Nu History Podcast – Episode 2: Vikings and Slavs

The podcast returns for episode 2!

Lilly and Alex are joined this time by Natalia Radziwiłłowicz who is currently working on a PhD on Scandinavian and Slavic interactions during the Viking age around Pomerania/the southern Baltic coast.

You can listen through Spotify below, or head to Anchor for links to follow on Apple, Google and wherever else you get your podcasts.

The Origins of Hussar Cavalry

The term Hussar is most commonly known as the name of a certain type of light cavalry used primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries. But it is also used for a few quite different forms of cavalry in completely different periods and regions. I got to questioning where the link between them can be found, and ultimately what the origins of both the word and the people behind it were. I found that Hussars in some form could possibly be traced as far back to the 10th or 11th centuries, but the 15th century being a more certain and defined beginning, and the more modern form going right up until the beginning of World War 1

To trace the origins of the Hussar, it is necessary to go back quite a long way. Even then it is impossible to be sure of the exact roots of this form of cavalry. It is likely that they were derived from elements found in the light horsemen of Eastern Europe and Anatolia. Since the time of the Crusades the Turks had become renowned for the skill of their light horsemen, armed with various light weapons such as the lance, sword and shield, and bow. They would work in co-ordination to harry and harass the enemy, darting in and around them, showering them with arrows shot from the saddle even when riding at speed, and forming and re-forming quickly. They moved constantly, never waiting to be charged. Sometimes they deceive the enemy by retreating to make them believe they had been defeated while really drawing them into a more vulnerable position; over-confident, tired and cut off. Retreating armies would particularly fear these horsemen as they would easily chase and attack them, and constantly bait the European heavy cavalry to chase them fruitlessly.

It is believed that influence was taken from warriors such as these Turks by Eastern European armies in order to combat them with their own versatile light cavalry. Many would go from this point to look at the Hussars of Hungary and then Poland, but those Hussars come some time later and aren’t necessarily directly influenced. The mid point between these is the light cavalry of Medieval Serbia, primarily those serving in the Byzantine Empire.

It is at this point where we can start to see the origins of the word Hussar. However there are a few ways the etymology could be interpreted. One possibility is that the Hungarian term huszár comes from the word for the Serbian light cavalry units named gusar, a word meaning ‘raider’, and later coming to be more associated with pirates than cavalry due to its root being the Latin cursarius, which is also the root for the English word ‘corsair’. Another theory of the term is offered by Byzantine scholars, who say that the term originated in Roman military practice with the cursarii (singular cursarius). 10th century Byzantine military manuals mention chonsarioi, who were light cavalry recruited in the Balkans, commonly being Serbs. However, even the theory of the Serbian word becoming the Hungarian word is disputed. A recent premise is that the word originates from the Hunnic language because the word huszár can be found in Uyghur, which is believed to be Hunnish, and Hungary has earlier roots in Magyar people, related to the Huns.

Whichever way the term came about, it is generally agreed that the origin of the first Hungarian Hussars came from Serbian light cavalry. At the end of the 14th century the Ottoman Empire had conquered Serbia, and there was an Ottoman military frontier with the Hungarian Kingdom. At this time there were a lot of migrating Serbs, and with them came the Serbian cavalry, crossing into southern Hungary to become mercenaries. It was previously believed that these mercenaries simply integrated into Hungarian cavalry entirely, but in reality they seem to have had a much more influential role in the methods employed by the Hungarian armies. Whereas Hungary had traditional light cavalry and mounted archers in its military ancestry, by the 11th century they had already been replaced by a more Western type of heavy cavalry. Since that time they had relied upon ancillary units of other people, initially of the Pechenegs, and then the Cumans, until eventually by this point at the end of the 14th/beginning of the 15th century they had Serbian mercenaries fill the role.

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Earliest known representation of a hussar engraved on a sabre scabbard chape from 1500.

As I said, these mercenaries went on to have a more significant role when compared with those before them. King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1458-90) is credited as the creator of the first Hussars, incorporating the Serbian mercenaries they already had, and presumably filling the ranks with Hungarian troops as time went on. The Hussars were commonly known as Rac, Raci or Racowie, literally meaning ‘Serbians’ at the time (derived from Rascia or Rassia, a name coined for Serbia in the 12th century, derived ultimately from the name of the original centre of the Serbian state, the fortress of Ras). Initially, they fought in small bands, but were reorganised into larger, trained formations during the reign of Corvinus. The first hussar regiments comprised the light cavalry of the Black Army of Hungary. Under Corvinus’ command, the hussars took part in the war against the Ottoman Empire in 1485 and proved successful against Ottoman cavalry as well as against the Bohemians and Poles. After the king’s death, in 1490, hussars remained the preferred form of cavalry in Hungary.

