{44.} Great Plain

The numerous ethnic groups of the Great Plain (the Alföld) are even more difficult to take stock of. We shall start with those who were held together by privileges reaching back into the past which decisively influenced the development of their folk culture.

The Cumanians, of Turkish origin, arrived in Hungary while fleeing from the Tartars in the middle of the 13th century. The kings designated quarters for their needs in the central part of the Great Plain. At first they were engaged mostly in herding, then they settled down and in a few centuries assimilated into the Hungarians. They lived largely in market towns, where they jealously guarded their privileges against the influx of peasants and nobles. In 1702 the Habsburgs stripped them of their privileges, which they had to buy back after four decades from an Order of Teutonic Knights to whom their land was donated.

The Great Cumanians, with Karcag as their headquarters and largest town, occupied the central part of the region east of the Tisza (Tiszántúl), while the Little Cumanians lived between the Danube and the Tisza with the town of Kiskunfélegyháza as their headquarters. This is where their “captain” resided. Cumanian family and community organizations survived almost unaltered until the final termination of their privileges (1876). The religion of the great majority of Cumanians is Calvinist. They have preserved several items of the costumes of the Great Plain almost to the present day. More traits of Oriental origin may be discovered in their folk poetry, music, and world of beliefs than in those of other ethnic groups.

13. Cumanian men

13. Cumanian men
Kunszentmiklós, Bács-Kiskun County

14. Village scene

14. Village scene
Jászjákóhalma, Szolnok County

The Jazygians live around the Zagyva, a tributary on the right of the {45.} Tisza river, and are in contact with the Palotses to the north. They are Indo-Europeans, Alans in origin, and having arrived at the same time as the Cumanians, they too enjoyed similar privileges. Together they formed one high organization with a “captain” who resided in Jászberény. After the expulsion of the Turks, the prolific Jazygians swarmed south and populated the regions of Little Cumania, of the Trans-Tisza region (east of the Tisza), and even the southern Great Plain, the Bácska and Bánát. For the most part they are Roman Catholics. Agriculture gained ground faster with them than with the Cumanians. Their characteristic costumes and rich world of beliefs differentiate them from their neighbours. Their sense of identity is strong even today.

The Hajdú towns and villages can be found in the central part of the Tiszántúl, mostly in the present-day Hajdú-Bihar County. They gained their name from their occupation: hajdú meaning herdsmen, drivers, and hajt meaning to drive. Later many of them became mercenary foot soldiers. István Bocskai (1557–1606), Prince of Transylvania, settled about ten thousand Hajdús on his estates in the Great Plain in 1605 and assured them so-called “Hajdú privileges”: they had to provide military service, but they were exempt from all taxes to state and landlord. Extensive animal husbandry survived the longest in the Kunság and Hajdúság, where agriculture for a long time served only to fulfil local needs. In both places, from the 17th century on, the system of scattered farms developed which became centres at first of animal husbandry, and later of agriculture. Most of the Hajdús are Calvinists, though some are Roman Catholic.

{46.} The larger and smaller market towns of the Great Plain and the bigger privileged royal towns can also be regarded as ethnic pockets, because the inhabitants have a strong feeling of identity and developed their own character in the effort to preserve their privileges. We can speak of this especially at places where the peasantry held in its hand the governing of the town. Such closely knit three towns between the Danube and the Tisza are Cegléd, Nagykőrös, and Kecskemét. Their character was determined by the coexistence of the prosperous peasantry, the labourers who lived in their shadow, and the artisans. Extensive agriculture first developed at these places, and concentrated primarily on vegetable and fruit production and vine growing. Similarly important in the southern Great Plain is Szeged on the bank of the Tisza, with its huge area of scattered farms, its swarming groups that extended far to the south. Szeged’s river people and fishermen formed a separate group, as did its characteristic artisans: knife makers, slipper makers, braid makers, etc., who carried their wares to faraway lands. Szeged is the oldest centre of Hungarian paprika growing, which become an independent line of occupation. Hódmezővásárhely, north of Szeged along the Tisza, stands out from its environment by its rich decorative folk art. The Calvinist school with its long history in Debrecen, a city in the Tiszántúl, has exerted significant cultural influence on the surroundings from the 16th century. The so-called civis (civilian) concept was extended equally to prosperous peasants, artisans with property, and merchants. Debrecen is an important trade centre, centrally sited between Transylvania, Pest and Upper Hungary. Its typical products, the szűr (an overcoat made of thick woollen cloth or frieze), the guba (an overcoat made of woollen cloth with tarts of wool woven into it), sheepskin garments, earthenware vessels, and the products of harness makers became famous far and wide.

Among the large number of peoples of the Great Plain we must also mention the people around Kalocsa, most of whom moved to this area from all parts of the country after the expulsion of the Turks. They are just as much masters of paprika growing as are the people of Szeged, yet even in this, they preserve many individual characteristics. Their multi-coloured embroidery, wall paintings and the most colourful folk costumes not only differentiate them in Hungary, but also make them known all over the country.

Bácska, the lower section of the area between the Danube and the Tisza, is in Yugoslavia, while Bánát, the plain bordered by the Maros–Tisza–Danube, belongs partly to Rumania, partly to Yugoslavia. The original Hungarian population was largely extinguished during the Turkish rule, and new Hungarian inhabitants moved back again to this area only in the 18th century. For this reason, almost every village is a separate ethnographic unit, and in their culture traces of elements they brought along have amalgamated with elements taken from that of other people. From the point of view of its historical and ethnological part, Békés is a similar area; here the Hungarian majority lived together with Rumanians, Slovakians, and Germans. Although certain characteristics of the folk culture and of folk art that developed indicate distant origins, still it is characteristically of the Great Plain.

{47.} The largest swampy, boggy area of the Tiszántúl, east of the Tisza, is called Sárrét. Two of its areas are differentiated: Nagysárrét is in Bihar County along the river Berettyó, Kissárrét is along the river Körös, extending into Békés County. The original population largely died off during the Turkish wars. Their place was taken by the Cumanians and Hajdús in large numbers. It was characteristically a water-dominated world until the middle, and in some places until the end, of the last century. The major occupations of the population are fishing, hunting, meadow husbandry and the processing of reeds and bulrushes. After drainage, here too, agriculture became prevalent. Many characteristics referring to an Oriental past have survived in its world of beliefs.

The life of the people of Nyír and Rétköz was shaped by the floods of the Tisza and the swamps that remained all the year around. Agriculture was possible only on the smaller or larger islands. Alongside cabbage, which had been grown for a long time, potatoes and sunflowers soon gained ground. The twenty-eight connected settlements of Rétköz did not end at the Tisza, but continued in the Bodrogköz, where the almost fifty settlements in the island of the Bodrog–Latorca–Tisza are held together by a more or less similar culture. Special mention should be made of the joint family organization, its rich art of homespun, its varied world of beliefs, its tales and myths. On the right bank of the Tisza, between Tokaj and Tiszadob, lie the settlements of Taktaköz, the former culture of which resembles in several ways those we have been discussing.

Tiszahát includes the plain north of the Tisza, Szamoshát the plain on the south bank of the Szamos. Here too, water regulated life in the past. In the wide expanses of the floody plain and oak and beech forest enormous herds of swine fattened. Carts and tools were made from the timber. The homespun, embroidery, simple folk costume and rich folklore traditions of the people survived until today.