Written and Archaeological Sources

An investigation of Transylvania' history in the context of the Hungarian Conquest must take into account not only archaeological and toponymic date but also the most extensive and famous written 'source': the Gesta by Anonymus. Scholarly appraisals of that work, originating in various countries, have led to diametrically opposed conclusions, and these conclusions permeate the historical consciousness of nations in the Carpathian Basin. The following is an attempt to interpret Anonymus' account in the light of archaeological evidence.

This romantic account of the Hungarian Conquest was written around 1210 by a worldly and scholarly cleric whose identity remains a mystery (P dictus magister). He was, in all respects, a man of his time, and his work evidently reflects the concerns and circumstances that marked his epoch.

The work was written three hundred years after the conquest and some ten years before the proclamation of the Aranybulla (Golden Bull, the Hungarian equivalent of the Magna Carta). P. magister was acting as spokesman of the Hungarian nobility's interests; his artful chronicle was designed to demonstrate that the clans participating in the 'original conquest' possessed rights that were as concrete and inalienable as those of the Árpád dynasty. They had earned every inch of land with their blood, and all that they possessed had been granted by Árpád.

{1-272.} The author had no information — apart from some familial and tribal legends — regarding the actual circumstances of the conquest. Thus he had to invent enemies and rivals for his heroes to vanquish. He rather casually borrowed the names of rivers (Laborc), mountains (Tarcal, and Zobor, which, derived from the Slavic 'Śobor', means 'Church' mountain!), castles (Gyalu), and villages (Glad) to conjure up knights and chieftains: the Bulgar Laborcy, the Cumanian Turzol, the Czech Zobur, the Vlach Gelou, and the Bulgar Glad of Vidin. Drawing on folk tales, he identified the principal enemies as Salán and Ménmarót.

Anonymus obviously had no knowledge of the settlers' real enemies: Svatopluk I and II, Mojmir II, the German King Arnulf, Prince Braslav of Pannonia, the Bulgar Khan Simeon, and the Bavarian Prince Liutpold. He did not know of the conquest's crucial battle, at Pozsony (Bresalauspurc); nor of the local centres of resistance (which probably included Csongrád, Mosaburg, and Belgrade). Of the settlers' actual adversaries, which included the Moravians, Slovenes, Karantans, Franks, and Bavarians, he knew only of the Bulgars. Thus he arbitrarily counted among the Hungarians' opponents the Czechs, who at the time lived exclusively in the Czech Basin; the Cumanians, who moved to Europe only in the 11th century; and the Vlachs. His choices reflect the ethnic and political realities of the 12th century. Similarly, his Hungarian heroes are ancestors — those who could be traced back to 1000 — of great landowners of the 12th century. On the other hand, his work is an invaluable guide to Hungary in his own times, revealing geographical details and the prevailing property relations.

The local 'centres' of resistance noted by Anonymus were the products not only of his fertile imagination but also of contemporary folklore. In his version, the modest Bulgar earthworks on the Tisza known as the 'Black Castle' (Chernigrad/Csongrád) were raised by the victorious chieftain Ete; he attributes the forts at Titel {1-273.} and Alpár to the Bulgar Salán, and the one at Bihar to the 'Bulgar-hearted' Ménmarót (the Moravian ruler Morout), when in fact all three earthworks dated from the Bronze Age.

The case of Alpár is particularly instructive, for it gives an accurate indication of Anonymus' 'method'. According to the Gesta, Árpád fought his decisive battle against Salán the Bulgar in the 'sands of Alpár'; by the time Salán's fleeing soldiers perish in the waters of the Tisza at 'Görögrév' ('Greek Crossing'), near Alpár, they had conveniently turned into Greeks. In fact, the portus Grecorum got its name in the 12th century, from the Basilite monks who controlled the river crossing. In 1974–77, excavations on a hill that rises above the Tisza's flood plain revealed the traces of 'castrum Olpar', an earthwork, with high ramparts, that had been constructed in the Bronze Age. There was not even a fragment of pottery to indicate that the fortification might have been occupied and used for military purposes in the 9th–11th centuries. Only around 1100 did a local potentate appropriate the site and rebuild it into a castle, with a raised interior court and strong log walls on the raised ramparts. Thus, in Anonymus' time, an authentic, well-maintained castrum stood above the remains of the Bronze Age earthworks; and, according to local legend, this fort had been built before the conquest by the Hungarians' enemies, the Bulgars. In popular imagination, many great earthworks dating from the Bronze Age and Iron Age — notably at Bihar, Zemplén, and Titel — had been the nests of enemies who confronted the Hungarian settlers. Such popular fantasies have as little historical significance as the supposedly evocative names given to sites after the end of Turkish occupation (Töröksánc, Tatársánc, Törökdomb, Töröktorony), which were actually earthworks dating from prehistoric or Árpádian times, ancient kurgans, and the ruins of Árpádian church steeples. (In Germany, too, there are numerous prehistoric earthworks and burial mounds that bear the misnomers Schwedenschanz and Schwedenhügel.) It is hard to escape the conclusion, therefore, {1-274.} that Anonymus had drawn on such folklore in order to concoct a heroic tale about Alpár.

