{694.} Between East and West

Recognizing Hungary’s position “between East and West” as a matter of its geographic and historic fate, has long ago become a significant component in the concept of the national self. The concept of a “lonely” nation, formulated as “we are alone” by King Béla IV (13th century) and by the painful and proud expression, “the shield of Christianity”, as the poet and warrior Miklós Zrínyi expressed it, determined almost for centuries the tragic-pessimistic tone of common thinking about the dilemma of the country lying between the East and West.

This recognition became more and more warped later on, especially between the two world wars, and by becoming part of the official reactionary-nationalistic ideology of the time, it became the source of self-deluding illusions instead of national self-knowledge, and distracted attention from the real social and historical problems that awaited solution. All of this did not help the objective and scientifically valid exploration of the special features of Hungarian culture.

We hardly need to prove that such a fundamental stand on the part of our poets, scientists, and politicians regarding the historical situation of the Hungarians as well as the judgement of foreign countries about us, made its impression on the newly developed Hungarian ethnology; its effects are undeniable. However, we want to summarize, not on an emotional basis but by examining facts, what its location between East and West has really meant for Hungarian folk culture.

A fundamental task for Hungarian research is to examine the complexity of folk culture and to analyze ever more carefully its proportions, infra-structural relations, and ways of functioning. Furthermore, it is our conviction that a really workable European ethnology is inseparable from the thorough examination of such complex national units as Hungarian folk culture.

Considering the social-economic foundation that has determined the life of the Hungarian people, and within it the order and forms of cultural creativity, the situation of the Hungarians between East and West must again be stressed. Recent historical research shows that in Hungarian history the development of feudalism was strongly determined by East European precedents, and that post-Conquest society was built on the social fabric of that society. Just as in its origin, so in the course of its historical development, Hungarian feudalism, and within it the ethnic groups, the serfs and landless cotters who evolved from various social strata, showed significant deviations from western development as well as related and parallel features. And it is instructive that on this basis the Hungarian peasantry developed similarly and also differently in more ways than one, from the kind of development traced by the general history of the peasants of Eastern Europe, which shows various degrees of retardedness. Ferenc Erdei examined in several of his works this retardedness in the process of social development of the Hungarian peasantry, and he also pointed out that the so-called classic {695.} peasant culture of the oral tradition could live its own life only within this backward social structure. The most recent historical analysis also shows that the historical development of the Hungarian peasantry and the system of its social-economic restrictions are related to the more backward Eastern types. This relationship determined the economic system of its services, the forms of taxes and labour surviving even 1848, backwardness in schooling, and the order of strict obligations that existed even in the semi-feudal, semi-capitalist recent past.

The East European peoples occupied the same scale of backwardness, although in different degrees; social oppression and economic exploitation characterized the histories of them all. At the same time we can list those social groups that transmitted to Hungary, already in the feudal period, influences deriving from various cultural levels and from various peoples. There were the scribes who wrote the complaining letters of serfs, a small number of schoolmasters, and groups of landless cotters who had learnt how to read and write. Through the migration of landless peasants, through soldiering at home and abroad, and from the 18th century on, through the travels of journeymen, among whom the working songs were born, the world of ideas and the sound of songs of the European working class reached Hungary. There were the bitter songs of peasants and workers migrating to and returning from America, songs about sailing on the sea and life abroad. The Hungarians learned these from Czech, Moravian, Slovak, Rumanian, and Russian migrants and amalgamated them with their own songs. This already shows to what a great extent Hungarian folk culture is capable of accepting influences, working with them, and making them into its own.

However, this did not take place equally in every area. Material culture, for example, preserved fewer archaic features than folklore, since it was much more strongly determined by changing economic, social, historical and geographic factors. Furthermore, transmitting and taking on cultural influences did not succeed in the same way in every direction, even geographically, neither in Hungary, nor among other peoples.

Still, looking at its historical past and relationships, we can say that the Hungarian people constitute a cultural and ethnic research unit indispensable for the effective research of European ethnology. We see more and more how true was the observation of János Csaplovics, who said in 1829 that “Hungary is Europe in a nutshell.”

The type of peasant culture with oral traditions which is the subject of our examination, includes fishing implements of the Ugric period as well as forms of melody, shamanistic beliefs, and epic myths; it was a participant in that continuum that preserved many characteristic features of the ancient European cultural whole, and preserved signs of newer European cultural inheritances, as well as self-created autochthonous forms and contents. If we talk about investigations of folklore and material culture in Hungary, we can first point out that research up to now has uncovered primarily those structural components and their proportions which characterize Hungarian peasant culture and ethnic individuality in the situation between East and West.

