The Magyars Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During the period from 500 to 1100, the Magyars, or Hungarians, underwent immense political and social transformations.

Political Considerations

During the period from 500 to 1100, the Magyars, or Hungarians, underwent immense political and social transformations. Prior to their settlement in the CarpathiaCarpathian basin in 895 or 896, the Magyars lived a nomadic lifestyle on the southern steppes of modern-day Russia and Ukraine. Traditionally, the Magyars were said to have consisted of seven tribes, and though each tribe had its leaders, the tribes were held together in some form of tribal confederation. Around the middle of the ninth century, the Hungarians moved farther west between the Dnieper River and the lower Danube, known as Etelköz.MagyarsHungarians;ancient and medievalMagyarsHungarians;ancient and medieval

Pressure from another nomadic group from the east known as the Pechenegs (nomadic tribe)Pechenegs forced the Magyars into the Carpathian basin, where they eventually established themselves as overlords of the native population. The arrival of the Magyars into the Carpathian basin is traditionally termed Magyar conquest“the Conquest” in Hungarian historiography. Initially, the Magyars continued the practice of conducting raids, some of which ranged as far as Iberia and Italy. However, exposure to the settled peoples of the Carpathian basin, combined with a series of serious defeats at the hands of Otto I the GreatOtto I the Great[Otto 01]Otto I the Great in the west Augsburg, Battle of (955)(Augsburg, 955) and Byzantine and Bulgarian forces in the south Arcadiopolis, Battle of (970)(Arcadiopolis, 970), ended the practice. The last decades of the tenth century and the first decades of the eleventh saw a series of wars for supremacy among the Magyars themselves. Stephen IStephen I (king of Hungary)[Stephen 01]Stephen I (István; r. 997-1038), with the help of knights brought in the entourage of his Bavarian wife GisellaGisella (queen of Hungary)Gisella, defeated the other Magyar tribal leaders, and established the dominance of the Árpád DynastyÁrpád clan. Stephen also set the Hungarians on the course of becoming a Western-oriented kingdom based on Catholic Christianity.

Military Achievement

The Magyars established themselves within the Carpathian basin during the Conquest, and from there they staged raids across western and southeastern Europe. After the civil wars, the Árpáds under Stephen gained supremacy over the other tribes and created a Western-oriented kingdom. Stephen’s victory over the other Magyar tribes fashioned a viable state that eventually became fully integrated into Europe.

The Magyars conducted raids against Bavaria, Moravia, and Bulgaria while they still lived east of the Danube in the 880’s and 890’s. The Carpathian basin was, therefore, not unknown to them. In 895-896, the Magyars came under attack by a neighboring nomadic group called the Pechenegs (nomadic tribe)Pechenegs. By 899, the Magyars began the first of the great raids on western Europe when Arnulf of CarinthiaArnulf of CarinthiaArnulf of Carinthia paid them to conduct raids on his enemies in northern Italy. With each year, the Magyars raided farther into western Europe, crossing the Rhine for the first time in 911 and raiding Burgundy in 913. Almost yearly raids sent the Magyars as far as the Iberian Peninsula, where in 942 they attacked both Andalusia and Galicia. The period of raids came to an end, in part, because of two significant defeats inflicted on the Hungarians. In 955, a Magyar army crossing Bavaria was destroyed by Otto I at Augsburg, and in 970, a Magyar army suffered an equally significant loss to the combined Bulgarian and Byzantine army at Arcadiopolis.

Following these defeats came a series of Civil wars;Carpathian basincivil wars in which the descendants of Árpáds established primacy over the other Magyar tribes. The main actors in the rise of the Árpáds were Prince GézaGéza (Árpád prince)[Geza]Géza (died 997) and his son Stephen IStephen I (king of Hungary)[Stephen 01]Stephen, or István, who was crowned king of Hungary in 1001. Stephen had married GisellaGisella (queen of Hungary)Gisella, the daughter of the duke of Bavaria, and several German knights in her entourage lent their service to the rising Stephen. After Stephen I’s death in 1038, the new kingdom underwent a series of wars for the throne. During the course of these wars, the German emperor invaded three separate times in attempts to put his protégé on the throne. The kingdom withstood the crisis, but German intervention was a continuing threat until 1077, when László ILászló I (king of Hungary)[Laszlo 01]László I (r. 1077-1095) came to power. A stabilization of the kingdom occurred under László, who fended off an invasion from the east by the nomadic Cumans. László also added Croatia to the crown through conquest in 1091.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

