Burghers and the Reformation

András Kubinyi

Ferenc Szakály:
Mezôváros és reformáció. Tanulmányok
a korai magyar polgárosodás kérdéséhez
(Market-towns and the Reformation.
Studies on Early Hungarian Embourgeoisement)
In the series Humanizmus és Reformáció,
edited by József Jankovics
Budapest: Balassi Kiadó, 1995, 486 pp. 

If Szakály had done no more than publish these five related studies, this alone would have been of great benefit to historians of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age. They all discuss persons from market-towns, persons who worked mainly there and who played a crucial role in the spread of the Reformation. They describe in considerable detail the economic life of market-towns, such as Pécs and Kálmáncsehi, Ráckeve and Szeged, Nagymaros and Nyírbátor. The volume comes complete with a rich bibliography, as well as excellent indices of names and subjects.The substance is, however, to be found in the Prologue and the Epilogue; the five essays, as case studies, serve to prove the points formulated in these two sections, which contain their author's thesis and go beyond the scope of Reformation studies, addressing the questions of bourgeois development in the sixteenth century and yielding new findings.

Ferenc Szakály is among the few historians familiar with the sources of, and specialist literature on, Hungarian history both before and after the Battle of Mohács (1526), the start of a century and a half of Ottoman domination with the Kingdom of Hungary divided first in two and then split into three parts.

Let us approach the above-outlined subject from a longer perspective. From time to time, certain views emerge in historical research which historians come to accept by way of consensus, to the extent that they are seen as not requiring further evidence. There are claims whose origins are now almost impossible to reconstruct; and there are others which are hallmarked with the names of authoritative historians. However, it usually turns out that history is far too complex a process to allow the uncritical acceptance of these views: for a while, people try to accomodate the increasing volume of evidence against the old theory by bending the rules of logic, until the time finally comes when they turn radically against these ideas and replace them with new theses, unfortunately of the same one-sided character as before. The truth is probably halfway between the two opposite theses. It is much better first to screen the views not in conformity with the old thesis, and then to formulate the thesis based on new source material or new source interpretation while hanging on to views that are judged acceptable.

To illustrate the above, let us consider the familiar litany concerning oppression by the feudal landlords. As a number of French historians have pointed out in the last few decades, these views found their way into the literature of the period before the French Revolution, and had a lasting effect. I deliberately use the term "literature" without the adjective "specialist" because, via high-school textbooks, these views filtered through to literary works, and even to movies and television. This view was then adopted by nineteenth-century liberal historiography (and, in turn, by Marxists), although the historical evidence does not always support it, as Régine Pernoud and Jacques Heers point out. Naturally, in the heat of the debate opponents of the old view also make excessive claims. After neatly demonstrating the existence of the liberties of medieval peasants, Professor Heers strikes a strongly anti-urban note: "There are few historical slogans more deceptive, more ridiculous or more unintelligible than the one which was introduced, into the public mind under unknown circumstances and for whatever propagandistic purpose, which claimed that 'urban air makes one free'." (With all due regard to Jacques Heers, an authority on urban history, I must register dissent on this point.) Still, the point to appreciate here is that one must not underestimate the peasants' liberties.

Another seemingly evident thesis-this time from Hungarian historiography-takes us even closer to Ferenc Szakály's book. This is the underestimation of urban development in Late Medieval Hungary, along with the related issue of the deficit in the country's foreign trade. The latter part of the thesis can be traced back to Ferenc Kováts' excellent book discussing the Po-zsony Book of Thirtieths of 1457-58, while the belittling of urban development goes back to Ele mér Má lyusz's German-language study pub lished almost seventy years ago. Actually, Má lyusz takes over Werbô czy's analysis: only the in habitants of the royal free towns were burghers; those living in all other kinds of settlements were serfs: in other words-as I would put it-the inhabitants of the market-towns have no place in the history of Hungary's middle class. Accordingly, some thirty real towns were left in the country, distributed unevenly across its territory. The fusion of the Kováts and Má lyusz theories was performed first by Oszkár Paulinyi, and subsequently by Jenô Szûcs, based on a much greater quantity of source material and with the high professional standards characteristic of him, in 1955.

