The Carpathian Basin and the Hungarian conquest

Sorry that I'm going back so far but the other day I heard the mayor of Komárno, Tibor Bastrnák, talk about Slovak and Hungarian historical consciousness. When the interviewer mentioned that according to Robert Fico the Slovaks' great king is not St. Stephen but Svatopluk, the mayor's reaction was rather peculiar: they don't care what the Slovaks think. St. Stephen was the king of the whole Carpathian Basin. It's that simple. Thus according to him there can be only one interpretation of the history of the region: the Hungarian one. As we know, the city council of Komárno refused to invite the Slovak president although the city fathers claim that St. Stephen is also the king of the Slovaks. Komárno's city council has twenty-five members and, judging by their given and family names, I found four or five ethnic Slovaks among them. The reason that I cannot decide whether their number is four or five is because the ethnic origin of one is questionable. His last name is Hungarian but his given name is Gabriel instead of Gábor. Sixty percent of the town's population is Hungarian and thirty-five percent is Slovak. Thus, if my linguistic reading is correct, the Hungarians are overrepresented in the city council. This is the same city council that refused to allow the erection of a statue of Cyrill and Method.

To get some perspective on this whole question, let's rewind to the conquest that in Hungarian is called "honfoglalás" (taking of the fatherland). This occupation, to the best of our knowledge, occurred between 896 and 899, but one must keep in mind that written sources are scarce for the period. There is no reliable mention of the Hungarians before 830 and therefore historians must piece together the earliest history of the Hungarians with the help of language–the original Finno-Ugric vocabulary and the loan words the marauding Hungarians picked up on their way to the Carpathian Basin. But linguists often disagree about the origins of certain words, starting with the word "magyar."

Even after 830 there are few references to Hungarians or even to the political map of the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century. The Svatopluk Fico was talking about was the "king" of Greater Moravia, but even the geographic position of Moravia is not at all certain. Apparently there were two Moravias–and, no, not just a greater and a lesser. However, the best guess is that the Carpathian Basin was divided among three "powers" in the ninth century: the Franks, the Moravians, and the Bulgarians. The centers of all three "empires" were outside of the Carpathian Basin. They came into possession of these territories by conquest. This area was basically a frontier zone, which might explain why the invading Hungarians had a relatively easy time.

The population of the Carpathian Basin at the time of the conquest was mostly Slavic. The evidence is that most of the geographic names of the area in Hungarian are either directly of Slavic origin or if earlier inhabitants (Dacians, Goths, Celts, and others) referred to the larger rivers, for example, in their own language, these names got into Hungarian through a Slavic filter. This is also true about names of towns or cities: Veszprém, Esztergom, Komárom, Pécs, and Nyitra. The language of these people varied greatly and the Slavic groups were even called by different names in the ninth century: Timociani, Abodriti, Praedenecenti, Sclavi, Marahenses, Sclavi Margenses, etc. In addition to the Slavic groups there was a larger but ever decreasing Avar population. The Avars spoke a Turkic language; until recently historians believed that the Avars disappeared in the sea of Slavic tribes prior to the arrival of the Hungarians. Lately, they changed their minds mostly as a result of recent archaeological finds. Anyone who's interested in the Avars should read András Róna-Tas's book available on the Internet, Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages. There are even a few place names today that have the word "várkony"  as part of them. In Byzantine sources these villages were called "uarhon(itai)" because "várkonys" (Avars) lived in them. In addition to the Avars another Turkic-speaking people lived in the area: the Onogurs or Wangars. By the time the Hungarians arrived on the scene these people were most likely Slavic speaking.

Thus, according to our current knowledge, on the eve of the conquest the Carpathian Basin was not an uninhabited or sparsely inhabited region. It is also likely that the Hungarian tribes were familiar with the area even before the famous conquest of 896. We have written sources that mention them fighting in an area which today comprises eastern parts of Austria. They were waging battles there, most likely at the request of Svatopluk, "king" of Greater Moravia in the early 880s, against Arnulf of Carinthia. However a few years later, in 892, the Hungarians are found in an alliance against Svatopluk. The alliance consisted of the "prince" of Poland, Wratislaw, the "king" of the Hungarians, Cusalan, and Arnulf of Carinthia. They attacked Svatopluk's Moravia from three sides. According to the source the Franks and Bavarians of Arnulf did terrible damage to Moravia, burning villages and killing young and old alike; apparently the Hungarians were even worse. According to the same source the Hungarians already took possession of large territories south of the Rivers Garam (Hron) and Danube. The attack and conquest of these territories didn't mean that Hungarian tribes actually settled in the area. That came a few years later. Soon enough the Hungarian fighting troops abandoned Arnulf and joined Svatopluk to fight the Franks. There is a highly suspect story, almost a legend, concocted by a chronicler of the early thirteenth century: Svatopluk was duped by the Hungarians who in return for some favor asked Svatopluk simply for some water from the Danube and for a handful of grass grown on the land in order to test the quality of the water and the grass. When he acceded to their modest request, the Hungarians put their own spin on the act; they claimed that Svatopluk had gave his land to the Hungarians.