The Habsburg Empire hired Hungarian hussars as mercenaries themselves to serve against the Ottomans and on various battlefields throughout Western Europe. Other countries such as well as Poles and Lithuanians and even The Holy Roman Empire employed hussars around this time.

Polish Hussars were a big part of the history of the hussars, and are possibly the center of the biggest changes in the line of development that hussars went through. The Polish hussars were transformed into heavier cavalry over time. They abandoned wooden shields and adopted plate armour. When Stefan Bathory, a Transylvanian-Hungarian prince, was elected king of Poland in 1576, he reorganised the Polish-Lithuanian hussars of his Royal Guard along Hungarian lines, making them a heavy formation, equipped with a long lance as their main weapon. By the reign of King Stefan Bathory, the hussars had replaced medieval Western style lancers in the Polish–Lithuanian army, and they now formed the bulk of the Polish cavalry. By the 1590s, most Polish–Lithuanian hussar units had been reformed along the same model. Due to Hungarian and Polish hussars being similar at this time, the Polish heavy hussars came with their own style, the Polish winged hussars. The people of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth recognized the winged hussars as husarskie anioły (hussar angels). The heavy hussars of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were still far more maneuverable than the heavily armoured lancers they had previously employed. These hussars proved vital to many Polish victories, significantly the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The Polish Winged Hussars proved to be the decisive factor in many battles, and often against overwhelming odds. Until the 18th century, they were considered some of the most elite cavalry in the world. Now being elite heavy cavalry, adorned in the most expensive armour and comprising mostly of nobles, hussars at this time were now a  long way from the ‘raiders’ they had originated from.

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Example of Polish Winged Hussar armour. The Wings in this configuration are considered to be ceremonial, but they may have worn a single simpler wing on the back into battle.

Hussars outside the Polish Kingdom followed a different line of development, one which would soon become the norm. During the early decades of the 17th century, hussars in Hungary ceased to wear metal body armour; and by 1640, most were light cavalry again. It was hussars of this ‘light’ pattern, rather than the Polish heavy hussar, that were later to be copied across Europe. These light hussars were ideal for reconnaissance and raiding, and in battle they were used in such light cavalry roles as harassing enemy skirmishers, overrunning artillery positions, and pursuing fleeing troops, more in line with the traditional uses of hussars and their roots in the past. They were no longer armed with lances but now were armed with a curved sabre, one or two pistols carried in holsters at the front of the saddle and usually a carbine.

This model of hussar was copied all over the world, and eventually every major country had hussar regiments in their army. Bavaria raised its first hussar regiment in 1688 and a second one in about 1700. Prussia followed suit in 1721 when Frederick the Great used hussar units extensively during the War of the Austrian Succession.France established a number of hussar regiments from 1692 onward, recruiting originally from Hungary and Germany, then subsequently from German-speaking frontier regions within France itself. Russia relied on its native Cossacks to provide irregular light cavalry until 1741 when they formed their own hussars. Sweden had hussars from about 1756 and Denmark introduced them in 1762. Britain converted a number of light dragoon regiments to hussars in 1806–1807.

Hussars played a prominent role in many conflicts around the world, including the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, The Romanian Independence War of 1877, The Argentine Revolution in 1810, and many more up until the early 20th century. On the eve of World War I, there were still hussar regiments in the British (including Canadian), French, Spanish, German, Russian, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Romanian and Austro-Hungarian armies. In most respects, they had now become regular light cavalry, recruited solely from their own countries and trained and equipped along the same lines as other classes of cavalry. But Hussars were still notable for their colourful and elaborate parade uniforms.

A defining feature of Hussars from around 1700 onwards was their distinctive appearance. Their colourful uniforms were inspired by the prevailing Hungarian fashions of the day. The main features of this uniform were the dolman, a short jacket with heavy horizontal gold braid on the breast and sleeves, and a matching pelisse which was a second over- jacket worn with one sleeve on and the other slung over the shoulder. European hussars traditionally wore long moustaches (but no beards) and long hair. the British hussars were the only moustachioed troops in the British Army, leading to them being taunted as being ‘foreigners’ at times.

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Example of an 18th century hussar uniform.

