The Situation of the Peasantry and the New Measures to Free Serfs

One of the crucial political issues in the twenty years after the War of Independence was the final abrogation of serfdom. The attitude towards the state of both peasants and landowners was contingent on the resolution of this problem; both expected a favourable response. The character and evolution of social tensions was similarly contingent on the outcome.

The principle of manumission with compensation, enacted in 1848, brought about a historic change in the system of production and in property relations, for it broke the organic link between peasant property and noblemen's estates. Between 70 and 80 percent of the peasantry came into possession of land and began a new life as smallholders or middle peasants on their way to a quasi-bourgeois lifestyle. But for others, including some peasant communities, relations with the landowners remained unsettled. The former, age-old interdependence between the landed gentry and serfs had been marked by coercion and conflict, both overt and covert, and a similar pattern marked the economic divorce between these two historic social strata. After the revolution, it was as 'free citizens' that peasant and landlord confronted each other over the reapportionment of what had been feudal property.

{3-374.} The Transylvanian Statute IV of 1848 allocated to peasants the land that they had been cultivating, regardless of the former legal circumstances of this cultivation; subsequent adjudication would determine what parts of the land were former urbarial sessions, now to become the peasant's freehold, and what parts could be re-claimed by the ex-landlord. Thus Transylvanian peasants momentarily came into possession not only of urbarial land but also of all the seigniorial lands they had cultivated. When the Austrians regained control of Hungary, they found a peasantry fully liberated and marked by the consciousness-raising effect of the 1848–49 revolution and civil war; at the same time, in Transylvania, the Austrians inherited the laborious and complicated task of carrying to a conclusion the abolition of serfdom. Theirs was the historical responsibility, to arbitrate between the conflicting interests of two classes and, by applying the full authority of the state, to win general acceptance for the resulting social balance.

There was an urgent need for state power to be exercised. Disputes over land between the former landowners, the nobles, and the treasury on one side, and the peasantry on the other, multiplied in 1849–50. There was great scope for litigation: Earlier attempts to regulate urbarial relations in Transylvania had come to naught, and thus, in contrast to Hungary proper, the legal ownership of a large proportion of the land remained ill-defined. Many conflicting claims involved the woods and pastures previously shared by peasants and landlords. The settlement of these questions required decades of work by a vast legal apparatus. In the meantime, impatient peasant communities tried more than once to resolve the disputes by force.

Until 1848, the woodlands, covering half of Transylvania, had been in the common use of landlords and peasants, although after 1791 the landlords were considered to be the exclusive owners. The peasants obtained wood, with or without compensation, for burning and building materials, or for resale in the form of barrels, shingles, {3-375.} and charcoal. The former landlords now tried to make the woods off-limits to the peasants — ostensibly on legal grounds or to prevent deforestation, but in fact with the purpose of enlarging their estates and making the peasants pay for wood in cash or services, which amounted to a partial maintenance of socage. The peasant, for his part, would not give up his access to the woods, clung to his ancient rights, and tried to maximize his holdings, even at the expense of former seigniorial estates. Numerous clashes occurred along the Maros and Szamos rivers and in the Érc Mountains, and sometimes the officials conducting cadastral surveys were forcefully driven out. Disputes over pastures were somewhat easier to settle, for it was in the landlord's interest to let the peasant's livestock survive and provide tractive power for his own lands.

In return for the use of the disputed lands, the landlords tried — often with military assistance — to obtain services from the peasants. The vine tithe, for instance, had been cancelled by the diet in the fall of 1848, but the landowners were not willing to give up the tithe generated by seigniorial vineyards, for the sale of wine produced ready cash. The peasants put up a tough fight against the sharing of income from the vineyards, which represented 2–3 percent of cultivated land, and in many cases they simply took possession of the vineyards; the authorities, for their part, were disposed to assist landlords in the collection of tithes. The landowners, being acutely short of money, looked to the expansion of their holdings and to socage for relief. They could obtain the necessary manpower at harvest-time only by exerting economic and non-economic pressures on the peasants, and therefore they made multiple demands for socage — in return for the seigniorial lands in peasant hands, for leased lands, for the use of forests, and for the damages they suffered in 1848–49. The cotters who used seigniorial lands, and whose living conditions differed little from those of serfs, were naturally unwilling to accept that, despite the advent of civil rights, they would remain landless and with little hope self-redemption. {3-376.} Their lot remained unchanged, to labour for the landlord. Small wonder if, amidst this confusion of property relations and obligations, and with the proliferation of new tithes, the peasantry feared that the 'lords' would reimpose serfdom. The authorities could explain and exhort, but the cotters remained reluctant to perform their traditional obligations, and even more reluctant to pay compensation for lost working days. Peasant unrest was manifest throughout Transylvania, but it did not grow into a large scale movement. In the Érc Mountains, the peasants often cited Iancu's name when refusing to pay taxes or to provide services; elsewhere, there were even minor riots, and dozens of villages resorted to petitions. Vandalism and the driving of cattle onto seigniorial lands were common; the relatively measured tactic of occupying land was found most frequently in the economically less-developed counties of Zaránd or Hunyad, where the peasants went so far as to redistribute pastures and woodland. Order could be restored by military force, but the peasants' forceful actions could also bring them positive results: The cadastral surveys, begun in 1851, left some of the occupied lands in their possession.

