Florin Curta

title.none: Fugedi, The Elefanthy: The Hungarian Nobleman and His Kindred (Curta)

identifier.other: baj9928.0007.013 00.07.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Florin Curta, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Fugedi, Erik. Damir Karbic, ed. and trans. The Elefanthy: The Hungarian Nobleman and His Kindred. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 174. $39.95. ISBN: 9-639-11620-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.07.13

Fugedi, Erik. Damir Karbic, ed. and trans. The Elefanthy: The Hungarian Nobleman and His Kindred. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 174. $39.95. ISBN: 9-639-11620-3.

Reviewed by:

Florin Curta
University of Florida

Historians of the Late Middle Ages have shown increasing interest in the history of European nobility of late. Besides Philippe Contamine's Noblesse au royaume de France de Philippe le Bel à Louis XII (second edition, Paris, 1998) and Karl Schmid's Geblüt, Herrschaft, Geschlechterbewußtsein: Grundfragen zum Verständnis des Adels im Mittelalter (Sigmaringen, 1991), two recent European conferences were dedicated to this subject. The major theme of the sixth Congress of Medieval Studies in León (Spain) was the Peninsular nobility during the Middle Ages (Avila, 1999), while the collection of papers presented at a conference held at Schloß Ringberg/Tegernsee in February 1994 was appropriately entitled Nobilitas: Funktion und Repraesentation des Adels in Alteuropa(Göttingen, 1997). This interest fueled one of the most significant developments in recent East European historiography and led to a number of important, insightful, and provocative studies. The most recent ones may be found in Festschriften for Janusz Bieniak (Torun, 1997) and Agnés Várkonyi (Budapest, 1998), as well as in a collection of studies edited by Marius Diaconescu (Satu Mare, 1997). Erik Fügedi's book (first published in Hungarian in 1992, the year of Fügedi's death) is bound to occupy a position in the front ranks of this literature for some time to come. This brief but ambitious and sophisticated volume advances arguments that no student of the medieval nobility can safely ignore.

Fügedi was one of the first medievalists of Eastern Europe to use research methods inspired by the Annales school. As János Bak notes in the foreword, Fügedi's book was "a real break-through in terms of abandoning more or less romantic images of the past, and exploring the society of pre-modern Hungary in critical terms". (vii-viii) In addition, this was a book of a political rebel, who, because of his views, had to spend more than a decade of his life not as researcher in a state-sponsored institute of historical studies, but as a clerk in a canning plant. Fügedi's non-conformist approach is evident in his choice of both topic and methodology. In spite of its Marxist inspiration, the Annales school was not exactly the recommended source of inspiration for historians working under Communism. 'Historical anthropology' appealed first to Polish historians and the first conference was organized in Hungary only in 1983. (7) Moreover, Fügedi's book was about nobility, not about peasantry and exploited masses. Indeed, the recent explosion of historical studies dedicated to medieval and modern 'elites' in countries such as Poland, Hungary, or Romania, owes much to the reaction against the obstinate focus of Marxist historiography on the 'lower classes' to the detriment of the upper social levels.

Fügedi's book is organized in four chapters. The first chapter is an introduction to the historiography and terminology of the subject. Reinforcing the conclusions of other scholars (Peter Váczy, Jeno Szucs, Pál Engel, and István Szabo), Fügedi reminds readers that for the most part of the Middle Ages, aristocratic families were extended cognate and agnate clans, referred to as genus or generatio. However, both aristocrats and castle-warriors (the so-called iogabiones castri) reckoned kinship in terms of extended patrilinear families. In addition, according to Fügedi, the generationes of the conquering Magyar tribes were not the same as thirteenth- and fourteenth- century aristocratic families, "even though some of the early lineages might have transformed into the later genus". (5) By the end of the fifteenth century, large aristocratic clans have already been divided into several branches, each one becoming an independent family. As a consequence, the basis of kinship was not common ancestry along the male line but a new, 'invented' concept of common possession. Fügedi's book is in fact a study of this process, as well as of the accompanying separation of the lesser nobility from the peasants and the increasing noble self-consciousness and self-government.

As chapter two of the book explains in great detail, the legal framework for Fügedi's case study is the collection of customary law published in 1514 by the lawyer Stephen Werboczy and known as Tripartitum. Though this law code is concerned with the nobility in everything pertaining to its social status and life, it mainly reflects the ideology of the lesser nobility "to the point of distorting accepted custom in favor of that social stratum". (19) Despite mentioning military service in connection with ennoblement, the Tripartitum barely discusses military service. In the eyes of the sixteenth- century lawyer, the defining feature of nobility was not the right to bear and use arms, but land property. A nobleman was a homo possessionatus, while the non-noble husband of a woman of noble origin appeared as homo impossessionatus. Equally absent from the three- volume Tripartitum are references to one of the most important institutions of medieval Hungary, the familiaritas. Werboczy also ignored the so-called servientes, a social group resulting from the efforts of the Hungarian kings to create strong heavy-cavalry troops. As 'servants of the king', servientes are not to be confused with the vassals of Western Europe, for "the Hungarian ruler did not have vassals, so Hungary had no such feudal network". (36) In the light of the recent debate about feudalism, the difference, if any, seems to be of one of degree, rather than quality, but Fügedi insists that in times of peace, the servientes ceased to be under the protection of the king. They thus had to face the attempts of powerful magnates to restrict their privileges. Repeated appeals to the king by county assemblies of servientes led to an interesting shift in vocabulary, arguably reflecting the assimilation of the 'royal servants' into the noble class. Beginning with the 1220s and 1230s, royal charters ceased to use serviens in reference to a royal 'servant' and constantly applied the word to noblemen. By 1267, the servientes assembled at Esztergom claimed to represent "all nobles of Hungary." In response, Béla IV's confirmation of the Golden Bull of 1222 conveniently replaced serviens regis in the original text with 'noble'. (37) A similar process was responsible for the assimilation of the iobagiones castri. Both groups were 'noble' by Werboczy's definition, because of being granted land in return for their services. The same is true for hospites, immigrants from the West, who first appear as regular troops in the battle at the Olsava river in 1116. The rise of the 'lesser nobility' of Hungary is remarkably similar to that of a new nobility under Duke Floris V of Holland recently described by Antheun Janse. In both cases, this was no deliberate policy to break the power of the traditional nobility.

