Because there are so many references to St. Stephen nowadays in Hungary I thought I ought to write a post on what "Hungary" looked liked in his days. In my narrative here I am relying heavily on Gyula Kristó's Szent István király (Budapest, 2001). Kristó starts off by saying that in the tenth century there was "no country" in the Carpathian Basin. There were several smaller units, but "a single Hungary didn't exist." That must be a blow to those who want to "return to the country of St. Stephen." The Hungarians in those days were still nomads, and nomads didn't rule within geographic regions but over groups of people. As a seventh-century Byzantine historian said: "The nomads didn't respect lawful borders." Another startling piece of information for the layman is that "the Hungarian people" of that period cannot be understood in terms of ethnicity. Everybody was "Hungarian" who was a subject of the "künde." The "künde" was the sacral leader of the nomadic tribes. The military leader of the joint forces of the tribes was the "gyula." "Hungary" was a "nomadic state" comprised of multiple tribes. Eventually the sacral leader's role changed: he became the "grand duke," to use a modern term. Even the designation "künde" disappared. "Gyula" lived on, but he no longer was the "joint chiefs of staff" (again to use a modern term) of the tribes.
In the middle of the tenth century there were seven Hungarian tribes, and each tribe had about 10,000 people. The eighth tribe was made up of the Kabars or Kavars, and it was much larger than the Hungarian tribes; it consisted of about 30,000 people. So the invaders or their descendants totaled no more than 100,000, while there were about 200,000 natives (various Slavic peoples and Avars) and slaves captured during their military campaigns. The newcomers were pagans who worshipped fire and the sun, who believed in an afterlife and in the spirits of their ancestors.
At the time of the conquest the "künde" was Álmos who according to legend was the son of a woman, Emese, and a mythical bird, the "turul." He died or was the victim of a sacrificial murder before the Hungarian tribes crossed the Carpathian Mountains. It was his son Árpád who led the eight tribes to the heart of the Basin. Árpád was the great grandfather of Vajk, the original name of St. Stephen. The rule of succession was based on seniority similar to the custom in Kievan Rus. Árpád had four sons, and after his death all four sons had to follow him on the "throne." We know almost nothing about these sons except their names. Vajk's grandfather was Taksony who was the son of Zoltán, the fourth son of Árpád. Vajk's father was Géza (originally named Gyeücsa) who was baptized in 963 as Stephen. His mother was Sarolt, daughter of Gyula whose headquarters were most likely in northern Transylvania and who no longer was the military leader of the tribes but filled the function of a judge. As far as we know, Gyula was practically independent and was considered at least in Byzantium the "king of Turkia," as they called Hungary in those days. Gyula was also baptized but in Byzantium according to Orthodox rights. His Christian name was also Stephen. His daughter Sarolt is rarely mentioned in the pious Christian legends of St. Stephen because, although she was a religious Christian, as the daughter and wife of a nomadic chief she apparently drank along with the men and rode a horse as well as if not better than any nomadic fighter.
Vajk was most likely born around 980, probably in Esztergom. The name "Vajk" is of Turkic origin. It means "hero, leader." When was he baptized? The guess is sometime around 995. Who baptized him? Most likely Adalbert, bishop of Prague, who a couple of years later died at the hands of pagan Prussians. It was most likely Adalbert who was instrumental in Stephen's marriage to Gisella, daughter of Henry the Quarrelsome of Bavaria. Her uncle was Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor. Put it this way: the marriage was a fantastic boost to Stephen who at that point could claim only a small portion of the country as his own. The wedding took place in 996. A year later Géza died and Stephen became "king." Foreigners at the time considered the rulers of the Hungarians "kings."
