The Hungarian Gentry

The below is transcribed from the first (and probably only) edition of Hungary, by C.A. Macartney, London 1934. A fascinating account by this eminent historian of the Hungarian gentry (lower nobility) class in the 1930s, of the type discussed in this blog.


To the reader of romances, and even to the ordinary tourist, especially if he or she travels with good recommendations, the magnate, with his country mansion, his polished manners, his reminiscences of Vienna and Ascot, his charming wife who, like himself, speaks excellent English, and is in all probability his third or fourth cousin through at least one common ancestor, is the typical Magyar. Not so to the born Hungarian, who envies the magnate and pays him every form of respect, but in a corner of his heart despises him for his foreign ways, and is well aware that the magnates are only the facade of the “nation”, while the solid fabric is composed of the lesser nobles, the old servientes regis, known to-day in popular parlance as the “gentry”.
The name is an apt one, for the English word “noble” has altogether too exalted a social connotation, whereas the name of gentleman, in its heraldic sense of armiger, exactly describes the status of this class. Even more exact, to those familiar with Irish conditions, would be the name of squirreen: for the smaller landowners of Hungary and Ireland have much in common, both in their political function, their manner of living, even their personal character, and their numbers. The true grandee is rare everywhere, even in Hungary, and has, moreover, never been a wholly national figure. In recent centuries, in particular, he has tended to represent foreign influences and even foreign interests. But the country gentleman is as native to the country, and as familiar spectacle in it, as the stork which nests on his roof-tree. It is he, more than the magnate, more than the peasant, far more than the merchant or manufacturer, who has made, and keeps Hungary what it is.

It is impossible, of course, to draw an absolute distinction between the magnates and the gentry. The true and decisive line in Hungarian society comes always, not between the rich nobleman and the poor, but below the latter. At all times it has been easy for a rich family of gentry to marry into the aristocracy and itself acquire a title, while the poorer scions of magnates' houses perforce live a life indistinguishable from that of the gentry.

Yet the traditional world of the typical representative of the gentry is very different from that of the magnate. Instead of half a dozen castles, a white-washed one-storied country house, sheltered from the weather by a few straggling acacias; instead of vast estates scattered over Hungary, administered by a dozen trained managers and cultivated by thousands of subject (for that is what they amount to), a few scores or hundreds acres, a few peasants, every one of whom he has known from infancy, a Swabian bailiff, half servant, half friend; instead of the palace in Vienna and the jaunts to Paris or Bad Gastein, an occasional week in Budapest with perhaps and agricultural congress for an excuse; instead of the cosmopolitan gaiety of courts and capitals, a game of cards in the evening with the local priest, the district magistrate, or the notary, with perhaps a neighbour who has driven 5 miles of miry road to take a hand, and once or twice in the winter, a ball in the County Town for his daughters to meet the officers of the garrison. For other distractions, a walk over the dewy stubble, a shot at a covey of partridges or a hare; for other cares, the endless intricacy of local affairs, the pre-occupation with the falling prices of wheat or wine, and the eternally unsatisfactory nature of the labour market. 

It is not without justice that the gentry regard themselves as the representatives par excellence of the Hungarian nation. In the first place, they have a historical claim, which fact in itself is not without importance; for the Magyars, with their passionate devotion to their national traditions, are always prepared to rally around a class which represents those traditions, and are indulgent even towards a weakness if it is ancestral. And the Hungarian gentry, whatever the ancestry of the present components of that class (and it is only a little less mixed than that of the magnates), are spiritually, the true linear descendants of Arpad's warriors. The position of the magnates is the offspring of a flirtation with Western feudalism; but Hungary's ancient constitution was made by and for the spiritual ancestors of the gentry, and in preserving it they have in fact been defending, not their own interests alone, but the work of Arpad and St. Stephen also.

In the days when all the “nation” was national in the modern sense of the word, the defence of their liberties by the gentry was chiefly of value to their own class; to a lesser extent also to the sovereign, but certainly not to the peasants, who might easily have fared better under fewer masters. But during the long centuries after 1526, when the Crown represented a foreign domination, the magnates and the Catholic Church were its supporters and the foreign colonists its instruments, the gentry earned a more genuine title to call themselves the representatives of Hungary; for it was due to their efforts, and to honourable alliance of Protestant Churches, that Hungary's constitution was preserved tolerably intact and with it her whole national life saved from the greatest debilitation, perhaps from total extinction.

After generations typified the Hungarian gentleman of those days in the figure of the “tablabiro” [basically interchangeable with the szolgabiro], the County magistrate. For it was in the Counties that Hungarian national life was preserved. The dynasty determined all questions of major policy on its own initiative and in its own interests. 
But the internal administration had to go on, and although the Crown encroached upon it here and there, it perforce left most of it in the hands of the old authorities, who were precisely the gentry (since the magnates had gone flocking to Vienna). The County was the domain of the tablabiro, where he played his part for good and evil, in the making of Hungary – a part the influence of which is strong in Hungary to-day.
Any Hungarian must be an ingrate who should deny his country's debt to its old defenders. “Who”, writes Jokai at the opening of one of his novels, “preserved intact the nation's manners, its receptiveness to culture, its holy love of the fatherland? Who was its pioneer in the path of religion, knowledge, and virtue? The good old tablabiros. Who was it to whom the Magyar owes it that he did not crumble away after 300 years of history, like the avalanche fallen into the valley, but when the magnates forsook him, when the peasantry sank into misery or counted for nought in the scales of destiny – yet lived, bloomed again, and grew strong? We owe everything, everything to those mocked, despised old tablabiros, now crumbled to dust and laid for ever to rest.”

