The Reformation: the Triumph of the Vernacular


THE battle of Mohács in 1526 signalled the beginning of a miserable period in Hungarian history, the loss of independent statehood and the degradation of the larger part of the country into a barren wasteland, which the Turks regarded as a convenient camping ground for their military expeditions and at the same time as a useful supply store for various commodities, taxes, and even manpower. No economy could withstand such a systematic exploitation – the population of the cities and towns decreased rapidly; in addition whole villages disappeared as a result of perpetual epidemics. Economic life came almost to a standstill; people were quite content to produce just enough for bare subsistence, and thus large districts, particularly between the Danube and the Tisza, became depopulated and uninhabitable.

The situation was hardly better on the western fringe of the country, which had fallen into the hands of the Habsburgs; they had claimed possession by virtue of succession to Louis II, who had died on the battlefield at Mohács. The frontier between ‘Royal Hungary’ and ‘Turkish Hungary’ was not fixed and defended properly, and the Turks frequently carried out successful expeditions into Western Hungary, devastating, plundering, and burning whole towns and villages and dragging the inhabitants to distant slave markets to be sold.

Only Transylvania provided a relatively secure way of life for its inhabitants; most of the Hungarians who fled from ‘Turkish Hungary’ went to Transylvania instead of to ‘Royal Hungary’. Being a mountainous region, it provided some protection against the plundering Turks, and the Sultan was content to have the Prince of Transylvania as his vassal, forcing him to pay heavy taxes in order to preserve his semi-independent status.

The disaster at Mohács determined the course of events for a long time to come: it also left a deep scar on the national ego, thereby producing a state of mind which was reflected in almost everything written in Hungary. But equally as important as the traumatic experience of Mohács itself was the new religious movement, the Reformation. The teachings of the reformers began to spread in the 1520s. In the general turmoil following the Battle of Mohács, the new teachings gained ground against little opposition. The constant Turkish wars, internal struggle, and civil strife were largely responsible for the easy victory of the Reformation. People sought and found comfort and an explanation for their own misfortunes and for their country’s pitiful state in the teachings of fervent preachers. At the same time, the Reformation proved to be a strong source of inspiration for both spiritual and military resistance against the Turkish occupying forces. It also had a marked tendency to indict the upper classes for the loss of independence and the misery of the common people and for all the suffering and social inequality in the dismembered country.

Hungarian literature profited in two distinct ways from the ideology of the Reformation. First of all it was inherent in the movement that its preachers were eager to reach a much broader stratum of the population than Christianity had ever attempted to reach in the previous centuries, having accepted a limitation in its appeal by its exclusive use of the Latin language. Communication with peasants was possible only in their native language. Secondly, on account of the very nature of the movement – being polemical and so relying on debate as its chief weapon – it inevitably had to make extensive use of the vernacular, and had also to employ certain literary devices in order to make debates effective and popular. Two literary devices, dramatization and dialogue, became essential features of the debating technique. The contribution of the Reformation to the growth of Hungarian literature was not exhausted by these technical innovations. The Protestant preacher-writers (prédikátor írók) not only denounced the moral degradation of the Catholic Church but attacked with equal vehemence the corrupt upper classes and held them responsible for all social and political evil in the country; it was this powerful social commitment which imprinted its image on Hungarian letters in the next centuries. The attitude of Hungarian writers to social responsibility was born in the days of the Reformation.

The Protestant preacher’s most effective weapon was the Bible, which he had to cite on all occasions in the vernacular, if he was to make it accessible to the unlettered among the laity. Therefore a translation of the Bible was essential. The large corpus of myths, legends, parables and descriptions included in the Bible made it a difficult task for the translators; a whole world had to be converted into Hungarian. The first efforts to translate the Scriptures were made in the 1430s by two ‘heretic’ priests, Thomas and Valentine, stimulated by their involvement in the Hussite movement. Substantial parts of their translation have come down to us, showing their resourceful coinages and laborious efforts to standardize spelling.

