Impoverished by Cholera: Widows, Widowers, and Orphans after the 1873 Cholera Epidemic in Kolozsvár

Edina Tünde Gál
Babeş-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 4  (2020): 667-692 DOI 10.38145/2020.4.667


By analyzing the official sources produced during the communal management of a crisis due to the cholera epidemic, the study focuses on the official definitions of people in need of support as well as the survival strategies of ordinary widows and orphans in the city of Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár in the second half of the nineteenth century. Widows with children were more likely to be considered disadvantaged and receive aid than widowers. Poverty was closely related to a given individual’s ability or inability to work. Remarried widows were not considered eligible for aid, regardless of the family’s financial resources. The presence of small children was a strong motivating factor for remarriage: widows hoped to get financial support from a new spouse, while widowers needed a wife to care for children. The term orphan often referred not to the family position of a child, but rather to its place within the larger social network.

Keywords: cholera epidemic, orphans, poverty, widows, remarriage

 The helpless widow, the abused orphan, and the cruel stepmother are stereotypical figures in both folk culture and literature. The aim of the present study is to describe the individual fates of the widows and orphans behind these stereotypes. In the summer of 1873, the cholera epidemic reached Kolozsvár (today Cluj-Napoca, Romania) and took the lives of 537 people. Censuses of the widows and orphans left behind were compiled to determine who required help. These lists thus offer insights first and foremost into the survival strategies used by widows and orphans of a lower social stratum. They shed light, furthermore, on how the elite of the town defined the concept of orphanhood and, closely connected, that of poverty.

The Legal Background of Orphanhood and Guardianship in Hungary

In every community, the tasks of raising orphaned children were the duty of the family and relatives, undertaken mostly by grandparents and uncles. In their wills, fathers often made their decisions clear as to the guardians and upbringing of their children, as well as the management of their bequests, listing several possible variations of the latter or rewriting their wills several times in light of any changes in the circumstances of their families.1 In nineteenth-century Hungary, only children who had lost their fathers were legally recognized as orphans. Prior to the guardianship law of 1877, the guardianship of orphans was regulated in Werbőczy’s Tripartitum, although these regulations predominantly concerned the wealth of minors. The appointment of guardians followed the order of inheritance based on the protection of the wealth of minors, so it granted guardianship (and, at the same time, the management of wealth and property) to those who were to have a share of the inheritance. In accordance with this, guardians on the mother’s side were only appointed if there were no living relatives on the father’s side, as stated by Werbőczy:

If, however, the son has male relatives who are due to paternal rights, as well as the inheritance and devolution of the livestock, the inheritance and guardianship of the livestock must be granted to the male relatives and not to the mother.2


The orphan, however, was not necessarily raised by his guardian, since if the mother was still alive, she raised the child in most cases. The guardian’s main duty was to manage the orphan’s inheritance/estates until coming of age in the absence of the father. The mother as a natural and legal guardian could only have guardianship while she remained a widow. Complications arose if a widow remarried, as the relatives on the father’s side took over the management of the wealth so that the new husband and his relatives would not benefit from it. In fear of ill treatment and the squandering of the family fortune, the father could posit in his will that, if his widowed wife were to remarry, the children would be taken from her, “lest they should be abused by the stepfather.”3

In 1870 and 1871, guardianship authorities were established in counties, municipalities, and towns to deal with issues of orphanhood. The guardianship law and the responsibilities of guardianship authorities were only finalized in 1877.4 The guardianship law basically followed the guidelines laid out by Werbőczy, but it stipulated with greater precision the responsibilities of guardians and those of guardianship authorities as institutions providing supervision. Guardianship continued to be bound to paternal authority, and the appointment of a guardian was claimed to be necessary only in the lack thereof. The order of possible guardians remained unchanged with one exception: in the absence of a will, the mother became the legal guardian of the minors, but a male guardian could still be appointed to manage the wealth. If the mother was not alive, the next possible guardians in line were the grandfathers on the mother’s or the father’s side or, as a final solution, the guardianship authority appointed a guardian. The guardianship of orphans of noble birth was rather advantageous to the guardian, as it involved the management of the inherited wealth; thus, conflicts among relatives over guardianship frequently led to litigation. The law included specific articles concerning the upbringing of orphans who were without property or wealth: the responsibility fell on whoever was capable of providing for these orphans or could place them in an institution until they were capable of supporting themselves by working.5 As opposed to the guardianship of wealthy orphans, which came with several benefits, taking care of destitute orphans was perceived as a burden, though contributions by children as a part of the labor force in the household were much needed, and children themselves were often exploited as a source of labor.

According to the guardianship law of 1877, minors were legally acknowledged as adults at the age of 24, and from that point on, they could freely dispose of their wealth. Women were regarded as adults from the moment they married, regardless of their actual age. At the same time, the law stated that orphans over the age of 14 could freely dispose of the goods and payments earned with work and service if they provided for themselves. This meant that children 14 years of age could support themselves through their work but were not considered adults.6 Even minors engaged in a trade individually could only be declared of full age by the guardianship authorities when they turned 18.

Sources and Methods7

My research is based on the documents of the Cholera Committee preserved in the archives in Kolozsvár.8 The committee was set up for the duration and prevention of the epidemic. The documents include detailed records on the widows and orphans of those who died as a result of cholera, compiled with the aim of providing support for the poor and those in need at the request of the Ministry of the Interior in May and June, 1874.

The number of orphans and widows are added up based on the tables, censuses, and reports found among the documents of the Cholera Committee. Some of the documents were exclusively for internal use, so they reveal how the final list of the people who were granted support was compiled. The first list was a report by assistant physician Mihály Bartha, and it included the names and addresses of 173 widows and the number of children they had. The list served as a guide for district chiefs for the detailed field surveys of districts. Reports by district chiefs also indicated the financial situation of widows, their occupations, and sources of income, as well as the number of their children, their ages, places of residence, caregivers, and sources of livelihood.9 The reports were used to compile the list of those recommended for financial aid, so the names of the family members found eligible for support were recorded on five further lists in different versions (lists of those supported). Based on the dates, content, and stylistic features (e.g. words crossed out), one can make inferences concerning the order in which the documents were made, and the documents themselves offer insights into the factors on the basis of which decisions concerning whether or not an individual was regarded as poor were made.

The censuses were compiled in the form of tables, and the order in which they were arranged (according to names of streets) indicates that they were indeed based on field surveys. The lists often include data which those conducting the surveys only could have learned on site, such as the place where the orphaned children were being given temporary lodging and care or the fact that they had left the city. Furthermore, the word choice is not standard or neutral, which displays a certain subjectivity and uncertainty deriving presumably from the first impressions of those recoding the data: the 51-year-old widow Mrs. Borbála Fodor György Kocsárdi, for instance, who provided for her three children by working the land, was characterized as “not quite poor.”10

Identifying the families raises several methodological problems, since the records tend to be inconsistent. There are minor differences detectable concerning, for example, the numbers and ages of the children, and the name of the widow was often mistaken for that of the deceased spouse. For this reason, in this paper the records have been complemented with data from registers of deaths, thereby correcting the inconsistencies and identifying nearly 80 percent of the persons indicated on the lists.11

Registers of marriages reveal the rate of cholera widows who remarried and the factors contributing to the decision to remarry or to remain a widow. The research examined widows recorded in Kolozsvár church registers of births, deaths, and marriages over the course of eight years, that is, until 1880.12 While the censuses always indicated the names of the husbands, registers of marriages often only featured the maiden names of wives, which at times made it impossible to identify widows.

Censuses of Orphans and Widows in Kolozsvár

The huge number of children orphaned at the time of the epidemic shocked the citizens of the city. People were used to losing parents and looking after orphans, but the number of broken families fighting for their livelihood grew at an unprecedented speed in a very short period of time. Information on the total 154 families and the caregivers for and circumstances of 251 underage orphans provides a special opportunity to observe the individual life stories and survival strategies of people who belonged to the lower strata of society.13

The term underage orphan indicates a child who needed to be looked after and who had not yet turned 18. The age limit of eighteen was determined on the basis of laws in effect at the time and on information provided by the sources. Similar studies regard the age of 13 as the upper limit of childhood.14 The data, however, are not consistent, and it is often difficult to differentiate between adolescents and smaller children because the only information available is whether the child in question was employed or worked as an apprentice. Thus, children’s precise ages cannot be determined. Children of age and married women were named separately, thus they can be identified, even if their exact ages remain unknown.

The Definition of Poverty: Designating Those in Need

After the cholera epidemic, people all over the country were encouraged to donate money to aid widows and orphans left destitute. Concerning support for the poor listed in the censuses ordered by the Ministry of Interior, the municipalities could decide whether to spend the reserves of the guardianship authorities for these purposes.15 Kolozsvár received donations from the town of Szászrégen (today Reghin, Romania) and from Switzerland for the orphans of those who died of cholera, and mayor Elek Simon gave some of these donations to the orphanage for girls.16 However, the records do not indicate when the financial aid was transferred to the orphans in the census, nor do they indicate the amounts that were given.

The censuses recorded each member of the families concerned, including several children of age. The financial circumstances of the families were classified into three categories: 1. poor, 2. in adequate condition, and 3. in good condition.17 The list of names in need of financial support was modified on several occasions due to subsequent clarifications. The best example of such modifications is the case of the nine-year-old Jóska Makó, the stepson of a poor army officer, who according to a report in May was “ill-treated in the hands of strangers.” The boy’s name was not featured in the final list of those eligible for support, since, as indicated by a clarification in the margins, he was in fact being raised by a relative, Mihály Makó paid by his father and thus did not need any external financial aid.

The census takers tried to determine different “levels” of poverty; for instance, they highlighted if an individual was very poor, destitute, or lived in extreme poverty. The authorities differentiated between levels of poverty in order to determine the “degree of need” of individuals in comparison to one another and depending on the amount allotted to provide aid. Those who were classified as “in adequate condition” or “in average condition” were naturally not considered in need of financial support. The financial conditions of some families were not indicated, perhaps because in their cases there was no need for support.

On the lists of those recommended for financial support 46 families can be identified, while the final list features only 35 families (22.7 percent of the families registered).18 Fully orphaned siblings (ten families) and widowed mothers and their children (18 families) were prioritized, whereas only four widowed women and three widowed fathers were granted support. Widows and their orphaned children were assured a place even on the strictest of lists, as they were unequivocally regarded as poor and disadvantaged due to the absence of the head of the family.19 Men, on the other hand, were not considered to be in a vulnerable situation owing simply to the fact that they were widowers (i.e. men). Sándor Losonczi, a widowed tailor with four children, for instance, was recorded in the census as being poor, but he did not make it onto the final list. Thus, as a widower who was capable of working, he was not considered eligible for aid, since he was still able to pursue his trade, even if, as the head of the family, he still lived under the most modest conditions. György Heuberger, on the other hand, was considered eligible for financial aid because he was physically disabled and lived in poverty with his seven-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son. His inability to work made him poor and qualified for aid.

Mothers who remarried were not qualified for financial support either, regardless of their financial circumstances, since the new family was considered a self-sustainable economic unit. 13 of the widows of those who died of cholera (6.7 percent) were already remarried when the census was taken. Remarks by those compiling the lists did not necessarily refer to these women’s livelihoods. In the newly formed families, the mother’s role as caregiver and the father’s role as breadwinner complemented each other nicely, so the children were seen as having a secure future and their financial circumstances were not regarded as a decisive factor.

112 of the orphans recorded in the censuses were of age, so they were not considered eligible for aid. Women were regarded as adults from the moment they married, a fact stipulated by law,20 thus not a single married woman is found among those who were given financial aid. Young women who were able to work (for example in the cigar factory of Kolozsvár) or made a living of sewing or as maids, were not considered in need of aid, regardless whether they were married or not.

According to their contemporaries, the individuals featured on the lists for support were indeed all poor, and no families are found among them who lived under better circumstances and were only recommended for financial aids on the basis of biases. Nothing in the lists indicates favoritism concerning representatives of any professions either, as illustrated by the case of shoemakers. Two district chiefs among the census takers were borough council members of the Shoemaker’s Association, and yet only three of the thirteen families of shoemakers were granted support.21 Some of these families, such as the Perdelis, were indicated as wealthy. According to the census, Károly Szathmári, who had been a member of the guild since 1869, and his two daughters were very poor; nevertheless, they were not recommended for support.22 This may be explained by the fact that, as suggested by the documents, the shoemakers’ association appeared to be a well-operating society which provided aid for members who were struggling, so any shoemaker in need of financial support would have put the association in a bad light.

Although there are no signs of partiality in the lists of people who received financial aid, the absence of widows who lived off the land is noticeable: the final list includes only one mother who worked the land.23 The more favorable conditions of widows of husbandmen24 left alone after the epidemic may be explained by the fact that small landowner families were self-sufficient, as they could produce the food necessary for their livelihoods. Surprisingly, however, since they were seen as having a place to live and adequate food for their children, farmers’ widows with several children were not eligible for financial support even if they had an infant to take care of, which obviously placed a considerable burden on their time and their ability to work.

Taking Care of Underage Orphans

A typology of the lives of underage orphans is a difficult endeavor, since their stories are rather varied.25 As part of a similar research endeavor, Alain Bideau and Guy Brunet examine the possibilities orphans had after having lost their parents. Bideau and Brunet offer several individual yet indicative examples. I agree with their claim that there was no such thing as a “typical orphan,” but that there was, rather, a host of different situations that had an impact on orphans’ lives.26 Nevertheless, based on the specifications used in the Kolozsvár census, I attempt to delineate some categories of housing and livelihood: 1. orphans raised by relatives; 2. orphans raised “out of mercy”; 3. working orphans; 4. orphans raised in institutional care; 5. motherless or fatherless orphans raised by a surviving parent (Figure 1).27


Figure 1. Taking care of underage orphans after the 1873 cholera epidemic in Kolozsvár


Most of the orphans living in the households of relatives had lost both their parents. These orphans were predominantly raised by their grandparents, uncles, and aunts, who fulfilled their unwritten duties even if they were poor. To the extent that they were able, they raised an orphan or two. The nine-year-old and six-year-old daughters of János Pap, for example, were raised by the mother’s sister, Mrs. Sándor Csáki, who was probably a servant living in her employer’s household. A total nine of the 23 children (9.2 percent) who were able to reside with members of their families were taken care of by their uncles or aunts, three by elder siblings, five by grandparents, and six by other relatives. In the case of motherless or fatherless orphans, this situation was only temporary, until the parent who had survived could create the conditions necessary to bring up his or her children, for instance until fathers deemed unsuitable for raising their children remarried. Bideau and Brunet explained the decision reached by a few French fathers not to undertake to rear their children even after they had remarried as a consequence of financial concerns.28 As my research revealed, after István Gombos had remarried, his three-year-old child continued to stay with the grandparents on the mother’s side, who provided better conditions than the father, despite the fact that Gombos could have provided lodgings for the child.29

Older children were generally taught to take care of younger ones; after the death of the parents, they frequently had to take on the responsibility of raising their younger siblings and providing for the family.30 One could cite a few examples among the orphans in Kolozsvár. After the widow Mrs. Ferenc Májer passed away, her 18-year-old daughter made a living for herself and her four-year-old brother by sewing, while the 22-year-old son of Mrs. Mátyás Mózsa had to take care of his brother and sister, aged fourteen and eight.

Orphaned siblings could not always remain together, especially if there were many of them, which meant that they often had to be separated. The same thing happened when a widow could not take care of all her children alone, in which case the grandparents and uncles took on the upbringing of one or more of the children.31 Relatives rarely raised more than two children, as that would have been burdensome financially.32 Károly Balázs and Teréz Kremplin left behind three young children, one of whom, the five-year-old Ilona, was accepted into the Mária Valéria Orphanage with the help of the Women’s Charitable Association, whereas Mari, aged two, and Aladár, aged four, continued to stay with Samu Bányai. We do not know exactly how he was related to the late parents, but he was certainly very poor himself. Mrs. Antal Prohászka’s five children likewise ended up living separately. Joséfin got married, Lujza was a student at the Teachers’ Training College of Kolozsvár, Károly was admitted to the Terezianum Orphanage in Nagyszeben (today Sibiu, Romania), and Ida and Emma were temporarily taken care of “thanks to the kindness of good Samaritans.”

Orphans Raised in Institutional Care

After the epidemic, altogether four children (1.6 percent) ended up in institutional care.33 The Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls in Kolozsvár, founded the year before, applied to the Ministry of Interior for a state subsidy of 1,500 forint per year to be able to admit children who had been orphaned by the pandemic. The application was rejected, and they were sent a single sum of 500 forint, which made it impossible for them to admit more than a small number of orphans.34 At the same time, the heads of the orphanage probably knew about the financial support granted for orphans of the cholera, since the presidency and board members of the orphanage were all wives of the urban elite. In the end, the orphanage granted admission to only two girls from among the orphans, both in return for payment: Mrs. János Rhédey paid for Róza Orosz’s education, and Ilona Balázs’s upbringing was paid for by the Women’s Charitable Association in Kolozsvár.35

Róza Orosz was admitted to the orphanage in 1873, and Ilona Balázs moved in in 1874. At the time of the May 1874 census, Róza’s mother, Mrs. Ferenc Orosz, made a living as a servant. When the list of widows and orphans was complied, Ilona was being raised by a temporary caregiver in dire poverty. Both girls stayed at the institution until the age of 14. Róza then returned to live with her mother, and Ilona went to stay with her relatives.36 At this point, they were both able to work, thus their upbringing did not cause financial difficulty, since they were a part of the labor force.

Two orphaned boys were granted admission to the Terezianum Orphanage in Nagyszeben. Károly Prohászka, a descendant of a farmer family, finished the eighth grade in secondary school in 1880.37 Only good students were sent to the secondary grammar school. The other students were taught a craft or trade after they had completed the obligatory grades. The other orphaned boy, József Butyka, was admitted to the orphanage at the age of 13. According to the register of deaths and the admission records of Karolina Hospital in Kolozsvár, József’s mother, Róza Butyka, wife of comb maker Sándor (or Elek) Babos, lived in Torda (today Turda, Romania). As József bore his mother’s family name, he was probably an illegitimate son. After finishing six grades of elementary school, he was sent to a saddler in Nagyszeben to learn the trade. His apprenticeship ended in 1886. Vocational education lasted for four years, during which time the apprentice was under the supervision of the master, who provided him full board, which meant accommodation, clothing, and food. The orphanage paid a certain amount of money to the master in return for taking on the apprentice and then releasing him, and it paid a final bonus to the boys when they left.38

The aim of the orphanages was to provide knowledge and skills for the children in their care that would enable them to earn their own livings. In the Terezianum Orphanage in Nagyszeben, the vocational training of boys proved to be the most effective way to achieve this goal. For the heads of the Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls, finding jobs for their girls was a much greater challenge, and they were almost only able to find employment for the girls that was connected somehow to household duties. In the institution, the girls could acquire the skills necessary for housekeeping and learn how to sew, and then they were sent to work as housemaids.39

Working Orphans and Apprentices

Children were called on to do work in every family, depending on their state of development and abilities. This was considered an important part of teaching them to work and of rearing them to function as adults. Losing a parent brought significant changes in terms of children’s work as well, since an orphaned child had to take over the roles of the absent family member. Orphans had more responsibilities, and the amount of work to be done increased, and orphans were often compelled to leave the family home earlier and take an active part in providing for their families. Widows were incapable of raising several children by themselves, so, if possible, the older children were sent to work as apprentices or housemaids.40 For poor parents, sending one child away to work was a help, since they then had more food left for the children who remained in the home. The Kolozsvár census recorded 26 orphans (10.4 percent) working for a salary or as an apprentice (most of them were 14 to 16 years old). Two of the eleven orphaned girls made a living from sewing. The others worked as maids. Seven of the boys were apprentices, and the other eight worked as servants, day laborers, or in another brunch of business. None of them was supported by his or her parents. The boys were generally taken on as apprentices at the age of ten or twelve, and their master was obliged to provide them housing, food, and clothing. These young men learned their master’s trade in these three to five years as apprentices.41

Corporal punishment was an everyday reality for apprentices. “The masters who were raised by the slap, the belt, and the switch still cannot break the habit of corporal punishment,” claimed the director-physician of the Kolozsvár State Children’s Asylum in a report in 1912.42 The physician pointed out a “tradition” of corporal punishment prevalent among craftsmen, which the orphans of the 1874 census who were taken on as apprentices frequently experienced. The relationship between master and apprentices was often compared to father-son relationships, which thus meant that master had the right to discipline. Corporal punishment was certainly used for this purpose, but while at the turn of the century apprentices often lived in the cellar and their clothes were shabby, earlier the guilds made sure they were well kept. The living conditions and overwork demanded from apprentices in towns in the early 20th century was a horrible phenomenon, which may be explained by the fact that at this time the strict orders of guilds no longer regulated the treatment of apprentices, and that with the development of manufacturing industries, cheaply manufactured products meant a huge competition for the small workshops.43

The right to use corporal punishment also concerned orphaned girls employed as housemaids, a practice that was regulated by the Housemaid Law of 1876. Gábor Gyáni’s research44 provides a comprehensive picture of the issue of housemaids, their social positions, and their daily lives. Despite the dangers and their vulnerable position as housemaids, it was during these years that the young girls could acquire the skills needed for housekeeping and earn the dowry necessary for starting a family, so their job played an important part in their transitions into adulthood. As a housemaid was dependent on her employer, parents usually sent their daughters to work for families they knew and who, they felt, would surely treat them well.45 István Albert from Kolozsvár, for example, sent his daughter to work as a housemaid for a family living in the same street. Four of the orphans of the cholera epidemic worked outside of the city. The rest worked for families in Kolozsvár, so the parents could easily get news about their child’s wellbeing.

Orphans Raised “Out of Mercy”

If they were without family members to provide some level of care for them, some orphans were (temporarily) taken care of by godparents, neighbors, or other acquaintances. To use the term used by the census takers, the group of orphans raised “out of mercy” consisted of 23 children (9.2 percent) who had no familial or other clear relationship to their caregivers, at least as far as one can determine on the basis of the sources. Presumably, they had no family tie whatsoever to their caregivers, since family relatives raised orphans not out of mercy but as an obligation. Whenever the census takers did not indicate a familiar relationship, they stressed that the orphans were raised out of mercy, which points to the voluntary and temporary nature of the act. The situation of the orphans of the Aikler family suggests uncertain housing and a frequent change of place of residence. According to the sources, the children had no permanent residence. At the time of the census, the twelve-year-old girl was living with a poor relative, and her eight-year-old brother lived “somewhere else.”

Not all children taken into strangers’ households were fully orphaned. Ten children had one parent who was still alive but who was incapable of taking care of the child owing to poverty or lack of employment. The children were usually sent to live with strangers in the absence or lack of the mother until someone took the role of the mother in the family, for example until the father remarried. Mrs. Julianna Szemeriay Sándor Márkus had two daughters who resided in Sándor Nagy’s home while she worked as a servant. The two daughters of Ede Horváth, who was struggling to make ends meet, were taken in by Mrs. Hirlich, wife of a locomotive stoker, and taken to his station in Ung county (today Ukraine). Dániel Máté’s orphans, the two-year-old Dani and the three-year-old Róza were given lodgings in the court of Count Mikó out of mercy. The father was a day laborer working for the count, and the children were presumably taken care of by a female member of the household.

The examples listed above prove that it was not only children who lost both their parents who could be regarded “orphans” and sent to stay with strangers. The difference between orphans and fatherless or motherless orphans has only recently been acknowledged. At the time, no distinction was made between the two. One’s “ability to raise a child” was thus often determined by the financial situation of the surviving parent. Widowed fathers were not expected to take care of their children either, so those who were incapable of raising their children were exempted from their duties by society. In this interpretation, orphanhood referred to a social situation, i.e. abandonment due to poverty. Thirty years later, in the Ordinance from 1903 completing the Child Protection Act, the definition of abandoned child was formulated as follows:

Children without property under the age of 15, with no relatives obliged to or capable of providing for and raising them and with no relatives, patrons, charity institutions, or organizations to provide for properly and raise them, must be regarded as abandoned.46


It was children whose relatives were unable to raise them due to poverty that were taken into state care, much like the children who were raised “out of mercy” in 1873.

Widows and Their Orphans

The majority of the children listed in the Kolozsvár census lost one parent in the cholera epidemic, so 164 minors (65.3 percent) continued to be raised by the father (in 25 families) or the mother (in 40 families). As Bideau and Brunet note, as long as the one parent (especially the widowed mother) was alive, young children remained with him or her in the family home, but relatives (uncles, grandparents) were also present in the family’s life and provided support for the widow.47 Still, the absence of the father always had a negative effect on the financial situation of the family, even if it did not necessarily lead to destitution or dire poverty.48 Widows of craftsmen could continue their late husband’s occupation with the help of apprentices. Secondary literature on the topic offers several examples of widows engaged in their deceased husband’s craft for a long time.49 Among the widows in Kolozsvár, Mrs. Róza József Bogdán Szathmári, the widow of a shoemaker, for instance, practiced her husband’s profession, though not for long. Running the business, doing the housework, and raising her one-year-old son at the same time was too much of a challenge for her, so less than 18 months later, she remarried to a bachelor of the same age. As Eleonóra Géra points out, taking on both motherly and paternal roles at the same time was a great burden, so widows with older children were more likely to be able to continue their late husband’s craft or business.50 The widowed mothers featured in the census tried to make a living predominantly from domestic service, needlework, sewing, and washing. In farmer families, widows tended to continue farming, but the male labor force proved to be indispensable in the long term, and thus if a widow did not have a son or sons of her own, she was compelled to find a new spouse or take advantage of a son-in-law as a source of labor.51

Among the women widowed during the cholera epidemic, I identified 32 individuals (16.6 percent) in the registers of marriage in Kolozsvár. Though it was difficult to identify women who had been widowed, as the names of the deceased husbands were not indicated consistently, I could find as many widowed mothers who remarried as widowed fathers. In the following, I focus on the lives of 28 widows and widowers (14.5 percent) with orphaned children (15 women and 13 men). According to secondary literature, widowers remarried at a higher rate, so the similar rate of widowed men and women remarrying is probably due to the low number of the sample.52 It is quite probable that a greater proportion of men found new wives from outside of the city, but there are no records of these marriages available. It seems unlikely to me that widowed mothers would have been willing or able to move to another settlement, especially if the house had been the property of the late husband. I think they took this step only in cases of dire need.

Second marriages were generally characterized by some inequality between the spouses in terms of both age and financial situation, since a second marriage was influenced by several factors. Widowed mothers primarily expected their new husbands to provide financial stability, while for widowed fathers, the tasks involved with raising children (especially infants) constituted a major challenge and thus the main motivation for remarrying.53 Many of the widows in Kolozsvár were quite young even at the time of their second marriages, sometimes the same age as unmarried women. They were also appealing as potential spouses because several of them, including some of the widows from Kolozsvár, had inherited their late husbands’ lands or businesses.54 Seven of the 16 women married a bachelor, who thus took on the upbringing of sometimes as many as three orphans (meaning children who had lost their fathers). Five of the 13 widowers married single women, who then took care of their husbands’ children by their first marriages.

According to the secondary literature, widows and widowers tended to remarry relatively soon after having lost their spouses.55 Widowers rarely undertook the task of taking care of young children alone, and the presence of a stepmother was also linked to the likelihood of a child reaching adulthood.56 This was true among widowed parents in Kolozsvár: 21 of 29 widows and widowers remarried within a year of having lost their spouses. The motivation behind this may have been the need to provide care for children in the family. Each mother and father had underage children. The community did not expect fathers to raise young children alone, but it was the father’s responsibility to find a suitable person and create the proper circumstances for childrearing.57 Károly Kis, one of the widowed fathers in Kolozsvár, remarried as early as one month after his wife’s death. The reason for the unusually short mourning period was his one-month-old child, who had been left without a mother, whom he could not take care of, so he married a 23-year-old maiden. The 27-year-old farmer Mihály Szőllősi remarried two months after his wife’s death, also because he was unable to raise his small child alone.

As for marriages between a widow and widower, it can be assumed that both parties brought children to the new blended family, but only one such case can be found documented in Kolozsvár, where both the new husband and the new wife had underage children who had lost a parent. Márton Tárkányi and Júlia Engi, who lost their spouses in the cholera epidemic, both had one daughter when they married in October 1873. They were both Calvinist farmers, so the new marriage did not bring about any changes in their lifestyles. Based on their respective addresses, one sees that, as they were neighbors, they presumably had known each other for a long time, which was probably an advantage for the children, since their new stepparent and sibling were people they knew well. Furthermore, they did not have to leave the neighborhood, as they only moved next door. The girls were roughly the same age, so one could even assume that in this case, two playmates became siblings. Unfortunately, it is impossible to determine whether any of the widowers who remarried followed the otherwise common practice of taking a close relative or the sister of the deceased spouse as the new wife, which ensured continuity between the old family and the new.

The sources reveal that most of the widowed persons in Kolozsvár did not remarry.58 It cannot be determined the extent to which this phenomenon can be attributed to the decisions or preferences of the individuals involved, since in the end, the lives of widows and widowers were predominantly determined by their financial circumstances. Poverty, for example, was not an obstacle to remarriage, as several widows categorized as poor were able to find a new spouse. In contrast, widows living in destitution due to ill health could not remarry, because due to their inability to work, they could not improve their circumstances (for instance a blind mother or a widower unable to make a living for himself). In cases like these, a widow or widower had little to no chance of remarrying.

Nor are data adequate to explain the extent to which the community or the family accepted the independence of widows without children of age or, in contrast, urged them to remarry.59 Young widows were still very much under the influence of their families. If, however, remarriage is interpreted as a survival strategy, then the possible reasons the tendency among the widows in Kolozsvár not to remarry may perhaps be explained in several different ways. If she did not have to remarry for financial reasons, a widow may have chosen to remain unmarried for personal reasons. Widows with children who had already reached adulthood or were able to work, for instance, were less likely to remarry, presumably because their children were able to help provide for the family or take over household duties from their widowed mothers so that she could focus on taking care of smaller children.60 In families in which the presence of children who had reached adulthood can be verified, widowed parents usually did not remarry. In the Profanter family, for instance, the two older sons were 20 and 16, and they were able to work as bricklayers, as their father had done, so they were able to contribute to the family earnings while the widowed mother was taking care of her seven-year-old and eight-month-old children.

The function of widows as heads of the household was usually only temporary, lasting only as long as they had underage children.61 In some cases, it is again difficult to determine whether a widow did not remarry as a consequence of a personal decision or simply because she had a lack of options. If she had several small children, she might have been less appealing as a potential spouse since her new husband would have to shoulder the burden of providing care for them. Mrs. Katalin Dávid József Gyulai had five children. The oldest was nine, the youngest only two months old at the time of the census, and they lived in her house with her. The widow Mrs. György Vinczi also had five children. The youngest was two weeks old, but her 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son were already working, so they were able to help her shoulder the burdens of providing for the family. Both women were widows of farmers. It cannot be determined whether anyone else lived in the two widows’ households (such as a grandparent) or whether they perhaps relied on assistance provided by relatives living nearby, but they definitely did not remarry. It seems that both managed the households on their own and raised their underage children on their late husbands’ farms. In the secondary literature, there are a number of examples of widows who did not remarry. When the mother was left a widow, the family did not fall apart. The underage children remained with their mothers, and there are also records of family members (e.g. a grandparent or sibling) who provided help or moved in.62 I believe this might have been the case with the two aforementioned widows from Kolozsvár. Furthermore, neither of them was featured in the list of those who received financial support. Although Mrs. György Vinczi was initially recommended for support, she was left off the final list, and, as the cadastral map reveals, compared to the other farmer, the plot with the house she inherited from her late husband was relatively large.63 The census takers’ assessment was probably influenced by their knowledge of widows having inherited properties, which practically meant that, in their cases, housing and livelihood were regarded as ensured, so the two widows were not considered poor, even given the responsibilities involved in raising small children.

Since widowed fathers rarely undertook the duty of raising minors alone, the relatively high number of single fathers as caregivers for small children is surprising. Unfortunately, the sources offer no information concerning the help they may have received in providing care for the children with, but based on the register of addresses in Kolozsvár, it is clear that they had relatives who lived nearby. In all likelihood, they had family members who helped more than the data recorded by the census takers would indicate. Farmer József Baga seems to have raised his six young children on his own. The youngest child was only one year old, the oldest eleven. The register of addresses indicates that his plot and the one right next to it were the properties of György Baga’s heirs, which may mean that at least one sibling lived nearby. The adjacent plot also belonged to the Baga family, and in the neighboring street there lived a houseowner by the name József Baga. The addresses thus reveal a large family of farmers living in the Hídelve district, so József Baga probably did not have to take care of his children entirely on his own, but received help from female members of the family or the grandmother.64

The case of István Albert was similar. He had six children. One of them had reached adulthood, two worked as domestic servants, and three daughters (aged six, eight, and twelve) lived with him. The elder daughter who worked as a housemaid served nearby. György Albert, presumably István’s brother or perhaps older son, so again, in this case the members of the family lived nearby.65 As for carpenter János Molnár, the explanation may lie in the fact that the eldest of his three orphaned daughters, Zsuzsa, was 21 years old, so she could do the housework and take care of her two younger sisters, aged 9 and 13.


The aim of the census recording widowed parents and orphans after the cholera epidemic was to assess the social problems caused by the epidemic and to identify and provide support for those in need. Among the beneficiaries, underage orphans and widowed mothers were prioritized. The concept of poverty was linked to the tasks involved in rearing children and a given individual’s ability (or inability) to work and earn money. For the census takers, a poor person in need of financial support was someone who did not work and/or had a young child, or in other words, predominantly widowed mothers who were raising their children on their own. The lists compiled of widows and orphans of the cholera epidemic and the categories into which people were divided on these lists offer insights into the practices involved in the placement of orphans living in poverty in the nineteenth century, practices in which the family and relatives played a pivotal role. According to the census takers, who were members of the urban elite, the word orphan referred not simply to a child who had lost both his or her parents (the census takers did not even draw a distinction between children who had lost one parent and children who had lost both parents) but also to children whose parents were too poor to provide for and raise them. Orphanhood, thus, referred often not to the position of a child within a family, but rather to the child’s place within the larger social network.

The loss of a parent or parents brought about several changes in the lives of young orphans. Most orphans who had lost only one parent were raised by the parent who survived, and the surviving parent was often given assistance by relatives living nearby. One-parent families consisting of a mother and a child or children were more frequent than one-parent families headed by a father, as widowed fathers with minors tended to remarry. The upbringing of children who had lost both parents (or whose parents could not provide for them) was usually undertaken by grandparents and close relatives. Providing care for orphaned children was an unwritten family duty, one which family members usually accepted, even when they were poor themselves. Some of the orphans in Kolozsvár, however, were not related to the adults who raised them, and their uncertain situations were noted by the census takers. Older children actively took part in providing for the family: as the part of the deceased parent had to be filled, they took on more tasks or contributed to the livelihood of the family with their salaries. They could ease the burdens which fell on the widowed parent by working as apprentices or housemaids so that the widowed parent would not have to provide for them. Very few orphans were admitted to orphanages: a total of two girls and two boys were placed in institutions in Kolozsvár and Nagyszeben.

After the epidemic had passed, several young women and men had been widowed, and their private lives can be traced back according to the information in the registers of marriages. The decision to remarry was determined by several factors. For women, the main motivation to remarry was to ensure a livelihood for their family, while men mainly sought to provide security for their young orphaned children and to find a new mother to take care of them. Second marriages characteristically came rather quickly, before the end of the year of mourning. In the sample examined here, the rate of those who did not remarry is rather high, which underlines the importance of predominantly financial factors. Some were unable to find a new spouse because they were poor, while others, in contrast, were under no financial pressure to find a spouse, as they were able to subsist on their own. Alongside financial factors, help from children who had reached adulthood or a relative living nearby also decreased a widowed parent’s need to remarry.

Archival Sources

Erdélyi Református Egyházkerület Központi Gyűjtőlevéltára, Cluj-Napoca/Kolozsvár [Transylvanian Reformed Church Archives]

D3 Documents of the Kolozsvár Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls, 1. Presidential Diary (1872−1880).

Arhivele Naţionale ale României, Servicul Judeţean Cluj [National Archives of Romania, Cluj County Branch] (NAR CJ)

University Hospitals – Karolina Hospital F 210, 4/1872−73.

Parish registers F 42.

Burial records: 71/38, 71/78, 71/60, 71/59, 71/3, 71/81, 71/8, 71/6, 71/108, 71/18.

Marriage records: 71/33, 71/37, 71/54, 71/2, 71/81, 71/8, 71/91, 71/107.

Kolozsvár Mayor’s Office F 1.

Documents related to the cholera outbreak 1872–1874.

Document of the Shoemaker’s Association F2, 52. Proceedings of the Shoemaker’s Guild 1820–1899.


Map: Biblioteca Centrală Universitară „Lucian Blaga” Cluj-Napoca/ „Lucian Blaga” Központi Egyetemi Könyvtár, Kolozsvár – Colecţii speciale/Különgyűjtemény [Special Collections]

Szabad királyi Kolozsvár város térrajza az új házszámozás szerint [The map of the free royal city of Kolozsvár], ed. Sándor Bodányi (Kolozsvár, 1869). Dimensions of the map: 119 × 83 cm.


Åkerman, Sune, Ulf Högberg, and Tobias Andersson. “Survival of Orphans in Nineteenth-Century Sweden.” In Orphans and fosterchildren: A Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Lars-Göran Tedebrand, 83–105. Umeå: Umeå universitet, 1996.

A kolozsvári árvaház évkönyve 1874 [Yearbook of the Kolozsvár Orphanage for 1874]. Kolozsvár, 1875.

A kolozsvári “Mária Valéria” Árvaház évkönyve 1880, 1884. Kolozsvár, 1881, 1885.

A nagyszebeni kir. kath. Terézárvaház értesítője az 1883/4, 1887/8 tanévről. Nagyszeben, 1884, 1888.

Bideau, Alain and Guy Brunet. “The Family, the Village and the Orphan in the Region of Haut-Bugey during the 19th Century.” In When Dad Died: Individuals and Families Coping with Family Stress in Past Societies, edited by Renzo Derosas and Michel Oris, 351−67. Bern: Peter Lang, 2002.

Bideau, Alain, Guy Brunet, and Fabrice Foroni. “Orphans and their family histories.” The History of the Family 5, no. 3 (2000): 315–25. doi:10.1016/S1081-602X(00)00045-2.

Bodányi, Sándor. Szabad királyi Kolozsvár város házbirtokosainak névsora [The property owners of the free royal city Kolozsvár]. Kolozsvár, 1869.

Csipes, Antal. “Az árvaszék szervezete, működése és iratai Magyarországon a kapitalizmus korában” [The organization, activity and documents of the guardianship authority in Hungary]. Levéltári Szemle 23, no. 23 (1973): 176−88.

Csizmadia, Andor. A magyar közigazgatás fejlődése a XVIII. századtól a tanácsrendszer létrejöttéig [The development of the Hungarian public ddministration from the 18th century]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1976.

Deáky, Zita. Gyermekek és serdülők munkája Magyarországon a 19. századtól a második világháborúig [Child labour in Hungary from the 19th century to the Second World War]. Budapest: Gondolat, 2015.

Deáky, Zita. Jó kis fiúk és leánykák. A kisgyermekkor történeti néprajza Magyarországon [Good boys and girls: The history of early childhood in Hungary]. Budapest: Századvég, 2011.

Gaal, György. Magyarok utcája. A kolozsvári egykori Bel- és Külmagyar utcák telkei, házai, lakói [The street of the Hungarians: The houses and inhabitants of the former Belmagyar and Külmagyar Streets of Kolozsvár] Kolozsvár: Erdélyi Múzeum-Egyesület, 1995.

Géra, Eleonóra. “Városi és kamarai árvák a 18. századi Budán” [Orphans in eighteenth-century Buda]. In Özvegyek és árvák a régi Magyarországon 1550−1940, edited by Gabriella Erdélyi, 139−67. Budapest: Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont Történettudományi Intézet, 2020.

Gyáni, Gábor. Család, háztartás és a városi cselédség [Family, household and urban housemaids]. Budapest: Magvető, 1983.

Gyáni, Gábor. “Könyörületesség, fegyelmezés, avagy a szociális gondoskodás genealógiája” [Pity, discipline or the geneology of social support]. Történelmi Szemle 41, no 1−2 (1999): 57−84.

Horn, Ildikó. “Nemesi árvák a kora újkorban” [Orphans of noble birth in early modern Hungary]. In Gyermek a kora újkori Magyarországon, edited by Péter Katalin, 51−90. Budapest: MTA Történettudományi Intézet, 1996.

Jelentés az állami gyermekmenhelyeknek 1907–1910 évi munkásságáról [Report on the work of the state children’s asylums from 1907−1910]. Budapest: Pátria, 1913.

Kovách, Géza, and Pál Binder. A céhes élet Erdélyben [Guild membership in Transylvania]. Bukarest: Kriterion, 1981.

Maddern, Philippa. “Between Households: Children in Blended and Transitional Households in Late-Medieval England.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 3, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 65−86. doi:10.1353/hcy.0.0087.

Oja, Linda. “Childcare and Gender in Sweden c.1600–1800.” Gender & History 27, no. 1 (April 2015): 77–111. doi:10.1111/1468-0424.12096.

