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3: "From the Arrows of the Hungarians..."

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The Gesta Hungarorum was not passed on for us in its original form, but this ancient chronicle about the Hungarians can be reconstructed fairly well from various transcriptions. One of its episodes tells about how Árpád dispatched an ambassador spy by the name of Kusid, the son of Künd, to the interior of the Carpathian Basin.

"When Kusid reached the middle of Hungary and descended to the Danube region, he found the place delightful, the land all around good and fertile, and its streams and meadows splendid. He had a liking for it. Then he went to the prince of the domain, named Svatopluk, who governed after Attila. He hailed him in the name of his people and stated the reason why he came. Hearing this, Svatopluk rejoiced greatly because he thought they were settlers come to cultivate the land. For this reason, he joyfully sent the ambassador back. Filling his flask with water from the Danube, loading his goatskin with meadow grass, and taking a sample of the black sandy soil, Kusid returned to his people. As he recounted everything he had heard and seen to them, they rejoiced greatly. He showed them the flask of water, the soil, and the grass. Tasting them with their tongues, they saw that the soil was very good, the water sweet, and that such grasses grew in the pastures as the ambassador had told them. Surrounded by his people, Árpád filled his drinking horn with the water from the Danube, and, in front of all the Hungarians, he asked for the grace of Almighty God on the horn, that the Lord grant them that land forever... Then they sent the same ambassador back to the fore-named prince by general agreement and sent the prince in payment for his land a large white horse with an Arabian saddle gilded with gold and a gold halter. Seeing these, the prince rejoiced even more, for he believed they had sent them for the land as prospective settlers. But the ambassador asked the prince to provide land, grass, and water. Smiling at this, the prince said, 'Take as much as you want for this gift!' And so the ambassador returned to his people. At this, Árpád and the seven chiefs invaded Pannonia, not as immigrants but as the lawful owners of the land in perpetuity. Then they dispatched another ambassador to the prince, sending him off with this message: 'Árpád and his men tell you not to remain any longer in any way on the land they have purchased, for they bought your land with a horse, your grass with a halter, and your water with a saddle, and because of your penury and greediness you have yielded your land, grass, and water over to them.' When the message was delivered to the prince, he spoke as follows: 'Beat that horse to death with a club, throw the halter into the meadow, and cast the saddle into the waters of the Danube!' At this, the ambassador said: 'What loss would this bring to our lord? If you beat the horse to death, you provide food for his dogs; if you throw the golden halter into the grass, his men will come upon it at harvest time; if you cast the golden saddle into the Danube, his fishermen will pull it to the bank and take it home! Whoever owns the land, the grass, and the water, he owns everything!' Hearing this and fearing the Hungarians, the prince quickly assembled an army and called upon his friends for help, and gathering these together, he started off to do battle with them. In the meantime, the Hungarians arrived beside the Danube, and at the break of day they arose on a lovely field to do battle. But the Lord's support was with the Hungarians, at the sight of whom the fore-named prince took flight. But the Hungarians pursued him to the Danube, and there in his fright he cast himself into the Danube and he drowned in its swift waters."

This historical tale about how Árpád outwitted Svatopluk, the Slavic prince, with a deceitful give-and-take agreement eerily resembles the one about how a couple of centuries later, the whites swarming over America duped the poor red skinned Indians. But can there be any kind of historical basis for the tale about the white horse?

Thus did the Hungarians reach the place where they have lived to this very day. Now let us rephrase in a declarative mode what we had posed as a question in the introduction-at least to the extent that it is possible.

In 895, the main forces of the Etelköz Hungarians, as allies of Byzantium or as mercenaries -which amounts to the same thing- were waging war on their former Levedian comrades, the Bulgarians, west of the Black Sea. Meanwhile, a Pecheneg attack -instigated, perhaps, by the Bulgarians- was launched against the Khazar Kaganate, and hearing news of the assault, those remaining in their Etelköz quarters suddenly headed off and moved across the northern passes of the Carpathians into the basin protected by the ring of mountains. The main forces did not return to the Etelköz but also headed for the Carpathian Basin, almost from the opposite direction. These two troop movements indicated the existence of a well-established communication link and forced but planned military operations.

