Marta Font

title.none: Berend, At the Gate of Christendom (Marta Font)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.020 02.09.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Marta Font, University Pics,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Berend, Nora. At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and Pagans in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000-c. 1300. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 340. 64.95. ISBN: 0-512-65185-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.20

Berend, Nora. At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and Pagans in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000-c. 1300. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 340. 64.95. ISBN: 0-512-65185-9.

Reviewed by:

Marta Font
University Pics

This book by Nora Berend introduces medieval Hungary from a special point of view. With the exception of historians, British and American readers are normallyy not aware of the fact that throughout her history Hungary has always been a 'receptive country', regularly giving home to settlers from whichever direction they have come. The term 'receptive country' was coined by Erik Fügedi, who researched into the history of the German and Italian-Wallonian (known as Latins in the Middle Ages in Hungary) settlers. E. Fügedi certainly had an easier task than Berend as he had a respectable amount of source material with which to work. The special position of medieval Hungary was due to the fact that, before St. Stephen's state organization, the Carpathian Basin as a geographical unit had never been subjected to any political centre. Both in the eyes of the Eastern Frankish Empire and Byzantium it was a borderland with a sparse population. The Hungarians coming to the Carpathian Basin cannot have been very numerous either, although estimates vary: Gy. Györffy sets the number of people living in the Carpathian Basin after the Hungarian Conquest at 600,000 whereas Gy. Kristó puts it at only 250,000.

Medieval Hungary was characterized by ethnic diversity and was a meeting point of many cultures. Berend relates very little of all these. Instead, the structure of her book implies that, in the period between 1000 - 1300, animosity between Christians and pagans was a constant phenomenon. This strange perspective is due to the lack of a comprehensive introductory chapter which could set the proper limits on the problem discussed. Some parts of the separate chapters (e.g. Medieval Hungary, pp. 17-23; Christians and non-Christians, pp. 42-60) provide information on medieval Hungary, though only sporadically and they do not describe the entire society. Readers do not receive an answer to why Hungary was prepared to accept settlement by anybody, Christians and non-Christians alike. One is also not told that, until the appearance of Cumans, Christian and non-Christian communities lived peacefully together. It is likely that the often quoted passage of the Admonitions of St. Stephen, according to which 'a country with one language and custom is weak and frail', has to be taken serious as a political programme. This evaded the author's attention, even though it might be the clue to understanding the survival of the medieval Hungarian Kingdom as well as the stability of royal power in it. It is a pity that these ideas only emerge on some pages of the Conclusion (268-272).

I was eager to find an explanation to the title of the book, At the Gate of Christendom. At first, one suspects that it is identical with the notion of Hungary as the 'bulwark of Christendom' which appeared after 1526. This notion is not unique, as it emerged in other central European countries, too, at the time of the wars against the Turks. In eastern Europe it was also used to refer to the wars with the Mongols. This notion is misplaced if applied to Middle Ages. Fortunately, this is not the case in Berend's book. For the author, the phrase 'Frontier of the Christendom' only means 'borderland' and a certain interpretation of it. Berend discusses the interpretations of the borders in European medieval scholarship in the Introduction (1-5.), as well as in the first part of Chapter One (Medievalists on the Frontiers, 6-7).

Yet in some cases I do disagree with the application of this notion to medieval Hungary. The author is unclear about what she means by 'borderland' in medieval Hungary and, in my view, Hungary cannot be called a 'borderland' between 1000-1300. It cannot have been the frontier of Christendom, as Hungary was surrounded by Christian countries in almost every direction: in the west, the Holy Roman Empire, in the south, Byzantium, and, from the early thirteenth century on, by the Bulgarian and Serbian Christian kingdoms. Pagans only lived in the area behind the southern and south-eastern parts of the range of the Carpathians. These were the Petchenegs and later, the Cumans. From the early thirteenth century on, this territory was the focus of missions from Hungary. First the German Knights, then the Dominicans, dispatched missionaries to the region. Given that, I do not really see why Hungary could be a borderland.

This lack of a definition of the borderland handicaps the entire book. After all, it might refer to the frontiers of the country, or the borders of administrative districts, counties, or estates. Duty, for example, was often paid at borderpoints of estates. These interpretations are not distinguished (24-28) and therefore the author cannot define the term gyepü. The gyepü was a zone controlled by the King's people which stretched inside the frontiers of the country. This zone was meant to control movements along the frontiers. This is why it had to do with the exercise of control over trade, as the author notes (27). The extension of the gyepü and its endpoint were uncertain and as changeable as the medieval frontiers in general. Likewise, the marchia, counties along the border, induced long and unsettled debates among Hungarian historians. On the other hand, the military defence of the borders is truly connected with alien ethnic groups. Thus Berend is right in underlining the significance of Moslems and Cumans. Nevertheless, the same could be said of some western settlers: one need only think of the short presence of the german Knights in the Barcaság (Burzenland) region, as well as the duty of Transylvanian Saxons to send soldiers.

