Hungarian literature

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The Hungarian literature is the body of written works primarily produced in the Hungarian language.[1] Hungarian literature may also include works written in another languages (mostly Latin) which are either produced by Hungarians or their topics are closely related to the Hungarian Culture. While it was less known in the English speaking world for centuries, Hungary's literature gained renown[2] in the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to a new wave of internationally accessible writers like Mór Jókai, Antal Szerb, Sándor Márai, Imre Kertész and Magda Szabó.

Earliest writings in Hungarian[edit]

The oldest surviving poem of Hungarian language, Old Hungarian Laments of Mary

The beginning of the history of Hungarian language as such (and so the proto-Hungarian period) is set to 1000 B.C., when – according to current scientific understanding – it separated from its closest relatives, the Ob-Ugric languages.

No written evidence remains of the earliest Hungarian literature, but through Hungarian folktales and folk songs elements have survived that can be traced back to pagan times. Also extant, although only in Latin and dating from between the 11th and 14th centuries, are shortened versions of some Hungarian legends relating the origins of the Hungarian people and episodes from the conquest of Hungary and from the Hungarian campaigns of the 10th century.[1]

In the earliest times Hungarian language was written in a runic-like script (although it was not used for literature purposes in the modern interpretation). The country switched to the Latin alphabet after being Christianized under the reign of Stephen I (1000–1038). There are no existing documents from the pre-11th century era.

The Old Hungarian counted from 896 A.D., when the Hungarians conquered the Carpathian Basin, settled down and started to build their own state. Not long after followed the creation of the first written extant records.

The oldest written record in Hungarian is a fragment in the Establishing charter of the abbey of Tihany (1055) which contains several Hungarian terms, among them the words "feheruuaru rea meneh hodu utu rea", "up the military road to Fehérvár" (referring to the place where the abbey was built). (This text is probably to be read as "Fehérü váru reá meneü hodu utu reá" with today's spelling and it would sound as "a Fehérvárra menő had[i] útra" in today's Hungarian.) The rest of the document was written in Latin.

The oldest complete, continuous text of the Hungarian language is the Funeral Sermon and Prayer (Halotti beszéd és könyörgés), a short funeral oration written in about 1192–1195, moving in its simplicity.[1]

The oldest poem is the Old Hungarian Laments of Mary (Ómagyar Mária-siralom), which was a free translation from Latin of a poem by Godefroy de Breteuil.[1] It is also the oldest surviving Uralic poem.

Both the Funeral Sermon and the Lamentations are hard to read and not quite comprehensible for modern-day Hungarians, mostly because the 26-letter Latin alphabet was not fit to represent all the sounds in Hungarian language, as diacritic marks and double letters had not been developed yet.

During the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance, the language of writing was mostly Latin. Important Latin-language documents include the Admonitions of St. Stephen, which includes the king's admonitions to his son, Prince Imre.

Among the first chronicles about Hungarian history were Gesta Hungarorum ("Deeds of the Hungarians") by the unknown author usually called Anonymus, and Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum ("Deeds of the Huns and the Hungarians") by Simon Kézai. Both are in Latin. These chronicles mix history with legends, so historically they are not always authentic. Another chronicle is the Képes Krónika (Illustrated Chronicle), which was written for Louis the Great.

Further, Rogerius's 13th century work was published with Thuroczy Janos' chronicle in the late 15th century. In Split Thomas of Spalato wrote on local history with many information on Hungary in the 13th century (that time Dalmatia and the city was part of Hungary).

The 15th century saw the first translations from the Bible. The preachers Thomas and Valentine, followers of the Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus, were responsible for this work, of which the prophetic books, the Psalms, and the Gospels have survived. A great part of the vocabulary, created for the purpose, is still in use.[1]

Renaissance and Baroque[edit]

Renaissance literature flourished under the reign of King Matthias (1458–1490). Janus Pannonius, although he wrote in Latin, counts as one of the most important persons in Hungarian literature, being the only significant Hungarian Humanist poet of the period. The first printing house was also founded during Matthias' reign, by András Hess, in Buda. The first book printed in Hungary was the Chronica Hungarorum.

In the 1526 most of Hungary fell under Ottoman occupation, which date is where the beginning of Middle Hungarian Period is set, in connection with various cultural changes.

The most important poets of the period was Bálint Balassi (1554–1594), Tinódi Sebestyén and Miklós Zrínyi (1620–1664). Balassi's poetry shows Mediaeval influences, his poems can be divided into three sections: love poems, war poems and religious poems. Zrínyi's most significant work, the epic Szigeti veszedelem ("Peril of Sziget", written in 1648/49) is written in a fashion similar to The Iliad, and recounts the heroic Battle of Szigetvár, where his great-grandfather died while defending the castle of Szigetvár.

The cover of a Hungarian book from the time: Gáspár Heltai's "Chronicle about the affairs of the Magyars"

Translation of Roman authors produced also some works: János Baranyai Decsi translated Sallustius' Catalina and Jughurta's war in the late 16th century and a decade later appeared the translation of Curtius Rufus' Aleaxander's life in Debrecen.

Historical works were even more numerous: the chronicle of Gáspár Heltai (see on the right) published by him in Kolozsvar, Zay Ferenc's unpublished work on the siege of Beograd from the 15th century, Kemény János', Transylvanian Duke's, and Miklós Bethlen' memoirs with János Szalárdy' volumeous, that time unpublished, work on contemporary Transylvanian history from the 17th century (from Bethlen' reign to 1660s), and Cserei Mihály's work from the early 18th century highlights the Hungarian-language literature.

Another category is historical verses in Hungarian, like that of Sebestyén Tinódi Lantos from the 16th century, Péter Ilosvay Selymes, Mihály Szabatkai and Gergely deák.

Latin works in the period are more numerous, István Szamosközy, Baranyai Decsi János, Miklós Istvánffy, Bethlen János, and Farkas Bethlen, Ferenc Forgách, György Szerémi, Ambrus Somogyi, Gianmichele Bruto, Oláh Miklós are the most important historical works from the 16th to 17th century.

In German Georg Kraus, Georg Zeiler wrote on Transylvanian history. In Spanish you can read Bernardo de Aldana's apologies for losing the castle of Lippa in 1552 to the Turks.

Among the religious literary works the most important is the Bible translation by Gáspár Károli, the Protestant pastor of Gönc, in 1590. The translation is called the Bible of Vizsoly, after the town where it was first published. (See Hungarian Bible translations for more details.) Another important religious work is the Legend of Saint Margaret, copied by Lea Ráskai around 1510 from an earlier work that did not survive.

Enlightenment and the language reform[edit]

The Hungarian enlightenment delayed about fifty years compared to the Western European enlightenment. The new thoughts arrived to Hungary across Vienna. The first enlightened writers were Maria Theresia's bodyguards (György Bessenyei, János Batsányi and so on). The greatest poets of the time was Mihály Csokonai Vitéz and Dániel Berzsenyi.

The greatest figure of the language reform was Ferenc Kazinczy. The Hungarian language became feasible for scientific explanations this time, farther a lot of new words were coined for describing new inventions (for example, mozdony, which means locomotive. Previously the term lokomotív was used.)

Romanticism and Reform period[edit]

20th century[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Encyclopedia Britannica: Hungarian literature, 2012 edition
  2. ^ Lóránt Czigány: A History of Hungarian Literature: From the Earliest Times to the mid-1970's, Clarendon Press, 1984 [1]

External links[edit]


summarized at the administrative website of Hungary

Specific sources[edit]

Literary chapters from the Encyclopaedia Humana Hungarica (1–5)[edit]