Q: What did the terms mean?
Zeman [zehmahn] was the Slovak term for the lowest-ranking noblemen in the Kingdom of Hungary. The Kingdom's language of administration and education was Latin through the late 18th – mid-19th century. The Latin term for the rank was nobilis, but the same word could also be used as a cover term for all nobility. The corresponding Hungarian word nemes [nehmehsh] could have the same potential second meaning. The next rank above the zeman/nobilis/nemes was the baron.
When a record says nobilis, it means this lowest rank, zeman. The higher nobility are identified with the titles: baron, count (comes in Latin), etc.
The Kingdom's noblemen, including the zemans, were not subject to taxation until the reforms of the 19th century. They were directly subordinate to the king, outside the county's or another nobleman's jurisdiction. All were automatically members of the Diet (the Kingdom's semi-parliament). They elected the county officials. They were free to remain Lutheran during the Habsburgs' forceful Counter-Reformation, and both Lutheran and Catholic noblemen, if they wished so, were able to protect the villagers on their lands from the ordained conversions to Roman Catholicism.
Zemans' hereditary titles
Unlike the higher noblemen's titles, a zeman's title was inherited by all his children in each generation. A male zeman's children, sons (zeman) as well as daughters (zemianka), were all born zemans regardless of their mother's origin (a female commoner married to a zeman came to share his status). A female zemianka retained her noble status for life, but if she married a commoner, he did not acquire her status, and all her children were born commoners.
Change of status
The zemans' privileges began to wane with Emperor Joseph II's reforms in the 1780s that gradually gave more freedom to the rest of the population and curbed the nobility's former rights as the Kingdom became more firmly integrated in the Habsburg monarchy. They had become effectively equal with the rest of the population by the second half of the 19th century, although their perceived status lingered on. Czecho-Slovakia, created in 1918, abolished all noble titles.
Place in society
About 5% of the families in Slovakia's historical territory were zemans (10% in Turiec County). They were particularly concentrated in the north-central region where some villages had a predominantly zeman population. Their economic status ranged from wealthy land owners and professionals to farmers no richer, and sometimes poorer, than others. Their identity began to split between pro-Slovak and, more often, pro-Hungarian during the ethnic activism of the 19th century. Some from each of the two groups became influential.
For instance, a number of zemans attended the massive Slovak national gathering in Martin in 1861, but not all voted for the Memorandum on equality that came out of it. Perhaps the most prominent among the nobleman participants was Baron Simon Révay, Lieutenant Governor of Turiec County, who, tellingly, needed to apologize in his address to the gathering that his Slovak was not up to scratch. Another nobleman participant with country-wide recognition was Martin Szentiványi, Lieutenant Governor of Liptov County, who spoke, in Slovak, of "our holy goal" at the gathering.