History of the Székely people
|This article relies on references to primary sources. (July 2012)|
The history of the Székely people, a Transylvanian subgroup of the Hungarians can be traced back to the 12th century. The Székelys initially lived in scattered communities along the frontiers of the Kingdom of Hungary. Their organized migration to present-day Székely Land (the easternmost part of the Carpathian Basin) started around 1150 and lasted more than a century.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Kingdom of Hungary (11th century–1570)
- 3 Székelys in the Principality of Transylvania (16th-17th centuries)
- 4 Habsburg rule, Grand Principality of Transylvania (18th-19th centuries)
- 5 The 1848 Revolution
- 6 Union with Hungary
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
The Székely form the only Hungarian subgroup with a well-documented own tradition of their Hunnic origin. However, it is now impossible to decide whether it is a genuine part of their folklore or an invention by chroniclers which spread among them in the Late Middle Ages. All the same, the Székely speak a pure Hungarian tongue "without any trace of a Turkic substratum" (Pál Engel).
The anonymous author of the Gesta Hungarorum was the first to make a passing reference, around 1200, of their origin. He wrote that the Székely "were previously the peoples of King Attila." and joined the Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin. From then on, medieval sources emphasized the connection between the Székely and Attila's Huns or "Scythians". For instance, Simon of Kéza wrote of a group of Huns who "remained on the field of Csigla until Árpád's time, referring to themselves not as Huns but as Székely". Likewise, the Tripartitum of 1517 states that the Székely originated "from the Scythian people when they first came to Pannonia". The Renaissance Humanist Petrus Ransanus was the first to propose an alternative theory by stating that the Siculi descended from Roman soldiers from Sicily. The Jesuit Ferenc Flasching set up another hypothesis in 1725 by claiming that Jász people settled in Transylvania under King Béla IV of Hungary were their ancestors. Thereafter many new theories emerged, including those of their Avar, Bulgar, Cuman, Kabar, Pecheneg, Romanian or pure Hungarian origin.
Modern hypotheses can be divided into three main groups. Gyula László argues that the Székely people descended from a Hungarian-speaking "Late Avar" population. Lóránd Benkő, István Bóna and other scholars maintain that Hungarian groups who settled in the borderlands of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary and received special privileges developed their own consciousness. Finally, a number of historians, including György Györffy and Gyula Kristó, argues that the Székely descended from a Turkic population who joined the Hungarians before their conquest of the Carpathian Basin. Scholars who accept their Turkic origin propose that their ethnonym is connected to that of the Eskils, an early medieval Bulgar tribe. The Eskils, according to Ibn Rustah, inhabited the regions of Volga Bulgaria neighboring the dwelling places of the Hungarian tribes in the 9th century. However, Gyula Németh and other linguists sharply refuse the possibility of a connection between the two ethnonyms. Similarly debated remained the idea proposed by Lóránd Benkő who argues that the Székely ethnonym derrived from an ancient Hungarian word for border guard, because the "székely" word with a similar meaning (in reference to forest rangers) was only documented in the 16th-17th centuries.
Kingdom of Hungary (11th century–1570)
Settlement in Székely Land (11th century–c. 1230)
A charter by King Béla II of Hungary from around 1138 contains the earliest record on the Székely ethnonym. It writes of a serf employed in salt trading who was named Scichul. A later source, the 14th-century Illuminated Chronicle writes of lightly armored Székely troops fighting in the battle of Olšava in 1116. The same chronicle makes mention of a Székely contingent in the battle of Leitha of 1146. The Székely formed the vanguard of the Hungarian royal army in both battles. They fought along with Pechenegs at Olšava. In the chronicle's narration, the Czechs defeated the royal army in this battle because of the sudden retreat by "the most contemptile Pechenegs and Székely" (Bisseni atque Syculi vilissimi), but the contemporary Cosmas of Prague emphasizes that the vanguard defeated a smaller Czech troop in the battle. Székely troops took part in military campaigns in faraway territories as well, as it is demonstrated by their participation, reported by Simon of Kéza, in the crusade of King Andrew II of Hungary in the Holy Land in 1217.