The relations between landlords and peasants were exceptionally strained in this period of half-serfdom, half-freedom. The time when landlords and serfs held feasts to celebrate of the abolition of serfdom seemed long gone. As the writer Pál Gyulai observed in 1851, 'the common people spend their time occupying lands, the landowner feels compelled to respond with legal procedures, the people nurture thoughts of revenge, and the landowner lives in fear.'[20]20. P. Gyulai, Erdélyi útibenyomások (Budapest, 1921), p. 42.

For a long time, the authorities resorted to provisional measures in order to win peace. On 10 January 1850, the military governor reiterated that serfdom had been abolished, and he rebuked both the peasants — for not respecting private property — and the former landowners — for taking advantage of the transition period to seize land and, even worse, to impose socage on the peasants. {3-377.} 'Pending further legal action,' he proposed that the parties concerned reach provisional agreement; at the same time, he promised that the plots leased from allodial lands by cotters and serfs could become the property of the latter through self-redemption. That same year, an eight-member committee, formed at the governor's request, set about drafting a detailed proposal for the settlement of urbarial relations. Although Baron Ferenc Kemény and Paul Dunca were party to this proposal, many large and middle landowners joined forces to send to the emperor a memorandum in which they objected to very notion that all lands presently in peasants' hands should become the property of the latter.

The preparatory work took a long time. The imperial patent concerning Transylvania were issued on 21 June 1854, a full year after the decision concerning Hungary. In providing for the judicial abolition of serfdom and settlement of outstanding questions, this 'urbarial open order' mirrored the basic principles and most substantial elements of the 1848 laws; the state would redeem serfs subject to socage, while the Székely non-urbarial, patrimonial, or allodial serfs and cotters were given the right of self-redemption. The patent thus preserved a distinction — fundamentally unnatural — between urbarial and non-urbarial serfs; the obvious intention was to provide a legal pretext for keeping — at least for the immediate future — part of the liberated peasantry (about one-third of former serfs) bound to the landed gentry's property. In this essential aspect, the absolutist régime respected the limits that, in spring 1848, the Hungarian nobility had set more or less willingly on the emancipation of serfs.

The patent served a mediating function with respect to one of the most important issues dividing landlords and peasants, namely the discrepancy between the Cziráky registers of 1819–20 and the actual property held by peasants in 1848. The decree generally took the situation in January 1848, more favourable to the peasants, as the basis for determining the boundaries of urbarial sessions; moreover, {3-378.} it considered as peasant lands those plots in the Cziráky register which the landlords later retrieved from the serfs, or which, until 1848, the serfs had failed to report in order to avoid taxes. On the other hand, the patent favoured the landlords with regard to ownership of lands that were in dispute before 1819, of woods, and of land that had been cleared illegally by peasants since 1819. It enabled the great mass of cotters on estates to obtain their freedom and even some land — if only through painful self-redemption. The hereditary serfs and cotters could thus exercise self-redemption. But to the homeless cotters, liberation meant joining an agrarian proletariat; it would take a long time before they derived material benefit from the proclaimed equality of civil rights. (For cotters settled by landowners and performing exterior duties, and for those living on the allodium and doing domestic work, full liberation would have to await the advent of the dualist state.)

The patent created the so-called urbarial courts to settle disputes and complete the vast and complex task of readjusting property relations. In Transylvania, the courts began their work in 1858, relieving administrative organs of the task of settling urbarial matters. They were staffed by civil servants experienced in administration and adjudication, which in itself indicated that their authority was both administrative and judicial. The drafters of the letters considered that this type of court was best suited to reconcile private and public interests in issues that were both complex and had broad ramifications. The professional judges would represent legality and professionalism, while the administrative official would represent the 'public interest.' Capping the six territorial courts was the urbarial high court at Nagyszeben, on which the governorship was also represented; at the apex stood the supreme urbarial court of Vienna, on which the interior minister's representative served as the powerful defender of the state's interests.

