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Title:  The Hungarian Peasant Farmer
Author: Baroness Orczy
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 2000221h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  March 2020
Most recent update: March 2020

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The Hungarian Peasant Farmer

Baroness Orczy

Photographs reproduced by permission of Professor A. J. Krolopp, representing the Royal Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture.

Published in “The Windsor Magazine,” December 1908.

I should have called him peasant proprietor, for, properly speaking, there is no such thing as a Hungarian farmer in the English acceptance of the term.

Estates in Hungary are of very large dimensions, and are farmed in their entirety by the seigneur or lord who owns them. No portions of them are ever let—on lease or otherwise—at fixed rentals.

To understand thoroughly, however, the position of the modern Magyar peasant proprietor, it is necessary to throw a brief glance into his past history.

Until the middle of the last century, the peasantry—i.e.,the rural population of the country—was under the suzerainty of the seigneur who owned the land, descendants, all of them, of the ancient Magyar families. The word “serf,” which naturally springs to the Anglo-Saxon mind in connection with this fact, is not, however, strictly applicable to the then condition of the Hungarian peasant.

The house he lived in certainly belonged to his lord, who also gave him and his entire family food and clothing, looked after them when they were sick, and saw to their being baptised, married, and buried, all in due course. In exchange for this, the labour of their hands belonged to the seigneur—men and women alike had to work for him, according as he required their services, and, strictly speaking, the peasant was in bondage to this extent, that he could not leave the homestead provided for him by his lord, nor his native village, for he and his family would have starved elsewhere. There was, under such circumstances, of course, no demand for hired labour, and the Hungarian peasant has always been totally unfit by nature and temperament for any kind of commercial pursuits.

At the same time, he was free enough to go, his daughter was at liberty to marry whom she pleased, there was nothing here of the brutality and degradation of that semi-slavery which in Eastern Europe was termed serfdom.

But this old order of things changed during the first half of the nineteenth century, when the State compulsorily bought up the villages from the seigneurs who owned them.

They were then villages only in name, rows of cottages extending in single file on each side of the country roads: the State now organised them into Communes, with a rural mayor at the head of affairs, to act as magistrate and registrar when required: it also took over the roads, and subsequently built the schools.

The cottages thus acquired by the State were given freehold to the peasantry who dwelt in them. The Hungarian peasant pays no rent, he owns the house in which he lives, but he pays taxes to the Government, who gives him the house.

And taxes mean money.

Up to this time the peasant had had no use for coin of the realm. He received everything from his lord, in exchange for the work of his hands.

Now he was free, his time was his own, he was absolutely independent, but twice a year the mayor collected taxes from him on behalf of the Government, who had done so much for him.

The lord, on the other hand, still needed hands to work on his estate, and the same peasant, whose work was paid for by shelter, food, and clothing, now became a hired labourer with a monthly wage paid in coin.

The evolution after that was only what could be expected; capabilities and temperament very soon began to assert themselves. The natural differences of character varied the conditions of all these people, who had started their new life on exactly the same economic basis.

The intelligent labourer commanded higher wages than the lout, the thrifty housewife put a few coppers by, where her neighbour barely eked out her husband’s pittance.

Within a very few years of their emancipation there was already such a thing as a rich peasant and a poor one—i.e., one who had savings at the local savings-bank, and one who had none.

Then there was gradually developed in the entire Magyar peasantry that wonderful, inalienable characteristic which is its chief feature to-day: and that is an ardent, obstinate desire to own a bit of land.

They were still hired labourers all of them. The seigneurs either farmed their own estates or let them in their entirety. Farming on a small scale would never pay in a country where corn grown on enormous tracts, and horses bred in large quantities for military purposes, are the chief sources of revenue.

In spite of his savings in the local agrarian bank, even the richest peasant had not sufficient substance to take over the lease of an estate of five or six thousand acres. Nor would he have cared to do so. The Magyar peasant wanted to own land, not to pay rent for it.

It is within the last ten years that a new phase in the evolution of the agrarian population of the country has taken place. The agrarian banks, realising the intense desire of the peasant for actual ownership of the land, together with his want of substance to buy the large estates which occasionally come into the market, devised the system, which at the present moment is called parzellirung.

It is simple enough. A seigneur desires to sell his estate, the Jew middleman—for initiative and enterprise in Eastern Europe always come from the Jews—finds out the lowest price which the owner will take. The local agrarian bank—backed by one or more important banks from the capital— buys the four or ten or twenty thousand acres in the market, money down, cuts them up into small portions of from fifty to a hundred acres, and sells these small holdings to the peasants.

Not only that: the benevolent agrarian bank goes one better, for the wealth of the peasants consists at best but of a few savings, so the same bank which is now selling off the land lends to the purchaser the money with which to buy it, and thus becomes seller and mortgagee at one and the same time.

The peasant, eager to possess, will pay almost any price for the land he wants, more especially as he only pays for it on paper. And, strangely enough, he makes his small holding pay.

He hires no labour, breeds no cattle, nor does he keep an overseer or buy expensive machinery. He works his own land himself, and harnesses his wife and daughters to the plough if necessary.

The family do the entire work of the farm, and when harvest is over, the local Jewish trader buys his surplus produce from the farmer: with the ready money thus received the latter pays the interest to the bank. Otherwise he has practically no need of money.