Documents from the 13th and 14th centuries refer to scattered Székely groups in many regions of the Carpathian Basin. For instance, a deed from 1217 makes mention of a Sceculzaz centurionatus ("Székelyszáz hundred") in Bihar County; a charter of 1256 describes a large forest at Boleráz as located "towards the Székely" in Pozsony County; and the Székely of Nagyváty in Baranya County are mentioned in a royal diploma of 1272. These documents suggest that a number of Székely communities existed along the kingdom's frontiers in the 13th and 14th centuries. The same conclusion can be drawn from the fact that the Székely do not speak a homogoneous dialect. Their tongue can be divided into at least three groups, each with its own features which are related to Hungarian dialects spoken in different regions of the Carpathian Basin. For instance, the Székely dialect of the upper course of the rivers Nyárád (Niraj) and Kis-Küküllő (Târnava Mică) shares characteristics with the Hungarian tongue of the vicinity of Pozsony (now Bratislava), and the Székely tongue of Udvarhelyszék is related to the dialect of Baranya. Zoltán Kordé and Tudor Sălăgean argue that royal will ordered the settlement of the Székely people in Transylvania in several stages from the end of the 11th century.
The first historical event in connection with Székely groups dwelling in Transylvania was recorded by a royal charter of 1250 which narrates a military action taking place about 40 years earlier against Bulgaria. According to the charter, Ivachin, Count of Szeben (Sibiu, Hermannstadt) led an army of Saxons, Romanians, Székelys and Pechenegs across the Carpathian Mountains and Cumania and occupied Vidin in Bulgaria in the early 1210s. The Székely seem to have initially been settled in southern Transylvania, but it became subject to colonization by settlers from Western Europe from the 1150s. From here, Székely groups moved to the easternmost lands of the kingdom. However, they preserved the memory of their dwelling in the region of Kézd (Saschiz, Keizd) Orbó (Gârbova, Urwegen) and Sebes (Sebeș, Mühlbach), since three Székely seats in the Székely Land (Kézdiszék, Orbaiszék and Sepsiszék) were named after these settlements. Early 12th-century cemeteries unearthed at Sebes and Homoróddaróc (Drăușeni, Draas) also point at the presence of a population in these villages before the Saxons' arrival. Other Székely groups seemingly came from Bihar County to Transylvania, since a Székely seat (Telegdiszék) was named after Telegd (Tileagd). William, bishop of Transylvania referred in 1213 to moving Székely groups when he granted the tithes in the Barcaság (Ţara Bârsei, Burzenland) to the Teutonic Knights with the exception of the tithes which were payable by the Hungarians and Székelys "who happened to move" to the same territory thereafter. A charter of 1222 by King Andrew II reveals that the Knights' domains in Transylvania were bordered by the "land of the Székely people" to the north and northeast at that time. The same monarch also donated the land of the Székely of Sebes in southern Transylvania to the Saxons in 1224.
The reason behind the relocation from southern Transylvania could have been that the Byzantine Empire became stronger in this period. The Teutonic Knights were considered to be better in resisting the Empire. At the same time, Székely light cavalry was better in fighting against nomadic peoples, like the Cumans, or Tatars to the East.
Territorial and administrative organisation
In contrast to the Transylvanian Saxons whose privileges were spelled out in a separate royal charter, no document summarizing the liberties of the whole Székely population was issued. Even so, the Székely succeeded in preserving their specific status within the Kingdom of Hungary by forming "a well organised community of warriors living off cattle breeding" (Pál Engel). Accordingly, royal charters often refer to their universitas or community. For instance, a charter by King Stephen V of Hungary reveals that the universitas of the Székely of Telegd were exempt of the authority both of the ispáns or heads of the Transylvanian counties and of the voivodes of Transylvania. The whole Székely population was administered by a royal official, the count of the Székelys who was first mentioned in a royal charter of 1235.
The Székely Land was divided into seven smaller territorial units which were initially named "land" (terra) or "district" (districtus), and "seats" (sedes) from the 14th century. The last of them, Aranyosszék came into being under Stephen V (1270-1272) who granted territories along the river Aranyos (Arieș) to a Székely group from Kézd.
Székelys, similarly to Transylvanian Saxons, were organised in Seats (Hungarian: szék, Latin: Sedes). Seats in medieval Hungary were autonomous territorial units. After the final settlement in Székely Land in the 12th and 13th centuries, seven Seats took shape, possibly following the tribal structure of the Székelys:
- Udvarhely Seat
- Csík Seat
- Aranyos Seat
- Maros Seat
- Orbai Seat
- Sepsi Seat
- Kézdi Seat
The latter three seats were united in the early 17th century, and have been called Háromszék (Three Seats) since then.