Oris, Michel, and Emiko Ochiai. “Family Crisis in the Context of Different Family Systems.” In When Dad Died: Individuals and Families Coping with Family Stress in Past Societies, edited by Renzo Derosas and Michel Oris, 17−79. Bern: Peter Lang, 2002.

Pakot, Levente. “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás a székelyföldi rurális közösségekben 1840–1930” [Widowhood and remarriage in rural Székely Land]. Demográfia 52, no. 1 (2009): 55–88.

Péter, Katalin. “Paraszti özvegyek a 16−17. századi Magyar Királyságban” [Peasant widows in the Hungarian Kingdom in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries]. In Özvegyek és árvák a régi Magyarországon 1550−1940, edited by Gabriella Erdélyi, 171−96. Budapest: Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont Történettudományi Intézet, 2020.

Pillich, László. Városom évgyűrűi [The growth rings of my city]. Bukarest: Kriterion, 1985.

Skořepová, Markéta. “Orphaned children in Bohemian rural society in the first half of the nineteenth century: Care, co-residence and inheritance practices.” In Orphans and Abandoned Children in European History: Sixteenth to Twentieth Centuries, edited by Nicoleta Roman, 219−50. London–New York: Routledge, 2018.

Szende G., Katalin. “Craftsmen’s Widows in Late Medieval Sopron.” In Women in Towns: The Social Position of European Urban Women in a Historical Context, edited by Marjatta Hietala, and Lars Nilsson, 13−21. Stockholm: Stads- och Kommunalhistoriska Institutet, 1999.

Van Poppel, Frans. “Widows, Widowers and Remarriage in Nineteenth-Century Netherlands.” Population Studies 49, no. 3 (1995): 421−41. doi:10.1080/0032472031000148756.

Werbőczy, István. Tripartitum. 1514. Accessed November 6, 2019, http://www.staff.u-szeged.hu/~capitul/analecta/trip_hung.htm.

1 Horn, “Nemesi árvák.”

2 István Werbőczy, Tripartitum (1514), 113/5 §. Accessed November 6, 2019. http://www.staff.u-szeged.hu/~capitul/analecta/trip_hung.htm

3 Horn, “Nemesi árvák,” 54−61.

4 Csizmadia, A magyar közigazgatás fejlődése, 197−99; Act 20/1877. Accessed November 5, 2019. https://net.jogtar.hu/getpdf?docid=87700020.TV&targetdate=&printTitle=1877.+%C3%A9vi+XX.+ t%C3%B6rv%C3%A9nycikk&referer=1000ev; Csipes, “Az árvaszék szervezete, működése és iratai.”

5 Act 20/1877, 112 §.

6 Act 20/1877, 4−5 §.

7 I owe a debt of thanks to Ágnes Flóra, archivist at the National Archives of Romania, Cluj County Branch, for having called my attention to and allowed me to consult the documents of the cholera committee.

8 NAR CJ, F 1 Mayor’s Office, Documents related to the cholera outbreak 1872−1874.

9 The census was compiled by the following individuals working in the following parts of the city: 1. János Manitza for the Külmonostor-Külszén district, 2. Mihály Csíki for Hídelve, 3. Gyula T. for the Külmagyar-Külközép district. In the inner city, district captain Lajos Kállai did not compile the data as a table but rather wrote separate reports for each family.

10 Other designations included “poor, but able to subsist,” “in the direst destitution,” and “true destitution.”

11 I used all the marriage registers in Kolozsvár, including those for the Calvinist, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran, and Jewish communities.

12 Since I only used the registers from the city of Kolozsvár, I was only able to learn about the fates of widows and widowers who remarried in Kolozsvár. Thus, the conclusions I draw may not be applicable in any larger context but apply, rather, only to the people about whose later lives the sources offer some information.

13 I identified a total of 193 heads of families on the lists. In the case of 17 of these heads of families, we do not know whether they had a spouse and a child or children. 22 had no children and were survived only by a widow or widower. The lists contained 396 orphans, 112 of whom had reached adulthood or were married when the lists were compiled and three of whom died. Concerning another 30 children, the sources provide no indication of their ages or their housing situations. As a result, of the total 396 orphans, the present study focuses on 251 underage orphans.

14 Bideau et al., “Orphans and their family histories”; Maddern, “Between Households.”

15 Magyar polgár, September 24, 1873.

16 Magyar polgár, December 12, 1873; A kolozsvári „Mária Valéria” Árvaház évkönyve 1884, 26.

17 Various terms are used, for instance “very poor,” “without property,” “destitute,” and “in an ordinary condition.”

18 Of the four lists, two were drawn up before May 14, 1874, when it was reported that the final statement had not yet been drawn up. The additions that were made to the third list suggest that it was made for internal use.

19 Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis.”

21 In 1872, the Shoemaker’s Guild was transformed into the Shoemaker’s Association. Mihály Csíki (the chief of the Hídelve district) was a board member, and János Manitza (the chief of the Külmonostor-Külszén district) was the president of the association beginning in 1872. On the guilds see Kovách and Binder, A céhes élet Erdélyben; NAR CJ, F2 Document of the Shoemaker’s Association, 52. Proceedings of the Shoemaker’s Guild 1820–1899.

22 I was able to identify six individuals from the families who had suffered deaths from cholera on the basis of an 1869 list found in the guild documents. With the exception of Károly Szathmári, according to the 1874 census, they were all adequately well-off financially.

23 The assisted widow for whom assistance was provided, Mrs. Katalin Szász József Mezei, still lived on her husband’s plot at the time of the census with her two children. She married again in 1876 at the age of 35. Bodányi, Szabad királyi Kolozsvár város, 44.

24 The inhabitants of the outskirts of the city, the so-called “hóstáti,” considered themselves the urban farmers of Kolozsvár. Their community was forced to give up their land and previous lifestyle in the 1970s and 1980s, when under the communist regime the districts they inhabited were used for the construction of new housing blocks. See Pillich, Városom évgyűrűi; Gaal, Magyarok utcája.

25 Bideau et al., “Orphans and their Family,” 321.

26 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family, the Village and the Orphan.”

27 In addition to the aforementioned groups, three orphans had already passed away, six were living in another city, two small children were being taken care of by a wetnurse, and one girl was attending the teachers’ training institution in Kolozsvár.

28 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family,” 364.

29 Bodányi, Kolozsvár házbirtokosainak névsora, 15.

30 Deáky, Jó kis fiúk és leánykák, 82−85.

31 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family,” 364.

32 Bideau et al., “Orphans and their Family,” 315−25; Maddern, “Between Households,” 72; Horn, “Nemesi árvák,” 60−61.

33 Also, two infants were turned over to the city wetnurse, because their father was in prison. The wetnurse was paid using funds from the city’s coffers. NAR CJ, F 1 Mayor’s Office, 2578/1874.

34 Transylvanian Reformed Church Archives, D3 Documents of the Kolozsvár Mária Valéria Orphanage for Girls, 1 Presidential Diary (1872−1880).

35 The association which ran the Mária Valéria Orphanage was a spinoff of the Kolozsvár Women’s Charitable Association. There was considerable overlap between the two from the perspective of their members. A kolozsvári árvaház évkönyve 1874, 31.

36 The source does not indicate precisely how the person who took her in was related to her.

37 On the fate of the other four siblings see the subchapter entitled Relatives. A nagyszebeni kir. kath. Terézárvaház értesítője az 1883/4 tanévről, 11.

38 A nagyszebeni 1883/4, 14; A nagyszebeni 1887/8, 46.

39 A kolozsvári “Mária Valéria” 1880. Supplement. 10–11.

40 Deáky, Gyermekek és serdülők, 21−24; Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 55−61.

41 Deáky, Gyermekek és serdülők, 247−60.

42 Jelentés az állami gyermekmenhelyeknek 1907–1910 évi munkásságáról, 96.

43 Deáky, Gyermekek és serdülők, 247.

44 Gyáni, Család, háztartás és a városi cselédség.

45 Deáky, Gyermekek és serdülők, 230.

46 Ordinance 1/1903 Ministry of Interior; Gyáni, “Könyörületesség, fegyelmezés,” 76−77.

47 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family,” 364−65.

48 Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 19.

49 Szende, “Craftsmen’s Widows.”

50 Géra, “Városi és kamarai árvák.”

51 On peasant widows who managed their lands on their own, see Péter, “Paraszti özvegyek.”

52 Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 76; Van Poppel, “Widows, Widowers and Remarriage”; Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 69.

53 Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 22.

54 For instance, the widow of stonemason János Szabados married the stonemason Ferenc Bálint in August 1873.

55 Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 72, 81.

56 Skořepová, “Orphaned children in Bohemian rural society,” 225, 229; Åkerman et al., “Survival of Orphans,” 85−86, 99.

57 Oja, “Childcare and Gender,” 85−86.

58 35 widowers and 52 widows did not remarry.

59 Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 82.

60 Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 29; Pakot, “Megözvegyülés és újraházasodás,” 72, 82; Skořepová: “Orphaned children,” 225, 228.

61 Oris and Ochiai, “Family Crisis,” 33−34; Skořepová, “Orphaned children,” 229−30.

62 Bideau and Brunet, “The Family,” 364−65.

63 Szabad királyi Kolozsvár város térrajza az új házszámozás szerint [The Map of Kolozsvár Free Royal City], ed. Sándor Bodányi (Kolozsvár, 1869). Dimensions of the map: 119 × 83 cm.

64 Bodányi, Kolozsvár házbirtokosainak, 45.

65 Ibid., 15.



The Stepfamily from Children’s Perspectives in Pest-Buda in the 1860s

Emese Gyimesi
Eötvös Loránd University
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 4  (2020): 693-724 DOI 10.38145/2020.4.693


This paper examines the distinctive aspects of children’s letter-writing practices, sibling relationships, and the use of urban spaces by one of the most educated, intellectual stepfamilies in mid-nineteenth century Pest-Buda. In this bourgeois family, children grew up in an exceptionally rich intellectual atmosphere, as their mother (Júlia Szendrey) was a poet, writer and translator, their father (Árpád Horvát) was a historian, and one of their uncles (Pál Gyulai) was the most significant literary critic of the time. Consequently, reading and writing was a fun game and a source of joy for even the youngest members of the family. As a result, many of the analyzed sources were produced by children, offering us the exceptional possibility to examine stepfamily relations, emotional practices, urban and everyday life, as well as material culture from the perspective of children. The study aims to identify the practices through which the family experience and the family identity and the sense of belonging in the Szendrey-Horvát family were constructed.

Keywords: childhood, middle class household, parent-child relations, half-sibling relations, urban history, use of space, private and public spheres

On July 21, 1850, in the chapel of the parish of Lipótváros in Pest, a 21-year-old woman and a 30-year-old man were married. It turned out to be one of the most frequently mentioned marriages in nineteenth-century Hungary. The bride was Júlia Szendrey, the widow of Sándor Petőfi, who had been one of the most popular poets of the Reform Era and one of the most important figures in the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849. The groom was Árpád Horvát, a historian and professor at the University of Pest. Public opinion condemned the new marriage, though it was the only escape for the young widow.

Sándor Petőfi, the first husband, died on July 31, 1849, during the defeat of the Hungarian War of Independence in one of the last battles in Transylvania.1 His young widow was left alone with their child, who was seven months old at the time. As a result of the harassment she endured at the hands of the the Austrian authorities, the uncertainty of her financial background, and malicious rumors which had been spread about her, she was in a desperate situation in which she could not take on the role of “the widow of the nation” that the public wished to give the wives of martyrs who had fallen in the war of independence. Her contemporaries did not empathize with her demanding situation, and they condemned her decision to flee to a new marriage. Her figure is still surrounded by stereotypes. This also contributed to the fact that the documents concerning Júlia Szendrey’s second marriage and the majority of her literary works from the 1850s and 1860s remained unpublished.2 From a socio-historical point of view, given the abundance of relevant resources, this phase of her life is at least as exciting as the period connected to Petőfi, not only because her independent literary career unfolded during this period but also because she belonged to one of the most educated, intellectual stepfamilies of the era.

Júlia Szendrey took her 19-month-old son, Zoltán Petőfi, with her into the new marriage. She and her second husband, Árpád Horvát, had four children. Attila Horvát was born in 1851, Árpád in 1855, Viola, who died early, in 1857, and Ilona in 1859. In the resulting stepfamily, the children grew up in an exceptionally rich intellectual atmosphere, as their mother was a poet and writer, their father was a historian, and one of their uncles, Pál Gyulai, was the most significant literary critic of the time. Consequently, reading and writing was a fun game and a source of joy for even the youngest members of the family. As a result, plenty of relevant sources have survived from them, sources which are exciting not only because they concern or were created by the members of this special family, but also because the historian only rarely has, among her sources, writings which were created by children.3 The aim of the present study is to examine the distinctive aspects of the children’s perspectives, the sibling relationships, and the practices which influenced the formation of family identity through the correspondence and greeting poems of Júlia Szendrey’s sons and the floorplans made of their family home.

Children’s Perspectives in Historiography

Although the history of childhood has a significant body of secondary literature both internationally and in Hungary, analyses of the sources created by children and the special worldview manifested in them are relatively rare in the historiography. While researchers have shown an increasing interest in the study of children’s ego documents (such as children’s diaries written during the 1956 Revolution and World War II) about the politically significant events of the twentieth century,4 this aspect of research is strikingly missing in the nineteenth-century context. One factor in this is the shortcomings of the sources, or more precisely the failure to study the relevant sources. As a result, the history of childhood has been examined primarily on the basis of sources created by adults. The beginning of research on the subject is linked to the name Philippe Ariès, who claimed in his 1960 book that, before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the concept of childhood was unknown, children were not given particular attention, and the child-parent relationship was not characterized by sensitivity and a close bond of love.5 The hitherto unusual choice of topics inspired further research in this area, and several historians questioned Ariès’s thesis. Linda A. Pollock, for instance, sought to refute claims about the quality of the child-parent relationship by analyzing diaries, correspondence, and autobiographies.6 Barbara Hanawalt also argued persuasively that adults did indeed pay particular attention to people in different stages of human life (including childhood) even in the Middle Ages, and thus they recognized the importance of childhood and adolescence.7

Recent research deals with the emotional relationships not only between parents and children but also among siblings. The role of siblings in the wider kin networks has been taken for granted by historians for a long time, so it has only recently been made the subject of scholarly inquiry.8 Leonore Davidoff has pointed out that the sibling relationship is the longest and, therefore, in a sense, the defining relationship in a person’s life, as it can generate additional kin and kinship ties (e.g. aunts, uncles, cousins). In Davidoff’s concept the notion of the “long family” plays an important role which refers to the fact that in the Victorian era, exceptionally large families, often with more than ten children, were formed due to improved living standards and health care. Thus, there were at times very big age differences among siblings, as up to two or three decades could have passed between the birth of the first child and the birth of the last.9 Therefore, an intermediate generation was formed between the parents and the younger children, where the older children also functioned as caregivers, teachers, and playmates for the younger, and after the older siblings had married, their younger siblings, who had grown into teenagers, helped them raise their own children. Leonore Davidoff’s book focuses primarily on the history of English middle-class families between 1780 and 1920, but not exclusively. The chapter on the relationships within the Freud family is significant in Central European terms.10 Based on a number of cases and a rich array of sources, Davidoff found that childhood experience, sibling relationships, and the reflections of relatives could fundamentally determine the awareness of the child’s position in society and the quality of his or her political, social, and personal life, both in the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth.11

In Hungary, the study of childhood was undertaken mainly from an ethnographic point of view and also from the perspectives of child labor and the history of education.12 While the history of childhood may be of increasing interest to researchers as part of family history, in the context of the nineteenth century and earlier eras historians only rarely have sources written by children on which to draw, alongside the sources produced by adults (memoirs, autobiographies reflecting on childhood, and depictions of children in the printed press, fiction, and visual culture). Sources created by children are essential if we seek not simply to study childhood as it was understood by adults at the time but also from the viewpoints of children themselves.

Family history research has been inspired by an approach that perceives family not simply as a biologically based, timeless entity, but as a social construct that changes over time. In the present paper, I examine family relationships based on the children’s letter-writing practices, the use of the house by family members, and the use of space during their city walks. I aim to identify the practices through which the family experience and the family identity and the sense of belonging in the Szendrey-Horvát family were constructed. The correspondence of Júlia Szendrey’s children is an exciting source in terms of the characteristics of the nineteenth-century stepfamily, the history of emotions, urban history, everyday life, and material culture.13 In the period of roughly seven years when the letters were written (1861–1868), Zoltán Petőfi was between the ages of 13 and 20, Attila Horvát between 10 and 17 years old, and the youngest son, Árpád, between 6 and 13. Thus, we can see Pest-Buda from the perspective of young boys growing from children into adolescents.

The Family Home

In the first three years of their marriage, Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát lived in Lipót Street in the city center (on the southern section of today’s Váci Street). In 1853, they moved to the corner of Hársfa and Király Streets, which was located in former Terézváros in a part closer to City Park. (Although today this area belongs to Erzsébetváros, in the 1850s and 1860s it was part of Terézváros. Erzsébetváros was established only in 1882, when Franz Joseph allowed the 7th district to be separated from the former Terézváros to be named after his wife.) Hársfa Street served as the main area in which the family moved for 14 years, until 1867, when the parents separated.

We can learn the exact furnishing of the apartment and the division of the rooms from a special source. In 1869, Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát’s eldest child, Attila Horvát, made two detailed floorplans of the former family home and its surroundings. Their home in Hársfa Street did not exist any longer at that time, since in 1867, the family broke up. The parents never divorced officially, but from then on, they lived in separate households. Júlia Szendrey moved away from her husband with her daughter, Ilona, while the boys stayed with their father, Árpád Horvát. They sold their family home in Terézváros and rented a room in the city center. After suffering from uterine cancer for a long time, Júlia Szendrey died on September 6, 1868. The floorplans showing the interior design were thus made in the period following the breakup of the family and the death of the mother. One of them marks the location of the furnishing within each room, and the other shows the wider surroundings of the house and the various plants in the garden in greater detail. Attila Horvát also recorded the date of birth of his siblings, and he named each room on the floorplans from the child’s point of view (“Mom’s room, Dad’s room,” etc.). One can interpret this gesture, the creation of floorplans which record the furnishings and surroundings of the former family home with meticulous accuracy, as an expression of strong emotional attachment and the desire of the adolescent boy to preserve family memory.

According to the floorplans, the house consisted of the following rooms: entrance hall, small room, father’s room, mother’s room, children’s room, kitchen, the pantry, the lavatory, and the soldier’s room.14 The children’s room opened off the hall. The presence of a children’s room and the reference to this space as a children’s room were by no means part of an obvious, everyday phenomenon, as even in the housing inventories of later decades there were only rarely examples of a separate children’s room, even in cases in which the large number of rooms would have allowed it.15 The presence of the children’s room in the bourgeois apartments was not evident even at the beginning of the following century, although the need for such a space had been emphasized more and more by then. The research of Gábor Gyáni suggests that the placement of children in bourgeois flats was often complicated and involved the use of a single space for several purposes. The beds used by older children were sometimes placed in the dining room or another room, while younger children often slept in the bedroom with their parents.16 In contrast, the children’s room provided a separate space for the children of Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát, which was not only nominal.17 In addition to the floorplans, the correspondence between Attila Horvát and Zoltán Petőfi also proves that the children’s room provided them with a space where they could occasionally retreat from the adults.

The floorplan is a valuable source because it gives a list of its premises and furnishings and it shows their locations within the private spaces. On the basis of the interior design, one make hypotheses concerning the internal relations of the family, the roles of the men and the women, and the ways in which these roles in this family differed from social conventions. One can also venture conjectures concerning the functions of some spaces of the apartment and the relationship between the private space of the home and the public spaces of social life.

In the house of Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát, less emphasis was put on shows of wealth and status than in average bourgeois apartments, where usually the salon or drawing room was a space of particular importance; by contrast, in the Szendrey-Horvát family home, spaces for private, intellectual work were important. The salon, which was the most significant place in contemporary bourgeois homes as a space to welcome guests and meet social expectations, was missing from the house. The piano, which would usually have been placed in the salon as a status symbol, was in Júlia Szendrey’s room, which opened onto Hársfa Street.18 The lack of a salon and the furniture in the rooms also showed that the furnishings of the house were not intended primarily for the public, but rather for everyday, private use, tailored to individual needs, and this was unusual in the home of a relatively prosperous family at the time. Both the husband and the wife did intellectual and artist work, and both demanded the private space and furnishings required for this.

It is striking that the “gentleman’s room,” often referred to as the “men’s room,” was not exclusively a privilege of the husband in their case. According to the apartment inventories analyzed by Gyáni, this space usually functioned as the study of the paterfamilias and often as a library.19 A desk with chairs, a bookcase, and a sofa (an indispensable accessory of the “men’s room” in the later decades as well20) were found not only Árpád Horvát’s room but also in Júlia Szendrey’s room. This is also remarkable because the wife usually did not have her own room, even though it was a woman’s job to create the tasteful furnishings of the home.21 The presence of the necessary fixtures for artwork in Júlia Szendrey’s room draws attention to the fact that the female member of the family also carried out in-depth intellectual work and regular publishing activities. All this indicates not only the literacy of the resident of the room, whose daily cultural needs included regular reading and writing, but also that she had a separate room and its furnishings did not differ from the furnishings found in her husband’s room, and this was exceptional at the time. The furnishings played a prominent role in both rooms, and in its dimensions, Júlia Szendrey’s room was even larger than her husband’s.

The furnishings of Júlia Szendrey’s room combined the functions of a bedroom, a study, and a salon, although the boundaries of the spaces with different functions were delineated relatively well within the room. The curtain bed was located in the innermost part of the room; this point of the room constituted a private space. The most important element of the bourgeois apartment, a piano, was at the opposite side of the room in front of the window, on “display,” together with a rose bowl and a sofa. As a counterpoint to the private sphere, this part of the room overlooking the street was the space of representation in which objects indicated the wealth and social status of the family. The desk was around the middle forming a liminal space between the intimate, inner and the public, open parts of the room. Thus, Júlia Szendrey’s room performed the functions of the bedroom, the study, and the salon, though within the room itself the borders between spaces with different functions were relatively clear.

If one compares the wife’s and husband’s rooms, it is also striking that the former was more spacious and, in addition to the desk (which can be interpreted as a sign of the importance of intellectual work), it was also furnished in a manner that made it suitable for representation. For instance, it had a piano, a sofa, and a bookshelf.22 In contrast, the latter (the husband’s room) lacked the objects which would have been necessary as signs of social status to make the room appropriate as a space to welcome guests. It was furnished almost exclusively for solitary work. In the husband’s room, a large desk stood in front of the two windows and bookcases stretched along the walls. As a result, Júlia Szendrey’s room was better suited to serve as a salon, while Árpád Horvát’s room was more of a study, although this was not exclusive in either case. The furnishings of the rooms suggest that the husband and wife played roles within their family that did not correspond to the more traditional roles, in which the wife was a more secondary figure to her husband. The emphatic separation of rooms and living spaces could also be understood as a sign of a cold relationship between the spouses.

The Characteristics of Correspondence between Half-Siblings

When Júlia Szendrey married her second husband, she took a 19-month-old boy, Zoltán Petőfi, from her first marriage to the new marriage. From the very beginning, the young mother tried to emphasize the connection with her first husband’s memory and the legacy of the name Petőfi in the child’s identity.23 However, according to the family correspondence, Zoltán had a harmonious relationship with his stepfather for a long time: in his letters he referred to him as father.24 Their relationship became tense only later, after the final deterioration of the parents’ marriage and the death of Julia Szendrey.25 The couple’s two eldest sons, Attila and Árpád, wrote several letters to their half-brother, Zoltán Petőfi, in the 1860s. The origin of the letters is due to the fact that the teenager Zoltán was no longer in Pest with his mother and stepfather’s family, but in Békés county in the eastern part of the country, with his uncle and guardian, István Petőfi, who worked as a bailiff. In the nineteenth century and the earlier centuries, it was not exceptional for relatives, especially aunts and uncles, to be involved in raising children.26 This, in turn, meant that children, especially in their teens, lived away from their parents’ home for an extended period of time in a relative’s household. Júlia Szendrey’s decision to have her eldest son move and live with his uncle was a typical strategy of the era.

Writing played a particularly important role in Júlia Szendrey’s family. It was important not only on a theoretical or aesthetic but also on a material level. We learn from the letters that the boys often received gifts related to writing from their parents; Attila, for example, reported that he had received “a beautiful album and inkwell, stationery, and a wallet for Christmas in 1865.”27 Holidays had a special role for the Horvát boys, as they gave them the opportunity or at least hope for a personal meeting with their half-brother, Zoltán Petőfi. There were several references to this in the letters. For example, on February 24, 1864, “We are also very happy that you’ll come at Easter”; February 3, 1865: “You will come at Easter, well I know you’ll have such a moustache and beard”; April 14, 1866: “Are you coming for Pentecost? Surely, it would be good because we haven’t seen each other for almost a year.”28 There was a reference to the physical distance between the half-siblings several times in the correspondence, similarly to the one found in the last sentence cited above, i.e. the reference to the fact that they had not seen each other in a long time. By writing to each other, they seem to have wanted to bridge this physical distance and avoid growing emotionally distant.

Zoltán Petőfi’s act of sending a photo of himself to his half-siblings can be interpreted similarly. Seen alongside their correspondence, it seems to have contributed to the creation of an illusion of coexistence. Attila Horvát’s reply, written on August 25, 1866, again referred to the time that had passed since their last meeting: “We were very happy to get your photo, it’s been more than a year since I saw you; it’s a nice shot, I think.”29 The latter remark refers to an intimate relationship. It implies that Attila knew Zoltán, who was only three years older, well.30 Among the brothers, Attila was the most ambitious with his correspondence. On December 11, 1866, after a three-month absence, he wrote Zoltán, “We haven’t written to each other for a long time, it would be good if we resumed writing.”31 He expressed a desire for more frequent written contact several times. He also tried to write about topics in which his half-brother might have taken an interest or which might have affected him. In addition to the city events, he often referred to teachers and peers whom Zoltán also knew and who remembered him. The letters seem expressive of an intention to maintain common points of contact with Zoltán, both among the students in Pest as well as in the family. The latter is proved by the fact that Attila Horvát regularly reported not only about his own condition to his half-brother, but also about the condition of other family members (such as their cousins), and he reminded Zoltán of birthdays, such as his youngest sister’s birthday on July 25, 1868: “Iluska is fine; it’s her ninth birthday today. My God, how fast we all grow up!”32 The latter remark is also a good example of Attila Horvát’s view of his family as a community; his perception of himself as part of the family was an important part of his identity when he wrote with love about others. Zoltán Petőfi also frequently wrote warmly of and to his half-siblings in his letters. He referred to Ilona, who was eleven years younger than he, as a “little angel” and as “dear little Ilona,” and he finished his sentences to Attila several times with “yes, indeed, little mischievous one.” He also used the term “my sweet siblings,” for example, when he reported on his sixteenth birthday in Csákó: “This evening, I would have liked so much to have had fun with you, my sweet brothers!”33

The emotional language in family correspondence was so widespread in the era that its norms were included in publications of letter templates. The so-called “correspondence books” for example, the much-published Hölgyek titkára (The Secretary of the Ladies) and Pesti magyar-német házi titoknok (The Hungarian-German House Secretary of Pest) were intended to facilitate the practice of correspondence, so they offered template texts corresponding to social norms and categorizing the various life situations and occasions of letter writing.34 However, in the correspondence of Júlia Szendrey’s children, several aspects prove that the loving language of the letters was not based on adherence to the norms, but rather on the emotional closeness of the brothers. The boys were connected by a number of games and jokes, and humor was an important component of the letters. For instance, in a letter written to his half-brothers on May 1, 1865, Zoltán used misspellings to imitate the voice of a child still learning to make sounds (I give the Hungarian text for those who read Hungarian): “Mit csinál a kedves kisz Ijonka, igen öjüjök neki hogy szokojtat és tisztejtet, majd ha Pestre megyek viszek neki valami szépet.” One might playfully translate this as, “What is wittle Hewwen [Helen, the English version of the Hungarian name Ilonka] dowing? When I go to Pefft I will bwing her sumfing nice.”35 Ilonka, who was the youngest member of the family, was almost six years old at the time, but there are many references in the family documents to her pronunciation (presumably as a source of humor from previous years), as the eldest child, Zoltán, addressed his younger half-siblings in his writings with wit and playful kindness.

This loving attention was manifested not only in his interest in the wellbeing of those at home, but also in his colorful and enjoyable descriptions of his own experiences and local, rural peculiarities, in which he highlighted phenomena that may have been surprising, unusual, or interesting to his family members in Pest-Buda. While the experiences described by the Horvát boys are exciting sources on the urban culture of Pest-Buda in the 1860s, Zoltán Petőfi’s letters are valuable, among other things, because of the detailed description of rural experiences. The rhetoric of the letters is shaped by the fact that they are written by an urban boy in the countryside who was writing to his urban siblings about his experiences in the countryside. Therefore, he often describes events that would be everyday to people living in rural communities with colorful explanations. Thus, the events on which he dwells are determined in part by the specific life situation of the boys. A good example of this is an excerpt from a letter dated December 24, 1864, in which he explains the meaning of a pig slaughter to Attila. In peasant culture, pig slaughters were timed for the winter, so it is not surprising that, according to Zoltán’s account, they received several invitations in the month of December: “Over the course of the past weeks, there have been several pig slaughters, one after the other. One day, I was invited to one, the next day, I was invited to another one.”36 Even Zoltán’s sixteenth birthday was celebrated during a pig slaughter on December 15. On another occasion, he wrote about peasant weddings in details. His letters contain not only personal but also rhetorical twists imitating the print press (“my gentle questioner,” “dear reader”). Travelogues, which contained descriptions of a similar nature in which their authors dwelt on different customs, were very popular in the contemporary press, and Zoltán’s family members were regular newspaper readers. By bringing the rhetoric of his letter closer to newspaper articles, Zoltán also expanded the functions of his letter writing: in addition to sharing experiences and keeping in touch, he also considered it important to entertain his younger half-siblings with his writing style and personal observations.

Material Characteristics, Style, and Functions of Their Correspondence

James Daybell pointed out that the study of correspondence requires an interdisciplinary approach: social, cultural, palaographic, gender, and literary-critical research approaches and considerations need to be interlinked, and, accordingly, it is worth noting that the researcher is not confronted with neutral, completely fiction-free historical sources, but with age-specific, gender-specific, class-specific letter writing practices.37 Along with the interpretation of correspondence as a writing practice, the examination of material characteristics have come to the fore. Historians have become aware of the importance of letters not only as documents and texts, but also as cultural products which bear meanings through their material forms, so the quality of handwriting, the letter folding technique, and the seals used must also be made subjects of scrutiny. In addition, in recent analyzes, the purpose for which the letters were created has become an important consideration, taking into account the intersections of the different categories (pragmatic, business, religious, family, literary, etc.).38 Analyzing the emotional language of correspondence among brothers, Susan Broomhall and Jacqueline Van Gent found that the act of writing the letter itself, which was mostly a public, shared activity among families belonging to elite, also played a fundamental role in maintaining emotional attachments among family members. Letters often served a similar function to gifts in the context of both social obligations and emotional closeness. 39

In the case of the correspondence among Júlia Szendrey’s children, the material characteristics also deserve attention, because in many cases, these characteristics were closely related to the content of the letters. On September 25, 1865, Attila informed Zoltán that he had received, among other things, a stamp printer from Árpád, on which his name had been engraved for his birthday. According to the surviving envelope, Attila “inaugurated” the gift (used it for the first time) the following day: the letter sent on September 26 in Pest contained a red stamp monogrammed with H. A., and Attila used the stamp on the envelopes for several subsequent letters. In addition to the seals, the letter paper also deserves attention, as in many cases, the paper on which the letters were written were embossed with inscriptions. In the upper left corner of one of Zoltán Petőfi’s letters there is an embossing depicting the Hungarian coat of arms with a crown, surrounded by the first line of the national anthem as an inscription: “God bless the Hungarians.” The contour of the Hungarian coat of arms was redrawn in blue ink, but the crown was not. Zoltán Petőfi was the draftsman, and presumably, by redrawing the Hungarian coat of arms but not the crown, he made clear which symbol he considered important and which he rejected. This can be interpreted as a very subtle expression of his antiroyalism, his conviction in favor of the independence and freedom of the Hungarian nation, which can be considered the spiritual heritage of his father, Sándor Petőfi.

In Zoltán’s letters, several times he wrote separate messages to each of his three half-siblings (Attila, Árpád, and Ilona) on the same sheet of paper. The styles and contents of the letters written by the four half-siblings differed sharply. The wording used by the Horvát boys was usually more concise, and in one paragraph, they often presented completely different types of information (for example, in one letter, they wrote about Morzsa, their dog, in one sentence and about the parliament in the next), but as a result, they presented urban life, the contemporary press, and the events in which they took an interest in extremely varied ways. Zoltán’s style was different. He wrote long sentences, and in many cases, the separate, new sentences merge, as the beginning of a new sentence is not always marked with the use of a capital letter and punctuation is often lacking. An individual letter (especially longer, newspaper-like accounts of experiences) was often about a single topic. Since Zoltán corresponded not only with his half-siblings but also with his mother, he sometimes called on Attila to read the letter written to his mother as well, because he had written on something in more details there, or vice versa, he asked his half-brothers to show the letter he had written to them to their mother because he had not sent a separate one to the “sweet good mom.” In one such case, he also remarked, “and I also write my letters to you all.”40 This suggests that he considered reading letters a common, familial affair rather than a private act.

Familial Use of Space in the Children’s Correspondence

In the letters, the presentation of the family’s use of urban space was given a special role in the holiday descriptions. Attila Horvát and Árpád often reflected in their letters about where they went in the city and what they saw and did.41 Descriptions of such experiences have been highlighted many times in the accounts of the holidays. In the following, I examine what practices were related to the holidays in the family and how this was all related to the growing urban culture of Pest-Buda.

Attendance at Haydn concerts in contemporary Pest-Buda was closely related to the rituals of the Easter celebration. In the spring of 1865, Attila wrote to Zoltán that he and his mother had attended two concerts “at the Buda Castle Church” before Easter, where they had heard performances of The Lamentations of Jeremiah and The Seven Last Words of Christ. Although the traditional venue for Easter Monday in Pest-Buda was Gellert Hill,42 the Horvát boys were taken to the bank of the Danube River and to a café called Kávéforrás by their father: “We were on the bank of the Danube and at the café with dad on Easter Monday, the Danube has risen so much; what used to be 14, 15 feet from the shore to the Danube is now only 1, 1½ feet!”43

May 1, which was considered the spring holiday, the “Wedding of Nature,” and which was already celebrated in Pest-Buda in the eighteenth century, was also mentioned in the children’s correspondence. As had been the case on Easter Monday, on May 1 the boys went for a walk with their father. In a letter to Zoltán dated May 12, 1865, Attila Horvát mentioned May 1 as a day of celebration in the City Park: “Rain rarely occurs here. On May 1, there was a little rain which crushed the sea of dust in the city park, we went walking there with father and had ice coffee, hot coffee, and chocolate.”44 As the letters indicate, the children were taken for walks on the holidays by their father, who worked mainly as a historian and university professor and spent a significant amount of time in the library.

The mention of delicacies as if they were an integral part of urban experience may be explained by the fact that the letters were written by children. The letters evoke the city as it presented itself to the senses: the senses of vision and taste played important roles in the texts, especially the experience of urban flavors (chocolate, coffee, cocoa). Consumption of chocolate was also an important indicator of the social status of the family. In the Hungarian Reform Era, confectioneries appeared in Pest-Buda as places suitable for local consumption (candy shops existed much earlier, as far back as the 1770s), and the Biedermeier furnishings were intended to suit the tastes of the emerging bourgeoisie.45 In his book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Sidney Mintz analyzed how sugar reached the lower classes of society after having become common in the households and day-to-day lives of the affluent social strata and how its symbolic meanings changed.46 Although the consumption of chocolate was no longer the exclusive prerogative of the aristocrats in the second half of the nineteenth century, it certainly belonged to the customs of the wealthy and, more specifically, the urban elite. Attila Horvát’s description also draws attention to the fact that rare delicacies were a treat with which the family marked a holiday.

The Szendrey-Horvát family spent not only May 1 but also August 20 in the City Park in Pest, which was the traditional venue of St. Stephen’s Day celebrations in memory of the founder of the state, the first Hungarian king. In 1863, one day after the August 20 holiday, Júlia Szendrey wrote to Zoltán Petőfi of the day she had spent in the City Park and the disappointing, low-quality fireworks: “We came home terribly dissatisfied, regretting having spent two forints for this boredom.”47 The City Park had been used as a venue for firework shows, a much-loved form of entertainment, in the Reform Era. People who wanted to see the spectacular fireworks of Anton Stuwer, Vienna’s “patented Viennese fire master,” who was advertised in the contemporary newspapers, gathered in the park.48 The excerpt from Júlia Szendrey’s letter cited above indicates that they had already seen firework shows, and they had been able to compare the spectacle on that day with earlier, similar experiences. Although the children’s correspondence makes no mention of the August 20 celebration, the description provided by their mother is significant. First, alongside the colorful descriptions found in the boys’ letters, it adds a factor which may well have been more relevant to an adult, namely the (allegedly excessive) cost of the experience. Júlia Szendrey also offers a rational characterization of the St. Stephen’s Day City Park program, thus drawing even more attention to the peculiarities of the tone and perspective of the children’s letters. Finally, she writes of an event when all the members of the family (apart from Zoltán) spent the day together in the City Park, which was very rare according to the children’s correspondence. In their letters, the boys generally mentioned either their mother or father as their companion, and they never once wrote of joint family walks. This is not surprising if one keeps in mind that the problems in Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát’s marriage49 had become so serious by the early 1860s that the idea of divorce had arisen.50 It cannot be a coincidence that no family photo has survived depicting the two of them together, considering that studio photos of Julia Szendrey and her children were taken several times. Although they remained together until 1867, family programs were presumably not left untouched by the cold relationship between the mother and the father. The ways in which the family seems, on the basis of the sources, to have used urban spaces suggest that both the mother and father were involved in the children’s lives and had close emotional relationships with them, and one can conclude, on the basis of the childrens’ letters and the mention of the activities in which they engaged with each parent, that both Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát devoted time to raising their children, even if they did not do this together.

The Role of Gift-Giving in the Family

In the correspondence of Júlia Szendrey’s children, descriptions of the family’s use of leisure time and of space in city parks were important in connection with the holidays discussed above in the spring and summer. When writing about the winter holidays (the Feast of Saint Nicholas, Christmas, New Year’s Eve) and the birthdays and name days of the family members, however, the children mainly noted the gifts they had received from their parents, their relatives, and one another.

The serious change in the role of gift-giving in the family is indicated by the advertisements in the contemporary press and the mass spread of toys for children. Beginning in the 1860s, the toy trade played an important role in the economic life of Budapest.51 Children’s toys were offered primarily by so-called Nuremberg ware shops named after the German trade center, Nuremberg. Although the number of specialized toy stores began to increase at the end of the nineteenth century, these types of shops remained important until the first decade of the twentieth century, selling relatively cheap consumer goods for everyday life, including a very large number and selection of toys.52

The prestige of gifts became increasingly important. At the turn of the century, the dollhouse as a gift for daughters and the rocking horse as a gift for sons were also important markers of a family’s social status and financial situation. Toy retailers whose spatial location was close to areas that were easily accessible and popular among children (such as the Museum Garden) were able to stay in business for a long time.53 Toy stores, advertisements targeting children, and shopkeepers also sparked social debates about gifts in the contemporary press. In the 1860s, when these trends were beginning to emerge, Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát’s son regularly wrote to their half-brother, Zoltán, of the gifts they had received. When they wrote about family Christmases, they dwelled for the most part on presents.

Christmas Júlia Szendrey’s Family

Children’s Christmas presents in 1863 included sweets (“Sugar fruits from Genoa”) and toys (“two span perimeter rubber balls,” “Porcelain figures,” and boardgames). In February of the following year, the eight-year-old Árpád wrote to Zoltán in detail of the gifts he had received for Christmas. The emphasis on books in the list is particularly noteworthy: Andersen’s Fairy Tales and Puss in Boots were among the titles. The copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales was presumably given by Júlia Szendrey, who was the first person in Hungary to publish the literary translations of the works of the Danish author through German mediation in a volume. She dedicated her well-received book, published in 1858, to her children.54 In 1864, Attila also mentioned that he had received a copy of “Andersen” from his mother. Another member of his family had also given him a book: he had received One Thousand and One Nights from his aunt, Mária Szendrey, for Christmas. He was also given a “capsule pistol,” a gift he had long wanted, as he had a love of military games.

The correspondence of Júlia Szendrey’s children is also an exciting source from the point of view of toy history. The boys were given books and military toys, but also several spectacular pyrotechnic gifts. I managed to identify these toys, which seem both dangerous from our perspective but also special compared to the classic gifts often mentioned in connection with the nineteenth century (rocking horses, military figures, and dollhouses), by examining contemporary price lists and advertisements.55 One of the Nuremberg traders56 who played a central role in the Hungarian toy trade was Tódor Kertész. His price lists, which included everything for sale in the shop,57 included “harmless room fireworks.”58 The fireworks were given fancy names, such as “Mephisto’s Shining Paper.” Readers could see the advertisement for the “room fireworks,” which were allegedly suitable for home use, in the columns of contemporary newspapers.