Hussars had a reputation for being the dashing, if unruly, adventurers of the army. The traditional image of the hussar is of a reckless, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, womanising, moustachioed swashbuckler. General Lasalle, a typical showoff hussar officer, epitomized this attitude, the most famous quote of his is: “Any hussar who is not dead by the age of thirty is a blackguard.” He died at the Battle of Wagram at the age of 34. Less romantically, 18th century hussars were also known (and feared) for their poor treatment of local civilians. In addition to commandeering local food stocks for the army, hussars were known to also use the opportunity for personal looting and pillaging, unwittingly living up to the name of their origins.

After horse cavalry became obsolete, hussar units were generally converted to armoured units, though retaining their traditional titles. Hussar regiments still exist today and horses are sometimes used for ceremonial purposes.

TANNENBERG 1410

I found myself doing some research on the battle of Tannenberg 1410, a little while after its anniversary in 2010. I coursed a module on the Crusades as a university student and this is a topic I came across. Needless to say, I am not a military historian – but I thought this conflict in the Baltic, which is in essence one of the largest battles in medieval European history deserved some attention here in the blog. So today we will go for a flash back 605 years into the past to what currently is modern-day Poland.

This battle of Tannenberg, took place in a field between the adjoining villages of Grinwald and Tannenberg in 1410. As part of the later crusading movement, it has to be considered that the issue was not any more the reconquest of the Holy Land, but fighting the pagans across Europe, which was just as bad a threat to Christendom. The Teutonic Knights took it in their hands to dispatch justice in the name of God for this purpose. They targeted Lithuania because of various reasons. First of all, because most of the territory remained pagan, and the few people who were Christianised were Orthodox. Fortunately, or unfortunately for the Order, in 1386 a marriage between the royal families of Poland and Lithuania took place which lead to an alliance between the Order’s neighbouring states, and the Lithuanian conversion to Christianity. Yes, in case you were not aware, the Teutonic Knights decided that the best way to fight the enemy was to install themselves by the enemy, so in the Baltic, surrounding themselves by pagans and enemies… It is not clear if the acts of the Order were truly based on the fear of this alliance, greed for the neighbouring lands of their estate, or was just something to add to their wish for crusade. So, they decided with their upper hand that this alliance was just a joke and a pretended conversion to the true faith, therefore they needed to monitor and be cautious of what could come of this Polish-Lithuanian conjunction. And things eventually kicked off when trouble arose in Samogitia.

Samogitia had always been a problematic area. The territory lay in western Lithuania, just between the Teutonic lands of Prussia and Livonia, and rebellion against the Order’s influence was something common. But that time the Teutonic Knights went too far. At the beginning of the 15th century, Lithuania suffered from famine, particularly in the Samogitian lands. Poland sent supplies to this area, but they were seized by the Order, because their spies had evidences to think that they were actually transporting weapons rather than food and that the Lithuanian Duke wanted the Samogitians to rebel and exterminate the Order. This would not be something that the Duke would take kindly, and in a way he did the Order a favour by declaring war against them – Although they put that on hold due to an armistice that would expire the 24th of June (1410). In addition, the Order decided to capture the Lithuanian ruler, as they thought the truce would not apply him…Obviously violating the truce agreement, much to the anger of both factions. The resolution to this situation is what the events of the 15th of July, in 1410, came to be at Tannenberg.

June was used basically for recruitment and war preparation, because of the armistice. The Polish troops would configure about 20000 of the soldiers that fought the war. The ‘Banner’, (family or district polish unit), was subdivided into between 50 to 120 ‘lances’ of 2 to 5 men, that will fight along mercenaries from Bohemia and Moravia. War-hammers, pikes and ‘war-flails’ were the foot soldiers weapons. Cavalry would be Lithuania’s contribution to the allied army, as well as some Tartar and Russian troops. The Teutonic lines would count with not so many knights, but secular members of the Order, Prussian, Bohemian and Italian mercenaries, as well as other fellow crusaders. Once the truce was over, the action began. The 1st of July the Lithuanian and Polish armies gathered at Czerwinsk while the Order advanced to the site of Kauernick. Little victories were achieved by the allied forces on the 9th at the assault of Lautenburg, and the 13th when Gildenburg was captured and raided. Finally, the two armies will meet at Tannenberg-Grunwald-Zalgiris. (…Not enough with one name for a battle…).