Székely Land was not part of the Hungarian county system. As a single territorial unit, it was led by the Count of the Székelys (Latin: Comes Sicolorum), a representative of the king. The Count of the Székelys was chosen by the king, usually from Hungarian aristocrats, and never from the Székelys. John Hunyadi was the first Voivode of Transylvania to assume this position. Since then, the Transylvanian voivods (later princes) had the rank of Count of the Székelys, along with their other titles. Issues concerning the Székely Land were discussed by the Assembly of Seats, where all free Székelys had the right to participate. The assembly usually took place in Udvarhely Seat. Udvarhely Seat was also called the Principal Seat (Latin: Capitalis Sedes); however, the other Seats always jealously maintained that all seats were equal.
In the Diets of Hungary and of Transylvania, the Székelys were represented as one of the nations, or estates. (Estates in those times were called nations.) Székelys joined the Union of Three Nations, an alliance of Transylvanian estates formed in 1438.
With their autonomous territorial, judiciary, administrative and military structures, the medieval Székely society followed the pre-feudal democratic tribal patterns. Judges and all of their leaders were elected directly (except for their Count, who was appointed by the King of Hungary). Common land was redistributed on a regular basis. If a Székely died without inheritors, his land became part of the common lands and any free Székely was entitled to take it over (In the feudal county system, the king or the landlord would have been the heir in this case). No family could take out more land from the common lands than the amount they could cultivate. If a plot remained uncultivated for a longer period, it was also subject to occupation by other Székelys. The heritage rules restricted poverty and prevented the settlement of non-Székely people in Székely Land for centuries.
Services provided to the King of Hungary
The Székely light cavalry fit perfectly into the medieval Hungarian military forces, supplementing the army of armoured knights. They were especially effective against nomadic invaders from the East, using similar fighting methods and strategies. One of their first recorded military victories is from the 1280s, when Székelys of the Aranyos Seat attacked and partly destroyed the Tatar troops returning to Moldova packed with loot. But Székelys were not only defending Transylvania, they took part in campaigns abroad, too.
In 1499, when armed clashes with the Ottoman Empire and its vassal states became regular, a diploma issued by King Vladislaus II (II. Ulászló) reaffirmed the conditions under which the Székelys provided military services:
"When the King personally leads his army towards the East, against Moldova, each one of the Székely cavalrymen and infantrymen are required to be under arms, go before the Royal Army and wait for the battle abroad for 15 days on their own expense. Also, on the way back, they shall go behind the Royal Army. When His Majesty sends his personal deputy to the East, half of the Székelys should accompany him as described."
In a similar way, half of the Székelys supported the king during his campaigns against Wallachia and 1/5 of them if the army was only led by a deputy. Common Székelys did not participate personally in wars with Western and Northern countries; however, they were obliged to hire mercenaries and send them in battle under the leadership of Székely captains. As a result of their military services, Székelys had equal rights to the Hungarian nobles. They were exempted from paying taxes and, when visiting the feudal noble counties, even the poorest of them were treated as free people. As the diploma of King Vladislaus II explains: "Therefore the Székelys, as nobles by rights granted by glorious Hungarian Kings of the past, are exempt from any tax or other duties, and are free." Following an old tradition, every landed household gave an ox as a present to the king when he was crowned, when he got married, and when a child was born in the royal family.
Although most of their privileges and pre-feudal customs remained untouched, there were some gradual changes in the Székely society over the centuries after their final settlement. Three classes evolved, based on the status they had in the army, which closely correlated to their wealth. Originally senior commanders (Latin: primores) were the richest class of the society, the elite and later the aristocracy of the Szeklers. Horsemen (lófők in Hungarian, literally "Horse Heads") were the second, a wealthy and influential class. Those not able to finance a horse served in the infantry and were called the common Székelys. The best Székely commanders sometimes were awarded feudal estates by the king in the neighbourhood of Székely Land. Wealthy members of the society gained territories by deforestation outside of the common lands; these were not subject to redistribution by the community. They were also able to obtain and cultivate larger pieces from the common lands.
Soon, primores attempted to follow the example of neighbouring feudal noble counties and tried to obtain serfs for their lands. The poorest common people were sometimes unable to purchase weapons and could not participate in military campaigns without financial support. This group, along with non-Székely immigrants, soon became subject to the efforts of primores looking for servants.
Kings, especially Matthias Corvinus, took measures to stop this process. They were afraid that the number of people available for the infantry would decrease. They could not prevent commoners unable to participate in the military from becoming serfs. This group lost their rights and were not part of the Székely Nation any more. In 1499, King Vladislaus II (II. Ulászló) exempted from military service those poor Székelys who lived on other people's land as servants, or whose movable property was worth less than 3 Forints. They lost their noble rights by the same regulation.
