July 2020

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European Oxtrail – an overview by Max Direktor



Today we can hardly imagine that between 1350 and 1750 some 200.000 oxen were drifted every year from Hungary and Transylvania to Central Europe to feed the bourgeois of emergent towns. One author has described the drifts as the “Wildwest of Europe”.


 Ox trade – a widely spread phenomenon


Ox trading not only existed in Hungary. Towns from Northern Germany imported oxen from Denmark, towns from middle and East Germany covered their needs with oxen from Poland. Nevertheless, the most significant provider of beef during the late Middle Ages and early Modern Period was Hungary. Hungarian oxen were consumed in Austria and Moravia and in Upper Italy – especially Venice. Yet, half of the Hungarian oxen were drifted to South Germany. Imperial cities like Nuremberg and Augsburg, at that time some of the leading cities in Europe, seem to be the most important customers. However, Hungarian oxen were also found in Frankfort, Mainz and Strasbourg.


Why trading oxen?


To reach their destination, oxen had to be drifted more than 1.000km – a huge effort that is not entirely explained by the high quality of Hungarian oxen’s meat. The main destinations of the drifts were cities. In the High Middle Ages cities began to emancipate from the tight grasp of their rulers acquiring more and more autonomy. Trading also increased their power and wealth. The bourgeois of these towns loved luxury and eating meat. The large amount of meat consumption had lead regional small-scale structured agriculture to fail, since it had to ensure self-catering. Furthermore, population grew fast in the 15th century. Therefore, agricultural land was used for the supply of basic foods such as grain. This explains the reason why people looked for other sources of meat - and discovered a source of supply from Hungary and elsewhere.


 The long way to the West


The main terminal for oxen from Hungary was the “Ochsengries” (market for oxen) in Vienna. Butchers mainly sent buying agents directly to Vienna or to other markets in the Austrian-Hungarian borderland to purchase oxen. Herds of oxen varied in their size. Research found sizes between 60 and 200 oxen per herd. Researchers think that a herd was led by a so called “captain of oxen” and was accompanied by several cattlemen. Often, herds began their journey in summer and travelled between 15km and 25km every day. Their path followed the grassy and watery river plains, where watering and feeding was provided. However, after the long and exhausting journey, the emaciated cattle had to be re-fattened in fields.


For example Augsburg


Ox trading of the free imperial city Augsburg is particularly well researched. Christina Dalhede, a Swedish researcher, has reconstructed the ox trading especially in the second half of the 16th century through comprehensive research of the great amount of source materials. She concludes that during this period 6.000 to 8.000 oxen were drifted from Hungary to Augsburg. She describes two main routes:  A southern route from the Austrian border to Landshut and the Dachauer Land, and a northern route through Neustadt and Geisenfeld to the Schrobenhausener Land. The finding of these routes initiated the revival of the ancient track of trade and culture from Hungary to Bavaria.