Banat | Village Coordinator: Nick Tullius


An Englishman Travels the Banat (early 1800s)
Excerpt from the book “Hungary and Transylvania” by John Paget (London 1839)

… one of the most curious features of the Banat is the motley appearance of its inhabitants, who, as the different races are generally in distinct villages, have preserved their national characteristics quite pure. In one village which, from the superiority of its buildings, and from the large and handsome school‑house, you at once recognize to be German, you still see the old‑fashioned costume of the Bavarian broom‑girl, and the light blue eyes and sandy hair of their colder fatherland... The Magyar and the Ratz are equally characteristic and distinct. In one place, I think Kánisa, on finding the drivers spoke neither German, Hungarian, nor Wallack the ear soon teaches one to distinguish these languages ‑ I inquired of a respectable‑looking person, who was standing in the inn‑yard, from whence they were? “Bulgarians,” he answered in German: “and it is just one hundred years since they left Turkey, and established themselves on this spot, under the protection of the Emperor.” The size of the village, and the appearance of the houses, sufficiently bespoke them to be a prosperous and flourishing colony. In some places, people of two or three nations are mixed together, and it not unfrequently happens, that next door neigbbours cannot understand each other. The different nations rarely intermarry, ‑ a Magyar with a Wallack, never. I do not here enter into the manners or customs of the inhabitants of the Banat, because every nation retains its own, and most of these, except the Wallacks we have already spoken of, and of them we shall say more when we get into Transylvania.

It is scarcely possible, in passing through some of the German villages of the Banat, such for instance as Hatzfeld, not to exclaim as a Scotch friend of mine did, “Would to God our own people could enjoy the prosperity in which these peasants live.” It is, in fact, impossible to imagine those who live by the labour of their bands, enjoying more of the material good things of the world than they do. In addition to the richest land in the country, the Banat peasant has many privileges peculiar to himself, conferred when it was an object to attract settlers from other districts, and these be still pre­serves. Among other things he is free from the “long journeys,” the “hunting,” the “spinning,” the “chopping and carrying of wood,” and from the tithe of fruit and vegetables. He has, moreover, free rights of fishing, of cutting reeds, and feeding his pigs, and gathering sticks in his master’s forests, many of which, though trifling in themselves, give to the sober and industrious peasant, a great opportunity to improve his position. But, more than all, he has the liberty to redeem half his days of labour, at the rate of ten kreutzers, or five pence per day, an advantage of which he never fails to avail himself.

From the last station, before we arrived at Temesvar, a German peasant was our driver, who, on my inquiring to whom the village, Billiet (Billed), belonged, shook his head, and said, “The Bishop of Agram.” I was sure that portentous shake of the head meant something sorrowful; and, as I never yet saw man in sorrow that did not wish to tell his woes, I knew I had only to encourage him, to get it all out; and accordingly, from an inquiring look, he took courage, pulled his horses up to a walk, and, turning half-round on the box, began, “Why, sir, Billiet, and many other villages round here belong to the Bishop of Agram, who lives a long way off, and keeps his prefects here. Now, sir, this year the crops are very heavy, so the prefect comes with the new urbarium (Census), and says, ‘I have the right to order you peasants to send from each house two men four days in each week during the harvest, that the corn may be the sooner in, and accordingly, I expect you to obey.’ But in our village, as indeed in all others, this urbarium, is kept, and many have read it carefully, and found nothing of the sort in it; for, on the contrary, it is stated that a peasant holding an entire fief (Fief, in European feudal society, a vassal's source of income, held from his lord in exchange for services) must send in harvest time one man for four days in two weeks, only, but then no more can be demanded for a fortnight. And so, sir, the Biro thought also, and he goes to the prefect to tell him his orders were unjust, and that he could not put them into execution. With that the prefect flies into a passion, tells the judge his business is to do what is ordered, not to bother his head about what be does not understand, and calls him a rogue, and other bad names which he did not deserve, for he is a very honest man, and respected by all the village. Determined not to suffer such an insult, the Biro replied that he neither could nor would act against the law and his conscience, and said that if he was a rogue, he could be no fit person to execute any longer the duties of Biro, and he therefore begged to lay down his stick of office. The next day the prefect sent orders to the peasants to elect a new Biro, but the peasants re-chose their former one, declaring that they would obey no other; and so at present the affair stands, no one knowing how it will terminate.”

All these misfortunes, the poor fellow seemed to think came from living under a bishop, and he complained sadly that the Emperor had so soon given them another after the death of the last. “We had hardly done rejoicing that our old Bishop was dead,” he continued, “when a new one came in his place.”

It is a prerogative of the Hungarian crown to retain the revenue of a bishopric for three years, between the death of one incumbent and the installation of another, and it is very rarely that the right is not taken full advantage of, but in the present instance, the see remained vacant only six months. It must not be supposed that the tenants of the late bishop bore him any personal ill‑will; indeed, as he lived in Croatia, and they in the Banat, they could know very little of him; but absenteeism begets no good‑will anywhere, and the hope of being under the officers of the Kammer or Exchequer for three years, instead of the Bishop’s steward, would more than have consoled them for the death of a dozen such prelates. I believe I must let the reader a little into the mysteries of this Exchequer Stewardship, this Kammeral Administration, before he can fully comprehend the peasant’s joy at his Bishop’s death, or his disappointment at his successor’s speedy appointment.

The King of Hungary is heir, in default of male descendants, of all fiefs male, under which title most of the land in Hungary is held, with the condition, however, that he shall, when he sees fit, confer it on others, as the reward of public services. All newly‑conquered land of course belongs, in like manner, to the crown, so that at one time, the whole of the Banat, and the greater part of it still, as well as many estates in other parts of the country, are enjoyed by the king under this title. The stewardship of such vast possessions necessarily employs a great number of persons, all of whom, particularly the inferiors, are, according to the rules of the Austrian Government, very badly paid. As might naturally be expected under such a system, none but the highest officers are insensible to the charms of a bribe. If an estate is to be purchased, the valuer must be fee’d that he may not over-value it, the resident-stewart must be fee’d that he may not injure him in another point, and the clerks of the offices must also be fee’d in order to induce them to open their books and afford the necessary information. If the peasant of the Kammer wishes to escape a day’s labour, a fat capon, or a dozen fresh eggs make the overseer of the Kammer forget to call him out; if his land is bad or wet, and if a portion of the neighbourhood farmed by the Kammer be better, a few florins adroitly distributed to the overseer, stewart, valuer, clerks, and commissioners, make them all think it for the Kammer’s benefit to exchange the good land for the bad…

Notes: Some of the terminology (and perhaps prejudices?) employed by the author are typical of the mid-nineteenth century. Here are some examples:

Kammer = higher government department (like today’s ministry)

Fee'd =  bribed

Valuer = estimator of a property’s value+

Perfect = local representative of the Bishop of Agram, the feudal landowner

Billiet = Billed/Biled

Biro = reeve (mayor)

Germans = Banat Swabians

Hatzfeld = Zsombolya/Jimbolia

Ratze = Serb

Wallacks = Romanians

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Last updated: 26 Aug 2020