The invasion of the Magyars in St. Gall.
The invasion of the Magyars in St. Gall. Abbey Library St. Gallen

When the Magyars invaded St. Gall

Between 860 and 970, the Magyars were the scourge of Europe. They devastated and pillaged a wide swath of territory from Bremen in the north, to Otranto in the south, and Orléans in the west in a series of over 50 raids. The abbey of St. Gall was raided and sacked in 926. Thereafter, monks in St. Gall wrote and preserved the most detailed and oldest first-hand descriptions of the Magyar invasions of Western Europe.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

Although their exact origins in Central Asia remain a subject of colorful, scholarly debate, it is believed that the Magyars originally inhabited the Ural Mountains in northwestern Siberia. Over the centuries, this Finno-Ugric people migrated from southwards out of Siberia to the area between the Ural River and the Aral Sea. The Magyars later moved into the northern Caucasus, before migrating again westwards to the Don River Basin in what is now Russia. Due to pressure and competition from other steppe tribes, the Pechenegs and Bulgars, the Magyars entered the Carpathian Basin around 896. Under the leadership of their chieftains Árpád and Kurans Kurszán, they secured the region as their new homeland within only a decade.
Magyar excursions around the year 900.
Magyar excursions around the year 900. Wikimedia
From their new base in Europe, the Magyars looked for rich lands to plunder. The Magyars launched their first raids into Italy at the invitation of the Arnulf of East Francia in 898-899. Although their attack on Venice was repelled, the Magyars looted and sacked Treviso, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, Bergamo and Milan in rapid succession. They soundly defeated Berengar I of Lombardy at the Battle of Brenta River, forcing him to pay an exorbitant tribute to ensure a temporary peace. The annual raids into Bavaria began in 900, after the death of Arnulf, and these persisted for a period of over thirty years. As with the Lombards, the Magyars defeated the Bavarians, battle after battle, in bloody, surprise ambushes.
The seven Magyar military leaders in a miniature from the Hungarian Chronicon Pictum of 1360.
The seven Magyar military leaders in a miniature from the Hungarian Chronicon Pictum of 1360. Wikimedia
Reeling from invasions by Arabs and Vikings as well as the collapse of centralized political order after the death of Charlegmagne, the kingdoms of Central and Western Europe were weak and divided. They were no match against the Magyars who excelled in horsemanship and archery. Thanks to the stirrup, Magyar horsemen could easily pick off their enemies clad in iron armor with arrows and scimitars at terrific speed. Another Magyar tactic was to lure enemy forces into a sense of false victory by pretending to retreat only to regroup and encircle them with a storm of arrows. Afterwards, they demoralized and defeated enemy forces in close hand-to-hand combat.
Magyarian fighter in an Italian fresco.
Magyarian fighter in an Italian fresco. Wikimedia
The Magyars repeatedly targeted certain locations merely to compel a king or prince to bribe them to leave. Between 917 and 925, the Magyars regularly raided the old Carolingian heartlands of the Loire Valley, Alsace, Burgundy, and Lombardy; they even penetrated the Pyrenees into the County of Barcelona and stormed the towns of Apulia. It seemed only a matter of time before they would strike the famous abbey of St. Gall after destroying Basel in early 917.

…ab Ungerorum nos defendas iaculis….De sagittis Ungarorum libera nos, Domine…

“...protect us from the arrows of the Hungarians…Deliver us, O Lord, from the arrows of the Hungarians…” - A hymn from Modena, Italy recorded c. 900.

