The conversion of the Magyars

It was late in the ninth century, while the Viking invasions of Europe were in full flood and the measure of order given by the Carolingians was declining, that the Magyars effected settlements in the modern Hungary. From there they repeatedly raided Italy and Western Europe as far as the North Sea. Pagans, they burned churches, plundered monasteries, killed some priests before the altars and carried others into captivity. They contributed to the low ebb of Christianity in the first half of the tenth century.

Rising German power checked the Magyar advance and in 955 Otto I inflicted a stunning defeat which freed Western Europe from the Magyar terror. Germans, Christians, moved eastward and colonized regions on the Danube on the Magyar borders. On the south-east the Bulgars had become Christians and the faith, as we have seen, was spreading in Bohemia and Poland on the Magyars' north. It is not strange that Christianity began making headway among the Magyars themselves.

The mass conversion of Magyars came late in the tenth and early in the eleventh century. It was chiefly accomplished through the royal family and especially by Vajk, better known as Stephen, who made of Hungary a monarchy of the type that was emerging in Western Europe.

It is said that two Magyar princes were baptized in Constantinople while on a political errand and that they brought back a bishop with them. However, it was to the West rather than to Constantinople that the leaders turned for their culture and their religion. In 973 Magyar envoys appeared at the court or Otto I and not far from that time German missionaries began to penetrate into Magyar lands. A Magyar prince, Geisa, was making himself master of the country and compelled many of his subjects to accept baptism. Baptism and submission to his authority appear to have gone hand in hand.

Geisa's labours were brought to a culmination by his son Vajk (Stephen). Stephen succeeded his father in 997 and continued the latter's measures for the unification of the realm and the adoption of Christianity. He himself preached to his subjects, urging them to accept the new faith. Although some question has been raised about the authenticity of the Papal letter which is our chief source of information, it is said that in the year 1000 Stephen asked of the Pope and received the royal title, a crown, and a hierarchy for his realm, with an archbishop and subordinate bishops. It is certain that many missionaries entered, a large proportion of them Slavs, and that by legislation Stephen enjoined respect for Sunday, decorum during church services, and the payment of tithes for the support of the Church. He also gave bishops judicial powers in matrimonial and ecclesiastical questions much as was customary in the West.

Stephen's innovations met stubborn resistance which from time to time flared up in open rebellion. When death removed his strong hand (1038) the almost inevitable reaction revived pagan rites and brought violence against the clergy. However, after a generation of internal dissensions and foreign wars and invasions, late in the eleventh century a succession of strong monarchs gave renewed support to Christianity and the Church.

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