People of the Puszta

When you come from a family of the ultimate not-haves, just how cool is it to be able to hold up a book and say: “This has been written about us.”?

And a good book at that?

People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés (English translation)

Well, you can take it from me: it is cool. Precious, in fact. So much so that I wanted to make sure to pass this book on to my children.

Gyula Illyés

Gyula Illyés came from a piss-poor family in a puszta in the middle of Transdanubia, within a few kilometres of where my family comes from. By talent and hard work, he somehow managed to rise from the world of the puszta to become a famous writer and intellectual. He was only a few years older than my great-grandfather – who too was from a piss-poor family. The childhood Illyés describes was still pretty much the childhood my grandmother had; she remembered some of the events described in the book. I myself spent the long summer vacations of my childhood right there where many of these events happened; my grandparents, aunts and uncles speak with the same accent Illyés did. I used to drop into the same accent within days of arriving to my grandma’s house, every time.

The Puszta & its People

To understand where Illyés and my family come from, you have to understand the concept of the puszta as it then was in Transdanubia, Western-Hungary, because  generally in Hungarian and in the world this word is better known to mean big sweeping plains (like the steppes of Russia, say). A Transdanubian puszta on the other hand was a kind of a hamlet (if you can call the handful of buildings a hamlet) on the big farm estate.

In the beginning of the 20th century, when this book is set, most land in Transdanubia was held by a few big families who hardly ever even went near their estates but employed a farm manager or agent, who then managed the work force. This work force was invariably composed of the landless peasantry of which there was ample supply (despite of high rates of emigration to America). The peasants were hired as day labourers and if they managed to get a more permanent position, such as a coachman or a wheelwright, they were given some huts to live in right there on the puszta. Their life was very much like the life of a medieaval serf; their prospects to better themselves practically non-existent.

My great-grandfather was one of the lucky people: he had a permanent position. Moreover, he was employed as a coachman by the local landowner at a time when he couldn’t get any other work. He had come back from a Russian POW camp in the aftermath of World War I and as such he was ‘tainted’ by communist ideas and nobody would employ him. Thankfully the local land manager knew the family well and was not worried that my great-grandfather would want to start a communist agitation on the estate! (Nor did he.)

The people, my family included, lived in low single story houses which consisted of two rooms and a kitchen. These were strung out in a row:

room 1 – shared kitchen – room 2

Each family had a room to themselves, that sometimes meant twenty people in the same room: several generations. The families decorated their room as best as they could which was nothing much. They were often short of having enough furniture even. The floor was a dirt floor, ie. just the ground trampled solidly underfoot. This was the same in the kitchen which was shared with the neighbouring family. Each family had its side of the kitchen, so to speak, where they kept their pots and pans and their meagre supplies – having to borrow a spoonful of sugar or a few potatoes from the fellow kitchen user or the neighbours in the next building was common. No bathrooms of course; outhouses were built instead well away from the living spaces.

… I can remember only the house with its two tiny rooms adn the earth-floored kitchen in between. The yard stretched as far as the eye could see. When I first struggled over the well-worn threshold, the infinite world lay at my faltering feet. The house stood on a hill. Beneath it in the valley lay the puszta, which conformed to the usual pattern. To the right lived the steward, the farm foreman, the mason and the wheelwright; in the same block of buildings were the forge and the wheel-shop. To the left were three or four rows of long farm servants’ quarters, then there ws the manor-house among its age old trees, the the famr manager’s dwelling. Immediately opposite was a large cart-shed in Empire style, behind which on a little rise stood the granary and the ox-stables. All around lay the endless fields, speckled with the white smudges of distant villages.

The puszta families lived in a sort of timelessness. It’s not that area had no history (it has plenty and varied, all the way back to the Romans) but they themselves, being uneducated knew nothing much about it. Their life was ordained by the seasons.

It was something of a disgrace to be a puszta-dweller; it implied having no roots, no native land and no fixed above – which of course is true.

…If you want to know where a puszta-dweller comes from, you do not ask him where he lives or even less where he was born, but who his master is. My own family served mostly the Apponyis, then the Zichys, Wurms, Strassers and Königs and their relations – for the landed gentry were apt to exchange their servants for with their relatives: thus a clever cowman, a good-looking coachman or a deft-fingered gelder would be transferred or even presented to one of the relations, this being regarded by the servants themselves as a mark of special disctinction.

