15th Century Hungary: Interview with Katerina Dunne


February 6, 2022

Katarina Dunne shared with me her journey into 15th century Hungary, particularly the border lands in Transylvania. She just launched her first novel, Lord of the Eyrie, on January 31. Published by Historium Press. It is an epic tale of love, war and the price of loyalty. It is the first instalment of an action and drama-filled family saga, set in Hungary during the 1400s, spanning 40 years and two generations.

Originally from Athens, Greece, Katerina has been living in Ireland since 1999. She has a degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Athens, an MA in Film Studies from University College Dublin, and an MPhil in Medieval History from Trinity College Dublin. While she used to write short stories for family and friends in her teenage years, she only took up writing seriously in 2016, when she started work on her first novel. 

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

The story was inspired by the border lords of the fifteenth-century Kingdom of Hungary. Although the main character is fictional, he embodies all those heroic and battle-hardened figures of the Borderland, who defended the kingdom for centuries. Their lives must have been hard: a constant struggle to run their own estates and protect them from the relentless Ottoman raiding as well as from attacks by other local lords while also leaving home for long periods to campaign with the king and his barons.

Q: You grew up in Athens, and then moved to Ireland. How did you become interested in Hungary?

In Athens, I had some teenage friends who were from Hungary. I was very close with one of them in particular. Although I had no family connection to the country, I always wanted to know more about Hungary. It was as if I had lived there before…

I learned the language with my friend’s help and started reading more and more. I visited there many times and I loved the country. Ireland and Hungary are my favourite places.

Then I started studying the history of the country. I was always interested in the medieval history of Europe, mostly England and France. But when I did my Masters thesis in Medieval History, I wrote it on Hungary, examining the internal conflict between 1438-1442.

What struck me at the time was that I found very little in English. There is very little written about medieval Hungary in English.

Q: Where did you find your sources? The University libraries?

No. Actually, a lot of it was my own research. I checked on Amazon and other authors who had written books. You know, if you go to their bibliographies, you can find what sources they have used.

A lot of it was online as well, particularly https://www.academia.edu/  which is an internationally available free site. If you want to pay, you have access to more stuff. With a free membership, you can do a basic search. There’s a lot of articles. All the academics upload their essays there for peer reviews. You can find a lot there.

I spent a lot of money buying books from Amazon and other bookshops because I used them in my thesis and I used them for my novel.

The other sources I used is an online database of charters and letters: The Hungarian National Archives. However, they are mostly in Latin in the manuscript form so they are tough to decipher. They did have a summary in Hungarian on a sidebar, so I could read that.

There are also books online which have a collection of letters from the period. Because these books were done in the 19th century, they are out of copyright and you can download them.

Q: Who did you base your characters on?

As said before, the main character is based on the border lords of the Kingdom of Hungary. The plot is in a way a microcosm of the real situation in Hungary at the time, regarding the struggle of the country against internal and external enemies. Real historical personalities appear in the story, such as János Hunyadi, a military commander who later became the most powerful baron and even the Regent for a few years, and whose son Matthias ascended the throne in 1458. Matthias, the king who brought the Italian Renaissance to Hungary, also appears briefly in the book and will have a bigger role in the sequel.

Q: Which characters are most similar to you, or people you know?

I think my characters are more universal models and encompass qualities and flaws that all humans have: love and loyalty, friendship, righteousness, but also rivalry, ambition, greed and evil. When it comes to my protagonists, I like them to be flawed and vulnerable because these types of characters have the greatest potential for growth and redemption during the story. Also, the antagonists have a backstory that explains the reasons why they have become what they are.

Q: What part of the book was the most fun to write?

Definitely the battle scenes. It is challenging to write action pieces, especially battles where so much is going on. I collected information from various chronicles and scholarly analyses, but altered it slightly to allow the participation of my fictional hero in those events. As such, I tried to give a more personal and intimate view of those events which otherwise would sound cold and distant if you read about them in a history book.

Q: What part was the hardest?

The death scenes and love scenes. The death scenes because of the emotion involved; I am not going to lie, I ended up crying while writing them. The love scenes were tricky. In general, I don’t write them in unless they advance the plot or reveal character. They are usually very brief. There is one very early on in the book, and it is the most important one because it determines the relationship of the main character and his wife. It was hard to write because I felt it needed to be detailed enough to show the connection developing between them but at the same time not too explicit to put readers off. I tried to focus more on the emotion rather than the physical aspect.

Q: What is your interesting writing quirk?

