Comitatus (Kingdom of Hungary)

Comitatus (Kingdom of Hungary)

A comitatus ( _hu. vármegye; less frequently, a comitat, or, inaccurately, a county; for the various names, their origin and use see here) is the name of an administrative unit in the Kingdom of Hungary and Croatia and in the Republic of Hungary from the 10th century until 1949 when it was abolished (more precisely: renamed) by the new constitution.

The area of the Kingdom of Hungary also included present-day neighbouring countries of Hungary, i.e.:
* Slovakia,
* Ukraine - in Carpathian Ruthenia,
* Romania - in Transylvania and Banat,
* Serbia - in Voivodina,
* Croatia - in central Croatia and Slavonia,
* Austria - in Burgenland
* Slovenia - in Prekmurje.

The word comitatus is also used for the administrative units ("megye") in present-day Hungary (since 1918, i. e. after World War I). For those counties see Counties of Hungary. This article only deals with the period before 1918.

For lists of the individual counties see Administrative divisions of the Kingdom of Hungary.

Royal counties (late 10th century - late 13th century)


The Magyars settled in the Pannonian Basin in 895, and after 902 they largely took over the system of counties (called "župa") and castle districts used in this territory by Great Moravia. The Hungarian Principality arose after 955 and in the 10th century its territory was restricted to present-day western Hungary, southwestern Slovakia and Burgenland. The first counties were probably the counties situated in present-day northern Pannonia (Transdanubia) - they arose before 1000 or around 1000. The exact time of the creation of many other counties is disputed, many of them, however, arose not later than under the rule of Stephen I of Hungary. Initially there were also several small frontier counties (Latin: "marchiae") established for military purposes only (e. g. Beckov, Hlohovec), which however ceased to exist in the 14th century when royal counties were transformed to noble ones. Initially, there were also some small special castle districts, which ceased in the 13th century.


Each county was the responsibility of a "county head", whose seat was a castle - a quasi-capital of the county. The county head was the representative of the king, the judge, and the supreme law observance supervisor on his respective territory. He collected the fees and payments in kind made by the subjects for the king, gave two thirds of them to the king and kept the rest. His castle had special fortification and was able to withstand even long-term besieges. The sources mention "deputy county heads" in the 12th century for the first time.

The royal county consisted of "castle districts".

Noble counties (late 13th century - 1848)


In the late 13th century, the royal counties gradually turned into noble counties. The reasons for this development were:
* The arrival of new hospites (foreign settlers in the Kingdom Hungary, who were allowed to apply their own foreign law in their settlements; esp. Germans and esp. after 1242) considerably restricted the real powers of the county heads, because the hospites were outside his jurisdiction
* At the end of the 12th century, but especially in the early 13th century under King Andrew II, large parts of royal territory (i. e. of the kingdom) was donated to the so-called "royal servants" (in the 9th - 12th century members of certain professions, esp. craftsmen, who were settled in special villages and served the king with their respective skills).
* In the 13th century, the royal servants managed to co-ordinate their activities in order to increase their own powers at the expense of those of the county heads (see e. g. The Golden Bull of Hungary of 1222) and thus became nobles - servientes regis.

As a result, by royal decrees of 1267, 1290, and 1298, the king could only confirm the fact that the royal counties turned into noble ones. Nobles (mostly former royal servant families) became quasi-rulers in the counties. The change from a royal to a noble county, however, was accomplished at different times in the particular counties.

In the 15th century, the borders of the counties stabilised and basically remained unchanged till 1918. Between the early 16th century and the late 17th century, however, most of the counties ceased to exist, because they became part of the Ottoman Empire (the Turks) or of Transylvania. After the final defeat of the Turks in 1718, the three southern counties Temesiensis, Torontaliensis and Krassoviensis created the special administrative district "Banatus Temesiensis" (Hungarian: "Temesi Bánság"). This district was dissolved again in 1779, but its southernmost part remained part of the Military Frontier ("Confiniaria militaria") till the late 19th century.

The bodies of the new counties considerably helped to defend the interests of lower and middle nobility with respect to the oligarchs, who were often the de-facto rulers of the kingdom, and with respect to the absolutistic efforts of the Habsburg kings. The counties as noble institutions were abolished only in the course of the Revolution of 1848 by legal articles III - V and XVI/ 1848.