Stephen was "king" of a tiny, tiny "country" and even that piece of land was not secure. The problem lay in the nomadic custom of succession. When Géza, son of Taksony, followed his father on the "throne," the succession was not legitimate. Géza somehow convinced the rightful successor, Tar Szerind, a pagan relative, to be satisfied with governing the area that is today the county of Somogy. When Géza died, Tar Szerind's son Koppány considered himself the rightful successor to Géza. Moreover, again according to pagan nomadic custom, he wanted to marry Géza's widow, Sarolt. Koppány waged war against Stephen which Stephen most likely won only with the help of Bavarian troops. Koppány's body, according to pagan custom, was quartered and sent to different parts of the country. One quarter was sent to Esztergom, the second to Veszprém, the third to Győr, and the fourth to Transylvania! This piece of information tells us a lot about Stephen's limited kingdom: Esztergom, Veszprém, and Győr are all close to each other in the northern part of Transdanubia. Admittedly, sending a part of Koppány's body to Stephen's uncle Gyula in Transylvania didn't fit the pattern. Historians today assume that this was a warning that Gyula's rule over the northern part of Transylvania was soon to end.
As I mentioned, all foreign sources considered both Stephen and Gyula to be kings, so why did Stephen need a crown from the pope? In 996 Stephen received a lance from Bavaria which at the time was the symbol of kingship. Perhaps Stephen didn't want to be considered a vassal to the Holy Roman Emperor. In any event, the crown eventually came from Pope Sylvester II and Stephen was most likely crowned on January 1,1000, though not with the famous Crown of St. Stephen, which as we know never touched his head. With this act the Hungarian Kingdom, however small it was at that point, was internationally recognized as a Christian monarchy.
Stephen's next thirty years was spent getting rid of the heads of the other tribes. He started with his uncle Gyula in northern Transylvania in 1003. He won, arrested Gyula, his wife, and two sons and forcibly converted the people to Christianity. Gyula and his court had converted long before, but Christianity spread very slowly in these parts. He turned next against Keán, a puzzling figure of early Hungarian history. There is only one source that even mentions his name. According to this chronicle, Keán was the "leader of the Bulgarians and the Slavs.'" Where can we place them? Mostly likely in southern Transylvania, around Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia). Historians assume that Keán's ancestors were already living in the Carpathian Basin before the conquest. Keán's title was "voevode" or "vajda." Next he turned against the so-called "black Hungarians." These people probably lived somewhere along the lower Danube. Apparently they were called "black" Hungarians because "they were dark skinned like the Ethiopians." According to modern historians these "black Hungarians" were the descendants of the Kabars.
The Kabars lived not only in southern Hungary but also in northern Hungary around the Matra Mountains. Their leader was Aba Samuel who was a convert to Judaism. Here Stephen didn't employ force. Aba Samuel married one of Stephen's sisters. He handled Vata, chieftain of another tribe that settled around the river Körös (Criş in Romanian), somewhat similarly. By 1020 or so only one chieftain remained who was the ruler of an "independent country." His name was Ajtony and his territory was an area alongside the river Maros (Mureş in Romanian). The war against Ajtony began around 1028. By that time Stephen was about fifty years old so it was a relative of his, Csanád, who led the army. Ajtony died on the battlefield. Thus Stephen's rule can be compared to what in Russian history is called "the gathering of Russia." His whole reign was devoted to gathering the lands from nearby chieftains into his own hands.
Stephen and Gisella had only one son, Imre, the Hungarian version of Heinrich. Obviously named after his grandfather Henry the Quarrelsome. Stephen, who like most early medieval kings probably couldn't read or write, left behind a Latin text called "Exhortations" which was addressed to his "dear son." Surely, Stephen didn't know any Latin and it was undoubtedly one of the learned foreign priests from Bavaria who put his thoughts into Latin. It is a very pious piece of writing from which I think it is pretty clear that Stephen was a devout Christian. One could write a whole blog just on the "Exhortations," but here I want to quote just one of them. It is about foreigners and a country with "only one language and one custom." Hungarians are now quoting these words frequently in connection with Slovakia and Robert Fico. The people who suddenly discovered St. Stephen's exhortations usually quote only one sentence: "Because a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile." However, it is worth quoting the whole passage: "The guests (hospeses) and those who arrived from foreign countries are very useful…. Because these guests come from different countries and therefore they bring along diverse languages, different pieces of knowledge, different armed forces. All that brings embellishment to the kingship, raises the prestige of the court. Because a kingdom where only one language is spoken and only one custom is followed is weak and fragile. Therefore I call upon you my son to take care of them, respect them so they would stay with you, instead of living elsewhere." Surely, Stephen here wasn't talking about a multi-national state in the modern sense.