The History of Early Medieval Hungary












            The Hungarian nation has, throughout the long centuries of her existence, struggled with an identity crisis. Ensconced between two worlds with a socio-cultural make-up all its own, the Magyar people, as well as those dissidents from other cultures who have opted for inclusion into the Hungarian cultural sphere, have always suffered from a distinct feeling of being far removed from their neighbors in both Europe and Asia. Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian who personified this alienation while also articulating it spectacularly, wrote the following passage not in Hungarian but in German, as he did all his work due to the limited reach similar writings in Magyar would have had, ‘The peculiar intensity of their existence can perhaps be explained by this exceptional loneliness. To be a Hungarian is a collective neurosis.’

Though the Hungarian people have been lauded as the defenders of Christendom, and in modern times recognized for their propensity at producing genius, the isolation of their cultural memeplex has resulted over the centuries in continual misinterpretation. The Hungarians themselves have, throughout the past thousand years, swung between their Central Asian steppe heritage, foreign rule under a spate of Polish, Bavarian, and Hapsburg Kings,  been positioned between two clashing empires as the bulwark of European civilization, guarding against the ever-advancing Ottoman Turks and the threatening tides of Eastern Ideology. This montage of ethnic idiom is reflected in the innumerable hybrid traditional systems of the crossroad country today, as much as it is influenced even today by the dual influx of overwhelming cultural influence form both sides of the Carpathian basin. (Just to point out a difference; both the above reflection and the stated influence are products of direct cultural transferal, while the more recent influences coming from abroad have not stood the test of post-revolution regression, in my opinion, and thus are not included.)

The Hungarians, throughout their history, have been viewed from such a plethora of angles that they themselves often end with a confused view of their own heritage. Sayings as diverse as ‘Bloodthirsty Huns,’ ‘Soldiers of Christ,’ ‘Child-Eating cannibals,’ ‘the ramparts of Europe,’ and ‘Traitorous Turks,’ sayings which were on the tongues of everyone from Emperors to members of war councils to the Pope’s advisors, would confuse the most clever state. Spanning the bank of centuries which saw the rise of the Magyar nation, these examples of misconception reflect the broad dichotic perspective on a people who, in the end, were out to save their own cultural identity, and by following the principle of self-determination survived complete catastrophe numerous times to eventually emerge with a nation of their own. While the trend towards national self-determination is in large a product of the twentieth century, the majority of writing done on the subject of Hungarian nationalism was espoused amidst the feudalism of medieval Europe, before the necessity of cultural relativism and participant observation, both keys to an anthropological and holistic understanding of a nation’s past and present, had been established.

The beginning of the struggle for state-hood, however, did not coincide with the initial founding of the Magyar nation, over a thousand years ago. The feeling of alienation must have been present when the odd accretion of Ten Nomad tribes, seven Magyar and three Turkish, first crossed the Bosporus into a new world, encountering practices and people unrelated to their former frame of reference. This feeling would only be intensified by the lack of European support when, after becoming a Christian nation under St. Stephen and holding an eternal vigil for Europe on its Eastern border, the unmindful Europeans left them to fend for themselves from the first to the last of a course of  struggles spanning the majority of Magyar written history. The Mongol invasion of 1241, the battle of Mohacs which saw the rise of the Ottomans and the installation of a Pasha in Buda for one hundred and fifty years, the squashed war of independence in 1849, the division of Hungary through the Treaty of Trianon following World War I, and more than forty years of Communist rule after the Second World War; all of these incidents, which repeatedly reduced the population by at least ten percent and at most half, coagulated on top of the foundations of isolation which had accompanied the Hungarians on their pilgrimage West centuries before.

It is important to point out the fact that, despite this sense of singular existence, the Magyar nation under the Arpad dynasty – particularly under the first Christian King, St. Stephen – promulgated a diverse social and ethnic mixture for the aggrandizement of the nation and the widening of its prospects. This is exemplified with a letter from Istvan, or Stephen, to his son Imre, who would also eventually be sainted for his aid in the advancement of Christianity as ‘pagan ritual’ was outlawed. The letter is as follows:

‘The Roman Empire has won significance, and its rulers become famous and mighty, because numerous nobles and sages congregated there. As settlers form various countries, and provinces, they bring with them various languages and customs, various instructive concepts and weapons, which decorate and glorify the royal court, but intimidate foreign powers. A country which has only one language and one kind of custom is weak and fragile. Therefore, my son, I instruct you to face the settlers and treat them decently, so that they will prefer to stay with you rather than elsewhere, because if you were to destroy all that I have built….’

This comes as a prime example of the Hungarian frame of reference when it comes to cosmopolitanism, and the relatively enlightened view of the King as expedited at the point when the nation made its greatest change from a pagan to a Christian state, around the year 1000 C.E., ushered in an era which saw the Magyar nation become a place for anyone looking for a home. Beginning over the course of the next few decades and continuing into the modern era, Germans, Pecheneg and Cuman tribes from the Anatolian peninsula, Slavs, Croats, Romanians, Jews, and Serbs have all emigrated in large numbers and become assimilated into the fabric of the Hungarian cultural complex.

This incites skepticism, due to the lack of international support received by Hungary during its tumultuous history, since at least a quarter of the nation was of foreign blood at any given time throughout its trials. I would call this the relic sentiment of a time when the Magyar people served as an archetype of the violence inherit in human society. The propaganda of an age had sunk itself into the European stereotype of the Hungarian people, despite the multiethnic strata which had become enmeshed inside the system of Hungarian society. In fact, by 1910 the number of Germans, Slovaks, and Jews who regarded themselves as Magyar had collectively reached around two million individuals. But I jump too far ahead. To understand the Hungarian national identity, one must begin at what has been recognized by scholars and stabilized by lack of older documentation as the beginning of Magyar history, the conquest of the Carpathian basin by the Asian horse warriors during the ninth century C.E. In this paper we shall follow the Magyar culture as it encounters a vastly different form of society, morphs and amalgamates, and ultimately adopts Christianity to gain a century or two of relative peace, sheltered by acquired faith from legions of overzealous holy warriors. We shall discover that even the blind are sought out to bolster a dying dynasty, and that in the end the first national catastrophe suffered by the Hungarian nation was, if not caused, then certainly expedited by a complete lack of international support in the face of the Mongol hordes.

            Over the span of years from 898 to 955, the Magyar people were called the scourge of Europe, mounting at least fifty large scale raids into the present day nations of Germany, Italy, and France; thundering into towns with swift military precision, sacking and destroying all who refused to pay tribute. While many bands of mercenaries, bandits, and even the supposedly respectable Christian kingdoms were certainly culpable of similar actions, and certainly to a collectively wider extent, the xenophobic scapegoating of the Magyars in the European psyche eclipsed the reality of the multifaceted, exponentially more-savage era by laying the blame squarely at the new comers’ doorstep. Things done by the Huns, or any other Anatolian tribe, were blamed on the Hungarians. Not that the Magyar people were not pillaging raiders by cultural identity, but rather that they were but a single group of very successful raiders who served as a symbol of that which was to be feared in the Europe of the day; swift warriors from the east, an unknown people who had next to nothing in common with their victims, a people who could not be called upon to show ‘Christian Ethic.’ Another interesting subject which was rarely addressed in literature concerning the Hungarians, all the way up until the 19th and 20th centuries, was the fact that the Hungarians were often performing these incursions under the patronage of one European King or another as mercenaries. In other words, it was the European powers which warred with each other, and the Magyar were simply pawns in larger, obscure games of dominance. To put this situation into the light of historical perspective, they fought first on the side of, and then against, the Italian King Berengar, the Bavarian Arnulf, and the influence of Byzantium.

            The first eye-witness account of the Hungarians which is considered true to life, written by a simple friar who managed to escape their wrath after they had raided his convent of St. Gallen, gives a refreshing, alternate perspective on the people who were called cannibals throughout Europe. Incidentally, it was at the monastery of St. Gallen that Wiborada, the patron saint of libraries, was martyred. The friar who survived, one Heribald, in his account of the raid, said that at first he regretted his decision to remain in the compound, because the Magyar appeared bristling with weapons and did not seem to share a sense of morality with the – alleged – rest of Europe. Their interpreter, however, translated that the priest before them was simple of mind, and they not only spared him physical harm, but allowed him to eat at the feast which took place in the courtyard of the vanquished monastery.

This is a strange kind of compassion for a band of warriors that had only minutes before sacked a peaceful religious retreat, though it must be taken in perspective that they themselves were not Christian, and that the armies of Christianity during the crusades, the enforcers of the counter-reformation, and the iron grip of the Spanish Inquisition were all equally adverse to a faith or faiths which were other than their own. History, however, is a diatribe of androcentric and ethnocentric mythology, especially at that stage in the web of world events. Though this counter-interpretation cast only a slightly less-barbaric light on the Magyar tribesmen, it is regarded as the first truthful account of the people in most circles of historiography.

            The secret behind the precision of the Hungarian mounted archer was the technically advanced stirrup, which allowed them to fire their missiles in any direction by facilitating safe swiveling in the saddle. This included twisting completely around, while they feinted retreat before a slower, iron clad European force, picking off the enemy and being in no immediate danger themselves. The speed and surety of the archers’ volleys, combined with the ferocity of the warriors themselves, insured easy victories for many decades against the formalized warfare of Western civilization, and frightened all of Royal Europe. The nobility were not the only ones afraid of the Magyar, however; In monasteries across Europe the monks prayed ‘De sagittas Hungarorum Libera Nos, Domine,’ or ‘Save us, O Lord, from the arrows of the Hungarians.’

            Seen as an infringement on the sacrosanct territory of the Christian faith, the Hungarians faced repeated assaults from men dying to prove their faith in God. While this era is shrouded in myth and legend, and a diaphanous veil of truth hints at its own existence layered within the more believable of the tales, in the end is it not myth which we base much of our own personal worldview upon? The myths which surround the Hungarian people are as meaningful as the myths which surround any nation, real enough for those that believe in them, and making attempts to contradict such legend on a historical basis is pure inanity. While much of the beginning of the national history of the Magyar is shrouded in a diffusion of perspective and culturally-oriented hyperbole, there are facts which can be interpreted and used to assay the value of further sources.

            One of the major points of dissention between historians concerns the nature of the Magyar introduction to the Danube basin, encircled s it is by the Carpathian range and occupied around the end of the ninth century largely by Slavic peoples. The Western edge of this basin had been a Roman province for four hundred years, Pannonia, while the Eastern half, the Alfold, was the stage which saw the  vagabonds of the great migration period, the two centuries leading up to the ‘conquest,’ traverse its plains. These tribes, including Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns (often confused with the Magyar, under the leadership of Attila), Goths, Langobards,, Gepids and Avars, all attempted to create communities on the fertile fields around the Danube. Following this spate of cultural shift, around the time the Magyar were beginning to make forays into the basin themselves, Pannonia was a province of the East Frankish empire, Transylvania and the Alfold were within the range of Bulgarian princely influence, and the northern segment of modern Hungary was a part of Greater Moravia. These areas served mainly as buffering zones for foreign powers that had their power bases elsewhere, and the Carpathian basin was meagerly peopled when the shepherd-scouts of the Magyar tribal alliance galloped out of the Southern Russian steppes and observed a ripe place calling for settlement.

            While the European historians of the day called this an invasion, hence the misapplied term ‘conquest,’ the Hungarians themselves call it ‘land acquisition,’ due to the lack of any system of government, particular concentration of ethnicity, or opposing forces which met the tribes as they entered. Though many in Austria and Germany thought of this appearance as perhaps the last lapping wave of the great migration era, the Magyar would dig deep and remain in the land which would become their home all the way up into the present day. The Alemannian Annals, one of the culturally biased and provincially oriented chronicles of the time leading up to the ‘conquest,’ report as early as 863 C.E. an attack by ‘Hun’ tribes on the boundaries of Christendom. This perpetuating classification as Huns would lead the Magyar people to accept the nomenclature into the fabric of their own cultural identity, despite the vast difference in origin, tradition, and epoch which saw the two peoples besieging the frail kingdoms of Europe. In fact, everything that was perpetrated by the Huns would end up laid at the feet of the Hungarians, reiterating the scapegoat tendency with a misnomer which would become a synonym for the Magyar, while the Huns, from a historical view, became amalgamated into the Hungarian stream of narration and ceased to operate as a separate tribe, though nothing of this sort actually occurred and they continued to be two distinct tribes, the powers which wrote named them one and the same people.

            The Magyar, unlike the Huns, spoke a language unique throughout Europe, and indeed almost the entire world. The language, a branch of the Finno-Ugrian family of languages, of which Finnish is an offshoot which developed as members of the Magyar tribes speared North and West, across the Baltic to Scandinavia, has its nearest linguistic kin in the Ostiak and Vogul peoples present into the modern era as hunter-gatherers on the Eastern slopes of the Ural mountains.

            The following legend, while acknowledged as at least partial myth, served as a basis for the re-legitimization of the Hungarian right to self-determination after eras of foreign rule, as well as providing a strong agitprop for the soviet propagandists; The brothers Hunor and Magor (notice the similarity), the sons of a Scythian king, pursued a White stag during a hunt and found themselves North of the sea of Azov, where they encountered the daughters of the King of the Alans. They subsequently carried off and married the daughters, and thus initiated the blood of the Huns and the Magyars, namely Attila, the greatest Hun, and Almos, the ancient origin of all Hungarian royal blood. This legend retains a kernel of truth according to most historians, due to the close relation of the Hungarian and Alan peoples. Though it is also likely that the kinship between the Hungarians, the Alans, and a Bulgarian-Turkic people who occupied the Turkic Khazar empire West of the Bosporus, remains from the time when the Hungarians acquired their modern name, a descendant of Ungar, Hungarus, and Hungrois, a time when they belonged to a tribal organization known as the Onogurs, or ‘Ten Arrows.’

            The question of origin, which cannot be definitively answered, is another problem of Magyar historiography. The ancient historian Thomas von Bogyay, a Hungarian-German who determined his findings without prejudice, claimed all the historical data points to the formation of the Magyar ethnic identity somewhere in the mixed salad of the southern Russian steps. The recent discovery of an ethnic group in the mountains of northern Kazakhstan who speak a variety of Magyar lends credence to this hypothesis, though these could also be the descendants of prisoners carried east as the spoils of the Mongols in the mid-thirteenth century, or those that fled when the Ottomans overcame the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohacs. Another historian, Jeno Szucs, points out that the Finno-Ugrian speaking peoples, as well as a few Khazar Turkic tribes, left the Khazar Kaganate around the eighth century and that already the mixing of ethnicity, religion, and the sharing of organizational structure had begun, giving the Hungarians an earlier start than St. Stephen, in his aforementioned letter to his saintly son Imre, had supposed when relating the ‘Roman’ idea to the future ruler of the Hungarian nation. This ethnic mixing lends a clearer lens with which to view the acquisition of the Carpathian basin, showing that perhaps it was not a homogenous, ethnocentric group at all, but rather a melting pot of cultural and religious dissidents (the Khazars adopted Judaism around the eighth century) who were looking for a land of their own. Further evidence of this thesis is provided by the testimony of Constantine VII, who claimed that well into the tenth century, after the absorption of the Khazar tribes, the Hungarians were still bilingual, and a number of the tribes of the original seven had names which were of Turkic origin. This presents an interesting backdrop to the pointed European finger when it came to the lay of blame, since the finger thought it was pointing at a concentrated group of people but which was in fact pointing at the shadow side of the day’s civilizations, a heterogeneous rebellion of an alliance of people.

            Constantine VII goes on to cite the ritual raising of Almos’ infant son Arpad on a shield surrounded by the leaders of the tribes, naming him and his sons to come the leaders of the tribal alliance, and sealing the agreement by mixing the blood of all present in a cup and each member drinking of it, an old Khazar custom. Thus the Arpad dynasty had its origins in the congregation and communion of a variety of peoples who looked to each other for a common understanding, and this understanding would prove invaluable for the following three hundred years which saw the Arpad line rise and secure a position in Medieval Europe. But who was Almos, and why was his son chosen as the successive leader of the alliance? To answer this question, one must again look to the myths which are the only resource: One myth, created long after Arpad himself had died, claims the conquest was predicted in the dream of a Scythian King’s consort, one Princess Emese, who saw an eagle impregnate her by divine command, and that the result of this union would be a ‘thunderbolt’ who would travel far to rule over distant lands. This is why his name, Almos, is a descendant of the word for dream, Alom. The son grew into manhood, made plans to conquer the lands left to him by rights dating back to the time of Attila, and guided by an eagle set out to rule. He died on the way, however, losing his place in history, and his son succeeded him. The leaders of the tribes were clever enough to advance a few stipulations in the presence of the uncomprehending baby king, namely that the land which would be conquered would be distributed equally between the clans, and that the tribal chiefs themselves would have the right of discussion with the king, who might have gibbered acquiescence. This concordance of diverse men and the peaceful raising of a child to the throne, as well as the points guaranteed by the chiefs for themselves, is known according to Hungarian historiography as the beginnings of the Hungarian constitution. Though this dubious assertion is not widely credited, myths often evolve into historical ‘truth,’ and in the end it makes no real difference to those who have been indoctrinated with myth whether it is ‘truth’ or fiction, for they have come to believe.

            The Hungarians, over the course of Arpads’ reign, crossed the Carpathians numerous times for self-serving military raids, and in the employ of foreign powers against one another. The final driving force behind the decisive crossing of the range came not form any societal issues, such as over-population or lack of grazing areas, but rather from a defeat dealt by the nomadic Pechenegs, who were sent against them by the Bulgarians, which the Magyar people suffered. This was the result of the Hungarians attempting to fulfill a pact with Byzantium by attacking the Bulgarians, who in turn made peace with Constantinople and sent the nomads to war on the son of Arpad and his followers. Since most of the militant Magyar were embattled in conflicts for other kings, the Pechenegs could attack the non-combatant settlements at will, and the survivors fled forwards into the by then familiar Pannonia in the autumn of 895, in dire straights.

            Their settlement in the Carpathian basin around the Danube would have far reaching after effects, which can be seen in modern-day Eastern Europe. To begin, the wedge of the Magyar people, driven between the various tribes which made up the conglomeration of the Slavic speaking societies, would separate the Slavs into northern and southern substrata, a divide that would never be mended. This, in the view of many Slavic historians, is the greatest catastrophe ever to befall the interests of the Slavic people, who have never subsequently been able to unify nationally what they (once) shared ethnically. Thus the enduring split between the two hemispheres of Slavic culture is to many the most profound result of the founding of the Hungarian nation, though an arguably equally-important product was the Hungarians’ role as defenders of Christendom from the East, the warriors of which constantly paced at its borders. But I digress, and will wait to tackle the question of Hungary’s most important historical consequence in a later section.

            One of the longest living debates resulting from the conquest, and one which invokes both dual trees of myth and the nationalistic pride of the two peoples involved, is the question of who, after the conquest, moved in and settled Transylvania. This has divided numerous historians who, from their studies and pulpits, from Budapest and Bucharest, have argued vehemently for the inclusion of the county into their own nation, and the prospect of a consensus, which would seem likely in an age which is uniting Europe, is not good. Again, Hungarians turn to myth to determine the nature of the history of Transylvania. In the myth, Csaba, youngest son of Attila, shoots a magic arrow from his bow to summon his mother, whose help he needs if his nation is to survive the onslaught of the Gepids. The spot of ground where the arrow enters holds a miraculous herb which has the power to heal any wound and, seeing his opportunity, Csaba uses the plant to revive his dead elite and marches them into battle, horrifying the Gepid army, who consequently let the remainder of Csaba’s people go in peace. Csaba then herded the remnants of the Huns and the fallen warriors to the borders of Transylvania, where he instructed the former to settle, and he rode off with the dead to his father’s homeland, promising the Huns he would return with his army if ever they needed him, sweeping out of the sky with an army of the dead. In fact, most Hungarians know the Milky Way as ‘the path of the armies,’ stars the footprints of spectral steeds carrying dead heroes to the aid of the Hun people. Though this myth is widely believed in Hungary, the Szekelys, modern inhabitants of Transylvania, are a Bulgaric-Turkic people, not related to the Huns, though the argument is, as many arguments based around mythology and the composite collective conscious of conflicting national identities, irresolvable.

            Following the disruption of the conquest and the resettlement of the Magyar, years of raiding and collective demonization followed, the Europeans of the day trying to cope with perfectly natural world events by labeling the intruders with the slogans of religion and refusing to see things from any angle but their own. The after-effects of the successful raids, over decades of accumulation and success, was the general decline in the military precision and the formidability of the Magyar warriors, with the Bavarian and Austrian military powers devising ever more efficient ways of dealing defeat to their enemies. One example of this devious planning took the shape of an ambush after the Hungarians had turned home, weary and burdened with the plunder of a successful campaign, making relatively easy targets. Although the adaptation of the Europeans would have a greater effect in the long run, it had a small effect at the time, and the Hungarians remained the dominant militant ethnicity of the region and the era, demanding tribute and embarking on punitive expeditions when it was not forthcoming, even against its former employers. A discerning armchair historian might point out that this seeming lack of loyalty to those who had concluded agreements with them could have contributed to the feeling of isolation from which the Hungarians suffered and suffer still, but I would espouse the opposite causal chain; that it was the isolation which led them to believe that the only way to survive was to look out for themselves and only themselves.

            The first nation to capitulate and offer homage to the warriors of the Magyar was Italy, which, after cornering a Hungarian force a third the size of the Italian army at Brenta, was vanquished. The King of the Italians, Berengar, who had hired the horse warriors on previous occasions, saw that the only way to ensure the continuance of his reign and circumscribe the endless raids lay in offering a bribe to the Hungarians, thus ensuring peace. Hungarian historian Gyorgy Gyorffy determined the sum of the first tribute to amount to roughly thirty kilos of gold bullion, a tidy sum compared to the cost of employing the tribesmen in service.

            The Germans were the first European nation to inflict a serious defeat on the Hungarians, at the battle of Lechfeld in the country around Augsburg, on August 10th 955, by utilizing a well equipped cavalry unit operating in close formation, exploiting the vulnerability of the ever-more chaotic Magyar by concentrating their fire on small groups and thus using the picking-off technique which the Hungarians had perfected centuries before against them. In retrospect, one might argue that the payment of tribute and the increasing affluence of the Magyar nation, combined with the lack of any force with which it had to seriously contend, led the former nomads to a domesticated state which was not conducive to the continuance of their military dominance. The predicate of a deteriorating military might is almost always found to be gross negligence in the hard won lap of luxury. The victory, generaled on the Germanic side by Otto I, was proclaimed as a triumph for the entirety of Western civilization, lauded by the entire European continent as a turning point in world history, the deliverance of Christian culture from the hands of the pagans.

            Unlike similar instances which occurred with almost broken-record alacrity during the interchangeable tribal incursions of the great migration period in the Balkans, the Hungarians, having suffered their first major defeat since the Pechenegs and the only defeat which involved a fully battle-ready Magyar force, did not vanish back into the steppes from whence they had come. This decision, made by the tribal leaders, to remain and forge through the aftermath of the decisive incident, would have the greatest effect on Hungarian history. Rather than tucking tail and lighting out for the plains of their fathers, the Hungarians showed the first hints of a phenomenal ability to adapt to the conditions prevalent in a scenario, adopting Western civilization and exchanging their tents for cottages. The sons of ‘Child devouring cannibals’ became peasant farmers. It was during the reign of Chief Prince Geza, great-grandson of Arpad, that this evolution of ethnic identity culminated, without the loss of the Hungarian linguistic or cultural heritage. The Magyar were the first people to have allowed the malleable conditions of a constantly fluctuating tribal alliance to take on the form of the civilization the fruits of which they had been plucking for generations, adopting economic and settlement organizational systems from the indigents in the Carpathian basin and, the most substantial change to the future of the Hungarian people, converting to Roman Catholicism. It was Prince Geza who, having once again marginally consolidated the state of the Hungarians and become a very wealthy man, considered himself powerful enough to sacrifice to both the gods of his people and the god of the people among which the Magyar lived. The shift to Christianity is undoubtedly the greatest transition of the adaptation period, since the Christian kingdoms surrounding the Carpathian basin could no longer wage war on the Hungarians for purely religious reasons. It might be argued that this loss of a paramount religious enemy led the rulers of Europe to consider going abroad in search of religious war, leading inevitably to the Middle East and the crusades.

            By the end of Geza’s reign in 997 the Hungarians’ was a Christian kingdom. At his death, two separate individuals with the blood of the Arpad kings in their veins laid claim to the throne of the Magyar: the first, Prince Koppany of Somogy, was an ardent believer in the religion of his fathers and lay claim to the throne on the basis of the pagan custom which stated that the oldest member of the Arpad Dynasty inherited his position based on seniority; and the second, the son of Geza, Vajk, who by this time already bore a Christian name, Istvan, or Stephen, was a recognized claimant to the throne and thought of his rights as granted by the link between the newfound Christianity and the state, which led to the inevitable right of primogeniture, the right of a Christian king to determine his successor. The pagan usurper Koppany would have come into an easy kingdom and perhaps destroyed the chances of a future for the Hungarians in Europe, had Geza’s foresight not extended beyond the realms of national survival to the survival of his son, who he wished to follow him to the throne. This foresight took the form of a marriage to the Bavarian Princess Gisela, sister of future Emperor Henry II, whose hand Stephen took in 996, a year before the death of his father. In the war of the succession which followed Geza’s demise, the decisive battle at Veszprem, north of lake Balaton, fought in 998, went to Stephen largely due to the Bavarian knights who fought for him because of this very marriage.

            Due to the tactical Christianity of Geza, Stephen was raised as a true Christian, and by the time of his coronation as the first Christian king of Hungary on the first day of the year 1001, he was a deeply pious man with strong connections to the Bavarian nobility. The son of Geza would go on to be called the most ardent and successful worker for the rights of Hungarian statehood, though if one is to believe this claim, one must forget about Geza, who made it all possible with a daring shift of world history changing proportions. Undoubtedly, Stephen, raised a Christian, would do more than any other king in promulgating the advance of Christianity and subduing the pagan elements of his fellow tribesmen, now internationally recognized as fellow ‘countrymen,’ with the possible exception of his father. In fact, the services of Stephen in the furthering of the Christian sphere of influence would lead to his canonization in 1083, beginning a spurt of canonizations which saw eight saints come from the house of Arpad. This is perhaps one of the greater ironies of the history of Hungary; that the Magyar, formerly known as the ‘scourge of God,’ could turn around within a single generation and convince the European community and the Pope that they were in fact the very model of Christian statehood – something which would put them in a disastrous position a few centuries down the road.

An English Historian who specializes in Hungarian history, C.A. Macartney, put it thus, ‘The act of conversion changed the Hungarian people from an outlaw horde against whom a Christian Prince was not only free, but bound by duty, to take up arms, into a member of the Christian family of nations, and their king into one of those rulers by the grace of god whose legitimate rights his fellow-princes could not infringe without sin.’ This paragraph shows how, more than any ruler of Hungary before or since, Geza, with his bold initiative and the insight to understand that the continuance of the hereditary ways would in the end result in the extinction of the hopes of a Hungarian nation, saved the European chances of the Magyar people. The fact that he made the change before it was an all or nothing situation only shows a level of foresight that is not taken for granted in the history of nations. Had Geza performed his monumental policy in a time when it was blindingly obvious such a change had to be made, he would probably be considered one of the great men of Hungarian history, as well as obtaining sainthood for his ‘epiphany.’

Regardless of whether the father or the son, the catalyst or the rider of the storm, were more responsible for the turn in Hungary’s fortunes, the coronation of Stephen is the recognized beginning of the history of the nation of Hungary. The Magyar had a country of their own, with rights which could not be infringed on religious bases. The crown of St. Stephen, though probably not created until around 1074, forty years after his death, is recognized amongst Hungarians as the national symbol of independence, providing another glimpse of the myth which grows up around objects when they are said to have been somewhere at some time, regardless of the truth of the assertion. Hungarian Professor Kalman Benda put it well, ‘This belief (in the crown and its origins) has proved indestructible over the centuries. Historians therefore have no choice but to confess that was is essential in this case is not whether the crown, as an object, was actually Stephen’s, but the unshakeable belief in it.’ Once again, historians concur with the de facto reality of the greater strength of faith than history when it comes to a national identity.

Stephen, though inarguably a great actor on the stage of history, changed the future prospects of his people by the subordination of his own will to rule to that of an imagined higher being, an obeisance to the Christian concept of the state, involving, according to him, in order of importance, Faith, the church, and the priesthood. He based his authority to rule not on the fact that he was of the line of the ancient chieftains of the Magyar, but rather that he was a servant of God and that his higher mission called for the conversion and shaping of the Hungarian people into a nation which would serve the purpose of Christianity to the fullest possible extent. This piety is perhaps why he was canonized in the end. Along with the adoption of Western religion, Stephen, connected as he was to the Bavarian aristocracy, and emphasized in the earlier letter to his son, arranged for the wholesale influx of Western civilization, minting the first Hungarian coins modeled from the German mint, flowing German institutions of government, allowing foreign clergy and high nobility space at his table, and listening to representatives of Kiev, England, and Byzantium over Italian cuisine. With Stephen, obviously granted the training wheels of his father’s manufacture, the first great influx of alien cultural vectors entered the Hungarian national melting pot. Stephen died on August 15th, 1038, having established a combined system of government based on the Carolingian model of Charlemagne, a ‘State-Ecclesiastical’ organization with powerful central authority, an autocratic kingdom, only recently an enemy to all of Christendom, which could claim the right to conduct its own affairs externally and internally, a right that may seem paltry to the nations of the world today, but at the time, coming out of a period when they were considered invaders from Asia to be expelled, the Hungarians benefited form this right immeasurably.

When one considers the dichotic split between the two major figures of Hungarian history discussed since the beginning of this paper, St. Stephen and Prince Arpad, one might begin to grasp the identity crisis which faces most Hungarians when they ponder their origins and the traditions which make them who they are today. For every Christian image a pagan counterpart can be named, or several, which preserve the intuitive thought that the Hungarians, under Geza, changed because they had to change in the face of a very violent cultural xenophobia and imperialism. The range of conflicts extent between the Catholic Universalism which allowed the Hungarians to remain in Europe and the Pagan self-reliance that got them there, the faith which led them to an understanding of the rest of Europe’s sentiments when it came to their inclusion in the continental family of Christian nations versus the free reign they had over the very same nations for a century, seems to divide the Magyar into two irresolvable halves. On the one hand they have a nation, embedded in Western culture, perhaps even responsible for the continuing existence of it at one time, and on the other hand they have the formative influence of the Russian steppes, eastern roots, an understanding of the world which rests on things other than faith in a single god. Thus both the crown of St. Stephen and the legends of Arpad and his fore fathers retain their places as symbols of the independence of the Hungarian people, despite the fact that both are surrounded by myth and seem irreconcilable.

But to get back to history, Stephen’s son died in a hunting accident in 1031, when Stephen himself was on his last legs, and the dynastic succession became again, for the second time in the posthumous saint’s life, a struggle. The struggle even took the same form as the last one, the legitimacy of the Christian state versus the pagan claimant to the throne, Stephen’s nephew Vaszoly. However, in a better position to deal with the upstart than he had been as a child, Stephen, typically medieval despite his holiness, had his nephew blinded and molten lead poured in his ears, and banished his three sons. The king then designated Peter Orseolo, son of his sister and the Doge of Venice, as his successor, though the man was ousted in a bloody palace revolution and replaced by Stephen’s brother in law. At this point Emperor Henry III came into the picture, the son of Stephen’s Wife’s brother, and put Peter back on the throne, though requiring of the Venetian an oath as vassal before he solidified his place on the throne of Hungary. This oath is a surprising turn in the intrigue of the succession, since surely Henry III knew no foreigner sworn to yet another foreign lord could rule in Hungary. An uprising of the proud Hungarians, driven to blood by the pomp of the foreign ruler’s court and the favor he lavished on the German and Italian elements of Hungarian courtly life while dismissing the Hungarians themselves as savages, finally ousted Peter once and for all, though not before blinding and emasculating him.

This left an attractive gap waiting to be filled, and in walked Andrew, son of the maimed Vaszoly, who returned from exile in Kiev and took his place on the throne of the Arpads, fulfilling a function which might have saved the Hungarian state a few centuries of home rule before the Arpad dynasty finally petered out, and not for the last time in Hungarian history letting the outlawed branch of the ruling family return simply to keep rule in the state itself. However, the sacrifice of allowing an outlawed branch of the family return to the throne was something a number of Hungarians were not willing to make, and a 39 year span of revolution saw the country change its ruler six times, saw Polish, German, and Czech armies enter the fray on one side or another nine times, and turned the country into a German dependency for three years.

It was not until Ladislaus I took power in 1077 that the nation began to come out of the inner turmoil and flourish again. He accomplished this about-face by utilizing the invading tribes of Turkic nomads, the Pechenegs, Uz, and Cuman, as a symbolic reason for all Hungarians to unite and defend its remote Carpathian borders. His defense of the Christian inhabitants of the far eastern edge of the Hungarian state earned him a canonization, and the title ‘father of the poor and defenseless.’ The external politics of the era also contributed to Ladislaus’ attempts to rebuild what had become of Stephen’s kingdom. He invaded Slavonia, the core of Croatia, and divided it up into districts according to the Hungarian state model. Ladislaus’ successor Coloman continued this drive southward, conquering Dalmatia and being crowned King of Croatia, beginning a brotherhood between the two nations which would continue with minor interruptions for eight hundred years. Coloman stabilized the tentative acquisitions by marrying the daughter of Ladislaus, Piroska, off to the heir to the Byzantine throne, John Comnenus, thus making a member of the Arpad dynasty Empress of Byzantium. She took the name Irene and would also be canonized as a saint of the Eastern Church. Her son, Emperor Manuel Comnenus, thought that the Arpad blood in his veins gave him rights to the throne of Hungary, and seeing an opportunity to unite Byzantium with Hungary and thus emerge with a truly formidable empire, he invaded the nation of his mother’s people ten times in a span of twenty-two years, though nothing of note ever came of it.

Coloman can be seen as an enlightened ruler for the time in which he lived, an erudite and intelligent man who read constantly, earning him the sobriquet ‘the bookish,’ as well as the man responsible for turning the King’s council which Stephen had created into a body politic which acted in the interests of the national structure, made up of the nobility, which could prevent civil war in times of unease. He even enacted a law against the burning of witches, perhaps a hint that there was still a bit of pagan blood running deep within the line of Arpad, and he nullified the draconian punishments which Ladislaus had initiated to curb the chaos of the succession wars. Despite these examples of progressive legislation, Coloman was also involved in a feud for succession, and being a ruler in the Middle Ages required a certain amount of brutality. He had his brother and young nephew blinded in order to secure the throne for his own issue, though  his only son would die young and thus, again, the throne would fall back into the hands of a branch of the family which had been blinded and exiled.

