On the north-western confines of Zalaegerszeg, on the bank of the backwater of the river Zala, Hungary's first open air ethnographic museum, the Göcsej Village Museum, lies in an environment of grassland and groves. It was opened for the public in August 1968.
In Hungary there are three open air ethnographic museums as well as historic examples of folk architecture, ensembles of such buildings, and regional houses preserved "in situ" in several places, to get their visitors acquainted with the vernacular architecture and interior decoration of the south-western borderland of the country. The regional unit representing Western Transdanubia is under construction in the Szentendre Village Museum. Its buildings will present the peasant houses of the Őrség (Vas County), Göcsej and Hetés (Zala County) complete with interior decoration. The farmhouses and outbuildings re-erected in the Vas Village Museum in Szombathely represent the archaic types of buildings of the County and their more developed versions. The principle underlying the settlement and construction of the Göcsej Village Museum in Zalaegerszeg was to show, through the most beautiful examples of the archaic types of buildings still available, the line of development which was at the end of the l9th century already on the decline. In this regional open air museum a small village consisting of nearly 50 original buildings has been set up arranged on crofts. The buildings demonstrate folk architecture, techniques and modes of construction, characteristic of Göcsej (Zala County) and its vicinity. The furniture of the houses is to present the interior decoration of peasant houses in the area at the end of the l9th century.
The hilly region of Zala County is an area of subalpine character, covered with forests and slashed by deep river valleys. Although these parts get most of the precipitation in the country, their soil is scarcely suitable for plant production. As late as the beginning of the l9th century, these hills were under huge oak- and beech-woods, although in the forests Scotch firs, too, can be found. The slopes and hilltops are covered with a yellowish-reddish, clayey, marly soil. The valleys used to be boggy marshlands, totally flooded at snowbreak or heavy rains. So it was mainly the slopes, less often the ridges or crests of hills, which people found suitable for settlement.
Göcsej lies in the hilly country bordered by the brooks Zala, Kerka, and Válicka. Its exact frontier line cannot be drawn, but as much is sure that its geographical and ethnic boundaries do not coincide.
As far as we know the first mention of Göcsej was made 1689 under the name "Göböcse". At the beginning of the l9th century the forms "Göcse" and "Göcsej" occurred. At that time several scholars tried to find an explanation for the origin of this word. Some derived it from the word "göcs" (lump, clod) also indicating soil properties, others deemed to have traced it back to "göcsörtös" (gnarled) or "görbe" (warped) referring to the hilliness of the area.
They say Göcsej is the country of szegs. The groups of houses perched on hilltops or hiding in clearings in loose, scattered arrangement make one of the forms of settlement, very characteristic of the region. Such partial settlements, or szegs however only came into being in the northern and central parts of Göcsej. On the foothills and in the more flat areas other types of settlements evolved.
This land was supposedly occupied by the Hungarians only after their conquest of the Carpathian Basin. In those days the borderland, protecting inhabited areas, ran toward the north in the south-western part of Zala County. Along the borderline settlements were set up and populated by frontier guards. Such a settlement was Lövõ or Zalalövõ where the shooters (lövõk) lived. The Mongol Invasion (1241-42) practically destroyed the organization of military border zones. However the frontier guards stayed and the majority of them became serfs living in feudal subjection.
The country of szegs only began to be populated at the end of the 10th century. The distinguished people of the managing and administrative system, the castle governorship, established by St Stephen (first King of Hungary, 1000-1038), the castle serfs settled in these parts. The majority of them did military service, in consideration of which they did not only get land, but also the privileges of nobility. The petty nobles who lead a peasant's life, and whose settlement here had a decisive influence on the formation of the characteristic structure of Göcsej settlements, the szegs, had come from their ranks. The nucleus of emerging settlements could namely be the manor of a lesser nobleman, descended from castle serfs. The homesteads were cut out of the corners of woods covering the slopes and hilltops - some derive the denomination szeg from this fact (szeg, szeglet = corner) - and named after the landed family that settled down there. This is how the village names Kustánszeg, Gombosszeg and others including the syllable "szeg" could be formed.
The villages between the Göcsej szegs and the settlements of the frontier guards were inhabited partly by petty nobles of castle serf origin and partly by castlepeople of lower legal standing, castle servants, whose descendants became serfs in later centuries. These villages that envolved on the flatter stretches of land along the main roads and on the banks of a brook or a river, could comparatively better expand than the settlements of the szegs. As against the loose and scattered szeg settlements, they had the regular shape of a village arranged along one or more streets. They, too, were often named after the first landed inhabitant e.g. Budafa, Kálócfa, Náprádfa.
So we can say that in this region the descendants of frontier guards, castle people and castle serfs lived and live up to these days, partly assimilated to the nobility and partly sunk into serfdom in the past centuries. The special natural conditions, peculiar geographical factors of the area and the common history of the people of mixed legal status who had settled here offered the same opportunities for their peasant culture and way of life.
In spite of the fact that the devastation caused by the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries did not leave untouched the Göcsej villages either, the region's peasant culture stayed almost intact for hundreds of years and retained its archaic character even in the first decades of the 20th century. It was so even though, with a gradual change over to intensive animal husbandry in the second half of the 19th century, similarly to other areas along the western border of Hungary, the signs of disintegration in the traditional peasant way of life were already perceivable. The history and isolation of the Göcsej villages may account for the comparatively slow and delayed change in the way of life there.
