Great Moravia was an important, if short lived, autonomous state in medieval Central Europe. It is important for many reasons, but among them because it is the first known kingdom of the Western Slavic tribes. To say it is forgotten is somewhat misleading for Great Moravia is remembered and celebrated with great pride by the Czech and Slovak people. But it is forgotten by conventional Western history books. It is natural for any given society to zero in on history that is most relevant to their own culture. And so, we in the West have studied Western European history with great zeal. Eastern European history tends to be relegated to chapters on immigration to our countries from Eastern countries, and then skips to the Russian Revolution and the Cold War. Today, with globalization and the ease of access of information through technology, more people are interested in other world cultures. And many of us who have heritage from countries that have been overlooked in our Western history books are taking it upon ourselves to discover the hidden histories of the countries from which our ancestors came. Thus we begin this exploration of a medieval kingdom with immense importance to the people of Central Europe.
The central European region experienced a period of flux in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D. The Slavic tribes in the region were subjugated by various factions over the years and expected to pay tribute to these foreign rulers. Between the sixth and ninth centuries, a nomadic warrior tribe from the Eurasian Steppes had moved into the region, dominating the local people. These were the Avars and they were to rule the region virtually unchallenged. That is until Charlemagne entered the picture. There was a bit of a tug of war for a period but the long and the short of it is that with the help of his son Pippin and ally Duke Eric of Friuli, the Avars were defeated and eventually acknowledged Charlemagne as ruler. This is the backdrop in which Great Moravia would rise as a political state.
Like much of the history from the lands that the Romans referred to as “barbarians,” the history of Central Europe before Christianization is blurry. Records from the pre-Christian societies either were not kept or were lost. Thus written history often begins with missionary efforts to these lands, and the rest we have to fill in using archaeology. And so it is with Great Moravia. We know tribal leaders in the region organized uprisings against their overlords. But apparently they did not meet with success as the Avars were not ousted until Charlemagne stepped in. With the Avars finally defeated, there was room for leaders to emerge from among the Slavic people in Central Europe.
The principality of Moravia first appears in written history in Royal Frankish Annals of 822 when representatives of the Moravians are recorded paying tribute to Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne. The first Moravian leader that we know of is Mojmir I. It is unclear whether he united the people himself under his leadership, or whether the Moravians unified under an unknown predecessor. However, it is clear that Mojmir I was a strong leader who founded a dynasty, the House of Mojmir.
Mojmir I is mentioned in several documents from the mid to late ninth century. We know that his power grew as he strengthened and expanded his territory. There is some debate about the existence of two neighboring principalities, Moravia (roughly in the Czech region) and Nitra (in the neighboring Slovak region). Pribina is mentioned as being the ruler of Nitra. It is unclear whether Pribina governed Nitra as a lieutenant under Mojmir, or if he ruled Nitra as an autonomous state in his own right. A text called “Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum” (The Conversion of the Bavarians and the Carantanians) written in 870 makes mention that Mojmir expelled Pribina across the Danube River. Sources are not clear whether Pribina, as an underling of Mojmir, was attempting to rebel or whether this event represents Mojmir of Moravia conquering Pribina’s kingdom of Nitra. In any case, the two regions were merged into one state under Mojmir’s rule by the mid-ninth century.
This period of foundation, development and growth for Moravia was also a period of religious change. There are a few early mentions of the religious conversion of the Moravians. A Christian church in Mikulčice (Czech Republic) dated to the early ninth century has led some historians to believe Mojmir was converted before the year 825 A.D. And a mass baptism of the Moravian people in 831 was recorded in a document called “History of the Bishops of Passau.” Whereas other “mass baptisms” of many neighboring people during this era were violent and forced (the Saxons, Norse, Balts, and Wends were all converted at the point of a sword), the Moravians may have experienced a transition period where Christians and pagans lived side by side. The evidence for this in the afore mentioned church is dated to the same time that a pagan sanctuary is also known to have existed in the same city of Mikulčice, up through the mid-ninth century. We know that much of the populace was still pagan toward the second half of the ninth century because a missionary effort was organized with the specific intent of converting the Moravian Slavs.
As Mojmir’s power grew, Moravia became a threat to the Franks to the West. Mojmir I had no son so a relative, possibly a nephew named Rastislav, would be his successor. The early years of Rastislav are unknown, but it has been speculated that he was given as a hostage in his youth to Louis II the German, ruler of the East Frankish kingdom and grandson of Charlemagne. The trading of hostages was common at the time. The hostage would be fostered by whomever he was held by. The benefit of the situation for the hostage-taker was twofold. First, the country the hostage belongs to will be apt to behave itself if someone dear to the ruler could be harmed in the event of a revolt. Second, it’s an opportunity to mold someone who may be of key strategic importance in the future, and instill in them the values of the host country, making them loyal to whomever is holding them instead of to their home country. If Rastislav was indeed a hostage, this may be exactly what occurred.
When a civil war broke out within the Eastern Frankish Empire, Mojmir I took the opportunity to rebel against Frankish control. It was only a matter of time before the Franks settled their internal disputes and then took revenge upon the Moravians. Mojmir was likely killed in the ensuing battle. However his death is not recorded, so it is possible that he fled and lived out his old age in obscurity. The Franks then placed Rastislav on the throne to rule Great Moravia in the year 846 A.D. It appears that the King of East Francia, Louis the German, had planned to use Rastislav as a puppet ruler and vassal. Louis would be sorely mistaken, as Rastislav would prove to have a mind of his own and steer the future of Great Moravia in a new direction.
But that, dear friends, is another story! I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to a fascinating medieval kingdom that many of us had never heard of. I hope to continue telling Moravia’s story in a sequel to this article very soon. If you enjoyed this guest blog, please follow me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/carolynemerickwriter.
Further reading: “Franks, Moravians, and Magyars: The Struggle for the Middle Danube, 788-907” by Charles R. Bowlus, “East Central & Eastern Europe in the Early Middle Ages” edited by Florin Curta, “Moravia Magna: The Great Moravian Empire – It’s Art and Times” by Jan Dekan, “The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown” by Hugh LeCaine Agnew