Hungarian Grey Cattle

Until the first part of the 17th century, the lands of the “Hungaries” were integral parts of European culture: the people ordered the same books and produced the same products as elsewhere in the western world. 

Hungarian grey cattle

Unfortunately, the Ottoman wars had brought about so much destruction that the traditional grain production gave place to cattle keeping. It became safer to raise cattle than waiting for the different armies to destroy the wheat fields. The cattle trade began to flourish even during the periods between the truces. And here we have to spare a few words for the Hungarian aurochs…

Few people know that the last aurochs of Europe were still hunted in the 17th century in Hungary. It is believed that the famous Hungarian Grey Cattle had been mixed with these aurochs and that is the reason why they have the special characteristics that distinguish them from the rest of European cattle. As for the aurochs,  they are the ancestors of domestic cattle; it has also been suggested as an ancestor genetically to the modern European bison, which crossbred with steppe bison. Aurochs had an average height at the shoulders of 155–180 cm (61–71 in) in bulls and 135–155 cm (53–61 in) in cows, while aurochs populations in Hungary had bulls reaching 155–160 cm (61–63 in). They are estimated to have weighed up to 1,500 kg (3,310 lb). Aurochs horns could reach 80 cm (31 in) in length and between 10 and 20 cm (3.9 and 7.9 in) in diameter.

Read more about the Hungarian economy here:

They were real monsters and according to Zolnay László, the Hungarians had a specialized guild whose members were hunting the aurochs. According to the records made by the Arabian traveler, Abu-Hámid al-Garnati who lived in Hungary between 1151-53: “There lives a huge animal in Basgird (Hungary) that is as big as an elephant. Its hide alone weighs as much as two cows. Its head is as big as a calf. It is hunted and it is called “attayta”. It is a wonderful animal, its meat is fat and its horns are as long as an elephant’s trunk…” (My remark, the word “attayta” is the word for ox in Arabic. The ancient Hungarian word for the auroch was “bial”, similar to “bivaly” which means buffalo. Also, please note that I am using the Eastern name order for Hungarian names where the family names come first.) 

We know that the Hungarian Székely hunters had to give in one bearskin and a pair of auroch horns every year as a present to the Abbey of Dömös in 1138.

Albertus Magnus said in 1248 that “there are a great black species among the wild cattle which is called “bubalus” or “Woesent” in German. These animals are very strong, they can throw the horse with its rider into the air…Several species can be distinguished: there are ones with long, upward horns while others have short but very thick horns. These species are known by the Germans, Slavs, and Hungarians. But only there can be found where the lands of the Slavs border with the Hungarians’ lands.” The meat of the “large cattle” was under double tax in 1288 in Hungary.

According to Rozsnyai Dávid who was a clerk of the Ottomans in the 17th century, there was even a Hungarian proverb about aurochs: “if the “bial”(auroch) sighs, it would blow the air far away”.

 Like in other European countries, the right to hunt these large animals was restricted. Poaching aurochs was punishable by death. The Hungarian hunters’ guild was called “venatores bubalinorum”. The horns of these animals were used to make special masterpieces for the church and the kings. The last aurochs disappeared from Transylvania in the 1620s. It is thought that the hunters killed all the aurochs but they kept the calves and domesticated them.

As for wild buffalos, they were never domesticated. In Royal Hungary, the last buffalo was hunted down by King Ferdinand in 1527 near Esztergom. (The last buffalo in Transylvania died in the 18th century.)

The last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland, from natural causes. In our days, the Hungarian project at Hortobágy seems to have achieved to breed aurochs “back” with the help of Hungarian Grey Cattle.

But the grey cattle business flourished. Tens of thousands of these semi-domesticated animals were sold every year in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was the main export of the Ottoman-occupied lands: the Ottomans allowed the locals to export the cattle for a certain tax. They had to allow this business because it was the only way to impose taxes on the Hungarian peasants who had lost their lands due to the wars and now they were keeping animals. In the first period of the Ottoman conquest, the Turks tried to take away the cattle from them but the peasants were so talented in hiding in the marshlands and on the huge Hungarian Great Plain that the conquerors could never catch them.

Hungarian reenactors, Hajdú soldiers

The herders, the “Hajdú” soldiers were the fearsome herdsmen of these animals, seasoned warriors, and masters of horsemanship. They transported the cheap meat to Vienna and Italy which fed the western world. They were often contracted by the Fuggers who were the biggest grey cattle traders in Hungary before they changed their business and focused on the North American black slave trade. These Fuggers were the ones who were renting the copper and silver mines of North Hungary and thus contributed to the financial disaster of Hungary before the Battle of Mohács in 1526.

Also, cash came into Hungary only through the cattle traders and one could get money only from them. If you had had a chance to visit the weekly markets of Vienna and Auspitz, you would have seen that everybody spoke in Hungarian which was the language of the trade in the 16-17th centuries. Only Vienna received 10,000 cattle every year.

Prince Bocskai’s coin

The price of an ox was just 5-6 Forints during the reign of King Ferdinand I in Hungary but the final price of the animal became 17 Forints when it arrived in Vienna, due to the several different taxes and fees. It is quite understandable, that the hardened Hajdú herders of the cattle did their best to smuggle the half-savage cattle through the borders, fighting with marauders and armed officials of the king or of the Turks as well. Delivering a marauder’s head was also good business, Ferdinand paid 20 Forints for one. 

By the middle of the 17th century, Hungary gradually had become a typical East-European country that tended to export more raw materials and cattle than before. Even noblemen like the Zrínyi family dealt with grey cattle – sometimes they had to bribe the Ottoman pashas to transport their cattle to Italy. When they were reported for treason to the Habsburg king for this, they just shrugged it off, saying that it was their largest income from what they could pay their Borderland warriors and defend Croatia, Hungary as well as the Austrians.

a statue of a Hungarian cattle in Nurnberg, Germany

As for the Austrians, the Hungarian cattle trade has become a very important source, a „nervus aerarii” to the Austrian Treasury. Compared to Western countries, there was always enough meat in Hungary, and on top of that, we could feed the West despite the ongoing Ottoman wars.

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Here are a few pictures of grey cattle while the last picture is a reproduced auroch at Hortobágy, Hungary: