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Torn between East and West

"It can be said that Asia was the cradle of the Magyar, and this child of the East, who had been feeding on the breast of Asia for thousands of years, now came to learn in the schools of Europe," wrote the Hungarian writer Ferenc Jankovich about the arrival of the Magyars in the Carpathian Basin. This is an overly innocent characterization of the "child" who actually appeared on the European scene as a tough conqueror. Migration through unknown and hostile territories had transformed the Hungarian tribes into a nation of sturdy, well-disciplined warriors. Apart from Avar and early-Magyar remnants, they were not welcome in the center of Europe for more than one reason. First, they still were pagans amidst the burgeoning Christian nations, second, the Magyars were considered an alien race reminiscent of the accursed Huns, who had left traumatic memories lingering in European minds.

A Frightening Debut

Europe's fears seemed justified, because after their arrival, the Magyars immediately made their presence felt. The "child of the East" began not by learning, but by teaching lessons in the "schools" of Europe by introducing a new kind of warfare. For a period of seventy years Magyars harassed the West and South in alternating raids. Using their newly acquired Carpathian homeland as a base, wave after wave of fierce war parties swept through Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, with some raiders venturing as far as Spain.

Their first encounters with European armies brought reassurance that as fighters they were immensely superior to their adversaries. This military superiority was due to their valor, endurance, and method of warfare. Unlike their adversaries, they neither wore heavy armor nor carried unwieldy weapons. As horsemen armed only with light, slightly curved swords and arrows that could be used as daggers, these roughriders used stirrups - unknown until then in Europe -which enabled them to fire their arrows in every direction from galloping horses. Their bodies and their horses were protected by tough but resilient leather, and they used leather shields that protected them without overtaxing man or beast, or hampering their speed in the attack.

Thus, they were able to cover enormous distances on horseback and swoop down on the enemy when least expected. Foresight and prudence characterized their tactics. Attacks were not made on the spur of the moment, but only when the position and strategy of the enemy had been assessed. They either avoided engagements with superior forces or lured them on by feigning retreat, one of their favorite tactics. While the main body of the pursuing enemy enjoyed its momentary success and became exhausted in the chase, the Magyars would suddenly turn back and unloose a shower of arrows attacking the weakened pursuers with fierce battle cries of Huj-huj-hajrá! The term hip-hip-hurray is reminiscent of this battle cry. The unexpected turn of battle usually threw the enemy into confusion, causing their defeat.

In the tenth century, the fierce Magyar horsemen were feared as much as the Vikings. While the English looked with dread on the quick approach of the Viking "keel," the defenseless Germans listened with similar terror to the wild stampede of the Magyar horses. In the face of this danger, the Western world at first could do nothing but pray: From the Magyars' arrows deliver us, oh God! Meanwhile, the Magyars continued to ravage Western countries, following the Danube and Rhine one year, then sweeping along the Adriatic coast of the Apennine peninsula the next. These incursions were undertaken by individual tribes acting independently or in alliance with various European rulers. The most famous Magyar warlord of that era was Bulcsu, whose exploits are the subject of numerous legends.

Invincible No More

Thus, Europe's first impression of the newly arrived "child of the East" was terrifying. The Hungarians appeared to be a warlike nation of pagan conquerors: they seemed to be the successors of the Huns, formidable soldiers and adventurous plunderers. To some, the Magyar campaigns were a sign that the end of the world was at hand.

These campaigns, however were not prompted merely by a desire for looting but to ensure the safety of the new Hungarian homeland and to force political alliances with their reluctant neighbors.

As a result of their strategy, the Magyars were able to conclude alliances with the principalities of Upper Italy, Bavaria, and Saxony, all of which paid tribute


money to Hungary for a time. However, the King of Saxony, Henry the Fowler succeeded in outsmarting the Magyars in the long run. After capturing a prominent Magyar leader, Henry offered a ransom "in reverse" for his release: an alliance with Hungary for nine years during which he would even pay tribute money to the Magyars just to be left alone. The Magyars accepted the deal and did not bother Saxony for nine years. When the contract agreement expired, the Hungarians insisted on a continuance of Saxon tribute money, but all they got from the wily king was a package containing a dead dog.

