THE AGE OF CONQUEST


The seven Magyar chieftains arriving at the Carpathian Basin. Detail from Árpád Feszty's cyclorama titled the Arrival of the Hungarians.

They were said to devour their enemy's children and to live like animals. Because of them, even prayers changed. Cries of horror were uttered in the churches: "From the arrows of the Hungarians protect us, O Lord!". Who were these Magyars and whence did they appear in Europe, of whom the people of our good auld continent spoke with such hatred and scorn?

Admittedly, the nomadic Hungarians, who came to Central Europe in the 9th century, did a lot to earn their reputation. As the legend says, immediately after arrival, they let themselves be known by a bad name, resorting to a simple but always effective subterfuge: To demonstrate their "peaceful" intentions, they sent rich gifts to the ruler of Great Moravia - a principality occupying the area of today's Bohemia, Slovakia and part of Hungary. These included 12 white horses, 12 camels, 12 Cuman boys and 12 Rus girls. In return, they humbly asked for two jugs of water from the Dunai and a handful of herbs. Quickly obtaining permission to settle in Great Moravia. Having lulled their hosts into imprudence, they seized more and more territories with brutal force, finally leading to a major battle that resulted in the destruction of the Grand Moravian Principality. As a result, they occupied numerous lands, while Bohemians and (probably then) the Vistulians become independent. Throughout Europe grew stone towers - also due to the fear of the Vikings. Villages and towns fell prey to both, as it was illustrated by the Benedictine monk from Sankt Gallen. As he recounted: upon seeing the Hungarians, the people fled fearing that the Magyars would murder every soul they encountered, but as a matter of principle, they set fire to several huts, allowing most to escape. Afterwards, they caught some of the people still hiding in the area. Towards evening a feast was celebrated, surprisingly with captives allowed in. In the middle of the hall stood the pitchers with the alcohol they had found, and anyone who wanted drew up freely. When they were full and in a better mood, they threw bones at each other and encouraged the captives to have fun. The recollecting monk confessed that he had never drunk so much wine before. As you can see, it was hardly possible to guess what might happen to the captives held by the Magyars. However, the German rulers took them utmost seriously, so Otto I, having gathered all available forces, marched against them and in the battle of Lech Field (near the river Lech) inflicted the defeat on Magyar armies on 10 August of 955 year of our Lord. Thus, breaking their power and settling them within his borders. It is believed that by doing so he put an end to their plundering expeditions. Three years later they suffered an additional defeat in an expedition against the Eastern Roman Empire. The fact that Otto I was crowned Emperor of the Holly Roman Empire in 962 is the best indication of how impressed Europe really was by his victory.

Yet, before their defeat, Hungarians brought terror to all of Europe. Being an exceptionally energetic people, they spent most of the 10th century fighting in the north, south-east and west. They made expeditions to Italy, to the territories of today's Germany, to southern France and even to the Rus. Describing one of the raids on Saxony that took place during the reign of Henry I, the monk from New Korbeia, Widukind, complained: "Again the Hungarians came into Saxony, burning towns and settlements, shedding blood and wreaking great desolation. [...] Such was the disgrace, harmful in those days, that even the monasteries suffered, but let us restrain ourselves with silence so as not to propagate such misfortunes.”. Further attacks were also mentioned by the Korbeian Annalist. Under the year 919, he noted: „The Hungarians plundered Saxony severely, and with great spoils having abducted people of both sexes, retreated to their homeland. God layed his wrath upon us.”.

Unfathomable tales sprung up around the warfare indulged in by the Magyars. They were portrayed as fearsome cruelists, leaving only charred rubble and piles of corpses in their wake, reputed to torch every town they marched through. Early chroniclers referred to them as 'beasts craving for blood and devouring people." The Song of Roland, dating back to the 11th century, describes them as "the Devil's spawn", although it is unclear whether this well-established literary image is at all true. It is true that chronicles and yearbooks, starting from the first mention, recorded in 862 by Hinkmar of Reims, are full of references to Magyar expeditions. Most notably, reproaches are levelled at the Hungarians for ransacking the monastery in Sankt Gallen, where they allegedly hacked to death an Alemanian aristocrat Wiborada, the Same one, who was later canonised by Pope Clement II. However, Idzi Panic - a professor at the University of Silesia and an expert on early Magyar history strongly argues in favour of Hungarians!

