2. The Earliest Relics of Hungarian Literature

Having conquered the Carpathian basin, the nomadic Hungarian tribes successfully maintained their traditional way of life for about a century. They continued their raids and plunderings, this time not against their nomadic neighbours, but against Christian princes all over Europe. The raids were successful and profitable on account of the Hungarians’ novel tactics and superb horsemanship. Their chief virtue was lightness and swiftness, and the feudal armies in heavy armour could not stand up to an invisible army ignoring all the proper rules of warfare. By the second half of the tenth century the tactics of the Hungarians became sufficiently well known – for between AD 898 and 955 no less than thirty-three major expeditions were recorded by historians as far afield as Bremen, Cambrai, Orléans, and Constantinople – and were successfully counteracted. Hungarian policy also changed, because the heavy losses incurred even in their victorious battles taught them – or at least some of their leaders – a lesson, and they realized that as a nomadic steppe people they had little chance of survival in the heart of Europe: they had to change their way of life. It was under Géza, the grandson of the conquering Árpád, that a new era dawned. Géza established a friendly relationship with the Christian rulers and decided to convert his unruly subjects to Christianity. His task was completed by his son, the iron-willed Vajk (or Bajk) who was crowned as Stephen I, first King of Hungary, at Christmas in the year 1000.

Both the Roman and the Eastern Churches were competing for the souls of the Eastern European peoples. In the case of Hungary, Rome eventually won. The crowning of Stephen I, with a crown sent by the Pope, changed dramatically the status of the Hungarians and their ruler. From being an outlawed horde of barbarians against whom all pious Christian princes had a duty to take up arms, they became a member of the family of Christian nations, whose king, ruling by the grace of God, was on an equal footing with the other Christian rulers. The newly-established Christian Church not only cemented foreign relations, but introduced new values and altered the existing way of life.

The political changes were followed by social changes in the second half of the tenth and the first half of the eleventh centuries in Hungary. Not only did the whole social structure change within four or five generations, but all customs relating to the former way of life were to be erased systematically with blood and iron’. It was not an easy task to teach the people to build churches and pray to a hitherto unknown God whose foreign preachers promised only hard work and suffering in this world instead of the easy riches of foreign cities, of which the Hungarians had become so accustomed to avail themselves. And the Hungarians did not easily acquiesce in their new circumstances, as was proved by the numerous foreign missionaries martyred, and by bloody uprisings against the new regime.

Hungarian literature was born out of the cultural and social shock induced by the radical changes that took place in the early centuries of the new Christian culture. The price of survival as a newly-established kingdom included the eradication of the memory of a pagan past, rituals, and oral tradition, the ancient treasure of all primitive people. The existence of such traditions brought from the steppes can be traced only in the derogatory references made by medieval chroniclers who, when describing the early history of the Hungarians, were apt to remark that history can be studied only from the ‘proper’ sources and ‘not from the stupid tales of the ignorant peasants’. The ‘stupid tales’ of the peasants might or might not have been relevant to the history of the nation, but as far as literature is concerned, posterity lost the chance of judging for itself whether these ‘stupid tales’ were the songs and ballads of an heroic age, folk-tales important to the student of cultural anthropology, or relics of ancient pagan rituals. In addition, contemporary foreign eye-witnesses recorded that the feasts of the victorious Hungarians were accompanied by animated singing, which they interpreted, not knowing the language, as ‘shouting to their heathen gods’ – as one God-fearing monk wrote in his chronicle.

The ruthless extermination of pagan traditions successfully broke the continuity of the national heritage. In the scholarly nineteenth century, when ‘the songs and ballads of the people’ came into fashion, both poets and scholars often wondered what these early songs might have been about. It is scarcely surprising, on the other hand, that the early centuries of the new Christian culture witnessed no outstanding achievement in literature.