In the Fővárosi Lapok (Newspaper of the capital city), Tódor Kertész advertised the Christmas and New Year’s gifts available at his store with the following caption: “the latest room fireworks...”59 His price lists also included magic kits,60 “mind toys,” and “amusing boardgames.”61 The latter included boardgames that were also suitable for chess, mill, backgammon, and draughts. Árpád was surprised in 1863 when he was given one of these boardgames for Christmas by his parents.

Tódor Kertész opened his shop around Christmas in 1861, and every subsequent year, he had organized Christmas toy exhibitions.62 His customers included famous politicians and writers of the period (including Ferenc Deák and Mór Jókai).63 As the widespread distribution of specific toy retailers can be traced back to a later date, Árpád Horvát may have obtained special gifts for his children from a Nuremberg merchant (perhaps at Tódor Kertész himself).

According to the letters, in the Szendrey-Horvát family, the children were given an equal share of educational and entertaining gifts, and in many cases, they were given gifts which served both functions. Given the games that were mentioned in the letters, it is not difficult to imagine how family members spent the Christmas holidays, but notes in the correspondence offer additional clues to this as well. In 1864, on the occasion of the first Christmas Zoltán spent away from his parents’ home, he wrote the following in a letter to his family: “When you have fun, play cards, remember me, who, though far from you, will think of you on Christmas Eve.”64 Attila’s response confirmed the imagined scene: “We were playing cards with Mr. Óváry on Christmas Eve.”65 These two remarks also draw attention to the fact that, at the time, Christmas was not necessarily a holiday for which family members would gather, much as it had also been perfectly normal, two decades earlier, when Julia Szendrey had been a child, that a child pursuing studies somewhere far from his parents would not spend Christmas at home. Also, not only family members but also friends (in this case, József Óváry, the Horvát boys’ tutor) could join the celebration.

Family Birthdays and Name-Days

In addition to the importance of the Christmas celebration, gift giving also played a significant role in family holidays such as birthdays and name-days. Attila Horvát recorded the following about his fourteenth birthday in September 1865: “For my birthday, I received many gifts, and so I’ll list them here: a very beautiful and expensive knife and a beautiful crocheted purse from Mom. Mythology and a ‘Students’ Pocketbook’ from Dad. For the price of two forints I got some paint, a pencil, Spanish wax, and a sealer with my name engraved on it from Árpád! Ilona gave me a small bag that she crocheted herself.”66

The list draws attention to several things. First, the gifts seem to indicate the gender of the person who gave them. Regarding Ilona, the only daughter, the brothers repeated noted in their letters that she was able to knit. As a result, she mostly gave crocheted or knitted gifts not only to her siblings but also to her mother (such as a garter). Not surprisingly, gifts also indicated the gender of the person who received them. Ilona, for instance, received toys considered appropriate for girls from her parents, such as “a dozen of dolls, cooking utensils.”67 The gifts also highlight the importance of writing. The boys gave one another writing related items (pencils, Spanish wax, a sealer), and the parents were also happy to bestow such gifts. For Christmas 1865, Attila received “a beautiful album and inkwell, stationery, and a wallet,” and Árpád received paint and stationery, among other things.

The father was happy to give gifts with educational functions to help cultivate the intellectual curiosities of his sons. Elek Peregriny’s book Mythologia a két nembeli ifjúság használatára (Mythology for the use of youth of both sexes) discusses in various chapters the religious rites, the main gods (including their Greek and Roman names), the demigods, the mythological wars, and the morals and customs of the Greeks and Romans (including, for instance, the construction, the “palaestra exercises,” such as the topics of working out, clothing, marriage, parenting, meals, guest ceremonies, dance, funerals, and mourning).68 He thus encouraged his children to acquaint themselves not only with the characters of mythology but also with the history of Greek and Roman culture and lifestyles.

Certain gifts seem to have been intended to strengthen his children’s attachment to their Hungarian identity. On Attila’s twelfth birthday, he wrote the following in a letter to Zoltán: “My birthday was good and happy, I got a big national flag from my father, which hung from his window during the revolution[.]”69 The gifts thus had several meanings. They were not simply toys intended to entertain the children. They were also symbols of the values that the parents intended to pass on. The central role of culture, the importance of writing and reading, the value of learning and knowledge, the encouragement of activities assigned to gender roles, and the emphasis on national identity all appeared in the range of meanings represented by the gifts. In addition, gifts given by the children expressed similar values. The toy magazine, edited as a gift for their mother, bearing the title Tarka Művek (Multicoloured Works), and containing writings by the children, were gifts that showed the effect of the family environment on the children’s interests and ways of thinking. The children seem to have considered writing a source of joy, a gift, and a game. It is no coincidence that in 1864, on Attila’s thirteenth birthday, he interpreted the letter he sent as a gift: “Receive this letter from your brother as a birthday gift, who often thinks of you.”70 Thus, the gifts that were exchanged among the members of the family can be seen as reflections of the growing consumer culture, which developed dynamically in the 1860s, but they can also be interpreted as expressions and embodiments of the values of the urban educated bourgeoisie. Parents and relatives who considered intellectual curiosity and the arts and sciences important in education were able to express this with the gifts they gave to their children, which, they presumably hoped, would help nurture these values in their children.

Poems by Júlia Szendrey’s Children as Gifts

Júlia Szendrey’s children regularly wrote poems for family occasions. They mainly greeted their mother, aunt, and cousins on birthdays and name-days, but poems written for wedding anniversaries and New Year’s Day also survived in their bequest. In many cases, poetry manuscripts can be found on fine, lavishly decorated letter paper. Writing greeting poems for family members and relatives for different festive occasions was such a common practice in the era that books were also published which specifically included this type of template text in order to help children with the obligation to write festive poems. Ferenc Neÿ’s book A gyermeki kegyelet tolmácsa (The Interpreter of Children’s Grace) is an example of one such book. It was published in 1851 by Gusztáv Emich. Its function and target audience were revealed by its subtitle (“Celebratory greetings, toasts, dialogues, and scenes for all kinds of family celebrations. Recommended for the youth by Neÿ Ferenc”), but even more so by a sentence from the author’s foreword: “The child rarely finds words for his sweetest emotions, so in order to support their more beautiful aspirations, I am happy to offer myself as an interpreter, and they will certainly rejoice if they learn to express what they feel in their hearts. For this reason, I recommend this booklet to the youth.”71 The volume included New Year’s greetings, dialogue scenes for festive occasions, and name-day and birthday greetings. The various texts in the book are arranged not only by the type of holiday but also by family members: they included separate subchapters for poems to mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, godmothers, etc.

Poems to the Mother

The greetings written by Attila, Árpád, and Ilona Horvát were influenced by this tradition. They each used the contemporary formulae with which children expressed respect, but the poems also show signs of their creativity and imagination. The texts were made personal with references to current life situations and personal greetings. In poem written on the occasion of a name-day, Attila wished his mother not only a long and happy life but also that she have the good fortune to travel to Venice, where she had longed to go for a long time: “And may you greet Venice with its gondolas this year!!”72 In reality, Júlia Szendrey had never been to the romantic city, although a piece of writing has survived which gives the illusion that she was writing the lines in Venice (which suggests that the city had captured her imagation). Only in the last lines of the text does it become clear that it is not an account of an actual experience, but rather merely something she wrote while she was looking at map of the city spread out on her couch.

The poems were also made personal by the fact that the children often wrote about their feelings and life situations, even if they used traditional rhetorical formulae of the genre. For example, in one such poem, they apologized for writing something that was too short, “[b]ecause the nightmare of the exam is looming.”73 There are even poems the specific function of which seems to have been to serve as an apology. In one poem, Attila even explained, in lines written above the poem, why he was writing (he had made his mother angry), and he made a promise: “Well, I see I have made you angry a lot. / And my conversion is not just a scribbling.”74

The children also wrote poems for one another. The texts of these poems offer impressions of the images of themselves that the children sought to convey, and the poetry also offered them an opportunity to compete and tease one another. For example, the younger son, Árpád, suggested to his mother that she could choose to go overseas with him in her old age, “to Haiti, Cuba / Or if you like to California / where lots of gold and diamonds can be found,” or she could choose to remain with Attila “ in the boring city of Pest.”75 Thus, the greeting poems, despite their genre, were not conventional, as the children enriched them with their own ideas and also included their own family members and relatives in the texts of the poems. Because of this, the poems reveal a lot about the authors’ self-images and their images of each other, primarily through their wishes and plans for the future.

In 1864, Attila envisioned a future like this in his mother’s birthday greeting: “When you are old, and Ilonka married, / Árpád at the sea, but me at your side.”76 He depicted his sister as playing the traditional role of the wife and his brother as pursuing the adventurous career of the seafarer, while he reserved for himself the strongest expression of a child’s love and devotion to its mother. Therefore, the greeting poems can be interpreted as a creative expression of the parent-child relationship and a proud self-depiction of the author, who intended to present himself as the mother’s most loving child.

In several poems, the boys wished their mother a happy grand-motherhood and happy silver and gold wedding anniversaries. For Júlia Szendrey’s thirty-eighth birthday (December 29, 1866), Attila offered a vision of his mother as a grandmother surrounded by at least ten children. He also referred to his own imagined future as a professional:


I’m going to talk about fields and cows

As a farmer is entitled to do.

Little Árpád is about machines,

As is typical of a technician.77


This is the only indication in the texts in question that Attila was preparing for a career in farming and Árpád for a career in mechanics and engineering (there were frequent references to Árpád’s alleged desire to be a seafarer). As an adult Árpád, worked together with Tivadar Puskás and Ferenc Puskás, who established the first telephone network in Budapest.

Greeting poems by the Horvát boys also shed some light on the family lifestyle. When wishing Júlia Szendrey well, one of them wrote, “[h]ave a faithful maid, in addition to good spirits, / May you never be angry with the maid or with the child.”78 The typical problem of the period, the maid issue, also affected the Szendrey-Horvát family. This is also indicated by comments in the correspondence, for example, “mom has a lot of trouble with the maids because they are hardly here for two weeks then they leave. Even today, as I write this letter, a new one is being hired.” In another letter, Attila complained that “[t] here is still a lot of trouble with the maids; about a dozen or so maids and cooks have left since you left.”79

The children did not stop writing poems for the mother when she and her husband separated. Even in the last year of Júlia Szendrey’s life, when her sons no longer lived with her but resided instead with Árpád Horvát, they still wrote new poems for her. They promised her a happy future, which would contrast with the sufferings of the past and present, and they wished her good health and expressed their hopes that her illness would soon be a thing of the past.” In December 1867, Árpád expressed his warmest wishes for his mother’s birthday as follows:


May you be a happy grandmother,

Have a gold wedding anniversary,

May you even forget that

you were suffering from disease.80


Two months later, in a poem written on the occasion of his mother’s name-day in February 1868, Attila wished her a speedy recovery and wrote of the pain he felt at having to be separate from her, despite the love which bound them.81 The function of poetry writing thus expanded even further during this period. In addition to serving as a way of marking an occasion by offering festive greetings, it also contributed to maintaining a sense of a loving connection between the mother and the children, despite physical distance.

Poems for the Cousins

The visions of the future of the family that appeared in the greeting poems were intertwined with ideas about contemporary gender roles as well. This is especially noticeable in the poems addressed to their aunt, Mária Szendrey, in which good wishes are addressed not only to her, but also to the children’s cousins. Mária Szendrey (1838–1866) was the younger sister of Júlia Szendrey. In 1858, she married the prominent literary historian, Pál Gyulai. They had three children: Aranka was born in 1859, Kálmán in 1861, and Margit in 1862. Their family lived in Kolozsvár (today Cluj, Romania) between 1858 and 1862, which is why Attila Horvát portrays all of his cousins as the future prides of Transylvania. He wanted his cousins to fulfil the classic role models of women and men (housewife, patriotic girl, valiant hero, patriot): “Aranka should be a good housewife / The pride of the beautiful Transylvania”; “Aranka is a proper girl / Let her work for the benefit of the nation. / What should I tell about little Kálmán / The little patriot / When he grows up he will be the most beautiful valiant knight of Transylvania.”82 In the visions drawn for the girl and the boy, personal deeds done for the sake of the nation are common elements. Otherwise, the ideal visions of female and male life are markedly different, as was the case in Attila’s poem for the new year of 1866, in which he predicted a marriage for Aranka and a future in literary criticism for Kálmán, following his father. A vision determined according to gender roles also appears in relation to the siblings in Attila’s poem of 1864 cited above, in which he envisions his sister, Ilona, as a wife with a husband and his brother, Árpád, as an adventurer at the sea. While the poems looking into the future usually emphasize some kind of occupation or profession (critic, sailor, technician, farmer) in the case of the boys, in the case of the texts written for the girls, they almost exclusively envision them as having become wives.

The boys’ correspondence also shows what they considered newsworthy about the girls. For example, Zoltán wrote at Christmas 1864, in response to his half-brothers’ letter: “I’ve heard that little Ilonka can already knit. Well done! Now she can compete with Aranka.” A diary entry which mentions Júlia Szendrey’s name-day also reveals that the boys followed the traditional gender roles and accordingly played no part in the kitchen preparations (baking and cooking) for the festivities. They considered the task of writing name-day greetings an adequate contribution on their behalf: “Only we boys have done as was expected, we have already handed over our poems; there isn’t anything we should do now. We can’t be used in cooking anyway.”83

Júlia Szendrey’s and Mária Szendrey’s children wrote poems not only for the adults but also for one another. The poems which have survived constituted sources on their relationships as cousins. In the poems written by the older boys to the younger relatives, the practice of addressing one another by nicknames played a very prominent role. Attila called Aranka “Anka” and “Anka Bankám,” and Árpád called Kálmán “Kálmánka” or “little Kálmán” in his poems. Birthday wishes in these poems were also aligned with gender roles. Attila wrote to the three-year-old Aranka, “[m]ay she have many good children” and “[l]et her be a good patriotic girl,”84 and on her sixth birthday he wished her “[t]reasure, happiness / a good husband and family.”85 Árpád’s poem to Aranka also dwelt on the importance of family. He wished his niece many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and he wished her parents an extremely long life.86 According to the vision offered by the “poet,” the four generations will sit contently around the “family fireplace” together. The boys jokingly expressed their love for their aunt and niece, too: “We love you, we love you, sweet good Marika / We will marry you if we can, sweet good Aranka.” The imaginary marriage between the male and female cousins expressed their strong togetherness and common identity.

The nieces also had good relationship with each other. They were not only relatives, but friends. Ilona Horvát and Aranka Gyulai were the same age. They were both born in the summer of 1859. Ilona called her cousin “little playmate” in her writings.87 Among her poems, a message of her to Mária Szendrey survived which was presumably created when Aranka was visiting her cousin’s family. The girl sent greetings to her aunt, assuring her that Aranka was in good spirits.88 In 1868, after mother’s death, Ilona moved into her uncle Pál Gyulai’s home and lived together with her cousins, who had also lost their mother. Mária Szendrey died in 1866 during the cholera epidemic. The nieces attended the same school in the 1870s: their teacher was Róza Kalocsa, who later wrote the most popular handbook of manners in Hungarian.89 Therefore, the cousin relationships remained strong even after the parents had died.


In Júlia Szendrey’s family, the sources suggest an intermixture of pre-modern and modern forms of parenting. By “pre-modern,” I am referring to the active participation in family life of kin who fell well outside the nuclear family. By “modern,” I am referring to the participation of the father in childrearing to a larger degree than was customary at the time. Alongside Zoltán’s mother and father, his relationship with his uncle, István Petőfi, also played a crucial role in his upbringing, i.e. the family used a strategy that was widespread both at the time and in the previous centuries: the boy experienced life both in his parents’ household and in a relative’s household, and thus he discovered a second environment. Familial use of space also reveals a great deal about the husband-wife and parent-child relationships. According to Júlia Szendrey’s letters and the letters written by the boys on family events, the mother took the children for walks on weekdays and the father took them for walks on public holidays. This suggests that, despite their deteriorating relationship, the husband and wife devoted time and attention to their children. Since in the circles of nineteenth-century bourgeoisie and in the world of norms conveyed by the contemporary press, the figure of the working father and the mother raising her children at home was considered ideal (even if the rigidity in practice of the theory of “separated spaces” based on radical separation is questionable based on a number of sources), it was not evident that the father would also be involved in the children’s leisure-time activities. Thus, as a father, Árpád Horvát took a very active part in the life of his children compared to the expectations and norms of the period, according to which raising children was clearly the mother’s task.

The uses of urban space during the city walks and the uses of the family home can be compared from the points of view of the parents. In both cases, the spaces used by the wife and husband were strongly separated. Quite unusually at the time, Júlia Szendrey had her own room, the furnishings of which indicated that writing and creative, individual intellectual work were important to her. However, the marked separation also showed that the relationship between the spouses was not characterized by the emotional closeness shown towards their children.

The analysis of the family’s uses of space also showed that the rituals associated with the holidays and routines of everyday life were considerably different. As a historian and university professor, Árpád Horvát worked on the weekdays, but he took time off from work for Easter, on May 1, and on similar holidays and spent this time with his children. The Horvát boys’ descriptions of urban phenomena are especially colorful and entertaining. The boys reflected on phenomena that an adult would not necessarily notice or consider worth mentioning. At least on the basis of the letters they exchanged, the children growing up in the Szendrey-Horvát family seem to have been sensitive to visual stimuli, novelties, and the atmosphere of urban life, and they showed remarkable enthusiasm and curiosity. This suggests that the stereotypes emphasizing metropolitan passivity, insensitivity, and alienation should be rethought.90 The examination of intersections between urban history and family history can contribute to research on urban experience from the perspective of the history of emotions, with particular reference to relationships and practices which can be understood based on sources concerning the uses of space by members of stepfamilies.

Correspondence played a key role in establishing family identity and in maintaining emotional ties between family members living far apart. It is particularly important that, in his letters, Attila Horvát depicted himself as a member of the community of siblings, regularly using the term “all of us” and reporting not only on himself but also on the lives of other members of the family (such as his cousins). He constantly encouraged maintaining contact with the physically distant Zoltán Petőfi and writing about topics that would be of interest to him. The accounts of regularly shared experiences allowed the half-siblings to be part of one another’s daily lives from afar. The formation of the children’s family experiences and the feeling of belonging were influenced by events and practices such as writing and reading letters, giving gifts, sharing puns and jokes, teasing, and describing experiences during city walks, on weekdays, and during family celebrations. Thus, in the Szendrey-Horvát family, the family identity as strongly shaped by writing practices connected both to the little things of everyday life and the rituals of the holidays.

Archival Sources

Országos Széchényi Könyvtár Kézirattár [Manuscripts Archive of National Széchényi Library] (OSZK Kt.)

Fond VII/135, 234.


Primary sources

Kertész, Tódor. Képes árjegyzék Kertész Tódor egyesült raktárából [Illustrated price list from the unified warehouse of Tódor Kertész]. Budapest: Tódor Kertész, 1876–1899.

Neÿ, Ferenc. A gyermeki kegyelet tolmácsa [The interpreter of children’s grace]. Pest: Gusztáv Emich, 1851.

Peregriny, Elek. Mythologia a két nembeli ifjuság használatára [Mythology for the use of youth of both sexes]. Pest: Konrád Adolf Hartleben, 1857.

Szendrey, Júlia. Andersen meséi [Andersen’s fairy tales]. Pest: Lampel, 1858.

Szendrey, Júlia. Szendrey Júlia összes verse [The complete poems of Júlia Szendrey]. Edited by Emese Gyimesi. Budapest: Kortárs, 2018.

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Broomhall, Susan, Jacqueline Van Gent. “Corresponding Affections: Emotional Exchange Among Siblings in the Nassau Family.” Journal of Family History 34, no. 2 (2009): 143–65. doi: 10.1177/0363199008330734.

Csapó, Katalin, Tibor Éliás. Dobos és a 19. század cukrászata Magyarországon [Dobos and the nineteenth-century confectionary in Hungary]. Budapest: Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, 2010.

Csics, Gyula. Magyar forradalom 1956 – Napló [The Hungarian revolution of 1956: Diary] Edited by János Rainer M. Budapest: 1956 Institute, 2006.

Davidoff, Leonore. Thicker than Water. Siblings and their Relations 1780–1920. Oxford–New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Daybell, James. Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England. Oxford–New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Deáky, Zita. “Jó kis fiúk és leánykák” A kisgyermekkor történeti néprajza Magyarországon [“Good boys and girls”: A historical ethnography of early childhood in Hungary]. Budapest: Századvég Kiadó, 2011.

Deáky, Zita. Gyermekek és serdülők munkája Magyarországon a 19. századtól a második világháborúig [Child and adolescent labor in Hungary from the nineteenth century to World War II]. Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó, 2015.

Gyáni, Gábor. “Polgári otthon és enteriőr Budapesten.” In Polgári lakáskultúra a századfordulón [Bourgeois interior culture at the turn of the century], edited by Péter Hanák, 27–59. Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia – Történettudományi Intézet, 1992.

Gyáni, Gábor. Az utca és a szalon. Társadalmi térhasználat Budapesten, 1870–1940 [The street and the salon: Social use of space in Budapest, 1870–1940]. Budapest: Új Mandátum Kiadó, 1998.

Gyáni, Gábor. Identity and the Urban Experience: Fin-de-siècle Budapest. New York–London: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Gyáni, Gábor. “‘Térbeli fordulat’ és a várostörténet” [The “spatial turn” and urban history]. Korunk 18, no. 7 (2007): 4–12.

Gyimesi, Emese. “Hungarian female writers after the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849.” Klio 14, no. 1 (2014): 86–96.

Gyimesi, Emese. “Urban Space through Children’s Eyes: The Image of Pest-Buda in the 1860s.” In Identity, Nation, City: Perspectives from the TEMA Network, edited by Jaroslav Ira, Jan de Jong, and Imre Tarafás, 251–65. Budapest: Atelier European Social Science and Historiography Department, 2015.

Gyimesi, Emese. “‘egy nő, több mint csak asszony’ Szendrey Júlia és Horvát Árpád házassága” [“A woman, more than just a wife”: The marriage of Júlia Szendrey and Árpád Horvát]. In A test a társadalomban [The body in society], edited by Emese Gyimesi, András Lénárt, and Erzsébet Takács, 228–42. Budapest: Hajnal István Kör Társadalomtörténeti Egyesület, 2015.

Gyimesi, Emese. Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában [Through the eyes of a child in the family of Júlia Szendrey]. Magyar Családtörténetek: Források 2. Budapest, 2019.

Hanawalt, Barbara A. Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History. New York–Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Horváth, Hilda. “A Janny és a Zlamál család otthonai és tárgyai – polgári lakáskultúra a 19. század utolsó harmadában” [The households and belongings of the Janny and the Zlamál families: Bourgeois interior culture in the last third of the nineteenth century]. In Tanulmányok Budapest múltjából [Essays on Budapest’s past], vol. 32, edited by B. Varga Judit, 37–58. Budapest: Budapest History Museum, 2007.

Hermann, Róbert. 1848–1849, a szabadságharc hadtörténete [1848–1849, the military history of the war of Independence]. Budapest: Korona, 2001.

Kunt, Gergely. “‘És a bombázások sem izgattak… legalább egy kis változatosság van.’ Gyereknaplók a második világháborúból [And I did not worry much about the bombings either… At least we have some variety.” Children’s diaries in the Second World War]. Aetas 24, no. 2 (2009): 44–68.

Kunt, Gergely. Kamasztükrök. Korall Társadalomtörténeti Monográfiák 7. Budapest: Korall Társadalomtörténeti Egyesület, 2017.

Magyar, Erzsébet. “‘Társalkodási kertek, promenádok, mulató- és népkertek.’ A Habsburg monarchia közparkjai: magánkertek és városi parkok Buda-Pest társas életében (1870–1918) [“Social gardens, promenades, leisure gardens, and public gardens.” Public parks in the Habsburg Monarchy: Private gardens and city parks in social life in Buda-Pest (1870–1918)]. PhD diss., Eötvös Loránd University, 2008.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking–Penguin, 1985.

Péter, Katalin, ed. Gyermek a kora újkori Magyarországon [Children in early modern Hungary]. Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia, 1996.

Pollock, Linda. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge–New York–Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Szilágyi, Márton. Határpontok [Border points]. Budapest: Ráció Kiadó, 2007.

Tészabó, Júlia, Róbert Török, and Bence Demjén. “A Babatündérhez.” A budapesti játékkereskedelem története [“The fairy doll house.” The history of toy trade in Budapest]. Budapest: Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, 2010.

Tészabó, Júlia. “A játék szerepe a gyerekek fogyasztóvá válásában” [The role of toys in the transformation of children into consumers]. Sic Itur ad Astra 63 (2013): 155–66.

Tipray A. Julian. Legujabb és legteljesb pesti magyar-német házi titoknok, vagyis levelezőkönyv és házi ügyvéd [The newest and most complete Hungarian-German house secretary of Pest, or a correspondence book and household counselor]. Pest: Kilián György, 1861.

Vajda János. Hölgyek titkára vagyis legujabb levelezőkönyv nők számára [The secretary of the ladies, or the newest correspondence book for women]. Pest: Heckenast Gusztáv, 1861.

Wohl Janka. Utmutató a ház czélszerü és izlésteljes berendezésére s vezetésére. Irta egy nagyvilági hölgy [The home. Guide to the tasteful and practical arrangement and management of the household. Written by a high-bred lady]. Budapest: Athenaeum R. Társ., 1882.

Zoltán József. Népi szórakozások a reformkori Pest-Budán [Folk diversions on Pest-Buda of the Reform era]. Budapest: Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár, 1975.

1 On the military history of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence, see Hermann, 1848–1849, a szabadságharc hadtörténete.

2 On her literary career in the context of the contemporary debates on female roles and women writers, see Gyimesi, Hungarian female writers after the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848–1849. I collected and published all her poems in a critical edition in 2018: Szendrey, Szendrey Júlia összes verse.

3 I published the previously unpublished sources in 2019: Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában.

4 The research of Gergely Kunt in this field should be highlighted: Kunt, “És a bombázások sem izgattak…”, Kunt, Kamasztükrök. In connection with the 1956 Revolution, the childhood diary of Gyula Csics, published by the 1956 Institute and edited by János Rainer M. on the fiftieth anniversary of the revolution, is very significant. It touches on the period between October 1956 and March 1957. Csics, Magyar forradalom 1956 – Napló.

5 Ariès, Gyermek, család, halál.

6 Pollock, Forgotten Children.

7 Hanawalt, Growing Up in Medieval London, 5–6.

8 Davidoff, Thicker than Water, 1–2.

9 Ibid., 78–107.

10 Ibid., 281–307.

11 Ibid., 132.

12 Deáky, “Jó kis fiúk és leánykák.”

13 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában.

14 As a significant proportion of soldiers were housed not in barracks but in the private homes of citizens and peasants, from the beginning of the eighteenth century the practice of maintaining a “soldier’s room” gradually developed in areas where boarding was regular. There are no indications in the sources as to whether any military person actually lived in the room marked “soldier’s room” on the floorplan for Júlia Szendrey’s family’s home. The children’s correspondence suggests that maids used this room.

15 Gyáni, Az utca és a szalon, 144.

16 Ibid.

17 A similar example from the last third of the nineteenth century: the boys were also given a separate room in the bourgeois home of Dr. Gyula Janny’s family in Koronaherczeg Street (now Petőfi Sándor Street in the fifth district of Budapest), and a part of the room was separated from the parents’ bedroom for the daughter: Horváth, A Janny és a Zlamál család otthonai és tárgyai, 49.

18 As early as 1882, Janka Wohl emphasized this norm, which fundamentally defined bourgeois domestic culture for a long time: Wohl, Az otthon, 59.

19 Gyáni, Az utca és a szalon, 143.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., 149; Gyáni, Identity and the Urban Experience, 53–58.

22 Gyáni, “Polgári otthon és enteriőr Budapesten,” 46.

23 Szilágyi, Határpontok, 119–32.

24 OSZK Kt. VII/135.

25 After the death of Júlia Szendrey, Árpád Horvát wrote to his children about his stepson: “Only write a response to Zoltán – do not write otherwise; for not only is he behaving very disrespectfully towards me, but I can even say his manners are truly offensive; he barely raises a hat in front of me… ” OSZK Kt. VII /141.

26 Davidoff, Thicker than Water, 165–94.

27 Ibid., 151.

28 Ibid., 156.

29 Ibid., 158.

30 Zoltán Petőfi was born on December 15, 1848, Attila Horvát was born on September 6, 1851.

31 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 162.

32 Ibid., 165.

33 Ibid., 129.

34 Tipray, Legujabb és legteljesb pesti magyar-német házi titoknok, Vajda, Hölgyek titkára.

35 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 138.

36 Ibid., 129.

37 Daybell, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England, 9–10.

38 Ibid., 10.

39 Broomhall and Van Gent, Corresponding Affections, 147.

40 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 126.

41 They wrote about urban experiences not only in their letters, but also in their journals, which they made as a gift for their mother. Gyimesi, “Urban Space through Children’s Eyes.”

42 Zoltán, Népi szórakozások a reformkori Pest-Budán, 63–70.

43 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 137.

44 Ibid.

45 Csapó and Éliás, Dobos és a 19. század cukrászata Magyarországon, 15–16.

46 Mintz, Sweetness and Power.

47 OSZK Kt. VII/ 234.

48 Magyar, “Társalkodási kertek, promenádok, mulató- és népkertek,”197; Zoltán, Népi szórakozások a reformkori Pest-Budán, 95.

49 For more on the marriage, see Gyimesi, “‘egy nő, több mint csak asszony’ Szendrey Júlia és Horvát Árpád házassága.”

50 Júlia Szendrey was already considering divorce in 1861, but in the end she did not separate from her husband until 1867. She wanted to convert to Protestantism (she was a Catholic) in order to divorce from Árpád Horvát, but her death on September 6, 1868 prevented her from doing so. The reasons for the breakdown of the marriage are revealed in two letters. In one, Julia Szendrey asked her father’s permission to divorce, stressing that she had suffered a lot because of her second husband. The other letter was addressed to the abandoned husband himself. This letter suggests that Árpád Horvát’s violent, often threatening behavior led to the deterioration of their relationship and that they thought very differently about the roles of women and men, happiness, and sexuality.

51 Tészabó et al., “A Babatündérhez,” 18.

52 Ibid., 19.

53 Ibid., 23.

54 Szendrey, Andersen meséi.

55 I would like to thank Júlia Tészabó and Irén Császi for their advice, which helped further my research on toy history.

56 For more on the Nuremberg merchandise stores and Tódor Kertész, see Tészabó et al., “A Babatündérhez,” 18–19, 57–58.

57 Tészabó, “A játék szerepe a gyerekek fogyasztóvá válásában,” 161.

58 The supply of goods changed relatively slowly during the era, so the price lists which survived from later decades provide a reliable point of reference for identifying toys.

59 Fővárosi Lapok, December 20, 1865. 1156.

60 Kertész, Képes árjegyzék 1899, 9.

61 Kertész, Képes árjegyzék 1876, 23.

62 Tészabó et al., “A Babatündérhez,” 9.

63 Ibid., 32–33.

64 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 129.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid., 145.

67 Ibid., 151.

68 Peregriny, Mythologia.

69 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 128.

70 Ibid., 126.

71 Neÿ, A gyermeki kegyelet tolmácsa (without page number.)

72 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 207.

73 Ibid., 204.

74 “Sokat busítottalak tégedet át látom / De ím megtérésem nem csak ákom bákom.” Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 205.

75 Ibid., 211.

76 Ibid., 196.

77 Ibid., 198.

78 Ibid., 213.

79 Ibid., 132.

80 Ibid., 199.

81 Ibid., 201.

82 Gyimesi, Gyermekszemmel Szendrey Júlia családjában, 219.

83 Ibid., 174.

84 Ibid., 222.

85 Ibid., 223.

86 Ibid., 228.

87 Ibid., 230.

88 Ibid., 229.

89 Ibid., 254.

90 For critiques of the paradigm of the urban modern personality created by Georg Simmel, see Gyáni, “‘Térbeli fordulat’ és a várostörténet,” 4–12.


Weather Anomalies and Their Economic Consequences: Penury in Northeastern Hungary in the Late 1870s*

Éva Bodovics
Hungarian National Archives, Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County Archives
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 2  (2020): 179-212 DOI:10.38145/2020.2.179

This study investigates an episode of penury in 1879–1880 in Borsod and Zemplén Counties which occurred as one of the negative consequences of a short-term weather change which was experienced across Europe in the late 1870s and early 1880s. From the mid-1870s on, due to the wetter and cooler weather, the annual crop yields repeatedly fell below the usual and expected averages in Hungary. After a catastrophic harvest in the autumn of 1879, when the quantity of harvested cereals was sufficient neither for reserves nor for spring sowing, the situation became severe. 1878 had also been a bad year for agriculture: the severe floods in the second half of 1878 not only had washed the crops from the fields but had also covered them with thick sludge that made it impossible to sow in autumn.
Since the spring of 1879 was characterized by unfavorable conditions for agriculture (increased rainfall, widespread floods, low average spring temperatures), the local and national authorities continuously kept their eyes on the crops. Thanks to this preliminary attention, the administration was able to respond quickly and in an organized manner to the bad harvest in July and August and could avert catastrophe at national level.
The leadership of the two counties responded more or less in the same way to the near-famine conditions. First, they asked the Treasury to suspend tax collection until the next harvest at least so that the farmers who were facing financial difficulties would not have to go into debt. Second, they appealed to the government for financial and crop relief to save the unemployed population from starvation. For those who were able to work, they asked for the approval of public works and major construction projects from the Ministry of Transport and Public Works. For many, such state-funded road construction or river regulation projects were the only way to make a living. Third, the county administrations also gave seeds for spring sowing to the farmers. While Borsod county survived the years of bad harvests without dire problems due to the higher proportion of better quality fields, in the more mountainous region of Zemplén, most landowners had smaller and lower quality lands, and they often chose to emigrate to avoid starvation. These difficult conditions may have provided the initial impetus for mass emigration to Western Europe and America.

Keywords: weather anomalies, penury, crisis management, Hungary, late nineteenth century

Hungary, as a predominantly agricultural country, has always been highly vulnerable to weather conditions. Both extremes of the precipitation spectrum, meaning too much or too little precipitation accompanied by temperature fluctuations and complemented by theoretical and technical backwardness in farming, have often led to subsistence crises.

Several people have already dealt with the history of penuries and famines in Hungary caused by the droughts of the nineteenth century: the distress of 1814–171 and the famine of 1845–47,2 and 1863–64.3 However, wet and cool weather, especially during spring and summer months, can also badly damage crops, resulting in penury and, in the worst case, famine. This is especially true when there is unusually humid and cold weather for years in a row. This happened in Hungary beginning in 1875, and this caused distress in the northeastern parts of the country after the catastrophic harvest of 1879. Though our research does not cover other regions of Hungary, press products and economic sources suggest that the poverty caused by the weather extremes was not limited to the northeastern counties.

Neither the unfavorable weather nor the subsequent difficult economic situation were unique to Hungary. Rather, the crises caused by extreme weather was hit much of Europe.4 The year 1879 marked a turning point in economic growth in many countries, with grain being imported in several places due to the high rate of crop losses (up to 50 percent) that generally occurred. The influx of cheap grain mostly from America and Russia led to a sharp drop in the price of the cereals produced in Europe. In England, for example, the 50-year recession, the so-called agrarian crisis, began in 1879.5 As Hubert H. Lamb put it, “1879 turned the decline into a collapse.”6

In the works written on the history of the Hungarian crisis,7 which affected the agricultural sector as well, the focus of research has been on the inflow of cheap grain and the consequent fall in domestic grain prices, and the relationship between the crisis and the weather anomalies of the era has not been examined. There had been a decline in agricultural prices in the country before 1879, so the explanation is not primarily to be found in the weather conditions, but we nonetheless must take into account the possibility that food and feed shortages due to a series of bad harvests and the catastrophic harvest of 1879, accompanied by impoverishment, could certainly have contributed to and deepened the depression. Our research, the initial findings of which are included in the present paper, is intended to fill this lacuna in the secondary literature.

This paper is divided into three sections. In the first, we examine the weather conditions of the last third of the nineteenth century, highlighting anomalies in temperature and precipitation. Next, in our discussion of conditions in two northern counties, we show how adverse weather affected agricultural production at the regional level. According to the sources, a series of poor harvests led to distress in several districts in late 1879 and early 1880. In the third part of the paper, we present the extent of this need and the official measures taken to address it. Although our paper focuses on events and conditions in these two northeastern counties, we also briefly discuss the situation in the neighboring counties in order to provide a wider context.

Sources and Methods

Given the aim of the paper, we used statistical and descriptive sources in our research. To observe the weather anomalies, we used the yearbooks of the predecessor to the current Hungarian Meteorological Service, which began publication in 1873.8 Collected under standardized conditions, these instrumental data are available from 1871 on for some settlements in the country. As the monitoring network expanded, weather data from other settlements were added to the yearbook over time. Consequently, we have data from different periods for the settlements in the northern region that we examined. The longest data series, dating back to 1871, are from Eger and Eperjes (today Prešov, Slovakia).

To examine the temperature, we used monthly averages calculated on the basis of the daily temperature averages recorded immediately after detection.9 With regard to precipitation conditions, we examined the monthly precipitation data aggregated from the daily data.

The data in the yearbooks were theoretically recorded in a centrally regulated way and under conditions with state-approved means, so we can consider them more reliable than those recorded in previous periods, but we must nonetheless be careful, because improper recording techniques or various bias factors may have affected the accuracy of the data. One such factor is the change of the location of the measuring station over time, which for example occurred in the case of Kassa (today Košice, Slovakia). The homogenization of our data, which could increase its accuracy and reliability, would make it possible to eliminate problems like this. However, homogenization would also require the examination of additional metadata (measurement-related data), which we are unable to perform because we lack the professional meteorological knowledge. We hope that soon meteorologists will also homogenize the data from our period, as they have done for the data from the twentieth century.

In order to be able to examine the characteristics of our data over a longer period, we also included in our research the data from Budapest, the city with the oldest data series in Hungary. These homogenized data series are from the váraljamet.hu meteorological website. The homogenization and interpolation of the data to the meteorological station of Pestszentlőrinc are carried out by ZAMG (Zentralanstalt für Meteorologie und Geodynamik).

In addition to the weather data series, the range of our statistical sources is expanded by the county yield results, which we collected from the relevant volumes of the Hungarian Statistical Yearbooks.10 Regarding the accuracy of the data, it should be noted that they were recorded on the basis of the accounts and estimates provided by landowners, but more importantly, the landowners tended to underestimate the actual yield at the time of the surveys, as they feared a tax increase.11 In addition, it is conceivable that farmers reported higher crop losses than the losses that they actually suffered in hopes of receiving state compensation. These are merely assumptions, but we can suspect that the situation may have been more favorable, if not necessarily by much, than the picture drawn by the data.

Descriptive sources were also included in the research in order to identify inaccuracies in the statistical data and the experiences behind the numbers. As our main goal was to present the official measures take to manage the crisis, we used the documents of the county administrations, which means the reports issued by the so-called szolgabíró or, roughly, sheriff at the district level and the alispán or deputy lord lieutenant at the county level. The magistrates in charge of running the districts (járás) served law enforcement, administrative, and judicial functions, and the szolgabírós normally submitted their reports on the conditions of their district every six months. However, due to the growing destitution, the alispán required monthly reports, and these reports enable us to present in detail the course and management of the crisis. After the ispán or lord lieutenant, the alispán was the second deputy in the county administration and also the figure who actually held control of the county. Reports from the szolgabírós (district deputies) and the leaders of the settlements also went to the alsipán, who, on the basis of these reports, submitted an exhaustive report to the Ministry of Interior on the affairs of the county every six months. Almost all of the szolgabírós’ and alispán’s reports are found in the Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County Archives of the Hungarian National Archives. In addition to these sources, materials published in the Borsod. Miskolczi Értesítő [Borsod. Miskolcz Gazette], an organ of the local press, were also examined.

Weather Conditions in Northern Hungary, 1871–1900

Instrumental data collected with standardized tools and methods have been available for Hungary since 1871. The development of the network of meteorological stations took place gradually, beginning in the Transdanubian areas and spreading to the regions in the east and northeast. Each station was connected to the network at different times, so while we have data from some areas from the very beginning, other parts of the country only appeared on the “weather map” of the country 10 or 15 or 20 years later. Of the northeastern region examined in greater detail in our study, the data sets from only two cities, Eger (the seat of Heves County) and Eperjes (the seat of the former Szepes County, today Prešov, Slovakia), date back to 1871; in the other settlements, measurements began to be taken a few years later.

Temperature between 1871 and 1900

In the diagram showing the annual average temperature of the settlements belonging to the northeastern Hungarian and upland regions, apart from the differences due to the geographical location, the curves of the individual towns mostly follow one another in the same rhythm without significant jumps (Fig. 1).


Figure 1. Annual average temperature of settlements in eastern and northeastern Hungary, 1871–1900.

