Anonymus and Master Roger

Anonymus and Master Roger

Central European Medieval Texts Series, Volume 5
Budapest, 2010
ISBN: 978-963-9776-95-1

Anonymus, notary of King Béla – The Deeds of the Hungarians
Edited and translated and annotated by Martyn Rady and László Veszprémy

Master Roger’s Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tatars
Edited and translated by János M. Bak and Martyn Rady

Publisher’s Synopsis: An anonymous notary of King Bela of Hungary wrote a Latin Gesta Hungarorum (ca. 1200/10), a literary composition about the mythical origins of the Hungarians and their conquest of the Carpathian Basin. Anonymus tried to (re)construct the events and protagonists—including ethnic groups—of several centuries before from the names of places, rivers, and mountains of his time, assuming that these retained the memory of times past. One of his major “inventions” was the inclusion of Attila the Hun into the Hungarian royal genealogy, a feature later developed into the myth of Hun-Hungarian continuity.

The Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tartars of Master Roger includes an eyewitness account of the Mongol invasion in 1241–2, beginning with an analysis of the political conditions under King Bela IV and ending with the king’s return to the devastated country.

Review by – Since 1999, Central European University Press has been publishing a series of editions and translations of primary sources that focus on the lands of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. They have proven to be invaluable works for scholars and students, providing fresh access to the medieval history of this region.

The latest volume includes two very different texts, which will appeal to different audiences. The first text – The Deeds of the Hungarians – an anonymous work which was written probably around the early thirteenth century. It purports to be a history of the Magyars before the year 1000 AD, but aside for getting a few names of Kings correct, this account is mostly a work of fiction and legend.  Written in the style of a popular romance, it includes tales about Attila the Hun, and numerous references to battles with assorted peoples.

While historical information about early medieval Hungary is not reliable, this text will be valuable to historians interested in seeing how a thirteenth-century writer thought about the past. It also contains a wealth of geographic information, as the anonymous chronicler seems to make sure that every castle, river and hill played some part in his story.

The second half of this book contains another text – The Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tartars, written by an Italian canon known as Master Roger, who experienced first hand the Mongol invasion of 1241-2. It is written as a letter or report to the Bishop of Pest, and the reader will be struck by the personal tone and vivid details supplied by Master Roger.

The text starts with an explanation of the troubles King Bela IV (1235–70) early in his reign and the arrival of the Cuman people into Hungary seeking refuge from the Mongols. The account moves on to describe the Mongol invasion and the defeat of King Bela, before relating the author’s own experiences. The sections where Roger talks about trying to escape the Mongol hoards, going into villages desperately trying to save themselves, and the scenes of Mongol atrocities are delivered with great detail and emotion. At one point Roger writes, “my hair stood on end, my body shivered with fear, my tongue stuttered miserably, for I saw that the inevitable moment of dreadful death was menacing me. I already beheld my murderers in my mind’s eye; my body exuded the cold sweat of death.”

This account is among the most important sources about the Mongol invasion of Hungary, and must have for any historian interested in this event, or about medieval warfare in general. Another text in this series – History of the Bishops of Salona and Split, by Thomas of Split – would serve as an excellent companion piece.

Overall, all the scholars involved in editing and translating these works should be commended for bringing these valuable accounts to readers and improving our access to the sources of medieval Hungary.

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