8: Raven on High
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In 1326 Brussa (the present Burma) became the capital of the Ottoman
Turks. It was still in Asia Minor, but at its western edge. In 1362 the capital
was already in Drinapoli (the present Edirne), well this side of the Sea of
Marmara and in the Balkans. The ring tightened around the unfortunate capital
of the Eastern Roman Empire, but Byzancium did not fall until 1453 at which
time it became Istambul, or in its shorter form, Stambul. During these years,
the sabers of the rapacious Turkish Sultanate reached ever further across the
Balkans, toward the more precious parts of Europe, to conquer them, or at the
very least to hurt them. By sea the primary target was Venice, as the principal
guardian of the east-west trade routes. On land the main thrust was in the
direction of Stambul-Sofia-Belgrade-Budapest-Vienna. This route was impossible
unless the armies could cross the soft underbelly of Transylvania, the
When Béla IV received the Tatar letter quoted above, presumably in
1240, Pope Gregory IX still urged him to lead a Crusade for the liberation of
the Holy Land. By this time the trend there had been reversed. In 1244,
Jerusalem was lost and in 1291 the last Palestinian fortress of the Crusaders,
Acre, was captured by the Moslems, that is by the Mameluk Sultanate of Egypt.
This was the last chapter in the series of offensive "Holy Wars" for the
recovery of the cradle of Christianity from the pagans, and for the control of
the eastern commerce. At this point, the penetration of the pagans into
southeastern Europe and the Balkans should have been prevented by a new
crusade. The bastion of the eastern Apostolic Cross had fallen, and the western
bastion must now be defended.
In Hungary, in the meantime the nearly 40 year rule of Charles Robert, of the
House of Anjou, came to an end and the 40 year rule of his son Louis I (the
Great) (1342-1382) began. He also became King of Poland in 1370, and spent
enormous energy and huge sums of money on the conquest (re-conquest) of the
throne of Naples for the House of Anjou. His rule, also not free from internal
dissensions, was followed by the half century rule of Sigismund of Luxembourg
(1387-1437). Sigismund first ruled as the consort of Louis's daughter Maria
(1382-1395) and, after her early death in an accident, he held the throne
alone. In Sigismund's day, the Turkish conquest had progressed to the point
where the Balkan buffer states were gone, and the Sultan's armies attacked the
Hungarian homeland directly.
Sigismund fought two battles with the Turks. At Nicapolis, in 1396, the
European crusader knights, led by him, were defeated, and in 1428 the campaign
to recover Galambóc, an important bastion defending Belgrade, lost the
previous year, ended in disaster. These were ominous signs.
Between these two lost battles, in 1407, but we don't know where, a child was
born, who was the first one to recognize the real significance of this new
eastern threat. The origins of János Hunyadi are unclear. He was thought
to be Romanian (his father was a boyar who moved from Havaselve), and he
was also thought to be the illegitimate son of King Sigismund. This is not our
concern. His deeds speak for themselves. All we know is that he started from a
relatively low rank, served in numerous campaigns and became the leading
military commander of 15th century Europe. It cannot be denied that he gained
the respect of his rulers. At the end of his life he owned a property of 2
million hectares, one quarter of which was in Transylvania. It is here that he
built, almost in the face of the Turks, his mighty and justly celebrated
fortress of Vajdahunyad. This was where his two sons, Ladislas and Mathias grew
János Hunyadi thought and acted more as a vassal than as an independent
landowner and devoted almost all of his enormous revenues to the war against
the Turks. We may ignore most of his heroic battles, both those he won and
those he lost, and concentrate on the one for which the bells still toll.
In 1456, hree years after having captured Byzancium-Constantinople and
converting it into Stambul, Sultan Mohammed II took the field in person, and
departed for the siege of Nándorfehérvár. This city is
today known as Belgrade and is the capital of Serbia. In those days, it was a
fortress not far from the Hungarian border and a key point along the military
highway leading to Buda and Vienna.
The relieving forces under Hunyadi were composed of three elements. Alongside
the Hungarian nobility and the paid mercenaries, he used the lingering
emotional appeal of the crusades and called the lower classes to arms. This was
a very courageous act, since these were the people who in the past, oppressed
and exploited, rose against their masters on more than one occasion. Under
Nándorfehérvár they became comrades in arms. In recruiting
the crusaders and also during the battle, Hunyadi's strong right arm was a
Franciscan friar, John Capistran, the future Saint John Capistran, a rigidly
moral, fiery priest and a merciless inquisitor.
