Saturday, April 25, 2015

V: by Virgin (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Admit it, "death by virgin" does sound very intriguing.

We have finally arrived to one of the good kings Hungary had in the middle ages - the knight-hero-warrior, one-head-taller-than-everyone, dashingly handsome, stunningly talented László I, the Knight King (1077-1095). He was the son of the unfortunate Béla I (the one that got throned to death), and, similar to his father, as knightly as a knight can be.
Since he was later sainted, there are countless legends about László in Hungarian folklore where he defeats enemies, breaks mountains in two, and makes healing springs bubble up from the ground. According to legend he is also responsible for the nummulites that can be found in several places in Hungary (they are supposed to have been the enemy's golden coins that turned to stone at László's prayer so that his soldiers would stop picking them up and focus on winning the freaking battle instead)
Anyhow.

The most famous story about St. László is that of the virgin and the Cuman warrior (yeah, the Cumans again). László fought several battles against the Cumans who kept breaking into the kingdom. According to legend in one of these battles he spotted a Cuman warrior who had snatched up a maiden and was riding away with her. Ignoring his battle wounds, László chased after them, but his horse was slow and tired. He yelled to the maiden to drag the Cuman down, and she managed to tip her kidnapper out of the saddle and they both tumbled to the ground. László caught up and started fighting the warrior but the fight was fairly even - the king was wounded and tired, and while the fight devolved into wrestling, he still couldn't win. Finally the maiden snatched up a sword and hamstrung the Cuman warrior, who was thus finally defeated.
(Look at the picture, they totally look like they are hugging it out...)

This is an ancient story that probably existed long before László came along - he just gave his name to a hero-figure that saves the damsel and kills the bad guy. In some versions he is pictured as sleeping the fight off with his head on the maiden's lap while she is picking at his hair - which is sexy sexy medieval visual symbolism for bonking, just so you know.

Friday, April 24, 2015

U: by Unfaithfulness (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Once again, unfaithfulness is more of a motive than a means, but it is a good story anyway.

Let me introduce you to yet another Hungarian king: László IV (1272-1290), nicknamed " the Kun" (Cuman). He came from a strange family: Grandson to the king that weathered the Mongolian Invasion, nephew to St. Margaret of Hungary, son to the next king and a Cuman princess, one of 7 children. Half Christian, half nomadic, slightly confused, completely wild.
It was a turbulent time in the history of the Hungarian kingdom. László was not a strong ruler, and he was influenced by several noble families that all struggled for power. The king found refuge with his mother's people the Cumans who were allowed to settle within the kingdom after the Mongolian Invasion (and as a preemptive ally against a possible next invasion - which is why they were allowed to marry into the royal family).
However, the Pope and several Christian noblemen did not like the idea of the king being on better terms with the nomads than with the rest of Europe. The Pope sent a legate to Hungary and forced the king to accept laws limiting the rights and freedoms of the Cuman tribes. László fell between two chairs: The noblemen didn't like him to begin with, and now the Cumans didn't trust him either. (Unfaithfulness, get it?). He defeated them in a battle in 1282, but nothing got better - the Pope even contemplated sending a Crusade to Hungary. László gave up most of his rule to travel with the Cumans and find solace in the arms of his multiple Cuman mistresses (named Mandula, Köpcsecs, and Édua whose name means "rising moon").
On top of all of this, the Mongolians attacked the second time; it was not as devastating as the first invasion, but still pretty bad (also some people claimed that László himself called them in this time - he did have a thing for nomadic cultures).
The irony of the troubled king's life is reflected in his death: He was assassinated in his sleep by three Cuman men. He was the second to last ruler in Hungary's first, 300-year-long royal dynasty.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

T: by Throne (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

This one is probably my (and most Hungarian middle schooler's) favorite.

The victim king in this one is Béla I, the youngest son of Vazul and the second one to become a Hungarian king (1060-1063). He was a great warrior who never lost in a battle, and a fairly good king too - and yet, to the general public he is really mostly known for the way he died:
After only 3 years of sitting on the throne, he was killed by it.

The chronicle says that he was crushed by the throne's canopy that collapsed on top of him, and succumbed to his wounds soon after. Some people at the time (and since) theorized that it was a failed assassination attempt that was finished up a couple of days later, probably by poison. Or maybe just a freak accident? Hard to tell after almost a thousand years. Definitely an unusual way to go.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

S: by Strangling (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

During the history of 14th century Hungary, strangling ran in the royal family.

