Or the How the Window on the Origins of the Hungarians Slammed Shut in the 13th Century
I have recently finished a post, The History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps, and while writing it I’ve done a bit of research on the travels of a Dominican friar, Brother Julianus in the 13th century. Originally I was going to include it all in the post but I quickly realised that it was going to be long enough without this kind of detail. And yet, the story of Brother Julianus is worth to be told – it’s the story of setting off into the unknown, of encountering great hardships and coming back with great discoveries. A little bit like the story of Marco Polo, who only fifty years later went all the way to China. Marco Polo was a merchant; Brother Julianus was… a historian? a dreamer? a missionary? or perhaps a Papal spy? We don’t really know. What we do know is that Julianus set out to look for the ancient Hungarian homeland, found it and came back with the news of the rising Mongol Empire.
Note: If you're not familiar with early Hungarian history, you might want to read A History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps, at least the part which relates to the migration of the Hungarians towards the Carpathian Basin, before reading on.
Brother Julianus’s Quest for the Ancient Hungarian Homeland (1235-1237 A.D.)
We don’t know much about Brother Julianus, apart from his travels. We don’t know where he was born, or how old he was when he went travelling. We have no picture of him to show us what he looked like. He was a Dominican friar, and he set out from Hungary in 1235 in search of the Hungarians who according to the historical knowledge of the time had been left behind during the wanderings at one of the earlier homelands.
Julianus was actually not the first Dominican friar setting out from Hungary towards the east. The Dominican order in Hungary sent out missionaries beyond the Carpathians in the east to work among the neighbouring Cumans during the 1220s. The Cumans, originally not keen on the foreign missionaries, changed their minds after a Mongol attack, coming even to accept Hungarian suzerainty. Perhaps this was the moment when King Béla and the Dominicans started to contemplate seriously to start a search for their Hungarian kindred, further east. The old chronicles rather vaguely put the old Hungarian homeland somewhere called Meótisz, an area north of the Sea of Azov. King Béla sent out Brother Ottó with three companions towards the east, probably in 1231 or around. Three years later Ottó returned alone, in the guise of a merchant and terminally ill. He died within eight days of arriving home and if he said anything about where he’d been, no records survived.
The First Journey of Brother Julianus (1235-1236)
In 1235, possibly only after a year of Brother Ottó’s return, four more Dominican friars set off from Hungary: Brother Julianus, Brother Gerhardus and two other friars whose names we do not know. Searching, like Brother Ottó must have been, for the ancient homeland and their kindred folk living there.
Julianus and his companions made their way to Constantinople where they took passage on a ship crossing the Black Sea. From here they went on towards east and arriving in the lands of the Alans, around the northern shores of the Caspian Sea, where they stayed for about half a year. They found no Hungarians and their situation was difficult; the decision was made for two of the friars to turn back from here while Julianus and Gerhardus set off north.
Julianus and Gerhardus, ill equipped and uncertain of the way, crossed a desert area, only just about managing to reach the Muslim town of Bunda on the other side. They walked through the desert for thirty-seven days; by the time they arrived in Bunda, Gerhardus was very ill. Exhausted by the journey, he died within days. Still Julianus did not give up: he took service with a travelling Muslim priest in order to continue his journey. He finally arrived to Volga Bulgaria where…
In one of the towns of that country, which – as they say – can mobilise fifty thousand warriors, the friar found a Hungarian woman who had been given in marriage into this town from just that land which he was seeking. This [woman] explained to the friar which road to take and stated that at the distance of two days’ walking he would certainly find the Hungarians…
Incredibly, Brother Julianus found the descendants of those Hungarians who chose to stay behind some four or more centuries earlier – and they could still speak to each other without needing an interpreter! He named their land Magna Hungaria, Great Hungary.
[These Hungarians] Are pagans. They have no idea of God, although neither do they worship idols; they live like wild animals. They do not till the land, they eat horse, wolf and similar meats, they drink mare’s milk and blood. They rich in horses and weapons and very brave in warfare. From the traditions of old they know that the other Hungarians are their descendants but they don’t know where they live now.
Julianus only stayed with the Hungarians in Magna Hungaria for a month; being alone, he feared that should anything befall him, his discovery would be lost. He left Magna Hungaria on 21 June 1236 and instead of returning via Constantinople, he followed a northern trade route recommended to him by his fellow Hungarians; a trade route of the merchants of Kiev. He arrived safely back to Hungary on 27 December 1236.
In addition to bringing news of of our Hungarian kinsfolk in Magna Hungaria, he also brought news of the rising Mongol Empire:
The Tatar [Mongol] nation is their neighbour. When these Tatars attacked them, they could not overcome them in battle, in fact, in the first battle [the Hungarians] defeated them. Therefore they offered them to become their allies and so together they destroyed fifteen countries completely.
This named friar met some Tatars on the land of the Hungarians, and including the envoy of the ruling prince of the Tatars. This could speak in Hungarian, Russian, Cuman, German, Bulgarian and Tatar, and this same man said that the Tatar army, which was then at the distance of five days’ walking, wanted to march against Germany and that they were only waiting for another army which had been sent by the ruling prince to destroy the Persians. This same man also said that on the land of the Tatars there was a large nation which was bigger and taller than all other people and they had such large heads that their heads were out of proportion to their bodies. This nation wanted to break out of his country and intended to wage war on all who dared to resist, and they wanted to destroy every country that they could conquer.
(Relatio fratris Ricardi,
the report of Father Ricardus to the Papal Court about Julianus’s first journey)
Julianus’s first journey was written down by Father Ricardus after his return to Hungary, who reported on the journey to the Papal Court.