So far, histories of Transylvania in the age of the Hungarian Conquest have been dominated by Anonymus' legacy, and this regardless of the author's national origin. Thus settler-conquerors arrived through the 'Verecke' and, proceeding from the Tisza valley along the Szamos and Maros rivers, 'attempted' to penetrate into Transylvania. From the very beginning, they are confronted by their great enemy, Menumorout, the 'Bulgar-hearted' Khazar leader, lord of the castles at Szatmár and Bihar. When the Hungarians fail to overcome his resistance, they form an alliance with him. (Menumorout was a folkloric character who allegedly had many lovers (amica) but sired neither a daughter nor a male heir, hence his name, which is Old Hungarian for 'Moravian stallion'.) Then there was Gelou, 'some Vlach (quidam Blacus) chief', who, from his fortress on the Szamos, rallied 'the inhabitants of that land' to resist the invaders. Cumanians, Bulgars, and Vlachs, led by Glad of Vidin, fought a series of losing battles all the way from the Maros to Orsova against Kadocsa's forces. The Hungarians waged a real war of conquest, but there is no evidence of the encounters related by Anonymus.

None of these romantic characters and skirmishes are mentioned in foreign sources dating from the 10th century, nor, for that matter, in the 11th century Hungarian chronicle, the Old Gesta (Gesta Ungarorum), which does contain some more plausible information. Moreover, the findings of archaeology contradict Anonymus.

The assessment of archaeological sites and finds has evolved and changed in pace with the 150-year long development of the science of archaeology. This is particularly the case with regard to the early Middle Ages — the period of the Great Migrations and the Hungarian Conquest.

{1-275.} When the sites and finds were still few in number, scholars tried to find some logical link between them. At first, graves that were isolated (or, in most cases, that only seemed isolated, for the sites were not properly searched) and contained weapons were summarily judged to be the burial places of heroes killed in some 'battle'. This predisposition remains a popular one, and it is not absent from some quasi-romantic evaluations of sites (e.g. the 'archaeological' assessment of a conquering chieftain's grave at Zemplén). As more and more isolated graves and small cemeteries were discovered, analysts would try to trace the 'invasion' route and the movements of armies; in other instances, they would conclude that the occupant of the grave had died 'defending' certain river crossings, mountain passes, and gorges. Later, when the perspective of economic history became dominant, analysts would trace trade routes on the basis of finds of similar material goods. More recently, graves holding weapons have been evaluated in terms of the progressive establishment of a Hungarian state — or, in the case of Transylvania, in terms of the 'expansion' of that state — and of the conflicts between the dominant power and local centres of resistance.

All the above are, at best, working hypotheses. The only certainty is that the graves and burial grounds indicate dwelling-places, settlements, or villages. Cemeteries of the 10th–11th century are the 'indicators' not of warfare, trade, or military policy, but rather — like other cemeteries in the world at large — of the act and pattern of settlement.

At the river Brenta, and then at Pozsony, the victorious Hungarians swept up the weapons of their fallen enemies — thousands of fine swords, with double-edged blades of damask steel, and spears with long, tempered heads; by 907, they had amassed sufficient 'western' weapons to equip an entire army. It is therefore an archaeological absurdity to claim that swords (and often horses as well) found in 10th-century graves around the Carpathian Basin {1-276.} must have belonged to 'local' warriors, on the grounds that the Hungarians 'invariably carried sabres'. The pattern of sword-finds cannot be readily identified with 'Viking' or 'Carolingian' trade routes. Nor can the swords be considered as exclusive archaeological indicators of the state structure under kings Géza or Stephen.

For a century, Hungarian archaeologists propounded a theory that was inspired by the dominant nobility: that only a free warrior who had been buried with his horse could be regarded as one of the Hungarian conquerors, and that other graves must have belonged to their servants or their new subjects. According to this essentially distorted view of history, the authentic settlers consisted of a few thousand noble warriors, and thus the archaeological legacy of the Conquest was limited to the graves of some 150–200 knights, with swords, sabres, and horses. Seldom has nationalistic bias done more damage to the interests of a nation.

The subsequent reassessment of historical, linguistic, and archaeological data reveals that under the rule of a small elite and of a 'middle' stratum, ordinary Hungarians established hundreds of villages and cemeteries. Despite this, the old biases endure. Even today, the only sites and finds in Transylvania commonly identified with the Hungarian Conquest are those that enjoyed this status in 1896, when the Conquest's millennium was celebrated.

The facts are these: The popular culture of Hungarians who lived in Transylvania in the 10th–12th centuries has no organic antecedents in that region in the 8th–9th centuries; the same is the case with the Tisza region. (There are, on the other hand, earlier traces in foreign lands.) The archaeological evidence, though faint, is indisputable; it points to a new population, a new pattern of settlement, and a new culture. If the evidence is sparse, it is because the last excavations and published, scholarly appraisals of Transylvanian cemeteries that held Hungarian settlers of the middle and lower social strata date back to 1912. Official reports on the one more recent find, cemetery 'B' at Maroskarna, insist that it did not belong to Hungarian settlers.