As my story is set in the medieval period, I had to make sure the vocabulary did not sound too modern. So, first I wrote the novel using whatever expressions came to my mind even if they were modern. When I did the re-write, I replaced those modern words and expressions with older ones that had the same meaning. I used online dictionaries, such as Etymonline and dictionary.com, which include the origins of the words.

Q: How would you describe your book’s ideal reader?

I think it would be a person who is interested in medieval history and society, and especially one who loves to learn new things, such as the events in Hungary that are not so well-known. Also, someone who does not shy away from the harsh and raw reality of medieval life. Because this is not an easy read or happy romance, it is tough-going and realistic.

Q: How is the sequel coming? What can we expect?

The sequel is called Return to the Eyrie. Book one ends with a “bang”, upsetting the “status-quo”. Although, there is temporary closure, an unexpected situation has been created, which needs to be resolved at a future stage. In book two the story continues eight years later and focuses on the next generation of the family, while still keeping many of the characters from the first book to maintain continuity. That being said, I will try to make sure that the second book can be read as a standalone novel as well.


Katarina and I discussed a great deal about other related topics, and she provided a number of references and sources. I will post the remainder of the interview in a couple of weeks. You can find her book, Lord of the Eyrie, on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and most other outlets. Or, you can order directly from Historium Press https://www.thehistoricalfictioncompany.com/historium-press-katerina-dunne?fbclid=IwAR2QpQnOc6-M9X4JJIE47Fh7lm7qxAZC0OfoTrWwTLyj_3Tzq2_MY03BaYk

Knightly Customs

Knights were required to provide, of course, military service. That was, after all, their primary vocation. Their oath of fealty to a lord would include a promise to protect their lord’s life, honor, and property.

Besides fighting on horseback during battle, a knight might also do duty at the lord’s garrison, act as an arbiter or even a judge in minor grievances, and proffer advice and counsel to his master on a variety of issues. It was common for knights to be assigned administrative tasks such as garnering supplies.

In return, the lord would defend the knight and his family from their enemies, and avenge wrongs. The lord would grant fiefs of land, access to forests, rents from houses, and income from a plethora of sources such as mills and mines. The fiefs were given to support the knight’s family and military needs such as horses, squires, training, and additional stores.

Usually the fiefs were hereditary, and passed to the knight’s children, but not always. For example, if a knight was assigned as castellan (governor of a castle), the lord could take that fief away, particularly if there was rebellion in the knight’s family.

It was not uncommon for knights to swear fealty to more than one lord, acquiring more fiefs in the process. Many ministerales became wealthy by such devices, and tiptoed around conflicting oaths with difficulty. Lords were not always averse to such practices, as they could turn to their wealthy knights for financial support in waging war or providing ransom for kidnapped familae.

The penalties for breaking the knightly code were severe. Confiscation of fiefs was the customary punishment. Depending on the gravity of the offense, he could lose his wife, his children, and be cast an outlaw, whereby no one was allowed to assist him in any way.

On the other hand, lords who did not fulfill their duty suffered little consequence. If it was an ongoing problem or widespread across all of the lord’s retinue, rebellions did occur. Royal courts might have to be involved and that outcome usually was to neither parties’ benefit, but rather to the royal household itself. Thus, the incentive was to settle matters within the familae and maintain the peace.

Marriage for German Knights

As I explained in my last post, marriage was encouraged by German nobility, as long as it was within the familiae. If the marriage was outside the lord’s retinue, the children of that marriage belonged to the mother’s lord. Therefore, the father’s lord would be gaining nothing by the union.

In some cases, two lords would negotiate a marriage, and divide the children between them. This was particularly true if the knight’s fiefs were allods passed down to his children. Often, daughters were given allods from either their fathers or their mothers, and could be very valuable. Therefore, marriage arrangements became a swapping of people and property, each lord bargaining for the better deal.

Knights could also marry outside the knightly class, by wedding a free woman. In this case, the resulting children were also free. Free persons residing in a lord’s demesne did not have to provide a corvee (service of labor for a specified time), but did have to pay a head tax, similar to our income tax. So, few lords were inclined to approve such a marriage, unless the free woman agreed to relinquish her children’s freedom to the knight’s lord. Another enticement to the lord is that the free woman and her family would pay an agreed sum for the loss of the children.

It was not unusual for free persons to seek marriage into a familiae, to be relieved of the head tax, and to learn the ways of the fighting knightly class. Children of such a union almost always received a fief from the lord, particularly male children who were training to be warriors.

Often, mixed marriages between familiae or free and unfree resulted in later arguments, litigation, and outright kidnappings or violent skirmishes. Only the highest bishopric or ducal courts could make decisions in such cases, and seldom were bothered to do so. The might of the warrior class almost always won with or without the courts.