Thursday, April 30, 2015

Z: by Zealots (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

For this last post of the month, we shall continue our ongoing theme of queens being mistreated, and people getting stabbed.

Záh Felicián is mostly known in history for his attempt to assassinate King Károly Róbert (1301-1342), Queen Erzsébet, mother of Lajos I and Endre (remember him with the magic ring?), and their two sons. Záh started out as an opponent to the king, fighting alongside one of the most powerful noblemen of the kingdom... And then he turned around and joined the king with a full pardon. His daughter, Klára, became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Erzsébet.
And yet, something was not quite right. After twelve years at court, Záh Felicián did the unimaginable: He attempted to murder the royal family, in broad daylight, in the middle of a feast. He ran at then with a sword, wounded the king lightly on the hand, chopped off four fingers of the queen's right hand, and then turned to attack the two young princes. The mentors of the princes jumped between them and both died while the boys got away; and then one of the servants lunged at Záh and chopped him with a blade at the neck. The guards and servants effectively slaughtered the man on the spot.
The entire scene unfolded in great confusion and lots of blood, from what we know from the chronicles, and probably was over before people realized what was happening. Záh got away relatively easy - he died immediately, and his limbs were sent to various cities as a warning (much like Koppány's). His household was not that lucky. His son and his servant were dragged to death by horses, and their remains thrown to the pigs. His daughter Sebe was beheaded, her husband died in prison. Their children were given to crusaders and sent to Rhodes in exile. The king ordered all family members three times removed to be murdered, and took the property of the rest. Záh's other daughter, Záh Klára, was mutilated, her nose, lips and eight fingers cut off, and then paraded around the city, yelling "this is how you are punished if you turn against the king."
We are not sure what caused the assassination attempt. Some say it was probably a plot among the nobles to take the throne. A chronicle suggests that Erzsébet's brother seduced Klára, and her father was taking revenge for it (sounds familiar?). Whatever the case, it is one of the most famous attempts at a king's life in Medieval Hungary - and as you have already seen, that is quite a long list to be on.

Thus concludes this year's A to Z Challenge! Thank you for following, thank you for commenting! I hope you enjoyed the ride. Don't forget to come back on May 4th (Monday) for A to Z Reflections
If you are interested in more Hungarian weirdness, don't forget to follow the MopDog, and come back for MopDog Mondays!

Also, check out my book, titled Tales of Superhuman Powers - a collection of traditional stories that feature superpowers, from invisibility to eye beams (no, really). Available on Kindle, Nook, and print!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Y: from Yearning (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Today's story comes from folklore, not history - while I am pretty sure that love and yearning has killed quite a few people over the centuries, I couldn't find a good example. However, I am in the process of translating this really dark Hungarian folktale into English, and it just happens to start with death by yearning. So, here it is.
(Folktale collected and published by János Erdélyi in 1855)

The Princess' Curse


Once upon a time there was a king who only had one daughter, and she was so stunningly beautiful that people came from faraway lands just to get a glimpse of her. In a nearby kingdom lived another king, even more wealthy, and he had two sons, each equally handsome. The younger one decided to go and ask for the beautiful princess' hand in marriage - he ha heard stories about her kindness, beauty (and wealth). The moment they saw each other, they fell in love. However, the princess' father did not want to give his daughter away so easily: He told the prince to go and travel, see the world, learn useful things, and come back in three years ready for marriage. The princess and the prince were sad that they had to part for three years, but there was nothing to do about it.
While the younger brother was away, the older brother also came to visit the princess. The moment he saw her, he wanted her for himself. He spent days and weeks trying to seduce her, telling her tales of how his younger brother was a liar, a cheat, a good-for nothing... But the princess knew better, and didn't believe a word of it.

Three years passed, and the younger prince returned home. His brother was already waiting for him, ready with a lie: He said the princess forgot him, didn't want him anymore, and in fact was engaged to someone else. The younger prince, heartbroken, locked himself into his room. The princess waited and waited, but her lover didn't return; she stopped eating and grew thin and pale. One day she told her father that if her lover didn't return in three days, she would surely die; once dead, she asked to be buried in the crypt inside the cathedral, and her resting place to be guarded by armed men.
Three days passed, and the prince didn't appear - the princess breathed her last. She was dressed in silk and brocade, and laid to rest in a coffin inside the cathedral crypt. The bells rang, the city was covered in black drapes, and everyone mourned the princess. Just as the funeral was ending, the older prince walked into town, and was shocked to find out that the princess was dead (he hoped that she would give up on her love for the young prince and be willing to marry him instead). He went straight to the king, and volunteered to be the first armed guard to stand vigil at the princess' grave.
Night fell, and the prince stood by the crypt alone, in the quiet of the church. But just as the bells tolled ten o'clock, the door of the crypt opened with terrible screeching and crackling, and our came the princess, her face pale and terrible.