There might be a kernel of truth in this story in the sense that the Hungarians might have demanded certain territories in compensation for the help given to Svatopluk against the Franks. Svatopluk died in 894, most likely fighting alongside the Hungarians against the Franks. His younger son, Svatopluk II, was the prince of Nitra. He died in 906, most likely fighting against the Hungarians who by that time had more or less settled in the the middle of the Carpathian Basin.

So, as we can see, the histories of both the Slovaks and the Hungarians are not so simple as some politicians today imagine. There is a lot of guesswork involved in piecing together a more or less coherent narrative. There are hypotheses that might be contradicted at any time by some new archaeological find. Written sources are unlikely to crop up. Historians have studied every bit of "evidence" that is often no more than a sentence here or there in a source written hundreds of years after the events. To imagine Greater Moravia as some Slovak or Czecho-Slovak empire, an ethnically and religiously homogenous country in the modern sense, is most likely a figment of the imagination. It is also unlikely that if the Hungarians hadn't arrived in the Carpathian Basin there would be a huge Slavic empire with a common language today. After all, the Poles and the Slovaks lived next to each other for centuries and yet there is a Polish language and a Slovak language. The same can be said about the Poles and the Ukrainians. Or the Croats and the Slovenes. And one could continue.

As for Svatopluk and the Hungarians chieftains, sometimes they were comrades in arms, at other times enemies. And the history after 896? Perhaps if the Hungarians hadn't arrived Arnulf and his successors, the Franks or the Bavarians, would have gobbled up the territory. It is quite obvious that these territories changed hands often. A very volatile situation existed. The upshot: it is highly unlikely that Robert Fico's "Ur-Slovaks" ever existed. These early Slovaks, according to the prime minister, had already settled in today's Slovakia when in other countries only animals were roaming! Well, well. Some mad Hungarians think that even Christ was Hungarian.  Or that writing was invented by Hungarians who had lived in the Carpathian Basin for more than ten thousand years!

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ovidiu
Guest

@ they don’t care what the Slovaks think. St. Stephen was the king of the whole Carpathian Basin. It’s that simple. Thus according to him there can be only one interpretation of the history of the region: the Hungarian one.
Right, that’s in a nutshell the problem with Solyom and his trips in the near-abroad and the meaning of Hungary’s neighbours irritation with (and rebukes of) his “unbelievable arrogant” behavior in their perception.
Rumor is that is on 4th August the Romanian president aked to visit Budapest along a with a small(symbolical, few vehicles) military convoy to mark the anniversary of 90 years since the taking of Budapest by Romanian Army in 4th Auguest 1919.
You know, it’s just history,
why would the hungarians get upset instead of cheering up along with the romanians such a ‘victory parade’ re-enactment ? No ?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ovidiu: “You know, it’s just history,
why would the hungarians get upset instead of cheering up along with the romanians such a ‘victory parade’ re-enactment ? No?”
Quite a few years ago I wrote a study in the East European Quarterly about Romanian and Allied involvement in the Hungarian coup d’état of 1919. I am quoting from it here: “The Romanians’ reception in Budapest was more than cordial: the disillusioned Hungarians welcomed the soldiers with a shower of late summer flowers.” My footnote indicates an eyewitness account by Aurél Stromfeld, former commander-in-chief of the Red Army. Of course, later the relations were strained between the Romanian army and the Hungarian authorities.
Good that you reminded me of this Romanian march into Budapest because I completely forgot about this study. Now I will save it in electronic form. The old issues of East European Quarterly (whose editor by the way was a Romanian-American, Stephen Fischer-Galati) are not available yet on the Internet. It would be a good project for someone. It was an important publication of historians dealing with the region.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ovidiu: “”Right, that’s in a nutshell the problem with Solyom and his trips in the near-abroad and the meaning of Hungary’s neighbours irritation with (and rebukes of) his “unbelievable arrogant” behavior in their perception.”
I almost forgot to say something about this. It was yesterday that the first time I noticed that the overly patriotic support of Sólyom was cracking. Quite a few very harsh comments were made in György Bolgár’s call-in show about Sólyom’s behavior. Earlier, a day before, I started to be fed up with the one-sided Hungarian reaction and decided to write an article which I sent off yesterday morning to one of the Hungarian dailies. Well, we will see what happens, if anything, on Monday.