Laying the foundation of a Christian culture demanded the training of native clerici, as the first representatives of the new religion were all foreigners – German, French, and Italian missionaries. The earliest educational establishment, the College of Pannonhalma, was founded in AD 997, but Hungarian students frequented various foreign seats of higher learning from the twelfth century onwards. A particular favourite was the University of Paris, where Hungarian clerici were received in the ‘Natio Germanica’ together with English students of theology. Other universities were also visited by Hungarian students, yet it still comes as a surprise to find that the first student ever recorded by name at the University of Oxford was a certain ‘Nicolaus de Hungaria’ in the late twelfth century.

Latin was used universally for writing. Being the language of the Church and the State, it served international understanding in the primary sense among the learned, but at the same time it excluded the newly-converted population from the benefit of understanding what took place during services in the Church. It was on account of this inconsistency that efforts were made to bridge the gap created by the exclusive use of Latin. On certain occasions the Church expected the laymen to participate in services, or at least expected the priest to address them in their native tongue. Preaching and common prayer presented such occasions, and the first Hungarian text to survive might be the result of one of these efforts.

It is a funeral sermon of 32 lines containing 274 words. The Halotti Beszéd, as it is customarily called in Hungarian, is a free translation from the Latin, made around 1200. It might have been a ‘ready-made’ text, or model, for the use of the priest at funerals. It was discovered in the late eighteenth century in a Latin codex containing religious texts. Besides its significance of being the first continuous Hungarian text known to us, or indeed, the earliest text extant in any of the Finno-Ugrian languages – earlier manuscripts only contain Hungarian words, proper names, and phrases, inserted into the Latin texts – the ‘Funeral Sermon’ also possesses literary significance; it reveals the marked effort of its author to produce a solemn, rhetorical effect. Consequently, it would be premature conclusion to regard the ‘Funeral Sermon’ as the very first text in Hungarian. The use of literary devices throughout (e.g. alliteration and its partly rhythmic prose) leaves no doubt about the literary craftsmanship with which it was produced: we can consider the ‘Funeral Sermon’ as a surviving specimen of a religious genre.

Another text in Hungarian, a medieval poem, was discovered in a Dominican Codex*The National Széchényi Library acquired it in 1982. in a Belgian University Library in 1922. Experts date the poem, known as ‘The Lament of Mary’, around 1300. Freely translated from the ‘Planctus’ of the French Geoffroi de Breteuil, it produces an altogether secular effect. Its subject-matter is common in medieval literature: Mary is lamenting the death of Jesus. The Hungarian version mentions neither Mary nor Christ by name, thus the poem is devoid of religious accents; the image of a pleading, humiliated mother torturing herself over the death of her son is beautifully conveyed in the stereotyped medieval frame. The text, not divided into lines of verse, has been preserved in 37 lines. When restored into lines of verse, it comprises 12 stanzas.

The structure of the poem is both dramatic and effective: each group of two descriptive stanzas is followed by an outburst of an increasingly piercing cry, preparing the effect of the last line: the offer of a senseless self-sacrifice made by a woman who has almost lost her bearings (‘Kill the mother / With her beloved son!’). This last outcry cancels her former pleadings and accusations, it shows submission and unbearable suffering only. The versification is simple, yet powerful; scholars usually quote the following lines as of particular interest:

Világ világa
Virágnak virága
(Light of the world-‘lux mundi’ [cf. John 8,12 and 9,5])
(Flower of the flowers)

These lines have perfect rhymes and alliterations, both lines consist of two beats, short enough to produce a dramatic exclamation, and there is a semantic ambiguity in the meaning: világ, like its Slavonic equivalent (svet), by evolving from concrete to abstract, means both light and world, so the line conjures up the additional meanings of ‘light of lights’ and ‘world of the worlds’, both being appropriate to Christ.

Even if additional relics of literature in Hungarian from medieval times were to be discovered, the writings in Latin ought to be considered more characteristic of the age, since Latin was the natural vehicle of expression for the Church before the Reformation. It is easy to recognize this aspect of medieval literature if we survey Latin-Hungarian literature.

