Dr. Alexandru Madgearu

title.none: Bowlus, Battle of Lechfeld (Dr. Alexandru Madgearu)

identifier.other: baj9928.0801.023 08.01.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Alexandru Madgearu, Institute for Defence Studies and Military History, Bucharest, Romania,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Bowlus, Charles. The Battle of Lechfeld and its Aftermath, August 955: The End of the Age of Migrations in the Latin West. Aldershot, UK/ Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Pp. xxiv, 223. $94.95 0-7546-5470-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.01.23

Bowlus, Charles. The Battle of Lechfeld and its Aftermath, August 955: The End of the Age of Migrations in the Latin West. Aldershot, UK/ Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Pp. xxiv, 223. $94.95 0-7546-5470-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Alexandru Madgearu
Institute for Defence Studies and Military History, Bucharest, Romania

After studies on the Carolingian expansion toward the Middle Danubian basin that provided new insights for the eve of the Hungarian conquest of this area, [1] Charles Bowlus turns with this book to one major consequence of this event. The sources for the Hungarian attacks in the Western lands were carefully gathered a long time ago by Gina Fasoli [2], and more recent studies refined the chronology of the invasions. [3] Archaeological research has also provided new data on them. [4] These invasions suddenly ended in 955 when a large Hungarian army was defeated by Otto I. Bowlus explains how and why this happened.

The work has two main themes. One is the conflict itself. The second concerns the clash between two types of art of war, the western one and the nomad one. This discussion on Hungarian warfare is in turn largely based on the impact of the ecological and geographical conditions that enabled or, in this case, hindered the success of the fast offensives of lightly armed horsemen in confrontations with the heavy cavalry. The main ideas of the book were already presented in a study published a decade ago. [5]

In the first chapter, the author emphasizes the significance in world history of this victory that not only gave to Otto I the opportunity to proclaim himself emperor, but freed forever Western Europe from the danger represented by the nomad warriors, a fact that allowed its future economic growth (5-7). Most of the introduction concerns the credibility of the main sources, the chronicle of Widukind and the Life of St. Ulrich by Gerhard. A brief survey of the data shows that "the really decisive action took place during the Hungarians' retreat to their homeland several days following the initial encounters near Augsburg" (15), and that, contrary to previous clashes, the Hungarian army was almost annihilated. Bowlus contradicts the common perception of a battle in a single place, the Lechfeld plain, led during one day.

The second chapter (19-44) describes Hungarian strategy and tactics, in correlation with the potential of their war resources in campaigns, namely the fodder for the horses and the efficiency of their main weapon, the composite bow. The tactical advantage of the high mobility of mounted archers was made vulnerable when there were no sufficient grass areas for feeding horses, in the expeditions outside the Pannonian Plain between the Danube and Tisza (based on previous calculations made for steppe peoples, Bowlus estimates that all these feeding areas occupied by the Hungarians could support at most 15,000 archers). Such low manpower required the use of an infantry recruited from the sedentary subject population from Pannonia, while the limited amount of fodder restricted the time for sieges or for long campaigns. If such things as the limited capability of nomad manpower dependent on horse fodder were already known, another disadvantage of Hungarian warfare is for the first time fully analyzed in this book: the composite bow could not be properly used in a wet environment. This fact was crucial in the circumstances of the war of 955, because Bowlus is able to prove (in another chapter) that heavy rains occurred exactly in the decisive moments of the fights. He remembers that this inconvenience was remarked in the sixth century Strategikon ascribed to the emperor Maurice, for the same weapon used by the Avars. On the other hand, the composite bow is effective only at a great distance. Bowlus shows that light arrows were most efficient if launched from 400 meters. This means that Hungarian tactics required that they remain quite a distance from the enemy, and that a close fight against men armed with heavy swords could easily reverse the advantage given by the mobility of the light cavalry equipped with sabres. Bowlus shows that this redoubtable force was mainly composed from those warriors who occupied the plane between Szeged and Budapest (the so-called Nagy Alföld) and the district of Nyirség, in the north-eastern corner of present day Hungary. A small mistake should be signaled here: the cities of Szeged and Csongrád are in Hungary, not in Romania (41). The group of rich graves from Nyirség ended after the middle of the tenth century, and Bowlus seems to be right to link this with the extermination of the Hungarian army elite in 955.