The Christians won a resounding victory. The wounded Sultan was carried from
the field by his guards, more dead than alive. This victory of
Nándorfehérvár halted the Ottoman expansion into Europe
for more than a century. It was a huge opportunity waiting to be exploited, but
only the bells tolled.
Today, few are aware of it, even in Hungary, but wherever in the world day
after day the bells are rung in the churches at noon, this is done in memory of
the victory János Hunyadi gained on July 22, 1456 under the walls of
Nándorfehérvár. According to one version, it was Pope
Callixtus III, who in his happiness over this victory ordered all the bells in
Rome to ring at noon. In fact, the order to ring the bells preceded the battle
and was issued on June 29. The Pope wished to use the bells to plead with the
heavens so that the battle which may have meant the survival of Christianity be
decided in their favor. Yet the earlier version is not entirely incorrect. The
fact that the noon ringing was perpetuated, was indeed in celebration of the
victory. (Later, when the memory of Nándorfehérvár paled,
the custom was maintained since it announced the middle of the day in all the
Catholic lands and called the faithful to dinner).
Only a few weeks after the battle, another bell tolled for János
Hunyadi, the funeral bell. The plague swept through the camp and he became one
of the victims. That same fall John Capistran also died. The loss of these two
champions of victory at a time when the country was again in a leadership
crisis and slipping into anarchy, could have been fatal to the defense against
the Turks. Hunyadi's career started in Transylvania, raced like a comet across
the skies and ended in his premature death. Fortunately there was another
Hunyadi to carry on.
In the interregnum between the mid-century struggles for the throne,
János Hunyadi carried the title of regent and was in fact practically
the king. He was a late-medieval, self made man who carved his path with his
sword. When his brilliant career came to an end in 1452, his oldest son, the 23
year-old Ladislas, represented an almost dynastic successor. Several planned
marriages would have connected him to either competing or associated magnate
families but no marriage was ever solemnized. He piled honor upon honor. In
1452 he was already ispán of Pozsony, one year later he was
Prince of Croatia-Slovenia. At the death of his father, he was
ispán of Temes, and now he inherited his father's estates and
most of his titles.
The king of Hungary at this time was the posthumous son of the first Habsburg
ruler, Albert (1437-1439), Ladislas V (14401457) who was crowned as an infant,
being born some months after his father's death. There was at the same time
another king of Hungary, Wladislas I (1440-1444), from the House of Jagello. In
1444 he accompanied Hunyadi on a well-intentioned but foolhardy crusade against
the Turks. After a few minor victories, he was soundly defeated at
Várna. The king was left dead on the battle field. Nobody knows where he
was buried. Thus, the Habsburg child-king, Ladislas V, was left alone and for a
few years Hunyadi acted as regent. Let us return, however, to our historical
The struggle between the Hungarian magnates became accentuated after the death
of the head of the Hunyadi family and they all competed in trying to diminish
the patrimony and titles of his son Ladislas. The challenge became increasingly
overt. When Ladislas V and the Hunyadi's main antagonist, Ulric Cillei, during
their travels in Transylvania and southern Hungary expressed a desire to
possess Vajdahunyad, Ladislas Hunyadi and his adherents murder Cillei. The king
was terrified and granted amnesty under oath. A few months later, he had
Ladislas taken prisoner in Buda and had him beheaded.
The scene was a horrible one. During the public execution, organized with the
participation of the Court, the executioner struck three times, but the young
man was still alive. According to the customs of the times, he should now have
been pardoned. Ladislas V, only 17-years-old but a neurotic and prematurely
roue lout, nodded and the executioner struck for the fourth time. This time the
head was separated from the trunk. The king again took fright and fled, first
to Vienna and then to Prague. He could easily do this, since he was
simultaneously Duke of Austria and King of Bohemia. He dragged the younger son,
Mathias, with him as a hostage. We can see the hand of fate when this very fall
Ladislas succumbs to the plague. Parenthetically -- still in 1438, a marauding
Turkish band, augmented by Romanian and Serb auxiliaries, invades Transylvania
through the southern Transylvanian county of Hunyad. They were being guided
through the Carpathian passes by a certain voivode of Havaselve, Dracul Vlad.