Here, however, a legal criterion is mixed up with an economic one. Szakály clearly recognizes the error in Mályusz's thesis, as well as its influence on Szûcs. Unfortunately, our author does not take into account my study published in 1991, in which on the one hand I pointed out that the Pozsony Book of Thirtieths was unsuitable for proving the deficit in the trade balance (in fact, the surplus-deficit issue in the Middle Ages cannot be decided on the basis of data), and on the other hand quoted the discussion of my own doctoral thesis, in which Szûcs, as opponens, shifted his opinion nearer to my own standpoint, while I, replying, implemented certain corrections in my earlier views. Here I quote the sentence from Szûcs's opponens opinion which is of importance to our present theme: "It seemed that I included the competition between market-towns among the factors distorting town development. Actually, I regard this negative connection as valid purely for the catchment areas of trading towns." This sentence is important because to the east and south of the Zagreb- Sopron-Esztergom-Székesfehérvár-Buda-Pest-Kassa (Kosxice)-Nagy bánya (Baia Mare) line (in other words, in the greater part of the country all the way to the Transylvanian border), Szeged, which joined the ranks of the royal free towns in the Late Middle Ages, was the only real town, although since it had no town walls, it could, in terms of its appearance, have been categorized as a market-town. The most densely populated re gion of the country, southern Trans danubia and Syrmia with its vineyards, fell into the "town-free" zone. Perhaps it is not by chance that with the exception of the border settlement of Nagymaros, Szakály selects as his examples market-towns from the "town-free" part of the country.

I myself thought-and still think-it inconceivable that no towns would have existed in a densely populated and economically important region. Accordingly, the legal position (that is, whether at the end of the Middle Ages the inhabitants of a settlement counted as burghers or serfs) cannot, in my view, determine whether or not a settlement can be considered a town. I would remark that in the neighboring Austrian provinces there were, besides the Landesfürstliche Städte (which corresponded to the Hungarian royal free towns), towns owned by landlords (Patrimonialstädte), as well as Märkte, the counterparts of Hungary's market-towns, although these, despite their name, would not necessarily have held markets. In Late Medieval Poland, whose course of development was similar to that of Hungary, contemporaries divided towns into four groups: the more important civitates, the second-rank civitates and oppida, the oppida which held fairs annually and weekly, and the oppida which had no markets. Oppidum was the Latin term for the Hungarian market-town. In Poland, therefore, there are oppida which did not hold markets, and still ranked as towns. (I would remark that in the territories of the Polish Crown, around the year 1500 there were, according to historians, 363 such "fourth-rank" towns, with a total of 141,100 inhabitants-in other words with an average population of 389.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to deal with the Hungarian market-towns in this account, but I should like to say three things. The specialist literature-and especially ethnography-emphasizes their agricultural character, perhaps because of the name which in Hungarian has associations with "fields" and "agriculture". However-as Szakály also shows-the Hungarian word for market-town, mezôváros, also means "open town without a wall". Of course, agriculture may have predominated within it, albeit primarily grape production and animal husbandry. But comparison with the village is unwarranted. Secondly, Vera Bácskai, in a book published in the 1960s, saw the situation clearly, but was probably unable to express her views in the face of opinions which had prevailed for decades. Thirdly, the so-called "real towns," the market-towns (along with the seigneurial towns surrounded by a wall, e.g. Pécs) enjoying the most varied legal liberties, and the villages possessing the right to hold a weekly and/or annual market all belong to the category of "centers" (Zentralorte). The issue is therefore merely this: where does one draw the line between town-like and village-like centers? This question has vexed me for nearly three decades. I have worked out a number of methods, although I shall not refer to them here, since Szakály quotes and utilizes them. But I shall say this much: although the sources permit it, I would not place settlements in the fourth Polish town category among town-like centers.

After this introduction, protracted but necessary for presenting my own views, we should return to Szakály's book. The author is also vexed by the market-town question. He rightly stresses the need for the compilation of market-town lists-I would add that I shall shortly be ready with my work on Transdanubia- and also points out the importance of the Turkish surveys.These are not just suitable for the reconstruction of the state of affairs during the Middle Ages, but also clearly show the size, even the economic significance, of individual settlements. Szakály also uses an ingenious new method. He has processed the personal names in five books utilizable as sources, the names of individuals who played a role in Church life in the Late Middle Ages and in the Early Modern Age, or in the Reformation. Looking at eighty-two settlements, he found 621 persons. Since he did not deal with nobles, the statistics clearly show the high proportion of town and market-town inhabitants both among the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church and among the reformers. The eighty-two settlements were obviously the most important ones, and were among the most urbanized.