Its early products were mostly devoted to the pious deeds of Hungarians or foreigners who promoted the cause of the Christian Church in Hungary. It is unnecessary to describe, or even enumerate, all these works here, for although they may form an integral part of the Hungarian cultural heritage, they are of limited interest to the non-specialist. For the record, however, the earliest texts extant should be mentioned. The very first is the Lives of a Polish missionary named Zoerard and his disciple Benedict, written by Bishop Mór of Pécs about 1064. Two further significant Lives are those of Saint Gerard and Saint Stephen. Saint Gerard (980-1046), or Gellért, as he is known in Hungarian, was an ardent missionary of Italian origin who was killed in one of the anti-Christian uprisings and thus became a martyr of the new regime, and was consequently canonized. The other, also a contemporary Life, is of Saint Stephen (977-1038), the iron-willed first king, who was largely responsible for the conversion of his unruly subjects to Christianity. Both of the Lives came down to us in a shorter and a longer version (Legenda Minor and Legenda Maior).

The use of Latin began to decline only with the rise of religious reform movements, when the national Churches all over Europe decided to bring their teaching within the grasp of the layman. The aims and growth of the various reform movements, eventually culminating in the Reformation, need not be discussed here, with the exception of their powerful effect on the development of the vernacular languages, aided by the early Bible translations. The Bible was translated into Hungarian for the first time as an outcome of the Hussite movement, and it greatly improved the chances of the Hungarian language becoming a vehicle of literature.

Quite apart from the Bible, a slowly growing demand existed for pious texts, and more and more books were written entirely in Hungarian. The subject-matter of these handwritten books was the same as those of their Latin counterparts: the lives and the deeds of Hungarian or foreign saints; the only difference was that these accounts were now written in a style of naive piety in the Hungarian language.

This is the kind of story that was offered to God-fearing Hungarians:

It happened on a very cold day that Saint Elizabeth, taking good care that nobody should see her, carried pieces of bread and the remnants of dinner to the poor outside the gates, a thing she was forbidden to do. And behold! her father, the King suddenly stood before her. He was astonished to see her all alone and walking so hurriedly, and said to her: ‘Where are you going my child, Elizabeth? What are you carrying?’ The King’s noble daughter, being very timid and gentle, felt ashamed, and could not answer anything but ‘I carry roses’. But her father being a wise man, remembered all of a sudden that it was not the time of the year for roses, so he ordered her to come to him and show what she was holding in her lap, when, oh! wonderful! the crusts had all become roses. Oh, immortal, blessed, immaculate purity! The ever blessed King of Heaven did not let the words of His beloved one bring her to shame…*Quoted by F. Riedl: A History of Hungarian Literature (1906).

The excerpt makes its point well, that literature was a medium of instruction and it served one purpose only: illustrating religious teaching. It was what medieval men expected – stories were supposed to provide a moral, or rather stories written to provide enjoyment were usually given a moral conclusion to disguise them.

There was another, equally important, secular aspect of medieval Hungarian literature in Latin: the establishment of an historical tradition. Chroniclers professed to know better: they despised oral tradition, frowning upon ‘silly stories’ by ignorant peasants, but curiously enough all knowledge about the mythical origins of the Hungarians has been preserved by these same historians. The medieval Hungarian chroniclers wrote their works to justify the line of succession in, and to preserve the mythic origin of, the House of Árpád which gave kings to Hungary in an unbroken succession till it became extinct in 1301. (In the last two hundred years many modern historians have scrutinized and commented on these chronicles as historical documents, often with conflicting results. )

The earliest surviving chronicle, Gesta Hungarorum, is the most famous, the most obscure, and the most exasperating of the numerous chronicles. It has come down in a single manuscript of which the title page is missing, thus leaving the way open to speculations about its author. The cue is given in the much-quoted first line: ‘P. dictus magister ac quondam bone memorie gloriosissimi Bele regis Hungaria N. suo dilectissimo amico.’ Here is what Professor Macartney the leading foreign authority on the early history of the Hungarians has to say about this introduction:

