The Slovak Origin of Hungarian Nobility

The Slovaks have a peculiar relationship with their nobility; at once they despise them for being Hungarian overlords, and then they become ecstatic when they discover that much of this nobility was of Slovak origin.

 King Svatopluk of the Moravians

The fact is that, since colloquial (non-Latin) records began from around the 16th century, Upper Hungarian (that is, the territory that is now Slovakia) noblemen evidently knew, corresponded, and wrote in Slovak.

For the true Hungarian patriot, of course, this proves nothing. As much of Wikipedia (it being practically a battlefield of 19th century ideas) can testify, the argument used by true Hungarian patriots is that these nobles merely learnt the Slovak tongue of their environment, to better understand their meaner co-habitants.

And so the next step, as soon as Slovak nationhood cottoned on to the significance of the matter, was to try to prove beyond doubt that much of the Upper Hungarian nobility was Slovak since the middle ages; nay, since the time of the Great Moravian empire, and that certain of these families are in fact the descendants of Moravian Slav magnates.

In the opinion of these Slovak scholars (and there are many about now), the old Hungarian chronicles are of no use, because in their attempt to glorify the tribes of Gog and Magog they created an empty Pannonia which received the Hetumoger with open arms. So the Slovak scholars have begun a careful study of names and landed possessions of some of the ancient magnate families. The most celebrated have become those of Hont and Poznan. The dissection of family names have, to my mind, itself proved beyond doubt the Slavic origin of this family – no Swabian (or Magyar, for that matter) would call himself Bukven – which to this day means 'beechmast' in Slovak. Many Upper Hungarian noble families descend from the genus Hont-Poznan.

Hont, one of the ancestors of the Hont-Poznans

However, I think that the Slovak scholars are being unfairly harsh towards the old chroniclers. Upon a careful reading of the two most significant, the Gestas of Anonymous and of Simon of Keza, it appears that really quite revolutionary possibilities emerge. I list them:

  1. That 'Pannonia' did not mean the entire historical area of Hungary, but the great flat plain encircled by the Carpathians (this is not revolutionary at all, but it is a first step towards the below);
  2. That the area where Nitra and Hlohovec stand (and where the country first begins to ripple with hills, and where begins ethnic Slovakia proper – this discounts the flat areas to the south and south-west Slovakia, which were ethnically Magyar) were already at the borders of the early medieval state of Hungary;
  3. That in this northern region (Slovakia proper) Bohemians and Slavs of Nitra lived, and that these terms of ethnicity were interchangeable;
  4. That they were defeated in arms or at least intimidated;
  5. That the nobles of this people had their lands reinstated by the Magyar conquerors, and were grateful for their returned estates.

These possibilities are truly fascinating, because they do so much to prove the existence of Greater Moravian aristocracy turned Hungarian aristocracy, from sources which traditionally are seen to do the very opposite. Instead of denying ancient Slovak nobility, upon a correct reading they in fact support it.

The Gesta Hungarorum by Anonymous

The Gesta has long been discredited from the point of view of actual historical accuracy of 9th century events – its continued value however lies in giving us a glimpse of some circumstances of the time when the Gesta was originally written, in the 12th century (that is, well within a century of the fundation of the Hungarian Kingdom in A.D. 1000).

The seven captains (Hetumoger)

In par. 33 of the Gesta, Duke Arpad sent “many warriors to conquer the people of castles Gemer and Novohrad and, if fortune would grant, to continue as far as the boundaries of Bohemia at castle Nitra”
(misit multos milites in expedicionem, qui subiugarent sibi populum de castro Gumur et Nougrad. Et si fortuna faveret, tunc ascenderet versus fines Boemorum usque as castrum Nitra).

This first, and exceedingly important, quote, implies that even in 12th century Hungary, the feeling of a borderland was felt in the area where the historical ethnic Slovak borders begin. Even more significantly, it was felt that this region was populated by “Bohemians”. No actual Bohemians lived around Nitra (the seat of the ancient Moravian empire) – this apellation meant the same thing as 'Slav' to the Hungarians, for whom the tongue was almost identical. It must be admitted that even Renaissance Slovak texts are almost identical to Czech. In the same way, then, that Germans equated the Huns with the Magyars in the 10th century, the Magyars equated the Slavs who lived around Nitra in the 12th century and before with 'Bohemians'. This conflation is important because many ancient noble families who are recorded in Upper Hungary (and the descendants of whom claimed to be Slovak) are described in medieval chronicles as having their origin in 'Bohemian' knights.

Par. 33 of the Gesta continues: “Then all the inhabitants of that land, Slavs, who were originally subject to Duke Salan, were afraid and freely subjected themselves, and none of them lifted a hand...The nobles from this land, who gave to [Zuard, Cadusa and Huba] their sons as ransom, were given various gifts and with sweet words were encouraged to subject themselves without fighting under Arpad's lordship. And then they were taken on expeditions, while theirs sons, who were ransom, came to Duke Arpad with various gifts. The duke and his nobles were very happy at this and gave the good messengers many gifts.”
(Tunc omnes Sclavi habitatores terre, qui primo eran Salani ducis, propter timorem eorum se sua libera sponte subiugaverunt eis, nullo manum sublevante...Et melioribus habitatoribus terre, qui filios suos in obsides dederant, diversa dona presentaverunt et blandis verbis sub dominium ducis Arpad sine bello subiugaverunt et ipsos secum in expedicionem duxerunt, filios vero eorum in obsides accipientes, ad ducem Arpad cum diversis muneribus remiserunt. Unde dux et sui nobiles leciores facti sunt solito, nuntiis gaudia ferentibus multa dederunt dona.)

