The Mongol Invasion and Its Consequences

The conflict between Hungary and the Bulgarian-Romanian state was rudely interrupted by the invasion of Mongols and their Tartar allies. In 1235, after having conquered northern China, the Mongol hordes turned westward. In quick succession, they defeated the Volga Bulgars, the Hungarians of Bashkiria, and the North Russian principalities, and, in 1239, the forces of Kötöny, king of the Eastern Cumanians. Hungary's king, Béla IV, gave shelter to the fleeing Cumanians, but he could not prevent the Mongols from following up their capture of Kiev in 1240 with a direct attack on his land.

In the spring of 1241, the armies of Batu Khan crossed into Hungary at three separate points. The main Mongol force overwhelmed the king's army in the Sajó valley; Béla and the remnants of his troops escaped to make a last stand in Transdanubia. Two other Mongol armies invaded Transylvania. The first, led by Kadan, crossed the Radna Pass and laid siege to Radna, a prosperous mining town inhabited by Germans. Using the conquered Germans as an advance guard, the Mongols proceeded to devastate Beszterce, then Kolozsvár, where — according to contemporary reports — they slaughtered 'countless Hungarians'.[16]16. Századok, 1882, pp. 431-432 (cited from a manuscript in Paris). Bereft of defenders, Northern Transylvania was ravaged by the Mongols, who finally left the region by way of the Meszes Pass to join up with Batu's main force in the Great Plain. The other Mongol army, led by Bogutaj, entered Transylvania through the Ojtoz Pass, the {1-443.} traditional route taken by eastern invaders. The Mongols prevailed over the Transylvanian army and killed its commander, the voivode Pósa, then pressed on down the Olt valley into the heart of the region. Küküllővár, Nagyszeben, and Gyulafehérvár fell in quick succession; the invaders moved westward along the Maros, crushing all resistance and bringing death and destruction to villages and towns. Meanwhile, a detachment, led by Bedzsak, crossed the Szeret River and conquered the land of the western, Christianized Cumanians; fifteen years of painstaking work by the Hungarian state and Church to develop this region were swept away by the Mongol invasion.

Hungary east of the Danube fell under Mongol rule; only the larger fortresses of Western Hungary managed to hold out against the onslaught. The advancing Mongols purposely sowed terror by slaughtering not only their armed opponents but also masses of defenceless civilians; some of the latter survived by hiding in forests or in remote mountain regions. However, the Mongols failed to accomplish their goal, which was to conquer all of Hungary in one swift offensive. They had to regroup and prepare for the attack on Transdanubia. Needing food for the troops, the Mongols promised to spare the lives of civilian survivors who would leave their refuges and resume agricultural work. After the harvest, the poor wretches were mercilessly slaughtered so that they would present no risk at the rear when, early in the new year, the Mongols crossed the frozen surface of the Danube to attack Transdanubia. They still failed to capture Hungary's king and to invest the more important fortresses. Then came news of the Great Khan's death: eager to share in the division of the latter's domain, Batu led his armies homeward, once again plundering and devastating the land on their way out of the country.

Master Rogerius, the canon of Nagyvárad, managed to escape from captivity and has left an eyewitness report of the appalling bloodshed and destruction wrought by the Mongols. In truth, {1-444.} Hungary presented a lamentable picture after the departure of the Mongols. For several days, as he proceeded up the Maros valley, Rogerius did not meet a living soul. Roads and byways were overgrown; Gyulafehérvár, which not long before stood as the political and ecclesiastical center of a flourishing region of Hungary, was now a place of ruined churches and palaces littered with human bones. On his sorrowful journey, Rogerius oriented himself by a succession of ruined church steeples and scrounged for food in deserted fields. The first survivors that he encountered were hiding on a wooded hill near Fráta, a village in Kolozs county; they were in a state of near-starvation, and Rogerius shared the bread that they made from bark. The population had been greatly reduced by the slaughter and famine, as well as by the loss of thousands who had been carried off into captivity by the Mongols. Gradually, the survivors moved back to rebuild their devastated villages. Years later, Transylvania's bishop would still bemoan the depopulation of his diocese and that fact that only a few thousand people lived on the episcopal estates.

