Sunday, June 24, 2018

Having A Bad Century

On or around June 23 of the year 942, a strange looking army of horsemen arrived outside the city of Lerida in the Caliphate of Cordoba.  The strangers were Magyars, from the area now known as Hungary, on their westernmost raid during the late 9th and early 10th centuries, having already passed through the lands that are now today Austria, Italy, and France.

Though the Caliphate was Muslim, most victims of the pagan Magyars were Christian, and for Christian Europe the period from the early 9th century to the mid-10th was one of constant threats that must have seemed potentially devastating.  It was during this same period that in addition to the Magyars, Vikings (Norsemen) were rampaging across much of the continent, and the Caliphate of Cordoba was at its peak of power while Muslim raiders from North Africa were launching attacks along the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

First to emerge as a threat was Islam (much of this story can also be found in the THC post The Song of Jan Sobieski).  A faith unknown to Europe in 630, a century later it had destroyed the Persian Empire, conquered the most prosperous part of the Byzantine world, and spread across North Africa, reaching the Atlantic, hopping over the Straits of Gibraltar, occupying the Iberian peninsula and the south of France (for an explanation of how Islam was given the opportunity to expand read A Great War).

By the mid-8th century the struggle between the Christian and Muslim worlds seems to have stabilized.  In the east, the Byzantines had recovered enough to at least halt Muslim expansion from gaining a permanent foothold on the Anatolian plateau.  In the west, Charles Martel threw back the invaders at the Battle of Martel, the Muslim occupation of lands north of the Pyrenees ended, and a few decades later Charlemagne crossed those mountains and reconquered Catalonia.

That stability ended early in the next century when a new threat arose in the central Mediterranean from the new consolidated Muslim state controlling what is now Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria.  In 827 the Muslim conquest of Sicily began.  At the same time a wave of Islamic piracy was unleashed all over the Mediterranean world.  Freebooting Muslim raiders established their own mini-states in southern Italy, and hired themselves out to Christian rulers on the Italian peninsula where they fought other Christian states while, in their free time, looting the local inhabitants.  In 846, a Muslim fleet even attacked Rome, looting St Peters, and further attempts on the city were made into the early 10th century.

The raiders captured Christians to take back to Africa for sale as slaves.  Though coastal inhabitants in Italy were most at risk, raiders also penetrated into Greece, the Balkans, France, and even into the Alps.  In 889, Muslim pirates arrived in the Gulf of St Tropez in Provence.  On a plateau a few miles inland they occupied the fortress of Frexinet.  From there they, at times, occupied the Alpine passes to Italy, and the towns of Grenoble, Nice, and Toulon, until being expelled in 973.

The Vikings were next to appear on the scene.  Their first appearance outside their native homelands in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, was in 793 when they descended on the island of Lindesfarne, off the coast of Northumberland in the north of England, looting its holy monastery, and killing its inhabitants.  One English chronicler of the time wrote "Never before in Britain has such a terror appeared".

More than a century of terror followed.  The light and versatile Viking sailing ships allowed the raiders to appear out of nowhere.  Their boats not only roamed the oceans but were able to penetrate far upriver and threaten inland cities.  All of the British isles were under constant attack and Vikings conquered large parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

France was frequently attacked with violent assaults far up both the Loire and Seine Rivers.  During the 9th century, Paris was twice subjected to siege which was only lifted upon hefty ransom payments by the French king.  Finally, in 911 Viking raiders captured Normandy, creating a permanent base from which England and Sicily would be conquered in the following century.

The Iberian peninsula, both Christian and Moslem ruled was also a target with Lisbon and Cadiz the subject of attacks, as was Italy where Pisa was sacked and Florence threatened.

In Eastern Europe, the Vikings penetrated the Russian river network and created the state of Rus, based in Kiev.  The Rus rulers carried out a lively trade with the Islamic Caliphate, sending Slavic slaves and furs south in return for finished goods and luxuries from Moslem lands.

The last of the threats to materialize was that of the Magyars, who are better known today as the Hungarians.  The Magyars originated as a nomadic tribe from the great Asia steppes that stretch from the Dnieper River to the borders of China.  Sometime around the 4th or 5th centuries AD they migrated west of the Ural Mountains to the area of the Volga River, becoming subjects of the Khazar Khanate.  In the early 9th century they began moving further west under pressure from attacks by other nomads.

Around 860 they began raiding across the Carpathian mountains into Hungary and in 895, under their leader Arpad, began a full-fledged invasion of the Carpathian basin on both sides of the Danube.  Superb mounted archers their tactics overwhelmed slow moving and more heavily armored opponents and they soon established their own state, from which they began raiding more deeply into Europe.  Until 955 they had an consistent record of success, destroying or evading forces sent to oppose them. 

The Magyars penetrated Austria, Bavaria, Silesia, Burgundy, Alsace, and Provence.  They ventured deep into Italy, reaching Apulia in the peninsula's heel, and, as noted above, even venturing into the Caliphate of Cordoba. In the East, the Balkans were easy prey and the horsemen even reached the suburbs of Constantinople.

It was Otto the Great, King of East Francia, who finally and decisively halted the Magyar raids in the west when he defeated the nomads at the battle of Lechfeld in Bavaria during August 955.  Confined to the Hungarian plain and Transylvania, the Magyars began building a more stable, and less threatening state.  Coverting to Christianity by the end of the century, the Pope recognized Stephen I (later St Stephen) as the first King of Hungary in 1001.

The Magyar raids

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