The morning of the 15th of July was very eventful. Hours before the battle, the leader of the combined Polish-Lithuanian armies, King Wladislaw Jagiello, was praying when he was interrupted, several times, to be informed that the enemy had reached the place and was prepared for battle. Once both armies were settled in the battle field,  the Grand Master of the Order, Ulrich Von Jungingen, supposedly sent two swords to Jagiello and Vytautas (the Lithuanian Duke) to serve them in the battle, as they were destined to face each others during the battle. So, the fight started and the blood of both Christian crusaders and ‘miscreants-Saracens’ was spilt throughout the field. Apparently some controversial event stook place during the battle. There was a retreat of the Lithuanian ranks, which is still debated if it was due to panic or a Tartar strategy, to distract some of the Teutonic troops. Then, Jagiello was injured, but somehow saved by the Lithuanians, who came back and attacked the rear ranks of the Order. It seems that with this come back, the Teutonic troops were severely damaged, and in fact, Von Jungingen was killed, which lead to the demoralisation and escape of his knights. Thus, victory was proclaimed to the allied forces of Lithuania and Poland, and so they marched on to Marienburg (headquarters of the Order), which eventually would fall and with it, so would the Knights. In the process, Poland and Lithuania gained new territories which contributed to the assertion of their power in Central-Eastern Europe. Things got pretty ugly for the  Order. They became subjugated to the will of German princess, as they failed miserably in their mission, and their status as crusading order was next to nothing.

However, what I think is really important is that the battle of Tannenberg has remained in the memory of these people  ever since. And evidences of such a thing can be found through the 20th and 21st Centuries. During the First World War, in 1914, a battle was fought between the Germans and the Russians between the towns of Ortelsburg and Gildenburg. But it is known as the new battle of Tannenberg due to the use of German propaganda of the medieval battle, in order to re-establish their status and authority in this area. The Polish nationalism embraced the victory at Tannenberg so much that the in the area of Galicia, by 1910 there were around 60 towns and villages that had monuments commemorating the battle – most of them destroyed during the First and Second World Wars, and reconstructed during the 60s. Finally, the Bank of Lithuania had a very nice touch with the release of 3 commemorative coins, for the 600 anniversary of the battle. So perhaps the importance of Tannerberg 1410 goes beyond the new nation making and legitimisation in the Middle Ages. I remember asking myself: “was it actually that important?”. As a victory for the Polish-Lithuanian alliance, probably. As a crusade? Apart from a blatant failure, perhaps not so much. And this, of course, is if we even give it the benefit of the doubt in terms of crusading. After deep reflexion on the subject, it becomes evident that this was no crusade, but warmongering fuelled by the 15th centuries quarrels for power and self-assertion in Europe. Pretty much every European nation at the time had internal issues due to the still prolonged and devastating effect of the Black Death, as well as the worsening weather conditions probably due to the Little Ice Age. Once again, I am going to end in controversial terms and suggest that considering the events at Tannenberg as part of the crusading movement, is a narrowed academic way of judging the entire situation. I feel I never fully understood the importance of the conflict because I was studying it from the wrong perspective – I had no background in the socio-political-economic situations of the area, and I mostly had dealt with the Teutonic Knights as a crusader order, and not an identity of its own, with agendas to fulfill and acquisitions to obtain.

 

World War One: Fortresses, with a focus on Przemyśl

It can be hard to imagine that during an age of artillery, tanks, machine guns and aircraft that fortresses were still being used.  In fact the fortresses of the 20th century were deadly, Verdun, a line of fortifications that cost hundreds of thousands of lives to take, or Przemyśl, a fortress town being attacked by the Russians who used to old method of starving the defenders.  So this blog post will focus on these two examples, to give a flavour of the impact of fortresses and their importance in WW1.  The majority of the post does focus on Przemyśl, I hope you enjoy the read!

So let’s start with Przemyśl, owned by the Austria-Hungarian Empire, however when sieged it was in enemy territory.  When the Russians won the battle of Galacia in 1914, the Austrians were pushed back, with only Przemyśl standing, defiant in the face of the Russian foe.  There were around thirty miles of trenches, which surrounded the fortress town, including the famous barbed wire, which would entangle a man and kill him.  The garrison of this fortress was an incredible 127,000.  May I hasten to remind you that Winchester’s population is less than 40,000, so that’s three times the city where I study!  The foe, however, were the Russians, who strangely did not outnumber the defenders (this is quite unexpected, it is often thought the attacker needs to outnumber a defender 3:1, which probably explains the Russian generals decision to starve out, rather than to directly attack).

The town was to be sieged twice, the first time, the Russians launching an assault and loosing around 40,000 men, that is an incredible number, however the attack was repulsed and a relief force sent by the Germans managed to puncture through and escort the civilians out, leaving the Austrian army, mixed of different nationalities, left to defend to the town.

