History as an instrument of nationalism: Slovakia and Hungary

As I was writing about the mayor of Salgótarján and her incredible open letter to Robert Fico, prime minister of Slovakia, I became interested in the real history of the Hungarian and Slovak coats of arms. You may recall that the mayor generously stated that the Hungarians "don't even want to take back such precious symbols from [the Slovaks] as the three mountains and the double cross," today parts of both the Slovak and the Hungarian coats of arms. Well, I said to myself, that's an interesting project: let's see what the "real" situation is in this coat of arms controversy. Ah, the "real" story? That's almost impossible to come up with. Because there are two conflicting versions and no definitive way to decide between them.

First, let's take a look at the Slovak version. Here is the description of the coat of arms of Slovakia. It is composed of a silver double cross, elevated on the middle peak of a dark blue mountain consisting of three peaks. It is situated on a red early gothic shield. The double cross obviously has something to do with Christianity but even that is not so simple. According to the Slovak interpretation the three-peaked mountain represents the three symbolic Slovak mountains, Tatra, Fatra, Matra. As it turns out, the story of the mountains is not so simple either.

According to Slovak interpretation the double cross came to the area called Slovakia today by St. Cyril and St. Methodius, two missionaries from the Byzantine Empire. Apparently this double cross, known as the patriarchal cross, was used all over the Byzantine Empire already in the ninth century. According to the Slovaks Saint Stephen's coins already contained this double cross in "rudimentary form."  Here is Stephen's "denar" front and back.Szent Istvan denarja I must say that I don't see the double cross, not even in "rudimentary form," but perhaps others have better eyes. I further learned that Stephen before he became king was prince of the Principality of Nitra (Nyitra), a county and a town about 90 kilometers north of Komárno. Moreover, after his marriage to the Bavarian princess Gisella he and his wife actually lived in Nitra. Even after he was crowned as king of Hungary his court was in today's Bratislava (Pozsony) that was called in those days Prešporok. I will return to this Principality of Nitra question later. Now I would like to present the Hungarian arguments.

According to the Hungarian version, the double cross first appeared in the Hungarian coat of arms only at the end of the twelfth century, during the reign of Béla III. Béla grew up in the Byzantine court and was for a period the official heir to the throne there. But even after his return to Hungary, in order to claim the throne from his younger brother Géza, he kept up very good relations with Byzantium. The Holy Crown of Hungary which consists of two main parts, the corona graeca and the corona latina, was also created during his reign, again under Byzantine influence. As far as the three mountains are concerned, the Hungarians claim that Hungarian heraldics didn't like symbols that "floated," i.e. were not anchored in some fashion. Apparently as late as the fourteenth century there are examples of the double cross under which there is only one mountain not three. But by the fifteenth century the anchor for the double cross is definitely a mountain with three peaks. So while the Slovaks are certain that these three peaks symbolize the three Slovak mountains (one of which happens to be within the current Hungarian borders) Hungarians disagree. Admittedly, the Slovak interpretation is not new. It appeared in several codices around the end of the fifteenth century and was spread widely by István Werbőczy in his Tripartium in the first half of the sixteenth century. Most Hungarian heraldic experts think that the explanation of the three-peaked mountain is a kind of urban legend, mind you an old one, as is the belief that the four red and silver stripes in the Hungarian coat of arms represent the four Hungarian rivers: Duna, Tisza, Dráva, Száva.

Now let's return to the Principality of Nitra because I must admit it was new to me that Stephen before he became king had actually lived there with his new wife Gisella. Even Slovak sources are a bit hesitant when trying to tell the story. Let me quote one source: "It may have been a separate principality in the 8-12th centuries that existed as an independent state… or it may have been a nascent state that merged into Greater Moravia and lost its separate existence around 900." Here I will concentrate on the story of Nitra after the Hungarian conquest. As I mentioned the other day, there are very few written documents for these early years of Hungary's history. I pretty well summarized the other day what we definitely know about St. Stephen and his country. And there I couldn't find anything specific about Nitra. However, I most likely found the source of the story of Stephen and his young wife settling in Nitra after their marriage. The hypothesis appears in György Györffy, István király és műve (Budapest: Gondolat, 1977). According to Györffy (p. 115) recent archaeological excavations proved that the foundations of the cathedral at Nitra were laid only during the Age of the Arpads and not during Moravian times as had been earlier thought. They found the earlier church's foundations not on the top of the hill but down on the plain. This new church was named after St. Emmeram who was the patron saint of Regensburg. Therefore, says Györffy,  it is very likely that the cathedral was built after Gisella became the wife of Stephen. Because in the Middle Ages under the altar a relic had to be placed that belonged to the saint for whom the church was named, it is likely that the cathedral was built after Gisella's arrival in Hungary. So far, so good, but can we say that therefore "Stephen most likely took his wife to the castle of Nitra"?

