Nora Berend

title.none: Rady, Nobility, Land and Service in Medieval Hungary (Nora Berend)

identifier.other: baj9928.0207.018 02.07.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nora Berend, St Catharine's College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Rady, Martyn. Nobility, Land and Service in Medieval Hungary. Studies in Russia and Eastern Europe. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Pp. v, 224. 65.00. ISBN: 0-333-80085-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.07.18

Rady, Martyn. Nobility, Land and Service in Medieval Hungary. Studies in Russia and Eastern Europe. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Pp. v, 224. 65.00. ISBN: 0-333-80085-0.

Reviewed by:

Nora Berend
St Catharine's College

Martyn Rady's book is a welcome addition to the growing number of English-language studies on medieval Central Europe. It is his declared aim to show that the characteristics of the Hungarian nobility and of their landholding patterns were not unique and "backward" in the Middle Ages, but were very much part of medieval Europe. In order to demonstrate this, Rady analyzes the development of the Hungarian nobility and their landownership from the eleventh century to the sixteenth. In the eleventh century, the main legal distinction was between the free and the unfree, but ties of allegiance intersected these categories, and differentiation within the ranks of both groups developed. As the Arpad dynasty territorialized its power, a hereditary landowning class appeared. Yet "nobility" had no precise legal definition for several centuries; it simply denoted (by the late twelfth century) the aristocratic kindreds that served the king. Through the erosion of the legal category of the free, finally two hereditary groups emerged: nobles and servile peasants. Rady traces both the process through which new groups rose into the nobility, and the increasing differentiation within the nobility that was a consequence of this. There was movement in the opposite direction as well: many nobles lost their status because they were impoverished. In the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries noble status was more closely defined: "The nobleman was a lord, in virtue of which he owned a property and dispensed justice to his peasants." (59) In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, nobles acquired freedom from taxation. By the end of the fifteenth century, barons emerged not just as vastly wealthier but also as legally separate from the rest of the nobility: they alone could be members of the royal council, and they alone could field banderia (military retinues). Theoretically and often also in practice nobility derived from the king (although it could also be appropriated through "peer-recognition"), but apart from owing fidelity and personal military service, the personal bond between the king and the noble was not defined; as it happened, even this service could not always be fulfilled due to a lack of resources. Those who had specific duties tied to their estates were not true nobles, "their status was of a lesser quality". (79) Even though conditional landholding was sometimes promoted by kings (who received military service in this way), it could not be incorporated as part of a hierarchy of relationships within the nobility, and if such conditional nobles succeeded in integrating into the full nobility of the realm, the memory of the obligations attached to their land faded.

Common ownership of land by a kindred characterized the eleventh-twelfth centuries, and did not completely disappear thereafter, although the division of property in every generation became increasingly prevalent. Even then, collateral lines retained various rights such as consent to the sale of ancestral estates. Ideas about noble landholding were not static . In the twelfth century, a distinction was made between the ancestral lands of the kindred, and those donated subsequently by the king, a distinction which turned out to be impossible to maintain in practice. Finally the principle that nobles held their land directly from the ruler triumphed. Over time, the kindred declined as an economic unit; from the mid- thirteenth century, nobility was increasingly equated not simply with status but with landownership, and from the late fourteenth century on, landownership became the main criterion of noble status. At the same time, methods of authentication and the loca credibilia, whose sealed charters were accepted as legally valid, developed. Landowners also acquired jurisdiction over their peasants in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries. Beginning in the mid-thirteenth century, private castles were constructed, many nobles establishing castle- lordships. Some combined landholding with royal office- holding, extending their territorial jurisdiction to large parts of the realm. However, these large lordships were fragile and the loss of royal favor entailed the loss of such territorial lordships as well.

As the status of the nobleman became more clearly defined, in a parallel development the immediate family (parentela) grew in importance, and the economic, political and social significance of the kindred declined. By the end of the thirteenth century, lands were usually divided rather than held by the entire kindred. By the end of the fourteenth century, the law of inheritance favored direct descendants, and other members of the kindred could only inherit if there were no sons. It was in the kindred's interest to prevent daughters from inheriting estates that they might take from the kindred through marriage. One of the consequences of the decline in the importance of the kindred was the change in female inheritance. Fathers without male heirs started to grant part or all of their lands to their daughters from the thirteenth century on. As kindreds fought against these dispositions, the method of prefectio developed (the first case is in the 1330s) to ensure daughters' rights to inherit: fathers petitioned the king "to make their daughters into sons". (107)

With the decline of the kindred, nobles built other relations to achieve security: they became the familiares of the more powerful, performed military service and held offices. Familiaritas, the relationship between lord and man, sometimes entailed the donation of land, but more often it meant office-holding (estate-management and administration) bestowed by the lord. By comparing this system to others prevalent in medieval Europe, Rady shows that familiaritas was not the degeneration of a better system but a system in its own right. It was not the private usurpation of previously public powers, since there were no "public powers" in the modern sense predating familiaritas; lordship as well as kingship were based on personal relations. At most, familiaritas represented a switch from one set of private relationships to another. Even this, however, was not completely true. Lords did not have full authority over their familiares, whose legal status equalled that of their lords as nobles, and whose ties to the king (though unspecified) were not severed. Moreover, the precise definition of the familiares' obligations to their lords was rare before the late fifteenth century.