A new translation was undertaken by three biblical scholars, followers of the Humanist erudition of Erasmus, Benedek Komjáti, Gábor Pesti, and János Sylvester worked according to the standards of Erasmian exegetics which involved an intensive study of both the Latin and Hungarian languages. Pesti was an excellent stylist: he translated the Four Gospels (Vienna, 1536) into Hungarian with remarkable skill. Pesti advocated that the most prominent classical authors should also be translated into Hungarian, and he set a good example by translating Aesop’s Fables (Vienna, 1536).

For these scholars the study of their native language became a sacred duty, and their ardent fervour produced significant by-products. Pesti compiled the very first dictionary with Hungarian equivalents (Vienna, 1538). Sylvester, who translated the whole of the New Testament (Újsziget, 1541), also compiled the first Hungarian Grammar (Sárvár, 1539). Thus much-needed scholarly guides to the study of the Hungarian language were created. At the same time, by the use of the most advanced contemporary philology to describe the ‘rules’ of the language, the respectability of the vernacular had been established once and for all. A language which could carry the colourful images and stylistic niceties of the Bible was not inferior to Latin; it was, therefore, suitable for all literature.

Sylvester in his learned zeal made an important discovery, to the benefit of Hungarian literature: he was astonished by the ease and grace with which classical hexameters could be written in Hungarian. Hungarian is better suited for classical prosody than the Romance or the Germanic languages. In the nineteenth century this property of the Hungarian language was attested also by foreign scholars. The reason why Hungarian lends itself so easily to the rules of classical prosody is due to the flexibility, the extreme richness, and a certain interchangeability of the suffix-system, which give the right proportion of long and short syllables in the right places. Sylvester’s only surviving poem in distichs (‘To the Hungarian People’, 1541) illustrates the adaptability of the language to the rules of classical prosody. At the same time the poem bears witness to the pious intention of the translator of the Bible:

He who spoke in Hebrew and Greek and later in Latin,
He now speaks to you in Hungarian;
Addressing each nation in his own tongue,
That all should live according to His law,
          and adore His name …

The Reformation in Hungary included widely differing varieties of the reform movements, from the moderates following the Augsburg Confession to the extremist Antitrinitarians and Anabaptists. The preacher-writers (prédikátor írók) were often in conflict not only with the Catholics but with one another too. It was the activity of these preachers that gave birth to a vigorous, forceful Hungarian prose. There were a great number of preacher-writers; a few of them deserve special attention.

Gáspár Heltai was born around 1490, very probably in the small Saxon village Nagydisznód in Transylvania. He was educated in Germany, like many of his fellow-pastors from Hungary, and became a pastor in the prominent Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár. In 1550 he established a printing house with György Hofgreff with the express purpose of printing Hungarian books. After the death of his partner he remained the sole owner and manager of the press until he became the victim of an epidemic in 1574. The Heltai press did much for the standardization of Hungarian spelling, which had previously followed the pronunciation of widely divergent dialects.

He wrote and published in German and Latin too, but his main works are in Hungarian. His translations served the development of literary language: he produced, assisted by collaborators, a nearly complete Bible, significant for its polished style. His most popular work, A Hundred Fables (Kolozsvár, 1566), was based on Aesop. The interpretation of the fables was his own work; their morals were applied to contemporary Hungarian society. The fables in Heltai’s version contained sharp social criticism; he was describing the wrong-doings of the Hungarian upper classes and showed sympathy for the middle class and the peasants, but preached patience; God would take vengeance on the despots. To illustrate this view he quoted examples of fallen autocrats who were responsible for the loss of the independence of Hungary. The political accusations were only thinly veiled by theological arguments. The animals in the fables represented clear-cut types in Hungarian society with a well-delineated background-sketch. One of the fables was an original tale (‘The Nobleman and the Devil’). The plot is developed with skill and humour: it describes how a nobleman employs the devil as his overseer to exploit the peasants more efficiently, but it is the devil who gets the upper hand – for he is after the soul of the wicked nobleman. In A Hundred Fables Heltai employs various literary devices, anecdotes, proverbs. dialogues, and elements from folk-tales.