I consider this method to be a very good one, even one to be followed. On the other hand, it would be better to extend it, placing it on a broader footing. The pre-Reformation and post-Reformation situations should be better separated, and as well as the members of four west Hungarian chapters in the Late Middle Ages, other chapters should also be processed. Perhaps not entirely acceptable is the following assertion: "The first lesson of the above records is that neither in the pre-Mohács Catholic hierarchy, nor in the Protestant hierarchy which developed afterwards did the "real towns" assert their-otherwise oppressive-economic superiority over peasant society in the villages and market-towns." I do not wish to emphasize here that-on the basis of what has been said above-I do not think it correct to speak of peasant society in the market-towns, especially in the case of leading market-towns. I also think it problematical that Szeged is referred to as a market-town, despite the fact that the town paid taxes in the manner of the royal free towns, and not in that of the market-towns; in fact its royal free town rights were recognized in 1498. If we distinguish the real towns on the basis of their legal position (although this is not correct either), then Szeged is a town and Temesvár (Timis , oara) a market-town (or, to be more exact, a royal seigneurial town).

However, Szakály's tables do not show that the "real towns", more correctly the royal free towns, did not assert their "oppressive superiority" against the so-called market-towns. Of the eighty-two settlements, eleven (Szeged included) were royal towns, and of the 621 persons on the list, 111, or 17.9 per cent, were from them. More decisive is the fact that the royal towns were primarily Hungarian-speaking or with Hungarian speakers in the majority. Kassa (Kosxice), for example, appears on the list only after the Reformation, when it became magyarized, while Pozsony (Bratislava) was included by dint of its pre-Mohács chapter members. By way of cursory comparison, I looked at the canons admitted to two cathedral chapters between 1458 and 1526. Of the 219 members of the Esztergom chapter, 5 per cent were citizens of a royal free town: five were citizens of Esztergom, two of Pest, and one of Buda, Bártfa (Bardejów), Nagybánya (Baia Mare) and Pozsony (Bratislava) respectively; the number coming from German towns was small. Of the sixty-five members of the Kalocsa chapter, 7.7 per cent were from towns, namely three from Székesfehérvár and two from Szeged. It should be remarked that many canons are denoted by Christian name only. In Esztergom there were many of Italian birth, and in reality the proportion may have been higher.

I therefore fear that settlements from where educated persons came would need to be distinguished not on the basis of the real town-market-town categories, but on that of mother-tongue. It could be that were we to have a better knowledge of the make-up of the clergy of the town parishes and town monasteries, we would have a different picture. This is shown by the Pozsony (Bratislava) chapter. Of the twenty-seven pre-Mohács canons coming from a burgher background in Hungary, fifteen were from towns or market-towns in Hungary which were German (or German and Slovak) speaking, plus three Germans from among the four canons born in Buda. I would therefore not dare to assert that "in fifteenth-century and early sixteenth-century Hungary the secular clerical and monastic career was primarily the stamping-ground of those from market-towns", as Szakály writes. This I would modify as follows: it was primarily the stamping-ground of burghers (from towns and market-towns alike) whose mother-tongue was Hungarian-with the comment that so far we have only a superficial knowledge of the clergy of the German-speaking towns.