Though this chaos brought on by greed for power is something which certainly shook the foundations of what Stephen and his father had built decades before, the most important contributions the two men made remained firm: The nation maintained its territorial stability, adding to it, and it continued to correspond with the ever less-suspicious West. By this time, the population of Hungary since the conquest had more than doubled, and the territory itself had multiplied by a similar figure, both products of the years of relative peace which had ensued due to an alliance of ideology with the encroaching European powers.

This era of prosperity was the beginning of the influx of many different ethnic groups. Germans came in two separate phases, the first being under the rule of the Arpad kings who sought skilled craftsmen, settling them in towns to the north of the Danube, and the second wave coming in after the Ottoman wars, under the guidance of the Hapsburgs. The role of the German immigrants in the construction of the Hungarian rural community cannot be understated. In fact, Paul Hunfalvy, a 19th century linguist, wrote, ‘In Hungary it was the Hungarians who created the state and the Germans who established the town. Just as the former were the principle factor in conquering the country, so the latter were in the development of society and trade.’

Germans were not the only ethnicity to take advantage of the free land and the settlement policy of the Arpads. The liberality of the Hungarian state around the beginning of the last millennium accelerated the fusion and assimilation of the native Slavs, Croats, and refugees from the steppes of Southern Russia. About two hundred years after the reign of St. Stephen, the Hungarians even broadened this policy of integration to their former enemies, the nomadic tribes, and following this the Pechenegs, Jazyegs, and the Cumans entered the country and became assimilated into the Hungarian cultural complex, giving as many traditional practices as they received, serving as a reminder of the Magyar people’s roots. These warrior horsemen, over the course of the following centuries, would be absorbed into the tapestry of Hungarianess which is multicultural in its solidarity. As Zrinyi would say a number of years later, nationality is a matter of choice. As the interwar Hungarian poet Mihaly Babits put it, ‘Hungarians are a mixed and constantly intermingling people.’

Following the reign of Coloman, and the interminable struggles for domination of the country, Bela III gained the throne of Hungary. He was an outstanding figure, and remains one of the most cosmopolitan kings ever to rule Hungary, in the opinion of most historians. During his tenure of the throne, Hungary experienced its own cultural flowering, learning of the cultural achievement of France, Italy, Germany, Greece, and Byzantium. Foreign relations blossomed as well, due to Bela’s auspicious choice of wives; first he married Anne de Chatillon, half sister of the Byzantine Empress, and second Margaret, daughter of the French King Louis VII. These links provided Hungary with unprecedented access to both the East and the West, continuing the propensity towards cultural hybridization which would perpetuate the diversity and unique flavor of Hungarian society. However, perhaps due to the fact that the first wife was of Eastern Orthodox persuasion and the second was a good Catholic, the Hungarian court and its King would lean more and more towards the Latin West, turning further form Byzantium,  a lack of balance which would be alleviated when the Ottomans set up shop in Buda three hundred years later. Bela established Cistercian monasteries in Hungary, was a patron of the arts, and sent promising students to foreign cities and universities such as Oxford and Paris. Bela also retook Croatia and Dalmatia, an act which resulted in a two hundred year rivalry with the Venetian empire, lent his services, or rather those of his armies, to the Russian princes in their civil war, and as for domestic matters, he created the Hungarian Chancellery, introduced written documents for record keeping, and reformed the fiscal system of the nation. Bela III was an exceptional figure who used the geographical location Hungary found itself in to pick and choose amongst the best both East and West had to offer, introducing the arts and literature of foreign lands, inspiring the commencement of an intelligentsia in Hungary, getting back the land which had been lost during the succession struggles before his time, creating an alliance with France which would prove invaluable as an action to the future of the Magyar, creating a bureaucratic institution to keep domestic matters in check, initiating the writing of official documents, and balancing the state’s books. One can look at all this achievement and, if informed, only commiserate with Bela’s ghost that his son did not have the clout and political finesses he himself did. For the decline of Hungary would follow all these advancements during the reign of Bela III’s son, Andras II.

Andras II was a man who can perhaps be interpreted as the product of Bela’s multiculturalism. The connection with the West and thus a proclivity towards extravagance was the calling card of the new king’s court. Andras lived for glory, and where an annual war provided some of the basis for this, his court life made up for the rest. He had in quick succession a German, French, and Italian queen, the first, of the Bavarian household Andechs-Meranian, incited the anger of the nobility with her preferential treatment of the German aristocracy at the Hungarian court, and thus, while Andras was away on one of his yearly campaigns in the East, she was the victim of a bloody assassination plot. This royal drama would be immortalized in Hungarian fiction 600 years later by Joszef Katona, who wrote Bank Ban, a national masterpiece, with the assassination as the plot. The daughter of Andras and Gertrude, Elizabeth Margravine of Thuringia, however, is revered as the opposite of her mother, not an oppressor of the poor and a traitor to her acquired nationality, but rather as a selfless figure who is known to this day as a German saint.

During the reign of Andras all that his father had done was in disarray, mainly by the warlike tendency of the new king. The West once again began to view the Hungarians as the barbarian nomads from the East, though they had settled down and took on a semblance of Western civilization; they remained marauders and seemed to need blood to quell an inner desire to vanquish. The Babenburgs and the Hapsburgs, both growing powers in the European game of thrones, had reason to cross swords with the Hungarians during the reign of Andras II. The Hungarian king attained a victory over the Teutonic order in a battle to detach the principality of Burzenland, one of the three key territory’s of Saxon Transylvania, in 1211, combined with the Cuman territory, fighting the battle in defiance of the wishes of the Papacy. These movements of troops, though in retrospect obvious folly, had some basis in the reality of maintaining the autonomy of the Hungarian state.

In 1222, towards the end of the reign of Andras II, the high nobility, landed freemen, and those performing military service on the outskirts of Hungarian territory came together to bring about a legislative document which would forever alter the destiny of the Hungarian nation. The bill was a proclamation of distress against the oligarchic distribution of estates and the transgressions of those who held the real power in the state’s government. Andras was forced to enact the ‘Golden Bull’ in which the King guaranteed the freedom of the royal military against the oligarchs and by doing so, relieved them of their obligation to take part in wars beyond the borders of Hungary in indentured service to the coffers of the richest men in the nation. It also granted the highest noblemen the right of armed resistance if the King should rule unjustly. These were the first steps towards a bourgeoisie that would become precious for the continuance of the Hungarian cultural identity when it seemed there were no Hungarians left.

The King also stated he would not make his economic reforms retrospective, allowing the leasing of salt and minting rights to Muslims and Jews, and that he would end the practice of giving away powerful offices and prime Hungarian land to foreign nobility in return for political favors. The Golden Bull was enacted seven years after the Magna Carta, and there is certainly a connection between the Hungarian push towards more independent legislation and that of its English counterpart.

What should be kept in mind is that Andras II, forever the symbol of the flippant and oblivious King in Hungarian history, was not the cause or the effecter of this momentous evolution in government, but rather the puppet who the parties concerned knew could be persuaded to sign the document, which insured the same political rights to all free inhabitants of the Hungarian state, establishing a middle class of the nobility, though failing to break the stranglehold of the oligarchy, which it occasionally tightened to test its adamant strength.

This document weakened the royal power by giving the minor nobility more rights while missing the chance to curb the power of the highest noble strata, thus increasing the self-interested forces in the nation while relinquishing the command of some of its richest resources.

Again, in Andras II’s son, Bela IV, we see a dramatic policy change in which the new King attempted to wrest some of the power of the oligarchy from the high nobility and restore governing absolutism to the royal throne. An earnest and pious man, Bela IV began immediately after his rise to power to revoke donations form the wealthy landowners, thereby sending  a message to them al that he, unlike his father, would not be bought.

This ignited anger in the high and middle nobility, and Bela determined that the only petitions he would receive would be in written form, since he would not put up with the ranting of corpulent rich men who had their minds only on the retrieval and increase of their own power in reference to the state itself. The fact that these domestic tensions and the disenfranchisement of the web of power relations came just before one of the major catastrophes of Hungarian history can only be frowned at in hindsight. For the Mongols had arrived at the outer edge of the Carpathian basin, and the fledgling Christian Kingdom had eyes only for looking inward.

It was 1241, and news of the exploits of Genghis Khan and the Mongol storm in Asia and Russia had long reached the ears of Hungarians. But it was not Genghis Khan who led the armies of the Mongols against the ill-prepared and barricaded yet superior forces of Bela IV at the field of Mohi on April 11th of that same year. Batu Khan, one of the potential successors to the great Khan, defeated the forces of the Hungarians and went about systematically slaughtering the clergy and dignitaries of the former nation, ending up pursuing Bela IV, who had miraculously escaped the initial confrontation unscathed, all the way across Hungary to lay siege to the Dalmatian island city of Trogir. The Mongolians did not consider a land truly conquered until its former ruler was dead, and Bela was saved from his own seemingly destined demise by that of the Great Khan in distant Karakorum, and with him perhaps much of Eastern Europe and Christianity itself were spared, since after this news reached Batu he ordered an about face and marched straight back east to try and secure his own rights in the feud over the Mongolian possessions which inevitably followed.

This withdrawal of the enemy forces did not find Hungary in a position to celebrate. Over half of the settlements in the southern regions of the country had been completely obliterated, livelihoods had been destroyed, and those Hungarians who had escaped the swords of the Mongols were still threatened by the slower yet just as implacable enemies of starvation and disease. In the area West of the Danube, through which the Mongols had scorched earth only in pursuit of Bela, the loss of population amounted to a mere twenty percent. The inhabitants of Transylvania and the Slavic peoples of Northern Hungary had managed to evade the Mongols almost completely, though all taken into account roughly half of the total population of Hungary at the time, around one million people, became victims, directly or through the after-effects, of the Mongolian conquest.

One has to imagine what might have happened had the rest of Europe responded to Bela’s urgent call to arms when he learned of the intended path of the unstoppable Mongols Westward, through his country. If Hungary had not lost such a large percentage of its population, which it would seem to make a habit of, the number of Hungarians in the world today would be far greater, and thus the entire memeplex which represents Magyardom and the ancient culture of the nomads from the steppes of Southern Russia would not have been so completely forgotten. Or perhaps we should look at the consequences of a Slavic view of the Hungarian conquest, which they labeled the worst catastrophe of their people in history; if the Magyar had not been there to bear the brunt of the Mongol assault, if they had not inflicted their divisive presence on the population of Slavs, the Slavs might not exist at all, today. One can ‘what if’ all day, for days, but the fact remains that it was Hungary, without the support of the other European powers, which met the armies of Batu Khan on the field of battle. Bela had inspected the field beforehand, strengthened the border forts, secured the passes through the Carpathians, but all to no avail. For the nobles were to busy squabbling for the scraps of a nascent nation to try and preserve its very life, the Pope had his own interests to pursue, and Emperor Frederick II had these same interests to block. Had the Great Khan not reached the end of his long journey in the distant heart of his short-lived empire, the Mongols would have had the leisure to pick the overripe fruits of Europe while its rulers played games of intrigue and lost themselves in narcissistic self-consideration.