Source: Meteorológiai Évkönyvek


We are best able to draw conclusions about the temperature conditions during the thirty-year period under examination on the basis of the data concerning Eperjes and Eger, which are supplemented by the partial data concerning the other towns. Between 1871 and 1900, several major declines in the average annual temperature were observed: a significant cooling was felt compared to the previous year or years in 1875, 1879, 1881, 1883, 1888, and 1893. The year 1875 is special because from that year on there was not any significant increase in the temperature until 1882. In other words, the period between 1875 and 1881 was the coldest for the entire time period. A similar cooling came only in 1888, but this was not followed by further cooler years. On the contrary, a slow warming began. The warmest years in the northern region were 1872, 1873, 1882, 1898, and 1900.

Although we do not have long-term data series for the settlements we studied, we can use Budapest’s temperature data dating back to 1780 to examine the extent to which the cooling in the last decades of the nineteenth century was exceptional over a longer period of time (Fig. 2).





Figure 2. Budapest’s annual average temperature, 1780–1900. Source: váraljamet.eoldal.hu


On the diagram showing the long-term temperature conditions in Budapest, the cooling experienced in our period, which began in 1875 after the warm years of the early 1870s, can be clearly seen. With the exception of 1882, 1885, and 1892, the average annual temperature in this period was around or below 9.7 °C, which differed significantly from the previous decades’ average temperature, which was above 10 °C (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Budapest’s average temperature by decades. Source: váraljamet.eoldal.hu


Figure 4. Budapest’s annual average temperature by seasons. Source: Meteorológiai Évkönyvek

If we examine the temperature data by seasons, we see that this cooling occurred mainly in the summer and winter (Figs. 4 and 5). The temperature diagram for Budapest and Eger shows that during the period in question, the average temperature in the summer months (June, July, and August) decreased by about 2 degrees after 1877. The average temperatures in the spring (March, April, and May) and autumn (September, October, and November) started to decrease after the remarkably high average temperature of 1872, and then, in the following years of the century, both were between 8 and 12 Celsius (with the exception of the spring of 1876 and 1882 and the autumn of 1878). During the period in question, the autumn months were also cooler, as the temperature went above 10 Celsius only once, in 1878. The average for the spring months was similar, except for 1876 and 1882.

Precipitation between 1871 and 1900

After analyzing the temperature conditions, we now turn to an examination of the amount of precipitation. In the figure showing the annual precipitation in the northern and upland towns, we observe a significant difference in the rhythm of the falling precipitation (Fig. 6). The changing geographical environment of each settlement was correlated with large differences in the yearly amount of precipitation. Therefore, in contrast to the temperature data, it is difficult to draw general conclusions concerning the period in question on the basis of the precipitation data. This task is further complicated by the fact that the data sets for the settlements are rather incomplete; with the exception of the partial data for Eger and Eperjes from the years before 1877, we do not have information on the precipitation conditions in the other settlements.

Figure 6. Annual average precipitation in settlements in eastern and northeastern Hungary. Source: Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek

Based on these data series, we can say that for most of the 1870s, drier conditions prevailed in the northern region year after year, and only in 1878 did rainfall begin to increase. We learned from the analysis of the temperature data that temperatures were significantly higher in the early 1870s than after 1875; and from our fragmentary data, it appears that this warmer weather may have been coupled with a period of low rainfall, though the amount of rainfall was not so low as to cause a drought, at least not in this area. Within the period in question, there were four more years in which there were significant decreases in the amount of precipitation: in 1880, 1883, 1885, and 1889. However, these decreases were only temporary and were not followed by a more prolonged drop in precipitation.

It is worth noting that the different geographical conditions of the settlements may have led to significant differences in our data. The datasets concerning Eperjes and Eger are good examples of this: while in 1880 the annual rainfall peaked in Eger, in Eperjes the precipitation dropped drastically in the same year to a level that was close to a drought. The wetter years in the second half of the 1880s did not affect the county seat of Heves either; so the precipitation seems to have been concentrated in the upland area. However, the differences observed in the data series from Eperjes and Kassa (seat of the former Abaúj County) can be explained less by geographical conditions than by erroneous data recording. This is because the two settlements are located only 35–40 km apart in the valley of the Hernád River, and there is no geological formation between them that would explain such a discrepancy in the data. That is why the data from Kassa should be handled with extreme caution.

Although there are considerable differences in the data sets from the settlements studied, the wettest years in all cases12 occurred between 1878 and 1882.

As we did in the case of temperature, we can use the data concerning Budapest to see whether the precipitation between 1875 and 1882 was outstandingly above average from a long-term perspective (Fig. 7). In the diagram, the period in question clearly stands out from the other years with an average precipitation above 600 mm per year. There was no other period over the long run with such high precipitation values for every single year.



Figure 7. Budapest’s annual average temperature, 1841–1900. Source: váraljamet.eoldal.hu

The Impact of Weather Anomalies on Agriculture

As made clear in the discussion above, the 1870s proved extraordinary from a climatic point of view for two reasons. On the one hand, on average, more precipitation fell each year than in the individual years of the decade before and the decade after, and in some years the levels of precipitation were outstandingly high. This high average rainfall was a result of the rainy summer and unusually wet autumn months. On the other hand, in addition to the extraordinary rainfall, the decade was cooler on average than the previous decade and the subsequent decade. Although extremely high or extremely low rainfall can cause a lot of damage to agriculture, unsuitable temperatures can have an even direr effect on crop yields. Due to the cold springs, farmers could expect fewer crops, which were further damaged by the cool and rainy summers and autumns. The crop was either unripe or rotten. Thus, over the course of the decade, there may have been several major and minor crises in agriculture.

In this section, we examine the results of harvests of grains (winter wheat, winter rye and meslin13), maize, and potatoes, which are the agricultural products which have the greatest impact on daily livelihoods. In the case of the northern counties, potatoes were not simply an additional source of food. They were often the only option in higher settlements with cooler climates. And maize was often used as an important supplement when wheat and rye yields were unfavorable. In order to bring our quantitative data to life, we used many expressive narrative sources which offer impressions of the experiences people endured because of the poor harvests brought about by unfavorable weather.

Although the Hungarian Statistical Yearbooks provide data concerning various crops from the 1868 harvest onwards, due to the different methods of data collection, we were only able to use the series from 1877 onwards. In order to make the data easily interpretable, the development of each crop is shown in a separate figure. On the graph of wheat yields (Fig. 8), we see that there was a significant decline in three years (1879, 1883, and 1889), with the most severe decline coming in 1879, when the yield per hectare decreased by half or one third compared to the previous year. This low point can clearly be attributed to the extremely rainy and cold weather of the second half of 1878 and the beginning of 1879. Although there was already significantly more rain in 1878 than there had been in the previous years, this is not yet reflected in the average yield in 1878 because the excess rainfall only came in the autumn months. By this time, however, the wheat had been harvested. After 1879, we see a different degree of rise, after which the wheat crop stagnated in 1881–1882 and then fell again in 1883. This decline is presumably due to the lower rainfall in 1883. The period between 1883 and 1887 was a time of stagnation again, and then the yield average began to drop slightly at first and dramatically after 1888. The low point of 1889 is similar to that of 1879, though it was not as dramatic a drop.

In the case of rye, we see a pattern similar to the case of wheat, despite the fact that rye is better able to withstand cooler and wetter climates (Fig. 9). 1878 was a relatively good year for this crop, but the rainy weather that began towards the end of July was simply too much for the rye as well. Thus, in 1879, like wheat, the rye crop dropped by half or two thirds. However, 1883 cannot be considered such a bad year for rye, and in Szepes County, the average yield even increased. While in the case of wheat, the second low point came in 1883, in the case of rye it occurred somewhat later, in 1885–86, and it was not as severe. The weather in 1888 and especially in 1889, however, significantly reduced rye production, much as it reduced production of wheat.

Figure 9. Annual rye crop by counties, 1877–1890. Source: Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek

Since it is a one-to-one mixture of wheat and rye, meslin unsurprisingly followed the trend described for wheat and rye (Fig. 10). In other words, in the case of meslin, 1879, 1883, and 1889 were also considered the worst, but the years between 1883 and 1889 were also generally considered bad. On the other hand, the harvest in 1882 ended with a relatively favorable result in several counties.


Figure 10. Annual meslin crop by counties, 1877–1890.
Source: Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek

Turning to the potato and maize yields, the graphs clearly illustrate that these two crops were much more sensitive to weather changes than cereals (Figs. 11 and 12). However, it was not simply temperature and precipitation conditions that had a perceptible effect on the average yield per hectare, but also geographical differences, as we can see that the yields in the different counties show a very different picture. Nevertheless, the figures do indicate that there were common points, for instance the worst years. As shown in the figure below, in addition to 1879, which was also a low point for potatoes, in 1882, 1884, 1888, and 1890 the weather was not favorable for potatoes either. However, while in the last years the potato yield developed well in some of the counties (e.g. Abaúj and Borsod), in 1879, the statistics recorded an extremely low average yield in all the counties in question. In other words, from a practical point of view, this meant that, due to the generally poor harvest, it was not possible to compensate for the shortfall by importing from the neighboring counties. If we look at the average yield of the two counties, Borsod and Zemplén, which are the focus of our study, in Zemplén, where the climate was usually colder and therefore potatoes were the dominant food source, the average yield remained below 70 hectoliters/hectare for most of the period in question. This amount/quantity not only lagged behind the average yields in Borsod, it also lagged behind the yields in all the counties in the north. Moreover, not only were the yields low, but the size of the area cultivated also decreased significantly over the years: while in 1877, potatoes were grown on just over 22,000 Viennese acres,14 in 1890 the area on which they were grown came to only 11,720 Viennese acres. The biggest decline occurred in 1880, when potatoes were planted on only 8,400 acres, in sharp contrast with the previous year, when the area on which they were planted came to 15,000 Viennese acres. In Borsod, where potatoes were not a dominant crop,15 compared to the data from Zemplén, the potato crop developed relatively well from 1882: it produced a yield of over 100 hectoliters/hectare until 1889.


Figure 11. Annual potato crop by counties, 1877–1890.
Source: Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek

In the case of maize, which prefers warmer temperatures, our diagram offers a relatively more uniform picture.16 With the exception of the remarkably high value in Abaúj, a more significant decline can be observed which began as early as 1878 and continued in 1879. Despite the fact that 1882 proved a very good year for cereals, this cannot be said for maize, as the average yield started to decrease again this year, and in 1883 it reached another low point. The next unfavorable year came in 1890, when the average yield fell in all counties except Borsod, which was the southernmost.



Figure 12. Annual maize crop by counties, 1877–1890.
Source: Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek

Of the northern counties, only in the case of Sáros we can compare the average grain, potato, and maize yields with the precipitation values (Figs. 13 and 14). The figure clearly shows the strong correlation between precipitation and average yield: in the period with high precipitation (above 600 mm/year), grain yields declined, such as after 1879, 1882, and 1887, whereas in moderately rainy years, grain yields rose. Although each cereal responds differently to precipitation, there was not too much difference in yield. Similarly, in the case of potatoes, a close relationship can be observed between yields and changes in precipitation: too much rain clearly resulted in a drastic decline in yield, while in drier years the average yield improved somewhat. As for maize, the correlation can also be seen, though it is less spectacular way: declining rainfall led to higher crop yields.


Figure 14. Annual potato and maize crops in Szepes County in relation to the annual average precipitation in Eperjes. Sources: Meteorológiai Évkönyv, Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek

Subsistence Crisis and Its County-level Management

Although our data show that 1879 was the worst year for the crops we are studying, the harvest results of 1878 also lagged behind results from the previous years. Our qualitative sources show that this was due to the unfavorable weather typical of the whole of 1878. The year began with a huge amount of snow in January, followed by a rainy and cool spring. Continuous rainfall made it impossible to start spring work in the fields and the vineyards.

With the arrival of summer, the situation did not improve; due to the low average temperature and the amount of rain, the crop showed an increasingly depressing picture as harvest time neared. Articles in which locals expressed their frustrations were published in organs of the press, including for instance the following description:


The weather is still desperate, it doesn’t want to clear up, and the rain, if not every day, falls every other day. Grape rot is common on all the hillsides, and if the weather does not get warmer or windy soon, our hope for a rich harvest will be dashed. Good, high-quality wine can no longer be expected as very warm weather has not arrived and the soil is so full of moisture that its absorption can only be somewhat balanced by extremely windy, dry, warm days. The weather not only affects us winegrowers, but also the grain producers; in the counties of Abaúj, Zemplén, Ung, and Gömör, but also in the upper parts of our [Borsod] county, the grain is still out in the field, and the blackened and even greening bundles offer a sad sight.17

As our graphs show, the 1878 harvest was not overly plentiful, and although rainy weather continued throughout the autumnal months, at least the grape harvest turned out relatively well due to the higher temperatures in September and October. Plenty of wine was also reported from Sopron and Budaörs, although the quality was uneven.18 The reports submitted by the alispán of the county indicate that many grapes were harvested in Borsod as well, but where it was not possible to finish the harvest in time (and this was usually the case for better quality grapes), the grapes burst and rot due to the high quantity of rain. As a result, the quality fell short of expectations and the price of wine fell sharply.19

Excessive rainfall caused serious problems from other perspectives as well, in addition to disappointing yields. Due to frequent floods and inland water caused by high groundwater levels, a significant part of the arable land was covered with either water or a thick layer of mud. This made it difficult to plow and sow the lands in the autumn for the following year. Thus, the farmers had to begin the next year (1879) with harvests which were far more modest than they had hoped for large swathes of land that went unsown.

The climate of 1879 put people’s tolerance to the test. Although the winter was not too harsh, it was all the wetter, so when spring arrived and the huge amount of winter snow started to melt, this caused severe flooding across the country. Floods of several small and large rivers were reported from the area on which our research focuses, but most of the problems were caused by the flooding of the Tisza River, which affected both counties. The river broke the surrounding embankment between Zemplénagárd and Leányvár on December 27, 1878, flooding the surrounding arable lands.20 Although the embankment had been repaired, the szolgabíró of the Bodrogköz District reported on the July 4 that one fourth of Bodrogköz was still covered with water. As he noted in his report, the constant rains completely destroyed the few autumn sowings that the flood had spared and thus also the spring crop. Furthermore, after pastures had been broken up and turned into arable land in the previous dry years, now, when the remaining pastures were under water, people were driving their cattle to other counties to graze or simply selling them at cheap prices.21 The szolgabíró of the Szerencs District also highlighted in his report that places which where normally waterless in the middle of summer were also covered with water due to the high levels of rain.22

By July, it had become increasingly certain that the year’s harvest would be well below even the yields of 1878. Heavy rains and severe frosts had destroyed not only the cereals but also the potatoes and the maize, which were the staple food of the poor. The situation near harvest time was summarized by the szolgabíró of the Szinna District in July as follows:


This year in my district, because of the heavy and continuous rainfall, the field crops are showing a worrying picture. Wheat and rye are poorer than average, harvesting is very slow due to the continuous rainfall, barley is practically missing, oats are mediocre, maize, beans are very deficient, potatoes, which are indispensable to the Highlanders, have already rotted. This is compounded by the depressing circumstance that citizens who moved to the lowlands for the harvest are returning with half the income they earn in other years […]. Fodder crops, if they are successfully harvested, can be said to be pretty good this year. I note that we had quite high hopes for spring crops, in particular, at the end of last month, but they have been severely damaged by the continuous rainfalls since the 5 of this month [July].23

In early September, after the start of the harvest, he briefly reported that “the result can be said to be the worst possible” and that the proliferation of wild boars and bears was causing considerable damage to the already shoddy crop and among the cattle.24 Cereals produced so few seeds that they were considered not only insufficient for sale and food, but also as seeds. It was feared that great parts of both counties would soon face famine.

Finally, we must also talk briefly about the development of fruit crops, especially grapes, which were a major source of income in Zemplén County. As noted earlier, in 1878, despite the rainy autumn, there was a relatively large amount of wine, although the quality of the wine was not very good, and this led to a significant reduction in its price per barrel. In 1879, however, the vineyard owners’ prospects deteriorated further after hailstorms in late spring and summer severely battered not only the orchards but also the vineyards.25 In addition, in the settlements of Tokaj-Hegyalja (Mezőzombor, Mád, and Tarcal), a leafroller moth called Tortix pilleriana appeared, and the worms of this moth caused enormous damage in the vineyards.26 Presumably, the locals managed to curb the spread of the insect, because in the subsequent reports submitted by the szolgabírós, it was noted that traces of neither the tortrix pilleriana nor the phylloxera appeared in the vineyards.27 Unfortunately, the situation was much worse for the other fruits, as in 1879 and 1882 the crop failed due to frost and premature fruit loss.28

Heavy rainfalls and floods contributed indirectly to general impoverishment as well, since people could not get to the fairs and markets due because of the damaged roads and bridges, so they had to do without the incomes they usually made from selling their goods. In addition, repairs to the roads were made only slowly, as due to the high water levels, it was difficult to remove the gravel needed for paving from the rivers.29 It is thus hardly surprising that the szolgabíró have reported stagnation in tax collections in all the districts.

Penury in Zemplén County

It did not take long for the first signs of crisis to appear. In September, the alispán of Zemplén County informed the Minister of Interior about the worrying situation:



Your Honourable, the Hungarian Royal Ministry of Interior!

From the reports of some of our szolgabírós and the public statements based on the experiences of committee members gathered at this general assembly from different parts of the county, we have sadly made sure that most of the county’s people will struggle with poverty and hunger as a result of current year’s general infertility.—And the middle and smaller landowners, in addition to their already shaken credit, have found themselves in such a dire situation that they are on the verge of death without the help of a cheap state loan to be lended as soon as possible.30

The alispán ordered reports on the annual yields for each parish covering the possessions and the supplies of foodstuffs and seeds of the landowners. In addition, a so-called “poverty committee” was set up to compile the incoming data and take the necessary measures. In order to remedy the situation, the Minister of Finance was asked to suspend the collection of state taxes among the already struggling population for a year, beginning on October 1, 1879,31 and the Minister of Transport and Public Works was instructed to provide a source of income for the needy through public works.32 In response to the request, the Minister of Interior was willing to grant the requested government loan, but not for the number of people requested by the county. The financial support was limited to people of two categories: the destitute who were able to work and the destitute who were not able to work or could not support themselves on their own. Furthermore, seeds were also given to those who were unable to obtain them even through private credit. The Minister of Interior asked the county leadership to review the range of people who needed support based on the conditions mentioned above. Until the exact data was available, however, he sent 8,000 forints as financial aid, “so that where the risk of starvation really threatens, the necessary aid can be provided from this amount.”33

Despite the fact that the Minister of Finance was asked in November to suspend the collection of state taxes, reports from the county said there was no response to the request, and tax collectors continued to seize the last food items of those in need with the utmost rigor. Given the gravity of the situation, the Zemplén County General Assembly decided to take immediate action. Instead of sending petitions (felirat) to the Minister, which was the normal way of lodging a complaint or request, the Assembly requested the immediate suspension of tax collection by telegram:


Because of the famine, our assembly asks to stop tax enforcement against farmers in all our districts through telegraphs; otherwise there will be distress in districts where it otherwise would not have been.

Tax enforcement has a very bad effect in times of need.

More explanation in representations.

We are asking for taking actions through telegrams because there will be auctions tomorrow.34

The general county assembly decided on the following measures. First, it was resolved to purchase maize to feed the destitute who were incapable of working. It was estimated that the supply of maize to feed roughly 5,000 people in need, though the concession was made that “their number will be much higher,” counting one liter per person per day, would require 9,100 hectoliters of maize in total at a cost of 91,000 forints (10 forints per liter). The Minister of Interior was therefore asked to issue the necessary amount in the form of state aid.35

Steps were also take to provide help for the destitute who were able to work by offering public employment opportunities. The number of people belonging to this category was put at 7,891 in Zemplén County. For each person, 120 working days were calculated with a wage of 40 kreuzers per day, which comes to a total cost of 384,000 forints.36 The county assembly listed by district the public works in the county “the construction of which was in the best interests of the public” and then submitted the planned works and the estimates of costs to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport for approval.37 The minister may have found the costs of the planned public works too high, because he asked the county to select only those work projects which were essential to the public interests and then resubmit the proposal to the Ministry. Until authorization was given, he sent 50,000 forints to start the approved works.38

Fortunately, with the help of the sources, we can also get an idea of how the aid process took place. In each district, a district relief committee was set up to distribute food, which was procured by a subcommittee of the Poverty Committee (Central Subcommittee). The minutes of a meeting of the General Assembly offer the following description of this committee:


The District Relief Committee, composed of two, possibly three trusted, intelligent individuals living in the district and the szolgabíró, is led by the szolgabíró, who takes over the food sent by the Central Subcommittee and executes the distribution in agreement with the Committee members, and in due time he submits to the county alispán a certificate of the use of the food or financial aid that have been sent. In addition, he is required to report weekly to the alispán on the condition of those in need.39


The allocation and implementation of public works was organized in a similar way to relief management. First, the individuals responsible for oversight wanted to ensure that only county residents were involved in public works. It was the task of the szolgabírós to prove this, and they gave a certificate (ballet) to the individual who applied for employment. The needy were divided into two groups. The first group included strong men who would be given a daily wage of 40 kreuzers, while the second group included weaker men and women, who would only be given a daily wage of 30 kreuzers. Workers could claim their wages in cash or half in cash and half in crop. In addition to wages, workers also received food for the duration of the work. This was coordinated by the szolgabírós through contractors.40

Relief, however, came slowly, and many people decided to look elsewhere for their livelihoods. Some headed south towards the Great Plain, while others went to north and sometimes even as far as England or America. As the szolgabíró of Nagymihály wrote in November 1879,


In my district, this year’s poor harvest and the fact that state aid has not arrived yet are forcing the poorest people to migrate to America and England. I am aware that it is the working men, young and old, who leave their homes in hordes to emigrate, among them countless men of military age and off-duty soldiers. They make their way through Kassa to Eperjes, and there are agents in the latter town who give advice to those who want to emigrate.41

As the szolgabíró’s report shows, the authorities were aware of the possible consequences of emigration even before it took on a mass character, but they did not know what they could do to slow it. On what grounds could they hold people back, and how could they restrict an individual’s personal freedom if he or she wanted to leave? In addition to legal issues, moral questions also had to be taken into consideration. Etele Matolay, the alispán of Zemplén County, also addresses this problem in a letter to the Minister of Interior:


Another question, however, is whether it is possible or, in such a time of need, advisable to act with rigor in such a case if the person is not liable to military service when we are not even able to give the jobseeker a job at home. […] Then when they have to deal with poverty at home: I would consider it an unjustified restriction of personal freedom to prevent them from emigrating.42

When emigration began to take place on a larger scale, the authorities did not even know where people were going, and this also hampered official efforts to slow it. It was rumored that people were being taken to dig the Panama Canal, but they did not know exactly where they would end up or what kind of work they would be given or whether, for that matter, they would be paid properly, given care in the case of illness, or be transported back to their homeland.43

Although the abovementioned measures helped improve the conditions under which the destitute lived their everyday lives somewhat, the climate still did not improve, and 1880 ended with poor harvests (making it the third year in a row to end with a disappointing harvests). Seeing the increasingly dire impoverishment of the population, the alispán sent another petition to the Minister of Finance:


Considering that this year’s harvest was far less substantial than what was hoped for, and considering that most of those involved in agriculture have been burdened with considerable debts as a result of the spring crisis and repayment for these debts is due this year, and taxes of the last two years will also be payable this year, please be so kind as to extend the deadline for repayment of the state loan by one year and to modify the payment dates to October 1, 1881, 1882, and 1883. On October 1 of the current year, interest shall be payable only on the due date.44

Despite all hopes, the following year did not bring the long-awaited abundant yield. A heavy downpour came with hail in July, affecting almost all the districts in Zemplén County. It hit autumn and spring crops so hard that the szolgabírós saw little chance of the grains developing by harvest time.45 The district reports indicate that, in general, few grains were produced,46 and mice, who had multiplied in the highlands, caused significant damage to autumn grain.47 In his semi-annual report, the alispán ranked the 1881 harvest as one of the worst,48 and he noted that it had caused further impoverishment and an increase in emigration.

The year 1882 brought mixed results. Both the data and the narrative sources show that rainfall was abundant again, causing flooding along several rivers. Fortunately, the heavy rains came mostly in late summer, and by that time, the “truly beautiful crop” had been harvested in many places, but there were areas (e.g. in the middle of the county) where rains did great damage to the crops that had already been harvested. At the same time, the wet weather was beneficial to root and fodder crops and also to pastures and meadows, which had become dry in the long droughts during the first half of the summer.49 The diverse geographical conditions of Zemplén are well illustrated by the fact that, while in some areas the harvest was abundant, in other districts, such as the Homonna and Szinna districts to the north, a situation of destitution or near-destitution developed. The szolgabíró of the Szinna district, fearing a crisis as dire as the crisis faced in 1880, requested the cessation of tax collection.50 The sources, however, suggest that the szolgabíró’s fears may have been an overreaction, as there was no cause for distress.

Given the abundant crop, tax collection began with renewed vigor, and efforts were made to recover debts accumulated in the previous years. Several szolgabírós indicated that tax collection was progressing well, so there was no need to use bailiffs to collect arrears. It seems, then that the harvest of 1882 was abundant enough in several places to help the population begin to recover from the trials they had suffered in the previous years.

Penury in Borsod County

Although the first official report on impoverishment in Borsod County was written in December 187951 (months after the first official report on Zemplén), it can be assumed that the first signs of the crisis appeared earlier. At the beginning of November, the weekly journal Borsod. Miskolczi Értesítő reported on the unfavorable weather and poor harvests in the county,52 and soon after this, it wrote of needy job-seekers from the highlands: “There are already signs of acute need in the highlands, for every day we see the highlanders marching through the county with nothing to eat, migrating to the lower part of the country in groups, looking for work; […].”53 Presumably, by November, the leadership of the county was confronted with the extent of impoverishment, which found clear form in the sight of people coming from the highlands, and the people of Borsod also had to suffer increasingly dire penury. This is indicated by the fact that in November the General Assembly of Borsod County asked the Minister of Finance to suspend tax collection “given the impoverishment.”54

One month later, Bertalan Bay, the alispán of Borsod, reported to the Ministry of Interior on the situation in the county as it follows:


On the basis of the official reports I have received, I have stated that in this county there are generally alarming phenomena concerning the livelihoods of the lower classes; that in the town of Miskolc the number of the poor is very high, and the extreme cold, which arrived with unusual suddenness, aggravates the situation, so that the town authority is taking measures on a case-by-case basis to provide aid for the needy.

I also noted with regret that in the lower part of the district of Miskolc the working class has no income, and the small amount of food they have purchased is almost completely exhausted, and in particular that the town of Mező-Csát is facing a crisis; finally, in the upper section of the Szentpéter district, especially in Alacska, and in the upper section of the Eger district, in Tibold Darócz and Kács, several families depend on the mercy of the better-off. In both parts of the Szentpéter district, however, it was indicated that official aid measures would have to be taken soon.

Given these unfavorable circumstances, it is to be feared that the distress at the beginning of next year will be so great in many places that, in order to alleviate it and to secure the financial survival of some, it is necessary to resort to state aid. For this reason, I have the honor to request the respectable Hungarian Royal Ministry to lend a certain amount—at least one thousand forints—as state aid as soon as possible.55

Given that according to the alispán the most state aid would be needed at the beginning of the following year, we can conclude that the situation in Borsod was less serious than in Zemplén, where the county alispán applied for state aid in the autumn. This seems to be supported by the annual report of the Borsod alispán, dated February 1880, according to which


conditions are generally depressing, and the poorer class, especially because of the prolonged harsh winter, suffers from a sensitive shortage of already depleted foods and firewood in particular. However, with contributions by wealthier benefactors and using municipal funds in some places, the absolute need for state aid has not yet arisen to a greater extent—families struggling in need were only reported in the upper parts of the Miskolc and Eger districts, for whose relief I sent the amount corresponding to the need indicated [...].


At that time, only 300 forints had to be allocated from the 1,000 forints that had been previously sent by the Minister of Interior. At the end of the report, he summarizes the previous year as follows:


But it should also be emphasized that despite the generally unfavorable conditions last year and the extremely severe winter, the likes of which has not been experienced for decades, there has been no phenomenon in the county that would prove the depletion of people’s resources and means of subsistence. Even the poorest class, exposed in many ways to the most cramped way of life and the suffering and misery of life, bears its fate with silent surrender, and while people hope that difficult conditions will take a turn for the better, they calmly tolerate their circumstances, try to earn an income, and hope that their fates will improve in time.56

Impoverishment hit Borsod in the early 1880s. The szolgabíró of the Sajószentpéter district reported that a hungry person was transported to the hospital in Miskolc from Sajószentpéter, and a starving sick family was aided with funds from the town’s treasury. However, he added that the people, considering their livelihoods, were not in a position to be seriously worried, or state aid would have to be required.57 Not long after, however, he made the following report: “As a result of the fruitless harvest of the current year, the population of my district, with the decline of transport and manual labor, is already suffering a heavy burden of subsistence. In general, I can point out that not only manual day laborers, but also some of the landowners, are struggling with their livelihoods.”58

In Miskolc, the seat of Borsod County, the situation deteriorated considerably with the arrival of the extremely cold winter, but fortunately it did not turn into a crisis thanks to the quick measures taken by the town authorities. Having already created a list of the needy in the town in a forward-looking manner, they were able to alleviate poverty more easily and quickly with the distribution of food, firewood, and money as the need arose.59 As a result, in January 1880, the mayor of Miskolc, Kálmán Soltész Nagy, submitted a reassuring report to the county deputy:


Based on the reports made to me and on my own experience, I officially declare that the poverty of the poor in the town of Miskolc does not appear to be of such magnitude at this time that it would require legal or state measures.

It is undeniable that in the winter, the poverty of the population is greater than it has been in other years; however, the authorities, in accordance with the order of the town council, shall provide those who are incapable of working with the most essential foods and save them from starvation.60


Considering the deprivation suffered by the population and conditions close to famine, it could be feared that public safety would deteriorate. In 1879, the Borsod alispán asked the Ministry of Interior for eight more cavalries and eight infantry gendarmes, in addition to the existing ones, due to an increasing number of cases of violence.61

There were similar fears of an increase in acts of violence in Zemplén, but according to the semi-annual report of the alispán in 1880, “public safety, considering the given impoverishment and need, cannot be called worrying.”62

As in Zemplén, the provision of public works for the poorest was discussed in Borsod County. It would have been especially helpful for the needy in and around Miskolc if the riverbed regulation planned after the great flood in Miskolc in August 1878 had finally been given the green light from the Ministry. As Kálmán Soltész Nagy, the mayor of Miskolc, wrote in his report, “If the city had already approved the regulatory plan, it could not only help the poor by giving them work, but could also save the significant amount of money it has to spend on relief for the poor relief.”63 He then asked the alispán to try to get the Ministry of Public Works and Transport to approve the draft regulation as soon as possible “so that the work can begin to provide the poor of our town with a source of income at the beginning of spring.”64

Fortunately, the improving weather also alleviated the misery. As the Borsod County alispán wrote, “In the area of the town of Miskólcz, with the onset of milder days, the shortage begins to end, so much so that by the 15 of the current month [March], the supply of foodstuffs will be ceased. Residents in need of public aid can get work in the vineyards and gardens, and the need for further aid, thanks to providence, will disappear.”65

After the unfavorable harvests of the previous years, people rightly hoped that as the weather improved, the harvest would finally provide, if not abundant, at least a sufficient yield. However, the spring frosts dashed some of these hopes. In a report on the state of the crops in April 1880, Kálmán Soltész Nagy wrote,


I am convinced after questioning several farming and viticulture individuals that wheat sowing is generally good, while rye sowing, especially the rye which was sown last, under the cold and heavy snow, is almost completely lost. The buds of the fruit trees are almost completely lost as a result of the extraordinary frost, which recurred at the beginning of spring, and there is no prospect of fruit production at all. The buds on the vines are usually blackened, so they are infertile; however, the quality of the lower buds is still impossible to determine at this time.66

Nevertheless, the county managed to avoid the worst, and in July, the county alispán reported reassuringly to the Minister of Interior that


Anyway—thanks be to providence! Famine has not devastated our county in a large and scary way. The sympathy and compassion of individuals, municipalities, and our authorities have alleviated the problem everywhere. And now, during the summer, we no longer have a reason to talk about poverty. Works assuring subsistence are underway everywhere, and there is hope that the year will not be one of the worst from the perspective of the harvests.67

The yields of the next years were similar in Borsod and Zemplén. The floods of 1881 caused considerable damage in both counties (as they did in other parts of the country), but the harvest ended with a mediocre yield.68 A year later, in the spring of 1882, the alispán of Borsod saw the agricultural situation of the county more optimistically. But from mid-July through August, that is, during the harvest, many crops suffered due to torrential rains,69 and their quality fell short of expectations. But in several districts, they were still “good mediocre,” “completely satisfactory,” or, as the szolgabíró of the Eger district wrote, “The fruit in the whole district is definitely good. In some places, it has exceeded the farmers’ hopes.”70 Thus, the harvest of 1882, which can generally be said to have been plentiful and of good quality, brought the crisis in Borsod to an end, as it did in the neighboring Zemplén County.


The aim of our research was to examine the impact of the weather anomalies of the 1870–80s on agriculture in order to shed light on the decisive roles of weather conditions in the deepening of the agricultural crisis which took place in Europe in the last third of the nineteenth century. In the course of our research, by examining the climate and yield data of two Hungarian counties, Borsod and Zemplén, we observed a series of years of poor yields, as well as a catastrophic harvest in 1879, which led to a period of distress which lasted until 1882. During this period, the agricultural population, while avoiding the worst (as there was no famines), suffered material losses to a degree that led to mass impoverishment in the long run.

Our research does not show a clear link between unfavorable weather and the agricultural crisis, but we nonetheless maintain our contention that impoverishment caused by a series of bad harvests certainly exacerbated the inflow of foreign grain. Moreover, efforts to cope with the crisis were hampered by the fact that many farmers had been ruined and masses of people, including many farmers, emigrated. There are still many questions to be answered. Although we have only superficially examined the relationship between impoverishment and emigration, which took on massive proportions in 1879, it is very likely that the difficult economic situation in Hungary, which was a consequence of the unfavorable weather, gave a greater impetus to emigration. At this point, our research suggests a clear parallel between events and experiences in Hungary and the European experience, which included an ever larger wave of emigration in several countries beginning in the early 1880s.71 Our results also show similarities with the duration of impoverishment in Europe as well, as the worst period in Hungary was also between 1879 and 1882, from which the relatively good yields of 1882 were the way out. 72

Our research also revealed that even in the case of two neighboring counties, Borsod and Zemplén, needs were quite different, although we did not discern any significant differences in the ways in which these needs were addressed. Borsod was less sensitive to hardship, which was presumably the consequence of differences in farming (size and quality of cultivated land, varieties and proportions of cultivated crops, etc.) due to geographical differences. Our findings certainly make clear that if we wish to determine the extent to which we can speak of a national agricultural crisis in 1879–80, further studies at the regional level are needed.

Archival Sources

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén Megyei Levéltára (MNL BAZML) [Hungarian National Archives Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County Archives]

IV. 803. b. Borsod Vármegye Törvényhatósági Bizottságának iratai, Közgyűlési iratok [Documents of the Municipal Committee of Borsod County, Documents of the General Assembly]

IV. 809. b. Borsod vármegye alispánjának iratai, Közigazgatási iratok [Documents of the Borsod County Alispán, Administrative Documents]

IV. 2402. a. Zemplén Vármegye Törvényhatósági Bizottságának iratai, Közgyűlési jegyzőkönyvek [Documents of the Municipal Committee of Zemplén County, Minutes of the General Assembly]

IV. 2402. b. Zemplén Vármegye Törvényhatósági Bizottságának iratai, Közgyűlési jegyzőkönyvek [Documents of the Municipal Committee of Zemplén County, Documents of the General Assembly]

IV. 2405. Zemplén vármegye alispánjának iratai, Közigazgatási iratok [Documents of the Zemplén County Alispán, Administrative Documents]


Printed sources

Borsod. Miskolczi Értesítő [Borsod. Miskolcz Gazette], August 29, 1878; November 6, 1879; November 20, 1879.

Meteorológiai Évkönyvek [Meteorological Yearbooks]. A meteorológiai és földdelejességi magy. kir. Központi intézet évkönyvei. Budapest: Athenaeum, 1873–1902.

Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyv [Hungarian Statistical Yearbook]. Budapest: Országos Magyar Királyi Statistikai Hivatal, 1879–1901.


Secondary sources

Bichet, Adeline, Doris Folini, Martin Wild, and Christoph Shär. “Enhanced Central European summer precipitation in the late 19th century: a link to the Tropics.” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 2013. doi:10.1002/qj.2111.

Boa, Krisztina. “Az 1863–64. évi aszály és ínség Békés megyében” [The drought and famine of 1863–64 in Békés county]. Fons 19, no. 2 (2012): 161–99.

Czoch, Gábor. “A reformkori közigazgatás az éhínséggel szemben (1845–47)” [Administration against the famine in the Reform Era, 1845–47]. In A mesterség iskolája: Tanulmányok Bácskai Vera 70. születésnapjára [The school of profession: Papers for the 70th birthday of Vera Bácskai]. Edited by Zsombor Bódy, Mónika Mátay, and Árpád Tóth, 371–89. Budapest: Osiris, 2000.

Hodgyai, Mátyás. “Ínséges évek Biharban 1814–1817 között” [Years of distress in Bihar County between 1814 and 1817]. Történelmi Szemle 33, no. 1–2 (1991): 59–69.

Kaposi, Zoltán. “A 19. századi agrárválság hatása a dél-dunántúli régió uradalmi gazdálkodására” [The effects of the nineteenth century agrarian crisis on the economy of latifundia in the Trans-Danubian region]. Közép-európai közlemények 8, no. 2 (2015): 81–93.

Kaposi, Zoltán. “Agrarkrise in Ungarn, besonders auf dem Gebiet von Süd-Transdanubien, 1873–1914.” In Internationales Kulturhistorisches Symposion Mogersdorf 2014 in Kőszeg, 157–78. Szombathely: Vas Megyei Önkormányzati Hivatal, 2019.

Kaposi, Zoltán. “Válság és alkalmazkodás: A 19. század végi agrárkrízis hatásai a dunántúli uradalmak működésésre” [Crisis and adaptation: The effects of the nineteenth century agrarian crisis on the functioning of Trans-Danubian latifundia]. In Magyar Gazdaságtörténeti Évkönyv 2016: Válság-Kereskedelem [Hungarian Economic Yearbook 2016: Crisis-Commerce]. Edited by György Kövér et als., 195–216. Budapest: MTA Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont, 2016.

Katus, László. “Az 1863–64. évi aszály és éhínség az Alföldön” [The drought and famine of 1863–64 in the Hungarian Great Plain]. In A fogyasztás társadalomtörténete [The social history of consumption]. Rendi társadalom – polgári társadalom 18. Edited by József Hudi, 7–11. Budapest: Hajnal István Kör Társadalomtörténeti Egyesület; Pápa: Pápai Református Gyűjtemények, 2007.

Kiss, Zsuzsanna. Gabonaválság a 19. század végén: Társadalomtörténeti nézőpontok” [Corn crisis at the end of the nineteenth century: Socialhistorical perspectives]. Aetas 4 (2014): 31–44.

Klement, Judit. “Die Agrarkrise am Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts und die Budapester Mühlenindustrie.” In Krisen/Geschichten in mitteleuropäischem Kontext: Sozial- und wirtschaftsgeschichtliche Studien zum 19./20. Jahrhundert. Edited by György Kövér, Márkus Keller, and Csaba Sasfi, 167–97. Vienna: Institut für Ungarische Geschichtsforschung in Wien; Balassi Institut Collegium Hungaricum; Ungarische Archivdelegation beim Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, 2015.

Lamb, Hubert H. Climate, History and the Modern World. London: Psychology Press, 1995.

Perry, Peter J. British Farming in the Great Depression 1870–1914: An Historical Geography. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1974.

Rémiás, Tibor. “Az 1847. évi éhínség Torna vármegyében” [The famine of 1847 in Torna County]. Történelmi közlemények Abaúj-Torna vármegye és Kassa múltjából 1 (1997): 148–77.

Réthly, Antal. Időjárási események és elemi csapások Magyarországon 1801–1900-ig [Weather events and natural disasters in Hungary between 1801 and 1900]. Vol. 2. Budapest: OMSZ, 1998.

Sándor, Pál. A XIX. századvégi agrárválság Magyarországon [The late-nineteenth century agrarian crisis in Hungary]. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1958.

Ungár, László. “Az 1845–47. évi felvidéki éhínséggel kapcsolatos intézkedések Pesten és Budán” [Measurements taken in Buda and Pest against the Uppland famine of 1845–47]. Tanulmányok Budapest múltjából 6 (1938): 170–79.

Vörös, Antal. “A magyar mezőgazdaság a kapitalista átalakulás útján (1849–1890)” [Hungarian Agriculture on the road to capitalist transformation]. In A magyar mezőgazdaság a XIX–XX. században (1849–1949) [Hungarian agriculture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries]. Agrártörténeti Tanulmányok 4. Edited by Péter Gunst, and Tamás Hoffmann, 9–152. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1976.