St. Gall & Preparations for the Sack

According to tradition, Saint Gall, a learned, probably Irish monk and faithful disciple to Saint Columbanus, founded a hermitage on the site that would come to encompass the abbey St. Gall around 610. A monk named Othmar later established a Benedictine monastery for the monks that lived around the cell of Saint Gall, and he served as the abbey’s first abbot. The abbey of St. Gall flourished during the Carolingian Era (750-887), emerging as a regional center of learning and trade. Housing one of the first monastery schools north of the Alps, the abbey had grown into a massive monastic center, replete with large guest houses, a working hospital, farms and stables, and a renowned library. The abbey quickly became a magnet for Anglo-Saxon and Irish scholars and monks who copied and illuminated manuscripts. Wealthy nobles, in turn, enriched the abbey through patronization and donations of land. By the turn of the ninth century, the abbey was among the most prestigious and wealthiest in Europe.
An ivory book cover made during the heyday of the monastery of St. Gall. Carved by monk Tuotilo, around 895.
An ivory book cover made during the heyday of the monastery of St. Gall. Carved by monk Tuotilo, around 895. Abbey Library St. Gallen
Three chroniclers substantiate, in different versions written between 970 and 1074, of a Magyar attack on St. Gall and its environs. The Alemannian Annals, written in the ninth and tenth centuries, mention the Magyars nine times, while the St. Gallen Annals of the tenth century do so fifteen times. The most interesting information about the Magyar sack comes from the chronicle of the monk Ekkerhart IV who lived more than a century after the invasion. According to him, as the Magyars swept through Swabia and entered the vicinity of Lake Constance, Abbot Engilbert took protective measures to ensure the survival of the monastery. He ordered the abbey’s old monks and young students to move to Wasserburg, which lies along Lake Constance and near Lindau, to await the siege. The younger, stronger monks were to seek refuge in the woods and hills near the village of Bernhardzell, to the northwest of St. Gall. The abbey’s precious books and relics were to be transferred to Reichenau Abbey for safekeeping. When warned that the Magyars were nearing St. Gall, Engilbert and his remaining monks fled to the island of Reichenau. The year before the sack of St. Gall, the Benedictine nun and mystic Wiborada had predicted that the Magyars would devastate the abbey. According to the Vita Sanctae Wiboradae, compiled between 960 and 1072, Engilbert had urged her to flee too, but she refused to leave her cell.
A mishap on the run from the Magyars.
A mishap on the run from the Magyars. Abbey Library St. Gallen

The Sack & Historical Memory

On May 1, 926, the Magyars stormed St. Gall. The attackers advanced to the church of St. Mangen and set it on fire. They also tried to set fire to Wiborada’s hermitage, as they could not locate its entrance. They therefore climbed in through the roof, finding Wiborada at prayer in front of an altar. One warrior struck her three times in the head with an ax, and she died. Meanwhile, other Magyar warriors ransacked the monastery, taking what booty they could find. From the chronicles, we learn that two Magyars attempted to scale the belfry of the cathedral after seeing a weathercock that they believed was made of gold. Two warriors died climbing up the tower, and their fellow soldiers burned their bodies. According to the records, in the midst of their rampage, they left a dim-witted monk named Heribald unharmed.
The martyrdom of Wiborada. The Magyar warriors invade her cell and inflict fatal head injuries.
The martyrdom of Wiborada. The Magyar warriors invade her cell and inflict fatal head injuries. Abbey Library St. Gallen
Despite observing their lust for loot, the chronicles praise the Magyars in their ability to assume battle formation in a matter of only a few seconds, in their use of a sophisticated network of couriers to communicate with troops from afar, and in their mastery of various weapons. Noted further were the Magyars’ love of wine, music, dance, and fresh, tasty, meats. After a few days of rest, the Magyars moved on to target other Swabian cities, leaving the imbecilic Heribald behind. When the monks and friars returned to St. Gall to assess the damage, they questioned Heribald about what he had seen. He reportedly said, “They were wonderful! I have never seen such cheerful people in our monastery. They distributed plenty of food and drink.”
This is how the seven military leaders of the Magyars were depicted at the end of the 19th century.
This is how the seven military leaders of the Magyars were depicted at the end of the 19th century. Wikimedia
Memories of the Magyar invasion of 926 and the martyrdom of Wiborada have remained ever present in the Swiss national consciousness, inspiring Swiss historians, artists, and novelists for over a millennium. The martyr Wiborada was canonized for her piety and heroism in 1047. Today, she is the patron saint of librarians and one of the patron saints of Switzerland. Recollection of Magyar raid on St. Gall also forms a part of the Hungarian national identity. It is included as part of the school curricula and every year, new classes of Hungarian schoolchildren learn about the deeds of their Magyar ancestors in distant Switzerland. Despite their ferocious entry into the annals of European history, the Magyars would convert to Christianity and preside over one of the most prosperous, powerful, and dynamic kingdoms in medieval Europe. Hungary's Árpád dynasty would even go on to provide the Catholic Church with more saints than any other family in history. History would come full circle too as the Hungarians themselves would face the onslaught of other peoples – the Mongols in the 1240s and the Turks in the 1500s and 1600s – who also had their origins in the windswept steppes of Central Asia.

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