The earliest sources of the Magyars are fragmentary and tendentious; their interpretation is uncertain. Coming from the region of the Ural Mountains, the Magyars appeared in the lands to the west of the Volga River at an uncertain time. The earliest certain event of their history is an attack against a group of Byzantine prisoners who had decided to enforce their return to their homeland across the Lower Danube in the late 830s. The story shows that the Magyars had already settled in the steppes north of the Black Sea.
Ahmad ibn Rustah, Abu Sa'id Gardezi and other medieval Muslim geographers who preserved earlier scholars' records of the 9th-century Magyars described them as star- and fire-worshipers. Al-Bakri added that the 10th-century Magyars worshipped the "Lord of the Sky" whom modern historians associate with Tengri. Prohibitions in Christian legislation indicate that sacrifices made at sacred groves and springs were important elements of the pagan Magyars' cult. The mutilation of corpses is well-documented in pre-Christian cemeteries, implying a fear of the return of spirits.
The Magyars were among the subject peoples of the Khazar Khaganate for an uncertain period, but from the mid-9th-century they acted as an independent power. They came into contact with Muslims, Jews and Christians, but all theories on their influence on the Magyars' religious life are speculative. The hagiographic Life of Constantine mentions that Constantine—the future Saint Cyril—run into a band of Magyar warriors in the Crimea in 860. They wanted to kill him, but his prayers convinced them to spare his life.
The Magyars were regularly hired by their neighbors to intervene in their conflicts. They launched their first invasion of East Francia in 862. The Byzantine Emperor Leo the Wise incited them to invade Bulgaria in 894, but the Bulgarians made an alliance with the Pechenegs. The Pechenegs attacked the Magyars, forcing them to abandon the Pontic steppes. They crossed the Carpathian Mountains and settled in the lowlands along the Middle Danube around 895. They conquered Pannonia, destroyed Moravia and defeated the Bavarians between 900 and 907. Theotmar, Archbishop of Salzburg, recorded that they destroyed Christian churches in Pannonia.
Part of the local Christian population survived the Magyar conquest and the Magyars captured Christians during their raids in Europe. Both the local Christians and the Christian prisoners could have influenced the Magyars' attitude towards Christianity, but their role in the Magyars' conversion is undocumented. A sabretache decorated by a Greek cross, mythical animals and palmettes, found in a grave at Tiszabezdéd, may evidence Christian influence or religious syncretism, but the dead warrior was put in the grave together with his horse, in accordance with pagan practices.
A paramount chieftain (or grand prince), always a member of the Árpád dynasty, ruled the Hungarians in the 10th century. The Árpáds were believed to have descended from a turul (a legendary bird of prey). The Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos also wrote of two other high-ranking dignitaries, the gyula and the harka, around 950.
Byzantine–Hungarian relations were peaceful in the 930s and 940s. Magyar chieftains visited Constantinople to forge alliances with the Byzantines and some of them converted to Christianity to facilitate the negotiations. The harka Bulcsú received baptism in 948, but he never became a devout Christian. The gyula was baptised around 950. Patriarch Theophylact of Constantinople consecrated a monk, named Hierotheos, as bishop of Tourkia to accompany the gyula back to his domains in the eastern regions of Hungary. The late-11th-century Byzantine historian John Skylitzes claimed that Hierotheos converted many Hungarians, but archaeological evidence does not support the idea of a mass conversion to Orthodox Christianity in the second half of the 10th century.
A member of the Árpád dynasty, Termachu, was among the Hungarian leaders visiting Constantinople in 948. His kinsman, Grand Prince Géza preferred to establish close relationships with Hungary's western neighbors in the early 970s. According to modern historians' theories, he either wanted to stabilize Hungary's position in a period of Byzantine–German alliance, or he knew that he could only be second in the Byzantine court behind the gyula. He married the Orthodox daughter of the gyula, Sarolt.
Pope John XI had already sent a missionary bishop, Zacheus, to Hungary in the early 960s, but the Pope's opponent, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I captured Zacheus at Capua. A Benedictine monk, Wolfgang, left the Einsiedeln Abbey to proselytize among the Hungarians in 972, but Piligrim, Bishop of Passau, forbade him to leave his diocese. In the same year, Emperor Otto I dispatched a bishop named Bruno to Hungary. Modern historians tentatively associate Bruno with one "Bishop Prunwart" who is credited with the baptism of Géza and many of his subjects in the necrology of the Abbey of Saint Gall. Bishop Adalbert of Prague also come to Hungary, but his Life shows that his proselytizing activities were not successful.
Nearly contemporaneous authors described both Géza and Sarolt as half-pagans. Thietmar of Merseburg recorded that Géza offered sacrifices to pagan gods even after his baptism; Bruno of Querfurt accused Sarolt of mixing Christian and heathen practices. Notorious for his cruelty, Géza launched military campaigns against the pagan chieftains, promoting Christianity and stabilizing royal authority in paralel. The development of the ecclesiastical structure during Géza's reign is unknown. Theotmar's reference to a prelate in Géza's court may indicate the presence of a missionary bishop. Géza ordered the establishment of the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma.
King St Stephen
Géza died in 997. His son and successor, Stephen, was a devout Christian. He had married Gisela of Bavaria, a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, shortly before his father's death. A late source (a 1232 diploma) attributed the foundation of the Bishopric of Veszprém—the first Roman Catholic diocese in Hungary—to her. The eldest member of the Árpád dynasty, Koppány, challenged Stephen's right to the throne, but Stephen's heavy cavalry, mainly Bavarian and Swabian knights, defeated him near Veszprém. Stephen wanted to stabilize his international position and requested a royal crown from Pope Sylvester II or Emperor Otto III. His request was granted and he was crowned the first king of Hungary on 25 December 1000 or 1 January 1001.
The systematic installation of Christianity for the entire population started during Stephen's rule. He established at least two bishoprics, most probably the sees of Veszprém and Győr, already before his coronation. At least further six dioceses—Esztergom, Transylvania, Kalocsa, Pécs, Eger and Csanád—were founded during his reign. Esztergom was set up as an archbishopric in 1001, securing the independence of the Hungarian Catholic Church of the archbishoprics in the Holy Roman Empire. Kalocsa was established either as an archbishopric without suffragan bishops or as a bishopric, but in the latter case it was promoted to archbishopric before 1050.
Written sources recorded the activities of Slavic, German and Italian missionaries in Hungary. Adalbert of Prague's biographer, Bruno of Querfurt, met with Adalbert's tutor, Radla, and one of Adalbert's disciples, Astrik, in Hungary. Bruno of Querfurt's own mission among the "Black Hungarians"—an ethnic group in southern Hungary—was unsuccessful. A Venetian monk, Gerard, who was consecrated the first bishop of Csanád in 1030, proselytized in his diocese. The longer version of his Life describe him preaching among the pagan Hungarians brought to him by royal officials, with seven monks acting as his interpreters.
Christianity could not spread without the application of state violence. Stephen outlawed pagan practices and his laws prescribed the adoption of a Christian way of life. His first laws put Church property and the clergy under royal protection, ordered the observation of feast days and fasts and the punishment of those who disturbed the mass by murmuring. Stephen's hagiographies emphasize that he had to defeat the pagans in battles to achieve their conversion. Bruno of Querfurt witnessed how Christian soldiers blinded many of the Black Hungarians to enforce their baptism.
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