1 Hodgyai, “Ínséges évek.”

2 Czoch, “A reformkori közigazgatás”; Rémiás, “Az 1847. évi éhínség”; Ungár, “Az 1845–47. évi.”

3 Boa, “Az 1863–64. évi aszály”; Katus, “Az 1863–64. évi aszály.”

4 Lamb, Climate, History and the Modern World.

5 On the agrarian crisis in Great Britain, see Perry, British Farming.

6 Lamb, Climate, History and the Modern World, 233; Bichet et als., “Enhanced Central European summer.”

7 Sándor, A XIX. századvégi agrárválság; Kaposi, “A 19. századi agrárválság”; Kaposi, “Válság és alkalmazkodás”; Kaposi, „Agrarkrise in Ungarn”; Klement, “Die Agrarkrise”; Kiss, Gabonaválság a 19. század végén.”

8 Meteorológiai Évkönyvek.

9 The temperature was measured three times a day, at 7 a.m., 2 p.m., and 9 p.m.

10 Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek

11 Vörös, “A magyar mezőgazdaság.”

12 1886 was considered the wettest year in Rozsnyó (today Rožňava, Slovakia), but since we do not have data from the late 1870s, it is possible that precipitation in the missing years exceeded precipitation in 1886.

13 Meslin is a mixture of equal parts of wheat and rye that is sown and harvested together.

14 One Viennese acre is 5,755 square meters.

15 Between 1877 and 1890, the size of the sown areas varied between 2,300 and 3,000 hectares.

16 From Szepes County, there were maize data for only three years in the Statistical Yearbooks, so we did not include them in our analysis.

17 Borsod. Miskolczi Értesítő, August 29, 1878, 3.

18 Réthly, Időjárási események, vol. 2, 548.

19 MNL BAZML, IV. 809. b. 868/1881.

20 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 2/2020/1879.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 107/1880.

26 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 6559/1879.

27 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 127/8758/1880; 9340/1881; 2216/1882.

28 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 189/6559/1879; 162/9479/1882.

29 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 185/1879.

30 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 434/1879.

31 After the moratorium expired, they asked to pay the one-year tax in interest-free instalments. MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 188/1879.

32 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 434/1879; MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 188/1879.

33 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 321/1879.

34 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 321/1879.

35 Ibid.

36 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 9522/1879.

37 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 321/1879.

38 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 9522/1879.

39 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 321/1879.

40 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 9522/1879.

41 MNL BAZML IV. 2405. b. 9958/1879.

42 MNL BAZML IV. 2405. b. 10717/1879.

43 Ibid.

44 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 127/1880.

45 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 7135/1881.

46 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 7135/1881, 9286/1881, 9340/1881.

47 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 9340/1881.

48 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 5/2534/1882.

49 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. b. 162/9479/1882.

50 Ibid.

51 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 577/1879.

52 Borsod. Miskolczi Értesítő, November 6, 1879.

53 Borsod. Miskolczi Értesítő, November 20, 1879.

54 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 420/1879; MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 569/1879.

55 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 577/1879.

56 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 1/1880.

57 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 488/1880.

58 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 519/1880.

59 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 1/1880.

60 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 107/1880.

61 MNL BAZML IV. 803. b. 418/1879.

62 MNL BAZML IV. 2402. a. 6/1880.

63 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 463/1880.

64 Ibid.

65 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 901/1880.

66 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 1246/1880.

67 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 2226/1880.

68 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 1/1882.

69 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 344/1882.

70 MNL BAZML IV. 809. b. 2638/1882.

71 Lamb, Climate, History and the Modern World, 234.

72 Ibid., 275; Perry, British Farming, 54–60.

* This work was financially supported by the NKFIH FK 128978 project.



Figure 5. Eger’s annual average temperature by seasons. Source: Meteorológiai Évkönyvek




Figure 8. Annual wheat crop by counties, 1877–90. Source: Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek



Figure 13. Annual cereal crops in Szepes County in relation to the annual average precipitation in Eperjes. Sources: Meteorológiai Évkönyv, Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyvek




Evaluation of the Floodplain Farming of the Settlements of Nagykunság Based on the First Cadastral Survey*

Sándor Rózsa
Eszterházy Károly University
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 2  (2020): 213-240 DOI:10.38145/2020.2.213

River control was perhaps the most significant form of anthropogenic environmental intervention in the Carpathian Basin, and in recent decades it has been the focus of considerable attention in the scientific community. However, in order to be able to evaluate this intervention, we need to know more about the floodplain management before the river regulations. In this essay, I provide data concerning the eighteenth-century floodplain management, on the basis of the first cadastral survey documents.
According to Klára Dóka and other researchers, the settlements of the region along the Tisza River were in crisis in the early nineteenth century because the floodplain farming system was not adequate to sustain the growing population. However, they based this conclusion on sources concerning population growth, and they did not substantiate their essential contention concerning overpopulation with accurate data on production and consumption. I have sought to determine whether there really was an overpopulation crisis in Nagykunság at the end of the eighteenth century. The main question concerns the relationship between production and needs. The next question is whether the farmers had excess grain which they could take to markets. In other words, was the floodplain farming system profitable? My research constitutes a contribution to the debate between Bertalan Andrásfalvy and Miklós Szilágyi on floodplain management.
The first cadastral survey documents contain detailed and reliable data on the management of the settlements, and I contend that they are more accurate and useful than the tax censuses which were compiled at the same time. The first step in the research was to establish the average annual consumption of the population.
According to the data of the cadastral survey, production exceeded the needs of the population in each settlement, and the value of the production surplus covered the tax burdens. Wheat had a marketable share of the yield, come to 30–40 percent of the total. Assuming that livestock breeding was even more advantageous, one could contend that the floodplain farming system was profitable. However, natural resources are distributed disproportionately as a result of property relations. In Nagykunság, this found its most dramatic embodiment in the redemptus-irredemptus contrast.
There were several events in the late eighteenth century, such as the construction of the Mirhó dam and migration to Bácska, on the basis of which researchers have inferred that the floodplain farming system was in crisis, but the cadastral survey suggests otherwise.

Keywords: floodplain farming system, carrying capacity, overpopulation, production statistics

My research seeks to determine whether (and to what extent) floodplain farming was differentiated in the eighteenth century, whether it was able to satisfy the needs of the settlements, and how much marketable produce surplus was available to sell. In my study, by Nagykunság I do not mean the geographical landscape delimited on the basis of natural geographical aspects. I refer more narrowly to the Nagykun District, a political-administrative entity of eighteenth-century Hungary which formed part of the present-day Jászkun-District. I examined the water management of the six settlements which constituted Nagykunság at the end of the eighteenth century: Karcag, Kisújszállás, Túrkeve, Kunhegyes, Kunmadaras and Kunszentmárton.

The study of floodplain farming in Nagykunság is mainly justified by the fact that the population of the area carried out the first significant water regulation works in the Central Tisza Region in Hungary (well before the great river regulations of the nineteenth century took place), the so-called Mirhó Dam. The scour channel (fok)1 was first closed in the middle of the eighteenth century, but the rudimentary rampart erected at that time could not withstand major floods, despite frequent repairs. In 1776, the owners of Heves County demolished the rampart. They claimed that due to a decrease in the floodplain reservoir capacity, they were experiencing higher levels of flooding on the right bank of the Tisza. The settlements of the Nagykun district submitted a complaint about this almost immediately, but the permission required to reconstruct the dam was obtained only in 1785, and the rampart was rebuilt only in 1787, and even the owners of Heves County helped with the works.2 The flood relief work carried out by the settlements of the Nagykun district is considered in the secondary literature, primarily works on water history, one of the antecedents of the periodic regulations of the nineteenth century, and it is mostly treated as an indicator of the crisis faced by the farming system.3 Klára Dóka strove to reveal the origins of the elimination of floodplain farming by examining the farming of the settlements along the Tisza at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In her view, extensive floodplain farming faced a crisis by the turn of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as it could no longer meet the needs of an increasing population, which prompted the communities to transform the previous system and intervene in the environment.4 However, based on my research carried out in recent years, I have considerable doubts about the need to eliminate floodplain farming behind the construction of the Mirhó Dam.5 The construction of the dam in 1786 alone cannot be considered evidence of overpopulation,6 it is necessary to assess the economic condition of the settlements, i.e. to carry out a production-need-based study.

An Outstanding Source: The First Cadastral Survey

During the period of enlightened absolutism, many valuable sources were created in connection with the economic, social, and environmental conditions of the country, of which, from the perspective of the questions at hand in this essay, the census and the military and cadastral survey should be highlighted. Of these, the cadastral survey is a lesser-known source, which is mainly due to the territorial mosaic character of the preservation of documents, as most of the documents created in preparation for the sharing of public burdens fell victim to the resistance of the estates after the emperor’s death.

The documents are valuable in part because they strove for completeness (i.e. they recorded all lands, regardless of whether the owner had tax exemption) and in part because they are based on cutting-edge statistical methods (homogeneous data structure, averaged data, etc.) and the survey was conducted professionally (through a well-established institutional system and by qualified engineers). We are well acquainted with the process according to which the survey was conducted, as the survey instructions7 survived and through the thorough exploratory work of statistician Zoltán Dávid.8 These are a great help in assessments of the reliability of the data.9

In the area under examination, a complete survey document survived only in connection with Kunszentmárton.10 As for the other five settlements, only the so-called summary sheets are available.11 However, such sheets also survived in the case of all the settlements in Kiskunság and Jászság, which thus make possible a comparative analysis. In the second half of the twentieth century, Dávid attempted to map the surviving documents of the cadastral survey, and he published some of the data (183 settlements) in a study, along with his analysis of the data.12 The data provided by Dávid provided an opportunity for me to compare the floodplain farming used by the settlements of Nagykunság with the farming used in the settlements in other regions.

Indicators of Agricultural Cultivation in Nagykunság at the End
of the Eighteenth Century

The settlements of Nagykunság were characterized by differentiated farming after repopulation in the eighteenth century. The leading sector was livestock farming, as livestock enjoyed better market sales opportunities and optimal environmental conditions. Grains were grown mainly for subsistence purposes, the sale of surpluses at the market was typical in the middle of the century. In the nineteenth century, as a result of the grain boom, the importance of arable crop production increased steadily, and self-sufficiency was replaced by commodity production. Tibor Bellon has thoroughly examined the farming in the settlements of Nagykunság in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.13 However, as an ethnographer, he ignored in-depth statistical analyses and did not explore the process of structural change in detail. If one examines floodplain farming, the relative weight of crop and livestock production compared to each other is by no means a marginal issue. Most researchers assume there was a grain boom at the focal point of water regulations. As grain production can be carried out only at high risk in a floodplain environment, it was necessary for the area to be free from floods.14

In the cadastral records, the data on meadows and pastures are the most uncertain, as the extents of utilization in floodplain environments varied depending on the intensity and duration of floods, which also provided a good opportunity for farmers to make the határ15 areas (the peasants’ individual plots along, with the buildings of the village and, often, areas of communal meadow, woodland, vineyards and/or pasture) used for grazing appear to be useless at certain times of the year. In terms of meadows and pastures, Karcag and Kisújszállás were in the worst situation. The average of 2.5 katasztrális hold16 per capita calculated here is particularly low compared to Túrkeve (5.13 katasztrális hold/capita) and Kunhegyes (4.84 katasztrális hold/capita). This is due to the hydro-geomorphological conditions, as the former two settlements lie deeper17 and they directly border the Berettyó River. The average in the settlements of Nagykunság (3.71 katasztrális hold/capita) is higher than the average in the settlements of Jászság (2.80 katasztrális hold/capita), but it lags far behind the average of nearly 10 katasztrális hold/capita of the settlements in Kiskunság, with a large határ area and typically low population density. However, it is worth drawing a comparison with the areas outside Jászkunság as well. Most settlements in Nagykunság had a lower average than the average of 4.22 katasztrális hold/capita in Heves County and Külső-Szolnok County, but they were in a better position than Győr County, which had an average of 2.23 katasztrális hold/capita, Moson County (2.5 katasztrális hold/capita), and Sopron County, with an average of 0.58 katasztrális hold/capita (except for Kisújszállás and Karcag).18 Although a land size/person similar to or worse than that of the control areas was observed in Nagykunság, and the highest yielding meadows and pastures were found here. In Nagykunság, the average hay yield was 10 quintals (1,000 kilograms) per katasztrális hold while in Jászság it was only 7.3 quintals (730 kilograms) and in Kiskunság it was 3.5 quintals (350 kilograms).

Much more reliable conclusions can be drawn on the basis of the data on ploughland than the aforementioned data. In the settlements of Nagykunság, the average ploughland per person was 1.55 katasztrális hold, which is significantly less than the average in the settlements of Jászság (2.94 katasztrális hold/capita) and Kiskunság (4.14 katasztrális hold/capita). The average in the settlements of Nagykunság lags behind the average in the settlements of Heves- and Külső-Szolnok (1.96 katasztrális hold/capita), Moson- (1.74 katasztrális hold/capita) and Győr County (1.68 katasztrális hold/capita), but it far exceeds the average in those of Sopron County (1.03 katasztrális hold/capita). However, if we subtract the demesne lands from all the ploughlands, it is 0.90 katasztrális hold per capita in Heves- and Külső-Szolnok County, 1 in Győr, 1.74 in Moson,
and 0.92 in Sopron County.

The 1.55 katasztrális hold per capita does not seem low compared to the data from the four counties, but it is depressingly low compared to Jászság and Kiskunság. Looking at the area size per capita in Nagykunság alone, we should assume a serious growth constraint or overpopulation, but it sheds a different light on the data if we also take into account the quality of the lands, i.e. their yield averages. The yield average in Nagykunság was 9.1 pozsonyi mérő (p. m.) (1 pozsonyi mérő = between 53.72 and 62.08 liters) per cadastral acre, which is well above the 3.83 p. m. per cadastral acre in Jászság and the 2.45 p. m. per cadastral acre in Kiskunság. In the 183 settlements surveyed by Dávid, the ploughlands produced an average grain yield of 7.7 p. m. Of course, I also had the suspicion that there might be some statistical error behind the exceptionally high yield averages or inaccurate or false yield data from Kiskunság and Jászság. There are no indications that the data on the settlements of Jászság and Kiskunság would be skewed downwards or the data on Nagykunság upwards. Only a comparison with the grain production potential19 can be considered a resource-critical tool. The average wheat production potential of the settlements of Nagykunság is four points better than that of Jászság and seven points better than the average in the settlements of Kiskunság. The average yield per settlement calculated on the basis of the cadastral survey shows a strong correlation with the wheat production potential, and thus the cadastral data seem reliable. The high yield average in the settlements of Nagykunság and the low ploughland area per capita suggest that, at the time, only the high-quality lands optimal for arable crop production were utilized on the határ of the settlements. Thus, low ploughland per capita should not itself be considered a sign of overpopulation. Rather, it may indicate a lower preponderance of crop production compared to livestock production.

Most researchers agree that in the eighteenth century, pastoral farming was the most important agricultural sector in Nagykunság, and arable crop production was carried out only for self-sufficiency.20 However, we have data on the market sales of grain from the middle of the eighteenth century as well. In 1750, palatine Miklós Pálffy ordered a survey of the economic strength of the settlements of Jászkunság to be conducted in order to levy taxes more proportionally. According to this census, the landholders of Nagykunság mostly sold their grain on the markets in Miskolc and Debrecen,21 but we have no data on the volume of the grain trade. For example, the landholders of Kunszentmárton mentioned that some landholders did not sell any mérő of grain in 10 years. Thus, the information concerning which markets the farmers s old their grains on does not suggest in itself that grain production was determined by production for marketing. Examining the cadastral data, we can clearly see that the ploughland per capita shows a small variance in the settlements of Nagykunság (1.1–2 cadastral acres per capita), i.e. the extent of ploughland was relatively closely related to the population, which indicates self-sufficiency in the sector. If we assume that crop production was under extensive compulsion to grow, whether due to market conditions or unsatisfied domestic need, the amount of ploughland would be determined not by the population but by the amount of potentially suitable areas. All this, of course, is only true if we rule out the possibility that the ploughland had already reached its maximum possible extent and the small standard deviation of the ploughland per capita was purely coincidental. We have already seen that the hydro-geomorphological features of the határs of the Nagykun settlements are different, and consequently their agricultural potential is also different. It therefore hardly seems likely that the ploughland reached its maximum extent, and thus the relationship between the extent of ploughland and the size of the population is not a statistical coincidence but an indication of self-sufficiency in crop production. Of course, this does not exclude the possibility that in years of high yields the surplus that was produced over the domestic consumption needs of the population was sold on the market. However, we can only venture conclusions concerning how much this amount may have been (and this is an important question of this study) if we also have estimates for consumption.

Calculation of Population Needs

Determining the grain needs of the peasant farms in Nagykunság is a very difficult task, as we have to take into account a number of variables (proportion of meat and cereal consumption, dietary habits, differences in nutrient requirements by gender and age groups, the impact of work activities, etc.) on which we have only sporadic data. However, as the relationship between production and consumption is a key issue in evaluating farming, despite these difficulties, we find a relatively large number of estimates in the literature and in contemporary statistical sources. In the present study, given the absence of adequate resources, I neither intend to estimate the contemporary needs of individuals, families, or peasant farms nor do I wish to contribute directly to the debates in this regard. I tried to bridge the problem of uncertainty by using estimates offered by several researchers and contemporary sources together, and since the sources so far provide little support, I assess their relevance to Nagykunság and the conditions of the relatively short period (the end of the eighteenth century) only to the extent needed.

The following estimates have been used for the annual grain need per person/family/household:

– Géza Perjés’ estimate for the eighteenth century: 3.5 q = 7.51 p. m./capita/year,22

– István Orosz’ estimate: 5 kila = 5 p. m./capita/year,23

– The average consumption used in the 1868 harvest statistics: 5 p. m./capita/year,24

– According to István N. Kiss’ estimate, a family’s minimum need for bread grain is: 6 q = 13 p. m./family/year,25

– In 1782, based on the aggregation of the Miskolc city council on grain need: 18 p. m./family/year,26

– Based on the censuses conducted in the Triple Districts during the Napoleonic Wars: 6 kila/capita/year,27

– Based on the 1816 Triple District Census: 1 kila barley/capita/year, 1 kila wheat/capita/year.28

Three of the data are estimates made after the fact and four were arrived at by contemporary public administrations. In order to make the calculations easier, I converted the needs to p. m., i.e. the unit of measurement that was also used in the cadastral survey. I did not consider the use of metric measurement units appropriate, because during conversion, pozsonyi mérő, which is one of the liquid measurement units, has to be converted to a weight measure, which can only be done with significant uncertainty.29

The lowest average need comes from the 1816 census, but these data are related to the “poverty census” and thus they should be interpreted as the minimum need of the population, and if the total grain production of any settlement did not reach the total population need calculated according to this, it indicates severe overpopulation. István N. Kiss’ estimate of 6 q/family, i.e. converted and rounded to 13 p. m./family/year, divided by the average family size of 5 people calculated on the basis of József’s census data, means an average consumption of 2.6 p. m./person/year. The consumption of 18 p. m./family/year, determined by the Miskolc City Council in 1782, corresponds to an average consumption of 3.6 p. m. per person, and thus, together with the former, it is one of the lower estimates. The average value is consumption used in the 1868 harvest statistics and the census made during the Napoleonic Wars, and István Orosz also assumed a similar annual need per person. The most well-founded estimate seems to be that of Géza Perjés, who estimated the main annual need at 3.5 quintals, (7.51 p. m.) based on calorie needs and taking into account a whole range of variables (work intensity, age and gender-related differences, the calorific value and milling characteristics of grains, etc.). In connection with his estimation, the biggest question is how livestock farming can be adapted to the population of the central settlements of the Great Plain; he himself drew attention to this uncertainty factor as well.30 However, in the communities of the Great Plain, which were mainly engaged in livestock farming, the proportion of grains in the average diet may have been lower, and this may have been especially true for floodplain settlements, where fish, game, and fruit (with regard to floodplain orchards) may have been been a proportionally larger part of the average diet. Another question is the extent to which the average daily consumption of 4,000 calories per an adult man, calculated by Perjés (and this seems high even seen from the perspective of today), can be generalized in the eighteenth century. In view of all this, Perjés’ data can be considered a kind of “upper” estimate.

The issue is further complicated by the question of what we exactly mean by food or bread grain in the era. During the cadastral survey, the yields of four cereals (wheat, rye, barley, and oats) were recorded. In peasant culture, of these, wheat and rye clearly appeared as food grains, while oats appeared essentially as fodder crops. However, barley can be classified in either category only with reservations. According to Miklós Szilágyi, little care was taken to store the barley in the eighteenth century, so it was probably considered a lower value grain.31 However, cereal porridge was the daily food of the people of Nagykunság, and according to sources, barley porridge, which was called gerslin, was also consumed.32 The population clearly sought mainly to consume bread grains, but after the depletion of these stocks, the consumption of barley as porridge could also have been considered. I tried to bridge the uncertainty about the general use of grains by comparing the needs with three basic categories, namely bread grains (wheat and rye), food grains in the broad sense (wheat, rye and barley), and the total grain yields (wheat + rye + barley + oat).

Need / Production

If we calculate using the lowest average consumption (2 p. m./person/year), we see that the settlements of Nagykunság addressed many of the food needs of the population with wheat, and if we take bread grain and food grain into account, 5–6 fold overproduction occurs. The total settlement need calculated in this way should clearly be considered a minimum need for survival, and if the yield per cadastre calculated on the basis of the averages over the course of several years were close to or below this value, it would indicate severe overpopulation. In the settlements of Nagykunság, however, even the wheat yield exceeded this multiple times, and there was no settlement in Jászkunság where the production would remain below this value. (Table 1).


Table 1. Production and need based on the highest and lowest average consumption.
Source: JNSZML IV. 2. 76.

Calculated with the estimate from the 1816 census (in p.m.)




Net production1


Difference (percent)3

Net production


Difference (percent)











































Calculated with a consumption of 5 p. m/person/year



Grain bread (wheat and rye)

Edible cereals

Net production


Difference (percent)

Net production


Difference (percent)











































Calculated with the estimate made by Perjés


Grain bread (wheat and rye)

Edible cereals

Net production


Difference (percent)

Net production


Difference (percent)












































1 Without the need for seeds. In the cadastral survey, seed was deducted from the crop and this net yield was also recorded. I used this in all my calculations.

2 Only in terms of human consumption.

3 As a percentage of need.

The mean value of the average consumption estimate is given by the 3–5 p. m./person/year calculations. The total population needs calculated on the basis of this were met by the wheat yield only in Karcag and Kunszentmárton, but in the latter, 35 percent of the wheat yield (a relatively high proportion) was overproduction. If we also add the rye yield to this, there is no longer any settlement in Nagykunság where there was underproduction, and in the case of Kunszentmárton and Túrkeve, there was even a surplus of 60–70 percent. If we add barley to this, a 100–200 percent overproduction arises in Nagykunság.

However, the situation is less favorable if we calculate with the average annual consumption of 6 and 7.51 p. m., which form the upper estimates. Wheat production alone does not meet the entire needs in any of the settlements, and an underproduction of 10–30 percent can be observed in terms of bread grain. Exceptions are Kunszentmárton and Túrkeve, where bread grain met the needs and there was even an overproduction of 6–18 percent. However, if we consider food grain, a more favorable picture emerges, as production exceeded the needs in all settlements and, moreover, Kunszentmárton and Túrkeve produced 100 percent more than they needed.

As we can see, due to the uncertainty on the consumption side, it is difficult to accurately assess the relationship between production and consumption; however, some important conclusions can be drawn from the data. Production exceeded the minimum need by several times in all settlements, which makes it clear that there was no serious overpopulation. However, according to Géza Perjés’ estimate, the production of the settlements only slightly exceeded consumption. It is, however, important to note that Perjés’ calculations assume an extremely ideal consumption even for later periods. Thus, in the years of average yields, the population could have had plenty of grain to sell, not to mention the years of good yields. As production exceeded 4–5 times the minimum need, the worse-than-average years could not have caused more serious disturbances; at most the complete crop yield might have been consumed. Of course, it would be misleading to assess the relationship of production and consumption solely on the basis of physiological needs, to which we must certainly add the various types of tax burdens as well.

In the case of the settlements of Nagykun, the tax books (Conscriptio facultatum) of four settlements, Karcag, Kisújszállás, Túrkeve and Kunszentmárton, remained for the years of 1780, but in the case of the latter two, the column of the paid amount remained unfilled. In the year of 1784/85 the population of Karcag paid a tax of RFT (Rhine Forint) 4,958,33 and that of Kisújszállás RFT 2,856.34 The amounts include both the war tax (contributio) and the habitation tax (domestica). The amount of taxes did not exceed 7 percent of the total cadastral income for a settlement. Taking into account the assumed highest grain need per capita in the two settlements of Nagykun (Perjés), we can calculate with 32,829 p. m. surpluses in Karcag and 18,339 p. m. in Kisújszállás, considering the whole grain crop together. Calculated on the basis of the average prices of wheat, rye, barley and oats (based on market prices reported in the cadastral survey), this is about 13,470 and 7,029 RFT.35 It follows that, in principle, the full amount of taxes could be paid merely from the sale of surplus grain. Considering the presumably higher benefits of livestock farming, the amount of war and habitation taxes alone did not impose an unbearably high burden on the population. This is, of course, a theoretical calculation as we do not know what proportion of the crop was actually marketable. Unfortunately, I did not find any summary data on the in-kind part of the war tax, but I assume that its burden might not have been greater than that of the part paid in money. I did not find any data on the exact distribution of the annual 12,600 RFT palatine census, either; however, based on the value calculations of the surplus crops in Karcag and Kisújszállás, it could hardly have been an unbearable burden. In 1837, Márton Bartsik, the archivist of Jászkunság, made a summary of the benefits in money and extraordinary in kind ones provided by the Jászkun District between 1735 and 1837.36 According to this, the largest produce delivery for military purposes for the period of 1750 and 1800 took place in 1760, when the three districts delivered 60,000 p. m. of grain. This was 5.91 percent of the total annual grain production of the districts. It is also a clear indication that a total of 573,471p. m. of grain collected on extraordinary occasions amounted to 56 percent of the annual average production of the district during hundred years.

In the above calculation of grain surplus only the physiological need and tax burdens were considered however, it is important to take into account feed requirements and and storage losses too. József Glósz examined the balance of grain production throughout the country, calculating with 9 p.m/capita/years of needs, of which 5 liters of physiological needs and 4 liters of other needs, which include tax burdens, animal feed and storage losses.37 Assuming an average consumption of 9 liters, there was an overproduction of 52 percent38 in Nagykun District, Túrkeve (103 percent) was in the best position and Kunhegyes (17 percent) was in the worst. It should be noted, however, that farmers in the Nagykun district did not pay the landlord’s tax, and compared to other landscapes, there was probably less grain used for fodder here, because grazing was typical and pastures were rich, so the average consumption of 9 p.m/capita/years seems a lot. However, indicated the good situation of cereal production is by the fact that even with this high average demand, a significant surplus of cereals can be observed.

According to Glósz’s calculations, there was a small underproduction in Nagykunság in the first half of the nineteenth century.39 However, according to the cadastral survey, with the same average demand that Glósz used, there was a 26 percent overproduction in the Jászkun District at the end of the eighteenth century. This can be explained by the fact that between 1780 and 1840 the population increased by 74 percent, but the arable land by only 29 percent. Given that the comprehensive river regulation that allowed for greater extensive development of crop production only began in the mid-nineteenth century, this does not seem unrealistic. This study confirms Glósz’s remark that county-level statistics may mask significant regional differences. The overproduction was 26 percent in the Jászkun District, but there were significant regional differences: the overproduction was 52 percent in the Nagykun District, 11 percent in the Jász District and 22 percent in the Kiskun District.

Distribution of Resources

The analysis of production and need presented so far is a highly theoretical calculation, as I have compared the total needs of the settlements with the total production, but relative overpopulation can also result from a large inequality in the distribution of resources. In principle, it can be assumed, for example, that the grain crop, which supplies the entire population of the settlement, is concentrated in the hands of a few landowners who constitute a small part of society, and thus the majority of the population faces food insecurity. The social division created by redemption40 (landowner redeemers/irredeemers displaced from land ownership) brought with it the possibility of such a situation. Fortunately, the individual sheets41 of the cadastral survey also provide an opportunity to examine the estate structure, but such a document has survived only in connection with Kunszentmárton. However, there is no indication that my findings regarding Kunszentmárton cannot be generalized to the other five settlements with due caution.

In Kunszentmárton, 473 landholders were registered during the cadastral survey, i.e. persons with at least an internal plot (with a house, a garden), 17 of whom did not have any ploughland, meadows, pastures, or vineyards. According to other sources, 269 redeemer landowners lived in the settlement, and thus it seems that even irredeemer landholders obtained access to land cultivated in the system of the land community during the cadastral survey period. In the landed estate structure of Kunszentmárton, however, the marked social response line formed by redemption emerges clearly. At first glance, the structure of the landed estate (Table 2) gives a strongly negative picture, as 26 landless and 183 (38 percent of all landholders) family heads with less than one cadastral acre was recorded. From the point of view of overpopulation, it can undoubtedly be considered negative that almost 46 percent of the population had little or no ploughland or meadow that could be cultivated, as this clearly resulted in a continuously intense demand for land. However, it is also important to point out that a favorable structure of landed estate emerges within the stratum of the redeemers (practically the landholders with land of more than 1 cadastral acre in the table). Among redeemers, especially in the case of ploughland, the landholders in each category and the total cultivated area in that category are relatively proportional.42 Accordingly, in this social stratum, i.e. in the actual landholders, land subdivision was not yet so widespread; this stratum could be less characterized by internal tension. Undoubtedly, the pressure of the stratum of irredeemers gradually became more severe on that of the redeemers, but the key question in judging overpopulation is how great this pressure could have been and whether it could be managed under the given conditions.

In 1786, hundreds of mostly irredeemer families migrated to Bácska as part of the chamber’s efforts to relocate sectors of the population. Relocation is interpreted by most researchers as a symptom of a crisis in the community when internal tensions have reached a level so critical that they trigger emigration. In connection with this, however, I would like to mention my hypothesis that emigration was motivated more by the benefits of the chamber’s relocation efforts than by internal social tension. This seems to prove that the councils of the Nagykun settlements initially strove to impede43 the organization related to emigration, and the landlords of Külső-Szolnok County wanted to allow emigration from their villages only on condition that the families moving away find new landholders to take their place.44 This behavior seems illogical if we assume that the settlements were facing an overpopulation crisis.

As the statistics show, the relatively large number (38 percent) of Kunszentmárton’s heads of families were landless peasants or smallholders, and consequently landholders with lower levels of wealth and property. However, the stratum of irredeemers was also highly differentiated. On the one hand, there were landholders who had significant numbers of livestock, and on the other, there were herdsmen, horse herdsmen, shepherds, etc.,45 who played an important role in livestock farming and otherwise enjoyed relatively high social prestige. It is very important that smallholders in the land statistics who cultivated less than one cadastral acre not be clearly considered social outcasts living at the poverty line, as most of them were servants and laborers in the service of redeemer landowners who had an income above the subsistence level. In the eighteenth century, the lord-peasant relationship was strictly regulated centrally by district administrations and at the local level by settlement councils: they prevented lords from luring contracted peasants away, sanctioned unilateral breaches of contract by the lord or peasant, and also set wages.46 The initial impediment to the organization of emigration was clearly motivated by the fear of losing a labor force. At the agrotechnical level of the eighteenth century, the existence of this stratum providing a labor force was a normal condition for the operation of the farm, as the labor force of a family alone may mostly not have been sufficient to cultivate the estates of redeemer landlords with medium and large lands.47

According to the cadastral survey, 209 landless farm peasants or dwarf holders lived in Kunszentmárton, and they accounted for 38 percent of all landholders. It is worth comparing this ratio with regional and national averages, but this is difficult to do. Of the surrounding settlements, the individual sheets survived only in Tiszaszalók (it is a part of Abádszalók today). The settlements of Jászkunság cannot be compared with one another due to lack of sources. In Tiszaszalók, the ratio of cottars with less than one cadastral acre was quite high, 61 percent. Of course, the socage settlement can only be compared with the privileged Kunszentmárton with certain reservations, as the landholders classified as cottars in the former may have had access to the allodial land of the landlords. Accordingly, the data for Tiszaszalók are likely to be skewed upwards in terms of the ratio of landless peasants or dwarf holders. Furthermore, the question may arise whether the very high ratio of cottars can be attributed to some peculiarity of the settlement. However, the ratio of socage and allodial lands and the ploughland per person is close to the averages in the settlements of Heves and Külső-Szolnok Counties,48 and on the basis of its urbarium, it does not differ from the settlements along the river Tisza, either.49

According to the census in Nagykunság, the ratio of male cottars was 36 percent of all adult men. This ratio was 39 percent for the whole of Jászkunság, 48.5 in Heves and Külső-Szolnok Counties, 51 percent in Pest County, 32 percent in Győr County, and 51 percent for the whole of the Kingdom of Hungary.50 In Nagykunság, therefore, the ratio of the landless peasants does not seem striking. At the time of the socage settlement, 27.12 percent of the cottars in the Kingdom of Hungary belonged to the category of housed cottars and 6.23 percent to the category of houseless cottars. By 1791, this proportion rose to 29.64 and 9.25 percent, respectively. Also in 1791, the ratio of housed and houseless cottars was 33.16 percent and 11.66 percent respectively in the counties of the Great Plain.51 Based on these, on the other hand, the ratio of irredeemers of 38 percent with no land or little land but with a house in Kunszentmárton seems a bit high.

An important issue associated with overpopulation is the standard of living of the lower social strata. Fortunately, the individual sheets of the cadastral survey indicated not only the extent of the land cultivated by certain landholders, but also their yield. In Kunszentmárton, only 39 landholders (7 percent) were listed who did not produce any kind of grain, and 30 percent of them produced less than 5 p. m., which was the lower annual need of a person. 53 percent of landholders produced 13 p. m. meeting one family’s minimum annual need on their own land, and 46 percent of landholders harvested more than 37.5 p. m.52 regarded as the upper estimate (Perjés). Thus, in terms of the distribution of production (Table 3), and thus 30 percent of landholders produced below the subsistence level, roughly 7 percent of them produced 13–40 p. m. needed only to provide for the family, and 46 percent also produced a surplus. Thus, a significant part of families produced a marketable surplus. However, I have to nuance the picture that emerges from the survey data at two points. My calculations refer to food grain, which also includes barley, the consumption of which as porridge may have been a stop-gap solution. A further criticism of the calculation may be that it records the average yield. Landholders with an average production of roughly 40 p. m. may have been the ones who were able to ensure their own crop supply even in poorer crop years. This applies to 54 percent of all landholders.


Table 3. Distribution of cereal production among individual landholders in Kunszentmárton based on first cadastral survey

Distribution of cereal production*

(pozsonyi mérő)

Number of landholders


All cereals produced in category


Less than 1





1 – 4





5 – 9





10 – 19





20 – 39





40 – 79





80 – 159





160 – 319





320 – 639





640 –






* The cadastral data of Kunszentmárton coincide with the estimation of József Glósz of the average yield of the categories of serf plots. See: Glósz, “A birtokviszonyok hatása,” 206. The average yield of the estates belonging to the 40–50 Hungarian lunar category was 267 p. m. (According to Glósz, this category had a yield of 280 p. m.), 25–30 magyar hold – 176 p. m. (Ibid., 185), 20–21 magyar hold – 133 p. m. (Ibid., 140), 13–15 magyar hold – 90 p. m. (Ibid., 90), 5–10 magyar hold – 42 p. m. (Ibid., 46), 3–5 magyar hold – 22 p. m. (Ibid., 23). 1 magyar hold = 0,76 katasztrális hold.

Based on the above, it seems that at the end of the eighteenth century, the structure of landed estate in Kunszentmárton did not yet show significant fragmentation of the estate, which contradicts the hypothesis according to which the settlement was largely overpopulated. However, the optimal condition observed in the settlement cannot necessarily be considered valid for the whole of Nagykunság. In the other settlements of Nagykunság, the ratio of irredeemers was lower, which, however, does not only mean that there were fewer social tensions and, consequently, less hunger for land, but also that there may have been a less favorable structure of landed estate within the stratum of landowners, as all the cultivable land was shared between several owners. This could have been somewhat offset by the fact that the land available was proportionally larger, but this was not the case, as the utilized area per capita in Kunszentmárton (5.71 cadastral acres/person) exceeded the average in the settlements in Nagykunság (5.31 cadastral acres/person). However, these uncertainties are not greater than the uncertainties in the analyses that have been conducted by researchers so far. Based on the data of the cadastral survey, it can be stated that the amount of natural resources in relation to the population and the distribution of resources at the turn of the century were still relatively optimal, at least compared to other areas.

Assessment of the Economic Condition: Conclusions

The main question of the present study was whether the settlements of Nagykunság were afflicted by overpopulation due to failing to meet basic food needs and thus to what extent the anthropogenic interventions in the ecosystems (the construction of Mirhó Dam) could have been motivated by a kind of extensive growth compulsion. Due to the limited sources which were produced during and survive from the time, the question cannot be answered with certainty, but from the data of the first cadastral survey, which has been undeservedly neglected in environmental history research so far, many conclusions can be drawn which are new compared to assessments carried out by researchers previously.

According to the data of the cadastral survey, the grain production of the settlements of Nagykunság met the domestic consumption needs of the population, and taxes as well as the feed needs of animals too, and the population also had a surplus that could be sold on the market in normal and good crop years. The population of the settlements grew arable crops mainly for self-sufficiency, which is indicated by the relatively close relationship between the size of the ploughland and the population. The structure of the landed estate, i.e. the most important natural resource and the distribution of agricultural land, was still optimal at the end of the eighteenth century, both at national and regional levels.53 The overpopulation which, according to Klára Dóka, was an issue in the case of the settlements along the Tisza and the resulting growth compulsion can be detected only to a small extent in the case of the settlements of Nagykunság, along with the social tensions resulting mostly from redemption. The farming of the settlements of Nagykunság was characterized by the optimal utilization of environmental resources, and thus by high average yields (especially in the case of grain production).

The construction of the Mirhó Dam can undoubtedly be attributed to the confrontation between nature and man, but this is probably not due to the need to change the existing land use system, but to changes in the system due to external factors, in our case to the periodic changes in climatic conditions. This is indicated by the fact that the complaint letters written before the construction of the dam mention disturbances arising in the use of areas already under cultivation (flooded meadows all year round, ploughlands and vineyards protected by dykes, etc.) and do not formulate the need to involve new areas.54 The grain boom which emerged later and which forced the floodplain communities of the Carpathian Basin to change to dryland farming can’t have been behind the construction of the Mirhó Dam in chronological terms, either. If we accept the picture which emerges on the basis of the cadastral data, i.e. that the farming system at the end of the eighteenth century was relatively optimal, it is also unlikely that the goal of the farming communities involved in dam construction would have been to eliminate the farming system which had been in use until then. With regard to the construction, it is also worth noting that the dam was erected in the first half of the eighteenth century (i.e. in the initial period of reorganization), which suggests the possibility that the existence of the dam was a normal condition for floodplain farming. The intervention was rather the only active element of the basically passive floodplain farming carried out by the settlements of Nagykunság, similar to the way in which the settlements of Sárköz selected the scour channels (fok) that were unfavorable to them. Thus, the aim of building the Mirhó Dam could not have been to drain the area, but to create a more regulated water system. Based on the above, I agree with Zsolt Pinke, who suggests that water management work was caused by the environmental challenges caused by intermittent climate change, and I also agree that the conflict among settlements stems from differences in hydro-geomorphological conditions.55 However, given that floodplain management appears to have been statistically profitable and that significant quantities of marketable grain were available, in my opinion pressures from population growth may have played little role in dam construction in the eighteenth century.

My results are an adjunct to floodplain management debates too. The opinions of two significant researchers on the topic, Bertalan Andrásfalvy56 and Miklós Szilágyi,57 differed mainly on the question as to whether floodplain management was profitable and well-planned. My results are closer to Andrásfalvy’s opinion on efficiency, as floodplain farming was profitable even in terms of field crop production, despite the fact that in the Nagykun District this sector was secondary. The study I have done does not in itself provide an opportunity to assess the other side, the planning of floodplain management, so I cannot contribute to the discussion in this respect.

However, the validity of my findings is limited by certain source-critical considerations, three of which are worth highlighting. In the case of the cadastral data, despite the fact that they provide much more reliable and less indirect information compared to the dical tax censuses of the period, there are a number of uncertainties. The uncertainties are rooted, on the one hand, in the fundamental problems of statistics and, on the other, in the much-mentioned interests of farmers in data distortion. The basic statistical problems include, for example, how much variance we have to reckon with in the case of the average yield, and the extent to which the pressure system caused fluctuations in production. The second major uncertainty factor is the determination of need. We have very little information on contemporary consumption patterns, especially at a given time and place, and the relatively large standard deviation of the estimates can be attributed to this. Moreover, need, like overpopulation, must be regarded as a relative concept. The third factor of uncertainty is the livestock farming sector as the cadastral survey provides data only indirectly in this regard. The main point is, therefore, that there are uncertainties about both the need and the production side, but in my view, they do not exceed the uncertainties about the types of sources used by researchers so far (e.g. tax censuses). Moreover, the cadastral survey also allows analyses which were not feasible on the basis of these other sources.

