Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Being in Budapest again right now allows me to indulge in one of my pet obsessions: John Hunyadi, or Hunyadi Janos in Hungarian, or Ioan de Hunedoara in Romanian.
His is not a name widely remembered today outside of Hungary and Romania. And yet his role in history was such that Europe, and Western civilization as a whole, would likely look very different today had he never lived or taken a different path.
Both Hungarians and Romanians claim him as one of their own. John’s father Voyk was born in Wallachia, today’s southern Romania, perhaps of Wallachian aristocracy. King Sigismund of Hungary granted him a demesne in Hunyad in Transylvania. In his lifetime, John, though a member of the Hungarian nobility, was often referred to as a “Vlach” or Wallachian or Romanian.
Born in 1406, John came of age just as the Byzantine Empire was breathing its last sighs and the Ottoman Turks were beginning to encroach into Christian Europe. In 1438, with the Ottomans occupying most of Serbia, Hunyadi led his first battles against them. For his efforts the king raised his rank to “true baron of the realm.”
With the Ottomans still expanding, Hunyadi continued his campaign trying to push them back. In 1444, at Varna on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, Hunyadi suffered his greatest defeat and only narrowly escaped from the battlefield with his life. Wallachian soldiers took him prisoner, and Vlad Dracul (father of Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Count Dracula), prince of Wallachia, had to set him free.
The Hungarian nobles then elected him Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary, an office he held until 1453. In that same year, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. With the final end of the last vestige of the Roman Empire and the destruction of Christianity’s eastern bastion, all Europe now seemed open to Ottoman ambition. Indeed, soon enough Sultan Mehmed II, the same man who took Constantinople, was personally leading an army into the Balkans with the aim of invading Hungary. When Mehmed reached Belgrade, or Nándorfehérvár in Hungarian, he began a siege of the city.
All Europe held its breath awaiting the outcome of the siege. Should Belgrade fall, then the Hungarian plains would be open to the Ottomans, and all of central Europe would be under threat. Pope Callixtus III ordered churches all across the continent to ring their bells at noon to call the faithful to pray for the defenders of Belgrade.
Just when the situation seemed most dire, Hunyadi sailed down the Danube with a relief army to lift the siege. So it was that in Belgrade, on July 22, 1456, the Christian army under Hunyadi’s leadership defeated the Sultan and forced the Ottomans to abandon their plans of conquest, at least for the moment.
The church bells now rang in celebration instead of prayer. This is the origin of the custom of ringing church bells at noon, still widely observed to this day. Inside the Belgrade castle, a stone monument today marks the spot where Hunyadi triumphed over Mehmed.
John Hunyadi contracted the plague soon after the battle and died. But two years later, the nobles of Hungary elected his son Matyas/Matthias to be their new king.
In Romania, I visited the Hunyadi family castle in Hunedoara. And now in Budapest I find traces of the Hunyadis everywhere. There is a Hunyadi Janos Street, a Hunyadi Square, statues of both John and Matthias in Heroes Square, and even a replica of the Hunedoara castle in the city park, built in 1896 in commemoration of the 1,000th anniversary of Hungary’s founding. Fair enough — John saved Christianity, and Matthias was one of Hungary’s greatest kings.
I wrote last week about the Mongols’ near-conquest of Vienna in 1241 that ended only because the Great Khan all the way in Mongolia had died. And here with John Hunyadi, European Christendom lucked out once again. How contingent our entire civilizations are, how dependent on dumb luck are all our traditions and ways of life.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."