The third chapter (45-71) deals with the background of the victory obtained by Otto, which was not possible without the military reforms operated by his father Henry I.They consisted in the conversion to a defence-in-depth strategy based on forts set near river crossings, and in the drilling of a strong infantry force recruited from the peasants (agrarii milites). The fighting capability of this new and disciplined army was checked in the wars against the Slavs after 930, but also against the Hungarians, in the battle of Riade (933). This battle displayed the importance of the forts garrisoned with agrarii milites, who resisted until hunger forced the Hungarians to accept a close fight with the heavy cavalry of Henry I. Bowlus shows thus how the future victory of 955 was enabled by the experience gained and by the careful organization of the armed forces.

The Hungarian inroads in the West and against Bulgaria and Byzantium before 955 are discussed in the next chapter (73-95). Bowlus supposes that the Byzantine Empire bribed the Hungarians to make raids in Bulgaria between 896 and 933. There is no proof for this. The gold coins found in Hungary are dated later, between 948 and 959 (they were paid to the allied chiefs Bulcsu and Gylas). The attack of 934 seen by Bowlus as a consequence of the cessation of the payments was directed not only against Byzantium, but also against Bulgaria and it happened only because the Hungarians suffered a major defeat in 933 at Riade. Only after this campaign did Byzantium try to prevent future raids by diplomacy. Theophanes sent to the Hungarians in 934 (and also after the next attack of 943, an event ignored by Bowlus) not a Patriarch of Constantinople, as Bowlus believes (74 and in the index), but a patrikios, therefore a civilian dignitary, not a prelate, as the author writes in the following phrase. [6] This mistake denotes a superficial reading of the secondary sources on Byzantine-Hungarian relations in the tenth century. One could suppose that the contacts established by Theophanes convinced Bulcsu and Gylas to ally with Constantine VII. They wished to strengthen their regional power against the supreme chief, the kende. Therefore, the orientation toward Constantinople concerned only two dissident rulers, not the entire Hungarian confederation as Bowlus seems to think. The consequences of the new treaty, negotiated in 948, were the visits of Bulcsu and Gylas to Constantinople. Only the latter respected the peace. The rest of the Hungarian chiefs remained hostile to Byzantium, including Bulcsu, who broke the alliance when Gylas became a new ally. Therefore, the history of Byzantine-Hungarian relations on the eve of 955 is more complicated than it appears from the few lines written by Bowlus. His idea that the ascending power of the East Frankish kingdom stimulated the orientation of the Hungarian chiefs toward Byzantium is nevertheless valuable.

In the same chapter Bowlus presents the rebellion of the Bavarian duchy (953-954), to which the Hungarians were attracted. This had as a final consequence the raid toward Augsburg, the subject of the fifth chapter, "The Way to the Lechfeld" (97-129). Bowlus provides a very detailed description of the events and the strategy followed by both parties. He has reconstituted the ways followed by the invaders and by the troops under the command of Otto, up to the siege of Augsburg. Worthy of mention is the idea that Otto applied elements of the art of war taken from Vegetius. Bowlus concludes that the victory of Augsburg did not destroy the elite units of the Hungarian army that hoped to reverse the fate of the conflict by a feigned retreat.

