Mongol invasion

A large number of the zemans were ennobled by King Béla IV after the Mongol (often called Tatar) invasion of 1241-1242 as a reward for their defense of the Kingdom. The word zeman was derived from zem, "earth, ground, lot," that they received.



Zemianka's dress, ca. 1800





Mikovíny's map from the 1730s; section with the now-popular cave and ski valley near the Village of Demänová


Among the noblemen, zemans, influential in Slovak history were:

Samuel Timon (1675-1736) author of key books on the Kingdom's past and present

Samuel Mikovíny (1700-1750) Royal cartographer of the Kingdom

Adam František Kollár (1718-1783) Court Councillor to Empress Maria Theresa, author, ethnologist

Anton Bernolák (1762-1813) author of the influential 18th-century manual of style

Juraj Palkovič (1769-1850) author, first college professor of Slovak

Johann Csaplovics (1780-1847) writer, historian, ethnographer

Gašpar Fejérpataky-Belopotocký (Kasspar Fejérpataký de Kelecsén, 1794-1874) influential publisher

Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894) Member of Parliament, revolutionary leader of Hungary, pro-Hungarian and anti-Slovak ethnic activist (of Slovak father, German mother)

Jonáš Záborský (1812-1876) regarded novelist

Štefan Marko Daxner (1823-1892) regarded poet, revolutionary, Deputy-Lieutenant Governor of Gemer-Malohont County

Viliam Pauliny-Tóth (1826-1877) writer, publisher of a literary magazine

Pavol Országh (1848-1921) regarded poet aka Hviezdoslav

Terézia Vansová (1857-1942) writer, publisher of literary magazines

Jozef Matúš Burjan, MD (1859-1916) author of medical advice books

Janko Jesenký (1874-1945) regarded poet and novelist

Elena Páričková (1888-1954) publisher of fiction, poetry


Nobilis, zeman

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.

Noblemen's status

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 Empire. 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 pro-Hungarian during the ethnic activism of the 19th century. Some from each of the two groups became influential. According to Hungarian estimates, at least 25,000 to 30,000 of the Slovak noblemen spoke no or little Hungarian around the middle of the 19th century.

For instance, the support from hundreds of zemans in Turiec County was crucial in the launching of the first newspaper in the freshly revised Slovak written standard in 1845, and 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.