The Medieval Review 11.05.25

Bak, János M., Martyn Rady, and László Veszprémy. Anonymus and Master Roger: The Deeds of the Hungarians and Epistle to the Sorrowful Lament upon the Destruction of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Tatars. Central European Medieval Texts. New York: Central European University Press, 2010. Pp. 268. $55 ISBN 978-9639776-95-1. .

Reviewed by:

Cameron Sutt
Austin Peay State University

This work is the fifth volume in the Central European Medieval Texts series and is a very welcome one. To be sure, the combination of Anonymus' Gesta with Rogerius' Carmen Miserabile is an odd one, a fact that the editors acknowledge. Anonymus, writing in the beginning of the thirteenth century, intended to provide a glorious origin for the Hungarians in their conquest of the Carpathian Basin while Rogerius provided an eyewitness to the Mongol invasion of 1241-42. The defense the editors gave for combining these works--that Rogerius was born around the time of the writing of the Gesta and that the Mongol destruction allowed Béla IV to start over from where the Gesta left-is not particularly strong, but neither does it matter much since the appearance of good Latin texts combined with facing-page translations is much needed. The almost universal absence of Latin among undergraduates (at least among those attending state universities like mine) combined with the similar lack of much foreign language generally restricts teaching medieval history using primary sources. Series such as this by Central European University Press is essential for addressing this problem. The translators have much experience in such tasks and are very familiar with both Rogerius and Anonymus having provided earlier editions of these and other Hungarian sources.

The introductions of each text are generally a nice balance between detail and summary. Anonymus' Gesta Hungarorum remains to us in only one manuscript. The gesta is perhaps the most discussed among Hungarian scholars, having been written about for some 250 years. Most of the ink shed for Anonymus has centered around the authorship, and fortunately the editors of this collection summarize the arguments succintly thus sparing us most of the gory details. The problems of authorship stem from the reading of the first line of the gesta: P dictus magister ac quondam bone memorie gloriosissimi Bele regis Hungarie notarius. Does P dictus mean praedictus referring to a name mentioned on an earlier, now-lost page? Or is the P merely the initial of the author's name? Next, which king Béla in the same sentence did the author intend? The lack of charters from the first half of the thirteenth century compounds the difficulty by rendering impossible cross referencing other names and properties in the gesta. Most scholars now believe Béla III (r. 1172-96) was intended, and they ascribe a date of composition as "ca. 1200."

Far more interesting is the reason Anonymus wrote the Gesta. The main purpose of the work was to provide the Hungarians and the ruling dynasty, the Árpáds, with a glorious past and hence validation for rule. The Hungarians are depicted as the descendants of the Scythians, a valiant and good people while the Árpáds, specifically were said to have descended through Attila, the biblical Magog and eventually through Japhet, the son of Noah. Equally, Anonymus provided similar support for the great families of the early thirteenth century. These families appear in the Gesta as the descendants of those who came to Hungary during the "Conquest" of the Carpathian Basin in the ninth century, and who received their lands from Árpád himself. What is most interesting about Anonymus' Gesta is the way in which he wove the pagan history of the Scythians, Attila and the Huns, and the Magyars together with the Christian belief system. Anonymus co-opted the pre-Christian past by emphasizing the idea that God had given victory to the Magyars thus providing divine support for the pagan ancestors of the Hungarians.

The means by which Anonymus uncovered the story of the early Magyars and their antecedents was primary that of creative etymologies for numerous toponyms. That is to say, Anonymus frequently used events from his story of the Conquest of the Carthpathian Basin by the Magyar chieftains to explain place names. A perfect example comes from chapter seventeen in which Anonymus described the origins of Szerencs, near modern-day Miskolc. According to Anonymus, Árpád and his noblemen named the place Szerencs because it was "lovely," and the word for love was zerelmes (modern Hungarian: szerelmes). The Gesta is full of such wonderful etymologies.