The Second siege would start in October 31, 1914, with the German army being pushed pack after the defeat at the battle of the Vistula River.  The Second siege was to be one of starvation and waiting for the defenders.  The relief efforts made by the Germans and Austrians were all to fail.  With heavy artillery, the defenses of the fortress were destroyed and the trenches overran, the Austrian army destroyed anything that would have been useful to the Russians and once an attempted breakout had been stopped, they surrendered on March 22 1915.  They had little choice.

There was once instance of when, a force of 30,000 Hungarian troops, starving, perhaps emboldened by hunger, marched out from the forts which they were garrison in a desperate attempt to raid the Russian food base at Mosciska, 20 miles away.  Their route led them past the strongest of all the Russian artillery positions.  The 30,000 men were annihilated by a bombardment of shells, machine-gun fire and rifle bullets.  It is hard to imagine that out of 30,000 troops, only 4,000 would return, with the rest killed or captured, it was a suicidal mission, nonetheless, people were desperate.

So let us move on to the fortresses at Verdun.  The area immediately around Verdun contained twenty major forts and forty smaller ones that had historically protected the eastern border of France.  They were upgraded in the early part of the 20th century.  The assault was part of the German strategy to bleed France White.  It was believed that the French would not surrender at Verdun, they could not allow these forts to fall. It was a matter of national prestige and dignity, losing them would have led to great humiliation.  The Germans believed that the French would fight to the last man at Verdun, which in turn would mean that the French would lose so many men that the battle would change the course of the war.

In the attempt to control Verdun and its fortresses, over a quarter of a million men lost their lives.  It proved to be unbreakable, the French held.  The figures at the start of the battle were one million German troops against 200,000 defenders.  Again this would seem normal, as the attacker has to outnumber the defender if assaulting directly.  However by the end, Of the 330 infantry regiments of the French army, 259 eventually fought at Verdun.  Did you know the Battle of the Somme was an attempt to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun.  That was its main purpose.

In the end Verdun was to be a bloodbath, with neither side making many gains, and the body count just rising.  The German army did manage to take a few forts, however, as soon as the Somme commenced, it was impractical for the Germans to continue, they couldn’t afford to just through men at forts.

Therefore fortresses were important in WW1 .  They were of course modernized, with the original 19th century fortresses inadequate for the task, with technology, deep tunnels and trenches being added.  They could withstand a certain amount of artillery fire and in some cases appeared impregnable.  The only way to defeat them appeared to be either starve them out or just hope they run out of men before you do.  Like most of WWI, it was attrition that won you the battle.

Mazeppa: Cossack, Hero and Betrayer

Does the name Mazepa mean anything to you? Perhaps if you are from Ukraine or Poland, but maybe not. Hopefully Pyotr Ilvich Tchaikovsky would be a name that you would be more familiar with. Well, it is of an opera of his, and a symphonic poem by Liszt that we are going to talk about today and the deeds and story of a Cossack Hetman: Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa. But first let’s set the scenery for you…

Poland,  (or the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, depending on how picky you want to be) 17th century, a young man is born into a decent family, the month is March and the year 1639. His mother’s side of the family had strong connections to the Cossacks for generations. After being educated by the Jesuits in Warsaw the young man is sent to serve to the court of John II Casimir, and was put in charge of dealing with the business of the Polish court in Ukraine, as an emissary or a diplomat if you like. And at this stage of his career, according to Franz Liszt, Mr. Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa gets involved in a love affair with a polish lady called Madam Falbowska, and this romance is the reason why the gentleman mentioned above was tie naked to a horse and sent back to Ukraine…Where then he joins the Cossacks and become a renown officer. His work was first premiered in 1854 and was focused in Mazepa’s glory days which, as we will see later, is a clear example of Romantic interpretations and stories of the 19th Century.

Continue reading “Mazeppa: Cossack, Hero and Betrayer”

Wulfstan and his journey

In the late ninth century was communication routes in Europe not quite what they are today, ships were often the easiest way to get from a to b (provided a or b was somewhere near water). The sea was the highway throughout Europe, a way that transported people, goods, Gods, and stories. This was the case in the late ninth century when Alfred the Great of Wessex had two traders visiting his court, both telling stories about their journeys. The first and perhaps most famous was Othere, a Norwegian merchant who sailed from Northern Norway into the White Sea before returning to the Norwegian coast and sailing to the British Isles through Skiringsal and Hedeby. The second visitor who is perhaps not as famous, but who’s story is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon version of Orosius’s description of Europe.