So these people can argue constantly about a time about which we know very little. How useful is this? Well, it keeps medieval historians busy, but I would rather put my faith into archaeology when it comes to this period. I think that the Moravian church that was built on the plain and the later cathedral on the hill is far more interesting and tangible than whether Stephen and Gisella lived in Nitra or not.

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isti
Guest
Nice article. Re: Slovak-Hungarian differences: I have expressed similar sentiments elsewhere, but while this issue rages on it should be noted that this constant allusion to some type of ancient, proto-Slovak people is extremely tenuous…it is in fact fallacious; allegiance to any type of nation-state did not really exist in that era. There is no reliable research or evidence of this link to modern day Slovakia (est. 1993). 1000 years ago is a very long time. Debating the merits of “who rightfully belongs” to this area is useless and postings would rage endlessly. Indeed there are similarities between Slovaks and Hungarians; we are talking about a mixed region and Slovakia’s Hungarian minority have been living in the area for centuries. As such, minorities, whether ‘new arrivals’ or ‘long-time inhabitants’ should be valued and nurtured. The example of Canadian policy in recent decades is a good one (with Aboriginals, Francophones and more recently, Asians among many others). The fact is that there is a very significant minority living in the area (southern Slovakia); minorities and important aspects of their respective culture need to be nurtured and valued. Unfortunately legislating and politicizing linguistics and unnecessarily embarrassing neighbouring dignitaries (Mr. Solyom)…only does the… Read more »
M.J.
Guest

Funny isti:
“it should be noted that this constant allusion to some type of ancient, proto-Slovak people is extremely tenuous…it is in fact fallacious; allegiance to any type of nation-state did not really exist in that era.”
the funny thing is it should only apply to Slovaks, not to Magyars. Why?
Probably because only in the case of Slovaks:
“There is no reliable research or evidence of this link” (to modern day Slovakia).
Funny, I want to see reliable research and evidence of the link betwen the Arpad dynasty and modern day Hungary (est. 1989, at best 1918). It’s an absurdity.
Funny also:
“This point to Slovak insecurity on this issue.”
There is something Slovaks call “historical experience” with military attacks coming from the South.
And there also is a sad reality, as proven even by this very interesting blog – a lack of mutual knowledge. How come that the author didn’t know almost anything about the role of the County of Nitra in Great Moravia and consequently in Hungary?
Probably, because nobody cared about translating for example Ján Steinhübel’s Nitrianske kniežactvo in Hungarian.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest
MJ: “And there also is a sad reality, as proven even by this very interesting blog – a lack of mutual knowledge. How come that the author didn’t know almost anything about the role of the County of Nitra in Great Moravia and consequently in Hungary? Probably, because nobody cared about translating for example Ján Steinhübel’s Nitrianske kniežactvo in Hungarian.” It is very true that outside a small circle of historians dealing with this period the countries in the region know very little about each other’s research. But I would like to repeat that there is so little evidence for this early period that it is difficult to come up with any definitive answers to these questions. Györffy places Stephen in this area on the basis that he found one or perhaps two place names called Vajk in the county of Pozsony. But surely there was most likely more than one Vajk among the Magyars in those days. Györffy, for example, presents us with a neat map on which he places the seven tribes at different parts of the Carpathian Basin. All this on the basis of place names. I found this a dubious enterprise. But maybe I’m stuck in… Read more »
M.J.
Guest

Eva, I agree, but still, it would be nice to have Steinhubel’s masterpiece translated into Hungarian. It’s actually a quite recent book.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ: “Eva, I agree, but still, it would be nice to have Steinhubel’s masterpiece translated into Hungarian. It’s actually a quite recent book.”
Of course, no question. I agree with you.

