A steppe people who spoke an Ugrian or central Asiatic language, the Magyars had definitively abandoned their nomadic ways after Otto the Great’s effective defeat of their forces in 955 at the battle of the Lechfeld, a site on the River Lech, a tributary of the Danube, in the very shadow of the ancient city of Augsburg (a Roman foundation). Unlike the small and rather more typical raiding parties, the army that the soon-to-be Roman emperor Otto I crushed was huge and assembled from the full array of Magyar tribes. The clan chiefs had concluded, no doubt from the predictions of their shamans, that fortune would bless their enterprise.
The ‘luckless’ Magyars were therefore deeply disturbed by the defeat, for in the mental universe of the nomadic steppe peoples, fortune was like a god or goddess. To lose and to lose so decisively was similar to becoming bereft of the mandate of heaven. And there were no easy major victories to be had in the aftermath of the defeat to recover the luck. To the south-east of the Hungarian plain the Byzantines might be bested in a skirmish here or there, but their own material defences were generally strong and they maintained defensive alliances that helped keep the Magyars at bay. They also, through bribery, managed to sow dissension among the chieftains of the various Magyar tribes.
The Magyars, the name of one clan among many, had long occupied the Hungarian plain, an appellation that derives from another name the tribesmen bore, Onogur. This became the core territory of their settlement, and to some extent maps nicely onto the modern map of Europe as the small country of Hungary. But the medieval kingdom, at its height, was far larger, overspreading additional areas now belonging to Slovakia, Ukraine, Rumania and Croatia. Much of the land, the great plain, was very suitable for agriculture and horse culture, but it was ringed by mountains like the Carpathians and the Balkans that provided some natural defences for the agricultural pursuits of the newly settled population, whose size was still less than one million in the early eleventh century. And there were natural resources, like salt, from which steady income could be obtained by clan chieftains to supplement the wealth from crops and raising horses.
The Hungarian monarchy was not that much younger than the empire of Charlemagne which the Ottonians claimed as their lineage, since the Árpádian dynasty, chieftains of a clan that came to dominate Magyar society, dates from at least 875. However, as noted, the territorial character and early geographical limits of the realm were confirmed by military defeat only with the battle of Lechfeld, and the monarchy took on Christian trappings later still. An usurper, Stephen I (St Stephen [997–1038]), the first fully Christian king, was consecrated in a ceremony on 1 January 1001 or perhaps a week earlier, on Christmas Day 1000, with a crown and other regalia, including a lance, sent from Rome that came with the joint blessing of the German emperor and the pope.
The Hungarian rule of succession, on the death of a grand prince, favoured the oldest closely related prince, not necessarily the grand prince’s own offspring. Stephen, the son of Grand Prince Geza and the Transylvanian princess, Sarolt, known as The White Lady’, nonetheless seized power from Koppány, his older pagan kinsman, and in the aftermath proved himself to be a gifted ruler whose personal devotion to Latin Christianity far exceeded his father’s nominal regard for the religion. Stephen was nearly unmatched – for the time and in so recently converted a kingdom – in his feverish effort to establish the essential institutional underpinnings of the Catholic faith. Esztergom, the site of the coronation, became, with papal permission, an archbishop’s see, and four more bishoprics were established by 1010. The king typically employed Latin prelates brought from abroad and therefore absolutely dependent on his goodwill to rule the new sees and the major monasteries. As in Anglo-Saxon England, the church in Hungary became an integral part of the state.
Politically, Stephen moved against rivals, some of whom were pagan, some Orthodox Christians, but all of whom opposed both his attachment to papally sponsored evangelization in Hungary and his broader plans for consolidation of his power and the Church’s, which required widespread confiscations of property. These confiscations followed Stephen’s usurpation but instituted long-standing plans of his pagan predecessors to consolidate tribal lands under their control. In a series of savage campaigns (1003–8), including one that put an end to the deposed Koppány (he was pitilessly hacked to death, possibly at the grisly insistence of Stephen’s mother, Sarol the White Lady), Stephen silenced the opposition. For twenty years afterwards he was virtually without open opponents inside Hungary.
Stephen’s borders were less secure. To be sure, his relations with the Empire seemed stable and pacific enough. His wife, Gisela, was the daughter of Henry, the duke of Bavaria, and the sister of Emperor Henry II. The royal couple chose to name their son and putative heir Imre, the Hungarian version of Henry, as a symbolic reminder of their tie to the imperial family. Moreover, five years after their marriage in 995, Stephen, as we have seen, received his crown with imperial acquiescence. Nevertheless, disputes with a subsequent emperor, Conrad II, undermined relations between the two countries and provoked the latter to invade Hungary in 1030.
To the north-east and east, military pressure both from Poland and from pagan Pecheneg tribesmen threatened the borderlands of the kingdom. In the case of Poland, the intermittent fighting was part and parcel of attempts on the part of the Polish princes to escape imperial control and expand their influence towards Bohemia and southwards, where they came into conflict with the Hungarians. In the case of the Pechenegs, the situation was even more complicated.
The Pechenegs, a confederation of Turkic-speaking tribes, had come across the Eurasian steppe more than a century before the christianization of Hungary, and indeed had accompanied the nomadic and pagan Magyars as allies. They fought skirmishes and wars with any number of their neighbours – nomadic and sedentary alike – including the Khazars, a heterogeneous mix of peoples of Iranian and Turkic origin, who created a kingdom whose ruling family converted to Judaism. But they also fought the Byzantines and the Russians as well. By the early eleventh century, while Stephen ruled in Hungary and partly because of the pressures of other military forces on them further east, the Pechenegs made inroads into the relatively newly acquired Transylvanian provinces of Stephen’s kingdom, provinces which the king had seized early in his reign from Prince Gyula, one of his Orthodox Christian uncles.
