Contractual villages

They were a significant segment of rural Slovakia before 1781. Such villages started out as self-governing communities with a clear contract with the nobleman about what he could and what he could not do. In contractual villages, the nobleman mostly dealt with the semi-hereditary, semi-elected self-governing bodies that ran the villages, not directly with the villagers at large.

For centuries, there was much more self-government, give-and-take between the farmers and their nobleman, than we imagine when we hear "feudalism" and think "total control."


Although not at all exclusively, Slovak historians typically use the word poddaný, "subject," both in the sense of "the king's subject" and to indicate the relationship of the farmers to their noblemen in the Kingdom of Hungary. They tend to use the word nevoľník, "serf," in discussions of countries with severe conditions by comparison to the kingdom.

Direct-managed villages

In direct-managed villages, the Slovak or another ethnic nobleman partly did as he pleased before 1781, but with a number of legal limitations and no power over the farmers' lands. For instance, he would typically be the judge for most crimes in the village, but murder was under the county's jurisdiction; there were customary or written laws governing how much work and when he could demand of his villagers (click on urbarium for more details); etc.

With rare exceptions, the landlord was not able to drive a family away from their farm as we may imagine under the impression of British history (clearances). The farmers owned and were in charge of their homestead, cattle, and fields and tended to them for their own benefit and profit for much of the week. The nobleman's fields were elsewhere, clearly defined and did not overlap with the villagers' real estate.

While a Slovak villager's farm in the non-contractual village was under the nobleman's jurisdiction, it was also the farmer's hereditary farm and land, remotely comparable to the status of real estate in a U.S. county – the county has power over the real estate (and people) on its territory in the sense that it enforces bylaws and collects taxes, but it does not have the power to take the real estate away from the county's inhabitants, Americans own their real estate while living under a county's jurisdiction in a way that is broadly comparable to how Slovak farmers lived under a nobleman.

A Slovak farmer in the "totally unfree" village had his own fields and worked in them for over 80% of the year, owned his cattle and poultry, sometimes had a craft, too, but as a form of tax, had to work in the nobleman's fields for a day or two each week. The farmers also had to provide victuals to the nobleman on two or three occasions a year (the amount typically increased with the passing centuries).

Villages and noblemen

Q: Did the typical nobleman's wife sally forth to visit the poor and sick in the villages?

The situation of the Slovak (and the Kingdom of Hungary's) farmers differed from our image of an English manor or serfdom in Russia. The Slovak farmers had heritable rights to use and profit from their farms, cattle, and fields and tended to them for much of the week. Some also lived in villages with a degree of self-government. The Slovak or other ethnic nobleman was not able to dispossess a familiy under his control of its own farm, as we might imagine under the impression of British history (clearances). The noblemen were not in control over the Slovak and other farmers' real estate.

In a nutshell, the noblemen's relationships with the villages varied a lot. There were not only the ultrarich. There was a whole gamut of them – from the eminently wealthy noblemen-landowners down to some zemans with few subjects under their control (other zemans owned only their own farm, or were professionals). Some noblemen were masters of a tiny village of farm owners, some of two, some had charge of swaths of the Kingdom. Any personal authority noblemen used to have over their villages ended in 1781.

As to the ultrarich, there were fewer than 200 of them in the Kingdom by the 18th century, largely Germanized or on the way to be, and about half of them lived permanently outside of the Kingdom – in Vienna, the Habsburg Empire's vibrant capital. A few had probably never even been to the Kingdom, some others traveled there only when they absolutely had to.

The historical relationship between the Kingdom's noblemen and farmers outlined here was abolished in 1781. It took the ruling Habsburgs several more decades to downgrade and cancel the noblemen's other privileges, e.g., their exemption from taxation.

Free farmers

Some of the lower noblemen, zemans, were farmers no richer, and sometimes poorer, than others, but their status was different. A nobleman was outside any other nobleman's power, did not even fall under the county's jurisdiction (each county had its own). Only the king was his master. Also, the noblemen, including the zemans, paid no taxes and were automatically members of the Kingdom's "parliament" (the Diet) – not that many of them had the time and money to dillydally there much during its occasional sessions. Noblemen farmers predominated in some villages especially in North-Central Slovakia.

Small noblemen landowners

The small noblemen-landowners had a lot of contact with the villagers, the larger ones who lived locally less so, because much of that was typically handled by their "managers."

With great simplification again – it varied over time and from place to place – there were two kinds of villages: A) "direct-managed" villages; and B) "contractual" villages (see the sidebars for details). Much of the existence of the Kingdom was marked by continual efforts by the noblemen to limit those contracts and by the villagers' perennial fight to get the noblemen to adhere to them. It was draining by today's standards, but to a significant degree, it was not the stupefying incapacitation of serfdom that feudalism produced in some countries.

So... a common picture was not a village centered on the lord and lady of the manor, but rather, a village living its own farming life, often as not with its own council and mayor, and engaged in constant squabbles with the distant nobleman.