The Archers and archery;Magyarsprimary weapon of the Magyars was the Bows and arrows;recurve compositerecurved composite bow. The importance of the bow is seen in Regino of Prüm’s testimony about the Magyars: “They seldom use swords, but they kill thousands with arrows.” The bow is called composite because it was constructed using several materials, such as wood, sinew, and horn. In addition, the bow itself could consist of up to five different joined pieces: the handle, to which were attached the two arms, which in turn would have pieces of hardwood attached to their ends (the “horns”). All these pieces were connected using a tongue-and-groove structure. The foundation material of the bow was most often a soft wood, such as birch, and softened, degreased sinews were attached to the front (the side away from the archer) with a glue made from fish innards. On the back of the bow (toward the archer) was glued horn. The sinew and the horn provided the relatively short bows (40-47 inches, roughly 100-120 centimeters) with great strength. The “horns” provided leverage with which the archer could bend the bow even further. The bow was recurved because prior to being strung, it rested in a slight “C” shape toward the front at approximately a 35-degree angle, and only when strung would the curve be in the normal direction (toward the archer). The Arrows;Magyararrows were typically of willow, birch, or cottonwood and were around 20-24 inches (50-60 centimeters) long. The arrowheads were typically of iron and were rhomboid in shape, with a slight spine running the length. The composite recurved bow had maximum effective ranges of 500-600 feet (150-200 meters).

Though by far the most important, the bow and arrow were not the only weapons used by the Magyars. For close combat, a short Lances;Magyarlance appears to have been common, and there is some evidence of the use of Maces;Magyarmace and Axes;Magyarax. The Magyars also used the slightly curved single-edgedSabers;Magyarsaber, though its presence seems to have been limited to the more prominent members of society. In the tenth century the saber was replaced among the Magyar elite by the double-edged sword. As for defensive Armor;Magyararmor, most warriors wore only leather armor, although aristocrats covered the leather with either bone or iron plate.

Military Organization

The organization of the Magyar military experienced significant transformation during the time period in question. These changes were directly the results of the transition of Hungarian society to one based on landownership and the development of a Western-style monarchy. Before the rise of the Árpád Dynasty, the Hungarians were organized into a tribal alliance of seven tribes. Some historians have held that the army consisted of the retinues of the tribal and clan leaders and that the common freeman would therefore not have participated in warfare. However, consensus now generally holds that the population was divided between free and servile, and all free males (the overwhelming majority) would take part in war. The Hungarian army during the era of the tribal alliance was divided into units of tens, hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands. It is difficult to determine how many fighters there were among the Magyar tribes, but scholars have estimated their numbers to be approximately twenty thousand at the time of the Conquest.

Viking, Magyar, and Muslim Invasions, Ninth Century

The tenth and eleventh centuries saw a great transformation in the military system of the Hungarians. First Géza, then his son, Stephen, used foreign immigrant knights as their retinue. These German and Italian knights formed the elite units in the army and were completely separate from the native, Magyar units, which were still essentially mounted archers. After Stephen took control in the civil wars of the first part of the tenth century, the Hungarian military was reorganized. The organizational center of the army was the Castles;Hungariancastle, which had its own lands and subjects to support it. This territory was known as the “castle county” and was headed by a royal official called an IspánIspán[Ispan]ispán. At the same time, the base of power became landownership, and common free Magyars were allowed to settle on the land of the more powerful magnates in exchange for their labor service. In this way they became subjects of their new lords and excluded from the army. Some of the warriors, however, were settled on the castle lands and continued to serve in the army under the command of their ispán.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Warfare provided the Magyars with a significant source of income, and Magyar campaigns were frequently raids in force with the purpose of obtaining plunder. Captives provided a significant source of income for the Magyars, as they were sold into slavery. The Magyars also commonly sold their military services to the highest bidder. Thus, in 881 Svatopluk ISvatopluk I (Moravian king)Svatopluk I of Great Moravia paid the Magyars to attack the eastern Franks;Magyar conflictsFranks. In 894, the situation was reversed, and the Franks hired the Magyars in their conflict against Svatopluk. In the following year, the Magyars again served Svatopluk against the Franks.

The tactics of the Magyars were those common to other steppe nomads and centered on lightning raids, showers of arrows to disrupt the enemy, and the feigned retreat. At the beginning of engagement, the Magyars would release volleys of arrows from horseback into the enemy’s ranks in an attempt to disrupt them. The Ennsburg, Battle of (907 c.e.)Battle of Ennsburg in 907 is a clear example of the use of the feigned retreat by the Magyars. After a failed invasion of Hungary, the Bavarians sought refuge behind defensive earthworks. The Magyars drew them from behind their defenses by simulating a retreat, and the Bavarians soon found themselves surrounded by other Hungarian forces that had been well hidden and were quickly destroyed. Similarly, the Magyars defeated a Bulgarian-Byzantine coalition in 934 when a feigned retreat allowed the Hungarians to surround and destroy the Byzantine heavy cavalry. However, the feigned retreat was successful only if the enemy forces lost battle discipline while pursuing the apparently retreating Magyars. At the Merseburg, Battle of (933 c.e.)Battle of Merseburg (933), neither volleys of arrows nor feigned retreat was successful in breaking the ranks of the Bavarian forces, and the Magyars quickly withdrew from the battlefield rather than risk combat with the still-closed ranks of the Bavarians.