Indeed, the Mongol invasion had major consequences for Transylvania's demography. The surplus of population that once sustained settlement beyond the Carpathians was no more; the movement of Hungarian and Saxon settlers into Cumania would not be resumed for a long time. Transylvania could not be made fully secure from Mongol incursion. As for the regions beyond the mountain frontier, they suffered from frequent Mongol raids for at least another century, and thus could not be properly reorganized even if people could have been found to settle there. Milkó became a phantom bishopric; periodically, a new bishop was appointed, but the incumbent could not exercise his duties in a diocese that was short of population as well as of security.

The ethnic map of the region between the Carpathians and the Danube underwent a marked change. The Cumanian nation had been largely annihilated by the Mongols; the survivors, together {1-445.} with the Eastern Cumanians, resettled on the Great Plain of Hungary. Although Cumania kept its name, the remaining Slavs and Cumanians were gradually absorbed into a growing population of Romanians, who increasingly shifted from shepherding to farming. Hungary's king remained the region's nominal master, but he no longer exercised his rule through Hungarian officials; instead, he assigned this task to the voivodes who had been appointed over the cnezes of the Romanian border-guard districts in Southern Transylvania. The recourse offered little guarantee of security against the Mongols, and thus, in 1247, King Béla IV granted Severin Province and the Cumanian Country to the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers), conferring on them rights similar to those granted by his father to the Teutonic Knights in the Barcaság. This experiment was not a success, for the Knights failed to repopulate their domain — not least because the King would not allow them to receive Hungarian or German settlers from Hungary — and lacked the military strength to withstand Mongol attacks; since the grant of land was tied to strict conditions, the Knights chose to renounce the endowment. For the time being, the King had to content himself with the reorganization of Transylvania. His task was facilitated by some exceptionally competent voivodes, selected from among Hungary's feudal lords, who now held office for longer terms: Lőrinc (who held the post from 1242 to 1252), Ernye Ákos (1252–60), László Kán (1260–67), and Máté Csák (1267–70).

The Székelys embodied the major military resource, and those still in the interior were now resettled closer to the frontier, from the lower reaches of the Nagy-Küküllő to the Kézdi seat and along the Aranyos River. Their former lands were transferred to the Saxons, whose numbers were swollen by new arrivals, and who thus established settlements that were later incorporated into the Medgyes and Nagysejk seats. The formerly Székely character of these localities is indicated by the Hungarian origin of most toponyms, as well {1-446.} as by the fact that for a long time, and despite the change in population, the villages were administered not by the Szeben count but by the Székely count. The Segesvár seat, established later, did not acquire its Saxon population until the 14th century. However, the succeeding waves of German immigrants spread beyond the boundaries of even the enlarged Szászföld. Saxon settlements were founded in counties contiguous with the Szászföld, but since they could not be linked administratively to the latter, the social development of their inhabitants followed a course closer to that of the Hungarian agrarian class.

The Mongols' devastating invasion had another important consequence, large-scale immigration by Romanians. The military catastrophe led Hungary's king to conclude that due to their location, the castles that served as the counties' administrative centres were ill-suited to resist a determined attack. He therefore relinquished these castles to the Church or private individuals, and proceeded to have forts built with adequate defences on more isolated hills and mountains throughout the country. The hilly surroundings of these new forts were not suitable for agriculture, and were thus largely deserted; the subsequent attempts to settle Hungarian and Saxon farmers succeeded in only a few locations, where forest-clearance had provided some small areas of cultivable land. In any case, even if the natural environment had been more welcoming, the Crown would have had a hard time finding settlers; the population was so depleted by the Mongol invasion that it was difficult to revive even the older settled areas, never mind colonise mountainous regions with Saxons and Hungarians. On the other hand, the new forts needed people, and not only for military service or maintenance, but also to put the surrounding, royal estates to productive use and replenish the royal coffers; having transferred into private hands most of its holdings in inner Transylvania, the Crown needed an alternative source of revenue. The rich mountain pastures could best be exploited by pastoral people, and thus Hungary's {1-447.} kings invited into the fortress districts Romanian shepherds who were pressing northward from Bulgaria and Serbia, as well as others who were left free to migrate after the collapse of Cumanian rule. This is how some Romanians came to settle around the Transylvanian castles at Déva, Hunyad, Salgó, Talmács, Törcs, Kecskés, Szádkő, Léta, Sebes, Almás, Csicsó, Bálványos, and Görgény. A much larger number of Romanians settled, not in Transylvania proper, but on the far side of its western mountain boundary, toward the Great Plain on royal castle estates near Miháld, Sebes, Zsidó, Halmos, Illyéd, Krassófő, Borzafő, Kövesd, Szád, Varadia, Világos, Deszni, Pankota, Sólyomkő, Valkó, Nyaláb, Aranyos, and Kővár.