The second traveller was Wulfstan, a presumably English or Flemish merchant who sailed into the Baltic sea from Hedeby and visited (if we are to believe his story) the Baltic region and told the story of the Ests that lived in the area that today lays between Gdansk and Kaliningrad. Yet the story from Wulfstan’s is not as easily understandable as that of Othere. Like Othere’s story does this text provide a geographical and ethnic account of the lands east of Hedeby. Wulfstand points out that there are many towns in this land, and each town has its own king, and between the different tribes and kings were there a great deal of warfare. Wulfstan notes that the land has plenty of honey and fish, and that mare milk is the drink of the rich, whereas the poor drink mead. He also notes that the people drink no Ale, this suggest a great difference from the lives of the Anglo-Saxons at Alfred’s court.

It has been suggested that these stories that was added into Orosius’s to increase the knowledge of the world surrounding the Anglo-Saxons, as a part of Alfred’s drive for the resurrection of knowledge. Although the food and the governmental system described by Wulfstan is a bit different from that found in Anglo-Saxon England, it is perhaps the burial and funeral costumes that are most different from those known in the Christian World. ‘When a man dies, he is put on display for a month or two [says Wulfstan] after that the dead man’s wealth is distributed in several piles some miles from the city, and the quickest riders in the land rise to take it. When all the wealth has been taken (distributed) the body is burned, until nothing is left. For if anyone finds a bone unburned then the finder would be fined a considerable amount.’ These observations suggest firstly that these practices were those that Wulfstan was not used to himself, for it is easier to point out the differences in a society than the similarities.

Furthermore does this suggest that the social, political and cultural system of the Ests were considerably different from that of the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons, but also that the Est society were a well-developed cultural unit that had its own religious and cultural ideas about how to deal with death and burials. In this context the society of the Ests is a frontier in the Anglo-Saxon world. Wulfstan’s journey also illustrates how the Anglo-Saxon court was linked to other European cultures through trade, and how different cultures in the 9th century could be. It also shows that the trade routes of the late middle ages, which was dominated by the Hanseatic league in the Baltic sea, already might existed in the Viking age, and that Denmark, with the city of Hedeby was the linking point between the Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, German, Norse, and Slavic areas of North Europe.

Wulfstan’s journey also gives, although not extensively, information about the lifestyle and livelihood of the Ests in the 9th century, a period from which the sources of this region are not extensive. So we need to work with what we got.

If you want to read more about the Journey of Wulstan then a recommended book is:

Trakadas, Athena: Englert Anton, Wulfstan’s voyage: the Baltic sea region in the early Viking age as seen from shipboard, (Oxford, 2008).

The Shortest Lived State

Carpatho-Ukraine is currently seen as one of the shortest lived states, if not the shortest,  having been independent for only one day.  More commonly referred to as Carpathian Ruthenia, it is a small region of Eastern Europe that is currently mostly located in western Ukraine, and has smaller parts in Slovakia, Romania and Poland. It became an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia from 1938 to march 15, 1939 when it declared itself as an independent republic after. It was then returned back to Hungarian control by the next day on March 16 and remained that way until 1944.

To see why this region may have wanted the right to be recognized as an independent state we should look at its culture. The region is mostly populated by, and the origins of the Rusyn people who are also known as Ruthenes and many other variations of the name, they are an Eastern Slavic Ethnic minority and speak their own Slavic language of Rusyn. They are a mostly diasporic ethnic group who are split into two major groups; Pannonian Rusyns, who migrated to the area in and around Serbia, and Carpathian Rusyns who are the ones who stayed in the area of Ukraine and chose not to be known as Ukranian in the early 20th century. Carpatho-Rusyns are the group that is tied to Carpathian Ruthenia, and seeing as they have been unrecognized as an ethnic minority for the better part of the 20th century, it is clear to see why they wanted the independence of their own region.

The aim for Carpathian Ruthenia to achieve at least some level of independence started with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy after World War I, which briefly released their control over the region. Carpathian Ruthenia then became part of the new Hungarian state briefly in 1918-19. However Rusyn immigrants in America called on the American government for help in getting the region its independence, or at least autonomy under a different state. The US government gave them unification with Czechoslovakia as their only option, and Czechoslovak and Romanian forces took control of the area. This action caused Hungarian Communist sympathizers to accuse of war crimes and of the French controlling the whole situation for anti-communist reasons.

Unification with Czechoslovakia brought many changes to the region when it was made into a province of the state and named ‘Sub-Carpathian Rus’. The Czechoslovak government brought the very underdeveloped region up to national standards, sending thousands of teachers, police and other professionals into the region, along with building railways, roads, airports and schools. So for a time, it seemed that the region had chosen the right nation to join. However, it is still debated whether the choice was actually down to the Rusyns at all, or was really decided by the USA and Allies as part of their anti-communist plan at this time.

