Saturday, April 12, 2014

From Attila to Osman: Sorting the Nomads

Attila the Hun ushered in the Middle Ages and that period ended when another Turkic tribe, the Ottomans, captured Constantinople. I began this series with Attila; then, going in a circle roughly south, west, north, and east again, I’ve once more reached the region where Attila had had his base, thus Danubian basin, also the Carpathian basin, anciently Pannonia; these days that area is Hungary. In the last post on matters secular, concerning Charlemagne, I noted that he conquered a peoples called the Avars who were living there then. Who were these folk? Where did they come from? Is Avar another name for the Hungarians, the Magyars? And where, come to think of it, do those two names come from? Well, lets sort them all out, from A to O.

Let me first summarize this history as broadly as possible. In the period just before and a little after the Middle Ages, several major nomadic invasions of Western Europe took place mostly by Turkic-speaking peoples who had originated, or came directly from Mongolia moving to the west. These were Huns, Avars, Magyars, the Mongols of Genghis Khan, and finally the Osmanli, another Turkic group, whose name, mangled by the westerners, gave us the Ottomans. Of these only the majority of the Magyars, roughly seven of ten tribes, spoke Ugric rather than Turkic; the other three joined with them were of Turkic origin.

The map shows the prevalence today of the Turkic language. Most of the invasions we’re talking about were from the blue regions in the center of the map, usually to the West but rarely ever managing to get much past Hungary and the Balkans. To be sure, invading salients did, temporarily, penetrate deeper, but they were rarely more than extensive raids.

The invaders were nomadic, herding peoples. They lacked the institutional structures and habits that characterized those they attacked; the latter were agricultural peoples centered on towns and cities and accustomed for centuries to a highly organized—or, in the darkest times, reorganizing—realms with more or less stable borders. The Turkic invasions therefore represent the gradual absorption of a major segment of the Eurasian population into what might be called civilization—although the nomadic life-style is still more or less alive, if dying, in Mongolia and other fringe regions in that part of the world.

Some part, anyway, of the invasions recounted here, most particularly those of Genghis Khan, have been traced back to climate change, that change noted to have taken place in the near-deserts of northern Eurasia where tree-ring studies show a rain-rich period; it may have lifted population numbers (see this article in the National Geographic, link). At the same time, the invaders’ failure to completely overrun the much more humid and rainy reaches of Western Europe also owed something to water. Evidently the famed bow of the nomads was a composite made of horn, bamboo, and animal sinew bound together with animal glue. The glue deteriorated when becoming moist or in high humidity. I have this tidbit from Wikipedia (link).

My focus here will be on Hungary. That land, certainly its eastern extent, the Puszta or Great Hungarian Plain, most resembles the lands all of these invaders called home: great dry flatlands. Arriving in the Puszta, they felt at home again and usually set up their Western Headquarters. The Ottomans also, at their western-most extent, occupied that part of Hungary for 173 years. I’ve covered Attila in my first posting in this series (see link below). Therefore I will begin with the Avars. The timeline I’m providing here will guide us. Note that I have shaded the portion of this history that fall into the Middle Ages. The Ottoman’s held on to Hungary until the seventeenth century—but their empire lasted until the early twentieth. They left behind the relatively small region of Turkey—as the Hungarians still hold a much smaller central region of what had been the Greater Hungary (Nagy Magyarország, as I was taught in grade school).

The Avars. Much like Attila’s Huns before them, the Avars came from the region of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, thus roughly today’s Kazakhstan and Russia. (The Pontic here refers to the ancient name of the Black Sea, Pontus Euxinus, hospitable sea.) Much like the Huns before them, the Avars moved west under the pressure of a successfully expanding Turkish nation (let’s call it) known as the Göktürk Khaganate (derived from khagan or ruler). As the Avars came, they displaced the Germanic Gepids who, in turn had been allies of Attila, who, in his turn, had displaced the Goths who’d occupied Pannonia before his time. Endless this chain of human action to overcome and to be in turn displaced. The two images I show are the origins of the Avars and then the realm they had established for themselves when, colliding with Charlemagne, they were conquered in turn and the region of Pannonia became quite depopulated.

They were enabled to enter by the Byzantine Empire because that empire was always willing to grant lands to potential mercenaries on their borders. Furthermore, the Avars were seeking rich pastural lands, which the Puszta provided. The map shows them at their largest extent. By Charlemagne’s time they had been pushed back so that the Danube had become their border, but their intrigues with Bavaria eventually led to their own downfall.

The name of these people derives from the concept of “superiority,” “elevation,” “height.” Thus they thought of themselves as rulers. History, indeed life itself, teaches that such aspirations, taken too literally, are of brief duration.

The Magyars. Let me sort out the name first. The word  Magyar comes from Hungarian. In other languages Hungarian has a Turkic etymology, deriving from onogur, which simply means ten tribes; others talk of ten arrows. The O got changed into a U; in German the word is Ungar to this day. The leading H first appears in Medieval Latin. As for the Hungarians own name for themselves, it appears to have at one time been the name of a leading family spelled Megyer.