Transitory period (1785 - 1790)

In 1785, king Joseph II decided to abolish the counties as entities of noble autonomy (self-governance) and introduced a new system of state administration in the Kingdom of Hungary. The kingdom including Croatia and Slavonia was primarily divided into 10 newly created military/administrative districts (Nitra, Banská Bystrica, Košice, Győr, Pest, Mukacheve etc.), each of which consisted of 4 to 7 counties. The territory of the counties corresponded to the traditional one, but in 1786 many of them were merged and the counties became pure units of state administration - "main county heads" were abolished, the county clerks became employees of the state, the courts became the responsibility of the state etc. .The capitals of the districts were chosen so as to be situated right in the middle of the district. The number of processus districts was reduced. The official language was German (instead of Latin). The districts were headed by a "commissioner" appointed by the Austrian emperor (who was the king of the Kingdom of Hungary at the same time). In 1790, however, forcing a strong resistance against any kind of modernisation in Hungary, the king had to cancel the entire reform and the old system was renewed.


Only the duty to support the king militarily, the territorial unit and formally also the title of "county head" remained from the former royal counties.

The new county was a self-governing (autonomous) entity of lower gentry. It was led by the county head ("comes"), appointed by the king, and by his deputy, appointed by the county head. These two persons were the link between the king and the nobility. As a rule, the county heads (from the 15th /16th century onwards called "main county head") were the supreme feudal lords of the county. From the beginning of the 14th century, the county head was at the same time the castellan of the respective county castle in 13 counties. People became county heads for a limited period of time and could be recalled by the king, but a number of prelates (from the 15th century also seculars) received the "eternal county leadership" of their diocese.

Note that the formal title "comes" was also borne by some dignitaries of the Court (e. g. "comes curiae") and other nobles in the Early Middle Ages, and then by other members of middle nobility in the Late Middle Ages, and it did not mean count in these cases.

From the 13th-14th century onwards, the deputy county heads, and not the "county head" himself, were the real administrators of the county. This development was emphasised by the fact that the county heads were also higher dignitaries of the state or of the court at the same time (palatine, treasurer (Kingdom of Hungary), etc.), so that they did not have much time for the management of the county. The "deputy county head" 's role was to administer the county during the "county head" 's absence. Originally, the deputy county head was a personal employee of the king and thus the main person through which the king exercised influence in the county. At the same time, the deputy was the castellan of the castle of the county head or an economic officer (Latin: "provisor") of the properties of the same. Initially, the nobles of the county could not influence the appointment of the deputy county head, but in the early 15th century, they managed to put through a rule that only a noble from the same county can become the deputy county head (see below). Initially, in the 13th century, influence of nobles made itself felt only in the judicial sphere. The judges of the servientes regis - the so-called "iudices servientium" - developed into the "noble judges" (see below), and the courts of the "servientes regis" - the so-called "sedes iudiciaria" or "sedria" - developed into the county court (the Latin name remained sedria). The sedria meetings were led by the county head, later de-facto by his deputy (see below). Until the 15th century, the county head's co-judges were his "deputy county head", the (usually four) "noble judges", and a number of persons appointed ad hoc from among the present nobles. From the 15th century onwards, permanent "jurors" were elected from among the nobles of the county. The sedria served as the court of first instance for minor disputes of the nobles and as the appeal instance for village courts and patrimonial courts ("sedes dominialis").

From the beginning of their existence, the "noble judges" were the real representatives of county autonomy. They were elected by the "congregatio generalis" (see below) and were not only judges, but also political administrators of their respective processus districts (see below). They formed the core of the newly arising class of squires.

Later, the counties even turned to political entities representing the noble autonomy (noble self-government). This evolution started especially under the kings Charles Robert and Louis I. From 1385 onwards, the counties were sending representatives to meetings of the Diet of the Kingdom of Hungary and they played a role in the collection and setting of taxes. But only in the early 15th century, the nobles managed to put through a rule that only a noble from the same county can become the deputy county head and a co-judge. From 1504 onwards the deputy county head's appointment had to be approved by the nobles (congregatio generalis -see below), so that the deputy county head definitively became the de-facto leader of the county. The county head, appointed by the king from the oligarchs (supreme nobility), was only the formal representative of the county.

The county authorities were very powerful and administered all spheres of public life. They were responsible for all inhabitants of the county, except for inhabitants of free royal towns ("liberae regiae civitate"), mining towns, free districts, and at the time of the Anjou kings also of royal castle domains. Until 1486, some members of the supreme nobility were exempt from the jurisdiction of the county, too.

The most important body of self-government of the county was the congregatio generalis, i. e. the county assembly convened and led by the county head. Originally, this body was created and served only as a judicial body, which comprised the judge, the "sedria" members and 8 elected noble "jurors", and which was usually convened once a year. At the same time, the "inquisitio communis" (hearing of a witness) enabled the nobles to influence the proceedings conducted at the royal curia. Gradually, judicial affairs were excluded from the meetings of the congregatio generalis, which thus turned from a judicial body into an administrative body. All nobles of the county participated in person in the meetings of the congregatio and the congregatio decided on all important political, military and economic affairs.