In fact, the Europeans, and Babenberg Duke Frederick II more than most, were so oblivious that they managed to war on each other while the Mongols were growling on the very doorstep of Europe. The Duke managed to set a trap for the fleeing Bela, imprison and rob him, while the very interests of his own position were, by all rights, jeopardized. A scribe who lived through the Mongol incursions and wrote a history of the affair, Rogerius, wrote an interesting passage on this occurrence:


‘After his flight from the hordes the King rode day and night until he reached the Polish border region: from there he hurried, as fast as he could, to the direct route to the Queen, who stayed on the border of Austria. On hearing this the Duke of Austria came to meet him with wicked intentions in his heart, but feigning friendship. The King had just laid down his weapons and, while breakfast was being prepared, lain down to sleep on a bank by a stretch of water, having by divine providence made his escape alone from many horrible arrows and swords, when he was awakened. As soon as he beheld the Duke he was very happy. Meanwhile the Duke, after saying many comforting words, asked the King to cross the Danube, to have a more secure rest on the opposite bank, and the King, suspecting no evil, consented because the Duke had said he owned a castle on the opposite side where he could offer more befitting hospitality – he intended not to entertain the King but to destroy him. While the King still believed he could get away from Scylla, he fell victim to Charybdis, and like the fish that tries to escape the frying pan and jumps into the fire, believing that it has escaped misfortune, he found himself in an even more difficult situation because the Duke of Austria seized hold of him by cunning, and dealt with him according to his whim. He demanded of him a sum of money which he claimed the King had once extorted from him. What then? The King could not get away until he had counted out part of that money in coin and another part in gold and silver vessels, finally pledging three adjacent counties of his kingdom.’


            Through this account one can see the devious and foolhardy way the Duke of Austria let the trivial maters of internecine European vengeance and counter-blow endanger what was a monumental time in the history of the continent and the people. Had the Great Khan lived but another year, much less a decade, the Duke of Austria would have been using the very money he demanded of Bela IV as a means of buying his own freedom from the hands of the Mongols. Perhaps that was what he had in mind all along.

            Despite the annihilation of much of the structural and societal systems which had arisen over the past four centuries, the decimation of the population and the scorched earth which was left for the farmers to till, Bela IV tackled the process of reconstruction with an aplomb and vivacity which earned him the title of the country’s second founder, after St. Stephen. Bela reigned for another 28 years after the Mongol had retreated to central Asia to war over who would inherit Genghis’ huge empire of grass-filled territory. He attempted to re-colonize the south and east, the counties of which were the hardest hit by the warring Mongols and the places which would need to serve in the years to come as a buffer zone against further Eastern attack. His realm would extend again, with the usual alacrity and stupefying adeptness at assimilation which is the Hungarians’ alone, over Croatia-Slavonia, Dalmatia, and even part of Bosnia, somehow turning the misfortunes of the war with the Mongols and the product of self-interested neglect at the hands and exemplified in the actions of his neighbors into an opportunity to expand his sons future kingdom.

            Bela IV was able to regain control of the reigns of government due to the fact that his main political power-base, that area of the country which was richest in agriculture and noble families which in turn offered the greatest majority of his constituency, was the area least affected by the Mongol invasion. The defeat at Mohi never left him, however, and his domestic and military policies reflected a paranoia concerning the possibility of a new and fiercer Mongol invasion in the future, with an overwhelming part of his legislation aimed at preventing a second defeat at the hands of the Eastern warriors who so resembled what the Magyar had themselves been almost five hundred years before. He proclaimed that all towns should be surrounded by stout walls of thick stone capable of withstanding extended sieges and keeping the nomads out, enforced the expansion and equipping of a new army which could defend the nation against a second attack, and introduced units of heavy cavalry to substitute the units of mounted light archers who could no longer compete with their Asian counterparts. He even turned one of the Magyar’s oldest enemies into a kind of settled guardian, inviting the Cuman tribes to the south-eastern most areas of the Carpathian basin, founding or re-building villages which had been destroyed and letting the Cumans have free reign in the construction of their own communities, this insuring the buffer zone earlier mentioned.

            The last decade of his reign saw Bela involved, like many of the Hungarian rulers before and since, in a struggle for power with his son, Stephen V. Stephen only saw two years on the throne f Hungary, due to his over-focused perspective on military glory and the negligible attention he focused on the growing unease between the oligarchy, which had barely suffered a scratch throughout the course of the Mongol invasion, and the lower nobility, a group which had been strengthened and supported under Bela IV. Both of these groups responded to the addition of the Cumans into the socio-cultural fabric of the state with disapproval, and the Cumans themselves took an additional two hundred years to even partly assimilate, having a kind of cultural enclave in the south where they did what they wished. Stephen V did not have the political acumen to positively counter-balance these rising tensions, or to productively interpret the inclusion of the Cumans into the Hungarian society to the nobles who looked upon the addition as an infringement on their own identity, though perhaps only subconsciously.

            Here we find the Hungarian nation, just rising form its knees, readying again to take a stand against either or both of the opposing forces on either side of its borders, grappling with a greedy, parasitic upper nobility, finding its cultural identity now more isolating than ever. The early Middle Ages had passed, and they had born witness to an irrevocable choice and an equally paramount change of ideology. The Hungarians could never again return to the plains from whence they had come, so long ago. The Mongols had provided proof of that. It was a European future which laid in store for Hungary and her adherents, and the next three hundred years would further define through confusion exactly what it has been and would be to call one’s self a Hungarian.


The History of Late Medieval Hungary

Stephen V died after two years on the throne and left his son, Ladislaus IV, and his wife, daughter of the Cuman chieftain and product of a relatively unsuccessful attempt to further bind the Cumans to the Magyar, behind to rule the country. These two proved to be malleable to the wishes of the oligarchy, furthering the interests of the richest hundred families in the nation while disenfranchising the fledgling rights of the lower strata of freemen, or nobility. Young Ladislaus did manage to break out of this historic slump in the role of the leadership of  Hungary at one time, however, with the battle at Drunkurt, where the Hungarian army of Magyar and Cuman soldiers acted as a mediating force between the Hapsburg and Bohemian armies, thus consolidating the imperial foundation of the Hapsburgs and strengthening the possibilities of Hungary’s future by allowing Rudolf of the Hapsburgs to escape the field of battle with an alliance with Ottokar II of Bohemia, which would lead to an era of rule under which the Magyar nation would suffer the machinations of the Austrian family.

            Ladislaus’ was a life embroiled in conflict and scandal, a lifestyle notoriously ‘pagan,’ which ended earning him a papal interdict, to which he replied he might have ‘to have the Archbishop, his underlings, and the whole bunch in Rome decapitated with a Tatar saber.’ This unabashed king of pagan origin, sprung from an alliance between the Magyar and the Cumans, ironically, was assassinated at the age of twenty-eight by two Cuman warriors who were hired by the Hungarian oligarchy. He died without a successor, and as usual, anarchy descended. The magnates who controlled the dispensation of wealth in the nation decided to look after their own, and divided the country up into parts, ignoring the possible consequences. Andras III, the last Arpad king, failed to regain control of the oligarchy and re-enervate the failing central authority, which might have curbed the destructive tendencies of the magnates as they blindly chased personal power and the accumulation of wealth, to the detriment of all that could secure their temporary acquisitions for them by securing the future of the country itself. Andras simply lacked the ability of his forefathers, and on his death in 1301 the Arpad line, that which had seen the journey of the Magyar people from the foothills of the Urals all the way up to the defeat at the hands of the Mongols, died out with him.

            Years of turmoil and war over the throne of Hungary followed his departure from the world, culminating in 1308, seven years later, years which further weakened the already last-legged state, in the victory and rise of Angevin Charles Robert, grandson of the sister of Ladislaus IV. The extinction of the Arpad line and the rise of a foreign king to the throne of Hungary had momentous affect on the history of the nation and the people, who would live under by the leave of foreign kings for the next 225 years, with only one exception.

            The Angevins themselves ruled for almost eighty years, and their control of the country, perhaps aided and advised by the old hands of royalty from which they had sprung, saw the political and economic spheres of Hungarian life blossom into a golden age which set to rights much that had been destroyed and ravaged by decades of neglect. The struggles of the oligarchs were overpowered and from this new rule a well-centered state emerged, with a fiscal system that helped in the renascence of the state as a power in medieval Europe. Charles isolated the most powerful oligarchs and crushed the combined forces of the opposition to his reign by utilizing the rebellious attitude of the lower nobility, who wished to have more say in the governance of the country and the distribution of power and property, as was their historic right, dating back to the raising of Arpad on a shield and the pact which sad that all conquered land would be divided equally between the clans. The disempowered oligarchs were replaced by 100 families of equally ancient, if less influential, noble Magyar origin. Charles placed much emphasis on the colonization policies, inviting Slovaks, Ruthenes, Poles, Romanians, and Czechs, as well as another wave of Germans, into the country to settle in newly established towns, in an attempt to secure his place as foreign ruler by dividing the population over which he ruled further than it was, and by this means reducing nationalistic sentiment against his reign. During his reign, the population of Hungary climbed back to two million souls, of which a larger proportion were of ethnicity other than Magyar than had been the case before the Mongol invasion, which had seen the same number of souls living under the Hungarian throne. Charles also used his influence as a member of an ancient ‘European’ family to further the diversity of his state and the ties which he had to other European nations by marrying four different women. First a Russian princess, then a daughter of the House of Luxembourg, followed by the daughter of the King of Bohemia and ending with Elisabeth, daughter of the Polish King Vladislav Lokietek. His matrimonial escapades would strengthen the position of Hungary in the old European style, though not as much as it strengthened his own house’s position, and Charles was able to secure Hungary’s northern and western borders through marriage and treaty during the course of his reign. However, it was Charles’ son, Louis I, who would be the member of the family who would truly serve the interests of Hungary above and beyond the role a foreign king was expected to, service which earned him, alone in Hungarian history, the sobriquet ‘the Great.’ Not until the fall of Communism in the twentieth century was an era of Hungarian history so glorified as this mans four-decade reign, over the course of which he was said to have accomplished the Arpad dream of a settled and powerful European state.

            While historical dialogue today look more at the unrealistic dreaming of the king as he attempted to make Hungary into an empire, and the consequences of this stretching, Louis’ contemporaries saw only the charisma and daring with which he won battles and extended the scope of sovereignty of his and Hungary’s influence. No enemy was able to enter the country during his entire reign, an unprecedented feat for such a long span of volatile time, and the population boomed to three million inhabitants, greater than it had ever been before. He campaigned almost every year, gaining suzerainty over sections of Serbia, Bosnia, and even Venice for a temporary period of time. He acquired for Hungary that flitting dream of a coastline that was Dalmatia, again conquering the territory form the Venetians and giving the Hungarian state access to the sea. He tried to attain a Hungarian colony in Naples, winning both campaigns he initiated against the other forces vying for the Neapolitan crown, but failing to secure acquiescence from any of the three popes vying for the seat of the papacy, he ended the struggle to build a Hungarian government over Naples. Louis moved against the North as well, invoking a dynastic compact from three decades before the move in 1370 to ascertain his right to the Polish throne. He attained the throne, but it might have been the dual ruler-ship which ensued, something the ailing king would have trouble coping with, that lead to his death a few years later. Louis had managed to secure a future for his daughter on the Polish throne, however, and she married the Lithuanian Jagiello, who became King Vladislav II of Poland and initiated the rise of Poland as a major power while establishing the long-living Jagiello dynasty. Louis also did a few other interesting things in his reign, relatively small feats which only added to his prestige, such as battling the Gnostic sect of the Bogomils, who thought of the world as a place created by the devil, and establishing the first Hungarian university at Pecs in 1367, though this was a short-lived endeavor. Louis was famous for regarding war, next to hunting, as his favorite pastime, and the numerous wars he waged during his lifetime brought Hungary to its greatest territorial state before or since.

