Ten generations and what follows

Rural society from the regulation of feudal settlements to the depopulation of the countryside


The “10 Generations” Project (2019–2024) of the Lendület Research Group at the Research Centre for the Humanities of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences


Rural depopulation is an increasingly significant concern in contemporary Europe. This process is largely the result of declining fertility rates, the uncompetitive nature of agricultural incomes, and the attractions of urban life. In the countries of the former Soviet bloc, however, there is another factor which cannot be overlooked: during the era of collectivization, party-states forced farmers into cooperatives; many of these individuals responded to this violent change in lifestyle by accepting industrial employment and having fewer children.

By coordinating the efforts of scholars in a number of fields, our interdisciplinary research team intends to shed light on some of the long-standing historical processes which have led to the emergence of the patterns which characterize present-day rural society in the Carpathian Basin. Our study spans the two and a half centuries from 1767 to 2017—that is, from the Austro-Hungarian regulation of landlord-serf relations (urbárium) to the current era. By focusing our research on important phenomena and contexts which have yet to be explored in sufficient depth, we hope to be able to determine the nature and weight of the structural forces that have influenced the evolution of rural society up to the present day, including the role of large estates, the factors which have determined regional disparities, and the impact of geographical features. In conducting our investigations, we have augmented the methodological toolkit of traditional archival research by making use of statistical data analysis and the possibilities offered by geographical information systems (GIS).

The goal of our work is to examine the blank spots and ideological distortions in the ten generations’ worth of historiography and narratives which have been handed down over the past two and a half centuries, and thus to produce a coherent research framework which incorporates the various kinds of social changes which have taken place since the late 18th century. We hope thereby to illuminate all the processes which have led to the present situation.

Over the next five years, we plan to implement a series of collaborative research projects involving a broad range of scholars, with the aim of significantly increasing our knowledge of modern agricultural society and thus helping decision-makers prepare rural-development proposals by putting contemporary problems into historical context. Of course, our project draws heavily on the findings of sociologists, economists, historians, and demographers who have worked in recent decades. However, in addition to expanding our knowledge by synthesizing existing studies and uncovering new sources in the course of our research, we will also exploit the potential of GIS, building upon the existing databases that will serve as the foundation for our quantitative analyses (cf. http: //www.gistory.en). We hope that the basic research we have envisioned will allow us to summarize the history of Hungarian rural society from a novel perspective. We attribute decisive significance to explorations of structural and historical legacies, continuities which persist over the long term (longue durée), and any possible changes that might have occurred; at the same time, we attach at least as much importance to the illustrative power of local case studies.

This five-year research program is divided into three pillars (I, II, and III); we intend to focus our research on issues that have been insufficiently explored or burdened with ideologically charged narratives that have inhibited fact-based analysis of particular problems.


Pillar I. The great estate in Hungarian society

I.1. Land tenure – urban geography – population density – economic development

The hypothesis underlying this pillar of the project was inspired by Miklós Móricz, whose interwar research suggested that the geographical extent of a large estate was inversely proportional to the population density and economic strength of its locality. Thus the regions dominated by large estates tended to be the most sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped. We intend to explore this relationship by analyzing statistical data from various historical periods.

I.2. Standardization and modelling

Hungarian agrarian-historical literature is uniquely rich in its descriptions of the operations of certain estates. Nevertheless, no one has attempted an in-depth analysis of the accumulated data or created a typology of Hungarian estates. The first step in this phase of our research will be to collect quantitative data which will serve as the basis for a comparative analysis of estates in different regions and periods. Visualizing this data with maps will help us understand these large estates’ effects on social and economic life over the past two and a half centuries. The following step will be to differentiate the types of estate which predominated in each historical period. The ultimate goal of this pillar of the project will be to create a model of the Hungarian large estate and to position it within its European context.

I.3. The abolition of serfdom and its consequences

Hungarian historians are generally positive in their depictions of the abolition of serfdom and the shift from feudalism to capitalism. However, they seldom mention that in the capital-poor economy of the era, neither former landlords nor their former serfs had the resources or knowledge to be able to market their goods competitively. Two other factors also limited the peasantry’s ability to adapt: 1.) Partible inheritance accelerated the fragmentation of landholdings, and 2.) Hungary’s demographic transition produced a growing population which could no longer support itself by means of extensive farming. The Hungarian state was also ineffectual in its attempts to deal with these sociopolitical issues.    

This pillar of the project will culminate in an effort to reconstruct the processes that hindered the rise of an agrarian bourgeoisie in the second half of the 19th century. 


Pillar II. Voices and echoes of the countryside

II.1. A registry of peasants’ first-person accounts and a compilation of published sources

Scholars have yet to attempt a systematic collection of the sort of documents (confessions, diaries, memoirs, interviews, and letters) in which peasants recorded first-hand information about their thoughts, experiences, and feelings. Public collections of such materials, along with conversations recorded in previously issued sociographies, are among the documents to be incorporated into our database and published on our site. We also plan to publish the relevant manuscripts in the form of a primary-source collection.

II.2. Hungarian elites’ views of the peasantry and the countryside

The views of the elites often had a significant effect on the agrarian population’s opportunities to prosper. Given that elite status was determined by social position, this concept will be used to refer to all those who whose standing made it possible for them to influence decisions which affected life in the countryside.

After identifying these elite actors, we intend to collect and analyze a variety of forms of communication in which political, economic, and ecclesiastical elites expressed opinions about the countryside and its inhabitants. We assume that reconstructing these interested actors’ views of the countryside will help demonstrate the extent to which agrarian political practice has been motivated by economic–political conditions or by individuals’ value preferences.


Pillar III. Patterns of economic development and changes in the quality of life

III.1. Regional inequalities across the historical landscape

Our preliminary research suggests that developmental differences between regions within the Carpathian Basin have been largely constant over the course of the last century. This hypothesis is supported by ethnographic findings which indicate that rates of embourgeoisement vary by region. In hopes of understanding the determinants of these regional differences, we plan to create a representative database of community-level information and to use trend analysis to identify regionally specific forms of land use and changes in the cost of living, especially as they relate to religion and demography.

This pillar of our study will rely on data collected for a previous project (“K 111766 NKFIH”), which was brought to a close in 2017.

III.2. Burgenland as control group: a comparison of the differing consequences of the market system in Burgenland and the state-socialist system in Vas and Győr-Moson-Sopron counties

Until 1955, when Austria regained its independence, the social structure and economy of the Province of Burgenland—the western, Austrian half of the historically Hungarian counties of Vas, Sopron, and Moson—were in many respects similar to those of the territories of Western Hungary. However, in the three decades that followed the signing of the Austrian State Treaty, Burgenland exhibited spectacular growth; its developmental indicators began to approach those of the older Austrian provinces. Burgenland was thus the only region of the historical Kingdom of Hungary that avoided the communists’ attempts at social transformation. Therefore, in our efforts to gauge conditions in the portions of Vas and Győr-Moson-Sopron counties which remained within the borders of present-day Hungary, we have treated Burgenland as a kind of control group. This method has allowed us to assess the differences between the paths these sub-regions followed over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century—the Austrian portion having been organized in accordance with market principles and civil democracy, the Hungarian counties having developed according to the logic of the planned economy and party-state integration.