Thus the very opening words raise a haze of mystery, for it has not even yet been decided quite certainly whether the P is a medieval monogram, in which case the author’s name must at least have begun with the letter P, or whether we have here an abbreviation of the word Praedictus: for with typical perversity the author in his later text uses this particular word several times, sometimes with, and sometimes without, this abbreviation. On top of this, there were, of course, four King Bélas of Hungary and the author omits to make clear which of the four he had served as notary.

Most scholars are convinced now that the author was the notary to King Béla III, in which case he wrote his Gesta in the third quarter of the twelfth century, and some experts venture to identify the name with a certain Magister Peter. But generally the author is called The Nameless Notary, or in Latin Anonymus. Anonymus, very probably educated at the University of Paris, wrote more like a romantic novelist than a dry, factual historian. His account of the Conquest of Hungary is full of exciting episodes, very few of which, unfortunately, can be substantiated from other sources.

Although the Gesta of Anonymus is the first surviving historical text, we have reason to believe, supported by references and textual criticism, that there were earlier chronicles written in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Had they survived we would still regard the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the Golden Age of the early Hungarian historical literature. For some reason unknown to us the Gesta of Anonymus was not widely known in its own day. Later compositions drew on chronicles which were utilized by Anonymus, but did not use Anonymus himself. Of the best known texts, the Gesta Hungarorum by Simon Kézai seems to have been the most influential. Kézai, a cleric of Ladislas IV, wrote his work around 1283 and is believed to be largely responsible for introducing the idea of the Hungarian-Hunnish kinship, a theory more probably extracted from foreign sources than based on Hungarian oral tradition. Western chroniclers postulated the common origin of the Huns and the Hungarians not only because of the obvious similarity of their names, but also because both Huns and Hungarians were warrior-like steppe peoples with a totally unintelligible language who made numerous inroads into Europe with devastating results. In making this link between the two races the chroniclers sought to denigrate the Hungarians, who show up in a very bad light in their writings; they further postulated that just as the Empire of the Huns had been crushed, so would the might of the fierce Hungarian tribes be broken. Kézai discovered the potential of this fabrication for ‘home consumption’ – if the Hungarians were the descendants of the Huns, the claim to the country of the Huns was lawful, thus vindicating Árpád’s conquest. At the same time the riddle of the origin of the Hungarians was solved – for if the Huns were the Hungarians’ ancestors then their history (known from Jordanes and other, Greek authors), including all the barbarian splendour of Attila, was the early history of the Hungarians! A theory with such ample possibilities and serving such a useful purpose has fired the imagination of the Hungarians ever since.

The first part of Kézai’s narrative – the so-called Hun Chronicle, which contains an elaborate description of the theory summarized above – is a remarkable literary achievement. Kézai, who probably attended one of the seats of higher learning in Italy, wrote his story in rhythmic prose. His description of contemporary Hungary (the centuries since the Conquest) is thought to be reasonably reliable.

The third of the great narratives was compiled in the fourteenth century, and is known as Chronica Hungarorum or the Chronicon Budense. The text is preserved in different codices and in a number of variants. Basically it is drawn from Kézai’s work, but with additions and omissions and the story brought up to date. The variants have been many times scrutinized by scholars and there are various theories about the authorship, dating, and the interrelations of the main texts. As the Chronica Hungarorum is the most widely-read narrative of early Hungarian history, its most outstanding variants ought to be described here.