"You lied to me and you lied to the one I loved! For that, you shall die."

And with that, she tore the prince to pieces, and left his bones in a pile on the floor. Then, she returned into her crypt, and the door shut behind her with a resounding crack.
The next day the younger prince finally appeared in court, asking the king what happened. He was devastated to find out that the princess was dead, and so was his brother. He volunteered to guard the crypt that night.
As the bells tolled ten, the crypt opened once again, and the younger prince was faced with the woman he had loved, her face pale and terrible.

"You gave up on me!" she screeched "You believed the lies about me! For that, you shall die."


She tore the younger prince to pieces, and left his bones in a pile on the ground.
Things went the same way every night after that. No matter how many people volunteered, no matter how much gold the king offered to anyone who could survive one night, no one left the cathedral alive in the morning.

Until one tired soldier called János wandered into town one day...

(The rest of the folktale follows folktale type 307, The Princess in the Shroud)
(Storytellers: If you want the full story let me know, I'll send you a full translation!)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

X: by Xenophobia (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Again, a motive, not a means. Again, there is an opera about it.

Let me introduce you to another queen, Gertrude of Merania, married to another one of our slightly confused kings in a turbulent time. The king was András II, constantly at odds with the nobility, and it didn't help that his wife was a foreigner (although usual practice for royalty) and brought some of her family with her into the game. Their children, among others, include Béla IV (the king that weathered the Mongolian invasion), and the later Saint Elizabeth of Hungary.
From what we know, the Hungarian noblemen had no love lost for Queen Gertrude. They thought that the king was giving her Meranian entourage preferential treatment (even though King András was kind of giving land away to nobles like it was candy), and looked at the foreigners at court with great disdain. Eventually, while King András was off on a campaign in 1213 (it was a pet project, he also participated in a Crusade that failed horribly), a group of Hungarian noblemen, led by the (in)famous Bánk bán, decided to murder the queen.
From what we know, she was stabbed to death - according to some sources, in front of her children. The story was turned into a theater play by Katona József and premiered in 1848. It was made into an opera soon after. The play is mandatory reading in high school, and paints Gertrude as the villain - allegedly she helped her younger brother "seduce" (e.g. rape) Bánk's wife, and she killed herself and her son out of shame. Thus, according to literature, the killing of the queen was justified.

An interesting (and well known) part of the story is a letter: The noblemen asked János, archbishop of Esztergom, for advice as they were planning their deed. The Archbishop, inclined to agree with them but determined to play it safe just in case they failed, composed a letter in Latin:

Reginam occidere nolite timere bonum est si omnes consentiunt ego non contradico

This line, depending on how you read (and punctuate) it, can mean two things:
1. "You don't have to kill the queen, it is good for you to fear, and if all agree, I don't, I'm against it"
OR
2. "Kill the queen, don't fear, it is good, and if all agree, I am not against it."

Punctuation saves lives, people.

(Of course the opera was made into a movie)

Monday, April 27, 2015

W: by Wedding and Wine (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Okay, so this is technically not the middle ages, and also technically not Hungarian, but hey, we like to claim what we can.
You have heard about Attila the Hun before, right? Probably as a barbaric and terrible king that fought against nice innocent Romans.
Well, hands off, because we like him. In fact, he is one of our favorite kings.

Attila was a Hun, which, according to our legends, is a brother tribe to the Hungarians, and we have several stories about him. He had his royal capitol somewhere in which is now Hungary, probably between the Danube and the Tisza rivers. He ruled over a large empire and many different tribes of people, and died in 453 AD - on his wedding night.
After the death of his most beloved queen, Réka, he was set to marry again, this time to a woman named Krimhilde (or Ildikó) - she is also featured in medieval legends such as the Niebelungenlied, where it is claimed she married Attila to get his help in avenging the death of her first husband, the hero Siegfried. Whatever the case, there was a wedding, and the Huns knew how to party.
Legend says that Attila drank too much and passed out on his wedding night. As he slept, his nose started to bleed, and since he was lying on his back he drowned in his own blood. Others say that he had a stroke from all the alcohol, or even claim that the foreign woman poisoned him.
Whatever the case, the king of the Huns died with no wound on his body, and the wedding turned into a funeral.

The funeral of Attila is another very well known image in the Hungarian mind. Legend says he was put in a coffin on gold, a coffin of silver, and a coffin of iron; then the river Tisza was diverted from its course, and a grave was dug for the king; once buried, the river was returned to its bed so no one could ever find (and rob) the final resting place of Attila. The slaves that dug the grave were shot dead with arrows after the funeral, so no one could tell the secret.

Some people still love to dig around for Attila's grave, and every once in a while fake news pop up about it too. On a more entertaining note, last year during A to Z I wrote some book recommendations for those who would like to read great historical fiction (in English), and want to hear a story about Attila where he is not the villain...