This idea also refutes the romantic notion that the Hungarians were purely a battered, fleeing army of males who, their wives and children having perished, had to generate their own bloodlines in the new homeland with women they took as slaves. It is not only our sources that contradict this idea, but also the fact that the conquerors of the Carpathian Basin have immediately devoted themselves to bold new adventures, indicating a secure home front. At the same time the Hungarians dislodged by the great migrations and having reached the Carpathian Basin, in a manner unique among th& traditionally nomadic peoples (the Scythians, the Sarmatians, the Huns, the Avars, the Pechenegs, the Cumans, and the Tatars), did not assimilate, disperse, or lose their language; instead, they were able to found a national state which has endured to this very day.

About 895, various Slavic peoples on the perimeter of the Carpathian Basin and the Avar population in its lowlands were the decisive elements, while the power of the Moravians from the northwest, of the Franks (Bavarians) formerly in Pannonia from the west, and of the Bulgarians from the south exerted-what? At this time "do-minion" in this region was not very efficacious. Sometimes it signified little more than the fact that the leaders of agricultural village communities living permanently in a place and bound to the soil by their mode of life reinforced their positions through some tribute paid in kind for first one and then for another of the chiefs of more mobile and warlike peoples. The burial grounds of the age, mingling bones and artifacts, clearly reveal the continuity or changeability of power and might, ethnicity and culture, and the diverse variety of the motifs of permanent coexistence and assimilation.

Árpád the Conqueror's entire army consisted of about 20 thousand horsemen. Since we can assume that there were four or five peasants, as well as artisans, serving as

support personnel behind each warrior horseman, the total number of Hungarians can be estimated at 100 thousand families, or about half a million persons. On the other hand, researchers put the local population of the Carpathian Basin at not more than 100 to 200 thousand inhabitants. Though these estimates are based on reliable archaeological, settlement geographical and demographic data, the writer of these lines, nevertheless, thinks of more balanced proportions. Perhaps it was more their own dynamics than their superior numbers that gave the Hungarians their strength. Also the conquerors' cautious behavior suggests that at first they were not as confident of their own abilities as they were entitled to be, given their two to two and a half times superior number of inhabitants and their warlike traditions. The hypothesis that the late Avars living in the region before 895 were also Hungarian ethnics (or users of the language) and thus formed, so to say, the advance guard of the Hungarian conquerors is not provable. Still less believable is the romantic postulate, based on a close Hun-Hungarian kinship constructed at a later time, according to which the Székely guarding the frontiers of Transylvania and of southwest Transdanubia (Göcsej) were descendants of kinfolk who had lived there since the time of the Huns, the people of the Hun Prince Csaba, one of Attila's sons. On the other hand, we cannot preclude the possibility that during the earlier marauding raids small fragments of the Hungarians remained in the Carpathian Basin who then helped Árpád's Hungarians.

No matter how small a kernel of truth is concealed in the tale of the white horse, in the legend of the subjugation of the Slavs through trickery, one thing is certain: the movement of the Hungarians inside the Carpathian Basin slackened for a couple of years. First they only reached the Danube; it was only after five years, near the end of the century, that they took possession of earlier Pannonia to the west of the former Roman limes -the chronicles at times extend this name mistakenly to all of the Carpathian Basin. At this time, however, their mobility returned. Hardly a year passed without their swift, ransoming armies appearing in ever more distant regions. Their horses waded in the waters of the Baltic Sea in the north and in the Channel in the west; they reached the middle of the Iberian Peninsula in the southwest; they cast a glance at Sicily from the Italian Peninsula in the south; on Greek soil they left only the Peloponnesus untouched; and the Bosporus barred their way in the east. They cut their way through peoples, countries, and borders "like a knife through butter."

The pagan legendarium of these Hungarians is full of deeds about their own glory: about Botond the Champion, who smashed the iron gate of Byzantium with his own mace; about Chief Lél, or Lehel, who, having fallen prisoner and awaiting execution, slew the German prince Conrad, saying: "You will precede me and be my slave in the here after", in accord with the pagan belief that those whom warriors kill become their slaves "on the other side". Monastic annals of aggrieved individuals are also filled with their unholy atrocities. They are themselves from Hell, the breed of Satan, a scourge of God. A friar of St. Gallen, though not as a witness but years after the event, presented an account of the Hungarians' encampment in his monastery in 926 with such vivid liveliness that, whether he writes something bad or not so bad about them, we must accept it. What makes his history particularly believable is that while the friars of St. Gallen fled in panic, one of them stayed there because he had not received leather for his sandals. Ekkehard, the chronicler, called this fellow member, named Heribald, a half-wit. He is our witness. Let us not smile: the simple-minded speak the truth.