The urbarial courts ruled on all disputes that could not otherwise be settled, and thus the scale of their activity varied from {3-379.} region to region. In the Székelyföld, only one-fifth of the disputes ended in amicable settlement, whereas, in the so-called counties, the proportion was much greater. Most of the disputes concerned logged, abandoned, or marginal land, and the ownership or utilization of wooded land. The urbarial courts could not resolve all cases, for the more contentious cases, of which there were many, dragged on for decades, and the courts lasted only three years; in 1861, their task was transferred to the royal court of appeals. It was mainly the former landowners who turned to the urbarial courts for support; the peasants tried to stay away from the courts, and, if they had the motive and the means, they would obstruct the clarification and regulation of property rights. (In many places there was no need to institute urbarial proceedings.) Research conducted so far indicates that up to the end of the 1860s, the urbarial regulation was completed in no more than 69 (3.88 percent) of the 1774 municipalities concerned, and the process was not even initiated in 240 (13.53 percent) of them. Beyond the borders of Transylvania, in the neighbouring counties of Arad, Bihar, and Szatmár, the process was ten times more rapid. The slow functioning of the urbarial courts had an effect on the so-called re-grouping of plots (i.e., the repartition of pastures and forests among owners), which could only begin once basic property relations had been settled. Sometimes the repartition of pastures and forests, or the merging of scattered plots of plough-land, was in the peasant's objective interest — a rationale, offered by contemporary experts, that nevertheless neglected certain realities of the peasant's life. Given the productivity of farming and the state of markets in the 1850s, the re-grouping of landstrips mostly served the interests of major landowners and large-scale farmers. The opposition of farmers derived mainly from the requirements of animal husbandry. Because of the peasants' resistance, and despite police intervention, landstrips could be consolidated in no more than 82 municipalities during the 1850s and 1860s.

{3-380.} Still, the slow progress of urbarial reform was but one aspect, if an important one, of the historic process, launched in 1848, to abolish serfdom. The peasant had finally become the rightful owner of his land.

The complexity of property relations in Transylvania and the lack of regulation before 1848 make it impossible to measure with any precision the changes resulting from the abolition of villeiinage in 1848–54. According to available data, in Transylvania and in the Partium, 78 percent of the dependent peasantry (974,846 peasants, living on 175,543 urbarial peasant farms) were freed through state compensation, and they came into possession of 921,432 hectares (1,616,547 cadastral acres) of ploughland and other fields, which accounted for most of the province's agricultural land. Romanian peasants received 80 percent of this land; the massive acquisition of landed property opened up new vistas for the future of the Romanian nation. In the Székelyföld, the change in the situation of the urbarial peasantry was particularly unfavourable, for the proportion of ploughmen who faced self-redemption and were likely to constitute an agrarian underclass was considerably higher than in the rest of the province. In the Székely districts, 75 percent of the so-called hereditary serfs and cotters had to resort to self-redemption, in a process that stretched over decades; whereas, in the counties, 75 percent of the peasants received state assistance to gain their freedom. The military obligations of the Romanian border-guard regiments at Naszód and Orlát ceased in 1851, and the municipalities acquired jurisdiction over land and woods; however, major landowners as well as the treasury laid claim to some of the land, and the Saxon Universitas to some of the woods, giving rise to protracted litigation. The Székely border-guard regiments were not reconstituted after the revolution, but since the men had served as 'free Székelys,' they, unlike the border-guards in the other two regiments, were not eligible for a 'reward' from the state. Their consequent efforts to secure possession of the woodland they had previously exploited stretched over a decade.

{3-381.} At this stage, Transylvania's free and propertied peasantry included several major groups: The former serfs and cotters (some 130,000 families) who by feudal law were entitled to own land; allodial cotters (around 30,000 families) who lacked such rights; former peasant border-guards; the mass of liberated serfs in the Székelyföld; over 100,000 peasants who were nominally part of the lesser nobility; and the agrarian population of 227 municipalities, including Saxons as well as some Romanians, who had been free even before the reforms. Of the 630,000 hectares (1.1 million cadastral acres) of landed property in the Saxon municipalities, over a third (446,982 cadastral acres) was held in common, and this provided an important source of revenue for villages that were already among the more developed in Transylvania.

The former serfs were now left to their own devices to survive and prosper as free peasants. Potentially, the habits of communal farming could be discarded, and productivity increased. In the event, the economic stimulation that might have been generated by the abolition of serfdom was largely cancelled — even for the landed peasantry — by a number of factors: a slow pace of work rooted in the feudal era; the limited technical competence associated with concentration on steady but small yields; the low level of initiative shown by peasants, particularly in the early stages; the shortage of credit; and the burden of new taxes. Even in regions where regular wage-labour was an option, this method of assuring a steady income did not fit readily into the traditional peasant way of life. To be sure, there were scattered areas, especially around certain towns, where by 1848 peasants were already producing for the market; but neither this, nor the transitory periods of prosperity — like the one in 1853–54 — altered the basic pattern. Only later would a modernized transportation network, new roads and railways, the development of credit institutions, and growing urbanization serve to draw the peasant economy out of its isolation and shift it to a higher state of development.