On the issue of the Reformation's ties with the market-towns, Ferenc Szakály-if I understand him correctly-agrees with János Horváth in his opposition to Klaniczay: the role of the landlords was more important than that of change in religious allegiance on the part of the "peasant burghers". I myself would discuss this question in a less black-and-white manner. Szakály quotes my study on the choosing of priests, in which I attempted to point out that by the end of the Middle Ages most towns and market-towns, and even the inhabitants of many villages, possessed the right to choose their priests. Of course, it does not follow from this that the landlord had no way of influencing his serfs to choose a priest acceptable to him. We have data on this. In 1506 Queen Anne wished to give the parish of Szentfalva (a suburb of Pest) to one of her chaplains, and agreed on this with a majority of the local landowners there. However the serfs there belonging to János Tárcai, the lord-lieutenant of the Szeklers, did not want to go along with this, whereupon the queen wrote to Tárcai asking him to make the necessary arrangements. The choice of a Protestant minister could therefore have happened on the initiative of the landlord just as much as on that of the people of the market-town. However, the essence of the issue is where the landlord's sympathy towards the Reformation came from, whether he knew priests who supported reform, or whether the candidate supported by the market-town inhabitants converted the landlord.

And now we reach a point on which Szakály's book is crystal clear: the market-town burghers, who engaged in trade, knew about and supported the Reformation. Investigations and reports made before Mohács provide excellent illustrations of the spread of the new doctrines. On the occasion of the Sopron investigation of 1524, the parish priest said that the laity already had Lutheran books, and that when people gathered in the inns there was always someone who could read them out, and ten or twenty people listening.

We know from a complaint in 1526 of the chapter of Szeben (Sibiu) that a Dominican who had been expelled from the order was proclaiming the new teachings at banquets held by merchants and burghers. It was not by chance that in Sopron the largest number of Lutheran books belonged to the merchant Pál Moritz, whose 1520-29 book of transactions-the oldest such work in Hungary-was published not long ago by the now-deceased Károly Mollay. It may therefore be supposed that in the choosing of priests, too, the principal role may have been played by the trading burghers of the market-towns, who acquired appropriate qualifications in good Latin schools and who purchased books at fairs.

Szakály's book provides, in its five studies, much data on the significance in the Middle Ages of the market-towns he discusses. Here I would remark that the issue of Nyírbátor's right in 1332 to levy duty on goods passing through is still an open one. Szakály thinks it possible that the relevant documents are forgeries dating from the second half of the fifteenth century. I do not exclude this possibility, but I believe that the question of how an almost insignificant place could possess this right, at a time when just six important towns in the whole country had a similar one, remains unanswered. I ought to have thought of something which might strengthen the case for its authenticity-namely, that while all the other rights and privileges permitting goods to be stopped and taxed were connected with foreign trade, Nyírbátor was merely given rights valid for a limited area.

The essence of the book is contained in its epilogue. Here we can read what for me is an utterly convincing thesis: "the sixteenth century can, in all probability, be termed the first golden age of Hungarian enterprise". I myself would also include the decades before Mohács. If, in addition to the burghers of the "real towns", we list among the entrepreneurs the market-town inhabitants and the wealthy peasant stratum which developed in villages as a result of differentiation of the peasantry, then the earlier debate-on whether Hungarian urban development was everywhere in decline during the fifteenth century, or whether the decline of certain towns (mainly along the country's western border) coincided with the rise of others, principally in the middle of the country-becomes sterile. There was in Hungary a wealthy, enterprising, reasonably educated trader-burgher stratum, independently of the legal status of their settlements. Here I would remark that village autonomy, to which Szakály refers only briefly, was, it seems, more important than was earlier thought. The above-mentioned Heers has already referred to this in a foreign connection, and so has the Peter Blickle school which proclaims the theory of "communalism".

In the end the picture emerging of Hungarian bourgeois development in the Late Middle Ages and in the Early Modern Age is more convincing than the earlier one, and will exercise an influence on historians for a long time to come.

Five reviews in the "Symposium" section in the Summer 1997 number of Budapesti Könyvszemle-BUKSZ discuss Ferenc Szakály's latest book. András Kubinyi, whose review is published here in its entirety, is the principle authority on Late Medieval Hungarian urban development. Since 1969, Szakály has published works examining various issues in urban, social, and cultural history in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The present volume offers new possibilities for approaching the whole issue of embourgeoisement in Hungary, an issue that can be assessed in many different ways. Szakály focuses on the market-town as a legal and administrative entity and on the developments in cultural history and mentality associated with the Reformation as well as their reciprocal connection. Five case studies based on research into sources of a most various kind and written up in an almost literary manner are presented within the framework of a theoretical summary expounded by the Prologue and the Epilogue. These show the lives and historical roles of influential and exciting individuals-sixteenth-century preachers, traders, soldiers and adventurers. All sprang from market-towns, and all contributed directly or indirectly to the spread of the Reformation in Hungary.