His other works included The Net (Kolozsvár, 1570), which was an open vindication of antitrinitarian teachings; in the postscript he again attacked the Catholic clergy for their political intrigues – how they sided with the Habsburgs, to preserve their religious authority. His Chronicle (Kolozsvár, 1575) was published posthumously by his widow. It is a compilation of Hungarian history based on the Latin works of Bonfini and subsequent historians. It is the very first history of Hungary in Hungarian. Heltai used his sources with certain reservations – he shed much of the Humanist embellishment from the text and included anecdotes about King Matthias hitherto existing in oral tradition only. The Chronicle with its dialogues and lively sketches makes colourful reading. Literary value, however, was only of secondary importance for Heltai; his message is clearly a criticism of social evils.

The same tendency can be observed in the other significant contemporary writer of prose: Péter Bornemisza. He was born on 22 February 1535 in Pest into a well-to-do middle-class family. When the Turks overran Pest, the family fled to the Upper-Tisza region in the east. Bornemisza studied first in Upper Hungary, in Kassa, and later at the University of Vienna. During his stay abroad, he also visited the universities of Italy and Germany. In his youth he wrote poetry, of which his ‘Farewell to Hungary’ describes his state of mind when he left the country. The six stanzas of the short poem are linked together by a refrain (‘When and if I shall ever live in good Buda again’), and express a pathetic homesickness for his birthplace and for the whole country divided by Austrian and Turkish rule, and at the same time bitterly attack the Catholic nobles for their contempt of the true God. While a student in Vienna he translated, or rather adapted, Sophocles’ Electra (Vienna, 1558). The most burning political problem of Hungary is reflected in the relevant question of Bornemisza’s Electra: ‘Is it permissible to rise against the tyrant when the country is suffering under his cruel yoke?’ As an answer the tyrant is murdered on stage – a departure from the original, clearly expressing Bornemisza’s radical political leanings.

After many vicissitudes he became a Lutheran pastor. For some time he was the family priest of the Balassi family and tutor of Bálint Balassi, the only outstanding lyrical poet to emerge before the late eighteenth century. Being a Lutheran pastor in sixteenth-century Hungary was not a peaceful vocation; he was often persecuted, and his lifestyle bears witness to his insecure existence. In spite of his trials, in the 1570s he published his main work, his collected sermons in five volumes. These writings were not sermons in the modern sense; they contain an encyclopedic portrayal of Hungarian society in the second half of the sixteenth century, a fitting time for a preacher to summon God’s wrath – besides the Turkish wars, several epidemics, and the organized persecution of the Protestants kept the inhabitants of the country in constant fear for their day-to-day existence; in one of the epidemics Bornemisza lost his wife and children. The insecurity of life produced a macabre effect on people in all walks of life. He looked with abhorrence on the low morals of the country. Society seemed to disintegrate as if the devil had indeed taken control. The Sermons reflected not only the general atmosphere of human misery, but described various patterns of human behaviour.

The volumes making up his Sermons were published between 1573 and 1579. Volume Four had a bulky appendix, The Temptations of the Devil (Sempte, 1578), which was also published separately in the following year. Bornemisza’s style is at its best in this volume; it is characterized by terseness and economy of expression. The Temptations is a direct attack on the higher clergy and the noble lords, yet another portrait of the crisis of conscience and an intimate portrayal of the licentiousness of the age. ‘Devil stories’ were common in sixteenth-century prose, particularly in Germany, and Bornemisza’s Temptations contributed his own personal observations and his own internal struggles, which made him write:

When I was about to write the fourth part [i.e. of the Sermons] God let the Devil lead me into secret temptations. I spoke of these temptations only to a few people, but I never revealed them fully even to them. As a result of the temptations I was forced to write about them; but the stories that came to my mind were so horrible that I was afraid to commit them to writing, and I begged God in tears that He should instruct others to write about them. The more I wished to suppress the evil temptations, the more they overwhelmed me, and I would do nothing less in my shame than expose them. For if you have eyes, you can see your own loathsomeness, just as if a basilisk looked into the mirror …

The reception of his work was unfavourable; the Church authorities demanded that he should withdraw his book. Bornemisza refused to comply with the court order and fled, but he was soon afterwards arrested and imprisoned. He managed to escape eventually and spent his last years in solitude in a small village.

