The Myth of Great Moravia
Jonáš Jánsky / June 28, 2019
( 5 min read )
We certainly live in polarized times. Maybe because of that there is quite a surge of politicians and political movements who use history and historical imagination as part of their rhetoric. Due to this, historians have started to write articles that aim to argue against the myths that this type of rhetoric inevitably creates. A lot of these articles are written about various alt-right movements as these tend to use medieval symbolism such as the Crusades, but this is not only a problem of nationalist fringe groups. A selective view of history is often employed by mainstream politicians as well as by governments. In this article, I would like to look at one such case, which is quite close to our hearts at Il Ponte: namely, the Slovak treatment of medieval Great Moravia.
At this moment, readers will probably split into two major groups: those who are from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and know what it is; and those who are not from these places, and have no idea. So, to explain, Great Moravia was a political entity, which existed around the second half of the 9th century. Before its expansion under Svätopluk, it was comprised mostly of territory that is today part of Moravia in the Czech Republic and of western Slovakia. It was founded in 833 with the Moravian conquest of the Principality of Nitra and it dissolved sometime at the start of the 10th century due to civil war and the migration of Hungarians into Pannonia.
You might be surprised why I want to speak about something that lasted only a little bit longer than three generations. Well, I want to talk about it mostly because Great Moravia has a huge political importance for Slovakia, as well as, the Czech Republic. This is because both states claim it as their predecessor. Czechs by owning the region called Moravia, and Slovaks through owning the territory of the above-mentioned Principality of Nitra that, after the conquest, became one of the main centres of the empire. Furthermore, its political importance is cemented by the fact that during the existence of Great Moravia, Christianity as well as a written language was introduced in the region.
So Great Moravia is politically very important. Presently it is much more emphasized in Slovakia, as the Czech Republic can also use the medieval Kingdom of Bohemia in its historical narrative. Its existence was one of the premises that were used in an argument made by many members of the Slovak national movement for an independent Slovak state during the 19th and the early 20th centuries. Later, after the end of the First World War, it was one of the main arguments for the establishment of Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic we commemorate Saints Cyril and Methodius, who brought writing to Moravia even though Methodius and all his students were later expelled from Moravia by the successor of the prince who initially invited them. It is no surprise then that most old-school nationalists see Moravia as a great Slavic (Slovak) state that bravely fought against the East Frankish (German) yoke and whose destruction is both an important moral lesson, as well as an major tragedy that caused the thousand-year ‘enslavement’ of Slovaks under the Kingdom of Hungary.
As you can surely imagine, recent historical research often clashes with these nationalist conceptions. First of all, in the current archaeological and historical research there is a debate about whether Great Moravia was actually a state or was a sort of proto-state. This is because, according to Frankish chronicles, power within Great Moravia was not entirely centralized within the hands of a prince. He tended to be referred to as the first among several princes within the empire. Due to this, most Great Moravian territory was in the hands of these subordinate princes and the prince himself controlled only a limited amount of territory around his capital. Another important thing is that, the prince did not rule Moravia as a feudal head of state, as we might imagine it, but ‘only’ as a prince of the tribe of Moravians. This meant that apart from the above-mentioned subordinate princes, the prince of Great Moravia had to probably consult "veča" , which was an assembly made up of the free male members of the tribe. Because of this, the prince did not really agree to sign what we would now recognize as international treaties, such as payment of tribute, without the agreement of this assembly. All this meant that the prince’s powers were severely limited when compared to the power we generally imagine medieval rulers wielded.
There is also a huge stain on the history of Great Moravia that tends to be forgotten in favour of the idealization of Slavs as an inherently pacific people. This stain is slavery. More precisely, Great Moravia, during its peak, was one of the main slave-trading hubs in Europe. It is often assumed that during medieval times slavery disappeared, and reappeared only with colonialism in the 16th and 17th century. But during the early medieval period, slaves were one of the most profitable commodities.
Modern historians found out that most of the wealth of the Moravian princes was derived from the slave trade taking place within their empire. These slaves were mostly captives from various military expeditions against non-Christians surrounding Great Moravia. Merchants bought many slaves in Moravia and then travelled south to Venice, where they could sell them at a huge profit in order to buy silks and other luxury resources that they could sell on their way back to Moravia.
Another aspect that clashes with the traditional nationalistic narrative about Great Moravia is the description of its fall as an ethnic conflict between Moravians and the invading Hungarians, after which all the Moravians in what is now Slovak territory were subjugated and oppressed. In truth, after the dissolution of Great Moravia, a lot of local Slavic princes either kept their power and stayed independent for a while, or even joined Hungarians to raid both the East Frankish territories, as well as their own old rulers from Moravia. A lot of these princes then became, together with old Hungarian tribal aristocracy, the core of the medieval Hungarian nobility. One of the best examples of local rulers would be Hunt and Poznan, two princes whose territories are presumed to be in today’s Slovakia. These two actually supplied a great number of troops to the Hungarian Prince Stephen, during the rebellions that were led by Stephen’s relatives, who resisted his attempts at Christianisation.
In the case of Great Moravia, we can clearly see why it is necessary to be critical of our general perceptions of history. This is because there are various historical narratives that surround us and it is very easy to embrace one narrative that is purposefully crafted in order to achieve some sort of political goal but, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with what exactly happened. As we all know, those who do not know their history are bound to repeat it sooner or later.
Harvát, M. (2018, October 24). Obchodovali veľkomoravské kniežatá s otrokmi? May 25, 2019, Retrieve from https://historyweb.dennikn.sk/clanky/detail/obchodovali-velkomoravske-kniezata-s-otrokmi
Lukačka , J. (2010). K otázke etnického pôvodu velmožského rodu Hunt-Poznanovcov. Forum Historiae.
Steinhübel, J. (2014). Veľká Morava na polceste od kmeňa ku štátu. Forum Historae, 71-97.