This situation did not last however. As part of the ‘Munich Agreement’ in November 1938, Nazi Germany had Czechoslovakia give up the southern part of Carpathian Rus, which was then given back to Hungary as part of Germany’s ‘First Vienna Award’. This did cause the remainder of the region to become fully autonomous under Czechoslovakia with a prime minister and autonomous government. But then, on March 15, the Nazis seized Czech lands. Following this Carpathian Ruthenia declared its independence as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. So for one day, this small independent nation existed between Hungary, Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

The following day on March 16 1939, Hungary responded to this by immediately occupying and annexing the country, taking away its newly gained independence. From there, Carpathian Ruthenia once again, the region stayed under Hungarian control until the end of the Second World War when it was captured by the Red Army, and started being given back to Czechoslovakia. However, this work was obstructed so that the region could be given to Soviet Ukraine, eventually settling in its state, unwillingly incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1946. The region is currently a province within Ukraine today, officially known as ‘Zakarparria Oblast’.

When Christmas Is not a Time for Peace.

Well, I think spending your Christmas time in a quiet and secluded place with a very close community inspired by the religious feeling which, allegedly, fuels the celebration (or that way it was, once), people whom with to share a praying moment and a pious enjoyment of thy Glory could be considered, at least by a great number of people, the best possible Christmas to live.

Otherwise, it could happen that your quiet and secluded place would be under constant bombardment, with a fierce enemy at the gates, food running low, and without an army to rescue you. That would not be peaceful merriment, for sure. And it could be even worse: the army at the gates could be a rabble of heretics (that, from your point of view) and you could be a simple monk, and the keeper of your nation’s most sacred relic. Then you’re dreaming of a white Christmas would turn a complete nightmare…

I was forgetting something: there are good and bad news. The good news is that you live in a monastery that, in fact is a fortress. Enter the bad news: the enemy’s strength is ten times yours; they are a hired army of German Lutherans, hardened mercenaries, ungodly veterans; the Polish Commonwealth (your country, by the way) is losing the war, the king has exiled in Silesia, And you are, more or less, the last strong point defending the Commonwealth banner. Well, it is not as bad as it looks: your Prior, Augustyn Kordecki, a farsighted man, has let in some recruits from the local nobility and, above all, has bought muskets and ammo. But, I know you are asking yourself would all this be enough? Ah, my friend, your faith is lacking. Trust in God, Whose ways are mysterious.

So here we are: Advent came and is leaving, negotiations ended with no result. You did great at first, a successful sally brought down two cannons, Swedes and Germans got nervous, your cannon was superior and your aim more accurate. Then they brought in heavy siege artillery, 24-pounders, and seriously damaged the northern walls and a bastion. But your sorties still bore fruit and on December 14 you destroyed a 24-pounder and got some relief. Only to enrage the enemy, who doubled its efforts and resume bombardment and started digging a tunnel to undermine the old building. By this time, though, you were masters of sortie and again defeated the Swedish army on the 20, with the leadership of Stefan Zamoyski one of the noblemen helping the Commonwealth in its hour of need. This time, the result was devastating for the besiegers: two cannon destroyed and almost every miner dead. Now, all the hardships, the fear, the self-questioning is being let aside. God is among you, saving you now that the time Thy son was born is about again, helping you, giving you courage and luck, even, for sure, was God’s own hand who made another 24-pounder exploded while barraging mercilessly your tired walls. You are winning, my friend.

I can only imagine what is now crossing General Burchard Müller von der Luhnen’s mind. He is out there, beholding the walls. In silence, thinking, questioning himself too. Why? They are just some dozens of monks and a few soldiers. Why? We should have been inside for weeks now. Why am I here, at the gates, in the snow, waiting for a clue to overcome the Polish. Why are they fighting like that? He must be thinking of Divine intervention, but, no, that cannot be. He is a professional soldier. There is no space for superstition in a battlefield, or it is? It seems there is nothing more he can do now. Christmas Eve is here and still nothing gained. Soldiers are unsettled and morale is ebbing. Well, maybe a handsome ransom could be mustered, just for all the trouble. And, after all, the war is almost over, and this is just a monastery…
So a ransom was asked for. And denied. As Prior Kordecki put it, “I would have paid before the fighting began, now the monastery needs the money for repairs”. Ah, there is a leader of men if you need one, the new warrior-monk, a true Templar´s heir. And, finally, at dawning the 27th December 1655, the Swedish army started to withdraw with a last bitter look to the high walls that, with God’s help, had defeated them.

