The Nomad Hungarian Warrior

The natives and the re-conquerors of the Carpathian Basin (Kárpát-medence)

The Magyars were the original people settling in the Carpathian Basin. When it happened exactly is still subject to research. Magyar writing was found round here as old as 6500 years.

Part of these people migrated to Asia, probably to find ancient relatives. They successfully discovered their kith and skin and returned with them and their inventions when those left home needed help against the invading German Empire about 800 AD.

Military equipment

The heyday of steppe-style weaponry lasted from the 6th Century AD until the 10th Century AD. Warriors of the time rode horses whose colour was determined by different deployments. The manes of the animals were hogged, their tails were braided, or bound up into a mesh, whilst their bridles and reins were richly decorated with mountings, decorations, tassles and so on.  The warriors’ saddle was fairly low and it curved to the back, ending in a cantle. Above the girth it was covered by gilded leather pads, fittings of carved bone, iron mountings, and colourful silk blankets with flower patterns on them. The warriors’ feet rested in a long, angled, ribbed-sole stirrup or leg-rest, which was hung up close to the front saddle-bow. The snaffle-bit, the bit-rings and bit-bars were also made of iron. The warriors’ clothing was fine and ornate. It consisted of a rather short, close-fitting jacket that opened in the front, a pair of baggy trousers and soft-soled boots into which the trousers were tucked. The jacket was most frequently made of cotton, silk or leather, and into its richly decorated chest and shoulder-parts carved bone-plates, iron mountings and iron-scales were inserted. These ornamentations served both as aesthetic accessories and as means of protection.

It was common, especially among the nobility, to wear wire-gauze or a special armour constructed from bone-plates. They wore a spiked or pointed cap, or helmet, and an ornate, mounted weapon-belt. The mountings were made from (or plated with) brass, silver or gold according to the rank of the fighter. Apart from minor articles of personal use such as the knife, the tinder-box and the drinking vessel, both the quiver and the bow-case were hung from the weapon-belt—the former on the left side with the latter on the right side of the warrior’s waist. During this period, the arrows were placed into hourglass-shaped, converse quivers with their arrowheads uppermost.

The warriors’ hands and clothes were protected from the arrows by the flip-down quiver-top, and the so called ’collar’. The arrows until the 7th Century CE had been three-winged, but after that they became flat, except for the barbed and worm-bit ones. A peculiar accessory of the arrows was the ’resonant globe/ball. Several types of bow-cases were known at the time: they could be open or closed barrel, stiff, or semi-stiff cases or cases with smooth, tightly fitting textile covers. The bow-cases of the Hungarian conquerors were frequently made of tree-bark. Bows were slid into them in undrawn state. The warriors preferably carried two bows when going to battle.

The reflex recurve (energy storing) bow

Traditional recurve bow

Recurve reflex bow original state (undrawn)

The recurve bow was an ingenious invention of hundreds of years of engineering.

Compared to the ancient prehistoric bow shape, like the longbow of the English, it’s drastically more effective. Its shape made it smaller and much stronger than its predecessor while in skilled hands it’s just as precise.

The range of the recurve bow is up to 600 meters, ancient manuscripts mention 7-800 meters as well.

However, the recurve bow requires more skills and more care due to its shape and the materials used. Layers of the horn used to make the bow more flexible and faster were attached using fish glue, which is sensitive both to dampness and heat. Should you have a traditional recurve bow, it is a bad idea to leave it in the rain or in the sun.

Parts and ornaments of the recurve bow

The reflex-bows of the archers of the Carpathian Basin, more precisely the stiff limbs of these bows, were strengthened by the finely carved, curved bone-plates that had been wide-spread all across Inner Asia. Their handle as well was covered by similar bone-plates.

We assume however that among lower ranked warriors a topless, converse quiver with a collar was more common, similar to the contemporary fighters of the steppes. Arrowheads always turn up from the graves of the Hungarian conquerors—the higher the rank of the fighter the more arrowheads would be found. The majority of the arrowheads had the representative rombus shape, characteristic of the time, but serrated and fork-shape arrowheads were found as well.