{696.} Anthropological research has explored those physical anthropological components which are characteristic of Hungarian ethnic groups. Philology has illuminated even in its details the inner independence of the Hungarian language, preserved through its historical development, and the organic unity and rich variations of the Indo-European strata that it has incorporated. The study of the language has already shown that the Hungarian people have been inclined to preserve their traditions tenaciously, to maintain inner independence, and that simultaneously, they have been willing to adopt outside influences, though at the same time organically transforming them. Mutatis mutandis, this applies to other peoples as well, but still it is especially obvious in the history of the Hungarian language, wedged as it is among languages of different structure. And the dual nature of this tradition that preserved independence and is willing to assimilate shows up in every other area of the cultural creations of the Hungarian people.

Eastern and Western components have been examined by researchers in almost every area. Research has explored every historical stratum of folksong melodies, from the lamenting and historic melodies and the primitive order of sounds; from children’s songs of the Ugric period to pentatonic melodies; to the Western influences that were built into this melody order; through the Gregorian and the effects of feudal court music and its world of melody to the most recent ethnic influences. We shall refer to just one example, to the problems of the melody and dance form of Hajdú dance, which cannot be regarded as anything other than the joint creation of several peoples: Hungarians, various Slavic peoples, and Rumanians. Accordingly, it makes much good sense to draw the historical and ethnological problems of the Hajdú question (cf. p. 449) within the circle of common Bulgarian, Rumanian, Ukrainian, Slovak, and Hungarian research. But the genres of the ballad, folk tale, and true story (trufa) also show the organic, historical intertwining of Eastern and Western cultural layers; and in fact, not only the genres alone, but often a certain ballad or story itself shows the organic relationship of motifs and thousands of years old elements. This is why we research the historical and motivational connection of a certain tale, ballad and other epic creation, and analyze the process of how verbal creations or pieces of ornamental folk art become aesthetic unified works in form and content. Thus, for example, the many-sided analysis of the “Kossuth Song” (cf. p. 489) shows how the tradition of numerous historical periods can melt in the lyrics of a single little folksong into one unit with formal beauty of expression.

We could go on listing examples. Animal husbandry, agriculture and beliefs about these, folk rhymes, customs, dramatic plays, all carry the historical layers of East and West and show their dovetailing. The witch trials, the formulas for interrogating the defendants, show instructively the copying of Western procedures and the linkage of these with the more archaic beliefs brought along by the Hungarian people. How the archaic beliefs attached to witch trials–which survive more tenaciously than in the formulae of Western interrogations–lived on, is especially instructive.

In the course of our work we not only explore the historical strata in {697.} certain areas of folk culture, or even in certain works of art. The task of historical analysis is certainly important and is inseparable from comparative analysis. We also adopt an analytical point of view that makes a historical comparative system more effective.

For example, we have been investigating with greater care than before, through certain genres and through the works of a genre, those propositions in the area of folklore that can be looked upon as characteristic of the ethnic make-up of just one people. Hungarian philology can already be credited with significant results in the exposition of the proportions of historical strata. Researchers of the Hungarian folk tale have also made attempts to achieve this. We ourselves referred to the instability of these experiments and comparisons, to the disproportionate nature of collecting, and not infrequently to the methodological dangers of given comparisons within this area. Such misgivings do not mean the postponement of research. As we think it necessary to prepare international and national type- and motif-catalogues, so in the same way we take into account the compound proportion of certain genres and areas of creativity, the proportions of historical and ethnic elements. It is clear that this proportion-assembling, this making of charts, the assembling of strata statistics, will be incomplete, and that from decade to decade the results will need to be corrected in the light of new collecting and new analysis, but this is also the way it is with the catalogues of tales or big dictionaries that contain the treasure house of languages.

But if we really want to complete the summary of European ethnology on the basis of facts and interrelationships, we must undertake to measure by nations, ethnic units, genres and subject groups the historical and ethnic proportions of organically or externally interwoven elements. Another regularity and system of affinity evolves in front of us. It may come to light how strongly certain peoples, ethnic units, preserve their traditional forms and contents, what formal solutions and expressions of content are more likely to be used, from which ethnic group, neighbouring or distant people they prefer to adopt creations and methods of solution, what group or people is the one they prefer to ignore or to maintain only superficial contact with. It may come to light what historical period can be called more extensive (cf. pp. 26-34), more permanent in its effect on certain people; where a break in continuity, oblivion shows up; what genres, groups of themes, and forms drop out of memory and out of the custom of cultural recreation–all this may come to light. The analysis and comparison of proportions gives firmer foundations to analyzing certain types and motifs, to recognizing formal signs in the making, and to their ethnic and national fixing.

The examination of such proportions also helps us understand how a certain ethnic unit, a people or a nation is able to preserve its independent inner style–that is, in its historical evolution and degree of social development, to what extent it builds its culture organically or superficially, and what the characteristic marks and creative methods of its culture are. Today even research in comparative literary history and the history of civilization emphasizes the mistake formerly made in old methods of comparison: they examined only the print of transmission in {698.} certain cultural creations, objects, institutions, or genres, as though they were some kind of invading foreign element, although in the process of transmission and adoption, the process itself and the evolving results are equally important.