The careful strategy of Otto made this counteroffensive impossible. In the next chapter (131-162) an explanation for the victory of August 955, on the return from Augsburg, is offered. Bowlus shows that the decisive battle took place not exactly on the field of Lech, as it is usually known, and that the fight was not ended on 10 August. This chapter reveals why Otto was victorious. It was a combination of smart strategy and favorable conditions that made impossible the counteroffensive of the Hungarians. The sources attest that weather was stormy, and this had dramatic consequences for the enemy, whose composite bows were so sensitive to water. A no less important factor in the victory was the strong defence of the retreat paths, provided by the garrisons in the fortresses located near water crossings. The places were established by an ingenious deduction. Since it is known that the fight was made during St. Laurence's day and after, Bowlus has searched all the churches dedicated to St. Lawrence in the region, considering that they commemorate the event of 955. The result can be seen on map 8, and it is indeed convincing, because it covers all the possible crossing points. Most of these churches are placed near forts used in that time. In such conditions, the Hungarian army was almost annihilated.

In the conclusion, the author resumes the main ideas of the book, emphasizing that the decisive factor of the victory was the heavy rainfall that impeded the use of bows and the crossing of rivers on the retreat. He also sustains that the destruction of the Hungarian army caused the decline of the power center identified around Nyirség. The consequence was the rise of two other competing centers, near Budapest and near Szeged, both located in agricultural lands. This idea deserves full attention, but we should note that the development of the center north of Szeged began earlier. That was the area ruled by Gylas, where the mission of bishop Hierotheos was sent, and it is known that Gylas became an ally of Byzantium before the battle of 955. [7]



1. Franks, Moravians and Magyars. The Struggle for the Middle Danube 788-907, Philadelphia, 1995 and such studies as: "Warfare and Society in the Carolingian Ostmark," in Austrian History Yearbook, 14, 1978, p. 3-26; "Carolingian military hegemony in the Carpathian Basin 791-907," in F. R. Erkens (ed.), Karl der Große und das Erbe der Kulturen. Akten des 8. Symposiums des Mediävistenverbandes, Leipzig 15.-18. März 1999, Berlin, 2001, p. 153-158; "Italia-Bavaria-Avaria: The Grand Strategy behind Charlemagne's Renovatio Imperii in the West, in The Journal of Medieval Military History, 1, 2003, p. 43-60.

2. Le incursioni ungare in Europa nel secolo X, Firenze, 1945.

3. M. Schulze-Dörrlamm, "Das ungarische Kriegergrab von Aspres-ls-Corps. Untersuchungen zu den Ungarneinfällen nach Mittel-, West- und Südeuropa (899-955 n.Chr.) mit einem Excurs zur Münzchronologie altungarischer Gräber," Jahrbuch des Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseums Mainz, 31, 1984, p. 473-514; B. Le Calloc'h, Le Xme sicle et les Hongrois (Bibliothque finno-ougrienne, 12), Paris, 2002, p. 37-89; V. Spinei, The Great Migrations in the East and South East of Europe from the Ninth to the Thirteenth Century, Cluj-Napoca, 2003, p. 68-85.

4. M. Schulze-Dörrlamm, "Die Ungarneinfälle des 10. Jahrhunderts im Spiegel archäologischer Funde," in J. Henning (ed.), Europa im 10. Jahrhundert. Archäologie einer Aufbruchzeit. Internazionale Tagung in Vorbereitung der Ausstellung "Otto der Grosse, Magdeburg und Europa", Mainz, 2002, p. 109-122.

5. "Die Reitervölker des frühen Mittelalters im Osten des Abendlandes. Ökologische und militärische Gründe für ihr Versagen," in Ungarn-Jahrbuch. Zeitschrift für die Kunde Ungarns und verwandte Gebiete, München, 22, 1995-1996, p. 1-25.

6. For his career see R. Guilland, Recherches sur les institutions byzantines, Berlin-Amsterdam, 1967, vol. I, p. 219.

7. See C. Bálint, Südungarn im 10. Jahrhundert, Budapest, 1991, p. 118-120; A. Madgearu, The Romanians in the Anonymous Gesta Hungarorum. Truth and Fiction, Cluj-Napoca, 2005, p. 97-98.