Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Peasants Revolt in Southern Transylvania

In the spring of 1437, Antal Budai Nagy led the Transylvanian serfs in a revolt against the upper classes. The rebels referred to themselves as “men of free status” and gathered their forces on Mount Babolno in Doboka county. Voivode Lazslo Csaky responded to this bold act by sending four legates to negotiate.

Envoys representing the peasants made their demands to the legates, insisting that the clergy and feudal lords should stop the abuses of tithes, lift the sentences of excommunication, and acknowledge the serfs’ rights to free movement. Their demands were answered swiftly and decisively. The representatives of the voivode captured the envoys, mutilated them and then killed them. The legates’ troops attacked soon thereafter, but were quickly defeated by the enraged peasants. Several months of skirmishes followed.

After centuries of mistreatment, the rebellious peasants fought with renewed vengeance. At the Convent of Kolozsmonostor in July of 1437, their grievances were finally redressed. The local bishop agreed to reduce the tithes by half and allowed the peasants easier methods of repaying the final balance. The landowners also drastically reduced their rent, lowering the average payment from one-and-a-half gold florins to 10 denaria. Additional reparation included limiting the robota to one day of socage and abandoning the levying of the “ninth.” Finally, the peasants were granted the right to move freely.

Of course, the peasants wanted additional assurances that these hard-won gains could be enforced. They demanded one additional provision: the freedom to call an annual armed assembly on Mount Babolna to redress further abuses of the landowners’ authority. If necessary, the new envoys stated, the peasants could then punish the landlords if there was proof of misdoing.

This final demand was an unprecedented affront to the self-esteem and self-interests of the nobility, who had already begun mustering troops to aid further “renegotiation.” The flames of rebellion had died down, but this issue stoked the fire again quickly. The nobles rejected this last request utterly. In response, peasants ran through the streets of the largest cities, torching manor house after manor house. The battle was rejoined, neither side showed mercy, and the fighting continued for another six months.

The Rise of Estates
Throughout Europe during the early 15th century, feudalism underwent a far more subtle change. Governments that once entirely supported sovereign rulers were being replaced by cooperative governments called estates. In Hungary, this meant that instead of the absolute rule of a sovereign, a set of prelates would rule with the assistance of aristocrats and nobility, usually through a national diet.

Though different accounts list different reasons for this change, it is clear that the Diet of 1437 in Cluj was the first of its kind in Transylvania. The Hungarians, Szeklers and Saxons called an “Assembly of the Province” to meet in a general forum. Though they couldn’t institute full laws (only the Hungarian Diet could do that), they could still establish statues for situations specific to Transylvania.

By this time, in many parts of Europe, the word “nation” generally referred to a body of nobility. As one would expect, only individuals who owned land outright were considered part of the nobility, so only privileged races could form a nation. (Owning land communally was not sufficient.) Admittedly, there were a number of Romanians present at the meeting of the assembly, but despite this nod to Vlach representation, there was not a Romanian nation per se.

Instead, the Diet of 1437 only recognized three estates of nations: those of the Hungarians, Saxons and Szeklers. The diet could also maintain and even extend the privileges of these estates, but at this time, they couldn’t truly undertake joint political action. The rising tide of rebellion would soon force them to do so.

The Battle Renewed
Rebellion continued in Southern Transylvania. The flames spread. The vice-voivode of Transylvania responded to the growing anarchy in Doboka by assembling the leaders of the Three Nations, acting without the approval of the voivode. They agreed to a “brotherly union” against internal and external threats to the province (save for the king, of course) and did what the diet couldn’t: take joint action.

Thus, on Oct. 6th, the two sides agreed to meet in a village in Doboka county to ask for arbitration from the king. The king, unfortunately, died a little over a month later. His successor, Prince Albert of Habsburg, had not yet arrived, and the royal decision was delayed. Had this not occurred, the future of Transylvania might have been very different.

In the meantime, the peasants had won the support of the citizens of nearby Kolosvar, securing a military fortress in the process. By December, however, the nobility won a major victory near Kolozsmonostor. The battle was led by the newly appointed voivode, and his greatest victory was the death of Antal Nagy.

In early 1438, the final stronghold in Kolozsvar fell. The Three Nations met in February of that year and settled their affairs with the peasants. More precisely, the leaders of the rebellion were captured, tortured and executed, and the rest of the captives were blinded and mutilated. Kolozsvar lost many of its liberties over the next few years, and the negotiation with the serfs came to an end. Order was restored at the expense of freedom.

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