"At last they burst in, with their quivers and loaded with menacing javelins and arrows. They hunt through every room carefully, and it is certain they show no mercy to sex or age. They find him alone, just standing unperturbed in the middle of the room. They marvel at him: what can he want? why does he not flee? Meanwhile, the officers order their forces; ready to kill, not to use their weapons, and they interrogate him with the help of interpreters. When they become aware that they are dealing with a half-witted freak of nature, they all laugh and spare his life.

"They do not even touch St. Gallen's stone altar, for they had suffered disappointment in such things previously, never finding anything more than bones and ashes."

"Two of them climb up the belfry in the belief that the rooster on its peak is made of gold, that it could not be the god of place with this name unless it was made of precious metal. (Gallus = rooster.) One of them leans out more sharply to force it off with his lance, falls to the courtyard from the height, and is killed outright. Meanwhile, the other climbed to the top of the eastern facade to desecrate the god's shrine, and while he prepared himself to empty his bowels there, he tumbled backwards and crushed himself to death..."

"The officers take over the courtyard and carouse copiously. Heribald also gorges himself so much that, as he himself kept saying afterwards, he never lived better. And since, according to their custom, they sat down on the grass without chairs to eat, Heribald brought chairs for himself and a cleric taken prisoner. After having gnawed and torn the sacrificial cattle's shoulders and other half-raw parts solely with their teeth, without knives, the others kept tossing the gnawed bones at each other in sport. Everyone, without exception, drank as much wine as he wanted, which was placed in full buckets in the middle. After they became heated with wine, they began shouting frightfully to their gods, and they forced the cleric and the half-wit to do the same. And the cleric, since he knew their language well, which was why they let him live, shouted with them as hard as he could. But when he had behaved madly enough in their language, he began the antiphony on the Holy Cross tearfully, beginning with 'Bless us'-which Heribald also sang with him, though his voice was very hoarse. (The feast of the Holy Cross was to be the next day.) At the prisoners' strange song, all who were there crowded together, and releasing {heir jollity, they danced and wrestled in front of the leaders. Some clashed with weapons to demonstrate how skilled they were in military science."

With this sentence, let us leave our brave Friar Heribald to himself, who, perhaps, was not so simple-minded after all. Skill in military science-this was one of the key maxims of the Hungarian marauding raids. Now, we have to unravel what sent this newly arrived people time and time again on fearless attacks from their recently occupied homeland immediately after they settled on the boundary of the western world of that time, in between the Christians of the east and the west, in the vicinity of the parturition zone where the formation of the European nation states was just going on, having abandoned the region of the easily developing and disintegrating eastern "empires".

As for their warlike traditions, they are, in part, simply the routines of the eastern nomads. Without them they could not have survived during the long and bloody wanderings of the earlier centuries. In a curious way, they were enjoying the benefits of their late arrival in their new environment.

Economic and social developments achieved a new level from the Leitha to the west; they created new values and a new order. The city and the monastery, the handicraft industry and commerce, increasingly subsisting on money, demanded security and more effective protection of the achievements that existed under Rome before it collapsed under the attacks of the Germanic barbarians. Now, however, the political framework and the power essential to it were missing.

Byzantium was the frightening example of ossification, of centuries' long decline caused by ruinous dogmatism. In the west, technical development, Christian thought, and feudal society -the feudal subordination and superordination- transformed mental attitudes just as it did the way of life, and weaponry or the methods of waging war. Yet all this was endangered by a series of challenges by greedy Arabs (Saracens and Moors) from the south, by Normans (Vikings) attacking with their swift boats from the north, and first by Avars and later by Hungarian light cavalrymen from the east. Europe reacted slowly. Fragmented and quarreling over the spoils of the collapsed parts of the former Roman Empire, it not only offered itself unwittingly to its extortioners but even summoned them as allies in their anarchic struggles against one another.

At this time, the half-nomadic Hungarians could no longer content themselves with rich meadows, well stocked streams, and fertile lowlands. Their agriculturists, we know, did not participate in raiding parties; most of these campaigns commenced in the spring, the time of the greatest agricultural activity, and rarely ended before the harvest. Thus the marauders constituted the remaining one-fifth of the population. Did they, perhaps, have to abandon the nomadic life in their new smaller homeland? No. The sharp division of society had already taken place outside the Carpathians, with the elevation of a leading class that was so much the master of the tillers of the soil that its power was based on strong military retinues, in addition to material wealth.