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.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Q: by Quartering (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

"So, what are your plans for the future?"
"Well, everyone in the region hates us, so we'll take on this love religion thing, and whoever doesn't want it will be quartered."
- Belga: Ló rider

This quote comes from a genius historical nerdcore rap song full of completely untranslatable puns, about the Hungarian Conquest and our hazy 10th century history. And the event it refers to is probably the most famous religious civil war in the history of Hungary.
We even have a rock opera about it.

Remember István I, the first Christian king of the brand-spanking-new Hungarian kingdom? Well, he's back again.
István's father, Géza, was the chief of the Hungarians. He himself was not big on Christianity, but was wise enough to recognize that the only way to survive in Europe was to become a Christian kingdom. He raised his son, Vajk, to be a king after him, and he was baptized with the name István. When  Géza died in 997, however, there was a bit of a dispute. According to eastern nomadic traditions, the oldest male member of the family was supposed to inherit, and marry Géza's widow - that was a man named Koppány. According to western customs of inheritance, the rule went to the first-born son - to István, that is. Since these two views were impossible to reconcile, a war broke out soon after Géza died.
István was aided by western knights (mostly Germans, brought to his support by the relatives of his wife, Gisela). Koppány is usually remembered in legend as a pagan, although it is very likely he was baptized as Greek Orthodox. Whatever the case, the conflict went down in history as the deciding moment between Christianity (and becoming a European kingdom) and the old ways (and probably disappearing like the Huns and the Avars did).
The war ended with Koppány's defeat. He was captured, quartered, and the four parts of his body nailed to the gates of four cities - Győr (my hometown!), Veszprém, Esztergom and Gyulafehérvár - as a warning, and as a sure-fire way of reminding people that István was the boss now. His rule was not contested again for decades after this.

The single most famous rock opera in Hungary (István, a király - István the King, 1983) is based on this story. It pictures Koppány in a favorable light who fights for the freedom of his country from the rule of the Pope (look at the year, this was made at the tail end of the communist regime), and István as religious, but conflicted about fighting his own people. It is a classic that pretty much everybody knows (and most people can sing from memory).
So, yeah. We have a musical about people getting quartered.

Here is Koppány's famous "freedom" song:


And here is Koppány and István's duet, "too late for peace" (where István offers to hand over the throne if Koppány takes on Christianity, which he refuses):

Saturday, April 18, 2015

P: by Pig (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Well, Boar, actually. But B was already taken.

Now here's a classic: Through the ages, the boar hunt was a favorite pastime of kings and heroes, and one of the most dangerous preys you could go after. Think of the Calydonian boar in Greek mythology (it took several heroes to hunt it down), or the Erymanthian boar, one of Heracles' labors. (Or, you know. King Robert Baratheon. Sometimes the boar wins.)

Hungarian history has not one, but two famous boar-related death cases.

The first victim is Prince Imre (St. Imre) the only surviving son of István I (St. István). He was groomed to be heir to the throne, but never succeeded his father: in 1031, 7 years before István's death, he was killed by a boar in a hunting accident. He was sainted soon after, ironically as a "virgin prince" (the guy was in his 20s and married. In the middle ages. Some chronicles say he made a vow of celibacy together with his wife, but that is very unlikely: Knowing István's anxiety about securing the royal line, my bet is he stood by the marital bed to make sure they were working on an heir...)
(Yeah, I'm Catholic. Why?)
Here is the twist: There is a theory that "boar" in this case actually referred to a person, rather than an animal. Remember Vazul and his sons? If they happened to be involved with the "boar" accident, the chronicle wouldn't say, since it was written after two of those sons became legitimate kings... Makes you wonder, doesn't it.

The second famous victim was Zrínyi Miklós (1620-1664), nobleman, politician, military leader and author. He is responsible for the most famous Baroque epic poem we all have to suffer through in high school (about the siege of Szigetvár), and took a very active role in the fight (both political and literal) against the Turks. In 1664, he went hunting with other noblemen, and one of them wounded a boar that they followed along the trail of blood. The person who describes the event was not present at the attack - he writes that by the time he got there, Zrínyi was mortally wounded, on the ground with the boar on his back. He had wounds on his legs and his head, and the one that killed him went straight through his neck from back to front, and he bled out.
Once again, many people at the time and since have theorized that Zrínyi was assassinated (for his political role), rather than killed by a boar. This one sounds more likely to be a hunting accident, though, since he was still alive and speaking when they found him... but you never know.

Friday, April 17, 2015

O: by Overeating (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Following up on yesterday' story (it came out kinda neat that way!)