In these years he made a collection of Protestant church songs, Hymn Book (Detrekő, 1582), and a selection of his own sermons for use in the Sunday service throughout the year. As a conscientious writer he edited and polished his own texts, for he felt that he was already working for the benefit of generations to come. He died in the small village of his exile in 1584. What distinguishes Bornemisza from other contemporary preachers is his unique sense of commitment to social causes. The Reformation in Hungary produced much social criticism, because of the circumstances in the country at the time the Reformation began to spread, and Bornemisza seemed to epitomize the prevailing trend. Besides the social commitment it is the highly personal character, an almost confessional quality, that makes Bornemisza’s contribution to Hungarian letters valuable; he is usually regarded as a forerunner of modern Hungarian prose.

A less radical figure of the Reformation, Gáspár Károlyi (?1529-91), who often interpreted the decay of the country as punishment by God for the sins of the people, is remembered chiefly as the translator of the complete Bible. The translation – like King James’s Authorized Version (1611) in England – became the standard Protestant Bible and is still in use with minor corrections in Hungary. Károlyi published his version on his own printing press set up for the purpose (Vizsoly, 1590).

The contribution of the Reformation to Hungarian poetry is less important. Though many of the preacher-writers wrote verse, the growing need for hymns for the Protestant divine services was mainly satisfied by translating foreign verse, including medieval Latin hymns or those of Martin Luther and other German and French Protestant authors. The translations were paraphrases of the original in more than one sense; they were adapted to the spiritual needs of the Hungarian layman and the didactic tendency was perhaps even more prominent in the Hungarian version than in the original, even at the expense of lyrical accomplishment or verse-form. Of course there were original efforts as well, although these were strongly influenced by stories from the Bible. The Old Testament in particular was a favourite source, and on account of its great influence on contemporary poetry, narrative elements from the Bible became very well known. The preachers found a fitting parallel; the Hungarians felt themselves homeless in their own country, just as the Jews had done. Of the significant song-writers the first was András Batizi (fl. 1530-50): an author of stories from the Bible, he also wrote a world-chronicle in verse. Mihály Kecskeméti Vég is remembered as the translator of Psalm 55, set to music by Kodály (Psalmus Hungaricus, 1923). Another interesting figure was András Szkhárosi Horvát whose sermons in verse were full of satirical references to the Catholic Church and the aristocracy.

Biting satire and irony characterized the first efforts of the Hungarian drama, which was also born as a direct result of the Reformation. Mihály Sztárai, who had also been writing songs, produced the earliest plays: The Marriage of Priests (Kolozsvár, 1550) and A Mirror of True Clergy (Óvár, 1559). The titles reveal their aim, to point to crucial issues of the Reformation. These early dramas were all characterized by presenting a discussion on the stage, with little or no dramatic action to their credit, but all having the redeeming quality of successful mockery of their chosen subjects.

At the same time the first plays with secular subject-matter began to appear. The anonymous author of A Comedy about the Treachery of M. Balassi (Abrudbánya, 1569) presented a satirical portrait of a villain of aristocratic birth engaged in double-dealing. The play maintains a certain interest on account of its lively dialogue and reasonably well-drawn characters. The tone of the play is sharp as in the religious dramas, with strong social criticism.

The sixteenth century saw the beginnings of purely secular poetry. The two main genres are the széphistória named after the Italian bella istoria, and the históriás ének. The históriás ének is the older type; a number survive from the previous century. The históriás ének relates historical events considered by contemporaries to be significant. The authors, who often wished to remain anonymous, were learned laymen who lived by visiting the manor houses and stately homes of the aristocracy and providing entertainment at their tables. The earliest históriás ének extant is ‘The Fight for Szabács’ (1476) relating the capture of the fortress of Szabács by the army of King Matthias. It is a dry narrative written in couplets. The same applies to Demeter Csáti’s ‘Taking of Pannonia’ which is a narrative of the conquest of Hungary based on one of the chronicles relating the ‘trick’ of the Hungarians with the white horse though the exact source cannot be identified. Csáti, who possibly wrote, but definitely committed the song to writing around 1526, might have drawn on oral tradition.