            A hilarious vignette which might lend a small amount of illumination on the causality behind the numerous wars he waged comes from an interaction Louis once had with Emperor Charles IV. The Emperor made a remark concerning Louis’ mother which was not flattering, and the King of Hungary grew angry, mobilized his army, and marched them into the Moravian empire to make Charles apologize. Only a King of Louis’ idiosyncrasies would do something so drastic, yet his honor and sense of Hungarian pride enabled the nation to enjoy a golden age, whether or not it was healthy fro him as a person, or earned him many friends. This golden age was accentuated by the influence of Italian and French cultural influence, loyalty inspired by gifts to those who served him well, and the empowerment of the lower nobility through the re-confirmation of the Golden Bull, all of which allowed the Angevin dynasty to rule Hungary for sixty years without needing to convoke the Diet for any major disruption.

 King Louis died with no sons, and a power-vacuum was left which led to the repetition of history and yet another deflowering of the blossom which was Hungary’s growing viability as a respectable state. Louis had designated his eldest daughter Maria, betrothed to Sigismund of Luxembourg, as successor to both his Hungarian and Polish thrones, but after the passing of his own august persona the ties between the two nations were not strong enough to maintain the tie between them and the Poles split from Hungary once again. Maria was crowned and Dowager Queen Elizabeth took the regency. The nobles were adverse to the succession of the throne to e female, and outright against the role of Elizabeth, who none wanted in a position of power. A group of the nobility crowned Maria’s cousin Charles ‘the little’ as king, commencing a series of vendettas and assassinations among the magnates, in inherited Italian style, and in the end Charles, upon his very first meeting with the Dowager Queen and Maria together, was handed a document to study while a magnate in the Queen’s entourage attacked him from behind with a battle axe, fatally wounding him. He ended up reigning a mere thirty-nine days.

After this spectacle, the two royal women were abducted and taken to the palace of the Ban of Croatia, were the chief strangled the Dowager Queen and held the young Maria hostage for a year. Into this picture the nearly forgotten Sigismund stepped, enforcing his marriage to Maria and taking up the Kingdom as his own. He murdered al the followers of Charles the Little and executed the strangler of the Queen Mother, then became sole occupant of the throne when Maria was killed at the age of twenty-four during a days riding. Sigismund would reign for fifty years, from 1387 to 1437, as an astute and erudite tactician, though something in his nature sought recognition. He was a European in the oldest sense, speaking many languages with equal fluency, a patron of the arts. Throughout the sum of his reign he was made to combat the growing Hussite doctrine in Bohemia and Central Europe, though his main attention was focused on its growth in his own backyard, Transylvania. Hungarians cared little for him, to be kind, yet he utilized his position to acquire, by the end of his life, five different crowns.

As far as foreign policy is concerned, the major defeat suffered by Sigismund came at the hands of the Turks, a foreshadowing of future events, during the Crusade he himself had instigated, at Nicopolis in 1396. The most interesting facet of his half-century rule came in 1401, when a group of rebellious clergy and barons held him ransom for a number of weeks, administering the state in the name of the ‘Holy Crown.’ Though it might have continued as such, the group was split by lust for power and Sigismund managed to secure his own freedom, waiting only a short period before turning back and drawing retribution for his internment. It was at the very end of Sigismund’s reign, the very last month, in fact, that the first peasant revolt of a serious nature escalated and broke out in Hungary.

Sigismund died in 1437, and his son, Albrecht von Hapsburg, inherited the throne, though only for two years. At this time, more civil strife erupted, and despite the growing Ottoman menace, the Hapsburgs and the Jagellonian houses entered into conflict for the throne of Hungary. The daughter of Sigismund and the widow of short-lived Albrecht, took the throne as regent for her yet-to-be-born son, who would be named Ladislaus V. She had her lady in waiting smuggle the crown of St. Stephen out of the country, and when her son turned three months old, had him crowned King of Hungary, legitimized by the presence of the crown, though the ceremony itself took place in Austria rather than the nation for which the crown was a symbol.

At the same time back in Hungary, the magnates had chosen a puppet in the form of the sixteen year old King of Poland, Vladislav VI Jagiello, as their own choice for King. They could not legitimize this act without the crown and the other King, Ladislaus, both of which were safely tucked away at the court of the future Emperor Frederick III, in Wiener Neustadt. The crown would not be returned for twenty-five years, and only then at a very high price. The realpolitic of the era, which saw the growing danger of the Turkish menace to the East, left the need to lawfully legitimize the magnate-chosen king by the wayside in favor of leadership, any leadership, as soon as possible. In fact, it was the same Cardinal who had crowned the infant Ladislaus who crowned Vladislav, changing his name into Ulaszlo I, in the same coronation chamber only three months after the first supposedly-sacrosanct act.

Following this, the estates, who had been the real power in the country for generations, denounced the baby under the protection of the Emperor as a pretender to the throne and his coronation as null and void. This move then succeeded in completely denying the very realpolitic which had necessitated the speedy induction of a second, more realistically conscious ruler by inciting two years of civil war between the two interested parties, denying the existence of the Turks as if it were a popular pastime.

            This insert of a teenage King of the Jagiello house of Poland soon saw the necessity of riding south and confronting the Turks, at Varna, late Fall, 1444, though where he rode, along with the bulk of his army, was into Hades. This lent the magnates the sudden inclination of backing the baby in Austria, Ladislaus V, but a small error prevented them from having him gurgling on the throne; he was ‘detained’ by Emperor Frederick III, who seemed also to see no eventuality which could turn the Turkish incursions into a threat to his own position. Hungary had no ruler once again, and the council drew together in their chamber and tried to decide who to choose as the Regent for the long period of the interregnum.

            It was general Janos Hunyadi whom they picked, the son of a minor nobleman of Romanian blood, who began his career as a soldier, showing such a natural grasp of warfare and military operation that Sigismund himself singled him out as his favorite officer, once taking him to his Prague court as ‘Knight of the Household.’  Hunyadi became Sigismund’s favorite due to military talent, became rich and famous, and a general, and when the time came, it was only he whom the council thought could step in a save the country.

            Saving the country, from the Turks or from the oblivious Europeans, and changing the European image of the Hungarians forever, is exactly what Hunyadi did. The generalship and charisma of the Romanian-Hungarian, the battles he won against the Ottomans for a span of a dozen years, prolonging the life of the old Magyar kingdom by an additional seven decades, were perhaps some of the driving forces behind the switch in opinion of the nations of Europe, making the transformation from the pagan ‘bloodthirsty Huns’ to the Christian ‘Defenders’ complete in the eyes of nations who seemed to have wanted hard proof.

            They got it when Hunyadi walloped the Superior force of the Turks at Belgrade, fighting with his own Hungarian troops against massive odds and in the end simply out-generaling the Eastern opponent. Thus he had given answer to the prayers of the West, in the very month of the fall of Constantinople. The Ottomans stayed away, licking their wounds, for a human lifetime, perhaps waiting for Hunyadi to die of old age before they came back. This man, who had started out as a minor noble – which was ironically the poorest class in Hungary – and rose through the ranks to be the figurehead of a defense of all of Christendom, would inspire Hungarian art and literature for the rest of time. As Ladislaus V himself said, what others achieved with the help of a title and allies, Hunyadi had gotten done through ‘his own sweat, virtue, talent and labor.’ He used his time in command wisely, and after every victory further enriched himself from the ‘Royal gift’ which the throne bestowed from abroad. At the height of his success Hunyadi would sit by the fire and think about the ‘2.3 million hectares of land, twenty-eight castles, fifty-seven towns, and roughly one thousand villages’ that he owned, smiling at the irony of a Romanian being the Hungarian national hero, something that would keep future socialist history editors quite busy. Sadly, he seemed placed on earth to perform this one action, for soon after the victory at Belgrade he caught the plague that was floating around the camp, and died.

            What do oligarchies do when it is time to fight over the next ruler? They get rid of the last ruler’s family, first, and Hunyadi’s children Laszlo and Matyas, or Mathias, had Ladislaus V backing the anti-Hunyadi party as the one who most wanted them dead, or at least blinded and neutered. Ladislaus asked his uncle, Ulrich Cilli, to help him war on the young brothers, and this same uncle was the first to die by assassination. This led the seventeen year-old King to raise Laszlo Hunyadi to Cilli’s position, Captain-General, playing the act of reconciliation, only to send an armed troop to capture and behead him in front of the entire court. This was an act which caused the flames of the civil war between Hunyadi’s widow and her brother and the forces of Ladislaus V to burn fierce. So the King took young Matyas prisoner, and carried him from Prague to Austria, but his gamble was cut short when he, too, caught the plague and died.

            Again the magnates rushed to send the impression to the rest of Europe that they had at least one successor to put on the throne, and was Matyas was unanimously backed by the oligarchy. The magnate parties can be remembered as willing to fight if there were two options, and eager to enthrone if there was only one. Two years passed between the death of general Hunyadi and the rise of his son Matyas to the throne of Hungary, and this small span of time, a time of conflict and intrigue, is one of the oft-frequented springs from which Hungarian writers, poets and composers draw their inspiration. King Matyas, the only king in the long span of foreign rulers, proved to be shaped by the same hand which had molded his father. He was a cosmopolitan king in a sense which had not yet been realized in Hungary, and his story inspired the minor nobles of the day to excel.

            The turbulent path to the throne was, for Matyas, something that should have killed him. He survived ssassination attempts, the kidnapping, and, after he received the backing of the magnates, he was forced to take the hand of palatine Garai’s daughter’s hand in marriage, and become the son-in-law of the former leader of the anti-Hunyadi party, who was responsible for Matyas’ brother’s death. This was the only way the Garai clan would accept the coronation, for they wanted their lives safeguarded by the ties of marriage. Matyas and his guardians agreed, and on January 24, 1458 he was lifted over the heads of 40,000 soldiers standing on the frozen waters of the Danube and hailed King of the Hungarians. He was the first King born in Hungary since the annihilation of the Arpad dynasty, and the nation rejoiced. He sat on the throne, but he would have to wait for the crown to legitimize his claim, since it sat on the lap of Emperor Frederick III.

            Just after being placed on the throne, the king was forced to prove his ability to handle life in the court, forced to deal with a conspiracy against him by the oligarchs who had placed him on the throne. He reacted with the skill of a veteran ruler despite his decade and a half of life, dismissing principle administrators and councilors, and having the uncle who had been regent removed from his post and arrested for subversive activities. After this, 25 of the oligarchs who had been dismissed by Matyas, including Garai, proclaimed that Hungary would be included in the sphere of influence of the Emperor Frederick, who did after all have the crown. The Emperor accepted their offer to rule Hungary, but the internal side of the uprising soon collapsed, leaving Frederick to pursue the matter of his own accord. Which he did, and the conflict between Matyas and Frederick continued for another five years, until the peace of Wiener Neustadt on July 19th, 1462. It was now that the Emperor was persuaded to sell the Crown of St. Stephen back to the people for who it held meaning, though he charged 80,000 gold florins for it, equal to about two-fifths of the royal revenue in a good year, kept the title ‘King of Hungary,’ and claimed the right to inherit the throne should Matyas die before him, without male issue.

            Matyas, in the years leading up to the acquisition of the crown, had been preparing for a rule which would see his dictums and laws put into absolute effect, by curtailing the power of the magnates systematically, and increasing the centralization of the government. Once he had the crown and was of age, he crushed the landed gentry and promoted minor nobles, securing a following in the class which he thought had more potential. Hunyadi would fight numerous battles against the Turks, subdue a famous bandit and his band in the northern borderlands south of Poland, and recapture the fortress of Jajce from the Turks.