Shortly after the sinking of the ships in 1051, Henry III tried again (he was a very persistent guy). He led an army over land, supported by ships on the Danube (apparently he did not learn his lesson). András I was smart enough not to engage the German troops in open battle - instead, he emptied the lands they were about to cross, sending the people and all their supplies into hiding. Then the Hungarians intercepted a messenger to the ships, and forged a message, sending the support ships home.
(Neat, huh)

The German armies started to starve. In addition, Hungarian and Pecheneg warriors kept ambushing them in short bursts of hit-and-run, using arrows to pick off soldiers one by one. The German army was lost, hungry, and scared. Finally, András I sent messengers and offered peace. Henry III agreed wholeheartedly (and probably with a growling stomach). To prove his generosity on top of offering peace, King András sent supplies to the German army:
50 giant sturgeons
2000 sides of bacon
1000 bulls
sheep, oxen, cows, tons of bread, and copious amounts of wine.

The German soldiers were so delighted to have food again that, according to the chronicle, many of them ate and drank themselves to death. The rest left their armor, weaponry and tents behind, and ran all the way back home.
Legend says that's how the mountain region got its name: Vértes, which means something like "Armory" (for lack of a better translation).

(Can you tell I'm delighted by the fact that I'm writing about Hungarians winning for once? :)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

N: by Naval Warfare (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

In 1051, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III had it out for Hungary. Again. For the third time. On the throne at the time was András I (the son of Vazul), who also had it with the fighting and the sieges and all that jazz. So, he decided to do something else this time.

The German army came down along the Danube, supported by a large naval force of several ships. They took anchor at Pozsony (Bratislava) for the night. The king took the opportunity to send one of his knights, a man named Zotmund, who was a really good swimmer, out to the ships in the dark. According to legend, Zotmund drilled holes into all the ships and they started to sink slowly; by the time the people on deck noticed, it was already too late. A large portion of the fleet sunk, and the rest of the army went home.

Zotmund is more generally known in Hungary as "Búvár Kund" - "Diver Kund" - and it is assumed that his ability to swim and dive was not common in those times among knights (or even commoners). With that said, swimming in the Danube at night is no small feat, not to mention drilling a hole into oak wood with 11th century tools, which is why a lot of people question the validity of the legend... However: Part of the German fleet did sink in the Danube, for unknown reasons, we know that both from German and from Hungarian sources. So, who knows? Maybe there was a Búvár Kund. Or maybe there were more than one...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M: by Medicine (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Have you heard about Elisabeth Báthory, the Blood Countess? She is usually presented in pop culture as the female Dracula, a vampire, famous for bathing in the blood of virgins to gain eternal youth. At best, she is talked about as the most famous female serial killer known in history.
She was neither.

Báthory Erzsébet (1560-1614) was a Hungarian countess from an old and prominent family; niece to a king of Poland, and wife to count Nádasdy Ferenc, known as the Black Bey because of his bravery (and occasional cruelty) in the wars against the Turks. She was rich, well educated, and used to running the estate of her husband while he was away. Her independence and strength came in handy, because she was widowed in 1604, at the age of 44.
What the legend says: It is claimed that one day she slapped one of her maids so hard that she got blood on her hands. Noticing that the blood made her skin smooth and soft, she arrived to the idea of bathing in virgin blood to keep herself young forever. She started kidnapping girls, torturing them, and bleeding them out for regular baths. Eventually someone reported her to the authorities and she was captured and brought to trial. She died walled into her own home.
What really happened: It is biologically impossible to bathe in blood. It was a political trial. She was a widow with a large estate, strong political connections, and the king himself owed her family tremendous amounts of debt. She was brought to trial, but never actually convicted; all the witnesses confessed under torture, and she herself was never questioned. Her alleged accomplices were beheaded. They sent Erzsébet into house arrest, walled her in, and she died five years later in miserable conditions.
History is more cruel than legend sometimes.

But why medicine?

There is a theory supported by a re-examination of the trials that suggests that there were indeed bloody things going on in Erzsébet's basement - she was trying to heal people. If you are familiar with medicine in the 16th century, you know that never looked pretty. Many things mentioned as her "sadistic torture" methods actually line up with the medicine of the time: Ice-cold baths, bloodletting, etc. As the lady of the land she felt responsibility to care for her subjects. The bodies allegedly buried in the castle garden were probably the victims of illness, but the marks of attempted cures made people think they had been tortured.

Still not feeling bad enough for her?

Báthory was known for taking in girls, regardless of their ethnicity or social standing. She housed and sheltered girls that had been disowned, raped, or widowed, and made efforts to help and educate them. She essentially ran a women's shelter in her own home. This probably gave fertile ground to the allegations that she was gathering virgins to kill, and made the work of her accusers a lot easier...

(I have a full-hour storytelling show based on her legend and her life. I feel like the myth of the "Blood Countess" has been told enough)

Aslo, if you watch one movie about her, make it this one (warning: blood and boobs, obviously)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

L: by Lead (26 Way to Die in Medieval Hungary)

You must be wondering which version of "death by lead" I am going to talk about today. Lead poisoning? Lead bullets?...
Oh, ye of little imagination.