It was on his guarantee as a former officer of Sigismund that Szászsebes
surrendered -- to its destruction. They then succeeded to capture
Gyulafehérvár and a number of other smaller towns or their
outlying settlements, although they failed to take Szeben. They withdrew after
a long and cruel rapine, loaded with treasure and captives.
If we now wish to investigate the model for the currently universally familiar
monster: Dracula, who is so intimately associated with Transylvania then,
according to one version, we do not have to look further than the above Vlad.
Earlier and by the grace of the king, he had been invested with the Hungarian
Dragon Knighthood. It was precisely this knightly designation (Dragon - Dracul
- Devil) which induced his own Romanians to attach the name Dracula to him and
make him the seminal figure in a recurrent cycle of legends which came to yet
another flowering in the 19th and 20th centuries.
According to another tradition, this seminal figure was younger and dates to
the age of Mathias. He was also a voivode of Havaselve and son of the former.
He became notorious primarily by his predilection for having his enemies and
challengers impaled as a form of execution. He was not an invader and, in fact,
when the Turks took control of the Havaselve, he fled to Hungary.
One thing is certain. Dracula, this monster, was a native of this region. He
existed, was notorious for his cruelties -- sadly not a rarity in these times
-- and his fame spread from this location. The first ones to spread the stories
about this dreadful ogre were the loquacious humanists -- one could call them
rumormongers -- of the court of Mathias.
The lout Ladislas V took the child Mathias Hunyadi with him as a captive. He
did not, however, raise a hand against him. Generally, those few brief moments
when the executioner took four strokes to severe Ladislas Hunyadi's neck caused
considerable consternation even in the bloodthirsty era which gave rise to the
It was the psychological after-effect of this botched execution that the
Hunyadi family again gained precedence, could no longer be ignored and carried
the favor of the bulk of the politically important mid-nobility with it. He who
creates a martyr, multiplies the number of his own enemies.
There was also a peculiar "Hunyadi tradition". The tradition was more than an
inheritance, more than all the offices and more than the enormous patrimony
which was so envied by the Cilleis, that it led to a break with Ladislas and to
the death of Ulric Cillei. We have emphasized already that János Hunyadi
treated his lands like a feudal property, and used them on behalf of the king
and for the protection of the country. He was also strongly in favor of giving
an ear not only to the central authority and to the oligarchy which
continuously attempted to chisel away at this central authority, but also to
the nobility in the counties and the rural districts, and even to the urban
bourgeoisie which, compared to the rest of Europe, was relatively poorly
developed in Hungary. He did this primarily to "spread" the necessary burden of
the military-defensive costs to the widest possible base. Yet, the popularity
and goodwill so gained among the middle classes also became a part of the
Hunyadi inheritance. These classes will suffer a major disappointment very
shortly, particularly in Transylvania.
At the end of 1457, a few weeks after the death of Ladislas V from the plague,
Mathias Hunyadi was set free from his captivity in Prague. (The price of his
freedom was his engagement to the Bohemian princess Catherine Podjebrad, the
daughter of his jailer, which ordinarily may be a good omen in case of a
serious love affair, but which, in this instance, was a pawn to a not very
successful marriage.) Shortly thereafter, on January 23 and 24, 1458 Mathias
was elected king (1458-1490). After the disappearance of the House of
Árpád, the country once again had a native king, assuring the
nation of its right to self-determination and of its freedom of choice.
There are two dates because Mathias was proclaimed king both at the
traditional assembly site of Hungary, the Rákos Mező, but also in
Buda, on the ice of the frozen Danube, by 15,000 noblemen assembled for the
purpose by his uncle, Mihály Szilágyi, the eminent magnate. The
acclamation was unanimous.
Mihály Szilágyi acted as guardian and regent. He began his
regency and made decisions concerning taxes, goods and authorities, far removed
from the spirit of John Hunyadi. In this, later he was followed by Mathias
himself. The central authority had to be strengthened. Since the great ones
being great remained great, all these regulations were made at the expense of
the smaller people, the middle-nobility, the Saxons and the Székelys.