As noted earlier, ten tribes formed the Magyar group that inherited the Land of the Avars; of these three were Turkic-speaking tribes, the Kavars.  As any Hungarian can tell you, and I am one, communicating with the world is a major challenge, even with those who belong to the Finn-Ugric language group. Hence it does not surprise me that a Turkic name came to be attached to the Magyars very early.

The Hungarians originated in a small triangle formed in northern Russia by the Pechora river (it flows into the Arctic) and the Urals to the west of it. By the ninth century, parts of these peoples had come much further south. They were neighbors of the Pechenegs, another Turkic aggregation which then dominated the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. Under pressure they moved west and became mercenaries to the Byzantine empire in that realm’s efforts to hold off Bulgar incursions from the north. From there they moved into the Carpathian basin under Árpád, their overlord. They overcame the scattered peoples still left in depopulated Pannonia; the Hungarian tribes settled to the west, the Kavars to the east of the Tisza river which forms the western border of the Great Plains. Árpád defeated the German armies sent to block his advance (907).

From that time forward, the Magyars, behaving in accustomed nomadic/Hunnish style, launched numerous raids into Europe to acquire loot and slaves. They reached as far north as Denmark (915), as far West as Aquitaine in France (913, 934, 954), as far southwest as Spain (942), as far South as Italy (922, 947), and in all of these cases making their way through the German states. These forays were always both brief and not terribly destructive. They came to an end, finally, when Otto I—he who re-founded the Holy Roman Empire—defeated them decisively in the battle of Lechfeld (near Augsburg in Bavaria) in 955. Thereafter the Hungarians settled down—their own territories still intact, and began a process of aligning themselves to the European system by diplomacy and the acceptance of a feudal culture.

Those Carolingians, we might say here. Charlemagne dealt with the Avars. His very distant relative, Otto I, stopped the Magyars. In 975, Árpád’s grandson, Géza, accepted Catholicism after creating order from the chaos Otto’s victory had caused and Hungary entered the HRE by submitting to Otto II. The maps show the origin of the Ugric-speaking peoples (above), the extent of Hungary’s sway, and the raids launched by the Magyars on Western Europe between 908-955 (below). Note here the similar shape of the Magyar and Avar kingdoms.

The Mongols. Although the name of Genghis Khan still reverberates in the European collective memory as persistently as does Hitler’s, most of the great terror wrought in the world by that rather
formidable conqueror was felt in the far and central east of Eurasia. Genghis Kahn came close to capturing Constantinople and overran a piece of the Byzantine Empire, but as for Europe, they only ravaged two counties, those where Brigitte and I were born, Poland and Hungary. I can show this using two maps. The first shows the major salients of Genghis Khan’s incursions, of which the only arrow that touches Europe is the one to the bottom left.

The second map shows the extent of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan and his successor, Kublai Khan. Note that the Poland and Hungary were battle-grounds but were not incorporated into the Mongol Empire. Both countries were overrun and devastated, but the war lasted about a year. Suddenly the Mongol armies retreated.

By the time these armies entered Hungary and Poland in 1241, Genghis Khan had already been dead for fifteen years, the Mongols then under this son, Ögedei Khan. That ruler, however, died in the Spring of 1242. The general commanding the forces in Europe, Batu Khan, aspired to election as rule of the empire. Hence he immediately set out to return to Karakorum in Mongolia to be a participant in the process of naming a successor. The distance from, say, Budapest to Karakorum using modern roads is 4,650 miles. Batu had a ways to go—and catching a flight was not then an option.

Where the Mongols touched Europe, they were overwhelming. But the experience of defeat taught the Hungarians and Poles a lesson. In both realms fortified centers, like castles, were only present in border regions. Once the Mongols got past these, they had a free hand. After Batu Khan’s withdrawal, a castle-building boom began. And both realms had just time enough to fortify. The Mongols returned again in the 1280s; Kublai Khan had since ascended to the Mongol throne. Each Mongol attack was promptly and decisively defeated, and the Mongols would not again return. Technology, we might say. Technology.

The Ottomans. Let me bring this post to a close by at least mentioning the Ottomans. They were the last of the Turkic invaders. For them a partial conquest of Hungary was on the point of their extreme extension. They came from the south, some seventy-four years after capturing Constantinople and thus officially ending the Middle Ages. I’ll say no more than that because I want to speak much more extensively of the Ottomans in a later post toward the end of this series. The little more that I would say here is that the Ottomans, while certainly from the same roots, both geographically as well culturally, as the earlier invaders, had learned many lessons from the successes and failures of their predecessors. They built an empire that later coincided with that of the Byzantine. And they held on to it to just about the time that Brigitte and I were born.
Images from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica:

Turkic Languages
Pontic-Caspian Steppe
Avar Domain
Hungarian Domain
Hungarian Raids
Mongol Routes of Invasion
Mongol Empire*

*This map used to be on Wikipedia but has, since my earlier posting, been removed.

Middle Ages Posts:

Women in  the Middle Ages


  1. This was very interesting; it's easy to forget just how much was going on there. Hungary seems like the Concourse of Europe; everybody stops by for a while!

    1. Very true. I like to say that Demography rules -- but what lies above it Geography...


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