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At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and "Pagans" in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000-1300. (Book Reviews).

At the Gate of Christendom: Jews, Muslims and "Pagans" in Medieval Hungary, c. 1000-1300, by Nora Berend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 340 pp. $64.95.

Situated on the eastern verge of medieval Europe, Hungary endured the furthest western penetration of the Mongols in 1241 and 1242 before the famous hordes retreated, for unknown reasons, leaving devastation and several generations of fear in their wake. A less obvious incursion, but one that figures throughout the book, is that of papal influence, including the famous preaching orders of the thirteenth century. Each of the three groups under examination--Jews, Muslims, and Cumans (a Turkish people who came off the steppes to settle and be assimilated into Hungarian society)--responded to these incursions in different ways. On the theoretical level, this study seeks to define the nature of a frontier society and to reassess the ways in which historians study the interactions of minority groups with a dominant culture. In practice, the historian often has precious little evidence from which to draw conclusions. What evidence exists requires an enormous amount of scholarship and ability in languages to evaluate . Despite the strained nature of the subject matter, Nora Berend has written a learned summary of what we know about a formative period of Hungarian history, a period that provides instructive comparisons to other societies that play host to minority groups. Of the three groups surveyed, the Muslims were essentially extinct after the thirteenth century. The Jews, an equally small presence, were driven out during the next century. The Cumans provided military service for the Hungarian kings, who relied on them and also feared them. Fighting as slaves, a branch of this population became the famous Mamlukes of Egypt. In Hungary they were assimilated but left traces of their presence that became the basis for a Cuman revival in recent Hungarian history. Many later immigrants came to identify themselves with this older people, with as much basis in fact and as much wishful nostalgia as one sees in the Irish revival of the nineteenth century. In the background we catch glimpses of the two-tiered society that Philip Sidney saw in the sixteenth century: Hungarian nobles ruling over a land of Magyar peasants. The Ottoman conquest occurred in 1526 and destroyed the south, while the Hapsburgs sought power in the north and west.

The most interesting parts of the book for readers of Shofar tell about the impact of canon laws, particularly Gratian's Decretal, which restricted Jews all over Europe. Although there is little evidence as to how the laws operated in practice, they were designed to distinguish Jews by dress, occupation, and ability to own land or slaves, and to regulate their interactions with Christians. Particularly virulent was the period 1272 to 1290 (the year the Jews were expelled from England), as papal legates and the local archbishop sought to restrict the curia's reliance on Jewish ministers. It is hard not to conclude that this period of antisemitism was directly prompted by the popes.

The Muslim presence was never strong, but it was not negligible. Bela IV regarded the Tartars or Tatars (the common but erroneous name for the Mongols) as descendants of Prester John, come to rid the world of Muslims. He married his daughter to a Cuman as part of his defensive strategy, in part setting up the myth of Cuman origin that reappeared in later centuries. Just as the French regarded themselves as descendants of Trojans, the Hungarians derived their name from the Huns of Attila as well as from the famous Scythians, who won battles by the tactical, feigned retreats of their light cavalry. The kingdom of Hungary was always subject to nomad raids, like Poland to the north. Defense took the form of border guards, often manned by military orders. The Teutonic Knights were employed in 1211 but sought independent control, in the name of Rome, and were terminated in 1225. The Hospitallers defended the eastern borders in 1247. Berend notes that King Bela relinquished his monopoly on building stone castles aft er the Mongol invasion. His nobles then built their own fortresses, mainly in the north and west of the country. The eastern border remained not so much a frontier, in the sense of the edge of expansion, as a place of danger along the Carpathian mountains, bordering Galicia, Cumania, and Bulgaria from north to south. Inside these boundaries Hungary assumed the modes of Christendom to a greater or lesser extent. Conversion, as Berend argues in the case of the Cumans, was a gradual process, not accomplished suddenly by baptism. Religious authorities knew when to press and when to relax their rules. The rule that a Jew who converted could not reconvert operated in theory, but there are few records to tell us what happened in practice.

I am not a professional historian or competent to judge the many minor quarrels Berend picks with previous scholars. A general reader might have wished the book organized chronologically rather than by narrow topics, where for example the legal position of non-Christians is separated from their role in the economy. Professional historians no doubt prefer the topical organization. The book is based on a Columbia University doctoral dissertation.
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Author:Ross, Charles
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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