That’s how History goes. A little religious community was preparing for Christmas when war called at the door. Through the smell of powder and the sound of thunder, the hunger and the cold, they resisted a professional army and allegedly, started and gave impulse to the resistance. From then on, the Polish would gain momentum till the final defeat of the invaders. Probably the siege of Jasna Gora was not the only reason, but surely it was a sign that helped to restore national pride and, maybe, as it showed that the Swedish were in fact vulnerable gave the small guerrillas still operating and the beaten rests of the polish army a new hope of victory. And, in a longer span, the siege, and the intervention, if ever there was, of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, contributed to the Polish national spirit and is still nowadays a strong reference for all the Polish people. The Madonna was still there when Poland was quartered, and under the communist rule, and today keeps on moving every soul when on visit.

Review: Henryk Sienkiewicz – The Deluge

As the weather outside is frightful, and the fire is delightful, and we have no place to go, why don’t we read a good book for once? And, coming to that, why not a good old classic? And this classic book could be, perhaps, a nineteenth century romance, written by a Nobel Prize winner and, just for asking, staged in a relevant historical moment.

Well, there, in a corner in the library, was “The Deluge” the central volume in a trilogy written by the Polish literary hero Henryk Sienkiewicz. This is a story with plenty of incentives for the reader: there is a love story in the bombastic mood of the XIX century romantics; there is a terrible war, conquerors and defenders; there are traitors, friends, turncoats and all that fanfare. But above all, this is a story of personal redemption, the story of how a young brave man, confused between loyalties and desperate with love, finds his way through war and treachery till he becomes a national hero and the inspiration for his peers to defeat their bitter enemies, both inside and outside the Republic.

It is important to note that the political stage was quite strange for the modern standards: at the time when the story develops, late XVII century, there was a great political structure in Eastern Europe called the Dual Republic, which was, curiously enough, not a Republic but a Monarchy, and represented the union between the Great Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, better known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And the head of the state was not hereditary, but elective; this as one can understand, was not precisely the better foundations for stability.

So there we are, just in the middle of a war, going to and fro with Andrezj Kmicic, noble, adventurer, soldier of reputation, and deeply in love with his fiancée Aleksandra Billewiczówna. This is a man of character, brave but violent, extremely proud, and his character would eventually put him in trouble. Through the eyes of Kmicic we will see the treacherous politics of the age, the sense of fate, the seeking for redemption and the search for immortal love amidst impending difficulties. There are other strong and very well depicted characters in the novel, particularly the handsome gentleman Michal Wolodijowskyi, somewhat the reverse of Kmicic , that being a more balanced, better settled man with at least the same bravery and sense of honour. Inevitably, friendship will grow between both, and also between some of the other warrior and patriot characters, giving the whole work a very rich environment of comradeship and soldierly friendship which pervades every line. In fact that is one of the strongest points in the book, the other being probably the rich portrait of a society overwhelmed by the strength of war and politics, mainly depicted by the deeds of the knighthood of the realm, but also in little brushstrokes about the feeling of the rural inhabitants, and the relations between nobles and servants. The weakest part, as it is usual with the Romantic writers, is the love story, extremely excessive and with too much affectation, and a wording that sometimes, to the modern ear, sounds quite more hilarious than tragic.

If you like a good action story, then this will suit you too. There is plenty of fighting, being the siege of Jasna Gora Monastery a centre-piece not only in the book but also in the creation of the Polish national spirit, which for sure was one of the aims pursued by Sienkiewicz at the time of its writing. That is another thing you have to think about when reading this book: that it is not only a very enjoyable piece of literature but also a political statement in behalf of a people who had been subdued for a long time, although not precisely by those enemies menacing in the events related in this novel, in this case Sweden, but by some new enemies who were beginning to rise, as the story suggests, in Russia and Prussia.

The character of Kmicic or his alter ego Babinic, alias very conveniently used when changing sides to cover his previous steps, is then composed of all those elements: bravery, nationalistic feeling, friendship, endurance, love over gold and matter, ingenuity…that Sienkiewicz would like to associate with the Polish people, so creating what is surely one of the more charismatic characters of the epic literature of the XIX Century.

Now go to your local book store or library and ask for The Deluge. Open it, with a good cup of tea or chocolate by your side, get in the mood for love and war, and, just in case you are of the inquisitive kind, submerge yourself in a fascinating yet poor known part of Europe’s history… And if you are of a romantic inclination, then you can sigh and cry with the almost impossible relation between our hero and his would-be-fiancée (and, of course, legendary belle)… Or if you just want to leave reality behind and enter a world of glorious deeds and everyday heroism, but you do not like elves and trolls…this is a book for you. o more volumes to go!