Anonymus' ideas regarding the origins of the Magyar elite did not survive into the fourteenth century, and his Gesta faded into obscurity. The reasons for its loss of popularity are not hard to find--by the last quarter of the thirteenth century, the social composition of Hungary was vastly different, and Anonymus' work did not speak to the new conditions then prevalent. Simon de Kéza provided a new, and better, explanation, but I digress.

The second text in this work, Rogerius' Carmen Miserabile, is from this second half of the thirteenth century, but is known to us only in a fifteenth-century printed version, the manuscripts having being lost. Rogerius was the archdeacon of Oradea when the Mongols arrived in 1241, and he was fortunate enough to escape just prior to the fall of the town. Rogerius described his hiding in the forests and countryside around the town until he was eventually captured by the invaders and led out of the kingdom when the Mongols withdrew in 1242. Fortunately for Rogerius, he escaped the train of prisoners with his servant by faking a need to follow the "call of nature" (ch 40). The travails of Hungary and of the archdeacon in particular have an urgency about them which the translation accurately presents, but what is most remarkable about the work are the causes Rogerius gives for the fall of the kingdom to the Mongols. Rogerius looked to political causes to explain the weakness of the Hungarian kingdom, and he focused upon conflicts between the king, Béla IV, and the nobility, or as Rogerius termed it "the Hungarians" (Hungari). Rogerius listed five reasons causa the Hungarians were upset with Béla, and then in good scholastic fashion, he listed five responsiones. Rogerius would at times measure both arguments for and against a cause, and would leave the answer up to the reader to decide.

As for the translation itself, I must say that I agree with the stated principles of translation: "to reproduce as far as possible the sense and style of the Latin original while offering a readable English narrative" (p. xxxv). At times the translation is less successful. In chapter thirty-three, an excessively literal translation maintained all the third person pronouns in English, resulting in rather awkwardly-rendered passage: "Then all the Slavs, the inhabitants of the land, who were formerly Prince Salan's, for fear of them subordinated themselves to them of their own free will, with no one raising a hand." (Veszprémy's Hungarian translation of this same passage is much better done: "Erre a föld lakói, a szlávok, akik korábban Salán fejedelem hívei voltak, félelmükben egytől egyig minden ellenállás nélkül önként meghódoltak."

In a few other instances, the desire to provide dynamic equivalence goes a bit too far, so that in the fourteenth chapter of the Carmen Miserabile "pre nimio gaudio" is translated as "amidst their exceeding hilarities." Likewise in chapter forty of the same work, "Sed non minus ipsum vidimus vices assumere precursoris" becomes "But we saw that he was not trying to be a roadrunner." There are also some printing mistakes that should have been caught such "whorm" for "whom" on page 171 or the missing article in the phrase "and administered almost thousand villages" on page 208. Another editorial qualm I have is how the introductions to the two texts are separated, yet using a continuous numbering system. I find this practice awkward as it can make finding and citing the source confusing. Better to keep the introduction to both texts in the front, so that the pages and their numbering are truly continuous.

Generally though, the translation is good. Anonymus frequently employed plays on words and rhymes that are often handled well. For example, in chapter fifteen of the Gesta, we have a play on the words leti and leto: cum predictum parvum fluvium transirent quasi leti, tunc per inundationem aquarum Ketel equo offendente in aquam submerses est et sociis suis adiuvantibus vix a leto liberates est. This is skillfully, though not strictly, translated using "happily" and "hapless." Thus, "when they were apparently happily crossing the aforesaid little river, then by the swell of the waters and with his horse blundering, Ketel sank into the water and narrowly escaped a hapless death with the help of his companions." Another example is found in chapter twenty-five of the Gesta where the rhyme "Omnes loca sibi aquirebant et nomen bonum accipiebant" is nicely rendered "All the land they can they take, and a name for themselves make."

Central European University's series of critical Latin texts with English translations are much needed to give undergraduates access to these sources, and I am personally very glad to see work progress on this series. The translations of both Anonymus' and Rogerius' works are generally well done with introductions that are judicious in detail and scope, and they would make wonderful additions to students' readings lists. The critical Latin edition makes this work useful to scholars as well.