The best-known variant, entitled Chronica Hungarorum, was circulated in a printed form. Produced in 1473 by András Hess, it is the first book ever printed in Hungary. The most famous of the variants is the Chronicon Pictum Vindobonense, or the Viennese Illuminated Chronicle, deriving the name from its truly magnificent illustrations and the fact that it was kept in the Viennese Imperial Library. Having since been presented to the Hungarian National Library in Budapest, it is now called the Illuminated Chronicle only. For a long time its author, or rather compiler, was thought to be a certain Canon Márk Kálti. The last and longest version was produced by János Thuróczy (c.1435-90), the first layman known to have written a book in Hungary. This work (Augsburg, 1488; and Brno, 1488) presents events as seen by an educated nobleman, and excels in lively episodes.

There were many other variants and copies – and there were other chronicles describing contemporary events embellished with many interesting, even miraculous, episodes; but from the point of view of creating – or reviving – the national myth of the Hungarians, the works of Anonymus and of Kézai are the most essential, together with the Chronica Hungarorum which popularized Kézai’s Hunnish-Hungarian kinship and preserved various fragments of the ancient beliefs of the early Hungarians. The authenticity of their sources and related problems need not to be discussed here, as a history of literature is concerned less with establishing historical facts than with what puzzled the chroniclers’ minds about the origins of their people and what myths they have preserved.

Since medieval Hungarian historians, as historians have always done, concerned themselves with reconciling the accumulated traditions and the political necessities of their own age, it is not too difficult to guess their biases. Their aim was to uphold the authority of their kingdom, still comparatively young among the Christian nations of Europe. Their business was to preserve certain traditions or to rewrite others, but to alter none beyond recognition; if they had done so they would have lost credibility in the eyes of their contemporaries. Their task, therefore, was to alter them in such a way as to maintain loyalty and a sense of community in the populace, just as ecclesiastical writings sought to bind a converted people to the Church.

The main themes emerging from the chronicles, narrated in slightly different versions, concern the Hungarian-Hunnish kinship, the line of succession in the House of Árpád, and the vindication of the Conquest of Hungary.

The saga of Hunnish-Hungarian kinship is a curious mixture of surviving oral traditions coming down from prehistoric times and of foreign narratives suitably doctored to fit the accepted Christian version of the origin of the world. The tale relating the mythic origin of the Hungarians is known as The Wondrous Hunt. Ménrót,*Ménrót is a name frequently equated in scholarship with the Biblical Nimrod. who according to Kézai was a direct descendant of Noah, had two sons, Hunor and Magor (i.e. Magyar). One day when they were hunting, a stag suddenly appeared out of nowhere on the steppe, and they pursued it day and night into the marshes of Maeotis (the Sea of Azov). Eventually they lost sight of the wondrous stag, but discovered that the area was excellent grazing-land. Having returned home they asked their father’s permission to move to the newly discovered land. After his consent had been obtained Hunor and Magor settled there with their followers. The area was relatively secluded, and they lived there happily. As time passed, however, they began to explore the neighbouring countryside and came by accident across the unattended wives of King Belar’s sons. They abducted them, and among the women were the daughters of Dula, the Prince of the Alans. One of them married Hunor, the other became the wife of Magor. Their children were the Huns and the Hungarians respectively.

Emese’s Dream gives an account of the line of succession in the House of Árpád. The noble warlord Ügyek married Emese in Scythia, who bore him a son. The name Álmos*i.e. ‘of the dream’. was given to the child on account of the extraordinary dream which Emese had while pregnant. In this dream she saw a certain unknown type of bird of prey (turul) who fathered her child. At the same time she experienced a strange sensation. From her womb a torrent gushed from which a long line of famous kings sprang forth, not in their homeland, but in some distant, strange countries.