The lives of the families were mostly directed by the local landowner or his agent: it mattered little which puszta a child was born since the administrative arrangements kept changing (ie. which nearby village the puszta happened to be belonging) and the families could be uprooted from one day to another and transferred to another estate owned by the same land owner.

So we wandered from place to place, sometimes taking all our odds and ends, our collapsible hen-houses, our hens and the cow; sometimes it was only to visit relatives, a brother or sister-in-law who had suddenly been snatched away after living nearby for five or six years. Sometimes we drove all night and all morning in the wagon, but we were never away from a puszta, and felt at home everywhere. The house were I was born did not belong to my father, bu in the land of my birth, I received an unrivalled inheritance. I can call half a county my own.

The Gentle Back of Beyond

The Sió near Simontornya [Photo by blatniczky via Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0]
If the lives of the puszta people sounds bleak, it is because it was. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t beauty or joy in it. Families were tightly knit and supported each other. The landscape was gentle and is captured by Illyés in a beautiful, lyrical manner.

It’s a landscape of gently rolling hills, covered in wheat and corn fields, or sunflowers bowing heavily with full heads. Rows and clumps of trees break up the fields here and there, together with streams and small ponds in clearings, where nothing stirs the surface of the water and the vegetation around is lush and fresh green even in the hight of summer. The smell of hay and manure wafts across the roads which lead to the villages. The roads are edged with rows of poplars and acacias, and in their shade in August you often see camping tables set out piled high with fresh watermelons for sale. A large number of the puszta hamlets had a name prefixed with mud (as in Sárszentlőrinc, Mud St Lawrence); not so surprising perhaps because the the nearby Sió (a river and canal in one which connects Lake Balaton to the River Danube) supplies abundant water in the area. There is even the odd castle or castle ruin: for example Simontornya castle (hardly more than a keep) still has cannon balls embedded in the walls; whether fired by the Turks or the Labanc (Austrians during the Rákóczi War of Independence) the locals no longer remember; it was just another siege they withstood.

Everybody knew everybody among the puszta folk in Illyés’s time, and that still applies a hundred years later. When I walk down the street in the village (there are hardly any pusztas that still exist), sooner or later I’m bound to be hailed “You, my child! Are you not the daughter of So-and-so?… How does it go with you?” And you find yourself answering deferentially to an old birdlike hag whose name you don’t know, and who is dressed in full black from the hand-embroidered kerchief tied around her head to the buttons on her sensible shoes. Because however far you have risen out of the puszta, you are still one of them. In the end, I’m only the second generation, the second person of the family to have let. I might not remember the old people are, but they sure remember me and this provides me with a strange reassurance that I, as an individual, matter.

Conclusion

All this and more Gyula Illyés writes about in his wonderful book. People of the puszta is a part an auto-biography, part sociography (of a society that has now mostly disappeared), part a description a landscape, meshed with bits of the cultural heritage of the people who inhabit that landscape. Overall, it’s a wonderful concoction of a book and I can only recommend it, even if you have zero interest in the topic as such. I leave you with this recommendation:

A beautifully written, moving work of art.

(The Times Literary Supplement)

Brother Julianus: The Quest for the Lost Homeland

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.)

Brother Julianus (with Brother Gerhardus) points towards the ancient Hungarian homeland, statue in Budapest [Photo via Wikipedia]

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…

The first journey of Brother Julianus. [Photo credit unknown, retrieved via Google Search from tortenelmiportre.blog.hu, now inaccessible]

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

The History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps

Leer esto en castellano

After histories of England and Spain, here comes the history of one of the oldest continuously existing European nation states – Hungary. You know: one of these countries nobody has ever heard of.

The few who have heard of Hungary can attest that she has three claims to international fame:

  1. We speak an unspeakable language (one that no foreigner can master)
  2. The Ottoman emperor Suleiman, known to some misguided souls as the Magnificent, has been literally annoyed to death by the Hungarians¹
  3. Rubik’s cube

There are of course other things that Hungary can boast of: such as being the country with the worst ever hyperinflation in the world (1946), or, on a more positive note, having more Nobel prize winners, Olympic champions and even  chess grand masters per capita than most other countries… ²

But let us instead proceed to the maps!

Continue reading “The History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps”