Salt: the white gold of Hungary

Salt has always been the greatest income of Hungarian kings. Besides gold which gave 2/3 of Europe’s needs and silver which provided 1/4 of it, salt mining made Hungarian kings richer than the European monarchs. One may ask how was King Matthias Corvinus able to finance his standing army and the rest of his soldiers whose numbers altogether could reach 164,000 men at times? Without crippling the economy? Moreover, during his 32-year-reign the number of newly built splendid late-Gothic churches and buildings has been multiplied.

Salt mining and trade in the age of the Árpád dynasty

The country was visibly rich and admired by the foreign diplomats; the wars (mostly) raged outside of the borders and the peace and safety helped the economy tremendously. The king had a strong part in creating this stability and wealth and let us take a look at the Hungarian economy and see that income from salt was perhaps more valuable than anything.

As for gold, copper, and silver mining, please read about the Mining Towns here:

Later, we are going to learn about the sudden financial crisis before the Battle of Mohács. Perhaps, it will be easier to understand how come that 30 years after the death of Matthias Corvinus, the young King Louis II had to ask for loans to feed his own kitchen. Where did the money disappear? Why was King Matthias able to finance his wars against the Ottomans so successfully and why the Habsburg kings could not do the same one hundred years later?

Hungary, 14th-15th century, trade and economy

Salt – the „white gold” of Hungary

Did you know that the Kingdom of Hungary provided Europe with 75% of mined salt before the Battle of Mohács in 1526?
Salt was used in huge quantities in the Middle Ages not only for cooking but also for food preservation. Besides, many soldiers, servants, and officials of the King and the Church received their payment in salt. Salt was just as important as oil in our days.
No wonder, why King Matthias Corvinus took control of the salt business back into his hands in 1464: he made a law that banned the sale of imported salt in the kingdom and ordered that the king`s salt must be distributed everywhere. It was one of his first laws that targeted the regaining of royal monopolies.

salt on the surface in Transylvania

Mining salt was one of the greatest incomes of the Hungarian kings. This business was flourishing in Transylvania already in the 13th century. The workers were organized in guilds, they called themselves „cellérek” aka „salt-cutters”. This activity was done almost exclusively by Hungarians in Transylvania.

Salt on the hill-sides, Transylvania

Each mine had its own „salt office”, led by the „mine-big” (bányanagy) or Comes of Chamber (kamara ispán). The officers mainly worked as auditors. The workers (salt-cutters) were divided into two groups: the cutters who received money and broad-cloth as payment and the so-called „guest-cutters” who were paid only in salt. Most of the time, the salt-cutters had a kind of local authority, they chose their judges and leaders. These privileges were based on documents given by the kings in the 15th century. King Zsigmond (Sigismund) banned salt mining for the landlords in 1405.

salt in abundance

King Matthias Corvinus granted the royal right of mining and trading salt to the Székely (Szekler) people of Transylvania in 1463. In Székelyföld (Szeklerland) there is an area called „Sóvidék” (Salt-countryside”) where salt can be found in abundance. King János II Zsigmond took away their rights in 1562 after a Székely uprising, though. It was Prince Báthori Zsigmond who gave these rights back to the Székely people in 1601. More about the Székely people:

somewhere in Transylvania

Even the not-very-strong-handed Prince Apafi Mihály was able to protect the salt mines of the Székely people from the Turks in 1661. It was Prince Rákóczi Ferenc II who fully returned the salt rights to them but the Habsburgs took it away in 1714 and it was never granted again. (Please, note that I am using the Eastern name order for Hungarian names.)
The salt was transported by boats and by wagons to Szeged which was an important junction of roads. There was a huge harbor for salt-carrying boats, too.

Parajd, a Székely chapel in the salt mine

The centers of the Hungarian Counties had an important role in distributing the salt. (Like Szeged or Szolnok.) The salt was shipped on boats on the Maros River to Szeged or by wagons to Szolnok via the road of Szalacs. Many settlements developed around the salt mines which gained privileges from the rulers, these usually did not depend on the landlords. Towns like Dés, Kolozs, Szék, and Torda developed because of salt mining. It was the same with the five royal towns of Máramaros: Huszt, Visk, Hosszúmezõ, Sziget, and Técsõ where salt miners settled. Salt mining was famous in Torda, Parajd, and Bonchida.

salt corridor in Torda

You can watch a video about the salt mine of Torda (Transylvania, Romania) here:

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