In his comments Gyula Benda praises the methodological achievements of Ferenc Szakály above all others, calling the volume a "masterpiece of microhistory", an approach present in Hungary since the end of the 1980s, which gave rise to the title of the pioneering Magvetô Kiadó series edited by Gábor Klaniczay. Benda writes: "Szakály gives practical form to this historical approach, which does not primarily examine individual cases, or illustrate local types by means of detailed and meticulous presentation of persons, events and settlements, but rather examines the mechanisms underlying the intellectual, economic, and social progress of the age".

This shift of focus may prove fruitful: for example, in the absence of homogeneous source material the economic upturn in sixteenth-century Hungary is difficult to describe reliably although "the main question is how deeply society was affected by commercialization. The macro approach can argue through the use of the few commodity trade statistics that have survived and can endeavor to establish the level of production. By examining another side to this, the market-town and the activities of traders living and starting out from there, Ferenc Szakály can say something pertinent". Or, according to Mihály Balázs, another reviewer, Szakály is most innovative precisely where he "speaks of the importance of concrete circumstances and of the personality traits of Protestant preachers, or when he writes that intellectual processes and spiritual manifestations cannot be tied to economic movements".

The microhistorical approach is supplemented by extraordinarily thorough and ingenious philological work, breaking the bond of traditional philology. All of Sza kály's reviewers speak appreciatively of this. In recent years no significant new source from the period has come to light, but Szakály shows that it is possible to analyze the old texts and data using other pertinent information; his systematization of scattered data from what are sometimes extremely diverse sources adds up to a novel picture.

Critiques of Szakály's book fall into two groups, depending on the nature of the theme and the direction of their approach. Urban historians confine their remarks primarily to the concept and the historical role of the market-town, while specialists of the Reformation appreciate what the author has to say concerning the renewal of religion in Hungary.

The market-town, or oppidum, is a category difficult to establish, as the reviewers, as well as the author, have pointed out. Besides the royal free towns or liberae regiae civitates, the "real towns" inhabited by burghers, there were the more numerous market-towns-that is, towns without a wall. For a long time the oppida bore the stamp of inferiority and subordination; one of Szakály's most firmly argued theses (he is not the first to say this) is that during the time of the Turkish occupation the market-towns were the real scenes of embourgeoisement in Hungary. Their burghers were peasant burghers, and were on a par with the burghers of the "real towns"; moreover, generally speaking, these peasant burghers do not seem to have been of secondary importance when their historical role is examined. From the sixteenth century onwards more and more peasants living in oppida became linked to trade, even foreign trade, a development which led to an upturn in artisan production in the settlements. The seeds of the characteristic indigenous urban development occurring in this way were, however, totally destroyed by the Fifteen Year War.

Many take issue with the course of development outlined here. Vera Bácskai remarks that to say that the above-mentioned war destroyed merely the germs of urban development amounts to ignoring the development of the towns in the Middle Ages, since Szakály deals with settlements which had a town or town-like past going back many centuries; moreover, the destruction affected only the market-towns of the Great Plain.

Gyula Benda doubts the assertion that the halting of indigenous town development can be laid at the door of the Turks: the market-towns of Spain and southern Italy were bogged down for centuries on both the economic and the social level, although there was no Turkish rule there. In addition, he reproaches Szakály for the fact that towns of the Great Plain type predominate in his concept of the market-town, namely that "in very many oppida, for example in the small towns of Transdanubia, there would have been germs of development of a different type".