Despite the continuing border troubles, it is fair to say that within the heartland of Hungary, much of Stephen’s reign was a period of remarkable peace, and even an anxious and bitter peace such as that imposed by his iron hand encouraged the flourishing of administrative institutions and of culture in a more general sense. Territorial governments were carefully put in place, and in each, whether on the borders or in the heartland, a careful allotment of landed property was made to the Crown’s advantage, while also rewarding the king’s loyal subjects with whatever confiscated lands were available. Each of the territorial governments was supervised by a count in matters judicial, commercial (fairs), fiscal (estate management), and – especially in the border territories – military. As in Normandy and Anjou in contemporary northwestern Europe, the castles that served as the administrative and defensive centres of all of these territories were held directly by the ruler.
With government came the normative texts of governance. One of the earliest ‘Mirrors of Princes’ – handbooks on ideal rulership which would emerge as a major genre of political writing all over Europe in the next three centuries – seems to date from or soon after Stephen’s reign. Stephen issued codes of laws, or codes were quickly attributed to him, that rival those of the Anglo-Saxons in their comprehensiveness, with protections for the Church, elaborate requirements of wergild and other forms of punishment, and penalties for witches and wizards. Like Cnut of Denmark, who adopted from Anglo-Saxon practice the minting of royal coins as a mode of unification in Denmark, Stephen also introduced royal coins as an assertion of his status as ruler of all Hungary.
Meanwhile, the king continued to endow bishoprics and monasteries, calling on reformers from the West, like the monks from the German monastery at Gorze, to help direct the effort. He encouraged the establishment of parishes and the building of parish churches. His chief subjects supported the nascent church with their own endowments both in imitation of the Crown’s policies and because of their own deepening commitment to Catholic Christianity. Northern European pilgrims and, later, crusaders found the land route through Hungary to points east to their liking, and Stephen and his successors supported the pilgrimage movement, including the foundation of pilgrim hostels as far distant as Rome and Jerusalem, with as much fervour as they increasingly did many other forms of Catholic devotion. Odilo, the abbot of Cluny, expressed the gratitude of Christendom (‘almost the whole world’) in a letter to King Stephen: ‘Almost the whole world speaks of how great the passion in your soul is in honour of our divine religion, especially those who returned from the tomb of Our Lord bear witness to you’ (Gyorffy, 1994, p. 89).
As in all eleventh-century kingdoms and lesser principalities, it was the succession that would test the institutions and traditions of unity and cohesion that founders like King Stephen initiated. It remained unclear how great the potential for a pagan revival and the devolution of power in Hungary was. The chieftains’ and counts’ commitment to Catholic Christianity was encouraging but still recent. The commitment of ordinary men and women would be a completely open question if the pressure for christianization emanating from the Crown were to relax. Castles that provided nodes of monarchical control in the countryside under Stephen could easily become centres of independent authority if royal governance faltered. To this extent, everything appeared to rest on the shoulders of Imre, Stephen’s son. If Imre, who seems to have shared his father’s vision of the Catholic kingdom, had lived, stability might have been maintained. But Imre died in a hunting accident in 1031, and the last years of Stephen’s life were tainted by lingering illness, mourning for Imre, and brooding over whom he should name as heir.
His suspicions of his nearer kinsmen motivated him to name Peter Orseolo, the son of the doge of Venice and his own nephew, as his successor, a choice that prompted rather than averted a succession crisis. Twice deposed, Peter could never provide effective leadership, and various factions within the royal family vied for power over the next several decades. Such strife precipitated both principled and opportunistic intervention by other territorial lords, notably the German emperors, who now had familial ties with so many of the Hungarian noble class. But these interventions, meant to protect German territorial and imperial family interests, never brought a decisive end to internal conflicts. They merely escalated the level of violence.
Two major popular rebellions also revealed deep social fissures in the country. The first, in 1046, was a pagan and new-Christian uprising against the fiscal obligations laid on the laity by Stephen and his ecclesiastical advisers. Its savagery was manifested by the execution of a number of high churchmen. The second, in 1061, is not considered primarily a pagan revival, for the successful repression of the rebels of 1046 had broken the back of the pagan party in Hungary. Instead, those sources that tell us what little we know about the rebellion of 1061 speak of it as an uprising of peasants, rural folk under the heavy obligations that necessarily came from supporting military defence, paying for the Church, and giving up so much of their surplus to lords and administrators. This rebellion was also put down, but it revealed the profound and enduring social cleavages of Hungarian society.
Hungary did not emerge from the kind of civil strife characterized by dynastic warfare and popular rebellion effectively until well after the mid-eleventh century. When it did so, however, it turned out that Stephen’s work had been well done. The infrastructure of christianization remained in place: parishes were still served in most areas by parish priests, even if their property had been violated. Despite the evidence of pagan strength in 1046, the majority of Hungarians do seem sincerely to have accepted the Catholic faith even by that date. Despite the rebellion of 1061 and the social fissures it laid bare, later kings drew on Stephen’s legacy to articulate a strong ideology of Hungarian unity and specialness. Under King Ladislas I (1077–95) efforts were made to reform the laws and improve economic life. Ladislas was effective, too, in rallying his people against the Cumans and other pagan steppe barbarians who threatened them. Under him and his successor King Coloman (1095–1116), Hungary also embarked on a successful period of territorial expansion into Croatia, eventually annexing the whole country. By the year 1100 it appeared that the luck, now in Christian rather than pagan form, had returned to the Magyar peoples of Hungary.