            With regard to fiscal matters, King Matyas restructured the entire tax system, raised the statues of the country nobility, and created a standing army. This last would be one of the most significant achievements of Matyas, for up until this point in history Hungary had relied on the troops supplied by the magnates’ estates. This standing army was an army of mercenaries, called the ‘Black Guard,’ and they were answerable only to the King. The king personally inspected the equipment and training methods of his recruits, and turned the loyal force of warriors into a powerful weapon with which he brought glory to the throne of Hungary. He could number in his conquests the Bohemian crown, Moravia, Silesia, Styria, Carinthia, Lower Austria and Vienna, and even the Emperor’s palace at Weiner Neustadt. The king was a warrior-poet, who fought beside his soldiers and cultivated the arts. His second marriage, to Beatrice, daughter of the King of Naples, brought an influx of Italian culture into Hungary the likes of which have never been recreated. This Italian effect on the King was recorded by historian Antonio Bonfini:

After the arrival of Queen Beatrice the King introduced the arts into Hungary that had hitherto been unknown here, and at great cost invited notable artists to his court. He engaged painters, sculptors, engravers, carpenters, goldsmiths, masons and builders from Italy at good salaries. Singers from Germany and France enhanced the services in the royal chapel. He even called to his court ornamental gardeners, fruit growers and agricultural workers who made cheeses in the Italian, French, and Sicilian manner. To these were added jesters and actors for whom the Queen had a particular fondness, also players of wind-instruments, zither-players and other musicians. His gifts attracted poets, orators, and linguists. Mathias loved and supported all these arts with an admirable munificence; he strove to make Hungary into a second Italy. The Hungarians, however, condemned his great extravagance and daily accused the sovereign of playing thoughtlessly with money, of squandering on useless things taxes intended for other purposes, straying from the old king’s frugality, and respecting the strict old mores and customs which he replaced with the Italian and Spanish pleasures and depraved practices. However, like any patron of the arts and supporter of talent, the divine king endeavored gradually to introduce culture to the country. He encouraged the higher and lower nobility to live in a cultivated manner, obliging them to build splendidly according to their wealth, to live like burghers, and to behave better towards strangers, whom they outrageously despised. He spurred everyone on by his own example.

And so it was, a member of the minor noble class made king through the virtue of his father, who introduced culture to the powerful members of the oligarchy, and was widely respected and admired around the courts and councils of Europe. He created the second national university, at Pressburg, but it lasted about as long as the first one at Pecs. Though he used taxes to fuel his war machine, five times those of Ladislaus V, he earned the epithet ‘the Just’ among the peasantry for his domestic and external triumphs. He would dress as a peasant himself, sneaking out the back gate of the castle, and commingle with his subjects, assessing the kingdom from the ground up, putting his constables and ministers in their places. As he once said to the Italian Humanist, Aurelius Brandolini, ‘No one is allowed here to be too sure of his power, nor should anyone lose confidence altogether because he is defenseless; everyone can insist on his rights – if need be, even against us…’ The son of Janos Hunyadi was a king ahead of his time, but he produced no children, and he died in 1490 leaving a gaping hole in the balance of power in Hungary. Taking his internal and external achievements into account, King Matyas’ longest lasting effect on Hungarian history would be both his own interests in high culture with the further introduction of them into the country and these same mediums being used to convey his tumultuous, epic life, in the centuries beyond his lifetime.

In the years which spread out before the specter of Mathias, the Hungarian nation would fight many victorious battles, but after he fought his last in 1485, the Magyar would never again win a war. Foreign rule, cultural endangerment, and post-communist reconstruction could all find the Hungarians, and their poets, painters, and composers, looking back on the golden era of Hungarian power, the height of the nation as a European state, while it was shaped in the hand of Mathias Hunyadi. Needless to say, popularity-surveys performed during the early nineties showed Mathias coming out over both St. Stephen and the heroes of the 1848 Revolution, Szechenyi and Kossuth.

After the death of Mathias, who was already a hero in his own time, the bloodletting began afresh with the oligarchy and foreign interests vying to control the heirless throne, and Hungary came close to collapsing once again. Eventually the magnates installed Vladislav Jagiello, crowning him Ulaszlo II. This king playted right into the hands of the magnates, responding to his puppeteers with such swift assent that he was dubbed ‘O.K. Laszlo.’ The ruler who followed Mathias to the throne would go down in history as a loyal creature of the oligarchy, and the country suffered for it.

This weakling wearing the crown did whatever it was the barons wanted of him, and the lesser nobility, wanting to counter-balance the catastrophic manipulations of the magnates, founded the ‘National party’ to counter-weight their ‘Court party.’ Abroad the Emperor Maximilian I had been guaranteed the throne of Hungary should Ulaszlo II die without male issue, through a pact made with the Jagiello dynasty before the agreeable king’s enthronement. When Ulaszlo birthed a son, Louis, in 1506, a new situation was birthed and the Emperor, as many of his predecessors had been, was wily enough to still insure his presence in Hungary by constructing an elaborate double betrothal, marrying Louis off to Maria, the sister of Archduke Ferdinand, while Ferdinand married  Anna, the Hungarian king’s sister. Thus Maximilian had bound his grandchildren’s destinies with those of Hungary, at least on the surface, and when Ulaszlo II died after an uneventful reign defined primarily by the nodding of his head to whatever was laid out in front of him, his son Louis stepped up to the throne, sitting next to Maria, of the house of Hapsburg.

Louis was only ten years old when he reached the seat of rule, and his regent was a man as ambitious as he was unscrupulous, Tamas Bacokz, an Arch-Bishop who had recently returned from being defeated by Pope Leo X, a Medici, for the papal seat. He was given the task of preparing the Hungarian peasantry for a mass crusade against the encroaching Turks, but once the peasants had been assembled, mutters of unrest began. They were told to return to their villages, the oligarchs fearing rebellion, but the peasantry refused. Instead they elected a leader, Gyorgy Dozsa, and began a civil war at perhaps the most inconceivable moment for the future of the country. After months of campaigning in the Eastern territory of Hungary, the government had finally put down the masses of clergy-lead commoners who fought without mind for a country but rather for their very freedom. The nobility attempted to create an example out of Dozsa; he was enthroned on a burning stake and adorned with a red hot crown, after which fifteen of his comrades who had been starved for two weeks were forced to eat of his still living flesh. No wonder this is the part of the world that inspired a Dracula-type figure. While the ruling council of the country, along with the ten-year-old king’s regent, considered how best to get their point across to the peasants, one of the lesser nobles came up with an ingenious, if brutal and in the end backward, way of disposing of the peasantry as human beings for centuries. His name was Istvan Werboczy, and the document he drafted was called the Tripartitum. This legislation essentially castrated the landless populace and split the Hungarian nation into halves; the first half being the nobility, who had all the power and formed the ‘political nation’; and the second halve, the commoners, were not only disallowed to own land, but they were denied the right to have any say whatsoever in the running of the nation, and they were not considered part of the Hungarian state, becoming in essence domesticated animals. This document would continue and perpetuate its stagnating effects long into the modern era; and while the rest of Europe had left feudalism behind by the end of the next three centuries, Hungary would still be struggling in its shadow. Only after World War II, caught up in the radicalism of the leftist height of power, would the Tripartitum be abolished and the country began to truly grow in the capitalist light. Jeno Szucs, an eminent Hungarian historian, has said that the nation of Hungary was heading towards the West in social structure as well as political and economic prosperity, but that act of gods extended their powerful hands and ‘blew the country of course,’ ending with Hungary being the Eastern-European nation it is today. To compare some figures; at the end of the Middle Ages, Hungary had a preponderance of noblemen, with one out of every twenty people in Hungary a noble, as compared to France, where one in every hundred people was a noble. Adversely, one out of every ten people was a free person in France, while in Hungary the number was a disastrous one in forty-five. The backwards doctrines of the oligarchs left Hungary, many years down the road, in dire straights.

Perhaps the most fascinating way to view the pending catastrophe, lent hilarity with the condition of hindsight, is by reading exactly what the magnate council was discussing while Suleiman the Magnificent was busily preparing Hungary’s conquest. The wealth-minded individuals were quietly consolidating all debts with a massive moratorium, and they also managed to pass a tax concession on their town-houses. Thus was Hungary prepared for the battle with the great Ottoman Empire.

Young Louis II did try to prepare for the inevitable confrontation with the Turks, but his efforts, as has been illustrated, were accompanied and hindered by the national and political situation of the day. Louis had neither the ears of the magnates or the clout to make others listen, and he could not arm in time. Meanwhile, the industrious Werboczy managed to wrest control of the Besztercebanya mines form the Fuggers family, which left Hungary without the financial assistance of one of the biggest private fortunes of the continent when the country needed that assistance most dearly. Brilliant man, Werboczy, but just in the wrong areas for his chosen line of work.

The Pope of the day, Clement VII, cared little for the /Turkish menace at the outset; his eyes were trained on Martin Luther and the usurping heresy which was stealing his invisible kingdom out from under him. Due to this drawing of attention, the Spanish-Hapsburg Emperor Charles V was attacked on two fronts by a French-Italian alliance, and it is thought possible that the French King had given Suleiman the nod to coincide with his own attack on the Western front of the Hapburg’s territory with an attack from the back. A treaty of friendship did exist between the French and the Ottoman courts. Whatever the case, Hungary was left up the creek without a paddle, Louis II went into action at Mohacs on August 29th, 1526, against a Turkish force five times the size of his 25,000 man army, all of whom were poorly trained recruits, not the black guard of Hunyadi. Sultan Suleiman, after an hour and a half, had achieved a stunningly simple victory over a nation which had always fought tooth and nail for its independence.

The majority of Hungary’s dignitaries, fifteen thousand of the soldiers involved, and the king himself where all killed, though the king died later, while fleeing the field, when his horse flipped in a river and he drowned, still in full armor. When news of the king’s death reached Buda, Queen Maria fled to Vienna with most of the royal treasury, getting away from the hatred of outsiders possessing the nobility which would have killed her, unprotected in the royal seat. As the Hungarian historian Szekfu wrote, ‘While wounds were still bleeding, burning towns still smoking, and thousands of Hungarian prisoners not yet on their way to distant lands, only a single passion fired the dispersed nobles; jubilation over the fall of the German court and the flight of the Hapsburg Queen.’

With the peasants watching from a view of obliviousness, simply trading hands from one master to the next, and the nobles actually celebrating the loss as a much needed regime change, the Ottoman army moved into Buda, sacked what was left of the royal treasury, the royal palace, and every town in the Trans-Danubian basin, before retreating a bit and towing behind them tens of thousands of prisoners, who would eventually be incorporated into whatever far lands they found themselves in, at the end of their journey. The real gravity of the situation, which both the peasant and the nobleman alike failed to recognize, was the fact that an eastern power had taken root in Hungary, the land of the Magyar for over half a millennium, and that they would be staying awhile. This meant a second incursion of cultural influence which would change the face of the people and the country for the rest of time.

            Once Hungary had fallen to the Ottoman Empire, Eastern and central Europe lay at the frontier of the East, and the countryside stretching from southern Hungary up to the gates of Vienna became a battlefield for the constantly fluctuating struggle between the Hapsburgs  and the Turks. After the Ottoman’s packed up there mules and headed back to Turkey, the Hungarian nobility divided itself up into two groups and fought over the tattered remains of Almos’ dream. A civil war broke out, ensuring the death of the revival of the Hungarian nation for over a century. But a bastion of the Hungarian cultural sphere remained.

The war consisted of two sides: the first side being a Hungarian, Janos Zapolai, the biggest land-owner in the nation at the time and a man supported by the minor nobility; and Ferdinand von Habsburg, who claimed his rights to the throne of Hungary by citing the treaty drafted between the houses of Hapsburg and Jagiello decades before. As with the last dual coronation, the two rival kings were crowned at separate times in the same church, by the same church worthy.

Despite the epic implications of the struggle to ensue, neither king held the influence or power to force the capitulation of the other. Decidely, as the common sense of the day also decreed, neither king had the power to oust Suleiman. Janos was the weaker of the two, and had to pay homage to the Sublime Porte to continue the fight.