One of the important aims of the present study was to shed light on the need to reevaluate the statements made about floodplain farming, as in the light of newer sources, some questions are approached from a different perspective. It is also worth reconsidering these questions in light of new source-critical findings related to the sources used so far. The synthesizing character of environmental history requires that the statements made so far be checked from time to time, taking into account new findings in different disciplines and reevaluating prevailing conclusions if necessary.

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V. 200. 1. a./b Kisújszállás város levéltára [Archives of Kisújszállás]. Conscriptio Facultatum [Census of goods] 1784/1785.

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V. 1900. 792. Kunszentmárton város levéltára [Archives of Kunszentmárton]. Conscriptio II. József-féle [Census in the era of Joseph II] 1789.

IV. 2. 76. A Jászkun Kerület II. József-féle közigazgatási iratai [Administrative documents of the Jászkun District of the reign of Joseph II]. Községek terméskimutatása [Crop statement by villages] 1789.

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Glósz, József. “A birtokviszonyok hatása Magyarország gabonamérlegére a 19. század első felében” [The effect of estate structure on Hungary’s grain balance in the first half of the nineteenth century]. In Eszmék, forradalmak, háborúk: Vadász Sándor 80 éves, edited by István Majoros, 199–215. Budapest: ELTE BTK Kelet-Európa Története Tanszék, 2017.

Gyimesi, Sándor. “Adalékok Miskolc gabonaellátáshoz a XVII. század végén” [Data for the supply of grain to the population of Miskolc]. Agrártörténeti Szemle 9, no. 34 (1967): 481–90.

Györffy, István. Nagykunsági Krónika [The cronicle of Great Cumania]. Karcag: 1984.

Károlyi, Zsigmond. “A magyar vízi munkálatok rövid története különös tekintettel a vizek szabályozására” [History of aquatic works with special regard to the regulation of waters]. In A magyar vízszabályozás története, edited by Ihrig Dénes, 23–154. Budapest: 1973.

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Keleti, Károly, ed. “Az 1868. évi aratás kenyérterményekben a törvényhatóságok által a közvetlenül gyűjtött adatok alapján” [The harvested bread grain in 1868 according to data from the administratuve units]. Hivatalos Statisztikai Közlemények 1, no. 3 (1868): 159–76.

Papp, Izabella. “A Jászkunok száz éves áldozatai: Bartsik Márton levéltárnok kimutatása a Jászkun Kerület katonai, pénzbeli és egyéb terheiről 1735–1837 között” [The sacrifice of Jászkun during hundred years: Statement about the military, monetary and other burdens of Jászkun District made by Martin Bartsik, archivist between 1735–1837]. Zounuk 9 (1994): 309–39.

Perjés, Géza. “Mezőgazdasági termelés, népesség, hadseregélelmezés és stratégia a 17. században” [Agricultural production, population, army nutrition and strategy in the 17th century]. In Seregszemle: Hadtörténeti és művelődéstörténeti tanulmányok, edited by Perjés Géza, 223–55. Budapest, 1999.

Pinke, Zsolt. “Alkalmazkodás és felemelkedés – modernizáció és leszakadás: Kis jégkorszaki kihívások és társadalmi válaszok a Tiszántúlon” [Accomodation and rising – modernization and fallback: Challenges and the social responses in the small ice age in the Trans-Tisza region]. PhD diss., University of Pécs, 2015.

Rózsa, Sándor. “A 18. századi árvízmentesítések vizsgálata Kunhegyes településen” [Investigation of eighteenth century water management in Kunhegyes]. In Tanulmányok az Eszterházy Károly Főiskola Tudományos Diákköreinek tudományos tevékenységéből (2013–2015), edited by Angelika Reichmann, 321–52. Eger: Líceum, 2015.

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Soós, Imre. A jobbágyföld helyzete a szolnoki Tiszatájon 1711–1770 [The situation of the serfs’ lands in Szolnok Tiszatáj 1711–1770]. A Damjanich János Múzeum közleményei 1. Szolnok, 1958.

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Szabó, Lajos. “A ‘Mirhó gáttyának’ építése” [Construction of the Mirho Dam]. In “Áldás és átok a víz”: Tudományos emlékülés a Mirhó gát megépítésének 200. évfordulójára, edited by Tóth Albert, 3–22. Kisújszállás, 1987.

Szabó, Lajos. “Megélhetőség Kisújszálláson a XVIII. század második felében” [Standard of living in Kisújszállás in the second half of the eighteenth century]. Zounuk 2 (1987): 29–61.

Szabó, Lajos. ‘Kunhegyesi ‘földtelen emberek Feketitsre’ költözése 1785-ben” [Migration of landless people from Kunhegyes to Feketics]. In Jubileumi tudományos ülés a jászkunságiak bácskai kitelepülésének 200. évfordulóján. A Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Megyei Múzeumok közleményei 4445, edited by Gábor Bagi, and Gyöngyi Kaposvári, 37–65. Szolnok: Damjanich Múzeum, 1989.

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Szilágyi, Miklós. “Az árpa vermelése – Kunszentmárton, 1766” [Storage of barely in the ground in Kunszentmárton]. Honismeret 29, no. 6 (2001): 106–15.

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1 Fok: scour channel, stream bed, channelixing water flow from the river onto floodplain during floods and draining it back during the falling stage.

2 On the history of the construction, see: Sugár, A Közép-Tiszavidék két kéziratos térképe, 53–57; Szabó, “A ‘Mirhó-gáttyának’ építése.”

3 Károlyi, “A magyar vízi munkálatok rövid története,” 59; Fejér, A vízitársulatok 200 éve, 17.

4 Dóka, “Gazdálkodás a Tisza árterein.”

5 Rózsa, “A 18. századi árvízmentesítések vizsgálata.”

6 The needs of the population exceed production.

7 MNL OL P. 6. 1. 21.

8 Dávid, “Magyarország első kataszteri felmérése.”

9 For a source-critical analysis of the first military survey, see: Rózsa, “Az első kataszteri felmérés környezettörténeti forrásértéke.”

10 JNSZML V. 1900. 792.

11 JNSZML IV. 2. 76.

12 Dávid, “Adatok a mezőgazdasági termelés nagyságáról.”

13 Bellon, Karcag város gazdálkodása, 24; Bellon, Nagykunság, 90.

14 Károlyi, “A magyar vízi munkálatok rövid története,” 83–84, Somogyi, “A vízrajzi viszonyok szükségszerű átalakításának felismerése,” 150.

15 Outskirts, agrarian area around the settlement.

16 Hold was used as a unit of measurement in the cadastral survey. A katasztrális hold contained 1600 négyszögöl this was recorded in the survey documents. 1 katasztrális hold = 1600 négyszögöl, 1 négyszögöl = 3,5966 m2 (SI) so 1 katasztrális hold = 5755 m2

17 71 percent of the area of Kunhegyes is above 87 m B.a (B.a: Its height above the Baltic Sea), while 56 percent of the area of Túrkeve is below 85 m B.a.

18 For the data on which the calculation is based see, Dávid, “Adatok a mezőgazdasági termelés nagyságáról.”

19 Grain production potential is calculated by taking into account the parameters determining the crop production of the határ of the given settlement, i.e. climate, soil conditions, etc. The data are for the present, but the extent of soil and climate change is supposed not to reach the critical level which would prevent applying the data to the eighteenth century with some uncertainty. Many thanks to László Pásztor, an employee of the Institute for Soil Science and Agricultural Chemistry, Centre for Agricultural Research, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences for the data related to the wheat production potential of the settlements’ határs (outskirts, agrarian area around the settlement). See for details: Fodor and Pásztor, “The agro-ecological potential”; Fodor et al., “Coupling the 4M crop model.”

20 Györffy, Nagykunsági krónika; Bellon, Nagykunság.

21 Bagi, “A Jászkun Kerület,” 254–66.

22 Perjés, “Mezőgazdasági termelés,” 240–42.

23 Quote by: Bagi, “Adatok a növénytermesztés nagyságához,” 38.

24 Keleti, “Az 1868. évi aratás kenyérterményekben,” 160–61.

25 Quote by: Gyimesi, “Adalékok Miskolc gabonaellátáshoz,” 482.

26 Ibid.

27 Quote by: Bagi, “Adatok a növénytermesztés nagyságához,” 38.

28 Ibid., 41.

29 In the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries, liquid measures were used instead of weight measures to measure cereals. In the 18-nineteenth centuries, the size of pozsonyi mérő changed from 74 icces to 64 icces, i.e. between 62.08 and 53.72 liters. Pozsonyi mérő, therefore, corresponds to 46.5 or 40.29 kilograms of grain. This uncertainty can no longer be accepted in the order of tens of thousands of pozsonyi mérő. For conversions, see Bogdán, Magyarországi űr-, térfogat-, súly- és darabmértékek, 345.

30 Perjés, “Mezőgazdasági termelés,” 236–37.

31 Szilágyi, Az árpa vermelése.

32 Elek, “ ‘Értünk kunság mezején’,” 103.

33 JNSZML, V. 100. 145.

34 JNSZML, V. 200. 1. a./2

35 Rajnai forint, taxes were paid in that currency.

36 Papp, “A Jászkunok száz éves áldozatai.”

37 Glósz, “Területi hiány és felesleg,” 125.

38 In this calculation I have already taken into account oats, which I have omitted so far because they were feed.

39 Glósz, “Területi hiány és felesleg,” 126.

40 The population of Jászság and Nagy- and Kiskunság redeemed themselves for the landlord’s jurisdiction in 1745, and in exchange for the money paid at that time, the districts gained administrative, judicial, and economic autonomy, an event called redemption, which derives from the Latin word redemptio. The right of redemption, which came into force after 1745, divided society into two large groups, the full-fledged redeemers, who contributed to the costs of redemption, and the irredeemers, who were left out of it. Redeemers, in proportion to their contribution to redemption, acquired so-called capital land, which they freely possessed, and the holdings could be inherited and sold. Irredeemers were in principle not excluded from land ownership, but in practice the right of pre-emption of redeemers significantly limited their access to land. Even irredeemers could obtain access to pastures, meadows, and unallocated, so-called redistributed lands (melon, tobacco, and maize, etc.) at redemption in the eighteenth century, but at the end of the century, irredeemers began to be displaced from the common lands. See for details: Bánkiné, A Jászkun Kerület közigazgatása, 23–34.

41 A sheet listing all the owners of each settlement one by one, in which all the holdings cultivated by certain farmers were recorded.

42 This can be contrasted with the national situation at the end of the nineteenth century, when smallholders with less than 5 acres, representing 53.47 percent of the landholders owning 7.52 percent of the total, cultivated land. Katus, A modern Magyarország születése, 450.

43 Szabó, Kunhegyesi “földtelen emberek Feketitsre” költözése, 43.

44 Bagi, “Egy bácskai kirajzás,” 133.

45 See this for more details: Györffy, Nagykunság, 7–28.

46 On the wages of employees and the employment system, see: Szabó, “Megélhetőség Kisújszálláson.”

47 According to Imre Wellmann, a serf who had more land than half a serf plot had to hire or use a day-laborer. See: Wellmann, A magyar mezőgazdaság, 147. In Kunszentmárton, at the end of the eighteenth century, 18 percent of the owners had more land than 11 katasztrális hold (on a country average, this is half a serf plot).

48 The data on the settlements were published: Dávid, “Adatok a mezőgazdasági termelés nagyságáról,” 123–24.

49 The urbariums are bublished: Soós, A jobbágyföld helyzete, 25–42.

50 For the data based on the calculation see: Danyi and Dávid, Az első magyarországi népszámlálás.

51 Quotes the data: Wellmann, A magyar mezőgazdaság, 69–70.

52 The 37.5 p. m. presumably covered ample the needs of a family, if we calculate average consumption of 7.5 p. m./capita/year and a family size of 5 people.

53 Dóka, “Gazdálkodás a Tisza árterein.”

54 JNSZML V. 200. 1. a./a.

55 Pinke, “Alkalmazkodás és felemelkedés,” 258.

56 Bertalan Andrásfalvy examined farming before the river regulations in the settlements of Sárköz along the Danube and found planned and productive floodplain management, which he called fokgazdálkodás. See: Andrásfalvy, A Sárköz ősi ártéri gazdálkodása.

57 Examining the Tiszavidék, Miklós Szilágyi did not find any traces of active floodplain management similar to that observed in Sárköz, and he doubted that the farming system before the river regulations would have been planned or very productive. See: Szilágyi, “Az ősi ártéri gazdálkodás elméletéhez.”

* The author’s research was supported by the grant EFOP-3.6.1-16-2016-00001 (“Complex improvement of research capacities and services at Eszterhazy Karoly University”).


Map 1. Hydrographic conditions of Grand Cumania (Nagykunság) at the end of the eighteenth century. Map drawn by the author using the following map: JNSZML T30.


Table 2. Structure of the landed estate in Kunszentmárton based on first cadastral survey

Distribution of ploughland

(cadastral acre
katasztrális hold)

Number of landowners in category


Total area of the category


No arable land





– 0.99





1 – 4.99





5 – 9.99





10 – 19.99





20 – 39.99





40 – 79.99





80 – 159.99





160 –





Distribution of meadow

No meadow





– 0.99





1 – 4.99





5 – 9.99





10 – 19.99





20 – 39.99





40 – 79.99





80 – 159.99





160 –







Environmental Impacts of Medieval Uses of Natural Resources in the Carpathian Basin

Beatrix F. Romhányi, Zsolt Pinke, and József Laszlovszky
Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church; Eötvös Loránd University; Central European University
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 2  (2020): 241-283 DOI:10.38145/hunghist.2020.2.241

Various natural resources were abundant in medieval Hungary, and contemporary sources offer a portrait of the kingdom as rich because of these natural conditions. The different forms in which these resources were put to use were decisive for the history of the Carpathian Basin, including its environmental history. In the Middle Ages, there were two key economic activities which played an especially significant role both in the sphere of local production and in foreign trade and which also had a significant environmental impact: livestock farming on the Great Plain (primarily but not exclusively of cattle) and mining, including the processing of primary metals, which was closely related to mining in certain mountain areas. On the basis of analyses of sources drawn from the monastic network, medieval rural churches, and selected archaeological findings and written evidence, we examine the environmental consequences of these activities with particular focus on the changes in the settlement network and relative population density. Our data suggest that the long-term effect of the prevailing practices in the most lucrative, export-oriented economic sectors of the late medieval Kingdom of Hungary—both of which contributed to the ability of the country to withstand pressures from the advancing Ottoman for about 130 years and to some extent even beyond—was serious environmental degradation in the affected regions. The environmental problems caused by these practices could not be fully overcome for a long time. Certainly, the impact was increased by the consequences of the Ottoman wars and the changing climatic conditions of the Little Ice Age, but the process began well before the Early Modern crisis, in some respects as early as in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

Keywords: natural resources, environmental impact, settlement network, medieval mining regions, Middle Ages, Kingdom of Hungary

The three most important economic sectors of late medieval Hungary were crop farming, animal husbandry, and mining.1 Regarding productivity in these sectors and their importance in foreign trade, sources prove that huge incomes were generated by the export of both cattle and non-ferrous and precious metals, mainly copper. Although there are some hints that these sectors became strategic earlier, there is little written evidence before the fifteenth century and even less in the Árpád age (1000–1300). Since animal farming and mining became large-scale in the fourteenth century and continued to increase throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the Carpathian Basin, both had deep impacts on the natural environment, and triggered big human pressure leading to a large-scale transformation in the ecosystem. Certainly, there was a third sector of the economy that exerted similar pressures and that was also present, if to different extent, throughout the kingdom. The transformation of the natural environment to ploughland or to areas in which the populations engaged in various agricultural activities was a much longer process. The large-scale extension of cultivated areas started well before the Mongol Invasion (1241–1242), and it went hand-in-hand with the colonization of areas that had been uninhabited until then. However, written, and archaeological evidence suggests that the regenerative ability of the mosaic-like medieval agricultural landscape was considerably stronger than that of later land use systems, including both modern field systems and industrial agriculture. Therefore, our hypothesis is that the environmental impact of the agricultural practices which prevailed at the time was not as long-lasting as, for instance, that of mining. Furthermore, grain and wine played a limited role as exports in the foreign trade of the Kingdom of Hungary before the mid-sixteenth century, meaning that the royal treasury had lower expectations when it came to potential profits. Therefore, we do not touch on this subject in this paper.2 Here, we trace the pressures put on the ecosystem by animal farming and mining by drawing on direct evidence concerning the economic activities we discuss and some available indirect sources concerning shifts in settlement patterns, namely sources concerning the rural church network and the spatial distribution of monasteries. We focus on the late medieval period, though we also include the sixteenth century, because most of the practices that had come to prevail before the fall of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary in 1526, including economic and ecologic practices, continued without interruption until the 1560s or the 1570s. Furthermore, the character of sixteenth-century written data is very similar to the fifteenth-century data, and the number of written sources relevant from the perspective of our research increased in the first half of the sixteenth century. It has also been shown in the earlier secondary literature that, for example, defterler and other tax lists from the first decades of the Ottoman period in Hungary can be used in a regressive way to reconstruct the settlement systems of the different regions.3

Methods and Source Material

Given the scarcity of direct written evidence concerning the territorial impact of animal farming and mining on the settlement pattern and the environment, traditional historical methods do not lead us very far. Therefore, indicators and models based on analyses of phenomena that are not directly connected to our topic are needed to get closer to the process under investigation. Changes in the central elements of the settlement network can be interpreted as a measure of human pressure on the ecosystem and the exploitation of the available natural resources. We must remain aware of the nature of the sources at our disposal, so we emphasize that the results of this study refer to tendencies and our models can only be used to further an interpretation of the general picture, as one might arrive at significantly different results in particular regions if one were to have additional sources or to use the sources we have drawn on in a different way.

The settlement network cannot be fully reconstructed for the Middle Ages in Hungary, and this statement is valid for all the medieval periods, even for the Late Middle Ages, a period on which we have considerably more sources. Various significant attempts to reconstruct the whole settlement system of the kingdom represent outstanding scholarly work from different generations of medievalists, although they had to work with very fragmented written source materials, particularly in the study of the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages. The first large scale attempt to reconstruct the settlement network of the second half of the fifteenth century was a major contribution from the first positivist period of Hungarian medieval research. However, Dezső Csánki’s enterprise remained unfinished, and large parts of the medieval kingdom were never covered.4 The work of György Györffy, who aspired to publish a historical geography of the Carpathian Basin in the eleventh–thirteenth centuries, is similarly incomplete, although the data on most of the counties have been published.5 A third publication worth mentioning is the digital database compiled by Pál Engel on the landed estates in the Late Middle Ages.6 This work is the most complete of the above, covering the whole territory of the kingdom. Its aim, however, was to reconstruct the domains, not the settlement network. Therefore, from our point of view, it is similarly incomplete. Furthermore, archaeological field surveys have shown that there were many settlements—some of them were farmsteads or temporary dwellings, other were villages—that never appeared in any of the written sources.7 In the villages in the Árpád Era, we have to keep in mind that the pit-houses of the period were certainly not built to stand for centuries. The timespan for which these houses were used was probably between thirty and fifty years. Since there are hardly any houses that were renovated in that period, we have to take into consideration the possibility that many of the villages we know from the Árpád Era were homes to one or two generations of rural communities, and we also have to keep in mind that there may well have been a certain level of mobility when it came to the rural settlements. Another problem is—partly related to the above—that we do not have direct sources on population numbers, either.8 Consequently, we have to use diverse indicators when seeking the answers to the questions we pose.

In this context, it is important to note that there are datasets closely related to population density and economic activity in the Middle Ages. Almost all of them are at our disposal: the network of church institutions.9 While the network of rural or parish churches is mainly linked to population density, the monastic network is relevant from the perspective of economic activity. As a third element, we can use the data on late medieval Orthodox churches (sometimes together with data on villages the populations of which belonged to the Orthodox faith) where this data are relevant, since in this case, religion was quite closely connected to their economic pursuits, namely to transhumance, even if some communities may have been comprised of different social groups.10 There is also a fourth limited set of data: the eleventh-century and twelfth-century estates of monasteries, donated by the rulers. The rulers donated these estates not exclusively for religious reasons, but also as part of their royal “regional policies.” Often, the donation charters refer to the uses of natural resources, but even when they did not or when the document itself did not survive, the spatial distribution and the environmental conditions of the landed estates may reveal how the lands were used.

Because of its very nature, foreign trade—both export and import—can also be seen as a good indicator of ways in which natural resources were used. As royal power was generally strong in medieval Hungary, regulations related to foreign trade appear in written records. Thus, the appearance of certain goods (metals, cattle, etc.) in the written sources connected to foreign trade activity can be interpreted as a sign of the importance of these goods and the growing volume in the economic output of the country. In this context, we can use the commercial goods mentioned in diverse privileges given to different towns and trading companies, as well as toll lists and account books. Even international conflicts which imply clashing economic interests can be interpreted as indicators of the ways in which natural resources were put to use.

Documented Historical Processes

In a discussion of natural resources and particularly mineral ores in the context of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, gold and silver come first in mind. Historical data and extensive academic literature and significant scholarly debates on the roles and impact of mineral mining and trade confirms this general picture.11 Therefore, we do not discuss these questions in detail here, but rather merely summarize a few of the more important conclusions from the secondary literature which are relevant to the questions we are raising concerning economic indicators and environmental impact. Certainly, both gold and silver played an important role in the economy of the country, especially after the economic reforms of King Charles I of Anjou in the early fourteenth century.12 The colonization of the peripheries of the kingdom and other marginal areas itself was a long process, and ore mining was one of the most important drivers of this process from the outset. Ores and raw metals were important export goods of the Hungarian Kingdom as early as around 1200. The toll regulation of Stein issued by Duke Otakar of Styria and Duke Leopold of Austria in 1190 mentioned copper, tin, plumb, and iron, along with salt, among the imported goods, and copper was mentioned in the toll regulation of Hainburg (1245), as well.13 After the Mongol Invasion, however, the mining regions experienced intensive development. Many of the major mining towns received their royal privileges in that period, including Besztercebánya (today Banská Bystrica, Slovakia) Körmöcbánya (today Banská Kremnica, Slovakia), and Selmecbánya (today Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia; in Latin Argentifodina), although the mine in the latter had existed nearly two centuries earlier.14

Copper, which was produced in great quantities (especially in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries), is usually also on the list. As for iron production (including bog iron), researchers tend to make less frequent mention of it. Written and material evidence concerning the production sites has been collected and evaluated by Gusztáv Heckenast and Gábor Vastagh.15 The exploitation and smelting of iron, mainly bog iron in the tenth and eleventh centuries, has been studied by the archaeologist János Gömöri,16 but the iron production met with less interest later.17 At the same time, these studies were mainly connected to the production sites in present-day Hungary, and they focused on the earlier period. This aspect of their research is crucial to the general picture, because very important mining areas and production centers were situated outside the modern political borders of the country, and for the late medieval period, one must assume considerably larger amounts of iron products. This can be confirmed by the much bigger population of the country and also by the significant spread of iron objects and building materials in the Late Middle Ages.

Iron mining and smelting are much less documented in the Late Middle Ages compared to other activities and ores in the context of mining. Iron was much more common than non-ferrous metals, and it was often produced in the same regions as gold, silver, and copper. Therefore, written evidence survived mainly about the latter, although there are hints concerning iron production, too. The toll regulation of Stein, issued in 1190 by Prince Otakar of Styria and Prince Leopold of Austria, listed iron among the goods imported from Hungary. The intensification of iron mining can be traced back to the second half of the thirteenth century, and not only in the northern mountain region. In 1291, for instance, German miners from Eisenerz in the Alps settled in Transylvania, more specifically in Torockó (today Râmetea, Romania), to work in the iron mines there (the German name of the settlement, Eisenburg, also referred to the presence of iron ore).18 Based on the contemporary written sources, there were at least six sites where iron ore was mined in the Carpathian Basin in the Middle Ages: the Aggtelek-Rudabánya Mountains, the Slovak Ore Mountains (known in Hungarian as the Gömör-Szepes Mountains, Slovakia), the region of Belényes (today Beiuş, Romania), the eastern part of Temesköz (in Romanian Banatul Montan), the area surrounding Torockó, and the Apuseni Mountains (known in Hungarian as Erdélyi-szigethegység) in central Romania, including the region of Hátszeg (today Haţeg, Romania) with Vajdahunyad (today Hunedoara, Romania) as its center.19 Though the data from written sources are scattered, the fact that many of these mines remained or became royal property during the Late Middle Ages indicates the importance of iron mining and iron production in these regions. Certainly, written sources from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries do not say anything about the beginning of mining activity in these areas, and none of the various archaeological investigations which have been done have yielded any meaningful findings concerning the early periods of medieval iron ore mining. The presence and accessibility of mineral resources does not necessarily mean that these resources were used. However, the evolution of the settlement networks—indicated by different types of written sources—in the areas where these kinds of mineral resources were found could be interpreted as evidence of the economic importance of these resources and may further a more subtle understanding of the changes in population density in a mining region over time. It can also offer an indirect proof for the growing importance of mining activity in less documented areas, as relatively well-documented mining areas can be compared with regions from which we have fewer written sources but about which we know that they had similar natural resources. If so, indicators can confirm—or actually call into question—the importance of some mining regions based on the evaluation of the local settlement system.

The list of important natural resources continues with salt, the mining of which was recorded since the late eleventh century. Alongside ores, salt was another important mineral that was exploited in large quantities. Salt played a significant role in the trade and commercial activities of this earlier period, and it continued to be mined and sold on the same scale in the Late Middle Ages. This also put significant pressure on the ecosystem, as we can clearly see from the better documented later periods. Salt production seems to have increased step by step. The first medieval intensification of salt mining took place around or shortly before 1100, when shipping on the Maros River was established. On the northern border of Transylvania, the monastery of Meszes was founded by Duke Álmos, brother of King Coloman, at the older salt road, which went through the Meszes Pass, during the same period (1102). Its connection to salt transportation is attested by the privilege it received in the 1130s.20 In a second phase, between the 1170s and the 1210s, King Béla III and King Andrew II contributed to the development of salt production and trade by employing Jewish and Muslim officials (comes camerae) and by granting privileges to different churches and monasteries.21A further increase in the quantities transported necessitated the navigability of the Szamos River. Most of the riverbed was probably cleared by the last decades of the thirteenth century, when shipping was mentioned in charters.22 It is difficult to estimate the quantity of salt that was mined, but data suggest that it increased gradually throughout the Middle Ages, and sources suggest that the incomes of the royal treasury from salt represented a large fraction of the royal incomes.23

Similarly, sources from the early fifteenth century document large-scale cattle trade, but as early as 1255, the toll list of Buda mentioned live cattle and cattle skin as important tariff articles.24 Considering that the Cumans were settled in the mid-thirteenth century on a territory that became the center of cattle farming, one may suspect that the story must have begun earlier.25 This type of extensive animal husbandry was made possible by at least two factors which transformed the region: the destruction of the area caused by the Mongol invasion of 1241–1242 and environmental changes due to changing hydrological conditions, both of which resulted in a significant process of settlement desertion. It should also be noted that extensive animal husbandry, dominated by cattle breeding, was still characteristic of large areas of the Great Plain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and historical and ethnographic studies shed light on the ecological pressures caused by these activities and on their impact on the local environment. Particularly the puszta-type of animal husbandry can be studied well in this context. Another branch of animal husbandry was transhumance, which sources indicate was a prevailing practice in certain areas of the Carpathian Basin as early as the thirteenth century, though it is difficult to determine the phases of its spread. In this case, changes in the settlement network can help us establish a more thorough chronology, too.

Changes in the Settlement Network

On the basis of the data connected to the spatial distribution of settlements and the indicators for this network, combined with the long-term processes described above, two major transformations of the settlement network can be observed in the Carpathian Basin between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries (Maps 1–5). There were other significant aspects of inland colonization, but they are not so related to the two main issues discussed in this article: mining activity and extensive cattle production. The territorial expansion of areas under ploughland cultivation and other forms of agriculture was also an important process, but in most of the regions, it involved the extension of new field systems within the boundaries of the existing villages.26 In other words, these were previously settled areas with an existing settlement system, and they started to be transformed by the more active and regular use of previously uncultivated areas. This inner colonization was also connected to the changes in the settlement network in the form of settlement dispersion or in the process of nucleation. The first major colonization process involving areas that had not previously been settled started with the mountainous regions around 1100 and lasting until the end of the Middle Ages or even into Early Modern times (mid-sixteenth century). Due to this process, large areas with their original forest coverage and without a significant settlement network started to be settled in a more intensive way. The main element of the transformation process was the clearing of forests. The Transdanubian Mountains and the North Hungarian Mountains were settled in a more intensive way in the first period, and here, woodland clearing led mainly to the emergence of agrarian settlements and villages. In the second phase, particularly from the thirteenth century, high mountain regions with dense forest coverage started to be exploited as well, with different goals and in various forms of settlement expansion. In these mainly peripheral regions of the kingdom, minerals were increasingly exploited, and pasture lands were created on a large scale in the mountains, especially for sheep and goat breeding. Parallel to this, the other transformation that took place on the Great Hungarian Plain seems to have started in the first decades of the thirteenth century, but it was accelerated in a radical way by the Mongol Invasion of 1241–1242.27 As a result of these events and processes (the process of nucleation, urban development, expansion to the peripheral areas, and the Mongol invasion), the area between the Danube River and Csörsz-árok (or “Devil’s Dyke,” a line of Roman fortifications in the eastern Pannonian plain) became a very loosely settled region. Before this period, the settlement patterns and probably the population density were rather similar to settlement patterns and population densities in the other lowland and plain regions of the kingdom, but in the Late Middle Ages, a very different settlement structure emerged (Map 2a-c). The parish network concentrated on the rivers (the Tisza, Körös, Maros, and Zagyva Rivers), while the monastic network was almost completely missing from the territory (Map 3). The only monastic institutions in this region were the Franciscan and Dominican friaries in Szeged, the Benedictine abbey—later Observant Franciscan friary—of Csanád (today Cenad, Romania), and the Cistercian monastery of Egres (today Igriş, Romania). This institutional pattern was a mark of a livestock-raising society of the plain, where the dominant elements of economic production in the local rural communities were extensively reared cattle, horses, swine, and sheep.

The situation which prevailed in the area earlier can be reconstructed by using written sources mentioned in a previous part of this article. The special use and probably the special estate structure of that central part of the Great Hungarian Plain is referred to by the distribution of the estates given to royal abbeys. The monasteries themselves, especially those founded in the eleventh century, were usually outside the region in question (Map 1). Looking at the map of monastic estates donated before 1060, it is clear that the Great Hungarian Plain was not the region where this type of estate would have been present in the first decades of the Hungarian kingdom. The first monastic estates appeared on the territory after 1060, and the only abbey that received extensive landed estates there was Garamszentbenedek (today Hronský Beňadik, Slovakia), which was founded in 1075 by King Géza I.28 The monastery’s estates in the region concentrated on the Tisza River between Szolnok and Csongrád (Map 4). Monastic estates remained largely absent from the region discussed even in the twelfth century, when a large number of monasteries emerged along the Maros River. One of them was the Cistercian Abbey of Egres, founded by King Béla III in 1179. It was one of the wealthiest abbeys before the Mongol Invasion, but it had very few landed estates, and they were scattered along the river.29

At the same time, recent archaeological research in the region of Kiskunfélegyháza and especially in Bugac has revealed that a rich pre-urban settlement site connected to a monastic complex existed there before 1241.30 Different types of indicators (monastic buildings, import objects, finds connected to trade, etc.) at these sites show that the region also reached a high level of development with a relatively dense settlement network and with emerging central sites. Other findings, for instance in the region of Orosháza, similarly reflect intensive economic activity and higher population density than after the Mongol Invasion.31 These data and the specific character of the region’s monastic network and the almost missing monastic estates suggest that both the estate structure (ownership) and the use of the territory were specific in the eleventh–thirteenth century. Furthermore, data from different parts of the territory imply that changes in land use had begun before the Mongol Invasion, resulting in the radical transformation of the settlement system, while large parts of the territory became pasture for extensive cattle farming.32 Parallel to this transformation, the Árpád Era monastic network of the region disappeared almost completely.33

The settlement pattern that became characteristic of the Carpathian Basin in the Late Middle Ages first appeared in the papal tithe list of 1332–1337, which is a good indicator of the spatial distribution of the settlements34 (Map 3). Big empty regions can be identified for a major part of the Great Hungarian Plain in this period, and large parts of the Transylvanian Apuseni Mountains, including the Metaliferi Mountains, also seem not to have had a parish church network. At the same time, a very dense parish network can be observed in southern Transdanubia and medieval Slavonia (which are out of our present scope), but also in some parts of Transylvania and in the northern part of the Carpathian Basin, especially on the territory of the Eger Diocese. From the second half of the fourteenth century, an increasing number of new towns appeared in the mountainous areas. The number and size of the new churches suggests that the populations in these towns was growing, much as the growing number of monastic institutions from the fifteenth century indicates population growth in the region, although the network did not cover the mining regions evenly (Map 2b-c). In northern Hungary, pastoral care was offered by Franciscan (mainly Observant) friaries, while in the mountains between Transylvania and the Great Hungarian Plain, both Franciscan friars and orthodox monks assumed this task among the mixed Catholic and Orthodox population.

Concerning the periods after the Late Middle Ages, various groups of sources can be used in this context. They are of mixed character and comprise several registers, tithe lists, and canonical visitations of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, referring to priests of diverse denominations. This set of data is especially useful for the northern part of the Carpathian Basin, but to a lesser extent also for Transylvania. As for the other parts of the Carpathian Basin, some limited conclusions can also be formulated. Although the lists were compiled over a longer period of time, between the 1550s and the 1620s, they give a fairly good picture of the effects of the Ottoman wars, namely increasing population density in the less affected parts of the country. Furthermore, the ongoing colonization of the mountainous areas can also be seen on the map (Map 5).

Environmental Impacts of Animal Husbandry

The (almost) monocultural animal husbandry on the plain had a serious impact on the environment and the settlement pattern. The indicators which we have used in our research show some of these effects. As we have argued before, a structural transformation took place in the settlement pattern of the Great Hungarian Plain in the thirteenth century. While the plain was densely sprinkled with rural churches, which indicates a relatively large, albeit dispersed human population on the landscape, during the eleventh century (Map 1),35 most of the region, especially within the Devil’s Dyke, had been abandoned by inhabitants and ecclesial institutions by the early fourteenth century. The papal tithe list of 1332–1337 and regional settlement reconstructions show a vast uninhabited region in the middle of the plain.36 If we consider this area, three basic soil regions characterize the prevailing land use patterns and settlement structures over the late Middle Ages. Loess soils are the most fertile, and where loess soils were found, the lands were tilled and population density was at its highest.37 In contrast, animal husbandry prevailed in the almost entirely deserted areas with sand and clay soils.38 In Homokhátság (which means “Sandy Ridge”), a sand soil region which has been the subject of thorough study, the settlement pattern became dense in the early Árpád Era and collapsed by the fourteenth century.39 The settlements in the region suffered disastrous losses because of the Mongol invasion (1241–1242), and most of them were never resettled. Shortly after the Mongol invasion, Cumans who engaged in animal breeding were settled in the region. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the region was characterized by intensive aeolian processes, thus, wind very much reshaped the landscape.40 The same happened in other sandy regions of the plain between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries. Interestingly, similar processes occurred in previous periods, too, e.g. under the Sarmatians (first–fifth centuries AD) and the Avars (sixth–ninth centuries), when animal husbandry cultures colonized the landscape.41 At the same time, this economic transformation of the area may have put increasing pressures on the local ecosystem. Local settlement research and studies on wind-blown sand deposits partly excavated by recent large–scale archaeological investigations confirmed the scale and importance of these environmental changes. One particular archaeological site has also clearly demonstrated that a briefly used ploughland area, which was probably created as a consequence of the internal colonization process described above, was abandoned for agricultural use, and the sand-covered region was probably used for extensive animal husbandry.42 The growing number of cattle and other animals kept in these areas significantly contributed to the richness and economic boom of some local urban settlements, the so-called oppida (market towns), but this spread of animal breeding also may have led to the emergence of huge puszta areas around the big rural settlement centers. Thus, one may well conclude that overuse of the land and, more specifically, the sensitive vegetation which grows in sandy soils to support animal breeding led to changes in the hydroclimatic regime which made the land more vulnerable to aeolian processes.

One question remains, however: what was the reason for the massive abandonment of the settlements that preceded the arrival of the Cumans in the area? Can the mid-thirteenth century Mongol Invasion be blamed for this, as is widely believed?43 Curiously, massive settlement abandonment also took place in deep alluvial floodplains covered by clay soils according to a similar chronology. Clay soil indicates the sites of wetlands, which covered almost one-third of the plain. A multifactorial spatio-statistical investigation suggested that the settlement pattern of an extensive wetland landscape was located in the plain, shrunk and moved vertically, from the Árpád Era (which almost completely covered the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, beginning in 900 and ending in 1300) to the late Middle Ages (1301–1541), thus overlapping the first phase of the Little Ice Age.44 The massive settlement abandonment was concentrated in the low-lying zones of the region (which were vulnerable to floods) and took place before 1300. To summarize the written sources related to forms of land use, the permanently inhabited flood-free loess ridges were used for diverse forms of farming, while the inhabitants of the rather temporary settlements of the low-lying and clay-covered floodplains dealt mainly with animal husbandry and fishery or other activities linked to the benefits of waters.45 During the Late Middle Ages, floodplains were entirely abandoned, and the population concentrated mainly in the market towns and the few villages of the loess ridges or on the edge of the floodplain, which had a similar soil structure. The fields of the deserted settlements merged into the area of the emerging market towns, and a specific type of urban settlement, the cattle-breeding market town, evolved, where animal husbandry became the core sector of the local economy.46 An archaeobotanical investigation of the plain revealed that the proportion of species with high moisture demand increased significantly from the first centuries of the Árpád Era (1000–1241) to the last (1242–1301).47 Like other paleoclimatic examinations, this finding suggests that rapid climate change took place in the second part of the thirteenth century,48 when climatic extremities, e.g. long-lasting droughts and severe winters became more frequent49 and caused higher humidity on the plain and higher flood levels on the floodplains. At the same time, interdisciplinary research based in part on a wide range of written sources has clearly demonstrated that the first decades of the fourteenth century were the most serious period of this climatic change, which bore witness to significant increases in areas covered with water.50

The Use of the Woods

Woodland areas in medieval Hungary were used in many different ways, and historical and interdisciplinary studies have reconstructed the relevant aspects of the uses to which woodlands were put in a complex way. Hungarian historical research has identified the importance of this natural resource and the related source materials in the nineteenth century.51 Ethnographic studies on the eighteenth century also contributed to our understanding of traditional forms of woodland exploitation and of the clearing process.52 At the same time, the complex and interdisciplinary understanding of the uses to which woodlands were put in medieval Hungary is a result of more recent studies.53 For the particular discussion points of the present article, it should also be noted that woodland and forest management in the mining regions of Hungary in the seventeenth and (even more so) eighteenth centuries has been very intensively studied. The basic concepts of modern woodland management were developed in some of these regions, particularly in Selmecbánya (today Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia). However, this geographical overlap with the medieval mining regions does not mean that forest management practices can be seen automatically in a strong continuity context, as major legal and institutional development only began in the eighteenth century. Thus, the medieval use and exploitation of woodlands in the mining regions should be seen in a different way. This aspect is also crucial for a discussion of the pressures put on and changes which took place in the relevant ecosystems.

