The Origins of the Middle-Class in Hungary

In medieval feudal societies, the great bulk of people, nobility and peasant, were tied to the land. Yes, there were a few others: scribes, merchants, tradesmen, and clergy ... who in Hungary lived mostly in the Royal Free Cities, but the number of these "burghers" and "intelligensia" was very small by comparison.

What is the "middle class"? In simplistic terms, its the people in some arbitrary mid-section of the income distribution. But, as István Tóth notes in his 2015 paper In Search of a Middle-Class: Hungary "... the middle class has a much broader connotation, implying the possession of adequate housing, the possibility for geographical mobility, adequate resources (or insurances) to cover periods with weaker health or the lower working capacities of old age, as well as ability to provide for regular recreation for the individual and family. Furthermore, middle class is ... also about security ..."

This is not far different than our American aspirational definition of "middle-class" as owning a home and two cars, sending the kids to college, having health and retirement security, and being able to take family vacations. But, Hungary has never had a strong middle-class, and his paper explores the reasons why not, focusing on the 20th century. We'll focus on the mid-19th century and explore the origins of a true middle-class in what was then Hungary's second city ... Szeged.

In The Development of Class Structure in Eastern Europe we read: "There appeared within the Hungarian middle class, during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, a narrow stratum of educated people who were not of noble origin -- lawyers, engineers, physicians, and so on." At the beginning of the 19th century, the burghers of the Royal Free Cities (including clergy, the wealthier tradesmen, and these educated "honoratiori") constituted the bulk of the middle-class in Hungary, yet they were still "only a minute percentage of the total population" of these towns. Note that the status of burgher/polgár/citizen ... which gave one the right to vote and other privileges ... had to be granted by the Council of the Royal Free Cities.

In the 1830s, the liberal reforms advocated and facilitated by Count István Széchenyi began to take hold. Pest in particular ... but also the provincial cities like Szeged ... grew in importance and provided the social and economic base to support a variety of middle-class institutions. For a short biography of Széchenyi, click here:

During this period the development of the town accelerated. Factories, especially in the food-processing industry, and banks sprang up. At the same time, the ever improving highway and railway systems of the country reached southern Hungary. Our ancestors were very important to bringing that progress and modernization to Szeged. This presentation documents their involvement.

A Brief History of the City of Szeged

Szeged, situated on the Tisza River, near the confluence of the Máros, was inhabited from ancient times. The name of the Roman settlement at that location was Partiscum. It was also on the main road from Buda to Belgrade, making it an ideal center for commerce and trade. The name Szeged is first found in an 1183 document of King Béla III. The town was destroyed during the Mongol invasion, was first designated a Royal Free City in 1498, and was occupied by the Turks in 1543. The tax rolls just prior to that occupation show about 1500 households in Szeged. Of that, there were only about 30 "intelligensia" ... about half of those being priests.

Szeged in 1686
View of Szeged in 1686 at the end of the Turkish Occupation.
Click for a map of medieval Szeged adapted from Máté: or for his article on early Szeged topography: Click to read a note about a key source of family data:
Click for a photo gallery of modern Szeged: Click for a YouTube video showing photos of Old and New Szeged from the same viewpoint:

During the Turkish occupation, which ended in 1686, Szeged was the administrative center of a Sanjak. As with most of south Hungary during the occupation, the Szeged area declined greatly in population and farm production. The population was further decimated by a major flood in 1712. In 1719, the town regained its rights and privileges as a Royal Free City. In 1721, the Piarist Fathers established a Grammar School there. Believing that the difficulties experienced by the city were due to satanic forces, witch trials were instituted in 1728. They resulted in 15 executions by burning. Fortunately, this aberration was short-lived.

Throughout southern Hungary, following liberation from the Turks, the land was ripe for immigration and rapid growth. The reconquered land was all claimed by the King, who gave it away as he saw fit ... mostly to German Roman Catholic immigrants. Many Serbs also came, often working as landless laborers. The space between the "islands" of habitation shown on the medieval map of Szeged, as well as the area away from the river known as Rókus, were gradually populated. Szeged had 21,519 inhabitants as of 1787. It was about this time that our ancestors' immigration to the Szeged area began.

Szeged in 1849
View of Szeged in 1849 from across the Tisza River.
Our Family in 19th Century Szeged

Our Osztróvszky and Heszler (later changed to Heszlényi) ancestors were living in Szeged early in the 19th century, and our Palásty ancestors came soon after. They were all a part of the non-Magyar, non-noble. mostly Roman Catholic influx of immigrants who filled the void left after the departure of the Turks.

In the 2nd act of Ferenc Herczeg's play The Bridge Széchenyi tells Kossuth how his liberal agenda will transform Hungary: "I am interested in two lines of action - on the one hand to foster social intercourse among our people and stimulate a salutary friction of minds - hence the Casino, the theatre, the Academy of Sciences, the horse-races - on the other to initiate public works calculated to restore the circulation in the torpid body of the nation - roads, railroads, bridges, steamboat traffic, regulation of the rivers." István Széchenyi came to Szeged in 1833 to sell his agenda of liberal principles in that city. At least one of our ancestors was involved in those meetings. As we shall see, several of our new middle-class family members in Szeged were directly involved, each in their own way, in bringing that Széchenyi dream to life over the next several decades.

Three of my great-great-great grand-fathers, who were István Széchenyi's contemporaries, owned homes in Szeged. One was a builder who lived in the center-city (Szeged Belváros), one was a wholesale meat dealer living in the upper-town (Szeged Felsöváros); and the third was a hired ranch manager living nearby in Algyö, but with a town-house in Szeged. They were hard-working men who prospered and, with their children, gave back to their city. In the middle of the 1800s ... despite war, oppression, and flood ... they helped to build local institutions that brought Széchenyi's vision to reality. This permitted the rapid growth of Szeged's middle-class and improved the quality of life of their entire community. This is their story.

Click here to see a three- generation Ahnentafel showing the ancestors in Szeged of my grandfather ... Gyula Gábor József Heszlényi (1872-1934) seen here.

While most of our Szeged ancestors were Roman Catholics, there were other faiths in the city. Surprisingly, the second largest group were the Jews who made up a significant part of the middle-class. There were smaller numbers of Serbian Orthodox, Reformed,and a few Lutherans (including the surviving sons of our József Palásty). For more information and photos, click here for Szeged's Churches Photo Gallery: