On 10 August, 955, the armies of Otto the Great, Holy Roman Emperor, crushed a force of Hungarian marauders in what has come to be called the Battle of Lechfield (‘Lechfeld’ meaning ‘Field of Corpses’). No one then could know that the Hungarian incursion stopped by this battle was to be the last of its kind.
For over a century and a half, much of what we now call Western Europe had suffered outlaw attacks coming from three directions: the Vikings from the north, the Saracens – Islamic pirates – from the Mediterranean, and the Magyars, or Hungarians, from the east. The Vikings and the Saracens kept to the water (which didn’t prevent the Vikings from besieging Paris and burning Hamburg in 854), while the Hungarians, originally horsemen from the steppes, ravaged much of central Europe, southern Germany, the Italian peninsula, and even southwestern France. It is to these disruptions that we owe the dark fantasies underlying ‘gothic’ computer games. The civil life of Europe was tenuous when the raids began: the only significant difference between the dark ages that followed Charlemagne from the ones that preceded him was the instauration of a new ‘Roman’ empire centered in the Frankish heartlands far from the Eternal City. What had been the fringe of the old Roman Empire was now its core. The ‘migrations of the peoples’ into Western Europe hadn’t stopped by Charlemagne’s day – witness the subsequent Vikings, Saracens and Hungarians! – but they had slowed sufficiently for permanent settlements. The days when a tribe such as the Lombards could ‘wander’ from the Baltic to northern Italy were over. By 955, Europe was not only strong enough to resist invasion but aware of itself as such. It has not been invaded since - from outside.
On the contrary. Between Lechfeld and the end of the following century, a tide turned for the first and only time. In 1097, the Crusaders set out to rescue the Holy Land, in what would turn out to be the first of Europe’s characteristic colonizing missions. (April 2003)
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