PDF – Military Activity of the Northern Carpathians






This is the article from the 1st volume of the archaelogical magazine Acta Militaria Medievalia, published a few years ago. All copies of the book were sold quite fast, so the publisher (Museum of Sanok and Polish Academy of Science), decided to put PDF version of the magazine on the web.

Below you’ll find the file for download with the article (PDF file compressed with rar). The file includes copyable text, you can later put into the translator on this site. Below you can read English summary of the paper.




(0,4 MB)



It was a quarter of a century ago that an opportunity arose of looking from a new perspective at the decision-making principles governing the location of individual early mediaeval strongholds in relation to the settlement centres in the Polish and Slovakian Carpathians – both in the early tribal period (8-10th cent.) and in the early state period (10/11th-13th cent.). It was then that a real possibility of a relatively precise cartographic delimitation of the range of the old ecumene and the areas poorly explored by man. The question arises whether the decision of choosing a site for a future stronghold was based on location preferences, if any, apart from the natural defensibility.

Let us first try to analyse the location of tribal-age strongholds (8th-close of the 10th cent.) in relation to the range of the contemporary ecumene (fig. 1). A map analysis very clearly indicates the connection between the location of a stronghold and the frontiers of the tribal settlement centres (Parczewski 1991, 32-33, fig. 2; 1996, 74, fig. 1; Poleski 2004, pl. 2).

It is worth having a closer look at the topographic conditions of the location of each tribal stronghold in the south-east Poland and the north-east Slovakia (fig. 1). It is a question of the micro-regional situation of fortified settlements: virtually all of the Carpathian strongholds which have been accounted for were located not entirely randomly, but in the immediate vicinity of the edges of the mountains and foothills, close to major river valleys and basins. This striking characteristic (a stronghold on the edge of a mountain or foothill region, on a site overlooking a vast topographic low) has its roots in the need for securing a stronghold’s reliable, natural defensibility, but on a site located nearly always on the verge of or even somewhat beyond the range of the nearby centre of open settlements.

The main reason for locating strongholds on the edge of an ecumene should be sought in the sphere of political circumstances rather than merely in the landscape of the Carpathians. In my opinion, the unusual (?) order of locating strongholds in the 8-10th cent. is largely associated with the location of the local settlement groups, facing directly the threats from the south. The inhabitants of the present-day northern Slovakia and southern Małopolska (and, to some extent, as it seems, of the northern part of Silesia) faced from the mid-6th cent. to the end of the tribal-age almost constant external military pressure, incomparably stronger and bringing more dangerous consequences, than the population of the central and northern Poland. The aggressors included the Avars (till the close of the 8th cent.), the Moravian state (the latter half of the 9th cent.) and the Hungarians (the close of the 9th cent. – the 1st half of the 10th cent.).

Why should the above historical circumstances bring out the tendency – realised with an incredible consistency – to erect strongholds in the borderlands rather than the central parts of constantly populated areas. In my view, we deal here with the materialised defensive thought, which due to the above conditions could only focus on defence.

We have every right to think that tribal strongholds were almost certainly set up inside a forest or in its immediate area. Up to the present day forest complexes dominate a stronghold’s immediate area – or cover it. In addition to hiding its military installations in the backwoods, a tribal community wanted to have an extra protection for people and possessions. This way of locating nearly all the Carpathian strongholds shows, in my opinion, a desire for achieving at least three key objectives. Firstly (and most obviously), efforts were made to provide large groups of people and their possessions with a safe shelter within the embankments (along with livestock, judging by their size). Secondly, in a critical situation there was a chance left to escape into the forest should the defensive fortifications collapse. Thirdly, there were more possibilities of active defence whenever the enemy was military superior.

It seems then that during the entire pre-state period the broadly-defined region of the northern Carpathians was dominated by the strategy focused on the protection and survival of people and their property in view of a large disproportion of forces working to the disadvantage of the local tribes facing a potentially superior enemy. Did the situation change in the next stage of historical development, i.e. in the early-state period?

During the latter half of the 10th cent. and in the early decades of the 11th cent., individual tribal strongholds, including Cracow as the crowning example, were given (or retained) the status of the centres of authority this time by the state. The majority of old strongholds either momentarily (some, with a little de-l ay) began to disappear from the political map of Małopolska, or, as it seems, were entrusted with the function of local military guarding garrisons for a longer time. There also appeared completely new strongholds, which bear testimony to entirely different priorities, now defined by the state decision-making authorities. In opposition to the previous order, the newly established administrative strongholds of Poland and Ruthenia (with a hypothetical earlier Czech impulse) appear on prominent sites, but surrounded by an open landscape, within ecological niches occupied by settlements. They are often at the crossroads of different settlement regions (Wojnicz, Przemyśl, arguably Sanok „castle hill”). The early-state strongholds are more often founded in the open space, where they control key low valley positions surrounded by populated areas (Wojnicz, Podegrodzie). In this way, the authority’s fundamental needs for effective control of population and hubs of communication trails may be satisfied most effectively. In a way, we see the departure of the previous „apprehensive” motivation of the ever weaker participant of a conflict (often a victim of an aggression), replaced by the demonstration of the strength of state military structures, comparable in terms of potential to the strength of a similarly organised neighbouring armies. Analogical thorough changes occurred in the period in question in the region of Głubczycki Plateau at the foot of the eastern Sudeten Mountains, where the state strongholds in Racibórz and Koźle were located immediately in the valley of the Oder River (Parczewski 1982, 128-129).


Translated by Ireneusz Paternoga

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