The king himself was one of the main sources of offices. Honores (royal offices and those estates and rights that accompanied them) were assigned at the king's pleasure, and could be reassigned whenever the ruler wished. Office-holders in turn relied on their own familiares to fill lesser positions. It was only from the end of the fifteenth century that honores were replaced by salaries. The nobleman's primary obligation to the ruler consisted of military service. Such service was not as straightforward as this statement suggests, and Rady describes the changes during the medieval period, due both to nobles trying to limit their obligations and to the development of other forms of military power: baronial retinues and royal mercenaries. There is also a section on the military reforms that were implemented in response to the Ottoman threat, which shifted part of the burden of military service to the peasantry.

Whereas the bond to the ruler remained vague, the bond between the nobles, fostering collective rights and action, grew stronger from the thirteenth century on. Even a new ideology developed, deriving royal power from the community of nobles. Yet the organization of the nobility was not at the level of the whole realm, but rather at the level of the counties. Over time, the county acquired judicial functions, yet did not become completely independent: the principal officer of the county was appointed by the king. In the late medieval period the power of the counties grew, and their role in the government of the kingdom increased. In the fifteenth century they "became almost exclusively an institution of the nobility". (169) The author also explores the tension embodied in the county: it was the community of the common nobility that influenced politics through representatives at the diet; but it could be manipulated by the leading lords in their own interests.

The author has the great advantage of not being embroiled in long-standing debates such as that between Hungarian and Rumanian historians over the question of Rumanian settlement in Transylvania. Reading an unbiassed evaluation of this issue is a very refreshing corrective to both sides. The detailed examples are also among the strengths of the book, as is the acknowledgement that practice was not necessarily uniform throughout the realm. Rady also highlights the haphazard manner of the survival of documents, which means that the surviving evidence says nothing about the historical significance of the families and events they record. It is laudable that Rady does not squeeze fragmented and often contradictory pieces of evidence into one preconceived explanatory framework, but the reader may sometimes be confused by the lists of possibilities and hypotheses. Thus, when analyzing the declining importance of kindreds, given the variety of examples from the documents, he hypothesizes that perhaps "different noble kindreds of Hungary lived under different rules of inheritance" (100), or that perhaps there was no overall regulation, only case-by-case decisions. He does not offer an explanation as to why in the thirteenth century families tried to force the king to acknowledge the rights of the kindred to inherit, while in the fourteenth they were doing everything to exclude the kindred from inheriting, only to change their position again by the end of that century to assert the rights of the kindred once more. Also, Rady's stance towards the issue of "feudalism" seems to fluctuate. He points out that "the absence of a feudal hierarchy based upon noble landholding" (4) has been seen as the cause of various political evils, including the deformation of Hungarian society and twentieth-century political development. Although rightly criticizing this approach, based on forced analogies with an abstract model of feudalism, compared to which Hungary "deviates", he much less helpfully also claims that familiaritas "rather than being a distinctive Hungarian phenomenon, bears some resemblance to aspects of English 'bastard feudalism'". (7, also p. 110)

Rady has read widely, conscientiously weighing the arguments found in both recent literature and in nineteenth-century historical scholarship. Yet some mistakes are also adopted from Hungarian scholarship, such as using "Turkish" to denote "Ottoman", and referring to the "apostolic" authority of St. Stephen. (14) The latter is a medieval myth; in fact Stephen's control over ecclesiastics and ecclesiastical property was no different than that of other early medieval kings, and was not based on special claims. The author also fails to substantiate some of his claims. Most importantly, he does not offer sufficient evidence that the loca credibilia "by establishing the vocabulary of landownership influenced the terms under which property was held and by which landed relationships were understood". (68) He asserts that one of the reasons for the failure of an academic law of fiefs to appear in Hungary was that the personnel of the loca credibilia had a limited knowledge of Roman law. Yet evidence of the presence of trained Roman lawyers in the kingdom survives as early as the thirteenth century.

Rady's main argument and conclusions are a valuable contribution, and help us to understand Hungarian medieval history on its own terms and not from a still often prevalent teleological perspective. The recurring idea in historiography that the "large number of nobles in Hungary" was the "mark of the medieval kingdom's 'retardation'" (157) rests on the fallacy of counting all those who in fact were not considered to be 'true nobles' and did not enjoy noble privileges in the Middle Ages. Even more importantly, "if Hungary did follow a special road in the modern period, we should seek its starting place somewhere other than in the history of noble landholding". (182)