The above quote disproves the classic interpretation of the Gesta that it does not mention ancient Moravian aristocracy. Here Anonymous substitutes 'Bohemians' for 'Slavs' for the same region – but he makes a sharp distinction between the populus and the Moravian nobility; the former do not fight because they are afraid; but the latter are persuaded not to fight, and as a result they are rewarded with gifts and social station. The Moravian nobles go with the Magyars on their expeditions, and begin their service for the nascent Hungarian state. The ransomed sons, and the feasts and joy, and rich gifts, all recall the typical early medieval romantic notions of high chivalric adventure. This contemporary feel makes it even more clear that Anonymous was aware that the area around Nitra is inhabited by Slavs with a nobility of their own, a nobility who have accepted the lordship of Hungarian kings and have as a result been confirmed in their privileges.

Par. 34 then moves on to the locality of Zvolen: “Then the four lords, on the basis of counsel and pleading by the population of that land loyal to them, a third of the army together with that land's people went to the Zvolen forest where, at the very edge of the kingdom, they were to build strong stone and wood fortifications, lest the Bohemians and Poles would one day attack their dominion”.
(Tunc IIIIor domini inito inter se consilio per peticionem incolarum sibi fidelium constituerunt, ut tercia pars de exercitu cum incolis terre irent in silvam Zovolon, qui facerent in confinio regni municiones fortes tam de lapidibus quam etiam de lignis, ut ne aliquando Boemy vel Polony possent intrare causa furti et rapine in regnum eorum.)

Zvolen, which later became a royal castle and under the Anjous was splendidly appointed, is basically on the same latitude as Nitra. Anonymous, therefore, is consistent in asserting that beyond those boundaries lived Slavs, 'Bohemians' as he often (but not always) liked to call them. He also mentions the 'loyal' parts of the indigenous Slav population, hinting at the complex process of assimilation and acceptance that the Magyars must have encountered during the formation of the kingdom, and to some time (until the 12th century at least) after.

Prince Almos, with the sign of the Turul

In par. 35 of the Gesta, the Arpadian warlords approach the city of Nitra in an effort to appraise its defences: “[they rode to where] the Tormos rivulet descends into the river Nitra, and they saw that the inhabitants of those lands, Slavs and Bohemians, would defend themselves under the leadership of a Bohemian duke, because after the death of Attila the region between the Vah and Hron rivers, and between the Danube until the Morava, was unified into one principality by a Bohemian duke. And at that time, by grace of the duke of Bohemia, the duke of Nitra was Zubur.”
(...ab rivulum Turmas, abi descendit in rivulum Nytre, viderunt habitatores ilius provincie Sclavos at Bohemos eis obsistere cum adiutorio ducis Boemorum, quia mortuo Athila rege terram, que iacet inter Wag et Gron a Danubio usque ad fluvium Morova dux Boemorum sibi preoccupavera et in unum ducatum fecerat. Et tunc tempore per gratiam ducis Boemorum dux Nitriensis factus erat Zubur.)

The above paragraph only strengthens the idea that, for Anonymous, and thus for Magyar Hungarians, Upper Hungary was inhabited by Slavs. Again, the word 'Bohemian' is interchangeable with Slav, even though erroneously: true Bohemians were separated from Upper Hungary by the Moravian mark. Nevertheless, for all practical purposes of identification the Slavs of Upper Hungary were 'Bohemians'.
More importantly, this paragraph introduces the concept of the 'duke of Nitra', and Nitra as the seat of a principality. This is combined with an astonishingly precise (for modern readers) boundaries of the modern ethnic Slovakia, as well as corresponding closely to where the boundaries of the Nitra principality are believed to have been. This demonstrates that the ethnic region of the Slovaks remained unchanged since the 12th century, the era of Anonymous.

Par. 36 of the Gesta repeats the phrase “Slavs and Bohemians” in reference to the defenders of Nitra (Sclavos et Boemos, Sclavi et Boemi), thus elevating it into a topos, the habitual reference for those people. This means that the terms were interchangeable and that the 'Bohemians' of Anonymous were simply the Slavs of Upper Hungary, and not some lost Bohemian warband.