After the 15th century, the Székely assembly became monopolised by the first two classes. In 1511 and in 1519, common Székelys revolted against the oppression by their own Primores. Székely freedom was also decreased when royal judges were appointed in the Seats. They gradually took over the duties of elected Székely judges, but the members of the jury were still elected locally. In spite of these unfavourable processes, most commoners retained their freedom and rights.
Székelys in the Principality of Transylvania (16th-17th centuries)
After the Ottoman occupation of Central Hungary in 1526, the Eastern parts, including Transylvania, were ruled by the Zápolya Family, pretenders of the Hungarian Throne. In the second half of the century, the independent Principality of Transylvania came into existence. During this period, Székelys almost lost their freedom.
Due to frequent armed clashes, Székelys were often called to fight by John Zápolya, and later by his son, John Sigismund. At the same time, financial burdens of the wars led the rulers to end the traditional system of exempting Székely Land from taxes, as it constituted a significant area of their country. The acts passed in 1554 excluded primores and horsemen from paying taxes, but required them of infantrymen. Consequently, common people were burdened both by taxes and compulsory military service. This unfavourable situation led to an armed revolt in 1562, which was defeated by John Sigismund. After the revolt, he abandoned traditional Székely offices such as the elected judges, or the positions of elected Seat Captains. Instead he appointed a governing captain, with an office in Udvarhely, the principal seat. The government built two fortresses to control the Székelys, one in Udvarhely, and another in Háromszék. Insensitive to traditional rights, John Sigismund granted whole Székely villages as feudal estates to his supporters.
Later, princes of Transylvania followed this attitude, but also made use of the Székely military traditions. Stefan Batory, Voivod of Transylvania and King of Poland deployed Transylvanian, mostly Székely mercenaries in the Livonian War against Ivan IV of Russia.
Sigismund Báthory, Prince of Transylvania, who needed their support in the Wallachian Campaign in 1595, promised that their old rights would be restored. As a result, 23,000 Székelys joined the Transylvanian army led by Stephen Bocskay. They provided essential support to Michael the Brave in fighting the Ottoman army. The next year, Sigismund Báthory withdrew his promises and brutally suppressed the revolting Székelys. In 1599, when Michael the Brave attacked Transylvania, Székelys joined Michael during the Battle of Şelimbăr. With their support, Michael the Brave scored a victory over the troops of Andrew Báthory. The escaping prince was later captured and killed in Székely Land. As a reward for their support, Michael restored their old freedom. Székelys also destroyed the royal fortresses built on their land by John Sigismund. Princes of Transylvania learnt from these events and the returning Sigismund Báthory, then Stephen Bocskay, later Gabriel Bethlen reinforced their freedom, also restored traditional offices like elected Seat Captains and elected judges. Even serfs were exempted from paying taxes in Székely Land.
During the 17th century, Székelys continued to be one of the most important components of the Transylvanian army. They could be mobilised quickly, and were under arms in a couple of weeks, at the disposal of the Prince. While the rights of the three classes in arms remained untouched, the social processes of the earlier centuries continued. The number of serfs within their society continuously increased. To maintain the number of infantrymen in the army and prevent them from choosing a more peaceful life as serfs, Transylvanian princes later re-introduced the taxation of Székely serfs.
Habsburg rule, Grand Principality of Transylvania (18th-19th centuries)
After their military successes in Hungary against the Ottoman Empire in the 1680s, Habsburgs extended their influence to Transylvania, too. Habsburg troops took control of the Principality and Leopold I issued his Diploma Leopoldinum, the new constitution of Transylvania in 1691. The Diploma did not radically change the Székely privileges. In spite of this, taxation was soon introduced and villages had to accommodate troops of the Emperor. The Székelys paid the taxes and provided services, as they declared, on a "temporary basis" and "on their own will".
During the Rákóczi Uprising between 1703 and 1711, Székelys supported Francis II Rákóczi, the last elected Prince of Transylvania. When the Habsburgs took control of Transylvania after the uprising, Székelys were disarmed and their military services were no longer wanted. The offices of Seat Captains were wound up but the traditional democratic Székely institutions, like their judiciary system, remained unharmed for decades to come.