M.J.
Guest

just for the sake of Steinhubel:
http://library.sk/aRL/browseview.php?id=0%21un_epca%21061272&language=slovak&ictx=sav&variables=0%21un_epca
By the way, Eva, in your article, I don’t see how the SK version contradicts the HU version concerning the cross.
And a detail: the Slovaks say that Stephen’s coins were already “hinting” at the double cross (whatever that means), but they also say, that they appeared on coins during Bela III’s reign, and that these coins were coined (also) in … Nitra.

Sophist
Guest

“But by the fifteenth century the anchor for the double cross is definitely a mountain with three peaks. So while the Slovaks are certain that these three peaks symbolize the three Slovak mountains (one of which happens to be within the current Hungarian borders)”
Oh, I do love a bit of heraldry! Jiri Louda (Czech, Slovak?) and Micheal Maclagan argue that:-
“It is with … Louis I … that we first meet the second Hungarian shield – Hungary modern – which displays a double cross on three green mounts”
Lines of succession: heraldry of the royal families of Europe, 1981, pg 173
I also remember reading, or being told – though lord knows where – that Nagy Lajos adopted these arms on becoming King of Poland in 1370. The three mounts do represent the Matra, Fatra and Tatra – which were entirely in his domains (the Tatra straddles the modern Polish-Slovak border. I looked for some sort of evidence of this, and found some!
comment image
This image of a forint struck between 1353 and 1357 shows the royal arms similar to those of his father Charles Robert. This supports the idea that he changed his arms later in his career, and becoming King of Poland would have been an obvious time to do so.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ: “By the way, Eva, in your article, I don’t see how the SK version contradicts the HU version concerning the cross.”
The Slovak version presupposes a continuum between Cyrill and Methodius and the later use of the double cross at the end of the 12th century. The Hungarian version claims that the use of double cross came only with the return of Béla III. At least this was my understanding of the matter.

Mike Stein
Guest

I am interested in Jan Steinhubel’s book in English. Can anyone tell me where I may find it please?
Thank you,
Michael Steinhubel, US

Sandor
Guest

I had also the life long understanding that the double cross was an Anjou import. And further, Sigmund exported it later to Europe, after becoming emperor, so it became the cross of Lorrain.

M.J.
Guest
Eva: “The Slovak version presupposes a continuum between Cyrill and Methodius and the later use of the double cross at the end of the 12th century. The Hungarian version claims that the use of double cross came only with the return of Béla III.” Ok, but this is not truly a contradiction, is it? At least not a contradiction that isn’t to be solved. If you take into account that the double cross is to be found on byzantine coins already from the 6th century, and if you take the time to think about the political nature of the Cyril and Methodius mission to Nitra, plus you take into account the subsequent development and try to reasonably answer the question of the mountains (cause honestly, the idea that Hungarians found it nicer the cross to be stuck in some kind of mountain for the sake of esthetics) it’s at least very probable, that the symbol existed on what is now Slovakia before Bela III. What I see is that both versions are compatible. It’s just a question of likelihood, and then what historians make out of it, and what the public + politicians make out of it. But if I… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ: “But if I read the works of Slovak historians – the serious ones, they don’t say it WAS like this. They always say it’s very likely it might have been.”
As it should be, but the trouble is that these serious historical monographs don’t reach the wider public. Neither in Slovakia, nor in Hungary, nor anywhere in the world. Instead, comes the popularized, simplified version used for political purposes.

Gábor
Guest
Actually it is a serious methodological mistake to treat heraldry symbols as if heraldry would have been the same in the – let’s say – dark ages and in the flourishing Middle Ages. Two venerable monks coming from Byzantinum in the ninth century is not the same as a knight-king coming from Byzantinum in the end of the 12th. That’s why I don’t found the solution offered by M. J. – double provenience – convincing. Knowing that Béla III. was appointed heir to Manuel II. who was considered to be the most chivalrous emperor makes the assumption more plausible that he implemented the double cross as a symbol. Otherwise, without material proofs the whole debate is pointless. If there are no archeological findings or contemporary written material supporting the idea of the existence of a kind of coat of arms of the Greater-Moravian state then we can only say with certainty that sometimes after the 12th century, and especially during the 14th the double cross and the three hills appeared. We can make as many hypothesis for earlier dates as many we want, but it is only a logical game, not serious historical science. (I like such games, but never… Read more »
M.J.
Guest