Öcsi
Guest

“Good that you reminded me of this Romanian march into Budapest because I completely forgot about this study. Now I will save it in electronic form. The old issues of East European Quarterly (whose editor by the way was a Romanian-American, Stephen Fischer-Galati) are not available yet on the Internet. It would be a good project for someone. It was an important publication of historians dealing with the region.”
The East European Quarterly is available in many university libraries and articles are available through most Interlibrary loans departments. I know it’s old-fashioned way to access academic material but it still works…

Mihai
Guest

Eva, I love your blog but I will always be amazed by most Hungarians’ stubbornness to admit that there were Romanophones (Vlachs) living in the Carpathian Basin when Hungarians arrived in this area.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mihai: “Eva, I love your blog but I will always be amazed by most Hungarians’ stubbornness to admit that there were Romanophones (Vlachs) living in the Carpathian Basin when Hungarians arrived in this area.”
I think because there is no real evidence that would prove that they were. I studied the question a bit myself and I tend to agree with the linguists, archaeologists, and historians who claim that Latin-speaking people came into the area only in the thirteenth century are most likely correct. But in the final analysis it doesn’t really matter, does it?
As for oláh. I really don’t know why it is considered prejorative. If I had to guess, the Romanians objected to the use of it.

Mihai
Guest

I hope you realize that is a minority and antiquated view held by (almost exclusively) Hungarian authors.
It depends on what you understand by “final analysis”. Sure, it doesn’t matter from a political point of view but it matters from a historical one and we all know history can influence politics (the most recent example being the recent Hungarian-Slovakian row).
oláh. I don’t know either. Besides ‘büdös oláh’ I never herd about the word being used in a pejorative way. The word (vlah in Romanian) was an exonym and was not used by Romanians to talk about themselves. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they were the underdogs in the Hungarian Kingdom; similar to the way ‘Gypsy’/’cigány’ became to be considered pejorative.

promontor
Guest

“I hope you realize that is a minority and antiquated view held by (almost exclusively) Hungarian authors. ”
Well, to me it seems that this is a question that is very important for Romanians and Hungarians, but the rest of the world does not seem to care too much.
Thus, Romanians will (mostly) think that they used to live there before the Hungarians, while Hungarians (mostly) think the opposite. Since there are more Romanians, the “majority view” is clearly yours. Whether it is scientifically proven, that is another thing. 😉
About oláh: I do not know how and when it gained pejorative meaning in Hungarian, but I would say that today it clearly has that. BTW it is not used very frequently. (Also, oláh seems more pejorative than than tót for Slovaks, tha latter is not always used in pejorative context, at least this is my impression.)

ovidiu
Guest

“it seems that this is a question that is very important for Romanians and Hungarians, but the rest of the world does not seem to care too much.”
The “rest of the world” has always regarded the theories of both nations as heavily politically biased, and untrustwhorthy.
It has thought and still thinks that “on the whole it may be said that the truth lies between the two extremes.”
http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Vlachs

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ovidiu: “It has thought and still thinks that “on the whole it may be said that the truth lies between the two extremes.”
That usually doesn’t work. By the way, the link you gave is based on the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica but it is a tad out of date. Perhaps one day I will go through again the pros and cons of Romanian presence in the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century. Then we can have a good discussion.

ovidiu
Guest

@Then we can have a good discussion
Not very likely since no new facts or some sort of agreement has been reached on this issue since 1911. The Library of Congress in its country study about Hungary simply
warns its readers about the etno-politically biased theories which both counties try to promote internationally :
“Romanian and Hungarian historians disagree about the ethnicity of Transylvania’s population before the Magyars’ arrival”. These facts have fueled a centuries-long feud between Romanian and Hungarian historians over Transylvania.”
http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/hutoc.html

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ovidiu: “@Then we can have a good discussion
Not very likely since no new facts or some sort of agreement has been reached on this issue since 1911.”
Oh, sure. Archaeology, for example. By the way, I really think that this kind of “who was there earlier” is really useless. It makes no difference. The important thing is that eventually the Romanian ethnicity was in majority.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
About 535 AD/CE there was a volcanic event which took place probably in the Sundra Straights. This event by all accounts was a Humdinger! It seems that Papa Kracatoa (the predecessor to the one which blew ‘its top’ in 1883) blew not only its top but also its gaskets etc. There seems to have been an earlier eruption in 418 which was just a preparation for the big one in 535 AD. Giga tonnes of dust were blown into the atmosphere. The results were a dramatic cooling of the earth’s atmosphere and amongst other things, a spread of the plague (Justinian’s Plague). One source suggests that this plague killed between 50-60% of Europe’s population between 550 and 700AD. In the country side it spread more slowly, but lasted longer because of the low mobility of the population and one of the plague’s main vectors –the black rat-. The least vulnerable were the nomadic herding peoples whose lives were controlled by the need to move their stock every few days. The Magyars seem to have been such a people. By 850AD the plague had subsided but the land was almost empty so in they walked!
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Thus, if my linguistic reading is correct, the Hungarians are overrepresented in the city council. This is the same city council that refused to allow the erection of a statue of Cyrill and Method.

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Ovidiu
Guest

Eva “Quite a few years ago I wrote a study in the East European Quarterly ..”
Hi Eva,
Would you be so kind to send me the exact references for your paper and also for the eyewitness account of Aurél Stromfeld ?
(or maybe even your paper ?).
I used your observations recently in a debate but, when challanged for the proof, I could not produce anything. Googling doesn’t help, I can’t find anything written by Stromfeld.
Many thanks,
Ovidiu

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ovidiu, I sent you the paper in question.