It was in the second half of the sixteenth century that the históriás ének gained wide popularity. The itinerant singers who performed them differed from their predecessors: they had almost always written down their compositions, which frequently survived in print. Most of them had formal education and were able to accompany their songs on a musical instrument. They made a meagre living out of their skill and were welcomed in every végvár.*A fortress on the borderland between ‘Turkish’ and ‘Royal’ Hungary. The network of these fortresses withstood the periodic attacks of the Turkish army. Besides providing entertainment for tired soldiers, they served a useful purpose: as ‘living journals’ they passed on news of minor victories, defeats, or other military events in their songs. Their more ambitious compositions about great battles encouraged troops and civilians alike.

Sebestyén Tinódi the Lutenist was the most accomplished author of históriás ének we know of. He was born around 1505 in Transdanubia into a family of serfs who belonged to the Török family. It was the wealthy and influential Bálint Török who was responsible for the education of Tinódi; we find him in Török’s court in the 1530s. After the capture of Buda, Török was taken a prisoner of war and Tinódi remained without a protector. He was compelled to earn his living as an itinerant singer, and in the late 1540s and 50s he wandered around Hungary visiting the castles of various lords. In 1553 he was ennobled by Ferdinand I, and for his collection of songs published in Transylvania (Chronicle, Kolozsvár, 1554) was specially rewarded by the King. He died early in 1556.

In his early works he used classical and biblical themes, but soon turned to Hungarian historical themes of the previous centuries (e.g. King Sigismund). His best songs are all devoted to contemporary or near-contemporary events. (e.g. ‘Song Reporting the Loss of Buda and the Capture of Bálint Török’.) These songs are characterized by the personal approach of the author and an effort to draw from the story a moral that may be generally accepted by his audience.

His importance as a singer was particularly great around 1552-3 when the Turks started a new offensive in Hungary. Tinódi wrote his songs in quick succession: The Peril of Szeged (1552) describing the reckless hajdú*Hajdú (English: heyduck)-riginally cattle-drovers, later a special body of foot-soldiers who were settled on the eastern Lowlands with special privileges. troops, Death of Losonczi in Temesvár (1552), The Bravery of János Török (1553), The Story of Ali Pasha of Buda (1553), The Defence of Eger (1553) – all described episodes of the Turkish offensives. These poems were written exclusively to be sung and lack a poetic effect in mere recitation, though they are not entirely without poetic merit; the monotonous rhymes, for example, stress the grim aspects of the story. Tinódi was very careful about his facts; events were reported faithfully and his contemporaries found his songs not only entertaining but a valuable public service.

The following excerpt from The Story of Ali Pasha of Buda illustrates Tinódi’s merits and defects:

Of cannons and mortars there were twenty-four
In Zolnok, of sakers a thousand and more,
Fifteen hundred muskets from Biscay brought o’er
Nine hundred pood weight of good powder in store;
There were firearms in plenty, much iron and tin
And gold, which had late in the royal chest been,
But, alack! all was captur’d the city within
(Yet how could a foeman hope Zolnok to win?)
O mighty was Zolnok and beauteous, I trow,
On one side the Tisza its current did flow,
On the other Zagiva did murmuring flow,
Uniting together the city below.
On one side of the North was a trench deep and wide,
Three bastions stood up at three corners in pride;
Huge ramparts the place of high walls well supplied
The house-tops behind them could scarce be descried.*Translated by George Borrow observing the original rhymes and using the rhythm of old English ballads.

(‘The Fall of Szolnok’)

The excerpt provides only an exact, almost topographical description of the fortified city of Szolnok, yet poetry appears when the author disregards the time sequence and gives away the end of the ‘story’ at the beginning of the description (‘But, alack! all was captur’d the city within!’) immediately contrasting with a rhetorical question (‘Yet how could a foeman hope Zolnok to win?’) and ending the interruption in the description, ancitipating the sense of loss (‘O mighty was Zolnok and beauteous, I trow’) to which he is working up his audience in this episode. Similar poetic devices appear quite often in Tinódi’s songs and lend them a sense of personal involvement which contrasts well with objective descriptions of men and events.