As from the beginning of the 15th century, the territory of each county was divided into processus each of which was administered by one of the noble judges (there were therefore usually four in each county). The aim was to simplify the administration. The number of processus was increasing from the 18th century onwards, because the functions of the counties were increasing too. The processus, in turn, consisted of 2 to 6 "circuits" (Latin: "circuli"), each of which was the responsibility of a "deputy noble judge".

Until the 1840s (with an exception in 1785-1790), the official language of county administration was Latin.

State counties (1849 - 1860)

In 1849, in the course of and after the defeat of the Magyars in the 1848-1849 Revolution, the Austrian Habsburgs established a military dictatorship in the Kingdom of Hungary and the counties were turned into simple state administration entities and authorities.

1st provisional arrangement (1849 - 1850)

A provisional centralised administration started to be created by the Austrians in February 1849, Alexander Bach issued a decree on provisional organisation of the Kingdom of Hungary in early August 1849 and a regulation on the administrative system of the Kingdom of Hungary followed on October 24. Under this regulation:
*Croatia-Slavonia, the Military frontier, Voivodina and the Temes-Banate were separated from the Kingdom of Hungary (which did not include Transylvania at that time) and directly subordinated to Vienna
*the remaining territory of the Kingdom of Hungary was divided into 5 military districts (in present-day Slovakia: Bratislava, Košice, in the remaining territory: Sopron, Pest-Buda, Oradea) led by generals appointed by the emperor, which in turn were divided into civil districts (around 4 in each military district), the civil districts were divided into counties (with their previous borders) and the counties into districts. German became the official language.

2nd provisional arrangement (so-called Geringer Provisional Arrangement; September 13 1850 - January 18 1853)

Under a regulation on provisional political administration of the Kingdom of Hungary issued on September 13 1850, the territory was divided into the above 5 districts (called "civil districts" now), which in turn consisted of counties and the counties of districts. The territories of some counties changed, some counties were newly created. The districts were led by "main district county heads", the counties by a "chairman" (German:"Vorstand") and the districts by "noble judges" (German: "Stuhlrichter").

"Definitive" arrangement (January 19 1853 - October 20 1860)

Only slight changes were made to the previous arrangement. Each district was formally turned to an "administrative territory of a governorship department" (since July 1 1860: "administrative territory of the branche-offices of the governorship"). Some county territories were slightly modified and they were led by "commissioners". The only responsibilities of these state counties were political administration and the management of taxes. The courts were the responsibility of other entities.

Transitory period (1860 - 1867)

The situation prevailing before 1848 was restored in October 1860, both in terms of borders and in terms of noble autonomy. In 1863, however, the noble autonomy was replaced by an absolutist system of state administration again.

Modernised counties (1867 - 1918)


After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, the territory and names of the counties still largely corresponded to those of the pre-1848 period. But, otherwise, these autonomous (i. e. self-governing) entities were considerably modified as compared to their pre-1848 predecessors. Above all, it was not only the nobles anymore who led the counties (see Functioning).

The territory of the Kingdom of Hungary consisted of counties, which in turn consisted of districts (more precisely "processus"] , but often simply called districts even in official documents).

64(63?) counties were created in 1867 in the Kingdom of Hungary (71 including Croatia-Slavonia). This number (71) did not change until 1918, except that the Turna county ceased to exist in 1882. The number of processus districts was steadily increasing till 1910. Around 1891 there were 409 such districts.

The powers and responsibilities of the counties were constantly decreased after 1867 and were transferred to ministries. In 1869, the counties lost the jurisdiction powers (the courts), in 1870 the responsibility for "municipal towns" (towns with municipal rights, i. e. former free royal towns), and later also the responsibilities in terms of construction, orphans, veterinary medicine and (overall) financial management. The most important changes concerned the towns: The Municipal Act 42/1870 abolished the ancient rights of free royal towns, and a great number of municipal towns was withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the counties. In 1876, however, the towns - except for 25 (+ 5 in Croatia-Slavonia + Rijeka) most important towns - lost their "independence" again.

In 1868 Transylvania was definitely reunited to the Kingdom of Hungary proper, and the town and district of Rijeka declared autonomous. In 1873 part of the Military Frontier was united with the Kingdom of Hungary proper and part with Croatia-Slavonia. Some greater reorganisation (incl. some changes of county borders) occurred in 1876 and smaller border changes followed in 1877, 1882 and 1884.