One would have to agree with him, there are many interesting studies and scientific dissertations on the subject today, and many in English, where depicting the Hungarians as beasts in human flesh is merely an interesting addition to a true and historically consensual narrative. As research shows, their warfare, though intense, was by no means beyond the accepted standards. Yes, they brought rich loot to the Hungarians, their army plundered in the course of the warfare, nevertheless, their conduct in the enemy's territory did not differ at all from the conduct of feudal armies. In Panic's works, as well as in the Journal of Euroasian Studies, where professor Christopher Szabo has published an article in 2012 titled: The Magyar Raids: Fact and Fable, the Hungarians were even positively distinguished from the epoch since they generally respected the territories of their allies. Moreover, many historians are now questioning the supposedly well-established knowledge of the first battle of the Magyars in Europe. Idzi Panic suggests that the Magyars arrived in Eastern Pannonia at the invitation of the Great Moravian rulers and that the settlement was at least initially peaceful. The unfavourable opinion about Hungarians did not emerge from a vacuum, they were too strongly associated by people of that time with Huns. Their way of life and warfare brought back horrible memories and stories about the Hunnic invasions at the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries. The newcomers were also settling the same territories where one existed Attila's state. Hence stands the general conclusion that the Hungarians are descendants of the Huns. It got to the point that even the later kings of Hungary considered themselves successors of Attila.

This was not a flattering association by any means, as is evident in the description of the appearance of the first Magyars, who were compared closely to the Huns and Avars. "They are depicted as being of medium height, with hideous facial features, concave eyes, and a voice similar to the roar of wild animals. They also exhibit their customs as strangely coarse and barbaric", as the 19th-century writer and journalist Jânos Boldényi, who devoted himself to Hungarian history, conveyed. "This exaggerated image is a testimony to the blind hatred or credulity of the chroniclers" - he added right away so as not to leave the reader in any doubt.

Widukind, the Saxon chronicler, and a monk from the Benedictine monastery in Nova Korbea, was just as scornful about the origin of the Hungarians, calling them "remnants of the Huns". Both the Magyars and the Huns, descended from the Goths according to him, or, to be precise, from Gothic women who had been accused of witchcraft and sentenced to exile by the Goth chieftain. These so called "witches" were to hide in the woods, where they gave birth to children and started a family " leading a life of animal customs, coarse and implacable".

This early medieval insight turned into a widely discussed scientific hypothesis. Its confirmation was sought, among other things, in linguistic studies. Its first serious parallel emerged with the thesis of Finno-Ugric origin, introduced as late as the 18th century.

Interestingly, the Hungarians themselves did not entirely reject the Hunnic affinity, at least in the Middle Ages. On the contrary, they strove to turn the ignominious rumours to their advantage! Ostensibly infamous pedigree was used to justify the Hungarian rule over the seized lands. The first Hungarian chronicle - 12th century Gesta Hungarorum, recognised Attila as the ancestor of Arpad, the founder of the Hungarian dynasty. The conclusion seemed self-evident. If the Hungarians were the heirs of a great leader, then by claiming Eastern Pannonia they weren't so much invading foreign lands, but rather returning home. Over time, this portrait of the great ancestor began to be deliberately whitewashed, emphasising his valour, wisdom and moderation. People became so attached to such an ungenerous idea that when the Finno-Ugric hypothesis first came along, it caused fierce protests since most Hungarians took it as an opening to belittle their country! Manipulation of the proportions of millennia. A nebulous vision for a birth of a nation - what else could one ask for? The Magyars accepted their inheritance of a great oriental culture abandoning the inconvenient truth about pastoral origins. After all, isn't having an antecedent such as Atilla - a scourge of mankind -better than being regarded as sheep? Especially when wolves are prowling around.

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