Gabor:
“Two venerable monks coming from Byzantinum in the ninth century is not the same as a knight-king coming from Byzantinum in the end of the 12th.”
You are judging here. That’s not science.
Some might say, as you were probably taught to consider the history of Great Moravia a secondary issue, you’re putting the emphasis on the 12th century etc.
So it comes down to the material “proofs”. Which is a rather delicate question, for all the people in the region, including Hungarians.
For the rest, I basically agree.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ: “Gabor: “Two venerable monks coming from Byzantinum in the ninth century is not the same as a knight-king coming from Byzantinum in the end of the 12th.” You are judging here. That’s not science.”
In defense of Gabor. Coats-of-arms became fashionable (commonplace?) with knightly activities and therefore it is not surprising that in Stephen’s time his flag under which his troops fought was a simple solid red color. (Oh, those poor Hungarian right-wingers!)So, this double cross wasn’t so much a religious symbol but by the twelfth-century, symbol of the Byzantine state.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ: “Gabor: “Two venerable monks coming from Byzantinum in the ninth century is not the same as a knight-king coming from Byzantinum in the end of the 12th.” You are judging here. That’s not science.”
In defence of Gabor. Coats-of-arms became fashionable (commonplace?) during the time of knightly activities. The double cross that appeared in Béla’s coat-of-arms wasn’t really a religious symbol. In Byzantium it symbolized secular power already in the ninth century.” According to one source it was “a political symbol used by Byzantine clerks and missionaries.”
One more thing in Stephen’s time there was no fancy coats-of-arms. We know that his troops fought under a red flag! Oh, those poor right-wingers! Red flag and St. Stephen!

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Here is an interesting site about Hungarian flags. http://www.nemzetijelkepek.hu/tortenelmi-galeria-2.shtml#galeriakep

M.J.
Guest

Eva: “Stephen’s time his flag under which his troops fought was a simple solid red color.”
Just curious: how do we know that?
Concerning:
“The double cross that appeared in Béla’s coat-of-arms wasn’t really a religious symbol. In Byzantium it symbolized secular power already in the ninth century.” According to one source it was “a political symbol used by Byzantine clerks and missionaries.”
SK historians and “heraldists” say just the same.

M.J.
Guest

Just for the fun from the other side – Slovak heraldist Vrtel, author of the current official symbol of the Slovak republic:
“Hungarian kings started to use it, and Byzantium didn’t protest. The Slovak National Council started to use it in 1848, and the Matica Slovenska in 1863, and Hungary didn’t protest either, then it was used by the Czechoslovak republic, and the current Slovak republic.”

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ: “Vrtel, author of the current official symbol of the Slovak republic: “Hungarian kings started to use it, and Byzantium didn’t protest.”
I read a bit on Béla III and it looks as if he had very close relations with Byzantium even after he had become Hungarian king. So, I don’t think that Byzantium would have objected. It may have been even possible that this double cross was the symbol of very close relations between the two countries.

Gábor
Guest
Maybe stating the obvious is judging and not science, but science has more to do with methodology (and one’s awareness for methodological issues and problems) than with statements issued. As Éva mentioned coat of arms is a relatively late invention, even though the symbols used on it had their roots in earlier times. Therefore the foremost methodological issue is to distinguish between the ninth century context and the 12th century context. Whether such symbols were used, among what circumstances, for what purpose, in which form etc. You can not simply equate the two situations. It is not convincing – just to repeat the phrase I used quite deliberately, as a sign of the nature and limits of my knowledge. (But one can mention other problems, rather parts of this puzzle, logical game, like power, symbols of power, legacy used by power – as the double cross is obviously, according to every variation offered, symbol of something powerful, whatever it means, secular or ecclesiastical one. Why was it used if it was used, why was it taken over from two Byzantine monks, accepted as a heritage, how it was transferred to a church built by dignitaries coming from the Holy Roman… Read more »
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