The main county body was the "municipal committee" comprising 50% "virilists" (persons paying the highest direct taxes), and the other 50% elected persons fulfilling the prescribed census and ex officio members ("deputy county head", "main notary" and others). The county was led by the "main county head", who was a government official subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior of the Kingdom of Hungary. The "deputy county head" was a very important function as well.


Origin of the name

The Latin word "comitatus" is derived from the word "comes", which originally stood for companion or retinue member. In the Early and High Middle Ages, the title "comes" was a noble title used in various meanings, in the Kingdom of Hungary especially (but not exclusively) in the meaning "county head".

The Hungarian word "megye" (or Latin "mega") is derived from the old Slavic word "medja" (međa, међа) meaning approximately territorial border. The original word is still used in present-day Slavic languages, i.e. in Slovak (as "medza"), in Slovenian (as "meja"), in Serbian and Croatian (as "međa", међа), in similar sense, and seems to have meant rather the border of a county initially in the Hungarian language, too.

The Hungarian word "ispán" (county head) is derived from the old and modern Slavic word "župan" (жупан), which was used by the Slavs living in the Carpathian Basin before the arrival of the Hungarians and stood for the head of various territorial units. Title "župan" was also used as a ruling title in medieval Serbia.

Comitatus vs. county

It is more appropriate to call the Hungarian county "comitatus" in English because of the substantial difference in functions between the English count or the German Graf and Hungarian Comes, and also because of the existence in the Kingdom of Hungary of counts in the Western sense (in Hungarian and Slovak "gróf"). Nevertheless, the comitatus have been frequently called "counties", therefore this term is used in this article.

Names in various languages

*Royal county: Latin "parochia / provincia / compagus civitatis / comitatus comitatus /mega" (and other names), in later Hungarian : "vármegye/ megye/ várispánság", in later Slovak: "(kráľovský) komitát / župa/ hradské španstvo", in later German "(Burg-)Komitat / (Burg-)Gespanschaft / (rarely) Ispanschaft". Note that some Hungarian historians distinguish between the functions of a "vármegye" (led by a "comes comitatus") and those of a "várispánság" (led by a "comes civitatis"), usually arguing that the administrative unit called vármegye sometimes included several military units called várispánság.
* Noble county and later: Latin: "comitatus" (no other form from the 13th century onwards), Hungarian: "vármegye / megye" (modernized county usually "vármegye"), Slovak: "stolica / župa" (modernised county "župa" only), German: "Gespanschaft / Komitat / "(rarely) "Grafschaft" (modernised county usually "Gespanschaft"), Croatian:"županija", French: "comitat"

Processus (district): Latin: "processus/ reambulatio", Hungarian: "szolgabírói járás", Slovak: "slúžnovský obvod/slúžnovský okres", German: "Stuhlbezirk"

County head:
*Royal county: Latin: "comes parochialis / comes civitatis/ comes comitatus", in later Hungarian: "várispán/ vármegyei ispán /megyésispán", in later Slovak: "hradský špán / župan", in later German: "Burggespan / Gespan"
*Noble county: Latin: "comes", Hungarian: "ispán", Slavic languages: "župan", German: "Gespan"

Main county head: Latin: "comes (supremus)", Hungarian: "főispán", Slovak: "hlavný župan", German: "Obergespan"

Deputy county head:
*royal county: mentioned as "comes castri / castellani" by the then Latin sources.
*noble county and later: Latin: "comes curialis*/ vicecomes", Hungarian: "alispán/ vicispán", Slovak: "podžupan/ vicišpán", in German: "Untergespan/ Vizegespan" (*according to some sources this was the "county head")

Congregatio generalis: Latin "congregatio generalis", Hungarian: "közgyűlés", Slovak: "generálna kongregácia / stoličné zhromaždenie", German: "Komitatsgeneralversammlung"

Noble judges: Latin: "iudices nobilium/ iudlium", Hungarian (pl) "szolgabírák", Slovak (pl) "slúžni", German "Schöffen / Stuhlrichter" (later "Stuhlrichter" only)

Jurors: Latin: "iurati assessores / iurassores", Hungarian: "esküdtek", Slovak: "súdni prísažní", German "Geschworene"

Deputy noble judges: Latin: "viceiudex", Hungarian: "alszolgabírák", Slovak: "podslúžni", German: "Unterstuhlrichter(?)".

Municipal town: Hungarian:"törvényhatósági város ", Slovak: "municipálne mesto ", German: "Munizipalstadt/ Munizipium"

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