Monday, August 24, 2015


The thirteenth century is the diabolical turning point in the Middle Ages


This work from the end of the 13th century is not a masterpiece in literature. It is in no way supposed to be fictional, I mean fiction of any sort, but it is not necessarily the historical truth we could expect from an official historian. In other words this work cannot be considered as historically accurate in spite of course of its pretention to be. The notes are clear about the details on that account.

Yet it is an essential book about Hungary, the Hungarians and the Huns before them with Attila at their spear head. But it is a book that essentially lists battles, military campaigns, struggles and other types of conflicts in Europe whose stake is Hungary called here Pannonia. It very quickly becomes a catalogue of such events and the barbarity of all sides since killing enemies or plain people for the sole pleasure of killing, raiding, looting, destroying, burning, blinding, and many other sadistic, cruel and blood curdling mistreatment of the bodies, and only the bodies, of the concerned individuals who are systematically negated in their very human nature. Later on a difference is even clearly stated at the very end that the non-Christians are barbarians and pagans but they also are chattel since “Pagans should be subject to Christians. These captives were termed uheg [Note 1: . . . the term uheg . . . ‘a heathen slave’]; as far as the Church was concerned, any Hungarian could possess and keep such persons.” (p. 185)

And that brings the main interest of the work.

The author has to explain why the Hungarian society is divided among people who are nearly slaves, people who serfs and thus chattel, and various levels of freedom among the others. It is a hard task since the Hungarians are supposed to descend from a limited number of equally free people. He can only level three explanations. The first one is simple: pagans, hence non-Christians, also called barbarians are naturally subject to Christians, hence slaves. But that does not explain the other cases. So he goes back to what Charlemagne supposedly did one day when he summoned all men who were all free (that is good news about Charlemagne empire) to arms for battle and all those who refused to come without a valid excuse were turned into some service position, in other words were made serfs. But even so that did not explain the fact that the vast majority of the society was composed of such slaves and serfs. So then he went to standard Christian explanations. Those who were serfs must have committed a sin. And that satisfies him, though it should not since Jesus said that the man who has never committed a sin is the only one entitled to throw the first stone and no one did claim that honor. We are all sinners.

But this discussion leads to another which is far from being clear in the text. In feudal times the sovereign was king or emperor by decision of God himself represented by the Pope who certified those kings and emperors who owed him full respect and obedience as the representative of God on earth. This would be simple if there had been no feudal wars. They tried to solve that war spirit with the famous Peace of God movement starting at the end of the tenth century and more or less successful at the end of the eleventh century, when the first crusade was started. War was only justified against pagans and infidels.

That can explain the war against Attila and the Huns but how can it explain the wars between Hungary and Germany or Austria, or many other Christian kingdoms around Hungary once Hungary had become a Christian country? In fact it could not and we are then confronted to a second problem. The fact that the successive kings of Hungary are set on the throne by the German Emperor or some German intervention, or other foreign interventions. Even worse how can it explain that one noble faction can depose a king and elect or select another one to get on the throne? That is the pure negation of feudal principles.

The introduction suggests it is a movement that is strongly evolving in the 13th century. For sure we have the Magma Carta in 1215 in England. But in that case the king is not deposed and it is the King who accepts to decide on a few measures that had only been peacefully suggested by the joined delegates of the nobility and the Church. And that is just the point. How can the church support one faction against the others. Did the Church support the white rose of York or the red rose of Lancaster in the War of the Roses in England? The two houses were descending from the Plantagenet for sure but it was a civil war between two factions of nobles fighting for the throne of England to which they were entitled both of them at various degrees of legitimacy.

In fact in the 13th century new principles were starting to emerge in the Middle Ages. First the king was divine in nature or essence but he had to have the agreement of several institutions to be able to claim his title: first the church, second the nobility at large and third in England the City of London. In the same way this book shows how the king had in fact to be accepted by the representatives of the nobility and by the church. The book centers this evolution on the concept of “community” and even that of nation. But these words do not mean what we understand today. They mean that this community or this nation is in fact the free or more or less free people of the country who elect or appoint their representatives who have to be consulted and who have to agree with the King’s decisions for these decisions to become official. In this community of more or less free people there are levels from the top aristocracy to the plain free urban working people or landlords of anything that can have a non-noble landlord. This community excludes slaves altogether and serfs are not directly represented but only through their owners or the owners of the land to which they are attached and whose chattel they are. That’s why many of the military episodes are ambiguous when they say they killed everyone including women and children. We can never be sure that includes those who are nobody, those who are not members of the community or the nation, the serfs and the slaves, those who actually work and without whom there would be no production, no output and no riches

But this is not typical of this work or author. In the Middle Ages only those who had a certain degree of nobility and/or freedom were considered as real human beings (though of course from the Christian point of view they were all human since they all had a soul), as real members of the community. All the others were just standing on the side, working and being exploited. There was no reason to kill them in a war since they were part of the chattel of an estate. The only reason to do that was not to defeat the landlord of that estate but to ruin the landlord of that estate. But feudal wars were meant to take the control of various estates and thus take the control of these estates’ means of production: the slaves and the serfs were part of these means of production. To kill them would imply that the plunderer is not planning on conquering the land at all but only looting the valuables in churches and so on. It would be gratuitous violence but the plunderer does not give the slightest thought to what he cannot loot, and since slaves and serfs are not fighting he could not care less about them. This point of view has never been, as far as I know, explored and explained: the civilian non free casualties in the feudal wars.

This book then is interesting in the commentaries it contains because it really points out that the 13th century was crucial in Europe. All the more crucial due to the beginning of the demographic overpopulation crisis that will lead to all kinds of heresies and campaigns against such including the Cathars’ Crusade and the Inquisition and also the building of all kinds of Devil’s bridges in Europe and the starting of the burning of witches in Europe. The Black Death will come only fifty years later (1348) but it will not solve those problems either because they had been expurgated by fire and death, or because the plague was seen as a divine punishment onto a sinning population if not populace. The only problem the Black Death solved was the excess of population as compared to the resources, produced as I have said by slaves and serfs who were victims too, because the Black Death did not make any difference between the Pope or a starving homeless outlaw.


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