Tinódi regarded his poetry as a medium for uniting Hungarians against the Turks. His commitment is unfaltering: he relentlessly analyses the events he sings about – How could the Turks capture a well-fortified town? What was the reason behind the treachery of this or that particular captain? and so forth. The author, whose personality nearly always remains in the background, occasionally emerges to draw the audience’s attention to his own misery with touching simplicity:

In Colosvar city these lines compos’d I
Sebastian Tinodi in great misery
Blowing on my nails in a cold chamber high
For want of a penny some fuel to buy.*Translated by George Borrow.

Not all of Tinódi’s poems were devoted to the defensive wars against the Turks: some of his lighter verse has also survived. Of these ‘All Sorts of Drunkards’ (1548) describes the habits of drunkards, whom he addresses in deadly earnest:

Hearken, all you drunkards, while I sing your wickedness,
All the sins committed in your raging drunkenness;
Time and time again forgetting all God’s righteousness.

After relating how Noah invented wine Tinódi addresses his audience again:

Listen now, you drunkards, you must grasp the liquor laws:
Men have different traits and different wines must be the cause.

Then he produces an elaborate and amusing catalogue of drunkards, for example:

Seventh, comes the drunk that grows as wise as Damian’s steed,
Argues high theology, expounds the Prophet’s Creed;
Sobered up, just hand the man a text – the fool can’t read!

Women are no exception:

Wines are scorned by all wetnurses with enormous jugs;
Still, they’ll taste it, only for the milk inside their dugs;
Next, they fall down drunk and squash their babies flat as bugs.

Having given the long exhortation of mockery, Tinódi suddenly declares his intentions to the surprised audience:

One they call Sebastian wrote this song in bitter thirst;
In Nyírbátor, fifteen fortyeight, he sang it first:
Steward of the Court, now give us wine or stand accursed!*Translated by W. D. Snodgrass.

Tinódi’s poems were written without exception to be sung – we have no fewer than twenty-three different melodies composed by himself, and they lend a powerful effect to his verse, which is a simple yet fitting witness of an era that looks colourful to posterity, but was also one of the most bloody centuries of Hungarian history.

The other popular genre of sixteenth-century Hungarian poetry is the széphistória. The széphistória was the earliest genre that was neither the work of committed writers nor concluded with an explicit moral; it was written for sheer enjoyment. The subjects varied widely – episodes from classical authors (e.g. Virgil’s Aeneid) or from the well-known Gesta Romanorum were translated and adapted into narrative verse. But stories from Boccaccio (e.g. Walter and Griseldis, Gismunda and Gisquardus, Titus and Gisippus) and popular German tales also became available in Hungarian adaptation.

The széphistória like the históriás ének, did not evolve in the sixteenth century, but had its origin in earlier centuries; in the sixteenth century it became, however, one of the most popular genres. Besides the translations and adaptations, original romances in verse were also composed.

Of the adaptations, The Story of Eurialus and Lucretia (Debrecen, 1587), originally a short story in Latin by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, is noted for its well-delieneated sketch of the female character: the multiple sufferings of a woman in love. The most charming of the széphistórias was probably ‘The Story of Prince Argirus and a Fairy Virgin’, written by Albert Gergei (Gergely or Gyergyai). The original edition has been lost, but scholars date it c. 1570-80. It is an adaptation from an unknown Italian bella istoria, yet it contains numerous motifs from Hungarian folk-tales. The plot revolves around Argirus’ love for the beautiful fairy; he loses her and is eventually reunited with her in Fairyland, having overcome various obstacles. As the Italian original is unknown, though the author himself claims that he has translated it from an ‘Italian chronicle’ we cannot tell how far Gergei modified his original. Our poem contains no didactic elements, the style is concise, the descriptions are colourful and the author/translator had a special liking for scenery (the action often takes place in beautiful Renaissance gardens). This széphistória was published many times up to the eighteenth century, and its motifs were later incorporated into several folk-tales. In 1829-30 Vörösmarty made an adaptation of Árgirus – one of the finest pieces of Hungarian Romantic literature.

