Mario Fenyo

title.none: Veszpremy and Schaer, eds., Simon of Keza: Gesta Hungaroroum (Fenyo)

identifier.other: baj9928.0009.008 00.09.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mario Fenyo, Bowie State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Veszpremy, Laszlo and Frank Schaer, eds. Simon of Keza: The Deeds of the Hungarians. Central European Medieval Texts. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999. Pp. cii, 235. $49.95. ISBN: 9-639-11645-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.09.08

Veszpremy, Laszlo and Frank Schaer, eds. Simon of Keza: The Deeds of the Hungarians. Central European Medieval Texts. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999. Pp. cii, 235. $49.95. ISBN: 9-639-11645-9.

Reviewed by:

Mario Fenyo
Bowie State University

As its bilingual title page indicates, this handsome production by the Central European University Press, operating from its new-found neo-classical home in the center of Budapest, gives us Simon de Keza's chronicle in English and Latin. The original text is the Gesta Hungarorum.

My knowledge of medieval Latin or, more specifically, "Hungarian Latin," is certainly not at a level that would entitle me to assess the accuracy of the translation. More to the point, however, the translation is both painstaking and highly readable, far above the level of similar productions translated locally, including other books produced by the same publishing house; in this regard the translation may be unfaithful, for the original is described in the introduction as pedestrian, "dry and rather monotonous" (p. xlii).

The bibliography, extending over 29 pages, lists ten editions of Simon of Keza's chronicles, some of them only partial. All of these editions reproduce or reprint the original text; hence not only is this the first "bilingual edition", as noted in the introduction, but the first translation into any language, at least any Western language. That, however, raises a question: why bother? If the chronicle remained inaccessible to anyone without a classical education, was it missed?

Perhaps the least convincing answer to that question would be that this historical account, like many medieval chronicles, is a mixture of accurate, inaccurate and totally misleading statements which, however, can be sorted out by the critical analyst. Once able to distinguish the accurate statements from those that are not, in some instances the medievalist will find confirmation or reinforcement of facts gathered from other sources. Other statements that have become accepted fact, common knowledge, reprinted in textbooks, may have to be revisited and revised.

A better answer, perhaps, is that the chronicle provides the opportunity for the translator and editors to supply an extensive and erudite gloss. This gloss--including the footnotes to the long introductory essay by the late Jeno Szucs--becomes the most instructive and informational part of the book, enabling the reader to obtain an overall perception and a wealth of details regarding the medieval history of Hungary. And this medieval history may be the more interesting and certainly the more comforting (to Hungarians at least) period of Hungarian history, a period of "glory" when Hungary had its sphere of political and economic influence.

This leads us to yet another answer, of a psychological or "psycho-historical" nature. It is partly thanks to Simon de Keza that the "deeds" or feats of the Hungarians of the thirteenth century and earlier, real or fictional, feed nationalism or, to be more charitable, feed a sense of belonging.

Here one must make special mention of what is probably Simon de Keza's most important contribution to Hungarian and world historiography: the perpetuation, or rather the creation of the myth of Hun-Hungarian identity. Indeed, myths or fiction become part of the historical process if they affect the psyche, the attitudes, the mentality of an entire ethnic group. Thus Attila the Hun, the arch-villain (and the villainy itself may be largely mythical), the "scourge of God," becomes a Hungarian national hero. And though modern scholars, Hungarian or not, have repeatedly rejected the myth of Hunnish-Hungarian identity, each year thousands of Hungarian parents continue to name their new-born sons Attila.

Perhaps what the scientific historians have overlooked, however, is the grain of obvious truth behind the myth: the fact that Hungarians now live in the area once occupied by Attila's headquarters. And as anthropologists or historians sometimes forget, nations, even wandering nomadic tribes, do not disappear without leaving a trace.

This leads us to what strikes me as another important aspect of Simon de Keza's chronicles (and perhaps of most medieval chronicles); there is no mention of language, let alone of linguistic barriers. The protagonists of this book are not all Hungarians. They are the leaders (mostly real) and the commoners of East-Central Europe. Although Simon de Keza devotes much space to wars and battles, which the Hungarians have won or lost, there are no references to national divisions, to borders, to barriers, to animosities separating the peoples of the region. The closest his chronicles come to extolling the virtues of one nation above another, is in his descriptions of the tenth century--and later--confrontations between Germans and Hungarians, or Hungarians and (other) Asians.

Thus this handsome volume is a useful addition to the steadily growing number of works pertaining to East-Central Europe and, thanks to the efforts of Atlantic Research and Publications, to Hungary in particular, available in English. Maybe the Soros foundation, whence the funds ultimately originate, deserves more than a little credit. And maybe some of these works, including our chronicle, will ultimately lead to a revival of a sense of community, so long in disarray, in that part of the world.