Vazul was the cousin of our first king, István I (997-1038) who established Hungary as a Christian kingdom (he's one of the Saint Stephens now). István, while a very prominent king, did not have an heir: Prince Imre, his only surviving son died young (we'll get to him later). Because of this, the line to the throne was much contested, and one of the strong contestants was Vazul, the son of István's uncle.
István, however, did not see Vazul as a desirable heir, and he decided instead on his nephew on the female line, Pietro Orseolo from Venice. The rivalry came down to a foreigner and a pagan, and István made the choice a Christian king would make at the time: He made sure Vazul doesn't succeed him on the throne.
According to most sources, he first captured Vazul, claiming he participated in a plot against him. True or not, he was imprisoned, and then blinded on the István's orders to make him unfit to be a king (Remember when Kálmán I tried the same thing? Here's where he got the idea). According to another source - and this is the famous part of the story - they also poured molten lead into his ears. It is unclear if they did that with the intention of making him deaf or killing him... But since we have no mention of Vazul after this, it is assumed that he died of his wounds.

PLOT TWIST! Vazul had three sons, all three in exile after their father's death, living in the Czech kingdom, Poland, and the Rus. Two of them, András and Béla, became kings after Pietro's death. It's a form of historic justice, if you think about it...

Monday, April 13, 2015

K: Killed by the Tatars (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Two hundred years before the Turks became a problem on our southern borders, there was another threat that almost managed to put an end to Hungarian history: The 1241 Mongolian invasion.
(In Hungarian, we remember it as "tatárjárás" which would probably be best translated as "the coming of the Tatars")

Hungarian history classes have a tendency to string our past 1000 years up on losing battles. You have already heard about Lechfeld, and Mohács - in-between the two, the most infamous is probably the Battle of Muhi, on April 11, 1241. In that battle, the Mongolian army led by Batu khan decimated the Hungarian army led by king Béla IV, mostly because the Hungarians were camped in a small crowded area where their own carts and tents kept them form standing into battle formation when the Mongolians attacked at dawn. The king barely got away, and spent the next year in exile.
The Mongolians swept across the kingdom between the spring of 1241 and 1242. And then they left. Sources say they returned home because Great Khan Ögedei (Genghis' son) died and Batu wanted to be elected as his successor. Others say they couldn't sustain their immense army on the resources found in Hungary.
Whatever the case, in that one nightmarish year they allegedly killed off 50% of the kingdom's population, raped, pillaged, and burned everything in their wake. It was a historic trauma that left deep-running marks in Hungarian folklore and psyche. All parts of the country have stories about hiding places - places where the villagers could run to survive the invasion, such as caves or marshes. There are also many stories about surviving, tricking the Tatars, or even scaring them off. If someone is too hasty, we still say "don't run, the Tatars are not chasing you." Even recently, 800 years after the fact, people still used to scare their children with "the Tatars will get you."

In 2005, an incredible find came to light at an archaeological excavation - something that drove it home for me how tangible the terror of the invasion must have been. At the site close to Cegléd a medieval village was found. In one of the small cottages the archaeologists discovered three skeletons: A girl about 8, a boy about 10, and their mother, probably in her 20s. The children were huddling inside the oven, the girl curled up behind the boy who was holding a metal kitchen tool; the mother couldn't get into the hiding place with them, but she lay there blocking the entrance. All three died like that, and the cottage burned down on top of them. They probably didn't have enough time to get away when the Tatars attacked, and the mother tried to hide her children the best she could.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

J: by Jumping (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Here is another historical hero everyone knows about. It's just not sure he existed.

The scene is the Battle of Nándorfehérvár, in 1456. Once again, we are back to the Turkish wars. The Ottoman armies besieged the fortress of Nándorfehérvár (today's Belgrad), but the Hungarians within the castle, together with Hunyadi János' army (remember his sons?), eventually defeated them. It was such a huge win that it stopped the Ottoman expansion into Europe for almost 70 years. (The next time we see them, a king drowns). According to sources, the Pope ordered the church bells to be sounded every noon in remembrance of this victory.
(Yeah, we claim noon bell ringing as a Hungarian achievement!)

During the siege of the castle, as the chronicle says, the Turks were trying to scale the walls, throw down the Hungarian flags, and put their on flags in their place. This was one of the pieces of psychological warfare that was very popular during siege times, since the flags were a symbol of who owned the fortress.
Well, according to legend, there was a moment in the siege where a Turk made it all the way up to the Hungarian flag on the ramparts, and prepared to throw it down. A Hungarian soldier named Dugovics Titusz (history came up with the name later on) saw this and rushed to prevent it. He fought the Turkish soldier, but in the end the only way he could stop him was to jump off the ramparts, and drag the enemy down with him. In one heroic, symbolic act, he prevented the Turkish flag from flying over Nándorfehérvár.

Think of this next time you play Capture the Flag.