The process of turning 'noble' warriors into landowners seems to have been responsible for the shift in emphasis from 'noble blood' to estate as the essential condition of nobility. Fügedi argues that this development was already evident during the last few decades of the thirteenth century and quickly spread into Hungarian society. Imitating their kings, magnates began granting land to their familiares. Such grants were given 'by hereditary rights', i.e., to be passed only to the grantee's male descendants. (49) Landless familiares thus turned into noblemen.

In chapter three of his book, the core of his study, Fügedi illustrates the working of the legal system discussed in the previous chapter with a history of the Elefanthy kindred of the Nyitra County (Nitra, in present-day Slovakia). The Elefánthy started small, establishing themselves in the estates received from the king, which they then enlarged through acquisitions of adjacent estates on the basis of their preemption rights as neighbors. Both Bela IV and Stephen V made donations to family members, but soon these donations would appear in documents as inherited estates. Much of this land was lost by the late fourteenth century, as no member of the family had any contact with the royal court and no ties of familiaritas with any magnates. The lands of Michael II Elef fánthy, who died in 1371, escheated to the Crown on grounds of extinction, despite the fact that according to customary law, they should have gone to the surviving members of the family, Andrew VI (d. 1384) and Stephen I (d. 1387). King Sigismund further donated some of these estates to the Elefanthy's powerful neighbors, the Kaplais. Andrew VI's son, John II (d. 1401) constantly attacked the Kaplais, while friction with the Apponyi family over the parts of Elefant adjacent to the Apponyi estates was common. (86) Some thirty years after Michael II's death, however, the estates were regained by Ladislas I Elefanthy, his brothers, and cousin, now supported by Paul Bessenyo, the former ban of Slavonia. (89) As Fügedi points out, the history of the Elef fánthy is in fact the history of the most powerful branch (that of Andrew the Red and his sons). Poor subbranches could not even afford to pay the filial quarters or the dowry of their daughters, and they had to give land instead. (112) With no primogeniture principle, the estates of extinct subbranches fell back to the kindred, despite the king's repeated intervention by means of prefection (the granting of a son's right to a daughter).

Chapter four makes clear that by the early 1300s, "the boom in estate acquisition was followed by a stagnation, against which the nobility failed to find countermeasures." As the Elef fánthy case study shows, the major consequence of this stagnation was the fragmentation of estates, with an increasing number of family members left either without estates or with only familiaritas as a strategy for improving their status. Paid in money for their services, successful familiares invested their accumulated profits in purchasing land, but were not able to rise into the more restricted circle of magnates. By 1450, at the height of social mobility in medieval Hungary, the main arena for the political activities of the nobility was the county. In the early sixteenth century, the county nobles already saw themselves as "a public body, a unity, and this idea came to be manifested into one of the most important medieval formalities: the use of seals and coats of arms." (141)

This is a tightly argued book that makes significant contributions to more debates than can be dealt with adequately here. But two of Fügedi's points merit special attention. First, in his book's "Epilogue", Fügedi insists that the magnate's familia did not consist solely of warriors, the banderial system that made 'Hungarian feudalism' famous. The 'primary layer' of the familia included employees protecting and managing the domain on the magnate's behalf. County vicecomites, royal bailiffs, and skilled lawyers in the service of important dignitaries (such as the Judge Royal or the voivod of Transylvania) formed the 'second layer'. (126) This is no mere question of classification. Fügedi's point holds important implications for the role of familiaritas in medieval Hungary, a topic much neglected in recent studies.

Fügedi's work is important also for its insistence that responsible for the gradual impoverishment of the lesser nobility from the early 1300s onwards was the sudden decrease in royal grants following the stabilization of central power in the aftermath of Charles I's victory over Matthew Csák and other powerful magnates. (132) Louis I followed his father's policy and adopted a generous attitude towards the aristocracy, but not towards the lesser nobles, while both Sigismund and Matthias made lavish donations from the royal estates only to their aristocratic adherents. As royal donation ceased to be a source of estate acquisition for the nobility, many noble families found themselves in financial difficulty. With perpetual tenure (the introduction of which was studied in great detail by Jeno Szucs) allowing peasants to move freely, the nobility could not expect rents to increase; "at best they could be maintained at their nominal value". (136)

For offering so many fine insights, this book should gain a wide and enthusiastic readership. As Patrick Geary notes on the book's cover, the carefully edited translation of Fügedi's work "provides the basis for integrating this finely- grained study of the Hungarian nobility into the wider history of the European nobility."