Par. 37 of the Gesta speaks the tale of the great battle between Arpad's three warlords Zuard, Cadusa and Huba and the Slavs of Nitra. Zubur is called the 'duke of Nitra' (dux Nitriensis), while the local inhabitants are again called the 'Bohemians and Slavs' (Boemis et Sclavis) and even 'Bohemians and Slavs of Nitra' (Boemi et omnes Nytrienses Sclavi).
The interesting point of this paragraph comes when the battle is over (won, of course, by the Magyars), the castles of the region are taken over, and when the Magyar victors return to Arpad with hostages given to them by the local nobles (et omnes nobiles filios suos eis in obsides dederunt): “And Prince Arpad, heeding the counsel of his nobles, accepted oaths of loyalty from the unfaithful and gave them – the aforementioned unfaithful inhabitants from the region of Nitra – lands in various parts of the kingdom, in order that, when they returned home, they would not be able to become unfaithful again in Nitra”.
(Dux Arpad consilio et peticione suorum nobilium donavit accepto iuramento infidelium terras in diversis locis predictis infidelibus de partibus Nytrie ductis, ut ne aliquando infideliores facti repatriando nocerent sibi fidelibus in confinio Nitrie habitantibus).

The above quote offers a tantalising possibility that the old Moravian nobility were in fact re-instated to their rank, accepted into the hierarchy of the nascent Hungarian kingdom. Apart from the romantic stories concocted in his fertile imagination, Anonymous actually quite faithfully reflected the realities of the 12th century Hungarian kingdom: one of those realities were Slavic noble families in Upper Hungary. Their existence and legitimate status had to be explained in some way, and so Anonymous created the story whereby the Moravian aristocracy were defeated in battle and submitted to Arpad, who in return reinstated them to their positions.

This has deep implications for medieval genealogy in Upper Hungary, where so many noble families bore demonstrably Slavic names and were descended from kindreds who, in medieval chronicles, were said to have been of 'Bohemian' origin. These kindreds were 'Bohemian' in the sense that Anonymous gives it – the old nobility of Nitra and Greater Moravia.

Anonymous was not the only Hungarian chronicler who thought in this way. So did Simon of Keza, who wrote his famous Gesta Hungarorum about a hundred years later that Anonymous, in the late 13th century. In Simon of Keza the myth of the Hunnish origins of the Magyars is developed further, though perhaps in a more analytical and less imaginative manner. Nevertheless, Simon retains the idea that the territory of Slovakia was inhabited by Slavs and 'Bohemians'.

In par. 32 of his Gesta, Simon continues in his recounting of the seven hosts of Arpad: “Lel was the commander of the sixth host. It is stated in many accounts that Lel first dwelt near Hlohovec and afterwards settled in the region around Nitra once the Moravians and Bohemians were eliminated.”
(Lel ergo exercitus sexti ductor fuerat. Iste circa Golgocha primitus habitans, exinde Messianis et Boemis exstirpatis, tandem in partibus Nitriae saepius fertur habitasse.)

Simon here, just as Anonymous, makes the Nitra Moravians identical with the 'Bohemians'. In Simon also, then, we can be relatively sure that when referring to 'Bohemians' in Upper Hungary, he may well mean the indigenous Slavs living there. Simon's statement that the Slavs of Nitra were “extirpated”, in other words utterly destroyed, is harsh but it cannot reflect reality. The existence of so many noble families in the region who bore purely Slavic names, as well as the great efforts Anonymous goes to explain the Slav presence there, oppose this.

This conflation of Nitra Slav and Bohemian has, of course, great implication as to the origin of some of the noble kindreds. Simon of Keza himself writes that “the Bogat-Radvany originate in Bohemia” (Sed illi, quod Rodoan et Bagath nominantur, eorum generatio de Boemia ortum habet). The lands of this kindred were large but mostly to the Northeast of Hungary, far away from actual Bohemia; while the names of their member and the ethnicity of the later descendants is demonstrably Slovak.

Another kindred were the Ludany, whom Simon also identifies as Bohemian. The Ludany kindred had lands in the region of Nitra itself, and again the research into family names and land possessions strongly suggest that this kindred was indigenous and had roots in ancient Nitra nobility. Incidentally, the Ludany are believed to be the kindred of the Elefanthy family, who were probably the ancestors of the Klebercz family referred to in my blog.

It is of course difficult to attempt to piece together a reliable analysis from medieval Hungarian chronicles – they are serious pitfalls even for the expert. However, it goes without saying that they remain invaluable resources – and each generation of historians seems to pick what suits them best. Perhaps this short contribution is also slightly biased – the very existence of the Slovak political entity seems to predispose historians to try to trace it into the past. I myself, however, was in the past sceptical of the Slovak origin of Upper Hungarian families. However, modern sustained research does suggest that this may have been the case, at the very least for a part of the nobility. It is still rather sad that, for instance, Wikipedia refuses the valid and unquestionably serious work of Slovak historians. I hope that my contribution here might elucidate the matter further, in light of the very sources which Slovaks seem to shun and Hungarians seem to adore.


Anonymous: Gesta Hungarorum, in: Vincent Mucska (Banska Bystrica, 2000)
Chronicon Pictum (Chronica de Gestis Hungarorum): in: Dezso Dercsenyi (Weimar, 1968)
Macartney, C. A.: The Medieval Hungarian Historians (Cambridge, 1953)
Simonis de Keza: Gesta Hungarorum, in: Frank Schaer, Laszlo Veszpremy (eds.) (Budapest, 1999)