Slovak Privilege

Žilina Town Hall, Mariánske Square 1

The Privilege Louis the Great bestowed on Slovaks living in Žilina in 1381 represents the first document, recording the national consciousness of the Slovak population in the country, and is also the first proof of national consciousness in Central Europe. The Privilege awarded by the king thereby assured that the Slovaks and the Germans were equally represented in the twelve-member town council. The Germans did not constitute a majority in the town, but wielded greater economic weight than the other residents of Žilina. The Privilege was bestowed upon the people in response to a petition made by representatives of the Slovak people in Žilina and directly to King Louis I when he visited the town in early May 1381. The people petitioned the King that the German townspeople were not respecting the old custom and were refusing to accept them as representatives of the Slovak people on the Town Council. The King considered the petition, conducted an investigation and concluded that the Slovak people of Žilina had had this right since ancient times and that they also constituted the majority of people, not only in the town, but also in the surrounding area. Furthermore, they fulfilled their obligations to the Kingdom just as the German townspeople did.

Incorporating the Privilege was not as easy as it might have seemed, despite having been directly ordained by the king of Hungary. The struggle to incorporate it lasted many years, up to the 1440s. In 1431 the townspeople of Žilina requested the Turiec Convent in Kláštor pod Znievom to make a legal copy of the privilege, because the original document dating from 1381 had been damaged during the Hussite battle in Žilina in September 1431, when the city was destroyed. The Turiec Convent made a copy and attested to the authenticity and legal nature of the Privilege. This copy has therefore been preserved, despite the original having been lost or destroyed in one of the many town fires. The privilege was finally adopted after the Hussite army was again ensconced in Žilina at the end of 1433 and towards the beginning of 1434, when the number of German patricians declined substantially and the town became Slovak.

The fact that the King himself visited Žilina is proof that there was a very serious dispute between two groups of townspeople in an important commercial, craft and legal centre in north-western Slovakia. King Louis I, also known as Louis the Great, was the son of King Charles I Robert of Anjou and Elisabeth Piast. He was born on 5 March 1326 and died on 10 September 1382. He became king of Hungary in 1342 and also of Poland in 1370. He was called Great not only because of the incursions through which he extended his power from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea, but also through the support of monasteries as centres of culture and education across the country, and by establishing the first university in Pécs.

The charter with the Privilege for the Slovaks living in Žilina is held in the State District Archive in Žilina and is written in Gothic script on parchment measuring 410 mm x 175 mm x 40 mm. It is sealed with a Turiec Convent wax seal pendant of the Madonna. The Privilege is also proof that the local Slovaks played a key role in creating and developing the town and it serves as testimony of the national consciousness of the Slovak nation. In the Middle Ages, the size of an ethnic group didn’t automatically mean that they had equal rights to others. Property ownership was more important and in a town where there were only two different nationalities, the social divisions acquired the character of a national struggle. Although there were fewer of them, the property rich German patriciate didn’t want to allow the Slovak townspeople to decide on matters of the town council. However, the Slovaks had equal obligations and also wanted to have equal rights. The Louis I document dated 7 May 1381 is eloquent proof of the local situation, but it is also proof of the strength and confidence of the Slovak townspeople in Žilina who had the courage to take up their claims directly with the monarch. Analysis of the document indicates that in fact it was not a privilege in the strictest sense, but rather gave consent that there should be equal representation in the town council. However, a failure to comply would not result in any strict sanctions and so it was not always respected. The moderate wording of the document shows that the position of the German patricians in Žilina was very strong, although the demands of the Slovak townspeople were certainly justified. The moderate wording was sufficient for Slovaks living in Žilina in 1431, because at that time the German townspeople still occupied a significant position, notwithstanding the fact that the last German entry in the Book of Žilina was written in 1429. There is indirect evidence that by the mid-15th century the Slovak minority in Žilina was gaining significance since they did not repeatedly demand equal representation in the town council, but took it for granted and the Slovak strata in the town gained supremacy.

The translation of the original Latin text reads, "We Louis, King of Hungary, Poland, Dalmatia, and so forth, by the grace of God. We, hereby, in this document, announce to all Slovaks concerned, the townspeople and visitors from Žilina, that a petition was submitted to our Majesty, arising from the fact that according to the Ancient Custom and Privileges of the Town called Žilina, the Townspeople and the German Visitors sworn onto the Town Council should be elected in equal numbers (Slovaks and Germans); but the Germans – the townspeople and visitors from Žilina – are disinclined to appoint the sworn townspeople to the Town Council from all Parties in equal numbers, notwithstanding that the Old Custom and Privileges granted would have it thus. They (the Slovaks) do honestly and fully disburse and pay all Fees and Taxes, and for any Services provided to Us and our District Administrators, and for those who will be appointed in the future as German Residents and Visitors of Žilina and therefore they (Slovaks) have petitioned our Majesty for redress. And since the Slovaks, our residents and visitors in Žilina, but also in this region, are more numerous than our Townspeople and German Visitors, and no distinction is cast in paying Duties, Taxes or the Provision of Services, and they pay us as our Townspeople and German visitors do, and for these reasons it does seem to us and our King’s Council that our Slovak Townspeople and Visitors, on the one hand and our German Townspeople and Visitors, on the other hand, should be appointed as Sworn Townspeople, and accepted onto the Town Council in equal numbers. Therefore, after taking the King’s Council for the purposes of removing and completely dispelling with the cause of all disputes and conflicts between our Slovak Townspeople and Visitors, on the one hand and the German Townspeople and Visitors, on the other hand, and so that everyone might live in Peace and Harmony, we proclaim that the Slovak Townspeople and Visitors, on the one hand, and our German Townspeople and Visitors, on the other hand, be nominated to sit on the Town Council in Žilina, in equal numbers, and that our Slovak Townspeople and Visitors, and the German Townspeople and Visitors, be appointed Members of the Town Council in Žilina in equal numbers. Given in Žilina on the Second Day after the Feast of St. John in front of the (Latin) Gate in the Year of our Lord 1381”.

On the 600th anniversary of the granting of the Privilege for the Slovaks living in Žilina, an international conference was held at a motel in Strečno, between 8 and 12 June 1981, on ethnic relations in Slovak towns. The proceedings were published as Ethnic development of towns in Slovakia until 1918, 272 pages. On 620th anniversary of the Privilege, a conference was held at the Old Town Hall and series of lectures was published entitled, Žilina in Slovak history: Proceedings from the academic conference commemorating the 620th anniversary of the granting of privileges for Slovaks living in Žilina, Žilina 7 May 2001, 124 pages. A plaque bearing an impression of the Privilege was erected on the Old Town Hall in 1981, and it was renovated on 3 December 1993. The significance of the Privilege for Slovaks is conveyed in the fact that it was declared part of the national cultural heritage. It is important proof of the national awareness of the local Slovak population. Just to compare, a similar privilege was gained by the Czechs in Prague in 1413 and the Hungarians in Budapest in 1436. As can be seen, the German patriciate was strong in Central Europe. In most medieval towns attempts by various ethnic groups to achieve equal representation on town councils ended in failure.

Source: Mgr. Jozef Moravčík

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