(Famous painting by Wagner Sándor, usually featured in history books)

Friday, April 10, 2015

I: by Immurement (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

They teach some darn cheerful songs in Music class where I come from.

Immurement, by definition, is death by being walled in. It is known from many sources in many cultures all around the world. The example Hungarians are most familiar with, however, is our very own: The folk ballad titled "Kőmíves Kelemen" (Kelemen the Stonemason). You can listen to it sung here.

The ballad starts off with the building of the Castle of Deva: Twelve (in some versions thirteen) stonemasons are hired to build it, for a payment of half a bushel of silver and half a bushel of gold. But there is a problem: What they build till noon, collapses by the evening, and what they build till the evening, collapses by the morning, and they have to start all over again every day.
The building is not progressing, and they are running out of time. The masons make a pact: Whoever's wife shows up first on site to visit them will be killed, burned, and her ashes mixed into the mortar to make the castle walls hold.
(It is assumed that the whole thing refers to some pre-Christian building sacrifice practices)
Of course the first woman to come visit her husband is the wife of the masons' leader, Kőmíves Kelemen. He watches her carriage wind up the road to the mountain, and prays that she would turn back, or that the horses would drop dead. And yet, the lady makes it to the building site and greets her husband happily... only to find out the fate they planned for her. There is no going back from the pact. The masons kill her, burn her, mix her ashes in the mortar... and the walls don't fall down anymore.
You think this can't get any worse?
Wrong.
Kőmíves Kelemen has a little son. When he goes home in the evening, the boy starts asking for his mother. Kelemen keeps telling him she'll be home later... until finally he confesses that she is never coming home. The boy climbs the mountain to the castle and calls to his mother; the mother's voice answers from the wall, telling him she can't break free. The ground shakes, the earth opens, and the boy falls to his death.
Ta-da.

Being a workaholic can really ruin your family.

(You wouldn't believe the amount of puns that exist based on this story...)

Thursday, April 9, 2015

H: by Horn (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Talk about going down swinging.

Shortly after the Hungarians arrived to what is now Hungary, during the 10th century they were known for raiding and pillaging the lands to the West, an activity lovingly referred to in our history books as the "era of adventures."
(Most European prayers at the time referred to is as "Oh Lord, save us from the arrows of the Hungarians.")
But all adventures come to an end: The Hungarian armies suffered a devastating loss in 955 at Augsburg, known as the Battle of Lechfeld, from the army of Otto I the Great, the Holy Roman Emperor. The leaders of the Hungarian army, Bulcsú and Lehel, were captured.

Here is where the legend starts. According to some chronicles, when the captains were brought before the emperor, he asked them what way they wished to die (he was a polite guy, you see). Lehel answered that he would decide after he got to sound his horn one last time. The horn was brought to him; he pretended to raise it to his mouth, but in the last second he swung it and hit the emperor on the forehead with such force that he fell off his throne dead.
"You will go before me, and serve me in the afterlife," Lehel declared (we were not yet Christian at the time), just before they dragged him off and hanged him.

Other chronicles claim this never happened. It probably didn't, since Otto I didn't die this way. The chronicle names the emperor "Konrad," probably referring to the Duke of Lorraine who died in the battle.
Whatever the case, this is a story every Hungarian kid knows; one of the legends of our early history before we settled down, quartered some pagans, became a Christian kingdom, and started on an epic losing streak (see about the quartering later). Fun fact: There is a 10th century ivory horn in one of our museums that is still referred to as "Lehel's Horn." There is a piece missing from it. You never know.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

G: by Group Hug (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Ever heard the phrase "killing with kindness"?

István II was the son and heir of Kálmán I (the king that died from the ear ache). He inherited a kingdom torn by varied alliances, the strongest of which organized around his blinded cousin Prince Béla. Kálmán made István king before his death to make sure he would succeed him; but even after that, István did not have an easy time ruling the kingdom. He still managed to stay on the throne for 15 years (1116-1131).

The history of Hungary at this point is strongly intertwined with the history of the Cumans, an ethnic group of Turkic origins. According to the chronicles, István liked the Cuman tribes and supported them, which put him at odds with most of the Hungarian nobility. When the king got sick with dysentery and was reported to be on his death bed, Hungarians took the opportunity to rise up and slaughter a large number of the Cumans. Their chief, Tatár, went to the king to complain, surrounded by his wailing entourage, recounting the injustice done to his people. István, reportedly, said "Once I am healed, I will kill ten of them in return for each one of your people!" His promise and his kindness made such an impression on the Cumans that they all crowded on him, trying to kiss his hand and hug him at the same time... And they ended up crushing the king so hard he fell ill again and died soon after.

Squeezing people with dysentery is never a good idea.

(At least he knew he was loved in the end.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

F: by Figs (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Some conspiracy theories survive for long centuries. The death of King Mátyás, undoubtedly the most famous king in Hungarian history, is one of those cases.