It would be futile to deny that the picture had another side. Indirectly, the Hungarian gentry were, indeed, defending the national life of their whole country against Vienna; but the actual system which they were championing, with so much courage and ingenuity, was a narrow one of class privilege. The “nation” was only a small fraction of the population of Hungary, and the constitution, so far as the work of the Counties was concerned, was simply the instrument for the perpetuation of the privileged position of that minority. The stately periods in which many a County “congregation” was wont to celebrate the ancient liberties of the Hungarian nation – and many meetings spent the greater part of their time in declaiming and applauding orations to this effect – boiled down, only too often, to a determination not to release their unfortunate serfs from the innumerable burdens under which they groaned, or to assume the share of taxation which the welfare of the country demanded. 

The life of the gentry was a narrow one, in every respect. It was not only that they confined all power and privilege to their own class; as a class, they were singularly limited in their activities and outlook. They travelled little, beyond the bounds of their own Counties. Their horizons were bounded by the little society of their own immediate neighborhood, with its local politics, its markets, its junketing at election times. They consorted only with their likes, and these consisted of men, not merely of their own class, but also of their own occupation. The only small variant was when some of them entered the Church, where they were little else but landed gentry in priestly robes. Even the army became an unpopular career after the old feudal levy had been replaced by a standing force. It was felt to be an instrument of the dynasty, and not the nation, and was left largely to the Serbs and Croats to officer. The only profession, except the Church, which the sons of the gentry frequented in large numbers (politics were rather a second nature to all gentlemen than a separate career) was that of the Law, in which they developed an extraordinary talent (which has become a national heritage) both in interpreting obscure points of constitutional law in defence of their country's interests, and in fighting out the interminable suits to which the tangled system of entail, further confused by the Turkish occupation, gave rise in almost every family.

Yet with all their weaknesses, the Hungarian gentry kept the flame of the nation's life burning into the nineteenth century, and successfully led the movement of national revival which culminated in 1848. For although the great inspirer of the new Hungary, Count Szechenyi, was an aristocrat, yet the re-establishment of Hungarian liberty was indisputably the work of the gentry under Kossuth. The magnates acted only the part of intermediaries between the nation and the Crown, and when events were heading for a crisis, were driven increasingly to act simply as brakes on the wheel. 
Again, in the years which followed 1849, if it was the magnates who brought about the Compromise with the Crown, it was the gentry who, by their stubborn resistance to the Bach administration, had driven Francis Joseph from autocracy into compromise. The magnates led the nation into the promised land, but it was the gentry who had made the journey possible. 
[Economic oppression of the gentry class]....The result of this prolonged series of misfortune was to change the economic basis of the gentry class altogether. While the proportion of the large estates to the total cultivable area remained, and remains, almost unchanged, that of the medium-sized estates, from 100 to 1,000 yokes, dwindled steadily. In the early years of the twentieth century it was not more than 15 per cent, and even of these estates, a not inconsiderable proportion were in the hands of wealthy peasants, and others belonged only in name to their titular owners, but in reality, to the holders of the mortgages on them. Only a fraction of the old gentry had maintained their position on the land intact; the majority were driven gradually but implacably into the towns.

In most countries such a process would have meant the political, as well as the economic disintegration of the gentry, unless they proved capable of themselves taking charge of the new economic forces which were developing in Hungary; and this, as a class, they failed signally to do. Their lack of taste and capacity for business has remained as pronounced as ever, and even to-day there is hardly a single Magyar, of true Magyar stock, possessed of an appreciable income not derived from land – which amounts, under present circumstances, to saying that there are hardly any wealthy Magyars at all.

But to suppose that the inability of a Hungarian gentleman to make money would be regarded either by himself or anyone else in the country as a sign of weakness would be to reckon without either the conservatism of Hungarian society, or its habitual and magnanimous refusal to identify wealth with power.
Many of the old gentry”, writes Count Mailath, in a lament on the weakness of the Hungarian middle class, “instead of increasing their numbers by combining with the 'small men' who engage in other occupations and are of a practical turn of mind, esteem them but little and do not care to consort for them. They make all the greater efforts to create links with the upper classes of society; they wish to become powerful and famous men and to make their fortunes...For them the aim of education is not to teach them anything, but to allow them to live easily, to display a greater luxury, and to await, if need be, some high post. This hollow but apparently brilliant manner of living exercises a charm on the other 'small men' who follow their example: their ideal becomes that of getting a good job, so that they may play a part and at the expense of the State and become Meltosagos (your Honour) or Nagysagos (your Worship). The little official plays at the great lord and has no time to occupy himself with his poor family.”