There were movements and rebellions in Transylvania "against Buda", which gave
rise to reprisals and even to a punitive campaign.
This region had a bad start with the new king, who was born in
Kolozsvár and grew up in Vajdahunyad. Later, having replaced his uncle
for acting arbitrarily in his name, (he sent Szilágyi to fight against
the Turk where he was killed), he strengthened the defenses of Transylvania
against attack from the south. The Saxon cities were building fortifications
and even in the villages the churches were fortified. The endeavors of the king
and of the population were mutually supportive, and not only among the Saxons,
but among the Hungarians and Székelys as well.
Mathias decided to use Visegrád, rather than the distant and exposed
Vajdahunyad, as the beneficiary of his generosity, and endowed it above all
others with splendid adornments. He moved his mother to Buda. Vajdahunyad was
not forgotten, however, and also received renaissance treasures and structural
improvements. The magnates of Transylvania did likewise, in competition, with
their own castles.
It was characteristic of Mathias's policies that while he was convinced that
the country had to be strengthened to be able to resist the Turks, he withdrew
his attention from the Balkans and turned his eyes toward Vienna and Prague. He
wished to control all effective forces against the Turks from there. This
attempt, while well intentioned and not unreasonable, accomplished very little.
The Transylvanian inheritance from his father was very helpful to Mathias in
the beginning. Even in the organization of the famous Black Army one can
recognize János Hunyadi's influence, who always favored mercenary
forces. In the final analysis, however, this otherwise exceptionally gifted son
did not benefit much from this spiritual inheritance.
It must be mentioned about Transylvania in the age of the Hunyadis that at
this time the Romanian elite -- whether assimilated or not -- could enter the
ranks of the Hungarian nobility. Saxon independence was frequently manifested
by their limiting the settlement of non-Germans in their cities. Székely
freedom was endangered not only by external forces but also from internal
dissensions, "societal pincers", in which class interests outweighed the
interests of the entire all-Székely community. Even though the
extra-Carpathian regions increasingly slipped out from under Hungarian control,
the export and import of goods to and from this area was controlled by
Transylvania and was very profitable.
The principal Hungarian exports were precious metals and live animals. The
main imported items were textiles, particularly woolens. The principal
Transylvanian export items were mining products. The bulk of the Hungarian
cattle export came from the Great Plain. Moldavia and the Havasalfőld
were the major markets and transfer points for the textile products coming
through Hungary from the west. Since a number of cities had the right to
collect duties, this was very lucrative for Transylvania.
The late Roman, Gothic and late Gothic remains indicate that the majority of
the late medieval architectural and artistic efforts were directed toward the
churches. It is much less evident, and shows up later in the castles, mansions
and, finally, in the houses of the bourgeoisie. Mathias himself was born in one
of the Gothic homes in Kolozsvár. We know of several artists of the
Transylvanian Gothic, such as the painter Nicholas Kolozsvári, who
presumably ran a large atelier and his two sons, Marton and Győrgy, who
were both sculptors of genius. We must again emphasize that the Transylvanian
Gothic represents a sharp dividing line between the two distinct areas of
Creative arts may be enjoyed everywhere in the world, but in the culture of
Transylvania the major emphasis must be placed on the emergence of the mother
tongue Why Hungarian became so strong, relative to Latin, at this time is not
at all clear. In Buda and Visegrád, among the humanists in the court of
Mathias, Latin was not only the language of the church or of the
administration, but enjoyed almost complete dominance even in interpersonal
communication. This was universal, since Latin is the Esperanto of the age.
By contrast, in Transylvania, the Saxons while preventing the settlement of
non-Germans maintained their own language and literature, even though their
leaders were all fluent in Latin. Partly under Hussite influences and also, of
course, in monastic circles numerous parts of the Scriptures were translated
into Hungarian in Transylvania. And this was not all. Romanian literacy was
more advanced in the Carpathian Basin than beyond it, even though there the
preponderance of Romanians was much greater.
We must rely on estimates alone, but at the death of Mathias, at the end of
the 15th century, Transylvania had approximately slightly less than 500,000
inhabitants. About 60% were Hungarian, including of course the Székelys,
24 % were already Romanian, and the Saxons made up the remaining 16 %.
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