Mátyás (the little brother of Hunyadi László who was beheaded, remember?) was a Renaissance king in all senses of the word. He ruled well, defended the country against the Turks, built an amazing library in Buda, and also imprisoned Vlad Tepes (Dracula) on the side. Even though he was probably not as great a person as later sources made him out to be, he became the hero of countless folktales - people remember him as "Mátyás the Just." Most stories tell about his adventures as he went among the people disguised as a beggar or a student (not much of a difference at the time) and dispensed some true trickster justice to help the poor and take the nobility down a notch. When he died, in 1490, the saying went up: "Mátyás is dead, Justice is dead."

But how did he die?

According to the most popular historical legend, he was killed with poisoned figs. He had some kind of an illness that made him drowsy and tired all the time; some people claim that was the sign of someone slowly poisoning the king. We know from the chronicles that he ate some figs the day before his death, and he became upset because  they tasted funny. Soon after he succumbed to great pains.
Most people blame the Italians. The figs were brought from Ancona. Mátyás had an Italian wife, Beatrice, and they brought him a new Italian doctor short before he died. The chronicle also states that when the king was lying on his deathbed Beatrice was making him drink some "life-giving" potion (I would have been suspicious of that too). It didn't seem to help. It was a popular idea after his death to blame the queen, but not much evidence supported it.
Other historians claim he died of a stroke, or some other natural cause. Some say that eating rotten figs can lead to great stomach pains and eventually to stroke if someone is already predisposed. We'll probably never know for sure. But once again, the death (and life) of King Mátyás is a story most Hungarians are familiar with.
(I remember there was a colorful picture book illustration of his death in one of my elementary school history books. The king was lying in bed, and a lady in a beautiful green Renaissance dress was making him drink from a tiny bottle. There was a plate of figs on the bedside table.)

Monday, April 6, 2015

E: by Ear Ache (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Kálmán I (also known as Könyves Kálmán, "Kálmán of the Books," for his scholarship) is one of the most interesting characters in Hungarian royal history. He ruled the Hungarian Kingdom between 1074 and 1116.

He was not strong, or particularly knightly. Some sources say he was a hunchback, and lame, and cross-eyed, and a whole bunch of other things; since most of those chronicles were written under a rival branch of the dynasty, they probably need a grain of salt. Whatever the case, Kálmán (originally intended to become a priest) was more nerdy than kingly. His learning and intellect made him a very efficient ruler. One of the things he is known for is his law concerning witches: "There shall be no talk of witches (striga), since they do not exist." Most people see this as a sign of an enlightened ruler, but it is also possible that he only tried to strengthen Christian beliefs against pagan superstition.
The low point of his character was his attempt to secure his lineage against the succession of his stronger brother Álmos and Álmos' son Béla; he had them both blinded so they would be unfit to rule. He also wanted to have the child castrated, but the soldiers didn't go through with it.
(Béla did end up becoming king, known as Béla II the Blind, and ruled for ten years) (Kálmán did not see that coming).

The chronicle says that at the end of his life Kálmán fell gravely ill; he trusted an Italian doctor called Draco to cure him (although the name should have been a red flag). The doctor put a poultice on the king's ear for his ear ache... But it proved to be a tad too strong for the task, for when it was taken off, part of the king's brains came out through his ear with it. Oops.

This goes to prove that medieval medicine could kill you just as fast as the disease. Sometimes even faster.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

D: by Drowning (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

The year was 1526: The year of the Battle of Mohács, one of the most disastrous defeats in Hungarian history.
(And believe me, there are some strong contestants for that title)

The King, Lajos II, was twenty years old, fairly handsome, and inexperienced. The enemy was the Ottoman army, with more than twice as many soldiers than the Hungarians. The battle was a massacre; the Hungarians lost almost all of their soldiers, and a huge part of the nobility. King Lajos is said to have been fighting heroically in the front lines until the battle order broke under fire from Turkish cannons, and the Hungarians started to flee.
It is not known exactly what happened. Historians claim that a nearby stream, the Csele, was flooding from the rains earlier, and while fleeing, the king fell in the stream and was dragged under by his armor. According to some sources either he or his horse was also wounded, and while trying to jump over the stream, they fell in a tangle. They found his body further down along the shore of the Danube, almost two months later.

The memory of this battle still lives in Hungarian minds as a humiliating defeat, and a turning point for the worse in the history of the Turkish wars (the Turks, on the other hand, regarded it as one of their most glorious victories at the time). The tragedy of the young king only made it worse, and the means of his death (not from battle wounds, but from drowning in a stream that under normal circumstances would not have been deep enough to drown in) only added insult to injury.