One can also not agree with the author in her use of the term 'frontier society' in the case of Hungary. Hungary was a Christian country after the year 1000. The borders of dioceses were formed then, too. The received peoples must have been aware of the Christianity of Hungary. We have no evidence of the interaction of Chritian and non-Christian groups, but Christian elements probably prevailed. The sources reveal that Hungary was fairly tolerant, at least by contemporary standards, towards non-Christian elements, yet it wanted to turn them into Christians. Religious intolerance appeared towards Cumanians in the late thirteenth century. This, however, was a consequence of general papal-ecclesiastical efforts which throughout Europe. In my estimation the author is completely right to treat this context in a separate chapter (Conflicts between the Pappacy and the Kings, 149-189).

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the non-Christian groups formed separate communities, just like other newcomers. The settlements of a bigger, privileged non-Christian group (the Cumans) only followed the invasion of Mongols. Had the author been faithful to one of her own remarks (73), that 'Non-Christians in Hungary constituted a minority in relation to the Christian population', she would have had to abandon the term 'frontier society'. Likewise, there is little or misplaced mention of the fact that, prior to the arrival of the Mongols, the Hungarian Kingdom had been successful in averting the attaks of nomadic peoples along the astren frontiers.

The author's choice of chapter divisions makes repetition unavoidable. Although some repetition is made necessary by the scarcity of the sources, the author should have made clear that in the western Europe of the tenth to thirteenth centuries, sources are much more abundant. In Hungary, however, the production of documents only gained impetus in the thirteenth century. The author is right to question the second of the Cumanian Laws, inasmuch as the original is missing and even the interpolated copy dates to the eighteenth century (see E. Szentpétery, ed., Regesta Arpadiana [Budapest 1923-1930], 2: 247, no. 3000). On the other hand, it is a pity that the author's criticism of the historical literature is less accurate. For example, she uses the term Illustrated Chronicle in her reference to the SRH, although the work quoted (33, n. 101) makes use of the formulation 'a 14th-century chronicle composition'. The two are not only different in name but also in content. The SRH also contains the various readings available in the codices of its codex-familiy (E. Szentpétery, ed. Chronici Hungarici compositio saeculi XIV, in Scriptores Rerum Hungaricarum [Budapest, 1937-38], 239-505).

Even if I do not always agree with the author's way of dividing the topic into chapters, I find the short and compact summary of the Conclusion an exellent solution. One can fully agree with the position Berend maintains here. Some Hungarian historians have already given voice to similar ideas (e.g. József Deér, Pogány magyarság - keresztény magyarság [Budapest 1938]; Gyula Kristó, 'Vallási türelem az árpád-kori Magyarországon', in J. Jankovics, I. Monok, and J. Nyerges, edd., A magyar maveladés és a kereszténység [Budapest-Szeged, 1998], 485-496). Berend defends her position even when she has to debate with a world-wide authority on medieval history (viz., R. Bartlett, The Making of Europe). Following the strict logic of this brief Conclusion might have resulted in a shorter book with fewer repetitions. I deem the author's aim to make readers familiar with as many Hungarian works as possible, and her not limiting citations to English, German or French works very important. Berend thus gives a reliable coverage of Hungarian literature. Hopefully, some titles and authors will thereby make their way to the English-speaking public. This book, however, is no substitute for the small number of works on Hungarian history available in English, for instance the recent comprehensive work of Pál Engel on the Hungarian Middle Ages (The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Hungary 895-1526 [London, 2001]), Gyula Kristó's book on ninth-century Hungarian history (Hungarian History in the Ninth Century [Szeged, 1996]), or the interpretation of the Chronicle of Kézai by Jena Szacs ('Theoretical Elements in Master Simon of Kéza's Gesta Hungarorum (1282-1285),' in Simon of Kéza: The Deeds of the Hungarians [Budapest, 1999]). Berend's book delineates the special position of medieval Hungary by focusing on an important question. The fact that it has been published in English is a pioneering act itself. And although it is a pity that she did not illustrate her work with more maps, as it would not have been difficult to find adaptable material, one must underscore that Berend has written an important contribution to the literature of medieval history. Hers is a book which all students dealing with the history of Central Europe should be familiar with. I recommend it as a textbook to all my colleagues interested in the period.