As the actual village is probably some distance from his new holding, he builds himself a house on his small property, buying for a few coppers the mud bricks which are baked in the sun by the gypsies. He and his sons and daughters then build the house, thatch it with last year’s straw, whitewash it, ornament it all around with a decorative frieze of brilliant colours, and make the necessary furniture from the acacia wood, which can be bought locally, very cheaply.

All Hungarian cottages are built on tbe same pattern: oblong in shape, with a thatched roof, and a rough verandah supported on two or three beams, to shelter one side of the house from the grilling sun.

The interior is divided into three rooms. One in the centre, with an enormous hearth occupying the whole of the wall which faces you as you enter. This serves for cooking and washing purposes, and also for warming the rooms on either side. The other two rooms are bedrooms, one for best, the other for daily use.

If the peasant is rich and prosperous, these three rooms are perhaps a little larger, a little loftier than those of his poorer neighbour. But that is the only difference between rich and poor.

In the best bedroom are three or four, sometimes more beds, heaped up to the ceiling with downy plumeaus and pillows encased in snow-white, home-woven linen. This room is never used, save by bride and bridegroom on their first home-coming. Otherwise, it is the abode of the more precious poultry. The turkeys and Orpington hens lay and hatch their eggs in the best beds.

The family sleep in the second bedroom, on benches, which run round the walls, and, perhaps, there will be a couple of bedsteads for the older members of the household.

The Hungarian peasant does not take off his clothes for the night. The men curled up in their huge sheepskin mantles, the women wrapped in coarse, woollen blankets, take the necessary rest after the day’s toil, but that is all. All round them sleep the geese and goslings which are not of sufficient importance to occupy the best bedroom.

Practically all the year round, the peasant proprietor and his family work their bit of land for all it is worth. The younger children are out all day driving their flocks of geese or their few pigs. All the efforts of the Government have been unavailing to force these people to send their children regularly to school.

“Who would look after the geese and pigs?” is the Hungarian peasant’s unanswerable argument, “if the young ones are to go to school?”

The State would be compelled to build huge prisons, in which the entire rural population of Central Hungary would have to be locked up, if it seriously meant to enforce compulsory education.

Sunday alone is the great day of rest. The whole family begins by having a grand wash. There is a well outside and a pump. Vigorous scrubbing does the rest.

Then everybody goes to Mass, and this without any exception whatever, save the actual bedridden. At Arokszàllàs, which is a typical Magyar township, situated in the very heart of a number of peasant holdings, every one of the fourteen thousand parishioners, except the children under ten, goes to confession and Holy Communion at Easter time. The priest—usually himself recruited from the peasant class—has two coadjutors, and together they attend to the very simple spiritual wants of their flock.

Mass on Sundays in a Hungarian village church is a sight to see. The women on one side, the men on the other, ranged according to age. The old women at the back, in dark bodices and petticoats, and with a black silk kerchief tied round their heads, then the younger matrons in gayer colours, with bright yellow or blue bordered kerchiefs. In front of these, again, the unmarried girls. They wear no kerchiefs on their heads, their hair is tightly plaited and made into a small knob at the back of the head, and dragged away from the forehead, leaving to the face a decidedly Chinese type of countenance.

Beyond again, close to the chancel rails, kneel the younger girls; the little ones have to find room in the chancel, and the tiny ones right behind the altar.

All the women wear innumerable petticoats, one heaped over the other; the rich peasant proprietor’s wife is distinguished by the greater multitude of petticoats which she ties round her waist. And when everyone kneels down at a given solemn moment on the flagstones of the church, the many-hued petticoats bulge out like a number of fantastic bells.

The men, in the same order according to age, occupy the other side of the church, also the vestry and the organ-loft.

A deep religious feeling is a special characteristic of the Magyar peasant, also his reverence for and belief in the great wisdom of his priest.

That same priest will tell you that his people are “good children”—a little quarrelsome, perhaps, quick to take offence and to resent it, but as honest as the day.

On Sunday afternoons the young people dance the csárdás in the big village barn, or, in the summer, in one of the cottage yards. It is the national dance; akin to none, and consisting of a slow, dreamy movement called lassù, a sort of rhythmic motion of the body, soon followed by the mad whirl or csàrdàs proper. Brahms with his immortal “Hungarian dances” has made the music familiar to European and American ears.

For hours the young people will dance, while the gypsies scrape their fiddles, to the accompaniment of the clarionet and of the wonderful czimbalom which is an essentially national instrument; it is shaped somewhat like a huge zither, and played with a small wadded hammer.

When the young people are resting from their wild dancing, the band plays some of those exquisite Hungarian melodies, full of poetry and gentle melancholy, which are dear to the heart of every Magyar peasant. The rich peasant-proprietor, together with his poorer colleague, will sit for hours gently humming the words of the ditty, as the gypsies continue to play indefatigably.

That great love for music and dancing is inherent in every Hungarian peasant, together with the love he has for the actual soil which he tills. Beyond that, he holds wheat, the great product of that rich soil, as a sort of fetish.

Tiszta bùza (pure corn) are words only to be spoken reverentially, when passing a field of waving corn, gently stirred by the breeze and ripening in the sun. Every other product of this wonderfully fruitful country the Hungarian peasant holds in sublime contempt.


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