The story of The Conquest of Hungary is as follows: the Hungarians, having heard that the land in the Carpathian basin was fertile, its rivers abundant in fish, and the grass superior to any they knew of, sent their envoys to Prince Svatopluk of the Moravians who lived there. Svatopluk received them kindly, for he believed that they would come to his country as settlers to cultivate the land. So he gave the Hungarian envoys specimens of the grass, of the water of the Danube, and of the soil. The Hungarian chieftains examined the specimens and found them to their liking, so they returned their envoys with a princely gift: a handsome white stallion with a gilded and heavily embroidered saddle. Svatopluk was so pleased by the wonderful gift that he asked how he could compensate them for the gesture. The envoys were very modest; they asked for more land, water, and grass only. Svatopluk said smilingly: ‘Take as much as you want.’ The envoys reported this advantageous transaction to Prince Árpád, who thereupon entered the country with his seven captains and claimed it, declaring that Svatopluk had bartered its land, water, and grass for the white horse, and henceforth the Hungarians were the sole owners of all land and water which up to then had belonged to him. This is how the cunning Hungarians conquered Hungary.*A large canvas depicting this scene, executed by M. Munkácsi for the celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of statehood in 1896, still adorns the Hall of Reception of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest.

There are, of course, many stories preserved in the chronicles relating to the Age of Raids when Hungarian captains excelled in outwitting and defeating the enemy. Unfortunately, no heroic poem celebrating these events has survived in the vernacular, although we have numerous references to heroic songs and/or ballads, not only in the Hungarian chronicles, but also in foreign narratives. Vernacular traditions, however, may have persisted for a long time in spite of all official efforts to suppress them, since we have references to their existence up to the sixteenth century. Sir Philip Sidney, for example, who visited Hungary in 1573, was so much impressed by the Hungarians’ habit of singing of past glories that he described it vividly more than ten years later in his Apologie for Poetrie:

Certainly I must confesse mine owne barbarousnesse, I never heard the old Song of Percy and Duglas, that I founde not my heart mooved more than with a Trumpet; and yet is it sung but by some blinde Crowder, with no rougher voyce than rude stile: which being so evill apparelled in the dust and Cobwebbes of that uncivill age, what would it worke, trimmed in the gorgious eloquence of Pindare? In Hungarie, I have seene it the manner at all Feasts, and other such meetings, to have songes of their Ancestours’ valour; which that right soulder-like Nation thinck the chiefest kindlers of brauve courage.

Besides heroic songs, we have evidence of another entirely secular genre, traditionally called virágének (Flower-Song). A few fragments have survived by chance. These fragments – the best known are The Flower-Song of Sopron and The Dance-Song of Körmöcbányawere found in unusual places: for example, in the boards of codices or as scribblings on official documents. An early Hungarian Bible scholar, János Sylvester, described one of the poetic devices of the Flower-Songs in a note to his translation of the New Testament (1541). Referring to the frequent use of metaphors in the Bible he wrote:

The Holy Scriptures are full of these [i.e. metaphoric] expressions, and the reader must get used to them. For our people it is particularly easy, because figures of speech are not alien to them. The people use similes in their everyday language; we also find them in songs and particularly in the Flower-Songs.

The Flower-Songs were love-poems, as the surviving fragments reveal, and most probably similar to folk-songs which have been preserved in an ever-increasing number in manuscript song-collections from the eighteenth century onwards.

To conclude this attempt at an outline of the early centuries of Hungarian literature it is to be stressed that the history of early Hungarian literature is: ‘literary’ archaeology in which the shards of occasional finds are pieced together. Scholarly explanations and conjectures, even well-founded conjectures, do not compensate us for the loss of texts. The existing body of medieval Hungarian literature is mostly in Latin. The majority of these works consists partly of historical writings, essential for the shaping of the Hungarian national consciousness, and partly of non-secular literature. On the other hand, the by no means insignificant body of religious writings in Hungarian were little more than a vehicle for pious instruction.

In view of the historical circumstances of the birth of Hungarian literature, it is little wonder that literature in Hungary became at the earliest stage of its development a vehicle for service. The Hungarians were latecomers on the medieval European scene, and felt isolated on account of their language and outlandish traditions. Literature had to serve their transformation into a fully-fledged member of the European community of nations.