Counter-Reformation and Baroque


By the beginning of the seventeenth century there had grown up generations of Hungarians for whom an independent Hungarian kingdom was only a faint memory, while the grim reality of the Turkish occupation was a fact of life. The frontiers of ‘Royal Hungary’ and the Principality of Transylvania changed often according to victories and defeats on the battlefield or as a consequence of successful or abortive political intrigues, particularly in Transylvania. The Hungarian intelligentsia with a social conscience, mostly the Protestant preacher-writers, had learned their lesson – they had realized that the interests of their country had little or no relevance to the wrestling of the two great empires, the Austrian and the Turkish: for ‘Royal Hungary’ was a thinly-camouflaged colony of the Austrian Habsburgs, and ‘Turkish Hungary’ was at the mercy of the whims of the Ottoman Empire. The reality of the situation was easy to comprehend, but hard to digest.

Since political, let alone military, measures were impossible, dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs could be expressed only by self-torment and pointed questions – who was responsible for the loss of independence, for the deplorable conditions that prevailed? The activities of the Protestant pastors had a clearly distinguishable tendency, manifested in their writings ever since the Reformation, to point out a general decline of religious feeling and at the same time indict the Catholic Church as the culprit for these conditions. The Catholics expected the Royal Court to expel the Turks and to improve conditions generally, the independent-minded Protestants placed their hopes in the Principality of Transylvania. Geographically, Eastern Hungary and Transylvania were predominantly Protestant, with Debrecen on the Eastern Lowlands and Kolozsvár in Transylvania as their respective intellectual centres, along with some other seats of learning, e.g. the College of Sárospatak whose teachers included professors of high reputation, among them the Czech educator J. A. Comenius. The Catholics lived in Western Hungary, including Transdanubia and the western part of the Uplands, their intellectual centres being the Austrian capital Vienna, Pozsony, and the University of Nagyszombat, founded in 1635.

Of the Protestant intellectuals who admonished their countrymen, perhaps István Magyari was the most characteristic. Educated in Wittenberg, he served as the family priest with the Nádasdy family. One of his tracts, On the Causes of Diverse Evils in the Countries (Sárvár, 1602) stands out among Protestant polemic tracts. It was written in reply to Catholic allegations claiming that the anarchy and moral degradation of the country was the work of the Protestants. The distinguishing features of Magyari’s tract are a lucid style and an ability to present his arguments. He draws a convincing picture of the ill effects of the methods employed by the Catholic Church to regain its flock, of the presence of the plundering Habsburg army, of the untrained officers of the Hungarian army, and so on. The reader cannot fail to discover the influence of Erasmus in the chapter written in praise of peace. The ideas expressed in his tract were in many respects the antecedents of the views held by Miklós Zrínyi, who criticized his fellow countrymen not only in his political writings but also in his epic.

The Protestant students usually returned from their foreign studies with a high standard of scholarship which they used to great advantage in biblical studies and lexicography. Albert Szenczi Molnár (1574-1634) was prominent among them; he published a revised edition of the Bible, and new dictionaries. He left his mark on literature, however, chiefly through his masterly translations of the Psalms. The poetic achievement of these translations ranks with the istenes poetry of Balassi as the best of the age.

The Protestant students’ desire to travel and to better themselves was responsible for the first travel-book of literary merit written in Hungarian. Márton Szepsi Csombor was born in 1595, and completed his higher education in Poland, after which he embarked on a tour of Europe. He left Poland by ship, visited Holland and England, and then crossed the English Channel to France, returning home on foot on the eve of the Thirty Years War. His book was published under the Latin title Europica Varietas (Kassa, 1620). He became a schoolmaster in Kassa and later a family tutor. He died in 1623 at the early age of twenty-eight, a victim of one of the deadly epidemics so characteristic of the age. He published another book and left behind a couple of poems, but his chief work is the Europica Varietas, a vivid account of his travels, which gives him a secure place in Hungarian literature. He travelled on foot with few belongings: ‘with a shirt and a Bible’. His intentions, no doubt shared by many fellow-students on the roads of Western Europe, were to utilize his experiences for the benefit of his impoverished country. Some of his personal reminiscences are marked by a subdued lyricism so far not found in Hungarian prose. His own misery during his travels is described with a sense of humour and irony: his character emerges from the book as a keen observer and a very human person.

The Catholic trend was instrumental in bringing about a new translation of the Bible. Magnificently executed by the Jesuit György Káldi (15721634), it became ‘the authorized version’ of the Catholic Church, and, with minor corrections, is still in use. The outstanding figure of Baroque literature was, however, Archbishop Péter Pázmány (1570-1637), who was solely responsible for the success of the Counter-Reformation and for establishing the University of Nagyszombat in 1635 which, after its transfer to Budapest, became and still is the first and foremost educational establishment in Hungary. A Catholic convert and a Jesuit by training, he became Archbishop of Esztergom in 1616. As head of the Catholic Church he was one of the most influential men in the country a defender not only of the faith and the interests of the Church, but also of the Habsburgs in Hungary. Nobody before him had written with such force, eloquence, and precision; his long, elaborate Baroque sentences were constructed with clarity and great care; he left an indelible mark on Hungarian prose. He published numerous works, most of them polemics, defending the Catholic Church, arguing with Protestant authors. His works do not reveal such straightforward political commitment as do those of his Protestant opponents. His Answer (Nagyszombat, 1603) to Magyari’s work is a good example of his ability to omit social and political argument and to present his views purely on theological grounds. His most significant works in Hungarian (he also wrote in Latin) include: Guide to Divine Truth (Pozsony, 1613), Prayer Book (Graz, 1606), and a masterly translation of Thomas á Kempis’s Imitation of Christ (Vienna, 1624).

With Pázmány the age of fierce polemical literature approached its end. The Protestant preacher-writers were no longer prominent on the literary scene owing to the success of the Counter-Reformation. The importance of Catholic writers also declined gradually, although scholarship, particularly history, remained a profitable field of activity for highly-trained Jesuits even in the eighteenth century, by which time literature had already lost its religious character. Hungarian letters were dominated by the upper class after the Reformation and before the Enlightenment; the cultivation of literature needed leisure which the lower classes could ill afford. One of the earliest of the főrangú (i. e. aristocratic) writers, Count Miklós Zrínyi, stands out both as a writer and as a public figure.