The immigration of Romanians did not happen all at once; indeed, the process of settlement in the mountain districts stretched over several centuries. The settlement was planned and backed by positive inducements; in the words of a later statute, 'at the invitation, and with all the assurances of his royal majesty, as well as of the voivodes, barons, and other officials who administer the kingdom's borderlands' (ad vocationem et assecurationem regie maiestatis ac vaivodarum, baronum et ceterorum officialium ista confinia regni tenentium).[17]17. Corpus Iuris Hungarici, 1495/45, in Magyar Törvénytár 1000-1845 I (Budapest, 1899), pp. 588-589. Initially, the king exploited his exclusive right to invite immigrants, and made sure that the newcomers all settled on his estates.

The Romanian immigrants are invariably characterized in Hungarian sources as mountain shepherds. As late as the 16th century, an official report referred to Romanians as people who kept many animals in the forests and mountains (Walachi, qui tantum in silvis et montibus non contemnendum pecorum numerum alunt).[18]18. From the annual report for 1567 of the Hungarian Royal Chamber, quoted in E. Hurmuzaki, Documente privitoare la istoria Românilor (Bucharest, 1887), Vol. II, p. 612. Antal Verancsics (later Archbishop of Esztergom), a man who had a thorough knowledge of Transylvania, made a similar observation, adding that Romanians were seldom found in the open spaces (rari in apertis locis incolae, montibus ac silvis plerumque cum suo pecore pariter obditi).[19]19. MHH-S 1857, p. 143. The intimate link between the Romanian {1-448.} pastoral culture in Hungary and that in the Balkans is indicated by a 'sheep tax' (known in Hungary as the juhötvened, or quinquagesima ovium, meaning 'sheep fiftieth', and in the Balkans as travnina) which in both Hungary and Serbia was paid only by the Romanians — a people closely identified with sheep-breeding. The tax required the delivery of one sheep and one lamb for every fifty sheep held. Since the mountain-dwelling Romanians practised but subsistence farming, they were not taxed on their agricultural output.

The royal estates' natural setting contributed to the survival of this pastoral way of life. The people directly employed at the castle were generally Hungarians (along with a few Slavs) who lived in the valleys. The Romanians helped to sustain the castle system with their taxes. Their leaders, the cnezes and voivodes, were answerable to the castellan: they were responsible for the punctual delivery of the 'fiftieth' and had to perform military service. The majority of Romanians stayed on their mountain pastures, and even their leaders often lacked a fixed abode. Hence a story, dating from 1363, that is often cited as the first documented reference to seasonal shepherding by Romanians in Hungary: the cnezes of the royal castle at Illyéd, in Krassó county, could not be summoned to judicial hearings because of uncertainty about their place of residence (propter eorundem mansionis seu residencie incertitudinem). In March, when the document was drafted, the cnezes could not be found on their properties, for they and their flocks were still away at distant winter pastures. To be sure, this absence may have been as much a reflection of nomadism as of transhumance, since it is not known whether the shepherds' families followed them. In any case, it can be assumed that the leaders of this pastoral people devoted progressively less time to shepherding and more to soldiering.