The military reforms of Stephen took time to complete, and the Hungarian military was not fully Westernized until the thirteenth century. As a result, Hungarian tactics frequently relied on the mounted archer and feigned retreat through the eleventh century. For example, it seems likely that the Magyar tribal leader AjtonyAjtony (Maygar leader)Ajtony and his army fell victim to the tactics of feigned retreat and encirclement by Stephen’s forces at Nagyősz, Battle of (1008)[Nagyosz]Nagyősz in 1008.

Medieval Sources

The main literary sources regarding the pre-Conquest Magyar life and military affairs come from Muslim geographers or from Byzantine authors commenting on the steppe peoples. Unfortunately, several of the key works regarding the Magyars still await translation into English. The earliest Muslim source is the work of the Persian geographer Jayhāni, Ahmad al-Jayhāni, Ahmad al-[Jayhani, Ahmad al]Ahmad al-Jayhāni, who served in the Saminid court in the tenth century. Jayhāni’s work is no longer extant, but portions of it can be found in Ibn-RustahIbn-Rustah[Ibn Rustah]Ibn-Rustah’s Kitāb al-a’lāq al-nafisah (c. 903-913; French translation, Ibn Rusteh: Les Atours précieux, 1955). Portions of Jayhāni’s work are also found in that of the later Persian geographer Gardizi Gardizi. The relevant portions of Gardizi’s Zayn al-akhbār (Gardizi) Zayn al-akhbār (c. 1050-1053) have been translated by Arsenio P. Martinez in “Gardizi’s Two Chapters on the Turks,” which appeared in the journal Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi in 1982. Gardizi described the Magyars as conducting frequent raids against neighbors primarily to obtain slaves to sell to the Byzantines.

Byzantine authors provide the most detailed descriptions of Magyar warfare. Unfortunately, the relevant portions of the most important work, Leo VI the WiseLeo VI the Wise[Leo 06 the Wise]Leo VI the Wise’s Tactica (Leo VI the Wise) Tactica (c. 895-908; tactics), has yet to be translated into English. Constantine VII PorphyrogenitusConstantine VII Porphyrogenitus[Constantine 07 Porphyrogenitus] Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus’s On the Administration of the Empire (Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus) De administrando imperio (c. 948-952; On the Administration of the Empire, 1967) described the political associations of the Magyars, whom Constantine termed “Turkos.”

For the transformations that occurred with the supremacy of the Árpáds, the early laws of the kingdom are very useful: Laws of the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary, The Decreta regni mediaevalis Hungariae (1000-1526; The Laws of the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary, 1989 and ongoing). The chronicle composed by Simon de KézaSimon de Kéza Deeds of the Hungarians, The (Simon de Kéza) Simon de Kéza, Gesta Hungarorum (1282-1285; The Deeds of the Hungarians, 1999), provides a picture of the myth of the Conquest as it had developed by the thirteenth century. In his account, Simon depicts the Hungarians as the descendants of an earlier steppe people–the Huns.MagyarsHungarians;ancient and medieval

Books and Articles
  • Engel, Pál. The Realm of St. Stephan: A History of Medieval Hungary, 895-1526. New York: I. B. Taurus, 1999.
  • Horváth, András Pálóczi. Pechenegs, Cumans, Iasians: Steppe Peoples in Medieval Hungary. Budapest: Covina, 1989.
  • Karasulas, Antony. Mounted Archers of the Steppe, 600 B.C.-A.D. 1300. New York: Osprey, 2004.
  • Kristó, Gyula. Hungarian History in the Ninth Century. Szeged, Hungary: Szegedi Középkorász Műhely, 1996.
  • Róna-Tas, András. Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages: An Introduction to Early Hungarian History. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999.
  • Sugár, Peter. A History of Hungary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Films and Other Media
  • The Conquest (Honfoglalás). Feature film. Korona Film/Magyar Televizió, 1997.


The Franks and the Holy Roman Empire

The Anglo-Saxons

The Lombards

The Vikings

Armies of Christendom and the Age of Chivalry

Crusading Armies of the West

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