By Imre Bártfai
A new Czech video game – Kingdom Come: Deliverance – offers a realistic medieval simulator. Billed as a serious attempt to portray medieval life and history in general it certainly provides greater visibility to the Middle Ages, especially for events and peoples eastward from Vienna. However, it also features Cuman warriors in the role of the token bad guys, and in doing so miss an opportunity to present this people and their medieval history accurately.
The game’s protagonist is Henry, a son of a blacksmith, who unwillingly becomes part of the power struggle between Wenceslaus (in Czech: Václav) IV and Sigismund, two Luxembourg-dynasty kings. Sigismund attacked the kingdom of Bohemia in 1403 to forcefully abdicate his kinsman, Wenceslaus, who was basically a weak, ineffective ruler. Sigismund’s troops plundered Kuttenberg (Kutná Hora), the silver-mining centre of Czech kings and Skalitz, (today: Stříbrná Skalice) the hero’s home village.
In the game the Cuman warriors, often inaccurately referred to as “Tatars” in the game, massacre and violate the whole village, because Sigismund’s German general, Markvart von Aulitz orders them to get some plunder – and to frighten the people into submission. With the assistance of the general, they cut down Henry’s mother and father in a sad scene. They chase the hero down the road to the next castle, and it is up to us to escape and learn to fight until we can have our revenge.
The Kipchak people once ruled most of the Eurasian steppe, from Mongolia as far as Russia. Originally they came from the lands around Irtysh river,(roughly modern Kazakhastan) and they were part of a tribal alliance with the Kimek. The coming of the Mongols in the early thirteenth-century ended their age of dominance on the steppe. Under the Mongols they merged with other Turkic nomads to create the populace of modern day Kazakhstan, Tataria etc. They migrated first into Hungary in 1239, (led by their “king”, Cuthen, to escape the Mongols) and after much conflict with the settled Hungarian populace they left the country multiple times only to return and settle in a territory named after them. About their role in the power struggles of the Balkans I suggest reading István Vásáry’s Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1185-1365.
In the game they hint on it that Sigismund could only hire such mercenaries – implying that they are viewed so badly by characters in the game that only the main villain would want them.
However, in the reality they had been used in centuries of medieval warfare, and they took part in all Hungarian military actions since the late 13th century from Austria to as far as Italy.
In some battles they weren’t effective, like the battle of Kroissenbrunn (1260), where the Czech heavy cavalry clashed with the advancing Cuman riders resulting in a serious Hungarian defeat, as the fleeing Cumans bumped into the next line of the Hungarian army which was just crossing the Morava river. But they may had a large part in the victory at Dürnkrut (1278 – also known as Battle of Marchfeld), where the ambitions of the Czech king Ottokar II had been crushed by an Austrian-Hungarian army foreshadowing the domination of Habsburgs in Eastern-Central Europe in the coming centuries. In conclusion, anyone coming against the king of Hungary had to count with the presence of these swift horsemen, whose skills in archery were second to none.
They were excellent riders and savage warriors, but most likely not “godless pagans” as the game shows them, since they were living at that time since more than a century in Christian Europe. Church leaders did, however, complain about their behaviour in the late 13th century under the rule of their kinsman, László IV the Cuman, noting their lax view on sexual morality, wild haircuts, and strange, nomadic lifestyle – it contributed to Archbishop Ladomér calling a crusade against László.
Were they as horrible as they are presented in the game? Some medieval sources commented that they were. However, the same sources tell us how King Ottokar II hanged out Austrian nobles from towers on chains, or described Czech actions against the Hungarian populace, like crushing the skulls of infants against church walls. Partially these statements can be true, partially they are exaggerations of medieval chroniclers always eager to point out the inhumanity of the enemy. After the 13th century when their novelty expired we have – as far as I am aware – only a few information on their conduct in war. They were melting into the Hungarian populace.
It is unlikely that they wore those masked helmets and nomadic armor which the game features in the late 14th century-early 15th century. Because the way those helmets and armors are presented in the game, is rather Timurid in fashion, which these guys, having lost their connection to the steppe, could scarcely adopt then. The armor, and the face masked-helmet worn by Cumans in the game is also similar to that 13th century one, which Russian authors Feodorov and Davydov included in their book, Städe der Goldenen Horde an der unteren Wolga. Either way, this armor would not have been worn in Hungary by the early 15th century.
Their appearance could had been different but closer to typical nomad light cavalry as shown in the Hungarian codex Chronica Pictum. How could they look around 1400? The most reliable depictions are usually Chronica Pictum and contemporary Hungarian frescos. For example: Kakaslomnice (Velk’á Lomnica, Slovakia) or Székelyderzs (Dârjiu, Romania). Perhaps the fresco of Szepesmindszent (Bijacovce, Slovakia) might the best representation of a typical Cuman warrior: a lightly armed horse archer. Many of these artworks are not easy to interpret and carefully observe though.
It is also unlikely, that the Cumans spoke to each other Hungarian as in the game -especially modern-day Hungarian. In the reality the last native speaker of Cuman language in Hungary died in the 18th century, but it is likely that 15th century Cumans most likely used their own Turkic language.
While the game itself is a great and laudable achievement, its realism could had been stronger by presenting historically accurate looking Cumans. As for them being the token bad guys is a plot element, commenting on which would show too much personal sensibility. However, Europe has some very outdated traditions when it comes to portraying Nomadic peoples. (Let us think of the Huns for example.) Too often are they presented to us as in the unified fashion as the riders of Apocalypse, and essentially a barbaric, inhuman horde. While nomadic warfare could indeed be cruel, and life on the steppe was unforgiving such a portrayal reduces these peoples and their cultures to cardboard figures. Not to mention, their portrayal in the game only shows gritty medieval warfare as it was, nothing special. German, Hungarian or Czech soldiers could had done their part (and had done it too) without any change in the outcome. Perhaps a game mission showing their camp, or more useful information in the game’s own codex would have done better service for historical realism.
Imre Bártfai studied history and philosophy at the University of Szeged, Hungary. He is a Ph.D student of the University of Hagen, where he is currently finishing his dissertation on the early Hegel’s idea of Protestantism.
- András Pálóczi-Horváth: Pechenegs, Cumans, Iasians: Steppe peoples in medieval Hungary, Hereditas, 1989.
- David Nicolle: The Age of Tamerlane, Men at Arms No.222, Osprey 1990.
- David Nicolle: Hungary and the Fall of Eastern Europe, Men at Arms No. 195, Osprey 1988.
- G. A. Feodorov-Davidov: Az aranyhorda földjén, Gondolat, Bp 1983
- Gyula Kristó: Az Anjou-kor háborúi, Zrínyi Katonai Kiadó, Budapest 1988.
- Gyula Kristó: Nem magyar népek a középkori Magyarországon, Lucidus.
- István Vásáry: A régi Benső-Ázsia története, Jate, Szeged 1993.
- István Vásáry: Cumans and Tatars: Oriental Military in the Pre-Ottoman Balkans, 1185-1365. Cambridge University Press 2005
- Képes Krónika, transl. by Bellus Ibolya, Európa, Budapest 1986
- Kun László emlékezete, ed. by Kristó Gyula, Szegedi Középkorász Műhely, Szeged, 1994.