The Second Journey of Brother Julianus (1237)
A year later, in 1237, Brother Julianus tried to return to Magna Hungaria but was unable to reach it – it had already been overrun and destroyed by the Tatars (Mongols) and of the Hungarians who had lived there no trace remains.
That’s how we lost the opportunity to ever learn more about our origins…
Julianus recounted this second journey himself in a letter to Salvius de Salvis, the Bishop of Perugia, a Papal legate. The story he told included relatively little information about the Hungarians of the east, and none of them really new; which is not surprising as on this second journey he never reached Magna Hungaria, only heard about its destruction. So the letter mostly talked about how the Tatars rose to power and what wars they fought, including their campaign against Persia, their defeat of the Cumans, their fifteen years of war with the Hungarians of the east… As his source Julianus cited Pagan Hungarians, Bulgarians and others, who fleeing the Tatars had told him these things ‘in their own words’.
The letter also includes an entertaining description of the Khan’s palace, clearly based on hearsay, which, frankly, could have come straight out of the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights:
He [the Khan] has such a huge palace that a thousand horsemen can enter through one gate, and having bowed to him, the horsemen can also leave, staying on horseback. The aforementioned leader had himself made a huge and high bed, resting on golden pillars, a golden bed, I say, with the costliest ceiling; on which he sits proudly and glorified, covered in expensive clothes. The gates of the palace too are all made of gold, and his horsemen pass through it safe and sound. But if foreign envoys, whether they enter through the gate on horseback or on foot, if they touch the threshold with their feet, are cut down by sword on the spot; all foreigners have to enter with showing the greatest respect.
Julianus’s most valuable information, and one that history proved reasonably accurate, however, was his description of the Tatar campaign plan against Europe – how the Tatar army had been divided into different parts and sent against different countries, and what was the Tatar mode of fighting:
… it is said that they fire their arrows for longer distances than other nations. At the first encounter, it looks as if they were not merely firing arrows but as if a rain of arrows was falling from the sky. With their swords and their lances they are less skilful in combat. They organise their army so that every ten man is led by a Tatar, and every hundred by a captain…
The kings, princes and nobles of every conquered country, who are likely to organise resistance, are killed without delay. Then they send the soldiers and strong peasants into battle in front of themselves, giving them weapons and forcing them to fight. They leave other peasants, less fit to fight, to till the land, and they distribute the wives, daughters and female relatives of all the men forced into battle or killed among the peasants left to work the land…
Those soldiers who are forced to fight get little reward if they fight well and win – but if they fall in battle, they are no longer a problem. If, however, they retreat in battle, the Tatars kill them immediately; and so the fighters prefer to die in battle, rather than be massacred by the Tatars…
They do not besiege strong castles; they first destroy the land and rob the people, then collecting these people, they drive them into battle and to the siege of their own castles. I cannot write anything else of the multitude of this army but that the soldiers of all conquered countries are driven in the front and are forced to fight.
The Khan’s Ultimatum to Hungary
Julianus finished his letter with describing the plans of the Tatars against Europe and quoting the text of the Tatar ultimatum to Béla IV, King of Hungary.
It said by many, as a certain thing, and the Prince of Susdal had sent a message through me to the king of Hungary, that the Tatars are holding council night and day over how to defeat and conquer Christian Hungary. They are alleged to have decided to march on afterwards, to conquer Rome and the lands beyond Rome.
Therefore they [the Tatars] sent envoys to the king of Hungary, whom – as they crossed the country of Susdal – the prince of Susdal captured, and the prince took from the letter addressed to the king [of Hungary].
I and my companions saw these envoys. The prince of Susdal gave me the aforesaid letter, which I carried to the king of Hungary. The letter was written in Pagan characters but in the Tatar language. Therefore the king found many who could read it but none who could understand it. But as we travelled through Kerman, a big Pagan town, we found a man who translated it for us.
And the translation is the following:
“I, the Khan, the envoy of the Heavenly King, to whom power was given on earth to raise those who submit to me and to oppress those who resist me, am much surprised about you, king of Hungary; that when I have already sent envoys to you for the thirtieth time, why are you not sending any of them back; nor do you send me your own envoy and a letter in reply.
I know that you are a rich and powerful king, that you have many soldiers and you rule a big country alone. For this reason you find it difficult to submit yourself to me out of your own will; yet it would be better and more beneficial to you if you submitted to me willingly. I have found out also that you are protecting my Cuman servants. Therefore I order you not to keep these [the Cumans] with you in the future, and do not oppose me on their behalf. They find it easier to flee than you do, as they have no houses, and wandering with their tents perhaps they can escape me; but you, who dwell in houses, who have your castles and your towns, how will you escape from my hands?”
The Aftermath: The Tatar [Mongol] Invasion of Hungary in 1241
You would have thought that King Béla IV, having been amply forewarned by the Tatar ultimatum, had as good a chance to defend his kingdom against the Tatars as anybody could wish for. The Tatar manner of fighting too wasn’t that different from that of the Hungarians of some three centuries earlier. Nevertheless, when the Tatars broke into Hungary in 1241, in the battle of Muhi by the River Sajó, the king’s knights suffered a devastating defeat. Béla IV managed to escape with his life but he was pursued all the way to the Adriatic Sea; the Tatars then devastated the country, killing and capturing the population. The Tatar rule in Hungary only lasted a year but the loss of life and the material damage was tremendous.
Further Reading (sorry but not in English):
⇒ Relatio Fratris Ricardi, the report of Father Ricardus, held in the Vatican Library
⇒ The letter of Brother Julianus about his second journey to the Bishop of Perugia (Hungarian translation available here)
⇒ The chronicle of Bishop Rogerius, survivor of the Battle of Muhi, who escaped from captivity as the Mongols left the country