The wooden rods or shafts of the arrows were pared with the same tiny bone shaving tool as the one used in Asia. The arrowheads were fixed directly onto the plain or carved wooden rods. The weapon-belt gained similar popularity among the Hungarians as it did among other Asian steppe-dwelling tribes. This is testified by the fine brass, silver and golden mountings. However the exclusive Hungarian purse or sack, decorated by beautifully worked metal –plates, in which the warriors carried their tinderboxes, was without parallel among the Asian tribes. These people either hung the tinderbox directly onto the belt, or if they put it into a sack it wasn’t covered with a mounted metal-plate as were those of the Hungarians.

The Cumans

After the state-formation of the Carpathian Basin, another wave of immigration from the steppes reached the region. After a long period of battles in the 13th Century CE, major ethnical groups of the Cumans fled to the territory of the Carpathian Basin escaping a Mongolian conquest taking place at that time. They later established, in the Great Hungarian Plain, the Kis- and Nagykunság. During the reign of Louis the IV of the House of Árpád (Hungarian: 4. (Kun) László, the Cumans provided the king’s armed escort, bodyguard, and light cavalry. No wonder, since his mother was also Cuman (Kun).

Church frescoes and illuminated manuscript images from the 13th -14th Century CE reveal much about the garments and equipments of the Cumans. At this time, a favoured theme of the Hungarian fresco painters was the battle of Saint Louis against the girl-kidnapping Cuman warrior. After analyzing the delineation of the quivers in the pictures, researchers found that the representations were authentic. Based on this, in the 14th and 15th Century CE the Hungarian people still had vivid memories about the Tartar-escaping Cumans’ garments and weaponry. It is also conceivable that the Cumans, who conserved their language and pastoral customs until the last century, had been wearing their traditional garments and equipment even a hundred years after their settlement. So identifiable was their culture that seemingly not only the last kings of the House of Árpad, but the succeeding rulers of the Anjou dynasty, made use of their service as well using them as light-cavalry legions and armed national guards.

The quivers of the Hun, though it was basically similar to that of the Hungarian conquerors’ – it was the same barrel-shaped, flip-top, converse quiver -, nonetheless showed certain innovations. There was a vertical hatch on the side of the quiver so that one could insert the arrows through the hole. This upgraded quiver can be discerned in some of the 10th-11th Century CE Middle-Asian representations. The Cumans therefore brought along some significant military innovations from their ancestral lands. They were able to do so because after the 10th Century CE there were military upgrades, originating from the Khitai and the Jurchid, regarding more mobile tactics. These changes strongly affected both the bow and the arrow – and also the quiver.

Along with the ’dense bone-tip (Khitai-type) arrow, appeared the buttoned fur-quiver, and the flat reserve arrow-case. Before their appearance in South-Russia and the Carpathian Basin the Cumans had been in tight alliance or active war-relationship with several Inner Asian tribes, from whom they could have inherited their military innovations.

The weaponry of the Cumans was not only immortalized by Hungarian painters. A famous Western European artist, who lived in the 14th-15th Century CE, took the Cumans as his example, when striving to represent the wild, barbaric people of the East: Atilla’s Huns in this case. This is how the distinctive fur-quiver and the dense-bone-tip arrow of the Cumans (by mistake) ended up on Hans Memling’s reliquary paintings that represent the martyrdom of Saint Ursula being slain by the Hun.

In the images found in Hungary depicting the Cumans the exact shape of the arrow is not perceptible, but it is certain that the depicted warriors used the flat, reserve arrow-case that was suitable for carrying arrows in drawn state. This testifies that the Kun had brought along with them the durable, stiff-bone-tip arrow as well, because it is with the appearance of this latter new arrow-type that the flat, standby-case shows up in the territory of the steppes around the 9th century CE. It seems therefore, that it was due to the Cumans that the most developed models of contemporary archers’ equipment were imported into the Carpathian Basin in the 13th Century CE. traditional archery equipment