Another, original széphistória, ‘The Story of Szilágyi and Hajmási’, was written in 1560. Its author is not known. The story concerns two prisoners of war, Szilágyi and Hajmási, who escape from captivity with the assistance of the daughter of their captor, the Sultan. The beautiful daughter of the Sultan is in love with the prisoners, and after many adventures the young men successfully return home. The chief virtue of ‘Szilágyi and Hajmási’ lies in the composition, in the successful exploitation of dramatic situations, and in the richness of the language. Many variations of the theme were recorded later in folk-ballads and in South Slav and Slovak narrative poetry.

On the other hand, themes from Southern Slav poetry appeared in Hungarian too. A light and humorous example of a translation from the Croatian is ‘The Story of King Béla and the Daughter of Bankó’, written in 1570. Neither the author or translator, nor the original is known. The theme reappeared in folk-ballads, though scholars do not consider it to be derived from the széphistória. Old Bankó feels so old that he is unable to pay homage in the court of King Béla; since he has no male issue, he decides to send his youngest daughter dressed as a man to represent him. The King is suspicious about the sex of Bankó’s ‘son’; but the girl fools everybody at the court, and it is at the very end only, when she is already on her way back home in a boat on the Danube that she uncovers her breasts to show her ‘two beautiful apples’ to the startled King and his knights, and thus prove that she has made a fool of them. The plot is constructed to culminate in this humorous turn. Its effectiveness is accentuated by the lightness of the verse and the quick pace of the action.

Of the authors of széphistória, Péter Ilosvai Selymes was the most prolific. Few facts are known about his life and a number of his works have been lost. His earliest known work, about Alexander the Great, was written in 1548; his last works appeared in the late 1570s. An inclination to moralize is apparent in his earlier works; it is, however, missing entirely from his best-known széphistória, The Story of the Remarkable Nicholas Toldi’s Extraordinary and Brave Deeds, which was published in 1574. Scholars still disagree as to whether ‘the remarkable Toldi’ was a real person or the brainchild of Ilosvai, or a folk-hero. According to Ilosvai, Nicholas Toldi was born in 1320 and had the reputation of having almost superhuman strength. Nicholas, an uneducated peasant lad, who is the younger of two brothers, is living in their father’s village Nagyfalu, while his elder brother enjoys life as a knight in the court of Louis the Great (thus surnamed, as he was the mightiest of the medieval Hungarian rulers). Nicholas startles everybody with his unbelievable strength, and after many adventures becomes the favourite knight in Louis’s court, accompanying him in his campaigns in foreign lands. Nicholas’s success, due to his exceptional strength, is portrayed in the first part of the narrative, which in conception comes close to the folk-tales; the second part, describing the ageing Toldi, has features similar to the French chanson de geste.

The adventures are usually the results of his strength (e.g. he tames a fierce bull simply by holding it; he duels with foreign knights), and some are humorous in a Boccaccioesque fashion (as when a young widow who has invited him to dinner asks him to jump on to the wall, but directs him to a window covered by a carpet, and the amorous hero, partly undressed, falls into the middle of the market place of Buda). In the second part, Toldi gains some additional characteristics – his fear of becoming ridiculous in front of the young knights makes him into a pathetic figure. Ilosvai often refers to his ‘readings’ about Toldi, of which we have no trace. Still, it is likely that he composed his story using both written sources and oral tradition. In the nineteenth century, when interest in early literature revived, the Toldi tale, like Árgirus in Vörösmarty, found an expert adaptor János Arany, who, using Ilosvai’s Toldi as a source, wrote his own narrative masterpiece Toldi.

The sixteenth century, in spite of conditions unfavourable to literature, was exceptionally rich in works written in Hungarian: Latin was still very widely used for non-fiction but, on account of the strong impact of the Reformation, writers were able to address a much wider circle of readers in their own language. Again on account of the Reformation, literature was heavily padded with didactic material and pious moralizing; for this reason numerous authors have been omitted from this short survey, which is intended only to outline the salient characteristics of the major genres. The lack of true lyric poetry at the time is remarkable, not only because it has since become the leading genre in Hungarian literature, but even more because the first of the great lyric poets, Bálint Balassi, was born in this century. He is a lone figure – we find no lyric poet of his stature before Csokonai, at the end of the eighteenth century.