Hungarian Peasants’ Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

High taxes and intense labor, among other reasons, led to the Hungarian Peasants’ Revolt, which in turn triggered centuries of political repression and internal weaknesses, making Hungary vulnerable to foreign invasion and exploitation.

Summary of Event

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1514 is considered the most violent rural uprising in Hungarian history. Desperate peasants, laboring under avaricious landlords intent on profiting from the rising food prices in European markets, found what little freedom they had harshly restricted. They could keep very little of the foodstuffs they produced; in addition, they were highly taxed. Taxation;Hungary The traditional right to change landlords was revoked, so that virtually all freedom of movement became prohibited. Economy;Poland

Peasants who had done well and had moved to market towns suspected that any further financial or political gains would be nullified. Indeed, the better-off class of peasants, those who had emancipated themselves from the worse feudal conditions and were able to settle on an annual basis the dues owed to their landlords, suddenly found themselves coerced to a lower and more regimented level. Peasants, no matter what their plight, could expect little help or attention from King Vladislav II Vladislav II (king of Hungary) , their dispirited king, known for his melancholy and indecisiveness.

The peasants seemed motivated by what might almost be called a holy war against the landlords. In the spring of 1514, Archbishop Tamas Bakócz Bakócz, Tamas returned from Rome as papal legate for eastern Europe to raise an army of fighters for a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. He enlisted the popular Franciscan friars in his mission at the very time that the peasants were gathering to attack the landlords. The crusader army, estimated at twenty thousand, confronting the threat of a peasants’ revolt, was disbanded by royal decree. The king and the nobility feared that the crusader army (made up largely of peasants) would turn against them. Landlords also resisted the call for a crusader army, angry that a crusade meant the absence of the peasants from their fields. To many peasants, however, the landlords were viewed as treacherous and unfaithful—unwilling to defend their religion or their country. In this respect, the landlords were considered worse than the Ottomans, against whom the crusade had been launched.

The crusading peasants refused to disband their army when ordered to do so by the king. In both the market towns and the provinces, they united instead under a leader named Dózsa, Dózsa, György a soldier and petty nobleman, and attacked the lords. The peasants continued to stipulate their loyalty to the king and to the archbishop, who had gone on recruiting peasants in spite of the royal cancellation of the crusade. This peasant movement was supported by leaders in the agricultural towns, including priests loyal to the archbishop. Those unwilling to join the peasant crusade were punished as traitors. In the spring of 1514, masses of peasants attacked and defeated an army raised by the landlords and the nobility. For two months, peasants plundered and burned manor houses and castles, committing fearful atrocities against the nobility and their families. The well-organized revolt spread from the provinces to an area near the capital, Buda, in northern and northeastern Hungary, and around Varad, in the south.

An alarmed King Vladislav joined the nobility in seeking aid from John Zápolya, John I (king of Hungary, r. 1526-1540) a powerful magnate in Transylvania, who later became king of Hungary as John I. Zápolya ruthlessly put down the revolt. By July of 1514, some seventy thousand peasants had been killed. A deliberate policy of extermination was practiced, with one in every ten peasants marked for murder. Dózsa and his followers were captured and executed. Accused of an attempt to usurp King Vladislav’s crown, Dózsa was “enthroned” on a stake, and his starving retinue was compelled to bite into his burning flesh. Dózsa’s body was then quartered and displayed on the gates of towns across Hungary. Although Hungary has seen much violence, scholars of Hungarian history consider Dózsa’s fate a particularly gruesome and horrible event.

In the wake of their hysteria over the power shown by the peasantry, the nobility took steps to consolidate their victory by promulgating the doctrine of a Hungarian lawyer, István Werbőczi Werbőczi, István . This doctrine identified the one and indivisible nobility, una eademque nobilitas, with the Hungarian nation. A nobleman, rich or poor, whether or not a native speaker of Hungarian, became a master of the Hungarian people. The nobleman constituted the only category of free person and citizen. Everyone else was deemed plebeian, “part of the wretched tax-paying mass.” By definition, the serfs Serfdom were tied to the land, and though the harshest interpretations of this doctrine were abandoned by the 1550’s, it was nevertheless true that all forms of government and the legal justice system were controlled by the aristocracy.