Medieval documents or the written sources do not enable us to reconstruct the forest coverage of the areas around the mining towns or in the mining regions. In a similar way, the amount of wood extracted from these areas cannot be calculated with the help of documentary evidence. It should also be noted that forests were used in the mining regions for several purposes: as timber in the construction of mines, to prepare charcoal, or to build ore crushers, etc. Therefore, we have to take into consideration all possible sources connected to these regions concerning woodland. The connection between mining and the use of wood was referred to in a donation charter issued in 1263 by King Béla IV when he gave Andrew, the judge of Besztercebánya, a forest as a reward for his merits in silver mining. From then on, the forests around the Northern Hungarian mining towns were usually in the hands of the richest burghers.54 Trip-hammers and ore crushers were mentioned in the region of Körmöcbánya (today Banská Kremnica, Slovakia) as early as 1331.55 According to a register from 1468, there were 29 ore crushers and four furnaces in Banská Kremnica alone.56 Another register says that in 1522 there were 43 mines, five furnaces, and five ore crushers in Selmecbánya (today Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia), employing 918 workers. There was a significant increase in metal production compared to the previous decades.57 Parallel to this, the mining towns, taking advantage of their royal privileges,—aimed to expand the territory where they could harvest the wood necessary for the mines and furnaces.58

The mines also contributed to the financing of the royal treasury. Indeed, the decrees issued by King Louis I in 1351 mention the urbura in connection with iron.59 Iron was mentioned along with gold, silver, tin, and plumb in 1427 when King Sigismund of Luxembourg donated the urbura collected in certain mining towns to Queen Barbara, though he retained the incomes from copper.60 In the late-fourteenth century, King Sigismund exchanged certain royal domains for castles of the Csáki family in Temes County, one of which was the castle of Kövesd (today Cuieşd, Romania), which had an iron mine that was mentioned explicitly in the charter.61 The region in question is better known today as Resica (Reşiţa, Romania), and it was one of the major metallurgical centers of Romania from the mid-eighteenth century until recently. However, iron production can be traced back in the region to as early as the twelfth century: an iron smelting workshop was excavated by Dumitru Ţeicu in Felsőlupkó (today Gornea, Romania),62 and different forms of iron ores were identified at several sites of the region that belonged to the royal domain of Illyéd (today Ilidia, Romania) in the Middle Ages. Further mines in the region which were mentioned in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries include Székesbánya (north of today Dognecea, Romania), Bényes (today Biniş, Romania), Boksánbánya (today Bocşa Montană, Romania), and further to the northeast Galadna (today Gladna Română, Romania). These localities were royal estates throughout the Middle Ages or became royal estates in the Late Middle Ages.63

Rulers were very concerned with running the mines. As early as 1349, King Louis I granted a privilege for merchants from Genoa in the copper trade, and in 1376 the same privilege was granted to Florentine merchants, too.64 Four years later, merchants connected to the Medici family acquired a share in Hungarian copper mining, and in 1385, the company made a contract with Venice, the center of the European copper trade, according to which the major share of the copper produced in Hungary would be sold in Venice (except for the part exported to Flanders).65 In the early fifteenth century, a shift can be seen in the trading network. It was connected to the person of Mark of Nuremberg, who, for instance, prohibited the import of Polish (medieval Ilkusz, today Olkusz, Poland) plumb in 1405 because of conflicts in copper production.66

One also finds direct orders concerning the mines from the fifteenth century. In 1426, King Sigismund ordered George of Jolsva, the bailiff of Zólyom castle (today Zvolen, Slovakia), to secure the necessary wood supply for the new plumb mines,67 and he regulated the use of the forests around Gölnicbánya (today Gelnica, Slovakia) in 1437.68 His successor, King Albert, took the miners of Offenbánya (today Baia de Arieş, Romania), Körösbánya (today Baia de Criş, Romania), Zalatna (today Zlatna, Romania), and Körösfő (today Izvoru Crisului, Romania) under his special protection.69 In 1475, the Thurzó Company made a contract with the Northern Hungarian mining towns. According to this contract, the company would establish water lading machines (Wasserkunst) in exchange for which it would receive one sixth of the mined ore as payment. The contract was confirmed and complemented by King Matthias in the same year, by that the necessary wood should be given to the company free of charge.70 In 1479, King Matthias allowed the town of Selmecbánya to harvest the wood needed for mining from the royal forest free of charge. This permission was expanded by King Wladislaus II, who ordered in 1496 that the wood had to be given to the town free of charge by any landowner.71 In 1500 and 1502, Wladislaus II confirmed the right of the Lower Hungarian mining towns to harvest the necessary wood in the royal forests, and this privilege was given to the Upper Hungarian mining towns in 1504 and 1507, as well.72 Wood was also needed in the salt mines, if in lower quantities. In 1498, for instance, King Wladislaus II donated salt worth 100 guilders to the Cathedral Chapter of Gyulafehérvár (today Alba Iulia, Romania) and in compensation gave the salt mine officials of Torda (today Turda, Romania) the right to cut timber with which to build salt ships in the forest of the Chapter.73 The intensive royal interventions to provide wood for the mining sector is absolutely understandable. Hungary and Bohemia were the major suppliers of gold and silver in late medieval Europe, and the kingdom’s copper production was also significant. In the 1380s, the Hungarian copper export can be estimated at 8–10 thousand tons per year. In 1495, when John Thurzó made his contract with the Fugger family on copper production within Hungary, the production of the planned kiln of Besztercebánya (today Banská Bystrica, Romania) was set at 300 quintals per week, giving a total of approximately 920 tons per year. Thus, that kiln alone would produce about 10 percent of the fourteenth-century export. The investment was intended to increase the quantity of the copper produced by the company and also to improve the quality, which meant multiple smelting, which demanded more energy. According to the accounts of the Fugger family, the company had invested 277,500 guilders by 1499, and profits reached roughly 2.5 million guilders between 1496 and 1546.74 The Thurzó company was involved in copper and precious metal production in areas outside of northern Hungary. The mines of Belényes (today Beiuş, Romania), where both silver and copper were mined, were restarted, and reorganized by John Thurzó in the early-sixteenth century.75

Large-scale logging, however, took its toll. In 1347, King Louis I allowed the miners of Nagybánya (today Baia Mare, Romania) and Zazár (today Săsar, Romania) to cut the necessary timber for the mines in any forest, be it royal or noble property, in part since there was no suitable material anymore in the town’s surroundings.76 Sources also indicate conflicts between miners and owners of forestlands. In 1459, the towns of Szomolnok (today Smolnik, Slovakia) and Svedlér (today Švedlár, Slovakia) turned to the king, since the bailiffs of the castles of Krasznahorka (today Krásna Hôrka, Slovakia) and Szádvár hindered the work of the charcoal-burners, destroying their kilns and causing other damages, as well.77 Between 1479 and 1503, a long-lasting conflict emerged between the miners of the region of Nagybánya on the one side and the Drágfi family and their bailiffs of Kővár Castle near Kővárremete (today Remetea Chioarului, Romania) on the other because of forest use.78 The miners of Offenbánya (today Baia de Arieş, Romania) and the Romanian knezate of Nagylupsa (today Lupşa, Romania) had a similar conflict between 1485 and 1487, where both the felling of timber for mines and the making of charcoal were mentioned.79

The first indication of rafting on the Hron/Garam River dates from 1209 (tributum lignorum, quae feruntur super Gran) and on the Váh/Vág River from 1206 and 1271, referring to the use of wood from the high mountains.80 Similarly, wood was a major source of income in the mountainous regions of the Drugeth domains in Ung County. As Pál Engel has pointed out, the former border zone (gyepüelve), which was settled in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was mainly used for logging (silva dolabrosa). This is also supported by the presence of numerous mills on different streams in an area where ploughland was very limited at the time.81 However, the first clear evidence of the use of rafts in shipping other goods, in this case salt, is a charter issued in 1507.82 Before this, only reusable boats (often log boats) were used in salt transport, as written sources from the late eleventh century indicate.83 The territory where, as the charter says, rafts were used in a new way is the salt region of Máramaros County, where this practice continued into the 1860s.84

The intensive use of forests suggests that deforestation reached a critical rate in the mining regions. However, the same environment was affected by another economic activity, the grazing of sheep. Sources indicate that as early as the thirteenth century, transhumant shepherds used the lands in the Apuseni mountains to graze their herds.85 Their gradual movement towards the north is reflected partly in the foundation of small orthodox monasteries and churches built from the second half of the fourteenth century86 and partly in the increasing number of Wallachian villages, especially after the 1420s, when Ottoman raids destroyed large parts of southern Transylvania.87 Similarly, Orthodox, mainly Ruthenian settlers arrived from territories beyond the northeastern and northern Carpathians. Their presence can be traced back to approximately the same period. In 1337, Palatine William Druget settled orthodox peasants in the village of Korumlya (today Koroml’a, Slovakia).88 Large groups of Ruthenian (Podolian) settlers came to the region after Prince Fyodor Koriatovych was forced into exile (1392) and became the lord of the Munkács and Makovica Castles (today Mukachevo in Ukraine and Zborov in Slovakia) and count of Bereg and Sáros Counties.89 The donation charter of Queen Mary issued in 1390 offers further evidence of the presence of transhumant shepherds in Szatmár County. It gave Terebes (today Racova, Romania) to the ancestors of the Drágfi family, Balk, Drag, and John. Three years later, they came into conflict with another local landlord, Ban Simon of Medgyes, whose tenants killed their tenants’ sheep (iobagionum seu Olahorum).90 The conflict must have involved the use of the land, more specifically the use of the pastures. The spread of these settlements continued in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.91 In 1437, several Orthodox chapels were listed beyond the Vihorlat Mountains in Zemplén County.92 By the late-fifteenth century, shepherds of Romanian and Ruthenian origin had reached the western Carpathians, Árva, Trencsén, and Turóc Counties.93 The expanded grazing significantly contributed to deforestation.

In addition to the above, the Ottoman wars between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries also affected the territories in question, if in an indirect way. On the one hand, a significant part of the population fleeing the devastated southern regions and the Hungarian plain took refuge in the Carpathians. The first Protestant registers listing the pastors and the communities between the 1560s and the 1620s indicate a population density which would have been unthinkable before the Ottoman wars and which began to decline after the 1660s.94 The situation was slightly different in Transylvania, but immigration from Moldavia, and Walachia was almost uninterrupted, and for the most part targeted areas which were suitable for pasture. In other parts of the country, in the frontier zones of the region occupied by the Ottomans, fortifications needed a continuous supply of wood, which accelerated the process of deforestation in the frontier zones. Ágnes R. Várkonyi has emphasized that the maintenance of the Ottoman period defense system of Hungary put tremendous additional pressures on the forests in the mountainous regions (e.g., in the 1680s, the domain of Likava Castle regularly had to deliver large amounts of timber, poles, stakes, roof shingles, etc. for different fortifications which were 150–200 kilometers distant Likava itself), which had already been largely depleted by the mines and furnaces.95

Medieval Transformation of the Land Cover in the Mining Regions
of the Carpathian Basin

In this section, we offer a short review of the main directions of land cover changes that took place between the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries in the ca. 50,000 km2 mountainous regions of the northern and eastern part of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. By the eleventh century, most of the lower regions and foothills, the environment of the mines in use in the Apuseni Mountains and the Northern Middle Mountains (northern Hungary and eastern Slovakia), became cultural landscapes. The ratio of open lands increased gradually due to human use, mainly grazing and forest clearance for charcoal production (for instance). Moreover, pastoral activities were associated with forest burning, which was a drastic form of clearance, as indicated in many pollen reconstructions of the Carpathians.96 This happened in the central part of the Apuseni Mountains, where the ratio of herbaceous pollen increased permanently from the Iron Age (eighth–sixth century BC) in a site situated at 1240 meters a.s.l. (above sea level) and in the environment of a bog (1400 meters a.s.l.) from the late Roman Period (fourth century AD).97 The presence of cereal pollens was stable, but their ratio was low in the total pollen profile in ten of the sites studied in the mountains from the late fifth century to the end of the sixteenth.98 In contrast, the first cereals are found in the 4280–3570 BC deposit layer of the Ponor karst area (1040 meters a.s.l. Apuseni Mountains) and in a layer of the Iaz peat bog dated to 4300–3700 BC (300 meters a.s.l. Apuseni Mountains).99 The earliest evidence of forest grazing and farming culture was identified at 4740–4620 BC in the Căpăţâna peat bogs (1220 meters a.s.l. Apuseni Mountains), but major deforestation began only around 1400 AD, linked to a migration wave of the transhumant Orthodox population reaching the area, as well as the rapidly rising demand for wood in the industrializing mining region.100 Similar temporal dynamics appear in the paleo-ecological records of sites in the Aggtelek-Rudabánya Mountains, very close to an important iron mine.101 The ratio of cereal pollens, however, increased here significantly from the late tenth century to the end of the eleventh and showed a consistently high proportion until the late sixteenth century.102 Human use was reconstructed in the Western and Northern Carpathians, including the Tatra Mountains and Szepesség Region (today the Spiš Region, Slovakia) from the early phase of the Migration Period (fifth century), but the ratio of cereals began to grow only towards the end of the eleventh century.103 As a result of the colonization policy of King Béla IV, thousands of settlements and dozens of new towns began to emerge in the Carpathians, including the Tatra Mountains, over the course of the fifty-year period beginning in the mid-thirteenth century.104 In other words, there was a dramatic increase in human pressure on the ecosystems in the mountains beginning in the thirteenth century. Rapid colonization following extensive pastural and mining activity reduced the forest coverage in Sáros and Zemplén Counties (in the northern Carpathians) and Borsod and Gömör Counties (in the northern middle mountains) by the late fifteenth century to an estimated 41–60 percent, 21–40 percent, 41–60 percent, and 21–40 percent, respectively.105 As it has been discussed in literature with regard to the Northern Middle Mountains in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, “the forests came to an end there, and the neighboring counties began to eliver their forests to the mining regions.”106

The traces of small-scale forest clearance were recorded in the Bronze Age peat deposit at 1143 meters a.s.l. in the Lápos (Romanian Lapuş) Mountains, close to the northern Transylvanian mining region.107 Then, the human impact gradually intensified beginning in the twelfth century. The fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries, when the modern cultural landscape evolved in the region, bore witness to large-scale logging and intensive agricultural activity. In the neighboring Gutai Mountains, the first sign of grazing is found in the ca. eleventh deposit layer of the crater lake Steregoiu (ca. 800 meters a.s.l.), but serious human impact appears only from the 1700s.108 In contrast, Fărcaş and Tanţău found pollen evidence of minor cereal production here in the layer dated to 820±75 AD.109 The deposit in the crater lake Preluca Ţiganului is situated in the Gutăi Mountains, and it has the earliest evidence of a human-driven decrease in forest diversity in a 2,300-year-old deposit. In other words, forest clearance and grazing may have started in the late Iron Age (300 BC).110 According to a historical estimate based on late-fifteenth-century common estimations (aestimatio communis) that covers nearly 3,000 km2 (almost one percent of the Carpathian Basin),111 forest coverage may have been 76–100 percent in Máramaros County, where important salt and precious metal mines were in operation, and 21–40 percent in Közép-Szolnok County, which covered the northeastern part of the Apuseni Mountains.112


Both written sources and changes in the settlement system prove that the mountainous areas of the Carpathian Basin that are rich in ores and—in Transylvania and Maramureş—in salt were increasingly exploited from the second half of the thirteenth century, after the Mongol Invasion. Mining was intensified in at least three periods: first in the first half of the fourteenth century, then in the last decades of the fourteenth century, and finally at the end of the fifteenth century. The increasing quantities to be shipped and the extremely expensive transportation costs of the time113 led to a transformation in transport infrastructure: around 1500, rafts began to be used instead of boats, and the use of rafts became widespread in the following centuries, especially on the Tisza and its tributaries, thus contributing to the decline of forests. As the documents cited above indicate, the forest maintenance that accompanied land use management in the majority of the medieval communities was not characteristic of the mining regions studied here during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.114 However, forest management, including maintenance, belonged to the eminent interest of local communities, since forests (wood) were the main energy resource before the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. However, the melting ores offered such impressive profits for companies and the royal treasury that it was in the interests of the state to provide adequate wood to meet the needs of the mines. At the end of the Middle Ages, royal power tended to neglect the ownership and interest of local communities and landlords by allowing mining companies to clear forests. This step opened the gate for deforestation of huge areas in the Carpathians. When the destruction reached an extreme in certain mining regions in the sixteenth century, the central administration tried to correct its former stance and issued decrees that were intended to protect forestlands for instance by prohibiting iron mining in certain regions in 1564115 and issuing a new regulation concerning the forests used by the lower Hungarian mining towns in 1565.116 These efforts, however, proved useless, because of the conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and the civil wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the protection of lands, including forests, was hardly the primary concern. Moreover, as was the case in Transdanubia, influxes of refugees from the Ottoman wars led to a population increase in the mining regions from the mid-sixteenth century, thus putting increased human pressure on the forests in the mountains.117 Alongside mining, transhumance also became more widespread in the regions, reaching the westernmost part of the Carpathians in the fifteenth century. These economic activities resulted in the gradual deforestation of the regions. The process was probably hastened by the needs of military constructions, which were also a consequence of the Ottoman wars.

Our hypothesis is that the increasing number and intensity of hydroclimatic extremities linked to the medieval climate change that preceded the Little Ice Age may have contributed to or driven the desertion of settlements in the sandy ridge and floodplain regions of the Great Hungarian Plain in the thirteenth century. The Mongol Invasion merely ended a crisis which affected the farming system of the plain. The form of land use that became dominant in the region in the late Middle Ages—extensive grazing of cattle and sheep—remained the most prevalent practice until the eighteenth century. However, the increasing use of pastures, the partial extension of pastures towards the hills, the changing runoff coefficient due to deforestation in the bordering mountain regions, and the effects of warfare may have contributed to the aridity of the Hungarian Plain in the Early Modern era and the decreasing profitability of large-scale animal husbandry in the region.

Thus, the lucrative, export-oriented economic activities of the late medieval Hungarian kingdom, which contributed to the ability of the country to withstand Ottoman pressure for about 130 years (before the 1520s) and, in a more limited way, even longer (into the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), led in the long run to serious environmental degradation the effects of which could not be fully overcome for a long time. Certainly, this impact was increased by the effects of the Ottoman wars themselves and the changing climatic conditions of the Little Ice Age, too, but the process began well before the Early Modern crisis, in some respects, as early as the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

Archival Sources

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [National Archives of Hungary] (MNL OL)
Collectio Ante-Mohácsiana (collection of original charters: DL, photo collection: DF)
Collectio Kaprinai


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1 The research on which this article is based was made possible with the support of the National Research, Development, and Innovation Fund of Hungary (NKFIH) PD-128970 research grant, and it is a contribution to the PAGES’ LandCover6k project. Some other aspects of this article were developed within the framework of another project led by the same organization (NKFIH K-128880), which considered the long-term effects of the Mongol Invasion on population density and extensive animal husbandry.

2 On the history of agricultural production and its role in the medieval economy of Hungary, see Laszlovszky, “Agriculture in Medieval Hungary.” On the general issues of environmental changes in the context of the medieval economy in Hungary see Ferenczi et als., “Long-Term Environmental Changes.”

3 Engel, A temesvári és moldovai. For the sixteenth-century Ottoman tax registers on the territory of Medieval Hungary, see also Káldy-Nagy, A budai szandzsák 1559. évi összeírása; Ágoston, “A szolnoki szandzsák 1591–92. évi összeírása”; Káldy-Nagy, A gyulai szandzsák 1567. és 1579. évi összeírása; Káldy-Nagy, A budai szandzsák 1546–1590. évi összeírásai; Káldy-Nagy, A csanádi szandzsák települései; Káldy-Nagy, A szegedi szandzsák települései; Blazovich, “A Dél-Alföld települései.”

4 Csánki, Magyarország történeti földrajza.

5 Györffy, Az Árpád-kori Magyarország.

6 Engel, Magyarország a középkor végén.

7 Laszlovszky, “Tanyaszerű települések”; Laszlovszky, “Space and place.”

8 Kubinyi and Laszlovszky, “Demographic Issues.”

9 F. Romhányi, “Kolostorhálózat”; F. Romhányi, “A középkori magyar plébániák.”

10 The case of Ráckeve and some other villages with Serbian populations on Csepel Island, today to the south of Budapest, is an exception. These villages were settled in the second half of the fifteenth century under completely different circumstances.

11 On the economic history of medieval Hungary in general, see The Economy of Medieval Hungary, edited by József Laszlovszky, Balázs Nagy, Péter Szabó, and András Vadas (Leiden: Brill, 2018). On the history of mining and metallurgy in Europe cf. Ian Blanchard, Mining, Metallurgy and Minting in the Middle Ages: Continuing Afro-European Supremacy, 1250–1450 (African Gold Production and the Second and Third European Silver Production Long-cycles) (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2005).

12 Batizi, “Mining in Medieval Hungary.”

13 Wenzel, Magyarország, 23. However, Gusztáv Heckenast expressed his doubts concerning Hungarian iron exports to Austria in the twelfth century, see Heckenast, “A kora Árpád-kori,” 149.

14 Györffy, Az Árpád-kori Magyarország, vol. 3, 243–47. The region belonged to the estate of the Benedictine Abbey of Garamszentbenedek (today Hronsky Benadik, Slovakia), founded in 1075 by King Géza I, which was given Baka as well, where another mine existed in the Árpád Era. The settlement was first mentioned in a charter in 1217 under the name Bana (mine). The name Argentifodina (i.e. silver mine) first occurred in 1240, when the parson of the settlement was also mentioned. The fact that both names were used without an adjective suggests that Selmecbánya was the first and most important royal silver mine in the whole region. On the mining privileges issued in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, see Weisz, “A bányaváros, mint önálló”; Weisz, “Mining Town Privileges”; Weisz, “Az alsó-magyarországi bányavárosok,” (about issues connected to the use of wood: 38–40).

15 Heckenast, A magyarországi vaskohászat; Vastagh, Tanulmányok a kohászat.

16 Gömöri, Az avarkori és Árpád-kori.

17 The first important interdisciplinary monograph on this topic: Heckenast, Gusztáv, Gyula Nováki, Gábor Vastagh, and Elemér Zoltay, A magyarországi vaskohászat története a korai középkorban [History of iron smelting in Hungary in the Early Middle Ages] (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1968). For the latest summary on the topic based on the earlier secondary literature, see: Batizi, “Mining in Medieval Hungary.”

18 Szentpétery, Regesta regum, no. 59. The German name of the settlement, Eisenburg, is also telling. Medieval Styrian iron production probably began in the eighth and ninth centuries. It then intensified around 1100 and remained important until the nineteenth century. Cf. Sperl, Gerhard, Steirische Eisenstraße, edited by Montanhistorischer Verein für Österreich Leoben, 1984.

19 Sources indicate iron mining and metallurgy around Rudabánya from the tenth century, based on archaeological findings. Török, “Vasérc, vasbuca, vastárgy.” Several iron mines and furnaces functioning in the mountainous region of northern Hungary were mentioned as early as in the thirteenth century, after the Mongol Invasion (1241), cf. Heckenast, “A vashámor,” 2–4. The hammer mill in Csetnek (today Štitnik, Slovakia) was first mentioned in 1344 (Heckenast, “A vashámor,” 10). On the developing metallurgy of the region see also the privilege of Master Konrad, the bell-casting master of King Louis I (1357: MNL OL DF 280773; on master Konrad, see Szőke et als., “Konrád mester,” and the company of the Thurzó family, see Izsó, Szemelvények, 45, 48, 56, 58 etc. Iron mines in Upper Hungary were mentioned e.g. in Dobsina, Gölnic, Igló, Jolsva, and Vihnye (today Dobšina, Gelnica, Spišská Nová Ves, Jelšava, and Vyhne, Slovakia), too. Sources indicate iron mining and processing in the region of Besztercebánya and Selmecbánya, as well. Heckenast, “A vashámor,” 3. In the Temesköz, a charter issued by King Sigismund of Luxembourg concerning the acquisition of the castle of Kövesd mentioned the iron mine of Boksánbánya (today Bocşa Montană, Romania); 1395: Wenzel, Magyarország, 124. Medieval iron slag was found in the area of Vaskoh (today Vaşcău, Romania) during an archaeological survey, and an eighteenth-century description of ores and other mineral resources of Hungary described the iron ore of the region as one of the best raw materials, though there is no written evidence of its medieval or early modern use, cf. Tóth, “Az első magyar nyelvű,” 130. In Vajdahunyad (today Hunedoara, Romania), there is data from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (1493, 1509) indicating the mining of iron (and gold) (MNL OL DL 29875, 24348, 24364, 26508, 26510, short summary in Hungarian: Izsó, Szemelvények, 137–38). We do not enumerate here the smaller mining regions with more limited metal production (e.g. Nagybörzsöny, Telkibánya), but they too contributed to the processes described below.

20 1165: Szentpétery, Regesta regum, no. 107.

21 In 1233, the conflict resulted in the issuing of the Oath of Bereg, which was intended to regulate the participation of Church institutions in the commercialization of salt. Cf. F. Romhányi, “Salt Mining.”

22 1292: Szentpétery, Regesta regum, no. 3878. On salt shipping and the levy of tolls in the Árpád Era, see Weisz, “Megjegyzések az Árpád-kori.”

23 In addition to the article by B. F. Romhányi (footnote 21), see also Draskóczy, “Salt Mining.”

24 Szűcs, Az utolsó Árpádok, 103–4. Szűcs emphasizes that there was a clear turning point in the structure of Hungarian exports. Beginning in the 1280s, Hungarian cattle, copper, and grain began to dominate (333).

25 There are some hints of early thirteenth-century cattle exports (see the toll regulation of Radkersburg and the circulation of Friesach deniers in the first half of the thirteenth century), but large-scale cattle farming and cattle trade began after the Mongol Invasion. Cf. Lyublyanovics, New Home, New Herds; Sárosi, Deserting villages.

26 On the field systems in this context, see Laszlovszky, “Field Systems.”

27 Laszlovszky et als., “Contextualizing,” 432.

28 On the estates of the abbey in the Tisza region, see Laszlovszky, “Dedi eciam.”

29 Hervay, Repertorium historicum.

30 Rosta, “Egy elfeledett nemzetségi.”

31 Rózsa et als., “Árpád Period.”

32 Pinke et als., “Zonal assessment,” 102; F. Romhányi, “Changes in the Spatial.”

33 The reasons underlying the procedure are complex, including the transformation of church property after the Fourth Lateran Council, demographic changes in the region due to the Mongol Invasion, environmental and economic changes, etc. Cf. F. Romhányi, “Kolostorhálózat.”

34 F. Romhányi, “A középkori magyar plébániák.”

35 According to István Méri the population in the upper Trans-Tisza region began to grow dramatically in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Méri, “Beszámoló,” 51–52.

36 Györffy, Az Árpád-kori Magyarország, vols. 1 and 3.

37 Pinke et als., “A hajdúsági várostérség,” 138.

38 Nyári et als., “Investigation of Holocene blown-sand,” 46, 52–53; Vadas, “Late Medieval,” 54.

39 Bálint, “Az Árpád-kori településhálózat,” 1.

40 Kiss et als., 711, and 704–8.

41 Gábris, Túri, “Homokmozgás,” 241, 245; Nyári et al., “Investigation of Holocene blown-sand,” 54.

42 Nyári et als., “Multidisciplinary analysis.”

43 Györffy, Az Árpád-kori Magyarország, vol. 3, 34; Pálóczi-Horváth, “Túrkeve története,” 53.

44 Pinke et al., “Zonal assessment,” 101. For a more comprehensive overview of the medieval climatic history of the Carpathian Basin, see Vadas and Rácz, “Climatic Changes.”; Vadas, “The Little Ice Age.”

45 Györffy, Az Árpád-kori Magyarország, vol. 1, 510; Jankovich and Szatmári, Régészeti kutatások; Szabó, “A dömösi prépostság”; Szabó, A dömösi adománylevél.

46 Makkai, “A pusztai állattartás,” 31–32.

47 Pinke et al., “Zonal assessment,” 102.

48 Kern et als., 111, 114, 121–24.

49 Kiss, “Weather and Weather-Related.”

50 For data and further literature, see Andrea Kiss, Floods and Long-Term Water-Level Changes in Medieval Hungary (Cham, 2019). Another aspect of environment-driven crises has been addressed by Andrea Fara, “Production of and Trade in Food Between the Kingdom of Hungary and Europe in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Era (Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries): The Roles of Markets in Crises and Famines,” Hungarian Historical Review 6 (2017): 138–79.

51 Tagányi, Magyar erdészeti oklevéltár.

52 Takács, Egy irtásfalu; Takács, Irtásgazdálkodásunk emlékei; Hegyi, A népi erdőkiélés.

53 Szabó, Woodland and Forests.

54 Szentpétery, Regesta regum, no. 1332.

55 Wenzel, Magyarország, 45.

56 Izsó, Szemelvények, 67. On the ore crushers and mills in the Kremnica region, see Vadas, “A középkori Magyar Királyság.”

57 Izsó, Szemelvények, 81.

58 Weisz, “Az alsó-magyarországi bányavárosok,” 40. For examples of local regulation of logging and woodland clearing see Weisz, “Mining Town Privileges,” 305.

59 Izsó, Szemelvények, 19.

60 Wenzel, “Okmányi adalék.”

61 Wenzel, Magyarország, 124.

62 Ţeicu, Banatul montan, 261 and 267.

63 F. Romhányi, “The Banat region.”

64 Wenzel, Magyarország, 158.

65 Izsó, Szemelvények, 41. Sources indicate regular commercial contacts with and the economic presence of Venetian merchants in Hungary as early as the 1220s, when one of the most important goods was Hungarian silver transported as far as the Levant. Szűcs, Az utolsó Árpádok, 323. On the importance and scale of medieval Hungarian copper mining, see Paulinyi, A középkori magyar réztermelés.

66 Paulinyi, A középkori magyar réztermelés, 36–37.

67 Tagányi, Erdészeti oklevéltár 1, 25.

68 Wenzel, Magyarország, 331–33.

69 Ibid., 126–27.

70 Izsó, Szemelvények, 45.

71 Tagányi, Erdészeti oklevéltár 1, 30.

72 Tagányi, Erdészeti oklevéltár 1, 30; Izsó, Szemelvények, 46.

73 Tagányi, Erdészeti oklevéltár 1, 30. However, wood for the ships built in Dés (today Dej, Romania) were sometimes transported from as far as the region of Radna (today Rodna, Romania). Draskóczy, A magyarországi kősó.

74 Izsó, Szemelvények, 57–59.

75 Wenzel, Magyarország, 118. The silver mines of the Bishop of Várad around Belényes (Beiuş) were first mentioned in 1297 (Györffy, Az Árpád-kori Magyarország, vol. 1, 599), then, in 1374 (Izsó, Szemelvények, 127).

76 Tagányi, Erdészeti oklevéltár 1, 20; Izsó, Szemelvények, 117–18. About this case, see also Weisz, “Mining Town Privileges,” 304. Another charter issued in 1376 (Fejér, Codex diplomaticus Hungariae, IX/5. 98.) may indicate that there was already wood of suitable quality in the closer vicinity of the mines, too, though it seems to have been wood used as building material for different edifices (cives et hospites… molendinum, casas, fornaces, balnea, allodia, et alias quaslibet haereditates aedificari facientes), and not for the mines directly or to burn as charcoal.

77 MNL OL DL 24901 (short summary in Hungarian: Izsó, Szemelvények, 106).

78 Izsó, Szemelvények, 121–22.

79 MNL OL DL 32505 (short summary in Hungarian: Izsó, Szemelvények, 132–33).

80 Alexander Fehér, Vegetation History and Cultural Landscapes: Case Studies from South-west Slovakia (Cham: Springer, 2018); Richard Marsina, ed., Codex diplomaticus et epistolaris Slovaciae, vols. 1–2 (Bratislava: SAV, 1971–1987); Bratislava Obzor, and Veronika Novák, “Mátyusföldi települések az okleveles források tükrében” [The settlements of the Mátyusföld region as reflected in the charters], in Mátyusföld vol. 2, edited by László Bukovszky 45–61 (Komárom: Fórum Kisebbségkutató Intézet; Dunaszerdahely: Lilium Aurum Könyvkiadó, 2005); Ferdinand Uličný, Dejiny Slovenska v 11. a 13. storočí (Bratislava: Veda, 2013).

81 Engel, “Ung megye,” 956.

82 The expression is super struibus lignorum. Iványi, A római szent birodalmi, no. 450. Before that, strues meant only a raft the wood of which was sold as building material or other raw material, but nothing else was shipped on it.

83 F. Romhányi, “Salt trade.”

84 Paládi-Kovács, Magyar néprajz, vol. 2, 979. In early modern times, rafting—especially of building material—was wide-spread on other rivers, too, e.g. on the Vág and Maros.

85 Miskolczy, Románok, 17–31.

86 Rusu, Dicţionarul mănăstirilor.

87 Köpeczi, Kurze Geschichte, 186–95.

88 Engel, “Ung,” 974 (1337: olahos descendere fecisset). Ruthenians were often called valachi in the charters because of similarities in their lifestyles, but in the case of Koromlya, a charter of 1437 says clearly that they were Ruthenians and that at the time they even had a priest of their own.

89 Kuczyński, “Fedor Koriatowicz.” The prince spent time in Hungary in the 1360s and 1370s. The monastery of Saint Nicholas, which he founded near Munkács (today Mukachevo, Ukraine), was called a parish of the Ruthenian (i.e. Greek Orthodox) rite in 1458. Its priest, Lucas, was confirmed by King Matthias Corvinus (Collectio Kaprinai, series B, vol. 6, no. 42). This means that the church was a recognized center of pastoral care for the Orthodox population after the Union of Florence.

90 Németh, A középkori Szatmár, 301.

91 For the fifteenth century see Mihályi, Máramarosi diplomák, 223 (1418: duas capellas ligneas, unam videlicet Christianorum et aliam Ruthenorum in two villages in Máramaros County); Németh, A középkori Szatmár, 268 (1424, Szakasz—capella Olahorum). Németh’s book contains considerable data on the Wallachian population in Szatmár County. A further example from 1516: MNL OL DL 86750 (a conscription of a domain on the border of Bereg and Máramaros Counties lists three wooden churches—capella lignea more volachorum—in Ruszkova, Polyána, and Rosálya). In Zemplén County, new Orthodox chapels were built in the sixteenth century, e.g. in Felsőcsebény and Oroszsebes (today Vyšné Čabiny and Ruská Bystrá, Slovakia), in the mountains to the north and east of Nagymihály (Samu Borovszky, Magyarország vármegyéi és városai: Zemplén vármegye és Sátoraljaújhely r.t. város [The counties and towns of Hungary: Zemplén County and the town of Sátoraljaújhely] (Budapest–Sátoraljaújhely, 1905) 42 and 96). In Ugocsa County, a charter issued in 1471 listed thirteen villages inhabited by Wallachians and Ruthenians (MNL OL DL 70956). In 1491, the Orthodox population of Máramaros County and the surrounding mountainous region had a bishop who resided in the monastery of Körtvélyes (today Hrusheve, Ukraine). MNL OL DL 36886.

92 Engel, “Ung,” 974.

93 The valachi living on the territory of the Árva and Likava Castles received a privilege from King Matthias Corvinus in 1474. Wenzel, Magyarország mezőgazdaságának, 330–31. On the colonization process of Trencsén County, see Fekete Nagy, “Trencsén megye,” in Csánki, Magyarország történeti földrajza, vol. 4, 61–62.

94 Csepregi, Zoltán, Evangélikus lelkészek Magyarországon 2: a zsolnai zsinattól (1610) a soproni országgyűlésig (1681) [Lutheran pastors in Hungary part 2: from the synod of Zsolna, 1610 till the diet of Sopron, 1681] (Budapest, 2018). I would like to thank Professor Csepregi for his additional information about the database. Furthermore, see Dienes, Dénes ed., Református egyházlátogatási jegyzőkönyvek, 16–17. század [Protocols of canonical visitations of reformed churches, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries] (Budapest: Osiris, 2001); Tomisa, Ilona ed., Katolikus egyházlátogatási jegyzőkönyvek, 16–17. század [Protocols of canonical visitations of Catholic churches, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries] (Budapest: Osiris, 2002). On the mosques established on the territory under Ottoman rule in the sixteenth century, see Sudár, Balázs, Dzsámik és mecsetek a hódolt Magyarországon [Mosques in Ottoman Hungary] (Budapest: MTA Történettudományi Intézete, 2014).

95 R. Várkonyi, “Környezet és végvár,” esp. 17.

96 Feurdean, Tanţău, “The Evolution,” 81.

97 Bodnariuc et als., “Holocene vegetation.”

98 Törőcsik and Sümegi, “Pollen-based reconstruction.”

99 Fărcaş and Tanţău, “The Human Presence.”

100 Fărcaş and Tanţău, “The Human Presence”; Grindean et als., “Middle to Late Holocene,” 34.

101 Sümegi et als., 42.

102 Törőcsik and Sümegi, “Pollen-based reconstruction.”

103 Törőcsik and Sümegi, “Pollen-based reconstruction”; Mályusz, Turóc megye, 1922.

104 Szűcs, Az utolsó Árpádok, 316.

105 Szabó, “Changes in woodland,” 111.

106 Mályusz, Turóc megye; Weisz, “A bányaváros mint önálló”, 49–50.

107 Peters et als., “Holocene vegetation,” 15.

108 Feurdean et als., “A paleo-ecological,” 132.

109 Fărcaş and Tanţău, “The Human Presence,” 34.

110 Feurdean, “Holocene forest,” 442.

111 Vadas and Szabó, “Not Seeing the Forest,” 478.

112 Szabó, “Changes in woodland,” 111.

113 Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism, 362–68.

114 Szabó, “The Extent,” 221.

115 Tagányi, Erdészeti oklevéltár, vol. 1, 77.

116 Heckenast, A magyarországi vaskohászat, 109–10.

117 Vadas and Szabó, “Not Seeing the Forest,” 478.


Map 1. Eleventh-century churches, churchyards and monasteries (with late medieval mines). Map drawn by Beatrix F. Romhányi


Map 2a. The monastic network before the Mongol Invasion, 1241 (with the late medieval mines). Map drawn by Beatrix F. Romhányi


Map 2b. The monastic network around 1300 (with the late medieval mines). Map drawn by Beatrix F. Romhányi


Map 2c. The monastic network around 1500 (with the late medieval mines). Map drawn by Beatrix F. Romhányi


Map 3. Parishes in the Kingdom of Hungary, 1332–1337. (with the late medieval mines). Map drawn by Beatrix F. Romhányi


Map 4. Monastic estates donated before 1100 (with the late medieval mines). Map drawn by Beatrix F. Romhányii


Map 5. Priests, churches and mosques mentioned between 1550 and 1620 (with the late medieval mines). Map drawn by Beatrix F. Romhányi


Millennial Record of Earthquakes in the Carpathian-Pannonian Region: Historical and Archaeoseismology

Miklós Kázmér and Erzsébet Győri
Eötvös Loránd University, MTA–ELTE Geological, Geophysical and Space Science Research Group; Kövesligethy Radó Seismological Observatory
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 2  (2020): 284-301 DOI:10.38145/2020.2.284

This is a short essay on earthquakes in the Carpathian-Pannonian region and its surroundings. Earthquakes have been recorded using seismographs since 1902 in Hungary. The relatively small number of seismic events and the long return period of major earthquakes make it necessary to use historical data in order to assess seismic hazard. Historical earthquake catalogues aim for exhaustiveness both in time and space, but they are limited by the lack of documentary data. A simple arithmetical assessment is provided to estimate our lack of knowledge of past seismic events. All destructive earthquakes of the twentieth century (above magnitude 5) are included in the catalogue (100%). Of the seismic events which took place in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, only 23% are on record, while this figure drops to 4.6 percent for the eleventh–sixteenth centuries and 0.2 percent for the first millennium AD. On average, we have no information about 90% of the destructive earthquakes which occurred in the Carpathian-Pannonian region over the course of the past two millennia.
According to both instrumental measurements and historical sources, there were relatively few earthquakes in the central era of the period of time in question. This era coincides roughly with the two centuries of Ottoman rule (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). Were there really few earthquakes over the course of these two centuries, or we do not have the relevant records? We contend that warfare resulted in the destruction of settlements and the annihilation of documents.
Fragile historical documents can be supplemented by the study of robust edifices, an approach to the study of the past which is known as archaeoseismology. Evidence of damage and destruction can be identified, and earthquake parameters can be assessed. One can find evidence corroborating other sources indicating an earthquake (e.g. Savaria), and one can also identify traces of previously unknown seismic events (Visegrád). One can also assign intensity values to the existing historical records. Damage observed to a Roman road in Savaria, to the medieval donjon of Nagyvázsony offers support for our fundamental contention. In order to understand the seismic hazard that was faced in the Carpathian-Pannonian region, renewed study of historical sources and new archaeoseismological investigations are needed.

Keywords: earthquakes, archaeoseismology, historical sources, Carpathian-Pannonian region


Earthquakes cannot be predicted. There are abundant references on the internet and in the secondary literature concerning seismic events that allegedly were successfully forecast. Several natural anomalies were harbingers of the 1975 Haicheng event in China, and an evacuation order was issued by an exceptionally cautious civil protection leader, who was in a position of power at the time and who thus probably saved tens of thousands of lives. In contrast, there was no foreshock or any other kind of anomaly on the basis of which predictions might have been made concerning the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which hit the city at night and caused at least 250,000 deaths. The few successful cases when an earthquake was predicted should be seen as lucky coincidences at most, not suitable for generalization.1 How can we reduce damage to people and property by earthquakes in the future? Anything that happened in the past can happen in the future. We therefore need to learn as much as we can about the past. This may help us prepare for events in the future.2 In the following, we provide a very short overview on the seismic history of the Carpathians and the Pannonian Basin.

Historical Seismology

Measurements of seismic activity using sophisticated instruments began in Hungary in 1902. For any moment before this date, we have data on seismicity based on historical documents only. Grossinger3 was the first to summarize these documents in a Latin catalogue published in 1783, immediately followed by a German translation of Sternberg,4 both of whom listed 150 events. A century later, Jeitteles5 described 220 earthquakes from the same period in great detail, noting felt features and damage. After a few short communications, Réthly6 published his monumental catalogue, listing events up to the end of 1917. Two hundred and thirty-five of these events are recorded from the same period as Grossinger. Réthly was the first to distinguish between main shock and aftershocks. He gave catalogue entries in the original language and added Hungarian translations with references to the original sources. His catalogue is an exemplary work in every sense.7

Zsíros8 prepared a computerized catalogue containing more than 20,000 events. Most of the information concerning these events came from instrumental measurements taken after 1970. Comparing his methods with previous studies, we found that he increased the data given by Grossinger more than fourfold (!) for the period which came to an end in 1783. References are provided for all of the data. This catalogue has been supplemented by new data compiled using instruments by researchers at the Seismological Observatory in Budapest. Figures 1 and 2, which illustrate the temporal and spatial distribution of earthquakes in the Carpathian-Pannonian Basin, are based on this database.