In the area we are discussing the mode of covering a plot with buildings was, even in the latter half of the l9th century, what they called kerített udvar and kerített ház: the dwelling house, the storage room, pigsties, stables and even the barn, formed the sides of a square under a common thatched roof, with the farmyard in the centre. There also were houses surrounding their courtyard on three sides only. In the crofts to which a smaller farm belonged the outbuildings were freely scattered around or behind the farmhouse, still presenting the picture of a closed, compact ensemble of buildings.
The different forms of barns; with storage space (kamrás pajták), stable (istállós pajták), and protecting threshingfloor ("throat barn", torkospajták) are outstanding examples of building with hewn logs. These barns, besides serving for threshing and sometimes for the storage of agricultural implements for the winter, more then once housed family festivities like wedding or christening celebrations. To the outbuildings belonged one-floor and two-story storage chambers for food (the latter was called kástu), pigsties and wells. All showed the characteristics of traditional timber architecture.
In this south-western territory the dominant building material was wood up to the middle of the l9th century. Both dwelling houses and farm buildings were made, almost without exception, of wood. There are few traces, mainly in the areas less abundant in wood, of rammed walls and daubed wattle walls.
The architecture of the areas where wood was plentiful is varied. The materials, techniques, and the ornamented elements of construction resulted in dwelling houses and outbuildings of a peculiar appearance. The typical peasant house stood on a horizontal timber base (oak groundsills) and had walls of hewn fir logs. The doors and windows had been carved of oak or fir until the l9th century, at the beginning of which carpenter-made doors and casements appeared. The roofs were covered by bound and doubled sheaves of thatch.
The most ancient type of dwelling house in the region is the chimneyless house. The single, large, heatable room of the log house constituted the living space of the building. Its oven served equally for heating, cooking and baking, the problem of smoke removal, however, was not solved. The smoke from the fireplace and the mouth of the oven spread freely in the living space and escaped through the available openings. The large kitchen of the chimneyless house accommodated all the members of the large family comprising more than one generation. It was equipped to provide the basic necessities of life. From the l8th century on, however, it was to an increasing extent the house with a stove-heated room and a smoky kitchen which could be called typical of vernacular architecture in Western Transdanubia.
The museum village represents a Göcsej villagescape, archaic, but existing even on the turn of the l9th and 20th centuries, as shown by contemporary photographs. The interiors of the buildings preserve the relics of a patriarchal way of life based on subsistence farming, although objects of interior decoration, resulting from a bourgeois mentality developing on the turn of the century, also appear here and there.
Right at the entrance a smithy, usually situated on the outskirts of the village, strikes the visitor's eyes. It was built at the end of the l9th century and has been transferred to the Museum from Hottó. The rammed walls of the one-room building, preceded by a porch, are crowned by a thatch-covered hip roof. Its protruding trussing is supported by two hewn oak pillars. The porch served for farriery. The pair of bellows, anvil, the various blacksmith's tongs and files, the tools of horseshoeing and other important pieces of equipment mostly date from the early years of the l9th century, but we can also see some used on the turn of the l9th and 20th centuries.
At the end of the road leading into the museum village a sacral construction, characteristic of the villages in Göcsej, a "skirted belfry" meets the visitor's eyes. It was set up in 1888 and stood in Budafa until it has been taken to the Museum. Its legs, resting on huge oaken soles, are covered with boards (the "skirt") up to a certain height, above which they carry the bell. The bell is protected by the spire which has a cross on its peak. Both roof and spire are covered with wooden shingles.
There are four peasant crofts in the main street of the village museum. Each is separated from the street by a fence. The hewn, carved, split, and wattle fences (the last made of branches) and the ladders have been modelled after typical Göcsej fences. In front of the houses little gardens can be seen with the flowers and herbs of the Göcsej gardens.
The house on the first croft originates from Kálócfa. The wooden building, topped by a wide, half-hipped roof, erected at the end of the l9th century is almost the last example of this type. The street front is constituted by a room and a pantry, with a door opening from each to the porch running between them as long as the pantry lasts and continuing thereafter on the courtyard-side of the room. Huge, ornamented, wooden gable arches over this front. The carved gable boards, the thatched roof covered in tiers, and the protruding white-washed logs of the walls lend a special beauty to the building. Its furniture reflects the interior decoration of a household of well-to-do "middle peasants" at the end of the l9th century. In the room there is a tiled stove which was stoked from the kitchen. In the background there is a bed followed by another. One of them, a rarity, was made in 1848 of planed fir wood, and ornamented with painted ftowers. It came to the museum from Zalabér. In the left corner of the room there is a corner-bench with a table in front of it. In the middle of the room a loom had been set up. This is where, during the long winter days peasant women wove the textiles necessary for farming (canvasses, bags, and the drying cloths on which beans, peas, or poppy seeds were spread to dry in the sun). They also made table clothes of white and red pattern, breadbasket clothes, towels, bedsheets, and often even underclothes. In the chimneyless smoky kitchen of the house, the oven built of mud and the ledge in front of it are loaded with l9th century dishes. They cooked on the ledge where the stoke hole of the stove heating the room also opened from. The front chamber serves as pantry, the back one for the storage of household implements and tools.