The ascendancy of the nobility also meant that the king’s power had been limited, and he could not—even if he wished to do so—act on behalf of the peasantry. Vladislav II, a weak king, merely abetted the nobility’s power grab. From the point of view of the nobility, they had no choice, since the king’s government was riddled with corruption, and by the 1490’s, he had allowed the Turks to occupy the Hungarian province of Bosnia. Many Hungarian officials were then forced to adopt Islam as their religion to preserve their lives and properties. Long after Vladislav’s death, Hungary was vulnerable to Turkish invasion and to the loss of its territory.

Significance

The revolt resulted in a meeting of the Hungarian Diet in the fall of 1514, enacting laws that enforced the subservience of Hungarian peasants for more than three hundred years. Law;Hungary The peasants were deprived of the right to bear arms, and they were required to pay considerable damages for the consequences of their revolt. These laws were not executed uniformly; at times, the most onerous of the prohibitions were suspended, especially when the peasants were needed to deter the Ottomans from encroaching on Hungarian territory. In periods of robust economic development, however, the laws were reinstituted, and the exploitation of the peasantry continued until well into the nineteenth century.

Quite aside from the catastrophic aftermath for the peasants, the 1514 revolt was one of the events that “swept Hungary away from the midstream of European development,” as historian Paul Ignotus put it. After 1526, the country split into three parts. In the west and north, the Habsburgs ruled; the Turks occupied a significant part of the country’s geographical center; and Transylvania in the east became a fairly independent principality. Such divisions, however, were loosely observed and often a territory might be under the rule of competing powers.

Hungary was deprived of almost all economic mobility and political development because of its crude division into two rigid social classes. As a result, Hungary was unable to compete with its more dynamic European neighbors. Indeed, historian Ivan Volgyes argued that the rift in classes and the split between rural and urban areas remain factors in contemporary Hungary.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Engel, Pál. The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary, 895-1526. Translated by Tamás Pálosfalvi. Edited by Andrew Ayton. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. Places the peasant revolt in the context of the development of the Hungarian state in the Middle Ages. Discusses the role played by the Franciscans in the rebellion.
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    xlink:type="simple">Evans, R. J. W. The Making of the Habsburg Monarchy, 1550-1700. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1979. Chapter 6, “Hungary: Limited Rejection,” picks up the fate of Hungary a full generation after the peasants’ revolt, but the overview provided of the country’s historic role within the Habsburg empire provides a context for assessing the consequences of the 1514 revolt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Housley, Norman. “Crusading as Social Revolt: The Hungarian Peasant Uprising of 1514.” In Crusading and Warfare in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Variorum, 2001. Investigates the role of the crusades and the crusader army in the uprising.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ignotus, Paul. Hungary. New York: Praeger, 1972. Chapter 1, “The Foundation of European Hungary,” gives a sharply analytical and succinct account of the revolt and its consequences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josika-Herczeg, Imre. Hungary After a Thousand Years. New York: American Hungarian Daily, 1934. Chapter 3, “From the Hunyadis to the Habsburgs,” provides a finely etched picture of King Vladislav II and a precise explanation of the corruption and injustice that provoked the peasants’ revolt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kosary, Dominic. A History of Hungary. New York: Benjamin Franklin Bibliophile Society, 1941. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1971. Chapter 4, “The Renaissance Power and Its Decline, 1458-1526,” presents clear portraits of major figures, such as Bakócz, Zápolya, and Werbőczi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rady, Martyn. Nobility, Land, and Service in Medieval Hungary. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A study of the medieval Hungarian system of landholding and nobility that led to the peasants’ revolt.
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    xlink:type="simple">Sugar, Peter F., Peter Hanak, and Tibor Frank, eds. A History of Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Chapter 7, “The Late Medieval Period, 1382-1562" by János Bak, gives a short but detailed account of the events leading up to and following the revolt, including an analysis of the import of Werbőczi’s legal doctrine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volgyes, Ivan. Hungary: A Nation of Contradictions. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1982. Chapter 1, “The Magyars: From Roots to Realism,” gives a vivid sense of how disastrous the 1514 revolt was, not only for the peasants but also for the entire Hungarian nation.

1458-1490: Hungarian Renaissance

June, 1524-July, 1526: German Peasants’ War

1526-1547: Hungarian Civil Wars

Aug. 29, 1526: Battle of Mohács

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War

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