BANDIT LANDS 6: JURO JANOSIK

Attribution below *

The great hero of the Slovak people is an outlaw named Juro Janosik. Born around 1688 of poor parents in the politically unsettled region of Northern Slovakia, the young Janosik fought in one of the rebellions of the peasantry (that of Rakoczy II from 1703-1711) against the repressive aristocracy of the time and place. Janosik later became a soldier in the Imperial army. While serving as a guard in one of the Emperor’s gaols he met a prisoner named Thomas Uhorcik who had for some years been a brigand and resister in one of the robber gangs that roamed Northern Slovakia during this period. Uhorcik would later initiate Janosik into a life of brigandry that would evolve into the legend of the Slovakian Robin Hood.

By 1711 Janosik had left the Imperial army and returned to his home country, where he again met with Uhorcik and was drafted into a gang of brigands. Janosik quickly demonstrated an aptitude for the outlaw life and was elected leader of the gang, his exploits in robbing especially the aristocracy earning him the approval and support of the many disaffected people in the region, and far beyond. His headquarters were in thick pine forests in the mountainous area known as ‘King’s Plateau’, but he operated throughout and beyond the eastern counties of Slovakia and into neighbouring Moravia, Silesia, Poland and Hungary, apparently generating sympathy and support wherever he went.

Despite their being little historical evidence of Janosik giving to the poor, there is a strong tradition that he gave jewels stolen from a Lord Skalka to the ladies of Tarchova. He was also said to possess a number of magical objects, including a belt that made him invincible, a shirt that made him invulnerable to bullets and a general ability to carry out superhuman feats.

In spite of these useful skills and amulets, Janosik was captured in 1712 but, like many an outlaw hero, managed to escape, adding further to the already established legend. Also according with the outlaw hero tradition was the manner of his recapture. Betrayed either by one of his gang or by his girlfriend, he was taken the following year. At his trial Janosik was keen to clear his name of crimes he did not commit, mainly those involving violence or ungallant behaviour. He admitted to those he had perpetrated, none of which had involved killing. He also revealed the names, though not the whereabouts, of his comrades and the location of his treasure. 

The defence made an appeal for leniency but Janosik was condemned to a double punishment: he was first to be stretched on the rack for his lesser crimes, then hanged for his greater ones. Within a day or two of the verdict the sentence was carried out and the great robber, already a national hero, was hanged in front of a vast crowd. According to tradition he died game, performing a lively folk dance in his shackles four times around the gallows, beneath which he was buried after the sentence had been carried out.

Now Janosik’s afterlife could begin. One tradition has it that his body was buried in the crypt of the church in St. Mikulas. Here the hero lies completely preserved until the day when a new Janosik will arise and strike down the oppressors of his people.

Writing in 1929, Cyprian Tkacik observed that Janosik’s home country ‘and many other regions in the Pohron and Malohont districts, abound even today in folk songs, ballads, and stories of his exploits on behalf of the poor and the oppressed’.[i] There are still hundreds of folksongs celebrating Janosik, his life and his myth.[ii]

Janosik is far more than just a robber, he is the very model of the noble thief, robbing the rich, helping the poor, harming none, righting wrongs and ‘gallant, generous, honest, and honorable with his people.’ He has been celebrated in poetry, novels, drama, art, art song, folk ballads, placenames, film, popular iconography and a continuing repertoire of legends about his deeds, his treasure and his heroic status. [iii]  Like a select few outlaw heroes, including Robin Hood and Ned Kelly, Janosik has transcended the role of outlaw hero to become a culture hero, sleeping until the day his people need him.


  • Attribution: Juraj Jánošík (1688–1713), a Slovak Carpathian Highwaymen – a statue in the Smetana Park in Hořice, Jičín District, the Czech Republic.
    Sculptor: Franta Úprka (1868–1929).Čeština:Juraj Jánošík (1688–1713), slovenský zbojník – socha z roku 1919 ve Smetanových sadech v Hořicích v okrese Jičín. Autor návrhu: Franta Úprka (1868–1929). Picture: Ben Skála

NOTES

[i]  Tkacik, Cyprian, O. S. B. ‘Janosik The Slovak Robin Hood In the Light of Documentary Evidence and Popular Legend’, (Parts 1 and 2) Slovenske Pohl’ady (Slovak Review)Vol. XLV, Nos. 1-2, 1929, accessed at http://www.iarelative.com/history/janosik.htm July 04

[ii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, p. 47.

[iii] Tkacik, Part 2.

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