by J. Scott Shipman
“For moderns inclined to romanticize war in antiquity may I recommend The Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tartars? It became available in English translation fairly recently and constitutes a first-hand account of the Mongol invasion of Hungary. The violence, not only against persons and property, but against the land itself is notable and eye-opening.”
The title was enough to pique my interest, and since I knew very little of this period I went to Amazon UK and purchased a copy (US versions are prohibitively expensive) . That said, I didn’t expect to get around to reading for some time, but if I don’t “buy” a book while it is still on my mind, I’ll likely forget as the pile continues, “without ceasing” (to wax Biblical) to grow. For an obscure text, the introduction drew me in and I was hooked enough to read a few pages a day.
The book has ample and informative introductions to each work. The stories are presented in Latin on one page and English on the facing page.
The narratives are very different, Anonymous was a Notary to King Béla (circa 1196), and he recounts the deeds of Hungarian royalty, and the behind the scenes machinations of the royal court. Anonymous’ account was laced with both biblical and classic texts and was quite tedious, predictably obsequious but while at the same time offering up little snippets here and there—and often in the notes. A note in the section titled 40. The Victory of Prince Árpád, Anonymous wrote: “…for thirty four days and in that place the prince and his noblemen ordered all the customary laws of the realm and all its rights.” The editors included the following footnote with respect to “rights.”
“The translation of ius (in contrast to lex, “law”) is a problem that is not only linguistic. Translators of Roman legal texts often retain ius, as it implies law, justice, rights along with all their connotations. Modern English does not distinguish lex from ius, Gesetz from Recht, or loi from droit, which may explain the generally supine Anglo-Saxon attitude towards the law and authority in general…”
Schuler was right in his description of Master Roger’s first hand account of the Tartar invasion (1241/42); horrific comes to mind. There is no romance. The brutality and ruthlessness of the Tartars is awe-inspiring and fearful 900 years removed. The tactics of the Tartars are textbook examples of psychological warfare before the term was coined—and their ability to “get inside” their adversaries decision-making loop (OODA, anyone?) was remarkable.
The ancient Sorrowful Lament story was reassuring of the power and resilience of the human spirit. The deprivations experienced by the Hungarians were not unique in human history, but serve to illustrate how resilient a people can be when things truly go to hell in a hand basket. When their leaders failed, the Hungarians found way to live in spite of their feckless unprepared leaders, and in spite of a ruthless, blood and booty thirsty enemy.
Anonymous and Master Roger is recommended to anyone wanting to understand the human condition, whether royalty, peasant, bureaucrat, or barbarian. This is an important book…for a “sorrowful lament” has much to teach us about the human condition and how little man changes. This highly eclectic little title comes highly recommended and many thanks to Dave for sharing.
Postscript: One remarkable thing about this book, printed in Hungary, is the high quality construction using good paper and string.
There are no references to share for this volume, however if this volume is indicative of their work, Central European Medieval Texts are to be commended and followed.
BTW, Joey recommended Millenium by Tom Holland and I’m about half-way through—excellent thus far!