Here is another famous 19th century painting, this time by Székely Bertalan, depicting the moment survivors found the body of the king:


PLOT TWIST! An article was published last week about two doctors re-examining the sources about the discovery of the king's body, and they concluded that he might not have actually died from drowning - mostly based on how good a condition the body was in 7 weeks after death. They didn't offer an alternative explanation, though.

Friday, April 3, 2015

C: by Crowning (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Hungarian kids don't watch horror movies. They go to history class.

Dózsa György was a soldier in the wars against the Turks at the end of the 15th century (I know you are sensing a trend here, we'll go to other eras too, I promise). He was good at what he was doing - fighting - so much that in 1514 he defeated a Turkish captain in single combat. The king honored him with money, property, and knighthood.

Later in 1514 the papal bull for a Crusade against the Turks was announced, and Dózsa was made the leader of the crusading army. After tens of thousands of peasants and soldiers gathered for the cause, for multiple reasons and general incompetency on the nobility's part, the Crusade turned into a peasants' revolt. Dózsa led his army to several successes (I told you he was good at what he was doing), but ultimately the revolt reached the ending most peasant revolts did in the Middle Ages: The army was defeated, and Dózsa was captured.

His execution is one of those images that are burned (no pun intended) deep into the Hungarian mind. He was seated on a mock throne and crowned with a glowing hot iron crown (as a parody of him leading an army against the kingdom). After that, the executioners made his closest followers eat parts of him.
Yeah, you read that right.

According to a popular version of the story the throne was burning hot too, but contemporary sources don't support that claim. It was probably made up later to add to the horror of the means of execution. Dózsa was revered later in Hungarian history as a "freedom fighter" against the oppression of nobility, and he is still an iconic character we all learn about in history class.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

B: by Botched Beheading (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

Beheading is a staple of medieval punishment - it is usually quick, bloody, and over before you know it. Usually.
According to legend, in 15th century Hungary it was customary that if the executioner failed to... well, execute someone at the third try, the person would be allowed to live.
(What are the odds, right?)

Hunyadi László was the first son of legendary army general Hunyadi János, and the older brother of Hunyadi Mátyás who later became Hungary's most famous Renaissance king. After his father's death he was head of not only the family, but also a remarkable political force (the legal king at the time was László V., in his early teenage years) (not a very strong king, you see). In the midst of good old-fashioned medieval intrigue and political play that would put the Lannisters to shame, László made a mistake: Under unexplained circumstances he killed one of the most influential nobles loyal to the king.
At first, the king promised amnesty to the Hunyadi family, but that didn't last long - soon after both brothers (and their supporters) were thrown into prison, and László, as head of the family, was convicted for murder and high treason.

Hunyadi was to be executed on March 16th, 1457, in Buda. According to legend (and this is a very popular legend, I remember hearing it in elementary school) the executioner brought the ax down on his neck three times, but failed to deliver a killing blow. In the most popular version of the story it was due to the fact that László had long, thick hair, and the blade slipped on it. After the third blow the onlooking crowd started to demand clemency from the king - but László's luck had run out. The king ordered the executioner to try again, and the head finally rolled.

I remember filing this information away in case needed: Healthy hair can save your life one day.
(Provided you have a just king)

Interestingly, the connection between good hair and beheading is not unique to Hungarian folklore. If you venture over to my other blog on J day, you will read a very similar story from a Viking saga...

(The image you see above is a very famous 19th century painting by Benczúr Gyula, depicting Hunyadi's final goodbye)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A: by Adultery (26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary)

I am starting off this challenge by breaking my own rule: Adultery, technically, is not a way to die. But it was definitely a motive.

Magyar Benigna* was the daughter of one great general, and the wife of another. Both Magyar Balázs, her father, and Kinizsi Pál, her first husband, are legendary for their accomplishments in the fights against the Ottoman armies (Kinizsi is kind of a folk hero as well). Benigna was born in the middle of the 15th century, and married to Kinizsi sometime in the 1480s. She had a great dowry, and Kinizsi was respected by the king, so they were fairly wealthy; after her husband's death, especially with no heir, Benigna was rich enough to attract new suitors. Husband number 2 is not very interesting to us - but husband number 3 is.
He was a young gold-digger (what, it's not like the 21st century invented the idea) called Kereki Gergely. Not much good is written about him in the chronicles: His alleged crimes included forgery, church robbery, and even murder. In the end, however, he was brought down by a much smaller crime: According to legend, he made the mistake of cheating on his wife.
Benigna was a wealthy noble lady from an illustrious family, at this point probably in her 50s, and famous for her none-too-friendly character. When she found out she had been cheated on, the deed could not go unpunished: She had her young husband thrown from the tower of their home.
(I did not type "dumped" on purpose...)
Other sources claim she did it because Kereki was trying to get his hands on all of her property. Whatever the case, she got away with it, probably due to her own and her previous husbands' good family name. The king did take away her property, though, and she never married again. I wonder why...

* Throughout the challenge I will be using Hungarian names in their original order - family name first.