There was good reason behind Henry's cockiness: during the nine years of peace he had built many fortresses and found ways to fend off Hungarian attacks. The key was the use of an armored cavalry. With its help, King Henry crushed the Magyars at Merseburg in 933 A.D. They suffered a similar defeat at Augsburg in 955 A.D. where, according to legend, only seven of the 40,000 Magyar warriors survived. This catastrophic defeat prompted Prince Taksony, Árpád's successor, to replenish the weakened stock of the Magyars by settling Petchenegs (bessenyök) in the new land.

Despite these defeats, the Magyars continued to harass the Greek Empire, and more than once overthrew the Greek army at the very gates of Constantinople. But the Greeks, too, learned how to repulse these attacks and finally forced the Hungarians to put an end to their marauding. It was good for Europe and good for the Hungarians, because this period taught them important lessons. As constant losses sapped their strength and diminished their prestige, it became clear that the Magyars were not invincible after all.

Defeat Leads to Christianity

Under such circumstances the new nation faced a historic moment of truth. With their manpower decimated, Magyar paganism, like that of the Avars before them, faced extinction. It became evident that the Magyars were doomed unless they quit their nomadic warrior habits and chose the plowshare instead of the sword. In addition, their pagan way of life had to be abandoned and replaced with Christianity.

The solution to this crisis was aided by the religious reform movement of Cluny in 994 A.D., which preached human brotherhood and established the ideal of Christian unity and peace. Until the time of the Cluny movement, conversion automatically meant incorporation into the Holy Roman Empire, but now, the moral force of the Cluny reform enabled the Magyars to join Western civilization without losing their independence.

At this historical crossroads, fate favored the Magyars by the entrance onto the scene of Grand Prince Géza (972-997), who first realized that the position of the Hungarians in Europe had completely changed, and nothing short of disaster would result from further dissipation of Magyar strength in border skirmishes. He saw the necessity for lasting and genuine reconciliation, even if it required sacrifice. And what sacrifice could be greater for a pagan


nation than to abandon her faith in favor of another religion?

This is precisely what Géza initiated by asking for Christian missionaries from the West. The German Emperor Otto the Great received his advances gladly, and invited Hungary in 973 to participate in a peace agreement in Quedlinburg. In this way, Hungary was accepted as a Christian nation, even though its conversion to Christianity was only beginning.

Grand Prince Géza issued decrees strictly forbidding his people to make raids on other countries, and welcomed foreign missionaries into his own. His decrees were unpopular "with the chieftains, the people, and especially with the pagan táltos (shamans), who were jealous of the Christian faith. Géza himself was in a precarious position. While expediency advised him to embrace Christianity, his soul still clung to the ancient religion, which included the sacrifice of white horses to the god of the Magyars (Hadúr).

Torn between East and West, he resolved the dilemma through compromise: he adopted Christianity, but continued to observe some pagan rites. "I am rich and powerful enough to offer sacrifices to two gods," he proudly declared. It is a little known fact that he received the name István (Stephen) in baptism, as did his son Vajk, who was christened as a child. Géza's rule, which lasted a quarter of a century, was marked by unceasing struggle against the pagan chieftains and shamans. When he died, opposition to Christianity was weakening, but far from gone.

Géza's greatness consisted not only in his adoption of the new faith for his country, but also in making a corollary decision: should Hungary adopt the Eastern Rite and add to the strength of the Byzantine Church, or should she join the West, thereby strengthening Roman Catholicism? It represented a landmark not only in the history of Hungary but also in that of Europe as a whole when Géza chose Rome over Constantinople. His choice made Hungary a bastion of Western Christendom for a thousand years to come. Consistent with his decision, he strengthened Hungary's ties with the West by skillfully arranging marriages between members of the Árpád and foreign dynasties. It created a sensation in Europe when he obtained the hand of Gizella, daughter of Bavarian Prince Henry II, for his son and heir, István.

During Géza's rule the Magyar tribes were gradually switching from sword to plowshare. It was a very slow transition. The Magyars, who had come from the East, still clung to their ancient faith. When they found their final resting place in Mother Earth their faces were turned back toward the East.

Logic would have dictated that if they had to choose Christianity, the Magyars would prefer its Eastern branch. But the opposite happened. Why? One not entirely sufficient explanation is that the Carpathian mountain range seals Hungary off from the East. Whatever the reason, Grand Prince Géza's historic decision initiating the transition from Paganism to Christianity rescued Hungary from oblivion and led her toward a veritable rebirth.


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