated by both sides. The peasants fought on, putting to the torch a succession of baronial manors. For decades, the voivodes were so uninterested in Transylvanian affairs that they did not bother to exercise their exclusive authority to convene a general assembly. Now, the nobility felt so hard-pressed that, without waiting for the assent of the absent and neglectful voivode, they prevailed on the deputy voivode to invite leaders of the other two feudal nations to a meeting in mid-September, at Kápolna. The assembled representatives formed a 'fraternal union' and made plans for the joint defence of Transylvania against all internal and external threats — but not against the king. The unio trium nationum was an ad hoc assembly, driven by the perception among nobles, Székely notables, and Saxon patricians that they faced a common danger coming from the lower social orders. In the event, the first test of their solidarity came a few days after the Kápolna accord, in a bloody clash with the peasants, and the nobles once again felt compelled to negotiate. On 6 October, at Dellőapáti, in Doboka county, the two sides agreed that their delegates should ask the king to arbitrate in the dispute.

{1-508.} The peasants invited the monarch to reissue the laws of King St. Stephen, but they allowed that if the edict could not be found, they would agree to terms less favourable than those in the earlier accord: a levy of one forint for each team of plough-horses, a ground-rent of twelve dinars from landless cotters, the jurisdiction of landlords over their villeins (with the possibility of appeal to the borough courts), and the requirement that a villein obtain his landlord's consent before he moved off the estate. The peasants' concessions indicated that they were tiring of the struggle and retained a somewhat naive confidence in the monarch's goodwill.

In fact, King Sigismund detested grass-roots movements, but he died of a grave illness on 9 December. A decision on the petition had to await the arrival of his successor, the Duke of Austria, Albert von Habsburg. In the meantime, the peasants won the support of Kolozsvár's citizenry and thereby acquired a fortified base from which to continue their attacks on the nobles' villages. The nobles were now led by the newly-appointed voivode, Dezső Losonci Bánffy, who owned an estate near Bábolna and had a vested interest in the outcome of the struggle. Reinforced by troops freshly dispatched from Western Hungary, they inflicted a decisive defeat on the peasants in a battle near Kolozsmonostor, killing Antal Budai Nagy in the process; Kolozsvár, the rebels' last refuge, fell in January 1438.

On 2 February, the delegates of the three 'nations' assembled at Torda and solemnly confirmed their union. Then the nobles settled their accounts with the rebels. The latter's leaders were tortured and killed; other captives were mutilated and had their eyes put out. Kolozsvár lost its municipal freedom, and many years passed before it could regain its privileges. The concessions that had been made earlier to the villeins remained a dead letter. The king had to intervene to prevent formal abolition of the right of free migration, but the nobles became ever more reluctant to respect that right in practice.

{1-509.} Although the rising ended in failure, it had revealed profound changes at the grass roots. The emergence of a market economy, the example of the lesser nobility and of Székely free peasants all helped the peasantry to develop a sense of its collective interest. The peasants' initial opposition to corvée and rents-in-kind, and their preference for reasonable cash rents make clear that their goal was economic independence and production for the market. Their notions of social equality, inspired by the Hussites, pointed in the same direction. The proposal to turn the Bábolna assembly into an annual event also indicates the emergence of a collective, peasant consciousness, a phenomenon that was displayed in other peasant risings that shook medieval Europe.