Historical earthquake catalogues are prepared with the intent of making a complete listing of known events for a given area. The best examples to follow are the catalogues compiled by Guidoboni and Comastri9 for the Mediterranean region, by Ambraseys10 for the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and, to cite a local example, by Hammerl and Lenhardt11 for Lower Austria.

Our ability to provide a complete account of catalogue of seismic events, however, depends, of course, on the availability of sources. Hungary is characterized by a lack rather than an abundance of sources, in part because of its stormy history.

Earthquakes of magnitude 5 or larger are plotted by decade in Figure 1. A magnitude 5 earthquake causes structural damage to buildings. Earthquakes and seismic events which took place after 1901 were measured using new instruments, so these measurements were used to plot them on the graph, while other sources, including narrative sources, were used to plot seismic events before this. The part of the graph which covers earthquakes of a magnitude of five or more in the twentieth century can be considered complete, as it is based on data provided by relatively sophisticated instruments. The graph offers the impression that, the further one goes back in time, the fewer earthquakes there were. Clearly, this is unlikely. This difference is a sign, rather, of the lack of sources.


Figure 1. Number of known earthquakes in the Carpathian-Pannonian region and surroundings in the past two millennia. Magnitude 5 and larger events are shown for each decade. See also Figure 2 for the investigated area.12

We assume that there were similar numbers of earthquakes in previous centuries. The locations and times of seismic activities are consequences of processes of plate tectonics, which hardly show significant variations over the course of centuries or even millennia.13 On average, there were 15 events every decade in the twentieth century, coming to a total of 205 earthquakes. The approximate parameters of these events are known. Between 1600 and 1900, sources indicate that there were on average five events per decade, coming to a total of 144 earthquakes, instead of the 615 ones if we assume that earthquakes occurred with the same frequency as in the twentieth century. This means that there are no records in the available sources of three fourths of the destructive earthquakes (which would mean 461 events). There are scattered records of earthquakes before 1600, including decades for which there are no indications that there were any earthquakes whatsoever. Between 1000 and 1600, the sources indicate only 57 earthquakes, which would be 4.6% of the 1,230 quakes which probably occurred. There are only three records of three earthquakes from the first millennium. In other words, if one were to rely entirely on these sources, one would conclude that 0.2% of all the earthquakes which occurred in the period of time covered in this discussion took place over the course of this period of 1,000 years (Fig. 1). If, in contrast, we were to make the logical assumption that earthquakes were as common in the first millennium as they were in the twentieth century, we can conclude that the sources make no mention of 99.8% of all earthquakes. Historical observations for 1 to 1900 AD indicate only 5.2 percent of the number of earthquakes which we can assume to have taken place. These are the earthquakes that are listed in the aforementioned catalogues. Calculations of seismic risks are based on these data, as are the hazard maps (Table 1).


Table 1. Known earthquakes and earthquakes assumed to have taken place in the Carpathian-Pannonian region and surroundings. For the area studied see Figure 2.



in years

Number of earthquakes assumed to have occurred

Number of earthquakes



































There are various mathematical methods available to assess the seismicity of any region, be it as large14 or small.15 The simple arithmetic used in the present study is intended to reveal major gaps in our knowledge and emphasize the importance of further study.

Why do we know so little about past earthquakes of the period before sophisticated instruments were available to detect and measure seismic activity? There are three major factors to be considered. (1) Were any records of earthquakes created at all? (2) Were the records preserved? (3) If a source was created, do we know of it, have we analyzed it, and was it included in the earthquake catalogue?

There are more than 4,000 Roman inscriptions in Pannonia dating to the period between the first and the fifth centuries AD.16 Most of them were unavailable to Réthly. Roman inscriptions rarely mention earthquakes. Rather, they note completion of construction or reconstruction of a building. Thorough historical and archaeological study of the sites is necessary if we wish to interpret these inscriptions accurately. People of the Early Middle Ages rarely left any written records in the region. Late medieval sources, especially sources found in the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary, are substantial, and many of them have either been published in print or are available online. There are about half a million medieval charters of a legal nature. They do not provide much information concerning seismicity. Travelogues, reports by envoys, and geographical and historical handbooks17 probably provide the most substantial amount of data, if one approaches them with an open mind. Private correspondence, frequent from the sixteenth century onwards, and reports published in foreign journals beginning in the seventeeth century provide a considerable amount of data. It is too easy to rely on the monumental catalogue compiled by Réthly and his successors. One must be aware that his data were gathered up until the late 1910s, and later amendments and additions were made.

Zsíros,18 who was aware of this deficiency, found a significant number of new sources and added the data he found in them to his catalogue. Additionally, he added geographic coordinates to the sites, assigning intensity and magnitude values to seismic events. His sources are precisely referenced. However, word-by-word citations and especially translations on this scale constitute a task beyond the capabilities of one person. The extent and precision of Zsíros’s work is shown by the fact that he identified three times the number of earthquakes (460) identified by Réthly, making note of 1,453 events during the period covered by Grossinger until 1783.

If there were historical records produced, did they survive tumultuous centuries of history in the Carpathian-Pannonian region? Figure 2 shows the maximum extent of Ottoman rule in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This meant severe destruction of life and property due to incessant warfare and robbery. This part of the region also seems to be characterized by a low number of earthquakes (Fig. 2), while there were significantly more to the west and east. Recurring warfare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries resulted in the destruction of towns and cultural centers (especially monasteries) and depopulation in general. One third of medieval churches of Pest County are known from archaeological evidence only, because the relevant historical documents were lost.19 Written records were neither produced nor preserved during this period. No Gothic buildings, ecclesiastic or secular, survived in Buda, which was the medieval capital and royal seat of Hungary. The royal archives and library, the city archives, the royal registries and charters, records of city councils, financial records, and private correspondence were all lost due to the wars with the Ottomans.20 Particularly painful is the loss of historia domus records, which were dutifully written and preserved by monks in each monastery. These were major sources of Réthly’s studies in other regions. Turkish-language records, written in the Arabic alphabet, are certainly available, waiting to be studied.

When creating Figure 2, we asked whether the Carpathian-Pannonian region was really relatively free of major destructive earthquakes in its center or not. Is it true that there were many major earthquakes in the west and the east but almost none in the center? We cannot offer an answer based on the small number of surviving historical records. Given the methods on which it is based, archaeoseismology may yield a more nuanced understanding of seismic activity in the Carpathian-Pannonian region, and it may well provide significant quantities of new data, irrespective of the historical record. Two examples illustrate this point below.


Archaeoseismology is the study of seismic activity in the past on the basis of archeological sites. It has not yet been used in Hungary. An archaeoseismologist studies archeological excavations and surviving edifices for deformations caused by earthquakes.21 If one can exclude other causes (foundation problems, damages caused by warfare, etc.),22 earthquake intensity is assessed, and attempts are made to establish, within a limited framework, the time of earthquake. The nature of the damage helps localize the fault responsible for the shocks(s). This method is a suitable approach to finding corroborating evidence of suspected historical earthquakes (e.g. Savaria)23 and identifying seismic events unrecorded in historical sources (Visegrád).24 Additionally, one can assign intensity values to earthquakes, independently from historical records (Buda,25 Kolozsvár26).

Archaeoseismology was essentially invented in Greece as way of explaining layers of collapsed edifices excavated in the palace of Knossos, Crete.27 The first handbook was published in Athens.28 Large-scale field surveys29 were followed by clear essays on methodology in Italy30 and Spain.31 Progress is being made in attempts to produce analogue models first and foremost in Portugal,32 and Germany is in the vanguard in computer analysis.33 There are examples of widespread use of archaeoseismology in Turkey34 and Israel35 and novel studies elsewhere in the Mediterranean region, including Algeria,36 Tunisia,37 Libya,38 Egypt,39 Jordan,40 Lebanon,41 and Syria,42 to name a few.

The Mediterranean region lies along the collision zone between the European and the African plates, in a so-called plate margin environment, where seismicity is high. Additionally, there are rare but major earthquakes in intraplate environments, far from any plate margin. Archaeoseismology is eminently suitable as an approach to the study of past earthquakes in this region. However, the findings are often met by skepticism. The Lower Rhine Graben, centered around Cologne, was recently identified as possibly the seismically most active region of intraplate Europe, as proven by two millennia of archaeological documentation of past earthquakes.43 In the Carpathian-Pannonian region, Manfred Kandler, an Austrian archaeologist, was the first to suggest that collapsed walls in the Roman city of Carnuntum near Vienna were destroyed by an earthquake or earthquakes. His ideas were initially rejected, and this prompted him to publish his findings in Hungary.44 As other studies began to be published supporting45 and throwing into question his contentions,46 his views gained some acceptance. Recently, an international conference was organized dedicated to the Carnuntum earthquake of the 4th century AD.47

There are a few promising initiatives elsewhere in the Carpathian-Pannonian region. A large portion of the Roman city wall in Siscia (modern Sisak in Croatia) lies, collapsed, several meters from the foundation.48 Damage observed to St. Michael’s Church in Cluj-Napoca (in Transylvania, Romania) indicates an earthquake of intensity IX, far larger than anything suspected before.49 Major subsidence in the floor of the Franciscan monastery at Visegrád indicates that there was a major earthquake, causing liquefaction, at some point between 1513 and 1540. Both the monastery and the adjacent church were ruined.50 Using numerical techniques to model the process of deformation and damage, we arrive at data on the energy released,51 and we can draw conclusions as to whether the damage was caused by a sudden, seismic shock or continuous loading.52

Preliminary information is given on two sites to show that archaeoseismological research is possible and desirable in Hungary. A Roman road in Savaria (modern Szombathely) shows asymmetric subsidence which may be attributable to seismic activity (Fig. 3): a person or a horse-drawn cart could not move or stand on the 1.5-meter wide tilted edge of the road. This kind of deformation seems a prime example of uneven subsidence caused by seismic-generated liquefaction. A minor trench or a hand boring might reveal sandy subsoil to corroborate the presence of liquefiable sand. Stairs of the spiral staircase from the fifteenth-century donjon in Nagyvázsony were displaced by roughly 4 cm, obviously caused by lateral loading, possibly due to an earthquake (Fig. 4).

Historical seismology is like a large-resolution snapshot: a single event is documented in great detail. An earthquake which took place in 1202 AD in the Middle East, which was the largest earthquake known to have taken place there, offers an example of a dramatic seismic event which has been thoroughly studied. It was recorded at more than hundred sites within a circle with a radius of 500 km.53 Later, the fault responsible was identified in Mount Lebanon.54 The more snapshots we have, the more accurate our hazard assessment.

Archaeoseismology is like a deep borehole: a single site might record successive construction-destruction-reconstruction events over the course of centuries. Although recurrent episodes of damage to the same edifice are not easy to recognize and date, a few promising results are available. For instance, the crusader fortress of Al-Marqab on the coast of Syria,55 the Roman theater in Capitolias (modern Beit-Ras in Jordan),56 and the Byzantine dead city of Umm al-Jimal (also in Jordan) each offer evidence of at least two successive seismic events. While dating is still ambiguous at the Jordanian sites, we find evidence for reconstruction after the first earthquake and abandonment after the second event. Usually, historical sources and archaeoseismology work hand-in-hand, especially when dating is considered.


Earthquake hazard can be reliably assessed only if we are aware of past seismicity. The relatively small number of seismic events and long return period of major earthquakes make it necessary to use historical data in seismic hazard assessment. However, the lack of documentary data in the central region of the Carpathian-Pannonian region makes this a challenging task. This area practically coincides with the maximum extent of two centuries of Ottoman rule in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An arithmetic assessment suggests that we have no record of 90 percent of the destructive earthquakes which, in all likelihood, occurred in the Carpathian-Pannonian region over the course of the past two millennia.

We suggest that, by using archaeoseismology, we can contribute previously unknown data to this discussion. Damage caused by earthquakes can be recognized, and earthquake parameters can be assessed. Preliminary studies identified previously unknown seismic events (Visegrád) and assigned intensity values to historical records. The damage observed on a Roman road in Savaria and in the medieval donjon of Nagyvázsony offer two examples of the potentials of archaeoseismology. Renewed extensive study of historical sources and the further use of archaeoseismological investigation are needed if we seek to arrive at a nuanced understanding of seismic hazard in the Carpathian-Pannonian region.


András Grynaeus called our attention to earthquake damage in the donjon at Nagyvázsony. Two anonymous referees suggested useful improvements. Thomas Cooper improved English. We are also grateful for their assistance.


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Nasir, Asma, Wolfgang A. Lenhardt, Esther Hintersberger, and Kurt Decker. “Assessing the completeness of historical and instrumental earthquake data in Austria and the surrounding areas.” Austrian Journal of Earth Sciences 106 (2013): 90–102.

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1 Hough, Predicting the Unpredictable.

2 Ambraseys, “Archaeoseismology.”

3 Grossinger, Dissertatio.

4 Sternberg, Geschichte.

5 Jeitteles, “Geschichte der Erdbeben.”

6 Réthly, Kárpátmedencék.

7 Ambraseys, Earthquakes, 6.

8 Zsíros, “Earthquake activity.”

9 Guidoboni and Comastri, Catalogue.

10 Ambraseys, Earthquakes, 6.

11 Hammerl and Lenhardt, “Erdbeben.”

12 Earthquake Catalogue.

13 Bada et al., “Present-day stress field.”

14 For the Pannonian Basin, see Tóth et al., “Seismic hazard.”

15 For the Vienna Basin, see Nasir, “Assessing the completeness.”

16 Kovács, “Römische Inschriften.”

17 Csukovits, “Források.”

18 Zsíros, A Kárpát–medence.

19 Tari, Pest megye, 210–14; F. Romhányi, “Medieval ecclesiastical buildings,” 259.

20 Zolnay, “A történeti forrásanyag,” 30–34.

21 Marco, “Recognition”; Kázmér, “Damage.”

22 Ambraseys, Earthquakes.

23 Varga, “Magnitude.”

24 Kázmér et al., “Tizenhatodik századi.”

25 Ibid.

26 Kázmér, “Evidence.”

27 Evans, Minos; Jones and Stiros, “Advent of archeoseismology”; Jusseret, “Contextualising.”

28 Stiros and Jones, Archaeoseismology.

29 Karcz and Kafri, “Evaluation”; Nikonov, “Methodology”; Korjenkov and Mazor, “Seismogenic origin.”

30 Galadini et al., “Archaeoseismology.”

31 Silva et al., “Archaeoseismic record.”

32 Vasconcelos et al., “Experimental investigations.”

33 Hinzen et al., “Quantitative methods” for monumental buildings. We appreciate the role of Morais and others “Cyclic behaviour” on using computer models to describe the behavior of vernacular buildings.

34 Akyüz and Altunel, “Geological”; Benjelloun et al., “Construction.”

35 Ellenblum et al., “Crusader castle”; Marco, “Earthquake-related damage.”

36 Roumane and Ayadi, “Archaeoseismology.”

37 Bahrouni et al., “Historical”; Kázmér, “Why seismic hazard.”

38 Bacchielli, “Cyrenaica earthquake.”

39 Karakhanian et al., “Archaeoseimological studies.”

40 Al-Tawalbeh et al., “Archaeoseismic analysis.”

41 Lewis, “Baalbek.”

42 Meghraoui et al., “Evidence”; Kázmér and Major, “Distinguishing damages”; Kázmér and Major, “Safita castle.”

43 Reicherter et al., “Aquisgrani terrae”; Hinzen et al., “Archeoseismic study.”

44 Kandler, “Erdbebenkatastrophe.”

45 Decker et al., “Earthquake of Carnuntum.”

46 E.g. Hammerl et al., “Carnuntum case.”

47 Konecny et al., Carnuntiner Erdbeben.

48 Skrgulja and Kázmér, “Deformed Roman monuments.”

49 Kázmér, “Evidence for earthquake.”

50 Kázmér et al., “Tizenhatodik századi.”

51 Morais et al., “Preliminary estimation.”

52 Besharatinezhad et al., “Modelling.”

53 Ambraseys and Melville, “Analysis.”

54 Daeron et al., “Sources.”

55 Kázmér and Major, “Distinguishing damages.”

56 Al-Tawalbeh et al., „Two inferred Antique earthquakes.”


Figure 2. Earthquakes measured using instruments and earthquakes to which there are references in historical sources larger than magnitude 4 in the Carpathian-Pannonian region and surroundings.* One notes the low number of earthquakes in the central part. Is it due to a lack of seismic activity or a lack of historical records? A dotted line marks the largest northern extent of Ottoman rule in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.** Recently discovered earthquakes are indicated by capital letters: Nagyvázsony (N), Visegrád (V), and Cluj-Napoca (K). S – Savaria.
* Source: Earthquake Catalogue. ** Szalay, A magyar nemzet.

Figure 3. Uneven subsidence of a Roman road in Savaria. This kind of deformation is often caused by seismically induced liquefaction of the subsoil. Szombathely, Roman garden. #2156


Figure 4. Displaced steps of the spiral staircase in Nagyvázsony donjon.
A coin with a diameter of 24 mm for scale. #0376



Dendrochronology and Environmental History: The Difficulties of Interpretation

András Grynaeus
Hungarian Dendrochronological Laboratory
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 2  (2020): 302-314 DOI:10.38145/2020.2.302

The study provides insights into questions concerning forest management and timber use by drawing on case studies in the dendrochronological research which has been underway over the course of the past couple of decades in Hungary. The essay refers to natural resource-use and historical and demographic questions which arose in analyses of the wooden materials. The study questions some of the topoi of historical research, such as the immense forest loss traditionally associated with the Ottoman wars.

Keywords: dendrochronology, Hungary, forest resources, Ottoman wars, environmental history

The dendrochronological research which has been underway in Hungary for more than two decades now has brought to light a number of environmental history (related) data which goes beyond the use of the method in dating. If one takes a closer look at these data, several questions arise many of which remain unresolved. This study discusses some (if not all) of these questions.

In 2017, Gergely Rákóczi, associate of the Dobó István Castle Museum of Eger, excavated a wooden sluice bridge structure in Eger in the bed of the Eger Stream.1 Based on the four samples, the earliest year in which the oak trees which were used for the construction could have been cut was 1798. Analyses of the beams showed that the trees were considerably older than what is considered the ideal age for cutting (90 to 120 years), as the samples had 242, 257, 117, and 168 consecutive rings. Thus, these four samples offered a dataset which spanned a long period and could be used for dating and other investigations.

A relatively new and increasingly used method in dendrochronology which has yielded important insights is dendro-provenancing. By using many regional chronologies, researchers try to identify the original habitats of the trees used for timber and thus offer a spatial comparison.2 As Fig. 2 shows,3 the tree rings in the samples from Eger fit best with the chronology from trees in present-day Slovakia, which means that their original habitat was probably there.

This conclusion seems logical, as the Archbishopric of Eger had significant land holdings in this region. Furthermore, it harmonizes with the familiar topoi concerning the Ottoman Empire’s use of Hungary for its timber and the destructive impact on forests of the war to liberate the country from Ottoman occupation, as it suggests that there was a dearth of suitable trees in the Great Hungarian Plain and timber had brought in from the north. However, data referred to by Eszter Magyar concerning the valley of the Hron (Garam) River (a river in Slovakia was a tributary of the Danube) are frequently cited in support of the contention that the region of present-day Slovakia was not used for timber mining.4 In Magyar’s words, “as is clear from a lawsuit in 1544, […] the dynasties of charcoal burners who had been working in the easily accessible forests of the area since the death of King Matthias I [1490] cut down and charred the forests for the second or third time in little more than 50 years.”5 The finds from Eger, however, shed light on this conclusion, as the trees felled in the late 1700s at the age of 200 to 250 were already about 100 to 150 years old at the end of the Ottoman period. This suggests that during the period of the Ottoman presence in the Carpathian Basin, the forests in present-day Slovakia were never completely timbered or burned.

In 2012, during the construction of the new gym of the Saint Elisabeth High School in Esztergom, Edit Tari, an associate of the Balassi Bálint Museum, excavated a number of timber-framed Ottoman-period wells.6 The most “beautiful” and elaborate structure was no. 60, the timber of which was cut during the winter of 1584–1585.7 The builders used trunks cleaved in two, so in each case it was possible to measure the full series of the tree rings, while in most of the samples, both the bark and the sapwood were removed. Fortunately, in eight cases, they were not accurate enough, and in three cases not even the bark was removed decently. If one looks at the relative age of the timber used for the well, it is clear that very young trees were used. Thus, the well supports the conclusion concerning timber mining by the Ottomans in the forests of the Carpathian Basin.

However, when applied in these cases, dendro-provenancing yields surprising conclusions. The timber of the well can be best dated according to the chronology valid for the Vienna Basin. In other words, the timber used in Esztergom came from the Danube River valley or the surroundings of Vienna.8 This means that the timber mining was not “Ottoman” but rather “Ottoman period.” In other words, it was done on the other side of the border.9 One is also confronted with the rather surprising fact that, among the three (hostile) polities that shared the territory of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, there was considerable trade. This somewhat contradicts the traditional view.10

In 2015, Gábor Wilhelm and Máté Varga, archaeologists from the Katona József Museum, excavated two “barrel wells” in the center of the town of Kecskemét (Nagykörösi Street 7–9), i.e. two well structures in which, within the timber frame, there barrels, one in each (objects 19 and 26).11

Similar structures are familiar from the Roman period (e.g. from Ménfőcsanak) but are unique in late medieval contexts.12 The timber material is well suited for analysis, and it turned out they were cut at the earliest in 1486 and 1484.13 As there was no way to provide a more precise dating for the samples, it cannot be determined whether they made their way to Kecskemét in the late Middle Ages and the barrels, which were considered useless, were re-used in this manner or whether they were brought to the town in the period of the Ottoman occupation and were recycled as “rolls.” Unfortunately, there is no way to resolve this question, which is regrettable, as the timber originates from Transylvania. More precisely, they best match the chronologies of Biertan (Berethalom) and Târgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely).14 This means that they made their way Kecskemét by trade. The question of what was originally stored in them is fascinating, if still unanswered, and it would be similar interesting to know whether the barrels also testify to trading activities across the borders in the Ottoman period similar to the practices observed in the context of the site at Esztergom. The uncertainty lies in the fact that, because of the post quem dating of the barrels, it cannot be determined whether they were brought to the town in the last years of the unified Kingdom of Hungary or only after the tripartition.

In Budapest, at Kacsa Street 15–23 (in the second district of the city), Katalin Éder and Tibor Hable (both of whom were associates of the Budapest History Museum at the time) found wooden wells the trees for which were felled around 1584–1585. These Ottoman-period objects also testify to “transborder” trade (certainly present towards the Kingdom of Hungary and presumably towards the Principality of Transylvania) in the life of the country after the fall of the medieval kingdom, as the material of the well can be best dated according to the Viennese chronology.15

As a method, dendrochronology bears surprises for scholars of significantly earlier periods as well. In 2011,16 Katalin Sebők and Gábor V. Szabó (Institute of Archaeology, Eötvös Loránd University) unearthed a well that be dated to the Late Bronze Age (Urnfield culture) at Pusztataksony–Ledence.17 Most of the timber in the well (twenty of the twenty-two pieces) was of ash (Fraxinus sp.). The difficulty of interpreting the finds lies in the fact that one cannot draw a distinction among the three species of ash that are indigenous to the Carpathian Basin, the European ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.), the flowering ash (Fraxinus ornus L.), and the narrow-leaved ash (Fraxinus angustifolia subsp. pannonica) on the basis of the image of their tissues.

The habitats of the three species, however, differ. The first two species are mountainous, while the Hungarian subspecies of the narrow-leaved ash prefers flood plains.18 This provides us with an opportunity for further interpretation. One could assume that the trees were transported, in which case one gains valuable data concerning the economic life of a community very far away from Hungary today, both in space and time. However, one can interpret the data from an environmental history perspective. In that case, the data tells of the significantly different composition of species in the flood plain forests back then. Which reading of the data would be correct?19 The site provides us with one more surprise: young (only 40- to 50-year old) trees were used here again. Why? This question, i.e. the age of the felled trees, is difficult for specialists even at sites on which they have more information.

In the cases of a number of excavation sites, information can be acquired on the ages of the trees used to craft different objects. A telling example is the case of the two Neolithic wells (nos. 629 and 583) that were unearthed at Szalkszentmárton–Táborállás in 2017 by Bernadett Kovacsóczy (an associate of the Katona József Museum).20 The wells were built of trees felled with an eleven-year gap. For the older well, they used trees which were 200 years old, while for the younger, the trees were roughly 150 years old.21 This indicates two things: when building wells, there were trees of those ages at the disposal of the community within a reasonable distance, which means that the forests in the territory had been left intact for at least 200 years. However, it also became clear that the newly settled population started to use the forests, so after a decade, they had to “fall back on” the less suitable timber, which was “only” 150 years old.

The use of old trees can be observed at many sites throughout Hungary, such as in the case of a Celtic-period well22 unearthed at site no. 212 (Center for Heritage Protection, Hungarian National Museum, 2010) by the M3 highway at Pócspetri–Bikarét, where trees which were 100 to 160 years old were built into the well’s structure. But the same could be observed at the Sarmatian-period wells found at Püspökladány–Sárréti Csali-tanya (2013)23 and at site no. 14 at Tiszagyenda–Lakhatom.24 One tends to conclude that the use of old trees indicates an undisturbed environment, while uninhabited territories and the use of younger trees shows a disturbed environment and densely inhabited areas. However, if one has some background knowledge of these periods, one may call into question the accuracy of this reading of the data.

Site no. 45 by the M6 highway close to Szekszárd, which was excavated by János Ódor (Wosinsky Mór Museum) in 2010, prompts one to call into question the above conclusion.25 Two Avar-period wells (nos. 53 and 70) were also made of timber from trees felled within a gap of eleven years. This is just a coincidence with respect to the aforementioned example, of course, but the interpretation is more problematic, as in this case, the structure of the older well was made of trees felled at about 100 years of age, while in the case of the younger well, the trees used were over 200 years old when felled.26

Is it reasonable consistently to associate the use of older trees with demographic tendencies? Do we really have to assume that there were long periods during which areas were uninhabited and/or periods without forest clearance? Or would it be more realistic to set aside the notion of forests going untouched for generations and consider the possibility that forests were consciously used and cultivated? Could one reasonably make this assumption in the case of the Avars, the Sarmatians, and the Celtic-period populations? Or can one communities inhabited a certain area? The question is clear: should the features make this assumption with regard to periods in which different peoples/of the wood be understood as demographic data or as cultivation data? Do they yield conclusions concerning demographic processes or farming knowledge and practices?

At this point, one must consider methods of forest clearance in historical times. A number of questions and many possible answers arose in the course of an excavation led by Gábor Váczi (an associate of the Institute of Archaeology, Eötvös Loránd University) at site no. 5 at Tiszabura–Bónis-hát. The most important “source” was an Avar-period well. The eight beams studied included trees younger than 100 when felled and older than 200, but only one in between those ages.27 Why?

Was this the result of clear cutting? This would explain the mixed ages of the trees. However, this may also have been the result of selective cutting, as based on the sizes and the shapes of the beams, they may have been carefully selected. Or could their placement in the structure of the well be related to their age? There is no substantive data that could support or dismiss this possibility. Do we have so many unanswered questions simply because the low number of samples distort the results? Is this problem aggravated by the fact that parts of the samples have been destroyed (some of the beams and planks), so some parts of the dataset are missing, and some of the external tree rings may be rotten? Of course, one can also interpret the feature as a consequence of a particular method used to shape the beams, because assuming that the wood was cut from a suitably mature tree which was cleaved in half to create two 100 year-old beams, we may have only found one of them. This can also be understood as a special feature of the excavation, which can be traced back to the fact that only the bottom beams survived. The ones above them were destroyed over the centuries.

Can we assume that different methods of wood-cutting were used? I.e., is it possible that people at certain periods could not fell trees of any size? This may seem plausible, but it is unlikely that, if they were able to fell the old trees, they could not deal with the younger ones. Is it possible that the trees preserved traces of demographic processes? Or are both true? Did one of the peoples arriving in the region not know how to or did not want to fell larger trees, and so the trees survived only to be felled and used by later groups? Environmental reasons can also be considered, as for instance younger trees stands could have fallen victim to an ice-flood, while older trees may have proved to be more resilient. And in that case, we have not considered explanations concerning possible rituals or beliefs, such as “sacred oaks” left standing by previous peoples who had lived there.

Which interpretation is correct? How far can an archaeologist/scholar go in interpreting such data? These questions are difficult to answer, but similar features can be observed at late medieval (Vácszentlászló–Hajta-patak28) and Árpád Era (Hódmezővásárhely–Kingéc29) sites, and these similarities limit the interpretive possibilities to some extent, certainly in connection with ritual practices.

What explanations are the most convincing in such cases? And what methods should researchers use when positing explanations? Should they brainstorm, or should they patiently wait until, at some point in the future, enough data have been gathered to yield definite answers? Should one consider stick to observations of features or should one build theories, which of course involves the risk of error? These questions are not simple to answer.


Ágoston, Gábor. “Where Environmental and Frontier Studies Meet: Rivers, Forests, Marshes and Forts along the Ottoman–Hapsburg Frontier in Hungary.” Proceedings of the British Academy 156 (2009): 57–79.

Babos, Károly. Fafajmeghatározás restaurátorok számára [Specifying tree species for conservation specialists]. Budapest, 1994.

Benda, Judit, Katalin Éder. “Budapest, II. ker., Kacsa utca 15–23. és Ganz utca 16.” [Budapest 2nd District Kacsa Street 15–23, and Ganz Street 16]. Aquincumi Füzetek 14 (2008): 193–96.

Bridge, Martin. “Locating the origins of wood resources: a review of dendroprovenancing.” Journal of Archaeological Science 39, no. 8 (2012): 2828–34. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2012.04.028.

Csányi, Viktor. Beszámoló a 2009-ben és 2010-ben Hódmezővásárhely–Kingécen végzett régészeti munkálatokról [On the archaeological excavations carried out at Hódmezővásárhely–Kingé in 2009 and 2010]. Múzeumi Műhely 8. Hódmezővásárhely: Tornyai János Múzeum, forthcoming.

Éder, Katalin. “Hódoltságkori gödör a Víziváros területéről: Egy szemeskályha maradványai és kísérőleletei” [Ottoman-period pit from the Víziváros: Remains of a tiled stove]. Budapest Régiségei 47 (2014): 283–311.

Fülöp, Kristóf. “The Birth of Wells: A Late Bronze Age Well from Pusztataskony–Ledence.” In State of the Hungarian bronze age research. Proceedings of the conference held between 17th and 18th of December 2014, edited by Gabriella Kulcsár, and Gábor V. Szabó, 309–36. Budapest: ELTE BTK Régészettudományi Intézet, MTA BTK Régészeti Intézet, Ősrégészeti Társaság, 2017.

Grynaeus, András. “A 164. számú kút deszkáinak dendrokronológiai vizsgálata” [Dendrochoronological investigation of planks of well no. 164]. Múzeumi Műhely 8. Hódmezővásárhely: Tornyai János Múzeum, forthcoming.

Grynaeus, András, János Gábor Ódor. “Dendrokronológia: Avar kori kutak Szekszárd, Varga Peti-dűlő, 1. lelőhely” [Dendrochronology: Avar period wells at Szekszárd Varga Peti-dűlő site no. 1]. In Nem térkép e táj: Régészeti kutatások eredményei Szekszárd területén 2006–2015 [The landscape is not a map: Results of the archaeological investigations at Szeszárd, 2006–2015], edited by András K. Németh, 31. Szekszárd, 2016.

Hajnal, Zsuzsanna. “Migration period settlement at Tiszagyenda with Hun period destruction horizon.” Poster presentation at the Attila Európája [Attila’s Europe] conference Budapest, June 6–7, 2019.

Kondé, Zsófia. “Egy kút élete: Avar kori településrészlet Tiszabura–Bónishát lelőhelyről” [The life of a well: Avar-period settlement fragment from Tiszabura–Bónishát]. In Beatus homo qui invenit sapientiam: Ünnepi kötet Tomka Péter 75. születésnapjára [Volume in honor of the 75th birthday of Péter Tomka], edited by Teréz Csécs, and Miklós Takács, 337–51. Győr, 2016.

Kovacsóczy, Bernadett. “Előkelő avar férfi sírja Szalkszentmárton határából” [Burial of a member of the Avar elite from the borders of Szalkszentmárton]. In Hatalmi központok az Avar Kaganátusban [Power centers in the Avar Khaganate], edited by Csilla Balogh, József Szentpéteri, and Erika Wicker, 69–96. Kecskemét 2019.

Larsson, Nicklas, Vera Majerik. “Pócspetri határa” [The borders of Pócspetri]. In Régészeti kutatások Magyarországon 2011 [Archaeological investigations in Hungary, 2011], edited by Júlia Kisfaludi, Judit Kvassay, and Attila Kreiter, 146–47. Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum, 2018.

Magyar, Eszter. A feudalizmus kori erdőgazdálkodás az alsó-magyarországi bányavárosokban (1255–1747) [Forest management in the Lower-Hungarian mining towns in the age of feudalism, 1255–1747]. Budapest, 1983.

Molnár, Karola. “Kecskemét–Nagykőrösi utca 7–9. lelőhely kútjainak vizsgálata: Adatok a késő középkori-kora újkori kutak vizsgálatához” [Analysis of the wells of Kecskemét–Nagykörösi Street 7–9 site. Data to the study of late medieval – Early Modern wells]. In Acta iuvenum: Sectio archaeologica. Tomus III. Acta Universitatis Szegediensis, edited by László Révész, 129–51. Szeged: Szegedi Tudományegyetem, Régészeti Tanszék, 2017.

Ódor, János. “Avar szőlő, avar kút: Szekszárd, Varga Peti-dűlő, 1. lelőhely – M6 To 045 lelőhely 2008” [Avar vineyard, Avar well: Szekszárd, Varga Peti-dűlő, site no. 1 – M/ To 045 site, 2008]. In Nem térkép e táj: Régészeti kutatások eredményei Szekszárd területén 2006–2015 [The landscape is not a map: Results of the archaeological investigations at Szeszárd, 2006–2015], edited by András K. Németh, 22–23. Szekszárd, 2016.

Rákóczi, Gergely. “Zsiliphíd az Eger patak medrében” [Sluice bridge in the bed of Eger Stream]. Agria, forthcoming.

Schweingruber, Fritz Hans. Der Jahrring: Standort, Methodik, Zeit und Klima in der Dendrochronologie. Bern–Stuttgart: P. Haupt, 1983.

Szabó, Péter. “Erdők a kora újkorban: történelem, régészet, ökológia” [Woodland in the early modern period: History, archaeology, ecology]. In Környezettörténet: Az utóbbi 500 év környezeti eseményei történeti és természettudományi források tükrében, edited by Miklós Kázmér, 137–56. Budapest: Hantken, 2009.

Szolnoki, László. “Püspökladány, Sárréti Csali-tanya” [Püspökladány, Csali farm in Sárrét]. Déri Múzeum Évkönyve 89 (2018): 41.

Tari, Edit. “Az Esztergom-vízivárosi oszmán fajanszedény-kincslelet” [The Ottoman faience-treasure hoard at Esztergom–Víziváros]. Archaeológiai Értesítő 141 (2016): 195–210.

Váczi, Gábor. “Tiszabura, Bónishát” [Tiszabura–Bónishát]. In Régészeti kutatások Magyarországon 2009 [Archaeological investigation in Hungary, 2009], edited by Júlia Kisfaludi, 366–67. Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum, 2010.

Vadas, András, Péter Szabó. “Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees? Ottoman-Hungarian Wars and Forest Resources.” Hungarian Historical Review 7, no. 3 (2018): 477–509.

Várkonyi, Gábor. Ünnepek és hétköznapok: Művelődés és mentalitás a török kori Magyarországon [Feasts and weekdays: Education and mentality in Hungary in the Ottoman Era]. Budapest: General Press, 2009.



1 Rákóczi, “Zsiliphíd.

2 Bridge, “Locating the origins.”

3 From the statistical data marked on the map, “t” is the result of the t-test. This text, which is frequently used in archaeology, demonstrates the extent to which the values in two datasets could be said to match each other. TVNP is the Baillie-Pilcher’s t-value and GW is Gleichlaufigkeitswert (correlation), which indicates the correlation in the running of two curves. The fourth data (ol) marks the number of overlapping tree rings. On the statistical methods used in dendrochronology, see Schweingruber, Der Jahrring.

4 Magyar, A feudalizmus kori erdőgazdálkodás.

5 Ibid., 82.

6 The official name of the site was Esztergom-Szent Erzsébet iskola udvara (Víziváros) [Esztergom–Saint Elisabeth High School Yard (Víziváros)]. Only a preliminary report of the excavation has been published so far: Tari, “Az Esztergom-vízivárosi,” 195–210.

7 The reference chronology is the Viennese dataset gathered by Michael Grabner and his colleagues. The statistical values of the comparison: t=5,62; TVBP=5,2; GW=71,4/99,9%; overlap: 64 tree rings. The values of the Hungarian dataset: t=3,87; TVBP=4,9; GW=69,8/99,0%; overlap: 64 tree rings.

8 Other reference chronologies used in the comparison were oak chronologies from Slovakia and the central part of Hungary.

9 See Vadas and Szabó, “Not Seeing the Forest”; Ágoston, “Where Environmental”; Szabó, “Erdők a kora újkorban.”

10 See Várkonyi, Ünnepek és hétköznapok.

11 Molnár, “Kecskemét–Nagykőrösi utca 7–9,” 129–55.

12 I know of only one other example from the Middle Ages, from ca. 1380 from the market town of Mohi/Muhi.

13 The reference chronologies were gathered by the Anno Domini Laboratory in Miercurea Ciuc (Harghita county, Romania, by Boglárka Tóth and István Botár). Statistical values of comparison: t=4,67; GW=64.7/95%; overlap: 119 tree rings, and: t=5,28; GW=68.5/99,9%); overlap: 130 tree rings.

14 There was no observable potentially relevant correlation with other chronologies (Vienna Basin, central territory of Hungary, Maramureş region, present-day Slovakia).

15 The reference chronology is the Viennese dataset gathered by Michael Grabner and his colleagues. Statistical values of the comparison: t=5,15; TVBP=4,5; GW=74,0/99,0%; overlap: 51 tree rings. See Várkonyi, Ünnepek és hétköznapok.

16 Fülöp, “The Birth of Wells.”

17 NKT-01. o:637/s:869.

18 Babos, Fafajmeghatározás, 58.

19 The two other beams were made of sessile oak (Quercus petraea (Mattuschka) Lieblein). This indicates a mountainous origin if one assumes that all the timber came from the same area.

20 Kovacsóczy, “Előkelő avar férfi,” 69–96.

21 In most of the samples, the sapwood was preserved and, in some cases, even the bark could be observed. As the planks were carved out radiately from the trunks, the datasets could be set to the center of the tree, allowing us to measure the width of (almost) every tree ring.

22 The excavation was led by Vera Majerik and Eszter Istvánovics. For a short overview of the excavation, see Larsson and Majerik, “Pócspetri határa,” 146–47.

23 Szolnoki, “Püspökladány,” 41.

24 Hajnal, “Migration period.”

25 Ódor, “Avar szőlő,” 22–23, and Grynaeus and Ódor, “Dendrokronológia,” 31

26 The planks for the wells were carved out radiately from the trunks in both cases, so we could measure the trees to their centers, and the bark was consistently removed as well. In the case of well no. 53, however, the sapwood was not removed, and in many cases, all of the sapwood was preserved. At well no. 70, from the sixteen plank samples, fragmentary or full sapwood was preserved in six pieces.

27 The planks were carved out from the trunks radiately, so we managed to include the tree rings to the center, but the sapwood had consistently been removed. As the datasets end at (almost) identical dates, it is likely that only the sapwoods were removed.

28 Excavation led by Zoltán Farkas (Museums of Pest County) in 2011, where a water mill and the related wooden structures of a water mill that can be dated to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were unearthed.

29 Well no. 209. Excavation led by Viktor Csányi (Tornyai János Museum) in 2010. See Csányi, Beszámoló, Grynaeus, “A 164. számú kút.”

Figure 1. Structure of the sluice bridge in the bed of the Eger Stream
(Photograph by Gergely Rákóczi)


Figure 2. The relationship between the data from Eger and chronologies of different areas


Figure 3. Well 60 (image by Edit Tari). Relative age of the beams (the light fields on the diagram mark the hardwood, while the dark fields indicate the sapwood of the tree rings)


Figure 4. Structure of well no. 19. Photograph by Máté Varga


Figure 5. Image of the tissue of one of the ash beams (at a magnification of 20).
Photograph by András Grynaeus



Figure 6. The relative ages of the beams of the wells of Szekszárd (the light fields on the diagram mark the hardwood, while the dark fields indicate the sapwood of the tree rings)


Figure 7. Tiszabura–Bónis-hát, site no. 5, relative ages of the beams of object no. 43
(the light fields on the diagram mark the hardwood, while the dark fields indicate the sapwood of the tree rings)


Figure 8. The relative ages of the beams found at Vácszentlászló–Hajta-patak
(the light fields on the diagram mark the hardwood, while the dark fields indicate the sapwood of the tree rings)