These military retinues knew virtually no time of peace. It was not solely bravado and hot blood -the maintenance of warlike knowledge- that impelled the retinues and their leaders. With respect to sheer existence, the hoeing and plowing agriculture, horticulture, and still rather nomadic animal husbandry of this period were more than adequate to meet the needs of the entire population. But the leading classes' aspirations for power and fondness for pomp required riches and money, nor did the large military retinues content themselves only with the small portion that was tossed like a bone to them from the surplus yields of the new homeland.

The most dependable source of income for Árpád and his fellow officers, and for their descendants, was the regular annual tax exacted from neighboring peoples who were more peacefully inclined and settled, or who, for whatever reason, were see king military allies. Yet, for this, they had to display military strength, in order to cause fear among the neighbors in case they lagged in paying their taxes. And if this display of military power was insufficient, they had to strike hard and bloodily. The leading classes preferred first the certain and enormous peace taxes collected in a lump sum and second the military pay handed directly to them. On the other hand, the common soldiers in the military retinues were, with reason, more pleased with ransom and punitive campaigns when robbery was permitted; after all, on such occasions, most of the plunder wound up in their own knapsacks; but they also valued mercenary military expeditions, during which they had to spare the land of the employer's people but could pillage elsewhere at will.

For two generations, hardly a year passed without larger or smaller Hungarian armies being engaged in military ventures, sometimes strictly on their own but mostly on call. And in today's Czech, German, French, and Italian territories or in the Balkans there was scarcely a province, principality, kingdom, or other national structure whose leaders did not call for their occasional military assistance at one time or other and endure their attacks in service to their adversaries at another time. They seemed to appear on schedule on numerous military routes in many distant regions. Their guides came from the party that hired them, and they crossed most rivers peacefully-until they reached the lands of the next enemy. The great distances covered, the many battles they fought successfully, the ample ransom, the large number of prisoners -whom they did not often take home but released immediately for a ransom or sold as slaves, not really needing the manpower of prisoners of war (slaves) at home- all this proves that from the end of the ninth century to the middle of the tenth, the military retinues of the Hungarian leading classes obtained, in addition to some systematic taxation, substantial additional income by regularly hiring out their battle prowess.

Now then, what advantages derived from the lateness of their arrival? The Hungarians' mode of Asian nomadic warfare -the division of the army into several parts its lightning fast movement, the deceptive retreat, its very powerful bows, and its far-soaring arrows- surprised foot soldiers accustomed to the more cumbersome, closed battle formations, to moving on large horses, and to heavier weapons, and it muddled the inhabitants of cities and castles who often sought protection singly. On the other hand, their enemies were only slightly able to exploit their weaknesses -the fact that they were less able to wage war in the winter, that rain slackened their bowstrings, that they dispersed to pillage, that they had to lug their booty with them. Perhaps the Hungarians faced their greatest danger when their friends and foes suddenly regrouped themselves and, amid the disturbed power relations, the road back to the homeland became more difficult for armies roving so far away.

From the middle of the tenth century on, the dynamics of the incursions could no longer be supported. The employers -the rulers and aspiring rulers of Europe gradually realized their own stupidity. Politically, they recognized that by constantly weakening each other's people and economy through destruction by the roaming Hungarians, they were all ruining themselves. Militarily, they recognized that the warfare of Hungarian light cavalrymen was easy to see through and vulnerable, that this voracious people wedged in Central Europe could be tamed by answering trick with trick, by attacking the dispersed forces separately, not isolated in towns but with united forces.

Contrary to the contentions of western chronicles, it was not one and not two battles lost, not primarily the defeat inflicted by the German Otto I at Augsburg in 955 that staggered the marauding Hungarians. The victors exaggerated this news because of their intoxication with the triumph and the defeated because they wanted to calm the war fever back home. Did the ideals of gentle Christianity begin to exert influence on pagan traditions? Cause and effect were reversed. The wiser leaders of the Hungarian tribes and tribal confederations themselves awoke to what those they had blithely taxed until then or had served with blood for pay had suddenly realized to their dismay. The realization was mutual and affected both sides. The restless, full-blooded Hungarians must be settled among the ranks of the more prosperous peoples within the more secure borders of Christian Europe. Or they must be destroyed. And we must become a part of a Europe with a strange religion. Or the enemy will destroy us.

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