An individual man of exceptional ability would be the only thing which halted the rift between the two parts of ‘European’ Hungary before it widened into a chasm. Known to history as Frater Gyorgy, Born around 1480, he started out as a soldier, then entered a Pauline monastery and was ordained a priest around 1525. He held offices in the landowner king’s court, including treasurer, before becoming a counselor, remembered in Hungarian history as one of utter ethical veracity. He proclaimed the need of Hungarian national unity, always attempting to reconcile the two sides of ‘European’ Hungary and wanting them to merge in preparation for expelling the Eastern invaders. It was thanks to him that the two sides of Western Hungary reached an understanding at Oradea Mare in 1538. Gyorgy was rewarded for his hand in the matter by eventually becoming Cardinal Archbishop of Esztergom.

Gyorgy truly found his calling to the annals of history only later, however, when, just before he died, King Janos had a son by his consort, the Jagiello Princess Isabella. The dying king entrusted the child to the care of Gyorgy, and the former soldier held the responsibility of a nation on his shoulders. Gyorgy took the child to Buda and proclaimed him king immediately, but the proclamation was rather muted by the circumstances into which it was shouted. Suleiman had occupied Buda twice since the initial defeat, and finally the sultan occupied it permanently without a shot fired. Historic Hungary was now split into three parts: the Turkish protectorate, the Transylvanian dependency, and the Hapsburg front yard.

This dual monarchy lasted for a number of years, and then in 1551 Gy0orgy played yet another decisive role in procuring a treaty with the Hapsburgs which relinquished the throne of Hungary in return for a principality of Silesia for Janos Zsigmiond. Ferdinand set up shop in Pressburg, and one of his mercenary generals led a small armed force into Transylvania.

The sultan responded quickly with a punitive expedition, and Gyorgy tried to fend off the impending attack, though his actions ignited suspicion in the Hapsburg goons of intent to subvert, and General Castaldo, the general who had catalyzed the entire chain of events, sent a scribbled missive to Frederick asking for permission to assassinate the Cardinal if necessary. The answer was returned posthaste.

In 1551, in the heart of winter, Gyorgy sat in the chapel in his castle and listened to them coming up the stairs. Sforza Pallavicini and eight other Spanish and Italian mercenaries of Hapsburg persuasion stabbed him fifty times, and by killing him they killed the tired idea of reunifying Hungary, holding off the defeat of Ottoman rule by yet more decades. Conflicts flared between the two empires over borders, and the tiny principality of Transylvania sat in between, by ethnicity for one side yet by necessity on the other. This small state was the bastion of Magyardom for the era; where the Hungarians who had blood going back to the conquest holed up. It was 1559 when the Transylvanian district, under the newly un-chaperoned Janos Zsigmond, starting conducting government business, paid homage to the Porte, and continued to fight the Hapsburgs, in the recycled form of Maximillian II.

This ceaseless conflict inspired the sultan to make his last attempt on Vienna. The Turks, crossed the Danube, took Szigetvar after a month-long siege; this siege is one of the more colorful moments in Hungarian history, were poet and Ban of Croatia, Miklos Zrinyi, great-grandfather of the man by the same name who is also a famous poet, held of the Turkish forces for an entire month despite the overwhelming months. They died to a man, in the end, but Sulemein himself succumbed as well. While this occurred, Maximilian II waited near Gyor with an army of 80,00, deciding when and where to make his stand.

Maximilian lacked the foresight and the courage to seize the moment to inflict a devastating defeat on the Ottomans and recapture much of Europe back from the Anatolian empire. The treaties which were the fruits of this inaction locked the tripartite Hungarian state into a century and a half of division. This division is called by many Hungarian historians as the worst catastrophe suffered by the Magyar people, and the Treaty of Trianon resulting from the loss of the First World War divided the Hungarian nation in a similar way a second time, which is the state we find the nation in today.

            Before the loss at Mohacs, Magyar made up around eighty percent of the population of Hungary, around 3.5 million people. By 1600, it was at 2.5 million, and when the Turks withdrew in 1720, it was back at the level it had attained in the late middle ages. A significant number of potential Hungarians had been lost because they had sacrificed themselves as the bulwark of Christianity. And they had gotten no recognition. The isolationism is easier to explain the more you know.

            The loss of the Magyar living in the country between Buda and the south east, the neighboring cultures where affected by the vacuum and the cultural complexity of Hungary was compounded. For example, in 1690, 200,000 Serbs fleeing a Turkish counter-offensive were sent into Hungary as refuges by the imperial decree of Leopold of the Hapsburgs.

            Ottoman rule destroyed much of ancient Hungary. A vast expanse of the plains, two thirds of the arable land, and much of the livestock were affected by the Turkish wars. Villages destroyed and rebuilt would be destroyed again. A century and a half saw a large, once inhabited area turned into a no-man’s-land. In Buda itself, the number of taxpaying families in 1577 was five times higher than the number in 1661, a drop of roughly 48,000. Famine and disease, slave raids, interminable skirmishing and general anarchy uprooted societal structure which had been in place since the reign of Stephen.

The Turks divided the country into five administrative sections and installed their pasha in Buda. The pasha’s in office never got used to governing the province of the Ottoman empire, because the rule of thumb in Constantinople was that the higher the position, the shorter the stay, to ensure loyalty and resist the propensity for attachment which could lead to rebellion. The Turks were in Buda for 145 years, and during that span of time there sat ninety-nine pashas in the managerial seat.

            If a light side must be seen in al this subjugation, it would be that as long as the Hungarians followed the rules of their occupiers, their religious pursuits were left untouched, and no attempts were made at assimilation. Though this left room for the incubation and the possibility of the renascence of Hungarian culture, it truly flourished in Transylvania, which, through the long-lasting work of Frater Gyorgy, remained an autonomous state. Through the machinations of some of the more colorful figures in Hungarian historiography, the Transylvanian state would act as a bastion of Magyar culture, the Reformation, and an opponent of Germanization through the maneuverings of the Hapsburgs, all while under the auspices of being a vassal territory.

            At the end of the 16th century, Transylvania alone was larger than the Hungary of post-Trianon, about seven thousand square kilometers larger. It was a significant section of land, and for two centuries the battle between the Reformation and the counter-Reformation would entangle itself so completely in the political affairs of the Turkish protectorate that it is impossible to pry the two apart. The Turks took advantage of this perpetual nonchalance to strengthen their position in other parts of the world and hold together an empire that was becoming much more fragile than it looked from the outside.

            This span of time, which saw the people of Hungary stifled and forced mute, saw the cultures most original minds attempting by verse, action, or ingenuity to salvage what was left of the Magyar cultural identity for the future of their people. Such poets as Balassi and Zrinyi are perfect examples. They had to mix realism with fantasy, for the plight of the people was too severe for anything but hope to inspire them.

            An interesting side note of this period is that the Turkish invaders, as bad as they were, were not as hated by the common people as the Hapsburgs, and this was proved on successive occasions when Transylvania would form treaties with the Ottomans when Austria threatened to overrun them. This was based largely on religion, since the Hapsburgs pushed the counter-Reformation, while the Turks allowed people to worship as they would.

            The Ottomans and the Hapsburgs fought on Hungarian soil so many times that the Hungarians themselves often found they were supporting the side which they had previously fought against, and in both sides of any conflict during this period were those who claimed to be fighting solely for the re-unification of Hungary. A fascinating irony, to be sure. The Reformation had taken firm root in Transdanubia, where a year before the battle of Mohacs Lutherans were still burned at the stake.

            After Mohacs, Transylvanians adopted Calvinism, and this adoption acted as a religious bulwark in a region which was before then known for holding up a physical one. Islam, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy surrounded it, but Transylvania remained unconverted. A fascinating point to notice when reading of this era is that the Hungarian language, until this time unofficial and never before printed in a book, started to flower in the light of the dual oppression, like a memeplex showing its self-defense mechanism. The first Magyar books were printed in Krakow in 1527 and Vienna in 1536. The first complete bible followed in 1590.

            As Transylvania became a place where Hungarian culture flourished despite the position it was balanced upon, it also attained the reputation, which was deserved, of being a place of religious tolerance and understanding. The first Prince, Janos Zsigmond, changed his own religion four times in his search for personal and cosmic truth. While Gabor Bethlen, one of the stellar examples of humanity which issued from Transylvania during this time, allowed Jesuits, Anabaptists, Unitarians, Lutherans, Calvinists, and people of any other religious persuasion to settle in his state, the Hapsburgs had their Counter-Reformation machine rolling in Western Hungary. Re-Catholization exacerbated the split between Western and Eastern Hungary, a split which can still be easily be perceived today.

            An alliance between Emperor Rudolf II and Zsigmond Bathory initially achieved great success against the Turks, but the Prince descended into a psychopathic state after an unsuccessful marriage and his discovered impotence. He announced his abdication of the throne of Transylvania five times, and returned unexpectedly each time. Zsigmond left his court and people in the hands of two different mercenaries and the Turks themselves, and his reign did not aid the situation of the Hungarian people.

            Rudolf used the treaty with the often absent Zsigmond to attempt forced re-catholization, by seizing estates and blackmailing with false charges of treason. Rudolf’s general, Basta, perpetrated a reign of terror in the absence of the apathetic king, terrorizing the citizens of Transylvania with Spanish, Walloon, and Italian troops. These punitive measures meted out by the Hapsburg empire led to a revolt headed by one of Zsigmond’s generals, Istvan Bocksai. At one time, he had been one of the emperor’s most ardent supporters, but during this time of anarchic chaos, the wealthy landowner gathered a group of daring warriors around him, former shepherds of Slavic origin, the Hajduks. Because Bocksai had been known previously as a Hapsburg stooge, his turn around became a convincing argument for the fact that a true patriot would make a pact with the Hapsburgs or the Ottomans as long as the interests of Hungary were at heart.

            After scoring impressive victories over the Hapsburgs, and being elected as Prince of Transylvania, Bocksai concluded a peace treaty with the emperor. The treaty articulated his lifelong tenure in Transylvania, wide-ranging religious freedom, extension of the noble’s political rights, and the restoration of the office of the palatine. In November 1606, Bocksai mediated the peace at Zsitvatorok between the Emperor and the Sultan, and then he died, allegedly poisoned by his chancellor, who was promptly hacked to pieces by his loyal Hajduks. Bocksai’s life initiated a new phase of Hungarian history. He left his sentiment in a testament which was not found until two centuries after his death, ‘The Transylvanians never to separate from Hungary, even if they have a different prince; and the Hungarians that they should never toss the Transylvanians away from themselves, but should regard them as their brothers, their own blood, their own limbs.’ He believed in Transylvania as a strong-hold of Hungarian sovereignty and cultural identity, to be relied upon in times of need, as his lifespan witnessed. Bocksai’s life reached farther than Hungary and the time he lived in; his statue can be seen next to Calvin’s on the monument to the Reformation in Geneva.

            The Habsburgs succeeded in bringing the Counter-Reformation to fruition in Western Hungary, but in the eastern part of the country the Reformation flourished pristinely, resistant to the power which had reduced the Bohemian counterpart of Transylvania to subjugation. This bastion of religious tolerance lends itself to the interpretation of Hungary as an ideal place for refugees to call home, and while this may seem slightly panglossian, the basis for this hypothesis has been proven over and over again throughout the centuries, which have witnessed the wide variety of peoples from all parts of the world move towards the Carpathian basin. They bring their own traditions and absorb the ones they find, and what it is to be Hungarian continues to grow while the cultural aesthetic evolves and the people themselves grow more open despite the age-old feeling of isolation.

            Hungary has a rich history, made the richer through defeat, which let outside influences enter the traditional sphere and morph the culture into something which can be said to be unique throughout the world; a culture triumphant in defeat, an Asian city of Europeans.