There have been two distinct traditions in Hungary in the recent treatment of the Reformation: János Horváth gives pride of place to change of religious affiliation on the part of the patrons, regarding the Reformation process as the application of the principle cuius regio eius religio. On the other hand, the line associated with Tibor Klaniczay and László Makkai from the 1950s emphasizes the initiating role of the market-towns in the spread of the new religious ideas and practices. Szakály links himself with the latter tradition. The term "market-town Reformation" reflects this change of approach. As Katalin Péter (who for her part regards the term "market-town Reformation" as flawed) puts it: "Before Makkai and his followers, the Reformation meant the work of the reformers. The history of the Reformation in Hungary was the history of the intellectual and personal links of the reformers here; it was they who directed attention to the social endeavors developing in the wake of the Reformation's influence or in parallel with it. According to Makkai's and Klaniczay's view, the Reformation was effected by society or by a part of it". Compared to the orthodox 1950s Marxist view of history, this Weberian notion represented an important shift in Hungarian historiography. Szakály's book will bring a similar change: "With regard to their methods and findings, the studies in the volume offer something which-on the basis of source data very different from ours-international scholarship currently requires", namely research based on concrete facts (registers of births, marriages, and deaths; lists of students admitted to university faculties), and ways in which social endeavors found expression. In the absence of these source data, Szakály attempts to reconstruct social endeavor in the shape of efforts of individuals. Accordingly, Szakály presents the Reformation in Hungary not merely through the lives of preachers, but also through those of traders and adventurers: "On the one hand he has widened the content of the Reformation concept and on the other hand, accommodating to the poor source material in Hungary, he has provided a picture of the Reformation in Hungary in the context of world history" .

Szakály has, on page 417 of his book, lines which, because of their significance, drew the attention of many of his reviewers. He states that with the exception of the lesser nobility, "it can be proved that every formative section of Hungarian society had its passionate traders, or to use a later term, entrepreneurs. In this sense the sixteenth century can, in all probability, be termed the first golden age of Hungarian enterprise, a golden age which [...] has never been repeated to this extent" (author's italics). Mihály Balázs considers the use of the term "entrepreneur" anachronistic, and takes the view that modern parallels suggested by similar statements incline towards journalism. Gyula Benda also thinks that the use of the entrepreneurship and entrepreneur concepts is mistaken, and Vera Bácskai draws attention to the fact that "modern concepts can be applied to times gone by, but only after exact definition and careful circumscription, pointing out content diverging from criteria accepted today". All this is lacking here. Enterprise and dealing are not synonyms, anyway; risk-taking, calculation, and knowledge of market conditions were characteristic of traders in the period before the Turkish occupation, too: consequently, these are not distinguishing features. The unsettled political and military situation did not favor the development of a real entrepreneurial class, as opposed to a small number of adventurer merchants.

The most serious criticism of the concept underlying Szakály's volume was made by Katalin Péter. The protagonists of the excellent case studies had their roots in market-towns. Szakály presupposes that their activities were shaped by this market-town culture, and can therefore be traced back via their lives and deeds to the settlement whence they came. Péter writes: "It is true enough that all started out from market-towns, but what is brought into focus in the brilliant studies presented here is that, with the exception of the preachers, all became nobles or citizens of royal free towns [...]. All came from market-towns, or to put it another way, they escaped from the power of the landlords". In other words, the market-towns, on the basis of Péter's research, were not so much settlements inhabited by self-conscious citizens breathing the air of freedom, but rather places which were, in every respect, under the sway of the local landowner. Another criticism, one pertinent to the entire book, is that Szakály seeks his heroes only in market-towns, although he could have found personalities of a similar kind in the royal free towns or in the villages. "In the final analysis, Szakály does not convince us that market-town origins are the determining factor in his protagonists. My own view is that he describes persons whose natures impel them towards the center of events. Society operates through the endeavors of people of this type. When it appeared on the agenda of history, the Reformation was implemented in the market-towns through the efforts of people of this kind, as it was in the towns and villages, too".

Endre Szécsényi

Books by Ferenc Szakály
A Selection:

a XVII. és XVIII. században
(Peasant Counties in the
17th and 18th Centuries)
Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1969

(The Battle of Mohács)
Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1975

(Taxation in Ottoman-held Hungary)
Budapest: Akadémiai, 1981

(Hungaria Eliberata:
The relief of Buda Castle and the liberation of Hungary from Ottoman rule)
Budapest: Corvina Books, 1986

(Market-towns and the Reformation: Studies on early Hungarian embourgeoisement)
Humanizmus és Reformáció. Budapest:
Balassi Kiadó, 1995

(Hungarian Legislation and Administration in Ottoman-held Hungary. Budapest: MTA Történettudományi Intézete, 1997

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