In the Balkans, the most common word to designate the leader of a pastoral community of Romanians was cselnik (read: chelnik), {1-449.} though there were also other designations (sudce, premikjur, knez, vladika, katunar). In Hungary, on the other hand, the term that came into general use was kenéz (kenezius), the magyarized form of the Slavic knez (cnez). The Romanians themselves turned kenéz into chinez, a term in sporadic use even today. Hungarian administrators referred to the Romanian leaders as kenéz, a term long applied to the local Slavic leaders. The Romanian leaders' former titles had not become institutionalized, and they had no compunction about accepting the new one, for it symbolized recognition of their status by the Hungarian royal authorities; with regard to their own people, their status was already firmly rooted in wealth and inheritance.

Voivode (vojvoda), the title of a leader who held authority over sever cnezes, was probably adopted by the Romanians in similar fashion. Commonly used in the lands of the Hungarian king, it does not occur among Romanians in the Balkans. The term, of Slavic origin, was adopted by the conquering Hungarians and used to designate Transylvanian leaders, then applied to the Romanian leaders of the semi-autonomous groups of Romanian border guards. Sources dating from the 14th century confirm that whereas cnez was a hereditary title, the voivodes were initially elected by the Romanians — a practice consistent with Hungarian customary law, which provided that immigrant groups elect a leader from their ranks. (Thus Saxons elected the magistrates who worked alongside the royal count, and Székelys their captains and judges). However, the voivodes soon followed the example of the cnezes and obtained that their status and attendant privileges be passed on to their heirs. On the other hand, the hereditary status of voivodes and cnezes did not deprive ordinary Romanians of their legal and economic rights, for those rights were recognized by the Hungarian castellans: when, in accordance with Hungarian administrative practice, the latter formed district courts, they appointed to the bench not only cnezes but also Romanian priests and commoners, and the courts followed Romanian customary law in rendering judgment.

{1-450.} As noted in connection with Severin Province, the Romanians — like other migrant, pastoral, and mounted peoples — had their own military organization. In practice, only the cnezes performed regular military service; in peacetime, they guarded the mountain frontier, and in wartime, they fought in the royal army. Each and every Székely was committed to military duty, but the majority of Romanians and Saxons were exempt. Thus, right from the start, the cnezes enjoyed a high social status, and this status was only reinforced when the Romanians adopted a more settled way of life.

The shift to that way of life was actively encouraged by the Hungarian overseers of the royal castles and estates, for they considered stable settlement to be the best guarantee of an organized and economically productive Romanian community. Their efforts were seconded by the cnezes, who soon realized that landed property offered a better foundation for social status than did livestock, which was subject to uncontrollable changes in quality and number. In the 14th–15th centuries, many of the Slavic villages on royal estates were in the charge of Romanian cnezes; Hungarian castellans, with an eye on military priorities, appointed the latter in preference to Slavs, who had little or no military training. These cnezes received a share of the Slav farmers' output and, discovering the advantages of steady agricultural production, tried to persuade Romanians to shift shepherding to farming. In all likelihood, the cnezes were the first to adopt a settled, village existence, followed by members of the shepherds' families. Over time, the practice of transhumance became limited to one group of shepherds, while others grazed their flocks in the vicinity of the villages. The pattern varied by region, but the number of settled Romanians grew steadily.

Being eager to accelerate the pace of permanent settlement, castle officials favoured cnezes who were disposed to draw Romanians into agricultural communities. The pastoral Romanians {1-451.} also engaged in forest-clearing, mainly to carve out new pastures; however, if the cnez claimed the cleared land for cultivation, the castellans designated the new agricultural settlements as 'free villages' (villa libera), granted long-term tax concessions, and guaranteed that the cnez and his descendants would get a share of the revenues. The cnezes settled Slavs as well as Romanians in these villages, a fact confirmed by the prevalence of another, Slavic term, ohaba, to designate free villages on both sides of the Southern Carpathians. However, the Romanians were the principal settlers; by the end of the Middle Ages, they predominated in these villages, and the Slavs became linguistically assimilated. The social status of the cnezes came to be rooted in their hereditary rights over the free villages, and the title itself acquired a new meaning. Originally, the cnez was the leader of a group of Romanian shepherds, entrusted by royal castellans with minor, judicial and administrative tasks. However, by the 14th century, the cnez was regarded principally as an entrepreneur who established agricultural settlements on newly-cleared land, and the 'cnez right' (ius keneziale) became synonymous with the ownership in perpetuity of privileged 'free villages'.