The new dynasty on the throne was the Anjou: Károly Róbert I (1301-1342), his oldest son Lajos I the Great (1342-1382), and Lajos' daughter Mária (1382-1395). For today's purposes, however, we will be focusing on Lajos' younger brother Endre, who had the misfortune of being married to one of the most notorious female rulers of the era: Joanna I of Naples.
According to legend, Joanna wanted him out of Naples, and out of her life. He was never officially crowned (no matter how much his brother and mother bribed the Pope), so while she was queen in her own right, he was known as the Duke of Calabria. Of course that hurt his fragile male ego, as well as the pride of his queen mother, the Polish princess Erzsébet. The chronicle says that after she visited him in Naples, she was suspicious that Joanna might want him gone for good, and left Hungarian guards to watch him at all times. On top of that, she also left him a magic ring that made him invulnerable to all weapons.
Joanna, not a girl to give up easy, managed to lure her husband on a weekend getaway to one of their hunting castles. In the middle of the night there was a knock on the bedroom door; the good-natured Endre opened it unarmed (and no doubt a little groggy) and was immediately attacked by Italian soldiers. After throwing a few punches he tried to get back into the bedroom to his weapons, but Joanna locked the door behind him.
The people who attacked the duke knew that his ring made him invulnerable to weapons... So they ended up strangling him with a rope.
Loopholes. There is always one to every spell.

And while on the topic of strangling: Lajos I was married to a Bosnian princess named Kotromanich Erzsébet - another Erzsébet, another strong royal woman, famous for her great beauty and ambition. After the death of her husband she threw herself into one of the bloodiest eras of intrigue in Hungarian history, a to-the-death fight for the throne between her daughter Mária, Mária's fiance Zsigmond of Luxembourg (son of the Holy Roman Emperor), and Charles III of Naples (related to the Hungarian kings on the female line). Erzsébet ran the court in the name of Mária (who was too young and good-natured for politics), made alliances and enemies, and fought tooth and nail to stay in power. It was not easy: Hungary in the 14th century was not exactly prepared for a female ruler yet. Erzsébet had her opponent, Charles III (crowned as Károly II as a Hungarian king), attacked in her own chambers, and strangled soon after while he was still recovering from his wounds.
(Game of Thrones' got nothing on this.)

In the end, she did not win. She and Mária were captured as they were traveling the southern territories of the kingdom. In their captivity, according to the chronicles, Erzsébet was strangled in front of her daughter. Later Mária had the killer of her mother executed, but she didn't survive long: In 1395, she fell off her horse in an "accident" while heavily pregnant, and died in the resulting childbirth. Zsigmond of Luxembourg ended up on the throne after all.

Yeah. When you were a female member of the royal family, "win or die" was really how it went.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

R: by Rolling Down a Hill (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

If you visit Budapest, one of the most spectacular tourist destinations you will probably be directed to is the Gellérthegy (Gellért's Hill). It is a steep, rocky hill right by the Danube, and a great vantage point.
Back in the day, it was also a prime site for making instant saints out of people.

Once again, we are back to István I. During his reign, a priest from Venice called Gerardo Sagredo was brought to him by some over-eager Hungarian abbot - Gerardo was on his merry way to live in the Holy Land, but the Hungarians convinced him to bring his talents in conversion to the new Hungarian kingdom instead. Gerardo - known to us as Gellért - ended up as the personal mentor to István's devout young son Prince Imre (remember him?), and stayed in Hungary for the rest of his life.
After István's death, Gellért was fairly active not only in conversions, but also in politics. He did not support either of the following kings - Pietro Orseolo from his hometown, or Aba Sámuel from one of the Hungarian families - but he did like the idea of Vazul's sons returning home from exile. According to his legend, he was on his way to greet them in Buda in 1046 when he was captured.
You see, while thousands of people were taking on Christianity, there were also those who were not keen on the idea. There were several "pagan rebellions" in those times, one of the most famous led by a man named Vata. It was his people that captured Gellért in Buda - he was both a foreigner and a Christian priest, which meant he was the perfect person to make an example (and a martyr) of.
In order to make the execution spectacular, they put Gellért in a two-wheeled cart and rolled him down the side of the hill. If you look at some pictures, you know that had to be bad to begin with, and yet according to some sources Gellért was still alive when he reached the bottom. In order to make sure he was dead they stabbed him with a spear, and then broke his head on a rock.
Gellért was sainted together with István I and Prince Imre a mere 37 years later. He is buried in Venice. They named the hill after him in reverence, and ever since then we all learn the story of how it got that name.