These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

The Middle Ages: A Golden Age?

 Photo: Ján Svrček

Bereft of a particular national identity after the collapse of the Great Moravian Empire, the Danube basin-dwelling Slavs at the dawn of the Middle Ages found themselves folded into the budding Hungarian Kingdom. Yet the situation was hardly dire. Unlike other dynasties in medieval Europe, the Hungarian ruling class was amenable to local needs and tolerant of other languages. Generally speaking, the kingdom followed the dictum uttered by its first leader, István I - known in the west as St. Stephen: "A kingdom is weak and fragile if it has only one language and set of customs."

And thus, in the first three centuries under Hungarian rule, the Slovaks flourished along with most other European peoples during the age. They slowly gained the rights and privileges within the Kingdom that had already been won by another, more powerful minority, the Germans, who had been invited into Upper Hungary by King Béla IV.

By the beginning of the 13th century, some Slovaks owned property and had the right to pass it on to heirs, as well as help choose the village or town priest. Also, towns had the right to hold markets and use the profits for their own purposes - a key step towards medieval economic development.

The Slovaks of Upper Hungary also benefited from the region's abundant natural resources. In the mountains in the region's central area, German colonists and Slovak labourers created Europe's most productive, profitable mines. The town of Kremnica was Europe's premier source of gold and silver in the 14th century, while Smolník, in Spiš county near the High Tatras, was renowned for its copper production.

As the region's mines gained economic might, so did its workers. By the end of the 15th century, a joint German-Hungarian firm called Fugger-Turzo controlled mining in Central Slovakia. Europe's dominant producer of copper and other minerals, Fugger-Turzo operated on eight-hour work shifts, gave workers sickness and old-age insurance, and paid pensions to their widows and orphans - labour concessions that would be unknown to most Europeans until the 20th century.

Cross-border commerce, too, brought prosperity and cosmopolitanism to the area. Bratislava, an important wine producer in its own right, established itself as a significant center of trade with Austria, Dalmatia, and the Adriatic coast. The Kingdom's trade flowed north to Poland and south to the Balkans, passing through the eastern town of Košice.

Thus in the Middle Ages, Slovaks established themselves as productive and sometimes empowered subjects to a relatively responsive monarchy. And they did so without sacrificing the use of their vernacular languages or particular village customs. "When one considers what awaited Slovaks in the next 500 years, the Middle Ages almost seem like a golden age," writes Kirschbaum in The Struggle For Survival.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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