Setting up the Székely Border Guard
In 1762, Empress Maria Theresa decided to set up border guard troops on the borders of Transylvania, based on the Military Frontier system already in place on the Ottoman border area. Mostly Romanians were recruited in the southern Carpathians (Fogaras area) and Székelys in the Eastern Carpathians. The drafting was organised partly on voluntary, partly on compulsory basis, and resulted in conflicts in many places, especially in Székely Land. The Székelys requested that instead of the imperial officers, they have their own leaders according to the traditions, and that they are not ordered to go in action abroad. As the negotiations failed with the army, Székelys openly protested and some of the Seats contacted each other to start co-ordinated actions. As the drafting was only partly successful, the chief officer responsible for the recruitment gave up his plans and ordered that the so far distributed weapons are returned by the Székelys. They, however, gave back only part of the equipment and kept the rifles as a compensation for the weapons confiscated after the Rákóczi Uprising.
The next, already violent attempt by the imperial officers to recruit Székely border guards culminated in a tragic event, the Mádéfalva Massacre, commemorated until today. In December 1763, the men sought refuge from drafting in the mountains, at Mádéfalva (Romanian: Siculeni), some of them equipped with weapons. On 7 January 1764, an army unit of 1300 soldiers, with two cannons, attacked the peaceful crowd and massacred hundreds of them. The drafting in Székely Land was quickly and easily completed after these events. Border guard troops were set up in every Seat except for Udvarhely and Maros Seat.
After the Mádéfalva Massacre, many Székelys crossed the Carpathians and escaped to Moldova. Those who stayed in the Moldavian Voivodate, became one of the subgroups of Csángó people. Others moved to the Bukovina Region and founded their final settlements with the help of General András Hadik. This group retained their traditions and are regarded to as the Székelys of Bukovina.
The Military Frontier Organisation put an end to the autonomy of the Székely Nation in some respects. The self governance of the settlements was seriously hurt by the border guard commanders. They interfered with the election of judges, the local agriculture and schooling, also with the every-day life of the Székely guards. Property transactions or weddings could be done only with the permission of the officers. In local communities, however, many of the traditions were kept, the Székely pride and their strong desire for freedom remained. They organised their own life, set rules for the building of roads and bridges, also for the election of their leaders and jury members. (Most of these issues were decided by landlords in the noble counties.) The ancient system of redistributing common lands was still a practice by the end of the 18th century, but ceased to exist in a couple of decades. By the 1820s, only a couple settlements practiced the yearly land redistribution. The last examples include the capital of Aranyos Seat, Felvinc (today: Unirea).
The 1848 Revolution
During the turbulent period of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 of 1848-49, Székelys supported the liberal parties pressing for full freedom of serfs and equal taxation for everybody. The Assembly of Udvarhely Seat (later followed by other Seats, too) decided already on 3 April 1848 that they would give up their remaining tax reliefs. Serfs in Háromszék were ordered by Székely border guards not to provide the traditional feudal services to their landlords. The decisions of the Seats were reinforced by the last Transylvanian Diet in June 1848.
Székelys also supported the decision of the Transylvanian Diet about the unification of Transylvania with Hungary. When the Habsburg Army, under the leadership of General Puchner, tried to take control of Transylvania, Székelys were the only serious resistance to his efforts. However, not equipped with artillery, they were quickly defeated. Maros Seat was occupied, Udvarhely Seat surrendered, Csík Seat declared neutrality. In this situation, the resistance was re-organised in Háromszék. On the assembly of the Háromszék in November, Áron Gábor, a former artillery officer, convinced the delegates that instead of surrendering, they should try to manufacture cannons locally. In a couple of weeks, the first cannons were ready and were successfully deployed. During the following period, dozens of cannons were manufactured and used by the Székely Army. Half of the Transylvanian troops of General Puchner were engaged in fights with the resisting Háromszék. This prevented him from attacking the Várad Fortress (today: Oradea) in a decisive moment and from opening a second front in the Hungarian military theatre.
By the end of 1848 - beginning of 1849, Székelys joined the army set up by General Józef Bem and took part in his successful campaigns driving out Habsburg troops from Transylvania. The successful campaign was finally crushed when the imperial Russian army intervened in Transylvania following a request from the Habsburg Empire.
Union with Hungary
In 1867, an agreement (Compromise) was made between Austria and Hungary about the creation of the Dual Monarchy. According to the Compromise, Transylvania was united with the Kingdom of Hungary. A decade later, a new county system was introduced in the Kingdom, which put an end to the long tradition of Székely Seats.
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