According to an old and antiquated theory on the history of Hungarian civilization, every significant creation of Hungarian culture arrived through the “Vienna Gate”, that is, from the West. In making their examinations, those holding to this conception placed weight only on the process of transmission. Today nobody can doubt that mutual influence in culture develops among peoples who live close to each other.

At this time, it is enough to specify a few such instances. The history of Hungarian civilization proves that the pre-Conquest civilization of the Magyars was composed of many different layers (cf. p. 26–28). And even later on, Europe came to Hungary through not just one gate. There were Byzantine traditions, the Avars lived here, many different kinds of Slavic traditions lived on locally, and there are the strata of Italian, French, and German influences, just to mention some of the main groups besides the Finno-Ugric foundation, and influences coming first from Turkic, later from Ottoman Turkish groups affecting the Magyars.

It is really not commonplace facts that we want to refer to here, nor how geographic factors aided renewed contacts in Hungary; how the Carpathian Mountain system created particular economic and cultural forms and the contacts of the peoples living here, how the water system of the Danube and also the Tisza was a geographic and economic prerequisite for the complicated network of contacts. Nor do we need to expound in detail how much European migratory processes and settlements passing through the entirety of Hungary’s national history contributed to the colourfulness, historical changeability and unity of the Hungarian ethnic map.

All this belongs to the fundamental factors of cultural, creative processes. However, besides keeping in mind these foundations, and besides examining the effects of transmission and integration, the primary task of researchers is to examine within this process its stages as well as its manifested results and deviations. When we spoke of the proportion of foreign or assimilated elements in a cultural creation, we raised problems related to this theme.

While examining the music of the Hungarian and neighbouring peoples, Béla Bartók introduced a decisively important methodological theory into comparative research. We must extend this theory to every branch of ethnological research, for only then will their comparison be real and observant of creative processes as a whole. Béla Bartók examined, that is to say, not only what elements and what melody forms Hungarian folk music took over and assimilated into the system of Hungarian folk music, but he also observed the stages of assimilation, and from what neighbouring peoples the Hungarians borrowed, what had no effect on them, and what the ethnic character of a melody is, what kind of formal element is consistently left out of the Hungarian world of melody even though every historical and social reason make the {699.} materialization of its effect possible. We are trying to apply this fundamentally significant theory of research in different areas of ethnology.

When measured against other European folk units, Hungarian peasant culture is especially well suited to such examinations, precisely because its pre-Conquest historical and ethnic contacts and later on its post-settlement history show, that in spite of many different kinds of influence, it was able to preserve the traditional forms of its ethnic character and has built the new influence organically into the means and contents of expression of its cultural forms. Hungarian researchers are increasingly stepping out of the circle of one-directional examination of effect, pointing out in their analyses that between East and West the Hungarians were not only takers but were also transmitters and creators. Most instructive are those examinations of folk tales that show the Hungarian forms of appearance, or rather the complete or almost complete lack of the most generally known story-types from the western treasury of tales. We know Hungarian versions of the European redactions from the European treasury of tales that are practically mirror images of the European version, and at the same time there are tales that do not appear in Hungarian peasant tradition. For example although the Grimm tales got to the then still illiterate Hungarian peasantry in several waves, through numerous editions, through textbooks, and through chap-books, still they were never generally accepted.

Bartók mentions German melody types that reached the Hungarians only through Czech-Moravian transmission. Certain layers of the corpus of Hungarian beliefs can be traced back to the Ugric period, and some medieval borrowings were assimilated easily into it, while others were never borrowed.

The social structure of the Hungarian peasantry displays a disparate, belated development compared to the western structure, yet transmission layers always functioned between East and West, and on this Hungarian pivotal point the work of cultural transmission, recreation, and reshaping was continuous. What has surprised the Western researcher even in the past decades is the creative liveliness of this oral tradition. Thus, for example, western research in general no longer knew the richness of story-telling recreation still flourishing in Hungary. Researchers occasionally find excellent story tellers or recreator even today. Given its retardedness, this creative situation of oral tradition belongs among the ethnological peculiarities of the Magyar people, wedged between East and West.

While this situation between East and West was a source of Hungarian tragedy and loneliness for the poets of the nobility and middle class, and for philosophers of history as well as politicians, ethnological research today does not look at the past with this view. It does not forget tragic events either, but those do not influence investigations. Instead we have found within this historical-social situation one of the most prolific points in comparative research. We see that in the great Eurasian area, and within that, in Europe, the Hungarian people have represented an ethnically very sensitive focal point, a receiving and radiating centre, and at any rate, one interesting station for reshaping and forming common European traditions.